Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Birthday Décor to Last the Years!

My baby girl turned two last week! You know what else got a year older? Her birthday decorations! I made this sign out of cardboard boxes, construction paper, string and a glue stick for her first birthday (see it hanging from a tree in the first photo) and kept it for this year (see next photo in our home)!

First, I measured 20 6-inch cardboard squares (one for each letter in Happy Birthday and my daughter’s name) and cut them with box cutters. Next I cut out letters drawn with a straight edge. Lastly, I poked holes at the top corners of each square and tied them together with a few inches of string each. It’s my favorite color combo, but you can use more construction paper to change the colors.

Total cost: a few buck for a glue stick, paper and string, the rest I got out of the recycling bin and the tool box

Total time: I made this in one night while watching prime time television, including commercial breaks!

Result: A big sign of celebration at our house! We’ll use it for years and we can hang it up for any birthday, not just our baby girl’s!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Freezers are a Mom’s Best Friend: “Instant” Mac & Cheese

I don’t know what I would do without my freezer. From keeping teething rings cool, to freezing home-made babyfood in ice cube trays (the perfect portion for little ones), to frozen fruits and meats, my freezer is often so full I long for a second one.

This week’s tip concerns one of my favorite meals: Mac & Cheese. Oh, how I love instant Mac & Cheese – especially the kind where the cheese comes in liquid form! Alas, we are trying to avoid prepackaged, mystery-ingredient foods as much as possible to reduce our eco-footprints and keep our family as healthy as possible.

I’ve got two steps that keep my kid in nutritious Mac & Cheese, and keeps mommy from having to make home-made stuff on a daily basis. First, I found a great, easy and quick recipe from Real Simple Magazine: I call it “fake” because you don’t have to make a roux, and because it has an entire head of cauliflower in it - which my daughter actually eats! I also use whole wheat pasta instead of the usual stuff. It's pretty yummy.

Whenever I make it (about once per month) I take all the leftovers and freeze them in muffin tins lined in plastic wrap (so it doesn’t stick to the tins). I push the pasta into the muffin tins so that it freezes as one solid piece of casserole and cover with more plastic wrap. (Note, in this photo, I didn't to a great job sealing it, and you can see the freezer-burn ice crystals on it). Once they are frozen, I pop them in a baggie.

Whenever my toddler needs a quick lunch, I grab a Mac & Cheese “muffin” out of the freezer, pop it in the microwave and – tada! – instant Mac & Cheese!

Total cost: the cost of a casserole (any favorite casserole will do!)

Total time: Making the Mac & Cheese takes about 15 minutes prep and 30 minutes cooking. Freezing takes as long as it takes to put leftovers away. Defrosting/heating it takes about a minute per muffin.

Result: Less, prepackaged food with mystery ingredients; Instant, yummy toddler-sized lunches!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Get out!! (and leave your kids at home, for once)

While we adore our children, all parents need time off to do things for ourselves: exercise, date night, doctor visits or just a random pampering! In our neighborhood, moms figured out a way to have occasional childcare without paying and transporting a sitter: A babysitting co-operative! Have an experienced parent you know and trust watch your babies for free! All you need to do is return the favor!

In our co-op, parents generally sit one night a month in return for one night a month in sitting (sits also occur during the day, but they’re harder to get since many moms work outside the home). It can be as structured or unstructured as you want. Two moms swapping time or, like our co-op, 15 families who earn babysitting points, tracked on the Babysitter Exchange website (which is free if your co-op is small). The site is really great because there’s never any mix-ups about who sat for whom last, or who owes who sitting. It’s all there!

For an overview of how our co-op works, check out this video from CNN!

And, for more details on how to start a co-op (with information on safety, legal, and organizational issues), I highly recommend the book The Smart Mom’s Babysitting Co-op Handbook. It’s easy to read and follow! You could be up and running in as little as a week! (Although, I will give the disclaimer that it took our co-op a few months, since we’re pretty big!)

Total cost: Start-up costs can be as the same as one hour to a few day’s sitting expenses, depending on your approach. The book is $15, the website is free but the advanced version is $165/year – a little pricey but split among 5-10 families is totally affordable. (Also the book also explains how to track sits without a website, if you want to keep costs down). The sitting is free and, since all our members are within walking distance, transport is free, too!

Total time: Start-up time can be as quick as walking across the street for a coffee chat, or in complicated circumstances like ours, we took about 3 hours/month for a few months to start up. After that, it’s as much as you want to sit and be sat for, plus a social activity or meeting (which often ends up being a social activity) a few hours per month to keep up with any issues or questions that may come up in the co-op, but more importantly to keep in touch with the other families and watch your kids playing together.

Result: Free sitting from experienced families you can trust, less transporting sitters around (if you live near enough), more and better friendships with your neighbors (more time spent enjoying each other on a regular basis, and less time wondering who owes whom for the last sitting favor), a stronger sense of community.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Springtime Snotmonster Strikes Again!

It’s springtime, which means some, if not all members of my household have runny noses. I have tried to buy recycled paper tissues, but would rather wipe my nose on a piece of bark than use that sandpaper-like product! This is definitely one place I splurge: ultra soft tissues. How can I green this habit?

I’ve always been grossed out by the thought of a handkerchief, but having a kid has made me realize that a hankie in my pocket is no grosser than a half dozen partially used tissues in my pocket (or hers)! (And none is as gross as your child's habit of wiping her nose on your shoulder!) Even better, a friend of mine told me her secret: bibs. Hang one around your toddler’s neck and it will always be handy for a quick nose wipe! The terrycloth ones are softer than any tissue could be. And, since they’re out in the open (instead of crumpled in your pocket) they dry out quicker, leaving fewer cooties to spread. When you run out of clean bib space, throw it in the wash and get a new one.

I’m still working on substituting hankies for my own tissue addiction, but this trick has really reduced the amount used in our household and kept my daughter’s nose from getting too raw! If only I could wear a bib, too.

Total cost: $0. I mean, how many bibs did you get from your shower really?
Total time: more convenient than searching for clean tissues in your pocket!
Result: nicer noses, fewer tissues, fewer gross pocket surprises.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Alternative Gifts That Keep on Giving

Ahh, the stuff of parenthood. While having a family does inevitably mean owning more stuff, we don’t have to get pulled into the consumer craziness!

Here’s a website that helps us reduce the amount of new stuff we acquire by reusing our friends’ and family’s stuff, and requesting non-stuff gifts: The Alternative Gift Registry by The New American Dream.

We used it for our baby shower but it could also work for birthdays, weddings, and holidays! It’s free and it works just like a store gift registry only better: you can list items from multiple stores or items not found in any store!

Here’s some ideas on what you can include:
New Items from Multiple Websites that were hard to find (e.g. the stroller we really wanted was available cheaper from a lesser known online store, organic or non-toxic goods that aren’t carried by the big stores),
Home-made Goods (like blankets, booties, and frozen dinners for those first few weeks home from the hospital),
Used Items (we asked for used children books, crib mobiles, baby clothes, humidifiers and tons of stuff we didn’t think we needed new!), and
Gifts of Time and Experience (like babysitting hours, zoo memberships, swimming classes, etc.)!

Total cost: $0 to you, and much less for your friends and family.
Total time: less time than registering in a store!
Result: less stuff in your home and in the landfill, more creative and personal gift-giving and receiving!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Triple Tip: On Bags & Rags

This week’s tip is three-fold: Reducing your paper towels, Reusing plastic bags, and Recycling scrap materials into a handy and very easy-to-make dispenser!

When faced with the question “paper or plastic?”, I try to reply “neither” and bring my own bags. I swear, I really do try. Alas, I don’t always remember my bags, so sometimes I opt for paper (you’ll see why in a future post) and sometimes I opt for plastic. I use the plastic bags several ways: scooping pet waste, marinating meats, packing leftovers, transporting wet diapers or clothes, etc.

My mom used to use an old tissue box to store and dispense grocery bags, but they seem to fall apart quickly. I saw something like this in a store and decided to use scrap materials to make them! Here’s a great tutorial for them: http://www.dioramarama.com/patterns/ So easy, I made about 10 of them in one afternoon and gave them away to friends!

I keep three hanging in our pantry: one for clear bags (easier for food items), one for opaque bags, and one for rags. To reduce our paper towel use, I tear up our old t-shirts, keep them in this handy holder et voila! Paper towel substitute!

Total cost: $0 (since I used scraps, but it should only cost about a dollar's worth of remnants!)
Total time: 30 minutes each
Result: less paper towels, fewer bought baggies, less mess!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oh, Sugar!*

I love to bake. I may not be the greatest cook, but when it comes to sweets, I’m actually pretty impressive. As my family tries to eat foods that are good for us and the planet, we were curious about all the different sugars around for baking: confectioners, brown, refined, etc.

Which would you think is the most environmentally sound sugar?

I thought brown sugar, then I read somewhere that brown sugar is merely refined sugar with molasses added to it! So, not only is it processed like regular sugar, it has an added step of adding molasses in it! Zut alors!

Consulting my favorite all-time baking bible (King Arthur’s Flour Baker’s Companion), I found out that in any recipe, you can substitute brown sugar for a combo of granulated sugar and molasses! Here’s the ratio:
Light brown sugar add 1 T molasses to each cup of sugar;
Dark brown sugar add 2 T molasses to each cup of sugar.

I tried it out and it works wonderfully!

Total cost: $0 (since my baking staples include sugar and molasses)
Total time: no time at all!
Result: less processed food, less energy used, cheaper pantry and yummy baked goods!

*Oh, Sugar! Is an ode to my mother, who used to say this a lot in place of cuss words. Now that my daughter is almost 2, I’m finding myself searching for substitutions for my usual potty mouth.