Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Killing Us Softly, Part 1: Germaphobia

If you sent an alien with no Earthling experience whatsoever to the United States, they would probably be appalled. Although we seem on the surface to be the most health conscious culture ever to roam the Earth, we are literally killing ourselves. This series looks at how our well meaning actions and well thought out decisions are taking years off our life spans... and those of our children as well.

Americans love to declare war on things. Even if you are a staunch pacifist, you are probably all for the war on drugs and the war on homelessness. Our most costly war in the end may be the war on germs.

Shows exposing the generally germiness of American homes abound on the television. The aisles at Target, WalMart, and even Whole Foods have a veritable arsenal of products to eradicate these germs. Some of these products, especially those that are explicitly marked anti-bacterial, never break down, instead being carried to waterways where they kill the good bacteria that maintain our ecosystems and even act as poisons themselves. Parents who would rather soak their children in a cocktail of dangerous chemicals (most bubble baths) get a little worried about kids playing in dirt, especially if they may be accidentally ingesting it.

Germaphobia doesn't just allow us to feel good about filling our homes and our planet with toxic chemicals, it keeps us from exploring our natural habitat: the great outdoors. Remember how kids used to play outside all the time? Remember how rare obesity was back then? Now, children are sat in front of electronic devices that rob their muscles and their brains in one fell swoop.

If you are worried about your kids getting dirty, it may actually be beneficial to their health. Recent studies show that nematodes, little wormy critters that live in almost all dirt, may actually immunize children against seasonal and food allergies. If you've ever wondered why so many kids have severe allergies now, a lack of early exposure to filth may be your answer. In fact, a lack of nematode exposure has been linked not just to allergies, but to asthma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease, all diseases that have taken a sharp rise in our ultra-clean society.

We don't just want clean, germ-free houses; we want clean, germ-free bodies. In come antibiotics for every sniffly nose. Unfortunately, by overusing antibiotics and/or using them the wrong way, we are training bacteria to survive antibiotics, creating new killer strains that will crush our weakling immune systems like a schoolyard bully against the president of the first grade chess club.

The truth about germs is that almost all of them are harmless or even actually good for us. Even with the less than 0.1% that aren't, most of these 'harmful bacteria' will only make us sick enough that we come out ahead in the end--with a stronger immune system that can fight off the really bad germs, like anthrax and MRSA.

Don't think this means being a total slob. I'm all for clean houses and clean hands. However, soap and water have been found to do a fine job and don't kill healthy bacteria or poison our streams. Natural cleaners require a little more elbow grease sometimes, but I'm not exactly wasting away. This is an easy way to create a cleaner house and a cleaner world. Just repeat: Germs are friends, not enemies.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cheap and Organic Food

I know I've written something like this before, but just to re-iterate:

A few ways to wedge organic food into a tight grocery budget...

1. Know your priorities. There are lists all over the internet with the top pesticide-containing produce. Find them and buy organic where your money will have the most health benefits

2. Give up junk food. Seriously, as long as you have money for soda and energy drinks and Cheetos, you have money to replace a few key items with organic counterparts. Junk food may fill your stomach and appease your pallate, but in nutritional terms you may as well be swallowing styrofoam. It is a powerful addiction, so be prepared for a difficult weaning process.

3. Look in unconventional places. Our local bread outlet has Bob's Red Mill organic mixes (like for soup, pancakes, muffins, etc) for ultracheap prices. A local health food store has bulk bins where there are plenty of organic whole foods on sale for less than $2 per pound. The Grocery Outlet can be a wonderland of organic goodies like spaghetti sauce and frozen fruit.

4. Look for free sources. This can be as simple as a friend who needs an outlet for her excess zucchini, or a few fresh herbs growing in pots on your kitchen sill. Tomato plants will grow just about anywhere in the summer, and some varieties produce so much you'll be giving them away... or making homemade sundried tomatoes for those long winter months.

5. Check out mail order companies like Azure Standard and the old favorite Amazon.com. Both have certain conditions under which you can get free shipping, making them a truly awesome deal.

We know that Wild Oats and Whole Foods are super pricey, so don't let that scare you away from a healthy choice. Stay out if they don't fit your budget and find places with better choices for your family.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jon and Kate Minus Me

When I first got cable, Jon and Kate Plus Eight was one of my favorite shows. I also have a large family, four children and four stepchildren. I appreciated Kate's coupon clipping, yard saling, and constant quest for affordable organic food. This family is supposed to be different--that's why they have their own show--but I liked them because they seemed a lot like my family and the other large families I am close to.

However, after I watched the show for a while, cracks began to appear in Kate's faux finish, and I realized that certain things just didn't make sense. They aren't at all like a normal large family. Here are just a few of the differences:

1. The children are violent with each other, and neither parent seems to care. When you are caught up in how cute they are--and they are indeed beautiful children--you don't notice. After a while, you notice that the older kids are always slapping around the younger ones, and that the younger kids are always hitting each other. Once I saw Kate hit Jon, I realized that the kids are getting this from their parents. There is no respect for each other in this family--none at all. I've been looking. I feel sad for them.

2. For all the talk about organics, you never actually see anyone eating them, or anything healthy for that manner. Instead it's a constant line up of packaged snacks and sugary juices. The parents are always calling these things treats, but it's all you see the kids eating.

3. Individual identities are discouraged. There are a lot of multiples in my family, and while they look cute in matched outfits on holidays, it is devastating to a child's personal identity to be forced into wearing the same outfit as their four sisters every single day. Everything these kids own is identical to their siblings, and chosen by their mother or a sponsor. Forced may seem like a harsh word, but do you think small children honestly don't want to pick out their own toys, books, and extracurricular activities.

4. They aren't allowed to be kids. Mom specifically forbids messy activities. Crayons--rarely. Television--always on. Markers--absolutely not, not even when they are at a Crayola museum. Wii--whenever they want. Kate is a self admitted germaphobe, dirtaphobe, and you never see her letting the kids mess their hair much less get really dirty. It's a backward way of raising little people, who need to explore and get their hands in things. Dirt is good for children, and excessive cleaning keeps mothers from being present in the kids' lives.

5. They are the opposite of green. Everything they own is new with tags and things are replaced regularly. There is a constant parade of clothing, toys, cars, and even houses. Now they are in a mansion with acres of lawn. It's just a little excessive, especially considering that the parents speak at churches talking about their financial hardships, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations every year.

6. They are very immature for their age and neither parent seems concerned. Their speech, the use of pacifiers and loveys, their motor coordination, etc, all seem more typical of a two year old than a child about to enter kindergarten. I wonder if this is due to problems at birth, or if parents and producers are encouraging them to stay younger and cuter as long as possible.

7. The children never have privacy. I have seen many reality shows, and this is the first one where you see children going to the bathroom, bathing, and other intensely personal activities. I can imagine how much this will suck when the sextuplets go to school and all of their classmates have video of them pooping on the bathroom floor. I wonder if this level of exposing children in intimate areas of their lives is even technically legal. I would love to have my own reality show, but there would be boundaries.

I worry for these kids, especially with rumors surrounding Dad's behavior. I know how vicious rumors can be, but I also know that I am one of many viewers who stopped watching the show a season or so ago because something just isn't right with this family.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fresh Garbanzo Beans

A local ethnic market has fresh garbanzo beans on sale. I am a HUGE legume eater, but I had no idea what to do with these beauties.

A little research revealed the following:

1. They are a very neglected vegetable in the internet recipe world.
2. They can be eaten raw or steamed, in both cases tasting a lot like edamame.
3. In the Middle East, they are steamed, mashed, and mixed with spices to make a tasty, bright green hummus.

Because they are similar to edamame, I plan to steam them, then toss them with sauteed mushrooms and noodles along with a little sesame oil and sriracha sauce. This should make a healthy, high protein vegan meal, perfect for a Lenten Friday supper. I'll let everyone know how it comes out!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tia Always Makes Me Look Bad

Here I am going to school to save lives, but my good friend Tia (the one on the right) found a more immediate way, and one that does NOT require knowing every intermediate of the Krebs cycle. She's running in a half marathon and raising money to cure leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers.

Check out her page and give her cause some money, or at least a few good wishes.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Staying Active in a Sedentary Economy

Last week my whole family (except me--I've already missed too much school) took a day off and went skiing. A friend asked how we can afford to do this. I had to think for a while, because we don't have a lot of expendable income but we do find the money for skiing, biking, and various sports. In the end, I think it comes down to priorities.

We don't buy movies, CD's, books, and other entertainment products. We haven't gone out to dinner for more months than I can count off the top of my head, and even our at-home meals tend to be simple, third world cuisine. My husband and I share a cell phone and truly have it for emergencies only, with few minutes and a monthly cost of under thirty dollars. I can't remember the last time I bought a cup of coffee.

We are very much a no frills family, which leaves us with income for some bigger endeavors, like skiing. We do everything we can to keep skiing affordable--buying season passes when they are on sale, passing down and refurbishing old equipment, carpooling to the nearest ski area, bringing our own lunches. I think we would give it up if if were truly a hardship, as well as other outdoorsy luxuries we currently indulge in, but it would be one of the last things to go.

The economy sucks, but it isn't slowing most people down when they hit the mall. Americans complain about credit card bills and unfair interest rates, but everyone keeps adding to their balance. All those little things add up to not being able to do the big things that really matter. Now more than ever, it's important to keep those little expenses under control.

Living simply isn't just good for the planet, it's good for your budget. It's good for your kids to consciously give up things that complicate their lives in exchange for things that enrich them. Every cart full of miscellanea at Target costs the same as a ski trip for my family. That's enough to take the fun out of impulse shopping for me.

Cheap and Easy Veggie Burgers

This recipe makes six to eight decent sized burgers.

1 cup diced veggies--cooked ones seem to work best
1 cup cooked rice
1 cup cooked beans, any kind
1 egg
2 Tbsp bread or cracker crumbs
salt, pepper, and other spices of your choice
oil for cooking--about 2-3 Tbsp total

Mix rice and beans, mashing them as you mix. Mix in vegetables, egg, and spices. Use your hands to shape the mixture into balls. Roll the balls in bread crumbs, then flatten against your palms. Fry in a medium skillet for 2-3 minutes per side, until done. Serve on whole wheat rolls.

Obedience Is Over-Rated. And Under-Rated, Too.

If you look at many child-raising books, obedience is a huge issue. Getting your children to do what you say, when you say it, and the exact way you tell them to seems to be a much written about subject.

Natural parenting sorts like me tend to bristle at these types of books. Personally, I think blind obedience is over-rated. I don't want my kids to be blind followers. I want them to be free thinkers who do the right thing after evaluating it and coming to their own conclusions. If anyone, be it a totalitarian government or a pedophile, tell them to do someing that is wrong for them, I want them to feel comfortable in bucking authority.

Unfortunately, this can lead to complications in the running of a home. I want my kids to question authority, just not my authority. I don't want to spend hours explaining why they should go to bed or clean their room. I have a bunch of smart kids, and they would jump on that bandwagon as soon as it appeared on the horizon. Further, when I tell them to get out of the road or stay away from that dog, safety demands immediate compliance. I know a lot of kids who are just rotten little brats because they can never just do what they are told, and this isn't setting them up for career or academic success.

My plan, which so far seems to work, is this:

1. People in my home, including the children, should be respectful, responsible, and fun to be with.

2. I am willing to discuss the fairness of everyday tasks such as chores, bedtimes, etc, on occasion, but in a respectful way and at an agreed-upon time. I will not discuss bedtime at bedtime, or the fairness of one child setting the table while I am getting dinner ready. I will not cater to whining.

3. No one should ever do anything that hurts or makes them uncomfortable. Eating vegetables does not qualify.

4. When in doubt about whether to obey, ask another adult.

I guess the key is to keep lines of communication open and to avoid forms and amounts of discipline that would make the child fearful. Obedience is definitely expected in my home and in life in general, but one shouldn't shut down their own moral compass.

$5 Dinners

This week is going to be a busy one. It's the last full week of this quarter, and several illnesses and household emergencies have sunk my grades to a level where I really need to step it up. Because I don't foresee a lot of spare time for cooking in my immediate future, I am making a huge pot of pinto beans today. This will be stashed in the fridge to make five half-hour-or-less dinners this week:

Saturday: vegan refried beans and Mexican brown rice with fresh corn tortillas and a green salad
Sunday: having dinner guests, so I'll actually cook
Monday: Cuban beans (wrong type of beans... oh well) and rice, more corn tortillas, miscellaneous fruit
Tuesday: Boston baked beans, sourdough garlic toast, salad
Wednesday: Chili with vegetables in it (it's that simple... I just add whatever diced vegetables we have and they cook down into the chili mush), brown rice, cole slaw. We like to put brown rice in the bowl and ladle chili over that. It tastes yummy and makes a complete protein.
Thursday: homemade veggie burgers on whole wheat buns, baked sweet potato fries, miscellaneous fruit. The veggie burger recipe will be up on Thursday.

Tuition is due in a week, so we're basically using up everything in the fridge for the next few weeks. Be prepared to see my dinners get more and more creative. However, we never compromise health or environmental friendliness!

On a related subject, I'm loving former Blog of Note $5 Dinners. This is about my price range as well, and I like to see the fun, healthy, and sometimes even organic recipes the author posts. Many, such as the Moussaka, can be easily transformed into even cheaper vegan or vegetarian versions.

I found this blog after deciding to post my own $5 dinner every Thursday. I'll to keep up with it so there aren't too many similar ideas. Several readers have emailed me wondering why a green blog has so many food posts. Food is a huge environmental issue now. If you are like most Americans, it takes more fuel to transport your food to your local grocery store than it does to power your SUV. Changing to easier-to-transport vegetarian options and local, in season fruits and vegetables can have a huge impact on your health, your grocery budget, and your carbon footprint.

The Clothes on Your Back

My six year old put on her favorite shoes yesterday and found that they were a little tight. She tried another pair--also too small. And so on. Her shoe wardrobe dwindled overnight from an excessive 9 pairs (!!!) to a barely adequate 2. Don't ask me how her feet can grow more than one size in twelve hours. It seems to be the general growth pattern in my home, but it never ceases to amaze me.

Usually when my children outgrow something, I go to the boxes of clothing in our boiler room and find a replacement. We call it 'shopping in the basement'. As I find good deals throughout the year, I stash them in boxes for when we need them. There are a few new things in there, but it's mainly hand-me-downs and thrift store bargains. Anyway, there were no cold weather shoes in Grace's new size. Because it would be a small miracle to find a suitable, like-new pair of size 12 girl's athletic shoes in one of Yakima's three thrift stores this weekend, I may actually be forced to buy something new.

I don't often have to buy new things for my kids, so this is an unusual situation for me. Buying used absolves me of being socially or environmentally responsible for the who, what, when and how of our garments. Now I have to wonder: Should I buy leather shoes, which tend to be more durable and comfortable, when the entire leather industry is more than a little disturbing? How can I make sure Grace's shoes and the materials with which they are made are not produced in some sweatshop manned by third world toddlers?

Then there is the economic aspect of the situation. High quality shoes in my area seem to run in the forty dollar or more range, a small fortune compared to the five dollar limit I normally impose on children's clothing. People look at me like I am a crazy woman when I tell them this, but my most recent under-five bargains include a like new Columbia parka with zip-in fleece liner and new-with-tags Stride Rite shoes for my son that someone apparently bought for sixty dollars but never wore. The average American family spends $624 per year on one child's clothing and even more for adults. We spend somewhere between $50 and $100 per month total for six of us. This includes everything from school clothes to shoes to ski clothing.

If I have to buy Grace's shoes brand new, it will make the third new clothing item I have bought her since her birthday last June. This seems to be the trend in my family. Rachael has received a brand new pair of ski pants and two winter hats this year, while Tyler needed a pair of PE shorts and two pairs of new shoes. Malcolm didn't get anything new; he's still even wearing last year's socks and underwear. Everything else is used, often free. We try to keep things in nice shape and be generous with our hand-me-downs to keep the circle of giving in good working order.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

If you give a kid a nugget...

...she's going to want more nuggets.

Here's a project for you: Find a mom who feeds her kids a steady diet of processed lard and salt, and ask her why. She will probably say that they won't eat anything else. It's an answer, but it isn't the true answer. My kids don't demand hot dogs or mac'n'cheese for dinner every night, and it isn't their great manners that keep them from doing it. It's because they are used to eating healthy, whole foods. Like almost all people, children resist the unknown.

If you want the real answer, you'll have to ask the real question, which why she started feeding them the unhealthy food in the first place. She may cite price, which is interesting because whole foods are so much cheaper per serving and per pound. However, I'm willing to bet that time has a little bit to do with it.

This is why I am going to start posting an easy, fast, and vegetarian dinner every Thursday. As a working mother/college student, time is not exactly in abundance. I find that vegetarian meals can be faster and tastier once you get used to working with the different ingredients. Like the majority of my family's vegetarian meals, I plan to post meals that are nutritionally complete and cost five dollars or less for a family-sized main dish. Here is my first:

Sweet and Spicy Lentils
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Hands-On Time: Less than 10 minutes

3/4 cup lentils (I like the red ones, but any will do)
1/2 onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
tiny bit oil (olive is yummy)
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup orange juice
3/4 cup water

1. Put the lentils in a bowl of water to soak in the morning.
2. When you begin making dinner, drain the lentils. Prepare the onion and garlic and saute them in the oil. When they are translucent, add all of the other ingredients.
3. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer uncovered for about a half hour, until lentils are soft.

**Note**This varies according to how old the lentils are. Older lentils will cook more slowly and require more water, so check every few minutes.

I usually serve this with brown rice (making it a complete protein), toasted bread, and a green salad. If you get things on sale, this entire meal can be made for under $5.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I Love the Whole World

In case you ever wonder why you work so hard to preserve this crazy home of ours...

The first time I saw this, I was in tears. It really is an amazing place.