Our Green Christmas Tree (now with photos!)

Back in 2007, I wrote about the little tree Daniel and I, with the help of former housemate Bill, made for our first Christmas together, back in 1996.  Made mostly of repurposed materials, this is a great alternative to cutting down a real tree or using a factory-made artificial tree.  It’s still going strong!  I’m finally responding to all the requests for photos of it.  Sorry I don’t have any pictures of the construction, but I’m reprinting the verbal description, and I bet you can figure it out–it was easy to make.

Christmas tree on the game cabinet

We just set it up for our 19th Christmas together.  Every year, we simply bring it up from the basement, wipe off dust with a damp cloth, and decorate!  Here’s how we made it: Read more…

The Best Alarm Clock-Radio to Buy Used

…is a Sony Dream Machine with EZ Alarm, made around 1988. You do not want a recent Dream Machine as it is a completely different product. This is an excellent clock:

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My dad gave it to me for Christmas when I was 15. Its radio reception was far superior to my previous clock-radio; no more holding the power cord in the air with my foot to enhance the signal!

The best feature of this clock is the way you set the alarm. A small switch on the top left sets it to beep, radio, or no alarm. Then you set the alarm time using those nice big dials on the front: one for hours, one for minutes. Read more of this post

Four Weeks of Mostly Meatless Dinners (February)

I’m not using the term “pesco-vegetarian” in the title like I have for many of my other multi-week meal plans because I think “meatless” is the more common word people are searching for in Lent.  My family eats no meat at home except occasional fish–which does not count as “meat” in many fasting plans, for some reason–so our menus are ideal for Lenten fasting or any time you want to avoid eating red meat and poultry.  Recently, I have been eating meat in restaurants a bit more often than usual because I’m seven months pregnant and have developed anemia, and the iron from turkey and beef is supposed to be the most absorbable…but in general, I still prefer a low-meat diet.

This menu features two new gadgets we got for Christmas: a slow cooker and a Vidalia Chop Wizard.  We’re finding both of them to be pretty useful.

Here’s what we ate for dinners in February.  Our weekday lunches are leftovers and occasional restaurant meals for the adults and a lunchbox meal (using leftovers where feasible) for third-grader Nicholas.  Weekend lunches tend to be leftovers, too; the ones that weren’t, or that made some notable use of the leftovers, are listed here.  I plan the menu, but my partner Daniel cooks our weeknight dinners so they’re ready when I get home from work, while I cook on the weekends and sometimes prepare ingredients during the week.

Week One:

  • Sunday:
    • Lunch: Pizza and salad left over from the previous night, when we had friends over for dinner.  They brought a “salad bar” (greens, shredded carrot, cherry tomatoes, avocado, and beets in separate containers) and we bought the pizza at Mineo’s.  I made Italian salad dressing–I don’t really have a recipe, but my method goes something like this: In a glass jar, put 2 parts olive oil and 1 part apple cider vinegar; sprinkle in plenty of sea salt, black pepper, dried minced onion, and granulated garlic and smaller amounts of dried red pepper flakes, nutritional yeast flakes, dried basil, dried oregano, and dried parsley; close jar tightly and shake it; taste it and adjust as needed; set jar inside a shallow dish to protect the tablecloth from oily drips.  This dressing can be stored at room temperature for a couple weeks.
    • Dinner: Lemon Creamy Salmon with Tangy Greens.  I used frozen kale for the greens and heated up leftover rice for my carbohydrate and leftover whole-wheat couscous for the guys.  Now we had a second jar of homemade salad dressing, a different flavor; I put them side by side in a small oval dish. Read more…

My Top 3 Kitchen Time-Saving Tips

Katie at Kitchen Stewardship is asking everyone to share our top 3 kitchen time-savers this week!  I work full-time outside the home, and although my partner Daniel has been doing more than half the cooking in the past few years, I do most of the planning, shopping, and preliminary preparations.  He works from home and tries to continue getting work done after our nine-year-old comes home from school, so it’s important to him to be able to spend less than an hour making dinner.  Here are our top tips:

Prepare ingredients for multiple meals at once.

When you’re going to the trouble of cutting up some food, using cutting tools that will have to be cleaned, you may as well cut a whole lot of it!  While you’re at it, measure the portions you’ll need for several recipes, and wash the measuring cup just once.  If you preserve some of the food (we freeze any we don’t plan to use within a week), you can stock up when it’s on sale and use it over a long period of time, instead of buying smaller amounts at higher prices.  Here are some specifics: Read more…

Pocket: A Handy Tool for Web Browsing

This is a guest post by Ben Stallings (brother of ‘Becca) , who is a permaculture gardener, home energy efficiency auditor, and owner of a curbside recycling business in Kansas.

I got an email a few days ago informing me that I’m in the top 5% of users of a service called Pocket — I’ve used their free service to read more words on more Web pages than 95% of their users.  This is a totally unpaid and unasked-for endorsement, but chances are you haven’t even heard of this service, so let me introduce you and explain why I use Pocket so much:

  • Pocket makes it easier for me to save Web pages to read later than to read them right away, helping me to avoid distraction.  You know when you should be doing something, but someone has sent you an interesting link, or posted it on Facebook or somewhere, and you want to be sure to read it, but you’re afraid if you don’t read it now you’ll forget?  Being able to add it to your Pocket means you can be sure you won’t lose it and can resume what you were doing.  This has revolutionized the way I read blogs in particular; I scan the headlines in my RSS reader every morning, and rather than read any of them immediately, I save the ones I want to read to my Pocket and go on with my day.
  • Pocket is so integrated with my mobile and desktop browsers that it feels like how the Web was meant to work.  Saving a page to my Pocket is easier than bookmarking it in the browser.  Reading a page in Pocket is often easier and more pleasant than reading it in the browser, because Pocket gets rid of all the ads, menus, and other distractions in most Web pages so I can focus on the text of the page I’m interested in, and it reformats that text for optimal reading on whatever device I’m using at the moment.  I find that any Web page worth taking the time to read (rather than just skim) is worth saving to my Pocket so I can enjoy it more.
  • Reading a page in my Pocket is often more secure than reading it on the original site.  Pocket gets rid of all the tracking cookies that typically follow you within and among sites as you browse, and I can use Pocket to read a page over an encrypted (https) connection even if the original source site did not have a secure option.  Sure, Pocket itself is collecting data about my use of their service, but their privacy policy is as good as anyone’s. (In a nutshell, they will only share your info if required by law.)
  • Probably the most important factor in how much I read in Pocket is that the app for my smartphone will read articles to me aloud.  All Android phones (and iPhones) have text-to-speech capability built in, but most apps don’t support it.  The Pocket app does.  Since it’s already stripped out all the menus and sidebars and other distractions away from the text of the article, when I ask it to read a page it can generally get right to the point.  It’s perfect for catching up on my reading while I garden, wash dishes, or even drive on the highway!

I’ve had a really good experience with this service, and I hope you will, too!  Next time they announce statistics, I expect you to be in that top 5%!

Becca says: Thanks, Ben!  I never heard of Pocket before.  It sounds like a great tool to use when browsing Works-for-Me Wednesday, a weekly collection of over 200 helpful tips!

Mammograms and Monthly Cycles: A Public Service Announcement

If you are a 40-year-old woman who has never had any symptoms of breast cancer, your doctor or your health insurance company probably will nudge you to get a “baseline mammogram” or “screening mammogram” done.  This could detect any tumor that might be lurking, but most likely you won’t have a tumor and this procedure will create an image of your healthy breasts that can be kept on file to compare to later scans.  It seems that a big part of cancer detection is looking for changes in a patient’s tissues rather than waiting for something to get so weird-looking that it’s obviously abnormal.

I had a baseline mammogram earlier this month.  The nurse who did it cautioned me that I was likely to be among the approximately 10% of women who are asked to come back for additional scanning after the doctor looks at the first images, because I have “dense tissue” (this is a polite way of saying “small breasts”) which is more difficult to scan thoroughly because it doesn’t mash so nicely in the scanner.  Indeed, I got a letter telling me to call to schedule a re-mash.  It hasn’t been done yet, but I’m not worried (much) because I am one of those rare Earthlings with no family history of breast cancer.  The reason it hasn’t been done yet is an important fact about the scheduling of mammograms, which nobody bothered to tell me until I was in the hospital gown, having taken off work and skipped wearing deodorant on a hot humid day, all ready to get scanned–and they had to cancel it.

Here is what everyone involved in arranging for patients to get screening mammograms ought to be trained to say:

“We recommend that you schedule the procedure in the first two weeks of your menstrual cycle, if possible, for best results.” Read more…

Freezing Cheese

We love cheese!  However, with only three of us in the family, a block of cheese in the refrigerator can get moldy before we finish eating it.  We came up with a cheese storage method that reduces the risk of mold, but it wasn’t good enough for those times when we have either a large amount of cheese in open packages or some cheese that’s been handled or exposed to air (for example, left over from church coffee hour) so that it probably has more mold spores on it.

The obvious solution is to freeze excess cheese, killing the spores.  But when I tried it, I found that a thawed block of cheese has a different consistency than one that was never frozen–it’s much more crumbly and seems more likely to get condensation on the surface.  However, grated cheese survives freezing and thawing just fine!  Once thawed, it gets moldy or dried-out more quickly than a block of cheese because of the greater surface area.  (This is true of grated cheese that was never frozen, too, unless it’s the kind that’s sold pre-grated, which is usually sprayed with a mold inhibitor such as the antibiotic natamycin, which is thought to be safe, as well as some kind of anti-clumping powder such as potato starch that I’d just as soon avoid; I think home-grated cheese tastes better!)

To make the most efficient use of our cheese, I leave no more than 1/2 pound in the refrigerator after the package has been opened, unless we have immediate plans for it.  I grate the extra cheese and freeze it in portions we can use in recipes: 2 or 3 cups for a big batch of burritos, 1 1/2 cups for Cheesy Walnut Burgers, 1 cup for Stuffed Shells, 3/4 cup for Mac & Cheese.  As with our homemade frozen vegetables, having convenient ingredients ready to thaw helps us keep cooking at home even in busy times. Read more…

My Coupon Organizer

This is a project similar to our recipe binder, using reused materials to make something that does not look perfectly polished but is cheerful and works well for our household’s specific needs. One difference is that this project started with a purchase of something specifically for the project: I bought this nylon thingy (specifically marketed as a coupon organizer) in about 1994. Originally I used it with the stiff paper tabbed dividers that came with it.

After about a decade, though, those tabs no longer made much sense with the kinds of food I was buying. I mean, it had a separate section for cookies–we hardly ever buy those, because we don’t need them, and when we want some they are fun to bake. Chips and candy also were separate categories. And there was one for meat, but now that we eat less meat that seemed silly. There was no category that seemed appropriate for beans, so I kept forgetting where I had put the bean coupons.

If I had realized this project would be so quick (about 20 minutes) and easy and fun, I wouldn’t have waited so long to get around to it! I was finally inspired 4 years ago when my son’s preschool chucked out a bunch of barely-used file folders in nice bright colors. We used them in all sorts of crafts! The cheery colors of my improved coupon organizer make me happy every time I use it!
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Read more…

Shovel snow with a broom!

This is a simple tip that I can see is familiar to a lot of the natives here in Pittsburgh, but it took me many years to catch on.  I grew up in Oklahoma, where winter precipitation tends to involve freezing rain, so a lot of what you have to clear from your sidewalk is ice.  Here in the land of picturesque, Christmas-card-like winter weather, however, the sidewalk is typically piled with fluffy snow.  It looks so pretty until you have to shovel it, right?

Wait!  There’s an earlier step that will make the shoveling so much easier, and you might not have to shovel at all!  You might be able to get your pavement completely clear and non-slippy without using hazardous sidewalk salt!

Simply sweep off the loose snow with an ordinary broom.  Keep the broom near the door so you can sweep the snow before anyone has stepped on it.  That way it’s not packed down, and it easily sweeps right off.  If you are going out while it’s still snowing, consider leaving your broom by the end of the walk so you can sweep your way back to the door when you get home.  You’ll want to use your “outdoor broom” or at least keep the broom outside until it dries, because it’s hard to get all the snow off of it, and if you bring it inside it will drip.

Depending on the depth and density of snow, you may still need the shovel to scrape the last of it off the pavement.  Alternatively, if the snow is more than a few inches deep, start by shoveling off most of it and throwing it to the side, then sweep the pavement before you walk on it to get that area completely clear before you move on to the next section.  (Ever walked on a sidewalk where the deep snow was shoveled off, but there’s a thin layer of ice across the whole thing?  That’s the result of leaving behind a little snow that was too hard to scrape up with the shovel–the sun melts it, and then it freezes.)

Sweeping is particularly useful for clearing outdoor steps, especially open-tread ones–just sweep the snow down between the steps!  My epiphany about the usefulness of brooms on snow came when I visited a friend’s hillside house during a snowstorm, and before I left I watched him completely clear his 30-some open-tread stairs of about 3 inches of snow in about 5 minutes.

This technique is so easy, a child can do it!  Nicholas proved this two days ago, when both parents were too sick to pick him up from school, so he walked himself home, responsibly using his new wristwatch and house key on a chain.  When he saw that we had not been able to clear the sidewalk, he swept it, then used the shovel to pry up the packed snow from his own footprints and others’ steps on the public sidewalk.  What a great kid!  (He is 8.)

Visit Your Green Resource for more articles on responsible living!

Multiple Shopping Lists: Key to Grocery-Shopping Sanity!

My grocery-shopping strategy attempts to maximize the quality of food we get for our money, and one key tactic is shopping at multiple stores. Since I have limited time and don’t like to waste gasoline, I want to make sure that in each shopping trip I get all the things we need that are best-priced or best-quality at that store, but I don’t want to be stocking up on stuff “just in case we need it” only to find that we already have several of those in the pantry. Over the years, Daniel and I have worked out a system that makes it easy to keep track of our grocery purchasing plans.

We keep a separate shopping list for each store. The moment we open up the last package of a staple food, use up something we’d like to have more of as soon as possible, are notified of a sale, or think of a food we haven’t had in a while and would like, we write it on the appropriate list. Any coupons for that store (or for a specific product on that list) are stored with the list. I keep an eye on the lists and decide when it’s time to visit a particular store, and then I take that list and coupons and put them in the outer pocket of one of the cloth tote bags I am taking to the store.

It’s easy for me to remember which store is the best place to get a particular thing, because I am the primary grocery shopper and have a great memory. Daniel isn’t so good at this, but a large proportion of our foods give him clues by being store-brand products or in reusable containers labeled for refilling with bulk foods at the East End Food Co-op. Other things, though, he would sometimes write on the wrong list or, worse, decide that when I was around he would tell me what we needed so I could write it on the correct list–and then he might forget. Recently, he thought of a solution: Read more of this post

EASY Homemade Baby Food!

This is NOT a paid endorsement.  This is my unsolicited review of a product I liked.

This is an idea that’s been around a while (both my mother and Daniel’s say they had something like this when we were babies in the early 1970s) but I hardly ever see today’s parents doing it or talking about it.

Instead of buying baby food in those little glass jars or the horrible plastic packets that have come on the market recently, instead of spending time cooking and pureeing and freezing and storing foods especially for your baby, just feed your baby some of the foods you’re eating!  If the food requires biting or chewing that your baby can’t do yet due to lack of teeth, use a convenient hand-powered grinder to turn it into baby food!  It’s very easy and allows you to make baby food anywhere, on short notice, in exactly the amount you want, without using any electricity.

Our son Nicholas did not get any teeth until he was nearly a year old and didn’t have molars for months after that, so he needed mushy foods for a long time.  We had a busy schedule–Daniel was working full-time outside the home, and I was working part-time and was a Girl Scout leader–so making healthy meals for ourselves was a bit of a struggle already, yet we needed to provide some kind of tasty nutritious mush for the babysitter to serve Nicholas at lunchtime every weekday beginning at six months old.  Luckily, we had found a KidCo food mill, very clean and in the original package, for $1 at a yard sale before he was born.

This handy gadget turns almost any food into a soft paste–but with a little bit of texture–in about one minute. It’s really wonderful! Read more…

I don’t wear makeup.

I used to wear makeup.  From age 12 to 16, I added more types of makeup to my daily routine each year, and I went through that daily routine even if I wasn’t planning to leave the house.  I continued for a while into college before I realized that the insanely stressful life I was leading there did not allow time for makeup and many other students did not wear it–but I felt that college was an exceptional situation, so I still wore makeup to church, to my summer jobs, and whenever I went back to visit the town where I grew up.  After college, I wore makeup to work and church and social events very consistently at first, but over time I began to wear less and less, until at age 31 I quit almost completely.  Why? Read more…

How our thrifty, green lifestyle makes it easier to cut ourselves some slack

Longtime readers may have noticed that I haven’t written much lately and didn’t write an article about what I learned during Lent like I have most years.  Well, that’s because this year, I was pregnant for Lent.  No, of course that wasn’t the Lenten discipline I planned!  It was a surprise (not a mistake–we all were happy about it) and I fully intended to continue with it through November, but on Maundy Thursday my ultrasound showed that the embryo might be dead, and 12 days later it was confirmed a few hours before a Tuesday church potluck.  In future I am going to try to schedule all possibly-worrisome medical procedures for days when I can go to church in the evening, because that “peace of God that passes all understanding” that we’re always talking about was really there for me, and my pastors and church friends (as well as my family and other friends) have been so loving and caring!  I’m really pretty much okay now, so let’s get on to the real topic of this article:

For 4 weeks, I was not functioning normally.  Read more…

How the Dishwasher Changed Our Lives

A little over a year ago, we got a new dishwasher and became (for the first time in my life) a household that uses a dishwasher routinely.  Read my previous article for lots of information on how dishwashers actually use less water and energy than washing dishes by hand, and read the comments for important details on water-heating and pre-rinsing.  Now I’ll give some updates on what we’ve learned in our year with a dishwasher.

I went from spending about 4 hours a week hand-washing dishes to spending about 1 hour a week–I still have to hand-wash these items: Read more…

Granulated Garlic

Daniel and I love garlic and use it in many of our recipes.  Usually we prefer to use fresh garlic, crushed in a garlic press.  Every once in a while, though, we’ll run out of garlic or find that our last few cloves have gotten squishy–and also, there are a few recipes like Honey Baked Lentils that call for garlic powder and actually turn out better with it than crushed garlic–so we’ve always kept garlic powder in our cupboard.

But a few months ago, Daniel discovered a better alternative! Read more…

Instant hummus and falafels!

Food on FridaysMy mostly-vegetarian family likes to eat hummus and falafels (garbanzo bean and pea fritters) but both of these foods take a while to make from scratch.  Practically every grocery store sells ready-to-serve hummus these days, but it is pricey and gets moldy quickly.  A few stores and restaurants sell falafels to heat up at home, but they’re expensive and not all that good.

Luckily, Fantastic Foods makes dry mixes for making both hummus and falafels.  I can’t call the falafels instant because you still have to cook them, but there is a quick and easy way to do that, too.  Neither the convenience nor the cooking method makes either food less healthy than if made from scratch!  Read more…

Meal Planning When I’m Not the Cook

For a few years now, I’ve been seeing lots of blog posts about the advantages of meal planning, i.e. figuring out what you are going to eat days or weeks in advance so you can make optimal use of your groceries and get meals on the table on time.  Fine, sounds good, but everyone writing about this was a full-time homemaker.  In my family, both parents had full-time jobs, and although Daniel was working at home and willing to stick something in the oven an hour before I got home with the kid, he wasn’t willing to knock off work early to do elaborate food preparation.  Normally, when I got home we decided what we were going to eat and which one of us was going to make it, and then we’d eat dinner whenever it was ready.  Read more…

How a kid can cook burgers indoors on a hot day

Last month, my brother commented on my article about the Grildebeest that a George Foreman grill is a handy way to cook things with minimal supervision and better energy efficiency than a stove.  I hadn’t considered buying one of those grills before.  (We have a small kitchen, so we try to avoid owning a lot of gadgets.)  Last week, the smallest size George Foreman grill was on sale at Target for $15 and I got a Target coupon for $5 off any size George Foreman grill, so I decided to give it a try.

It’s a cute little thing and very lightweight.  I was skeptical about its usefulness.  But I thawed some veggie burgers, I read the instructions (all about meat) and washed the grill, and my six-year-old son and I attempted to make dinner.  He was very interested in learning to use the new machine.

We cooked a burger for one minute.  Warm, but not very warm.  We cooked it for a second minute.  It smelled good, looked brown, and was too hot to touch.  We tried toasting a bun in the grill for one minute.  Perfect!  One burger ready to go in 3 minutes. Read more…

Homemade Frozen Shredded Vegetables

Like reusing glass jars, this is an idea I’ve mentioned before that has increased its importance in my day-to-day life to the point that it deserves its own article!

When you have more of a vegetable than you can eat before it goes bad, clean and shred the extra all at once, put measured portions into small bags, and freeze it.  Now you have convenient quantities to use in future recipes!  Depending on the cooking technique, you may not even have to thaw them before using.  You’ll save time, compared to cutting up fresh vegetables in a bunch of separate sessions.  You’ll save money, compared to wasting fresh produce or buying more expensive pre-sliced frozen vegetables.  Read more…

7 Things You Oughta Be Able to Do at Your Age

The idea for this article came from a friend of ours who is fifty-one years old and is becoming increasingly disgusted with twentysomething guys who are in worse physical condition than he is and, when he comments on it, mumble about how they can’t afford to join a gym.  They seem to be totally blind to the fact that one can exercise using ordinary household objects or simply by shifting the weight of one’s own body.  He was ranting about this one day when I was over at his house and instructed me to tell the Internet about it. Read more…