It isn't easy being green - especially when you're urban and love Thai take out. But I'm sure gonna try.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Eco-Friendly Lunches Take 1

It's Climate Action Week in our town, and as part of our school's Green Team, I put together a document to help families make the switch over to eco-friendly lunches.
The best way to lessen our trash is to create less. You can do this by swapping out disposable lunch elements and replacing them with reusables.

TIP #1: Trade bottled water and juice boxes for reusable bottles.

Plastic bottles tend be lighter, but seem to break down faster, and some experts worry about the chemical ingredients in plastic itself. Your safest bet is to look for BPA-free products as well as plastics with the numbers 2, 4 and 5 on the bottom. These numbers don't leach.

My favorite plastic bottles are the Literless Juiceboxes and the Sip Bottles by Rubbermaid. These #5 bottles are safe on the top rack of your dishwasher, are fairly inexpensive, and if sealed properly do not leak. My biggest issue with them is that I don't know what the interior straws are made from. They seem like generic restaurant straws cut in half, and as my first batch broke down, I was sure my kids were eating straw parts. I've since wised up, and I discovered that you can replace your straws through Rubbermaid.

Metal cups last longer, but tend to be heavier. We have experimented with different kinds and found that many leak if they get knocked over (ruining entire lunches and soaking handbags), and the fancy color designs tend to eventually scratch off.

I have three favorite brands:

  1. Kleen Kanteen: These meet my simplicity rule. The bottles are made from stainless steel with safe plastic tops. If you buy the same mouth size, all the tops are interchangeable, and while you're not supposed to put them in the dishwasher, I do, and have never had a problem. These bottles, however, have been known to leak. The sports caps are a little tricky for little hands to push all the way down, and my second grader sometimes has trouble unscrewing the 'closed' top. The colored-styles will scratch showing their wear much faster than the plain ones. Still, this is my cup of choice when I'm out and about.

  2. Camelbak Stainless Steel: These cute stainless steel straw cups are great for road trips. They don't weigh too much, and the pop-straw tops are very easy to open and close. They do leak a bit, however, if they aren't sealed perfectly, and if the straws aren't perfectly pushed together. We've had some lunch damage with these. That said, in the car, on the go, they are perfect for little hands. As with the Rubbermaids, I worry a bit about the materials for the plastic straws, but straws are a concession I've had to make.

  3. Thermos Funtainer: Funtainers are my favorite for school lunches. There is a pop-straw top and a cover, making these virtually leak-proof. (So long as you close them.) Available in a wide-range of kid-friendly and adult-friendly designs and sizes, they are insulated keeping drinks cold. We have found that ice cubes in a Funtainer can replace an ice pack. This is probably a good thing because Funtainers are the heaviest of the three options! I have the same straw concerns as with the Camelbak and Rubbermaid, but what can you do? This is the ONLY bottle that has not ever made a leaky mess.

A lot of people ask about the lighterweight aluminum bottles. Personally, I'm not a fan because they break my simplicity rule. Most are lined with some protective coating to keep the aluminum from leaching. A few years ago SIGG was slammed for using BPA in their inner lining and not disclosing it to the public. Folks were shocked - but not me. The more complicated a product, the more likely it is to be less healthy.

Stay tuned for Tip #2: Reusable Snack Containers

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Conserving in the Kitchen

One reader requested some eco-friendly tips in the kitchen, so I thought I'd comply.

The kitchen is probably the most challenging, but also the most important room to tackle. So much of our daily existence revolves around food prep, eating and then cleaning up so we can start all over again just a little while later. (Oh joy!)

When you have little mouths to feed (generally mouths that have become irritable and crabby right around 4:00 P.M.), it is so tempting to find all the ways to cut corners: disposable foil pans, frozen prepared foods, foil lined sheets - I've done them all.

Every year I try to figure out more efficient and less flustered ways to cope. The kitchen alone could make for ten blog posts, but I'll start with some food prep tips.

1) Plan your meals for the week on the weekend and make one shopping trip. This cuts down grocery store trips (saving gas and time), and you'll buy what you actually need and not extras (cutting down on wasted food - especially produce).

2) Don't be afraid to use the entire fruit or vegetable. I'm not suggesting that you serve your kids melon skin or orange peel, but in our attempt to cut down on waste, we discovered that our kids preferred broccoli stems to broccoli heads. You can peel off the outer layer of the stem and slice the stalks into sticks.

3) Keep a compost bin in your kitchen. I will post about composting in more detail at a later time, but composting food scraps enabled us to cut down to just one trash bag for an entire week.

4) Freeze, cook or compost produce that's going bad. I'll admit, I don't LOVE the taste of frozen vegetables - they definitely lose their crispness - but you don't have to eat them straight. Add frozen vegetables to all sorts of fresh dishes, like soups, lasagnas, spaghetti sauce and more. Frozen fruit is perfect for smoothies.

5) Find recipes that use as few pans as possible, cutting down on washing time (a win-win for you).

6) Consider double batch cooking. This definitely feels like more work up front, but can be a life-saver at the end of a hard day. Soups, stews, sauces, quiches, beans, and casseroles are all foods that taste just as good second time 'round. And, you will barely need to wash cooking gear afterwards.

7) Instead of using disposable pans, consider biodegradable parchment paper for baking. I hate scrubbing pans more than anything, so I recently began experimenting with natural parchment paper in baking. The paper goes right into my compost where it breaks down naturally, and the pans require almost no washing.

8) If you soak vegetables (like greens) in water, use that water for your plants rather than spilling it out. One mom I know keeps a pitcher by her sink for any left over drinking water and uses that for her plants.

9) Consider cloth napkins for school lunches and at home. We're using 30-year-old hand me down napkins that were my husband's grandmother's. My kids love the vintage prints and actually enjoy setting a "pretty" table!

10) Soak and then wash. Soaked dishes, pots and pans clean much faster and require less elbow grease. I'm still a little squeamish and insist on rinsing the grimy sink water off my pots and pans, but not everyone is. A sink full of water is far less wasteful than a running tap.

Have more ideas? Let me know!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wrapping Up The Holidays

For my kids, the holiday season was like one big non-stop toy-fest. We started with Hannukah in our home, then traveled to celebrate Christmas with my in-laws, and then onto my folks' place where we celebrated Hannukah again.

I found myself thinking about the times I used to refuse my grandmother's famous chopped liver. To me it resembled brown muck, but to others it was pure delicacy. She would slather it all over a Tam Tam cracker and wave it in front of me. I would make a nasty face and shake my head, no.

"There are children starving in Africa," she'd remind me. And I'd feel guilt at not wanting to eat her food ... but not enough guilt to actually eat it.

I always hear her over the holidays and at birthdays, too. Literally, I look at my kids with their new toys, and think, "There are children starving in Africa, and India, and America. There are garbage dumps overflowing with plastic toys that will sit there, not degrading for all eternity." I feel guilty, but not guilty enough to change our experience.

Between my old work as a toy-tester and generous relatives, we have a ton of kids' stuff crammed into not a lot of space. Ironically, for the most part, my kids play their same favorite games over and over again, leaving 3/4 of their collection untouched. This past year, I tried to donate a slew of gently used toys to charity, but no one wanted them! They all claimed the toys had to be new and unopened, which I sort of understood from a health perspective, I guess, but isn't that what Lysol is for?

Then there is the gift wrapping. My kids think I am the worst gift-giving mother because I cringe at the thought of wasting all that paper. I contemplated buying reusable gift bags this year, but I couldn't figure out the logic. Do you give it and take it back? Or do you spend an extra ten dollars on a present and consider it a contribution to future gift receivers? And what's the guarantee that gift bag even makes it out to the next person and doesn't just end up in the trash anyhow?

We haven't even talked about holiday prep! My husband was working 70-hour weeks, and I barely had time to breath between my mommy duties, my writing duties, my class-parent duties, my cooking for my in-laws duties, and the therapy I needed to get through all the ways I'd over-extended myself. (Just kidding ... sort of).

I drove around for hours back and forth across the city looking for the perfect gift.

I ordered take-out three times in two weeks, and brought home dinner from Whole Foods twice. More than once, I threw away a mound of styrofoam containers. More than once I winced at my wastefulness and my inability to figure out a better way to deal with take-out.

"If I were truly green," I told myself, "I'd have supplied my own take-out containers .... Of course, If I'd had time to bring my containers to the restaurant, I wouldn't have needed take-out in the first place!"

Angst, angst, angst.

Guilt, guilt, guilt.

And in the middle of my fifth wave of neurosis, stressing about why my parents wouldn't go out of their way to get organic produce and insisted on serving conventional beef, I received an email from an old friend of mine who had recently checked out my blog.

She wrote:

"We have to go easy on ourselves sometimes and give in to the not-so-green life in order to survive, but how to fairly balance is a struggle of morals and reason!"

Beautifully put. (Thanks T!)

Balance. Morals. Reason. Sanity.

So, we ate a dinner of conventional meatballs, with a side of local potatoes and greens I'd brought from home. Gluten-free homemade brownies with Guatemalan melon on the side for desert. And we bought a goat and honeybees through Heifer, and hopefully did a little good for some struggling families elsewhere in the world.


Now, if I could only keep my balance taking all these gift boxes to the recycling bin tomorrow.