Monday, July 28, 2008

Clean Your Plate

I grew up in the era where you ate everything off your plate, without complaint, before you were excused from the dinner table. While I wish I could have carried over the "without complaint" part, I made a decision early on in parenting not to force my children to eat. I wanted them to learn to listen to their own bodies rather than eat food simply because it was there. We do have rules-they need to try everything (3 bites) and eat something from every food group. I also give them a small helping and encourage them to finish that before having seconds on what they love. And, even though I said I would never do it, we do bribe them with desert.

I assume our household is not unique in that we have a lot of food that goes to waste. I recently heard that the national average is 40%. Scary! I am pretty sure that we come in below that number. I wrap up half-eaten sandwiches for another lunch and reserve the same helping a few times rather than throwing it away (don't tell my kids). A friend of mine has a diet plan where she just eats what her kids have left over (she always lost her pregnancy fat quickly!). I tended to do the opposite and eat my meal PLUS the rejected bread crusts. At some point I stopped doing this deciding that I was worth more than PB&J bread crusts.

Of course those crusts don't just go in the garbage! In our house food gets recycled too. Here are our top recycling systems

1. Dog and cat. I honestly don't know how anyone could have a toddler without a pet. I'd be spending all day cleaning the floor. I remember one of the first times we ate out at a restaurant and I was horrified to see how much food ended up on the floor. With a dog, I never knew. The downside....fat pets.

2. Chickens. Our girls get many savory morsels. They especially love those over-rip strawberries that are rejected by everyone but still free of mold

3. Worms. Yep, we've got a bin of red worms in our basement that eat some of our fruit and veggie scraps. Vermicomposting is a fun educational project and it is amazing how these worms turn food into good fertilizer for the garden. They are so easy that they we have been unable to kill them despite months of neglect. The little ones love picking out (saving) the worms from the finished compost come springtime. Another bonus-good fishing worms!

4. Outdoor compost. This is a must-have for families. I now see all the waste as a RESOURCE! I don't encourage waste, obviously, but I also don't stress about it either. Todays tossed banana peel is tomorrow's garden loam. My kids know that I am a compost freak and just love seeing how this food and weeds get transformed into dark rich soil every season. It is another perfect educational opportunity to learn all about micro-organisms, soil life and bugs and worms. Another bonus-taking out the compost bucket is a easy do-able chore for almost any age child.

Instead of "clean your plate", my kids will have memories of me calling out "scrape your plate"

kudos to Camp Invention

My son is attending Camp Invention this week and I was happy to see that not only are the kids building their inventions out of broken appliances and recyclables, but they are being taught how to disassemble their contraptions at the end of the week to separate out trash from items that can be recycled. They were taught that 85% of household waste is recyclable and that Waukesha Co has a higher rate of recycling than the nation as a whole. One of their "challenges" is to figure out ways to clean up a polluted Sludge City (today was contaminated water). It is always nice as a parent when I know my kids are hearing the same message away from home as in the home. Thank you Camp Invention.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Free Lunch at Mom's

We can't have a Green Parenting month without mention of the environmental benefits of breastfeeding. I realize that this is a decision that can only be made at a specific time in a woman's life and that not every woman or baby can breastfeed, even if they wish to (although, medically, this is not common). I also realize that there are many other health and personal benefits that breastfeeding families enjoy, but that is a topic for another blog. For anyone out there reading this who might be expecting or planning a pregnancy, here are the reasons it fits with Green Parenting:

Think about the energy that goes into making formula. First you have to either grow soybeans or have a dairy production-both that require lots of energy input and chemicals such as pesticides and hormones. Yes, I realize that there are organic formulas out there which is wonderful for those unable to breastfeed, but this isn't the choice made by the majority of formula-feeding parents. That commodity is then sent to a plant to be processed and then likely another plant to be made into formula. Other chemical vitamins must also be produced, shipped and then added to the formula as well. The product is then shipped to stores around the country. Parents then drive to the stores to buy it and mix it with water in bottles (that also had to be manufactured, most from plastic). This doesn't count the miles put on the cars of all the 20-something sales reps as they canvas the OB/GYN's offices or other marketing. Then there is the energy output to heat the formula and the energy needed to clean the bottles.

Now lets talk about the energy needed to breastfeed. Human milk is made from the energy from food that the mom eats or that is stored in her fat cells. Talk about sustainability! What if we could run cars off fat cells? What mom doesn't have a bit extra at the end of a pregnancy? The milk is the perfect temperature, always at the ready, comes in it's own attractive container and doesn't need to be refrigerated between feedings. All that and healthy too.

If you are not in a point in your life to be making a decision about breastfeeding, you can still help by supporting others that do make this choice. Smile when you see a breastfeeding mom in public, bring a meal or other help to a new mom, stand up for a baby's right to eat wherever he/she is hungry (not in the public restroom), support breastfeeding moms in your workplace when they need to take breaks to pump milk.

If you are expecting or a new mom with breastfeeding questions or concerns, check out a local La Leche League group at
There are several groups that meet monthly in Waukesha County. Trained leaders are available for telephone help 7 days a week.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Living in Abundance

Why is it that green living is often defined in terms of what we should do without-big cars, excessive shopping, air conditioning, bleached paper, water bottles etc. What if, instead, it was defined by what we choose to add to our lives-more time with family, better tasting food, creativity, cool technology, learning new skills etc. Very often our choices are not an either-or option, but we tend to emphasize one side of things. I-tunes and MP3 players have certainly decreased the wasteful packaging and plastic in music CD's, but most people don't think about downloading music for that reason, instead we emphasize the fun and convenient new technology. Why can't other choices we make also be about more fun and new ideas? A resuable bag can be MORE stylish instead of less convenient. Coffee in a resuable mug can be about BETTER taste rather than less waste. Refinishing a second-hand table can be MORE satisfying instead of less fashionable.

How we perceive and talk about the choices we make in our lives matters. Our children are watching and listening. Do they hear us making choices that emphasize the downside of our choices or the upside? Do they hear a righteous self-sacrifice or a sense of adventure or fun? I hope that when my children and I bike to the park, they are just having fun and not feeling that we are "doing without" our car to save gas or that we are better than the people who drove their SUV's there. I hope they don't give it much thought at all so that by the time they are adults, it simply becomes an obvious way to travel short distances when the weather is nice. Choices based on fun will last much longer than those based on guilt or superiority, for children and adults alike.

A few years back I heard a woman being interviewed on WI Public Radio (sorry, don't remember who or what the actual topic was). She was admitting that she was a prior book addict. She bought and kept hundreds of books until she hit a personal financial crisis and was no longer able to support her habit. It was then that she discovered the library. Her discovery was not that she could check out books for free, for she already knew this. What she learned was a new perspective on the books in the library. She realized that the books were bought with her tax dollars, so they were actually "her" books (well, at least in part). She pretended that she owned all the books in the library system and that she was simply being nice and sharing them with everyone else. Suddenly her feelings of self-pity in her financial crisis changed to abundance. She said that even though she has recovered financially and can afford to buy all the books she wants, her sense of abundance about life in general has stayed with her. What if we took this perspective about all the land that we "own" in all the area parks and nature preserves? I am reminded of the stories where families of modest means always set an extra plate at the dinner table in case a visitor arrives in need of nourishment. Unless we truly are struggling to make ends meet (and there are those that are, even in wealthy Waukesha County), how can we not feel a sense of abundance in this land of plenty?

My personal challenge for the rest of this month is to listen to myself and the messages I send to my children about abundance and depriviation and to find opportunities to see the MORE in the green living choices our family tries to make.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Green giving and Birthdays

If you have school aged children, you probably spend a number of weekends of the year taking your child to birthday parties. I've spent more time than I'd like in the Target toy aisles trying to find a last minute gift that is affordable, meets the cool factor (according to my kids) and the good gift factor (according to moms). Today my son received an invite in the mail that asked the children not to bring a gift but rather a donation to the Humane Society. We've gotten a few of these invites in the past and it always warms my heart that these kids are fine not getting a mountain of gifts and that my kids are choosing to be friends with such selfless children.

My daughters have birthdays coming up and I am almost late getting a present to my niece so gift giving is on my mind. I love giving gifts to the children in my life. Thinking about what they would like makes me feel connected to them and there are so many really cool toys and books these days that it is hard to resist the temptation not to go overboard. I have been happy with some of the gift giving we've chosen in the past that has been "greener" than the other outings to the toy aisle so I thought I'd share some and hope that you will do the same

1. Make a gift. I had fun making a stuffed felt pizza for my niece and it cost hardly a thing. My uncle and his wife made those fleece tie blankets for all the little ones one year. All the kids love them for the couch snuggling blankets.

2. Give an outing. I took another niece to a gardening class at the Botanical Gardens in Milwaukee and we had a wonderful day together. I got to know her much better than at big family gatherings. I've done plays, concerts and other shows for other children and now the grandparents are starting to do the same for my kids

3. Give a class. My mom and dad often give money for a class for my kids. I make sure I bring it up any time my kids are having fun with the class so they remember the gift and it is more than just a monetary donation for us.

4. Give books. I have given a "book a month" to a niece and nephew. I bought books (some new, most used) and wrapped them up for the parent to "deliver" each month. It was fun finding books that we loved at garage sales and sharing them. The parents said their kids loved getting presents all year long

5. We donated money to a chosen charity for each niece and nephew for the Baptisms.

6. Give consumables. One Christmas my dad gave us kids a large supply of our favorite snacks. My brother got a case of Captain Crunch cereal and I got a mega container of peanut butter to dip carrots in. We thought it was a riot, partly because this was before Sam's Club so the big sizes were really funny.

Going Green Conference

Check out this Green Living Conference to be held in Oconomowoc in September. Good talks on green business plans, community development, green living at home, and local food networks. It is hosted by the Wisconsin Town and Country Resource Conservation and Development network. They are involved in working with communities to develop a sustainable development plan that is good for the local economy and the earth. Oconomowoc and Jefferson are two nearby communities that are developing such a plan. Is anyone aware of other efforts in your communities such as "the natural step" program?
opportunities for sustainable economic growth, healthy communities and a healthy environment in the Town and Country RC&D area through the support and coordination of our region's agencies, municipalities and organizations."r mission is to optimize opportunities for sustainable economic growth, healthy communities and a healthy environment in the Town and Country RC&D area through the support and coordination of our region's agencies, municipalities and organizations."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Were You Born in a Barn?

I can still hear my dad say that when one of us kids left the back door open in winter. I can also hear, "Turn off the lights" "If you are cold, put on a sweater" and "Don't hold the fridge open!". Usually he could call these things out from the other room and I was always amazed that he knew that I did actually forget to turn off my bedroom light even though he was sitting in the living room. We were conserving energy in the 1970's long before it was hip to be green. We were conserving energy because there was an energy crisis, because my dad was a cheapskate and because he was raised by depression-era parents who wasted nothing.

Now it is my turn to yell out, "Why is every light on in the house?" and "Don't let the water run while you are brushing your teeth" (from the other room). The hip green movement has led to some pretty cool options like hybrid cars, bamboo clothing and high efficiency appliances, but as a culture we are often more interested in what we can buy than how we can conserve. Doing without or doing with less is practically un-American. Yet, as wonderful as a hybrid car is, the better option is to simply drive less. Compact flourescent light-bulbs are great, but it doesn't mean we should leave all our lights on. We need to combine a bit of the 1970's conservation ethic with the 2008 green consumer fashion.

To get our kids engaged in the kilowatts we were using, we took a look at our We Energy bill and compared usage from one year to the next. We were excited to see that after some swapping out of light bulbs and high-efficiency appliances, our usage actually went down (although the cost still went up!). This motivated us to challenge ourselves to lower it even further-"how low can we go???" Kids often want to do something to help global climate change and turning off the lights, not wasting water in the shower and putting on an extra blanket in winter is something tangible they can do to make a difference. When we sat down with our kids, they came up with lots of ideas on their own. Now when we remind each other to turn off the lights, it isn't mom and dad nagging, but a kind reminder of a family project.

There are some cool websites where you can calculate your family's carbon footprint, such as
It is a nice reinforcement for what you are doing well and shows concrete areas where you can improve. By looking at it in sections, this can be less overwhelming and allows us to tackle one area of change at a time. As I am writing this, I am thinking of ways to keep kids and families engaged in this. Like many families, we give our children daily and weekly chores. I wonder how it would work to have each of them "in charge" of a specific area to oversee for the month (water, lights, heating/cooling, transportation etc). They could monitor the rest of us/keep us in line and think of ideas for how we can do better. I think I might find that it is not only the kids in our house that need some gentle reminding from time to time to turn the lights off.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Earth-friendly eating on a family budget?

Over the years I've made feeding my family one of my top environmental priorities. Feeding children seems to connect with my deepest maternal instincts. Choosing organic, locally grown, and unprocessed whenever possible reduces our family's fossil fuel consumption, minimizes chemicals going into the land and water and supports sustainable farming practices. This choice has made groceries our biggest household expense after mortgage.

I've justified it knowing that I was paying the "true cost of food", not passing the cost to other taxpayers or asking migrant workers to work for nothing so I can eat cheap or asking my grandkids to pay to clean up the world we trashed for them. I've justified it by knowing that for $6, I not only know that the milk I drink is better for the earth, but is also healthier (and tastier) for my kids, puts more money in Wisconsin farmer's pockets, is healthier and kinder to the cows, reduces the trend toward antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and helps preserve the Wisconsin landscape of family farms. Looking at it that way, $6 is a deal! Certainly anyone who has tried to feed their family from a backyard garden knows that we significantly underpay for the food we eat given the labor that goes into food production. Factor in processing and packaging and shipping and it seems impossible that you could buy a box of Cheerios for a few bucks (I heard recently that the farmer that grows the wheat gets 10c).

Given all that, I should be content, even proud of the $900 we are now spending each month to feed a family of 5. In fact, I will admit that when fuel and food prices started rising, I did at first feel smug, thinking to myself "now people know what food/fuel is supposed to cost" and hoped that this would drive society changes (which it has a bit). However the last few times I've gone through the check out line, I have felt nauseous with anxiety. It seems like the tab for my weekly trips keeps going up and up, all during the gardening season when it should be lower than at other times of the year. Like most other American families right now, we need to make some drastic changes to our family budget.

Here are a few tips that I've used over the years to keep my food costs low. I am desperately looking for more tips from others as I just can't seem changing over to food filled with preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and pesticides after all that I know.

1. Eat low on the food chain. Less or no meat/animal products is cheaper, and better for the earth. Whole grains and legumes are cheap and healthy.

2. Join a buying c0-op. I have done this for years and it does save and is fun way to network with others about healthy food resources. This also allows you to buy in bulk which saves money.

3. buy in bulk. Less packaging=less cost and better for the earth. Pick and Save and Good Harvest have bulk food options. Pick and Save also gives a 10% discount if you buy a case of something.

4. meal plan and head to the store with a list. Oh, and you have to stick to it which means the kids should stay at home!

5. eat leftovers. This is usually our Fri night meal. Anything that didn't get eaten for a lunch goes before the weekend shopping trip. I am thinking that maybe cooking less quantity so there are fewer leftovers might be better. Having a salad or sandwich for lunch would be cheaper and healthier than the leftover turkey picata from the night before.

6. grow it yourself. Not sure if this is cheaper for me, but it technically should be.

7. shop on the outside aisles of the grocery store (most of the junk is in the middle)

8. buy up bumper crops from the farmer's market and freeze. I did this with tomatoes last year and made pizza and spaghetti sauce all winter.

9. Cook and bake. Why pay for someone else to do what you can yourself (well, except on nights where there is soccer or track practice).

10. Eliminate non-essentials like soda, junk food, alcohol etc.

11. eat less. OK, this is probably where the problem is for our family.

So what else am I missing? Don't tell me my only choice is Sam's Club or Walmart. I want to believe that I can keep keep my values and pay my bills. I am especially looking for cookbooks or websites that have family friendly recipes that are healthy, simple and inexpensive. I have lots of great cookbooks but most are too involved for the average busy weeknight and involve yummy expensive ingredients like pine nuts and capers. Most of the simple cookbooks I've seen involve lots of processed food. I'd be especially interested in vegetarian options that kids would love (I have lots of great ethnic recipes that I love, but the strong spices etc don't always appeal to my kids). If you have been reading and not commenting, this is your chance. I know you are likely also trying to cut costs and may have found things that work for you that I haven't tried.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Fall of an Environmentalist

I used to be an environmentalist. Really, I did. I was a pretty good one, too... solar panels on our roof, a greywater collection system under our kitchen sink, four compost bins in the backyard, a 40 mpg car that we only used when really needed. I was such an eco-freak that other people actually asked me for advice on eco-friendly living. But then I became a parent. And oh my has my world turned upside down.

Our daughter came home about a week and a half ago from Thailand where we adopted her. Since then I have made two trips to Target, have made daily trips to the garbage can (whereas I used to just empty our inside wastebaskets on trash day, we generated so little), wasted more food and water then I ever thought possible and have found myself on numerous occasions thinking of things to buy, just because our daughter would love them. Before we left for Thailand I was all set to use cloth diapers. Upon our return, jet-lagged and with more than a bit of anxiety due to being thrown into parenting during the 'terrible' twos, I found that rinsing a poopy diaper in the toilet at 2 am was just one thing that I could not handle at that point. The next day I found myself at Target buying disposable diapers (chlorine-free from "Nature Babycare", but disposable nonetheless) and a large Starbucks Frappachino. Oh how the smug enviro has fallen.

So here I am, finally over my jet lag and slowly getting into a parenting routine and I am ready to take a step back and evaluate how I can be a good mother and a good environmentalist. The one thing that I feel we are doing right so far is teaching our daughter the joys of a backyard garden. She now happily eats her way through our backyard (see above photo), snacking on raspberries, strawberries, currants, mulberries, and sugar snap peas. We have a ways to go to get back on the green path, but hopefully this month of July will be full of inspiration and good ideas for us. And maybe, just maybe, I can face those cloth diapers now that my head is back on straight!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

July challenge: Green Parenting

Courtney and I have decided to dedicate the next two months of our blog to issues related to parenting and children since she is the new mom of a 2 year old little girl (Congrats!). Even if you are not a parent or your children are grown, some of the topics may apply to running a green household in general.

I remember when my youngest was a baby and I sat nursing her on the couch and contemplating my life. I looked around my living room and saw that my home appeared to be breading plastic contraptions-swing, bouncy seat, high chair, car set, play gym, mobile, crib, stroller, etc. All these things seemed so necessary at the time. It was true that the swing happened to be the only thing that calmed my daughter during one particularly hard night of the "evening fussies", but every other day it sat there taking up space because she, like most babies, preferred to be held rather than stuck in a plastic substitute. A common parenting guideline shared at the La Leche League meetings I attended at the time was "people before things". This was meant to be a guide as to what babies really need, but it has stuck with me as my children have grown and works well for green living and family budgeting as well.

Little by little these things were sold off at rummage sales only to be replaced by toys, sporting equipment, videos etc. I am amazed at how much stuff a child "needs". Obviously no child needs all this stuff, but yet in it comes....and keeps coming, faster than I can pack up the outgrown items to donate. I can blame part of this on the grandmothers, one who is an expert sale shopper and another who is an expert second hand shopper and both who adore my children. One Christmas I was sickened by all the stuff my children received so I counted the number of presents received (including 3 stockings each) and it was 99 presents. My daughter even said that she knew which grandma loved her more because that grandma bought her more stuff. People before things? We've made some changes since then!

I have to admit that I am partly to blame too. Rummage sale bargins are too tempting and I am a sucker for children's books and games, and apparently girls shoes! Today I had an experience that reminded me that I can be tricked by the cultural mantra of "gotta have it". Our family spent the day at Pike Lake State Park where we did some kayaking and swimming. I packed light and when I got there I immediately regretted that. Every child had an inflatable raft, a bag of sand toys or a ring toss game. My littlest asked, "Mommy, didn't you bring us anything?" I felt terrible at not having a brightly colored noodle for her to swim with. But I told myself it was a few hours and they'd be fine. Of course, they were. I was reminded that one can actually make a sand castle with only your hands, that splash war is a great game on a hot day and that children love having their bodies buried in the sand. We came home with a collection of beautiful rocks, snail shells and happy memories. Yes, "people before things" still applies.

This month we'll contemplate what it means to be a "green parent" and challenge ourselves to take it a small step further from wherever we are on our journey