Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wanted: Tips for Happy & Healthy Family Dinner



In my house, we have some picky eaters. Probably my fault, but let's move past that. The point is, a little while ago I decided I was tired of preparing multiple meals (the real meal, plus what my 7yo and 5yo would actually eat) each night. I made my kids a deal: one meal each night, and they had to try it, but then on Fridays I would make them anything they wanted. This sort of works, except that trying whatever I make often involves eating a microscopic amount preceded by many minutes of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I think I would be OK with my kids only trying a little bit of what I made, and then filling up on fruit and grains or going to bed hungry, if I didn't have to listen to all the whining and complaining about the meal I just spent close to an hour preparing.

So here is my question for you, oh wise Booth readers. How does family dinner work at your house? Do you make kid-friendly meals that you know your kids will like? Make whatever you want and expect your kids to try it? Do you make meals you know certain of your kids will not eat, and if so, do you let them eat an alternative?

And here is perhaps the even more important question: how do I transition my picky eaters to adventurous eaters? I can find plenty of information about how important it is that I not be a short order cook and prepare one (not kiddy) meal that the entire family can enjoy together. But how do I get there from here? And live to tell about it. Because, seriously, the whining is really getting to me.

If your family dinner time is a happy experience, or if you have successfully transitioned a picky eater to a not picky one, I feel it is your duty to share your experience below. Thank you in advance.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why I Gave Away My Books

Queen Composter reflects upon efforts to simplify her life. 


Before I begin, please let me unload my baggage.

I love my stuff. I am constantly fighting my ego's urge to own more things. One of the things that makes me deliriously happy is books. Not only do I love reading (I often stay awake into the wee hours of the morning to finish a book), I also love the physical being of books and I have a visceral connection to them. I am the type of person who, upon purchasing a new book, likes to open it up and smell the pages. Please tell me I'm not the only one who does this.

Back in the day when good, local book stores actually existed, my idea of a good Saturday night out was to spend hours browsing the aisles for books. I have even been asked to leave a book store because I sat down on the floor and started reading some books (before book stores became a destination with coffee shop and couches). It doesn't help that I am a teacher, and we are famous for spending a great deal of our disposable income on books.


My obsession with owning books received a turbo boost when my future husband became a manager of a big box book store for a time. Hello employee discount! Every available space in our home had stacks of books, some beloved books, some perpetually on the "to read" list. 

When we moved to a larger home and had to go through the effort of packing up and transporting the dozens of book boxes, we realized we had a problem. We made the difficult decision to deal with our problem and sorted our books into approximately seven piles as we unpacked: favourite books we reread, books we are positive we will read in the near future, resource/information books that we use on a regular basis, books we want to save for our children to read, books we have read but will not read again, books we have never read and do not see reading in the near future, and university textbooks. We promptly loaded the books in the latter three piles back into the moving boxes to give away. 

Some thoughts on giving away our books:
  • The internet has done away with the need for insane amounts of How-To books and information books. We kept some pretty and informative coffee table books, but otherwise we borrow from the library or look it up online. 
  • Our home is less cluttered with books everywhere. Now to tackle the other areas, like craft supplies, toys, and DVDs. 
  • I visit the library more now. I can always buy a book later if I fall in love with an author or book. This has encouraged my daughters to read more too. Win-win!
  • Many organizations are happy to have donated books. We discovered that our local food bank accepts books and we even received a tax deductible receipt. 
  • Used book stores are another way to reduce the amount of books you have, but I have found that they are quite picky about what they will accept, and they generally do not like to take donations, for space issues. But if you have good quality, popular books it is always nice to get a bit of money for your efforts. 
  • We have now made a commitment to avoid big box stores as much as we can, partially because of the impact upon diminishing local, independent book stores. As a result, we are not as tempted to spend money, and we put more thought into our book purchases. 
  • Another idea my daughters would like to try, which is becoming more popular, is to make a  free library for the end of our driveway for books they would like to pass on to someone else. 


Now that we have dealt with our book fetish it is much easier to keep new books from entering our home. I like to buy books for my kids for Christmas presents (something they want, something they need, something they'll wear, something they'll read), and I buy books by my favourite authors, but otherwise I try to borrow from the library or a friend now.


Have you simplified any aspect of your life? I'd love some more thoughts and tips. 


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

8 Ways to Save Water in Your Garden

From the bean of Green Bean.

I live - and garden in - one of the most parched regions of the country - northern California.  Indeed, my region is classified as Exceptional Drought, one dusty, dry step past Extreme.  I cannot remember the last time it rained.  I really cannot. 

Even surrounded by this lack of water, my garden continues to bloom - a lush, verdant green.   This summer, I harvested pounds upon pounds of blackberries and pumpkins erupt across the chocolate brown soil.  Hummingbirds battle over the California fuchsia and finches stop to sample cosmos gone to seed.  

How do I justify my large edible and ornamental garden in the midst of such thirst?  By adhering to the following steps, I've managed to cut my water use in half - all that while having my tomatoes and eating them too!

The chart from my latest water bill shows how I'm continuing to use less water.

1) Add organic material to the soil.  It's always a good idea to add organic material to your soil - compost, leaves, pine needles, straw, newspaper, what not.  Not only does improve the fertility of the soil but it also increases the soil's ability to retain water.

Straw mulch around the base of a drought tolerant hyssop.

2) Mulch.  Piling straw around the base of a fruit tree or oak leaves scattered through a native plant bed will help keep water from evaporating and reduce the overall need to irrigate.  Non-organic mulches are also available and equally effective.

3) Switch to drought tolerant ornamentals.  While my garden's footprint has exploded over the last couple of years, I have mostly planted are drought-tolerant plants. Succulents in pots and native plants elsewhere.  Even the few non-native (but pollinator friendly) plants I have added are low-water.  Last fall, I converted an entire planting bed to California natives.  Because those plants are newly planted, they require weekly watering - far less than the three times a week I watered that bed last year.  Moreover, next year, I can skip to twice-monthly watering and the year after, as they become more established, monthly watering.

My new, native plant garden, comprised of butterfly larvae host plants, is mulched with oak leaves and watered once a week.  A few non-native annuals that have made their way into this bed but I leave them if they can survive the low water allotment. 

4) Collect rain water and greywater.  While restrictions on collecting rain water exist in some places, more and more municipalities are permitting, even encouraging residents to collect rain water to use in their gardens. (Check out this great resource on US state rainwater harvesting laws, hat tip to Eco-Novice).  Last year was the first winter that I collected rainwater.  What have I been missing! Free, untreated water straight from the sky? I loved it so much that I ordered two more rain barrels for this winter for a total of 5.

I used up the last of my rain barrel water in July.

Greywater is an equally great way to supplement garden irrigation.  I have yet to jigger up some fancy system for our showers or, at least, the laundry to landscape thing.  Now, I just haul out water from washing vegetables for irrigating ornamentals and refilling the bird baths.  It is amazing how much you can water with what used to just run down the drain.

5) Pay attention to how water moves through your garden and plant accordingly.  For years, I struggled with new plantings.  Why did the black elderberry thrive in this location but not that one when sun exposure was the same?  I finally realized that one, planted in a bit of a gully, received run off from my neighbors' garden.  The other was in a quick, draining mound and did not retain much of the water.  I have learned to pay more attention to where water collects in the garden and where it dissipates.  I now group plants with similar water needs together and consider whether a plant will reap the benefit of run off.  If you like this concept, check out swales and other permaculture-based ideas for using water in your landscape.

6) Add perennials - both ornamentals and edibles.  The water needs of perennials and annuals has become crystal clear this dry summer.  While perennials - like blackberries, grapes and fig trees - flourished, our annual flowers and vegetables were often wilted, requiring more frequent mulching and irrigation.  As a result, I plan to convert one annual flower bed to primarily perennials this fall and to add perennial edibles in the form of an asparagus bed, artichokes and sunchokes to the garden next spring.

7) Water long and deep.  You can coax deep roots from your plants by watering them less frequently but for a longer period of time.

8) Minimize or stop watering the lawn.  After years of cutting back water to the lawn or over-planting with clover and other drought tolerant options, I finally did it!  I turned the lawn sprinklers off completely.  How can I justify watering when our local streams are dry and my state burns with wildfires?  Because my kids still play sports on the lawn, I am not ready to replace it completely with a native meadow or other low water use alternative.  The brown lawn is not as soft when you fall as green grass but it is serviceable for soccer and football and keeps the water bill low.  That said, I'm open to any lawn replacement ideas...

How do you save water in your garden?  Have you felt the drought's impact where you live?

This post is part of the Homestead Barn HopBackyard Farming ConnectionMaple Hill HopGreen Thumb Thursday and Tuesday Garden Party.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Making Your Own Ice Cream

The highest form of food preservation is ice cream, according to the Climate Crusader.

The harvest season is just reaching its high point here where I live. Farmers' markets are full to bursting with local fruits and veggies. If you're a locavore - or just toying with eating more local food - this is the time of the year when you might find yourself doing a lot of food preserving. And while I enjoy canning, drying and freezing, in my mind the pinnacle of food preservation is homemade ice cream.

 

Ode to my Ice Cream Maker

Years ago, I used to eye ice cream makers with envy, but I didn't buy one. For one thing, they're not exactly super-cheap. For another, I wasn't sure I would actually use one. I really do love ice cream, though, and I had concerns about a lot of the ingredients in the ice creams on store shelves. Modified milk ingredients. Artificial flavours and colours. Gums and pastes and words I couldn't pronounce.

Yummy? Not so much.

Of course, there are organic ice cream options, and natural ice cream options, and some of those are fabulous. They're a real splurge, though, and I have two little kids. The result is that I was eating less ice cream than I otherwise would. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it did make me a little sad. All of that changed, though, when a friend who was moving across the country gifted me with her ice cream maker.

Now that I have an ice cream maker of my very own, I can make sweet frozen treats with ingredients I choose. Real organic milk and cream. Fresh, local fruit. Ice cream sweetened with honey or maple syrup instead of sugar. Ice cream made with coconut milk instead of cow's milk. Fruit sorbets. And of course, lots and lots of chocolate ice cream. Nothing icky or surprising or unpronounceable at all. You can even store it in glass containers if that makes you happy.

Making ice cream is pretty easy - I would say it's similar in effort to making cookies. You mix it up, set the ice cream maker, and come back in 20 minutes. The ice cream maker is a little noisy and the bowl takes up space in my freezer, but the end product more than makes up for it.

 

Generic Fruit Ice Cream Recipe

Getting back to my discussion about food preservation, I thought I'd share my generic fruit ice cream recipe. You can use berries, cherries, peaches or even cooked pumpkin (in which case I'd definitely add some cinnamon and cloves). Store the bounty of the harvest in the best possible form: dessert.

Ingredients:
3 cups fruit
1 1/4 - 1 3/4 cups sugar, to taste (the more tart the fruit, the more sugar I use)
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon vanilla

Preparation:
Wash your fruit, and pit and slice it if required (I don't slice raspberries or blackberries, I do slice cherries, peaches and strawberries). If you're using pumpkin, cook it and allow it to cool first. Add the sugar and stir well, then let it sit for 20 minutes. You can also leave them in the fridge overnight if you're not feeling too impatient.This will draw out the juices, and allow the sugar to dissolve nicely. Once the fruit and sugar have had a chance to blend, mash it or run it quickly through a blender or food processor. Add the milk, cream and vanilla, stir well, and freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Yield: Approximately 2 quarts of ice cream.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Me+DIY+Halloween=LOVE

EcoYogini is SUPER excited for Halloween:

I love Halloween. No- I really really do. It tops the xmas holidays for sure. Part of this is most likely due to my spiritual beliefs, but I just love the magic and joy of it all.

This year is the FIRST YEAR EVER that we will receive trick or treaters. Because we have a house now. At one point this summer, when that realization hit, I literally hopped up and down in my seat, turned to look at Andrew as we were driving home from work that day, and chirped- "We're gonna have trick or treaters!!! SQUEE!".

He loves me despite my crazies.

Don't believe me? Two years in a row I carved a pumpkin in our former apartment in downtown Halifax, set it on the stoop and sat shivering in the lobby with a bowl of candy, reading my book and waiting for the trick or treaters that never came. One year I simply tagged alone a friend and their baby to mooch off the experience as they went trick or treating. And one year my friends agreed to walk around the more residential neighbourhood in Halifax, pretending as if we had somewhere to go, so that I could creep-out experience a smidgeon of Halloween.

There are only two problems with Halloween:
1. The wastefulness of the holiday decorations.
2. The individually wrapped candy.

Since there isn't a lot that I can realistically do about the candy (honestly, parents are going to compost whatever homemade or eco-friendly thing I give out), I have started planning in advance for the holiday decoration piece.

Since I also have a huge problem spending money on a one-off holiday, particularly when the decorations are often plastic, cheap looking things, I've decided to DIY the crap out of this year. Saves money AND the environment.

I have three main guidelines:
- Try to keep as much of my DIY durable so it will last several years
- To source supplies as much as possible from what I already have in the house and yard
- To purchase natural decorations such as pumpkins and gourds from the local farmer's markets.

So far I have six main DIY projects planned:

1. Painted mason jars and wine bottles as pumpkins and ghosts. 
I already did this last year and in the move the previous jars got recycled (sigh). I think these wine bottle monsters are super cute (although I won't be spray painting mine- they will be painted using paint I already own).

(My mason jar jack-o-lanterns from last year!)

Now these are going to be amazing. I have three weird little bottles and a few jam and honey jars that are going to be PERFECT for this. Just clean off the labels, tape on the printed apothecary labels, maybe add some weird little stones and sticks or liquid and VOILA! 

I saw this and thought- wow except for the ridiculous amount of cutting, I can do this! These probably won't last for next year (although I will try to save as many as possible), but it's cheap, relatively easy on the planet and will look amazing.

These little dudes just look SO CUTE all in black. It took a few tries to free cut the first template (surprisingly tricky to get the bottom angles right), but once I had one it was super fast going to cut the rest. These are another "might not last for next year" but here's to hoping!

(My first three framed! I have more to work on...)

5. Framed Tarot Cards:
This is all me. I saw some creepy framed pictures at Home Sense and thought- geez, I could totally do that at home. I happen to have a gifted tarot deck that I never use. The images are vintage and FRENCH which is neat. I also had a bunch of frames that we weren't using. A bit of paint and voila! I plan on replacing some of our current art with the tarot cards.

6. Harry Potter Floating Candles Great Hall:
THIS is the pi├Ęce de resistance... and will take the most time and effort but I AM PUMPED. The "sky" is my old hemp shower curtain (that kinda got moldy and I ended up cutting too much off the bottom). I'm painting my attempt at a night, nebulous, starry sky. I think in the dark it will look just fine... And the candles are simply toilet paper and paper towel rolls painted to be candles with LED candles attached on top. Since we are a paper towel free household, I have two friends donating for the cause. 

(My starry sky so far- unfinished but getting there!)

and what I hope it sort of looks like in the end:
(From Eating Bender: I've resisted sharing photos from my other pinterest finds as respect for the photographer, but I can't resist this- it is GORGEOUS. You need to go check out the rest of the Harry Potter ideas- brilliant!)

I'm sure there will be more as the weeks go by, I have wooden gathered broom sticks, lawn ghosts and jack-o-lanterns floating in my head (er via pinterest) but this is my crazy Halloween girl start. :)

Are YOU ready for Halloween?? Share your amazing DIY projects and ideas in the comments!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An Anti-Fracking WIN for Nova Scotians

Mindful Echo is relieved that fracking is not happening in NS...today at least. 

Last August (2013), the government of Nova Scotia addressed the many concerns of its citizens and officially commissioned an independent review of the socio-economic impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). On August 28, 2014, the government released the review and on September 3, 2014, provided their response.

If you're interested in pouring yourself a cup of fair-trade coffee and settling in to read the report, you can do so here. (Be warned though, it's nearly 400 pages.) If you'd rather just know the highlights, it is my pleasure to inform you that the NS government will be introducing legislation to prohibit high volume fracking for onshore shale gas. You can read the news release here.

http://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/anti-fracking-movement-picking-up-steam-in-nova-scotia-1.1929743


I cannot express the relief that myself and many others are feeling at this moment. At a time when reports are coming in nationwide about the damage fracking is causing to our communities, I feel so reassured to know that my own backyard is safe from this threat...at least for the time being. (Check out my previous posts on the dangers of fracking. And this one.)

Interviews with some of the legislators involved have also demonstrated that the government is willing to revisit the proposal of fracking once more development has been made to the process so that it can be done in a way that's less harmful to the environment. I'll take it. That's as good of a compromise as I can hope for!

At the same time, anti-fracking spokespeople recognize that this is a huge issue, and one that still has many missing pieces. Fortunately, we have organizations such as the NS Ecology Action Centre, who agree that the report is encouraging and the need for more research is crucial. It's important to keep in mind that even environmental activists recognize that there are so many factors that contribute to these important decisions, including the cultural and socio-economic impact that major projects have on our community.

Now, before anyone goes clapping us on the back for being such environmentally-conscious Canadians, know that there are certainly those in opposition (ie Pro-Fracking in NS). Click here to view a "news" story on why some people think that the financial "benefits" should outweigh the inevitable environmental destruction that comes with current fracking techniques.

http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/3769819430001

 I'd love to know if this video gets your blood boiling as much as mine! At least for now though, I'm going to focus on the positive and know that haters gonna hate. Anti-Fracking WIN!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ants Hate Cinnamon

I'm sure it has happened at your home -- maybe by a door, or in the driveway, or on your patio. You're outside, enjoying a sunny day in the yard, and, to your dismay, you notice one of those big, black, wriggling clusters of ants. Yuck.

Even now as the summer dwindles to a close, you're likely to still see ants everywhere, inside and out. It doesn't help, either, when you live with little kids who leave crumbs and bits of food in their wakes. I've been able to keep the occasional ants that make it into the house at bay, but until last summer, I hadn't found anything that worked really well on them outside.

I take that back. There is that blue can of aerosol ant spray my husband bought -- that always does the trick -- but I hate the fumes and chemicals, especially around my young kids. Plus, I always feel a little wary of killing insects for just being...well...insects. When they're in my house, I'm not so friendly, but outdoors is their turf, really.

Still, writhing clusters of ants around my house isn't something I want (especially when they start making their way indoors).  For that reason, I've tried all sorts of natural ways keep them away from my house and outdoor living areas -- mint leaves, salt, baking soda, vinegar, etc. They've all worked okay, but not nearly as well as the stinky poison spray.

Back when I took my beekeeping class and the topic of pests came up, the instructor suggested using ground cinnamon to keep ants away from hives. Sure enough, last summer, while doing an inspection of our hives, my husband and I noticed that one of the hives had ants crawling around it, on the cover, and even a couple on top of some of the frames inside. So, as instructed, we sprinkled cinnamon around on the ground below the hives (since they're up on cinder-blocks) and dusted some on the cinder-blocks, too.  A week later when we inspected again, there was no sign of ants.  The cinnamon worked so well!

A couple weeks after we tried it with our beehives, my older son ran into the backyard shouting, "Mom! There are millions of ants going into the garage!"  I went inside and grabbed my big cinnamon container.


I'm not sure there were millions, but there were a lot of ants on the ground by the open garage door and also crawling up bricks next to it. The second the cinnamon hit the ground and the backs of the ants, they all started freaking out. My son found this all pretty exciting. "Oooh, they hate that stuff!"


In no time, the ants were high-tailing it out of there and the corner by our garage door was ant-free!

The cinnamon doesn't kill them, it's just a deterrent. This allows the colony to go make a home somewhere else. I use this when I see big clusters of ants and I also sprinkle it in front of the entrances of my house as a barrier from time to time.

I bought my big bottle of cinnamon at Costco for less than $3, so I didn't mind using a generous amount on our ant invasion. (Sidenote: the Kirkland brand of cinnamon is my favorite! It has such a great flavor and smell.)  Even with the generous sprinkling, I only used a few cents' worth. It's a much cheaper (and eco-friendlier) alternative to buying that can of ant spray (I checked Amazon -- a can of the stuff runs for around $5-10).

Not only is the cinnamon a non-toxic alternative, but it smells nice, too. After I used it on those ants, for the next day or so you could smell little notes of cinnamon in the garage! All in all, it's a pretty pleasant way to get rid of some not-so-pleasant invaders.

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