Monday, December 22, 2008

Resistance is Futile: Greene Eating

I've gotten a jump start on my 2009 Resolutions here at Greene HQ.  Turns out that the simplest, easiest, most obvious thing is the one thing I wasn't doing.  In fact, I was opposed to doing it.

What's that, you ask?

Menu planning.

It just seemed, oh I dunno - boring.  Confining.  Planning menus meant admitting that I was the only person responsible for feeding myself and three other people every day, day in and day out, except when Franklin stepped up to guest chef on the weekends.

But since I've started planning, my life is better.  And so, here's my list of Ten Reasons to Love Menu Planning:
  1. Without any real effort, we've cut our grocery spending by about $25/week.  Our bills were inching up, slowly and steadily, to $125/week and often more, not counting Franklin's forays to pick up the paper and a few necessaries on the weekend.  And not counting the $12 spent on locally delivered milk, cheese and eggs.  My weekly bill now averages closer to $90 - including holiday indulgences.
  2. Our bills will continue to shrink.  The first week I spent a mere $65 - because I planned around what was in the pantry and freezer.  I've always stocked up on some things at sale prices - mostly granola bars and cereal - but now I'm using the same principles for menu staples.
  3. My weeknights are far less stressful.  Instead of standing in the kitchen in a panic every night around six, I know what to do.  And it's easy to think to defrost something the night before when I'm looking at my weekly list of menus - no more coming up with a Plan B because the chicken is frozen.
  4. We're eating more varied meals.  In a pinch, I reach for whole wheat pasta.  Freddie won't eat it, and Franklin would rather not eat it every night.  But a little bit of thought has turned up more meals that the whole family enjoys.
  5. Shopping is faster.  This is huge.  I started menu planning when my daughter was about six weeks old.  Shopping while wearing my daughter in her carrier is enough of a challenge.  If I had to think about what we needed?  Forget it.  We'd be eating take out every night.
  6. We're eating healthier ... errr ... we will be.  One of my biggest challenges is getting veggies into our diet.  We all voluntarily eat fruit, and we're not opposed to vegetables.  But when you're a novice cook, it can take some doing to plan balanced meals.  Over time, I think I can easily push our veggie consumption way up.
  7. I don't even think of eating out.  Okay, that's not entirely true.  But I used to long to just walk down the street to a restaurant, where they'd have variety and someone else to do the dishes.  By planning everything in advance, I rarely get the urge to eat out.  In fact, eating out seems harder than eating in - the opposite of my old thinking.
  8. Freddie is learning to cook.  Cooking with a four year old has its challenges, but I'm amazed at how much he can do.  This is the best part of the process.  B.M.P. (before menu planning), he was playing alone in his room, out of my sight - or maybe parked in front of the TV or maybe begging for Goldfish crackers and string cheese under foot - while I cooked.  Now?  He's stirring something and telling me that he's "bein' a Top Cef."  Menu planning allows me to think about how he can help and plan accordingly.  As a bonus, he seems to always eat what he cooks - not true of meals that I prepare without his involvement.
  9. I'm learning to cook.  Yes, I cooked before this.  But I didn't really know how to do much.  By planning, I can evaluate what I know and what new challenges I can take on, slowly expanding my skill set.
  10. It's green!  Okay we're still not subsisting entirely on a diet of locally grown veggies and probably never will.  And we'd already reduced our reliance on take-out dramatically.  But now I'm learning how to reduce our reliance on convenience foods, choosing less processed options.  And that is a huge step for me - a step towards healthier, less chemically intense products and meals.
In a month, there have been just two nights this completely fell apart.  One night, I had picked out a new recipe that required putting the skillet in the oven to finish the dish.  Our skillet isn't oven-safe.  D'oh!  I tossed together something else and Franklin used the ingredients from the abandoned dinner over the weekend.  (He really is quite the cook.)

Another night we were off to have our family picture taken for the church directory and honestly?  I fed the toddler, nursed the infant and decided that the adults would have to fend for themselves.

I'm pretty amazed that it's gone this well.  In addition to meal planning, we've turned out homemade cupcakes for Freddie's birthday (the cupcakes were a mix, but the frosting was from scratch); chocolate chip cookies from scratch and banana bread from scratch.

Resistance is futile.  Menu planning has changed my life.

Now what else have I been refusing to do?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fern Versus The Families

I could write about how Franklin and I are sometimes at odds on green matters, but the truth is that we're more or less in accord.  (Yes, I think Franklin is a bit generous with the indoor heating and he's baffled by my reliance on pre-packaged convenience foods.  But we're pretty much in sync overall.)

The people who challenge us are our extended families, in equal measure.  While my brother-in-law is excited to be receiving a Sigg, my little sisters - women I love beyond measure - are hopeless shop-a-holics, doing their part to keep the consumer economy afloat.  They scoffed at the idea of alternative gifts and much prefer their coffee in paper cups and purchases in store-issued bags, thanks very much.  About their only eco-savvy activity is trading paperbacks back and forth.

As for my husband's family, that's not so much a case of wanton waste, but of a cultural emphasis on gifting.  It's unthinkable to show up to someone's home without piles of presents, regardless of whether they're needed or desired.  And they have set ideas about the right amounts of money to spend.  A few days ago it hit me like a bullet - his aunt had spent a fortune on wedding silver for us (no, we didn't ask for it; yes, it's lovely; no, we never use it) at a time when her husband was scraping together freelance work and they couldn't afford to replace their only car.  This is a sense of obligation that runs deep and defies logic.

The outcome of all of this is as follows:

1.  Gift giving is frequently catalog ordering, one-step removed.  If we're trading Amazon links for our desired gifts, we're not quite in the spirit of things.  Why don't we just buy ourselves new coffee mugs and let my sister pay for her own sweater?

2.  Most creative gifts end up at Goodwill.  My sisters often choose things that I find charming, but they're rarely functional items that I keep forever.  We loved our daffy, hand-painted margarita glasses - but faced with paying to store our belongings during a long distance move a few years back, they got the boot.  The real beneficiary of their generosity is the local thrift shop - and that's too bad.  I suspect my efforts meet the same fate.

3.  We're just swapping gift cards.  This is almost worse than #1, though it's less wasteful than #2.  In recent months, we've bought some cool place mats from Crate & Barrel and a small television set from Circuit City thanks to gift cards.  But we still have $500 or more of unredeemed gift cards in the desk.  Franklin argues that it's wrong to use them for gifts for others, though last year I did just that.  (We had $15 left on a Pottery Barn card that went towards books for Freddie.)

4.  We're ignoring what's really meaningful.  The only gifts my mother has kept through the years are the ornaments her children made in elementary school.  When my grandmother died, I was amazed to learn that she still had some felt-and-bead monstrosities I'd sewn with my inexpert little hands decades back.  I believe they went on her tree every year, in places of honor.

My mother has finally declared that all of this is silly, and that we ought to be jointly supporting a charity.  She started out by dispatching my super-shopper sisters to find gifts for a few residents of a local nursing home.

I have hopes that my husband might be able to reach a similar deal with his brother.  My husband's parents find this idea ridiculous; again, it's cultural and therefore we're hesitant to push too hard.

I'm happy to exempt children from this, mostly because each year I've been able to find unusual and clever creations from museum gift shops and local artists.  My red-headed niece received a purple tutu last year; this year she's getting her name embroidered on a pink cupcake apron, both courtesy of small businesses.  It takes some pre-planning, but I feel like those gifts are worth giving.

In our own little home, our Christmas has gone quite green, with an emphasis on celebration and seasonal activities rather than on mindless gift giving.  But it's sometimes tough to get beyond your four walls.  

With each passing year, Franklin and I have simply pulled back.  We're spending less on gifts and we're trying to put as much thought as possible into them.  But I often feel like a miser at this time of year.

Lots of green bloggers seem unfazed by their family's reactions, but to be perfectly honest, it still represents a struggle for me.  Do we just keep on violating our values and judgment - or do we rock the boat?  So far we're going with incremental change - but we might be at the logical limits of how much we can do without Having The Talk.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Three Pantless Years for F. Greene

Franklin looked at me over dinner last night.  "I think I need to buy some pants."

After some reflection, we concluded that it has been about three years since Franklin last purchased a pair of trousers.  While his current job isn't super dressy, his collection of khakis is getting a bit less than workplace appropriate.

While this sounds praiseworthy on some level, it actually reflects how very wasteful we once were.  On Saturdays, we woke up and went shopping.  Not every Saturday - but often enough.  The result was troves of clothing, vast reserves that we've yet to run through.  Did we have the money?  Not really.  Did we need it?  Obviously not.  We just bought the stuff anyhow.

Franklin's trousers are probably wearing out in part because he now commutes on mass transit and foot.  It's rougher on clothing than our previous car-based travels.  If we were still driving to work, maybe our conversation wouldn't have taken place.

For us, the wake-up call came when we moved four hours away.  Franklin went first, to a small sublet, while I stayed behind to sell our old house and pack up our worldly goods.  Seeing just how many worldly goods we'd amassed - and having to pack, ship and store those goods while we waited for our new house to be completed - served as good incentive to have less stuff.

It's amazing when you stop buying things how very long you can go without needing a replacement.  In fact, I suspect Franklin will go a few more weeks - probably months - before he actually buys those pants.  Once you break the habit of shopping, it's actually hard to start again.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Very Little Greene

Little Miss Fiona Greene is here, and she's adorable.  Franklin, Freddie and I are all smitten.

But with the arrival of the littlest Greene, I'll confess that our household has become less green.  Here's a quick rundown of our challenges - and triumphs!
  1. Diapers:  We agreed to use BumGenius sized diapers starting with size one, meaning that we'd need to rely on disposables for the few first weeks.  I bought Seventh Generation size newborn diapers to start us off.  They were a huge disappointment - Fiona kicked them off!  The shape is less contoured than many conventional diapers, and it's tough to fold them to avoid the belly button and cover the bum.  On the upside, they do wonders for diaper rash - all of the conventional diapers we tried left her red and rashy.  She's finally filling out her size one BumGenius collection, though, so we're feeling a little less trashtastic.
  2. Breastfeeding:  Triumph!  I bought one book and one pack of gel pads for those first few (painful) days, plus a tube of lanolin and we're in business.  It's amazing how much easier it is to leave the house and handle midnight feedings when all of the equipment is, er, attached.
  3. Driving:  I knew we'd drive more with baby on board, but I hadn't accounted for the following:  my daughter hates the stroller.  Hates it.  She loves her sling and her Baby Bjorn, but if I'm carrying her, I can't carry a bag of groceries, much less all of the gear required to take a baby out for a few hours.  (And, of course, if I'm on foot, I'm more likely to be out for more than an hour - it's a twenty minute walk to the store.)  I've yet to track our travel, and I'm hoping we'll adjust back to our 25 miles/week pattern within the next month.
  4. Clothing:  We've been showered with little pink togs!  That's great for our bank account, but not so nice for Mother Earth - especially since they all came wrapped in pretty pink paper.  Still, about half of her wardrobe is hand-me-downs or thrift/consignment shop finds.  It's so easy to do with newborns that it's just crazy that more people don't trade clothing or at least buy it second hand.
  5. Laundry:  We're back to using the dryer.  Franklin is doing more of the wash, and he's not about to fuss with the drying rack.  In any case, our eight pounds of baby girl generates a lot of wash - even I'll admit that it would be a strain to rely on the rack for everything, especially with the grey, overcast fall we've been having.  But I must say, I'm really uncertain about the impact of all that water used washing cloth diapers!
Still, we've made some positive changes.  We're now getting all of our milk and eggs locally, from a dairy that delivers.  We share a box with a neighbor, keeping our delivery fees lower.  And returning glass bottles?  It's the best thing.

And we're working on replacing more of our cleaning products with the basics.  We cleared a clogged drain with baking soda, vinegar and boiling water.  Cheap, clean and guess what?  More effective than Drano.

So it hasn't all been two steps backwards.  But it does make me very aware that if you're not thinking green, baby's ecofootprint is far, far bigger than those little bitsy feet could ever suggest.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Love is the Drug

When breastfeeding goes wrong, it can go wrong fast.  As a clueless first time mother, I failed hard.  By the time I figured out that we had a problem, our son was being admitted to Children's Hospital, dehydrated and jaundiced.

Freddie is laughably, blessedly healthy now, but I'll never forget those horrible first few days of confusion and uncertainty, followed by that endless night in the hospital.  I pumped breast milk and supplemented with formula whenever I fell short.  By the time he was a few months old, it was over - Freddie was on Enfamil full-time.

Fiona is a few weeks old now, and I'm relieved to report that breastfeeding is going just fine.  Here's what's different this time:
  • I took a fabulous breastfeeding class before I delivered.
  • My delivery nurse was a certified lactation consultant who made sure we got off on the right foot.
  • Our hospital encouraged rooming in, meaning that Fiona and I fell into a rhythm from the first.
  • The maternity ward was filled with lactation consultants who were helpful and available.
  • I came prepared with the best book ever - Breastfeeding Made Simple.
And despite all this, the most important difference was me.  I was fiercely determined not so much to breastfeed, but to follow my instincts.  With Freddie, I knew something was wrong but kept thinking it was just new parent nerves.  With Fiona, I knew things were going right from the first.

Which makes some parts of my experience baffling.  While our hospital was, overall, pro-breastfeeding and very helpful, a number of nurses clearly were biased in favor of formula.  The second night, after my daughter had lost a lot of weight, one nurse bullied me into feeding her some formula.  I'm strong-willed and mule-stubborn, but she managed to put me into a full-scale panic.  Since she came on duty at 11 p.m., it wasn't as if I had access to a second opinion.  I gave Fiona a taste, but as soon as I had, it hit me.  This is wrong.

So I checked with a lactation consultant in the morning, and our pediatrician when he visited and even though two more nurses tried valiantly to convince me to supplement, I politely ignored them.  "She's lost 7% of her birth weight.  Maybe you can give her some formula?"

"I think we're fine."

"We don't want her to lose too much weight."

"I think we're fine.  Thanks so much."  Cue big smile.

And don't get me started on the nurse who compared formula to dessert.  Would she tell me to feed my 4 y.o. a hot fudge sundae after he eats his waffles and OJ every morning?

Because we live in a big city, our nurses were from every corner of the Earth.  I wonder if some of that had something to do with it.  The lactation consultants were women like me - white, educated, vaguely hippie-ish if you looked beyond the scrubs.  Some of the nurses looked at me like I was a crazy, vaguely hippie-ish privileged white woman.  

They're probably right.

Except that they're SO clearly wrong about breastfeeding.  Because my daughter is thriving.  She gained back her birth weight plus five ounces by her two week doctor's appointment, and now ranks in the 75th percentile for weight.

And we're managing without any special gear or equipment.  Well, I did send Franklin out for those gel packs.  But after the first few days, I haven't even needed them.

Don't get me wrong - I'm grateful that formula exists, because feeding Freddie was a challenge.  Between having no maternity leave and a disastrous start to breastfeeding, if not for formula, he might have been truly sick - or worse.

But I wish every mother would have the chance to breastfeed successfully.  Because I am so in love with my darling daughter, and this feels like the ultimate expression.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Save the World Decisions

A few years ago, when the economy was booming and gas cost less than Pepsi, a colleague of mine commented on reports of a hybrid Hummer:

That's not a save-the-world decision.

He was right, of course.  And it turned out that the Hummer Hybrid was just a rumor.  (Never fear - the 2009 Cadillac Escalade is available with the, ahem, green technology.)

But at the time, I remember thinking to myself:  What is our responsibility to make save-the-world decisions?

We've reduced our footprint dramatically, and on the occasions where I do opt for the less green, sometimes even wasteful choice, should I feel guilty?

Or should making a certain number of save-the-world decisions - sacrifices, really - allow us to choose places to be wasteful?

Here's my dilemma:  I've decided to boycott conventional chocolate candy.  Diane's Big Green Purse had me fairly alarmed about the ills of conventional chocolate - mostly that child labor is involved in cocoa production, but also a host of environmental considerations.  I couldn't imagine handing out Hershey bars at trick'or'treat, knowing that kids the same age as our revelers had slaved to make it possible.

Instead, I decided we'd hand out little toys - Matchbox cars - and something other than chocolate.  Our neighborhood is small; we know most of the toddlers who will trick'or'treat on our street before retiring to the community center.  If we do get a bunch of older kids, we've got a few dozen Hershey bars left over from Freddie's last school fundraiser that will almost certainly suffice.  (Yes, I know - I just said I couldn't imagine.  But they're in our pantry, and really, it's even less reasonable to toss them in the trash.)

Instead, I bought animal cracker packs, stickers and Chinese paper yo-yos, plus little cellophane bags to put them in.  I spent about $18.  And I argued with myself the whole time.

Is this really any better than $10 worth of candy?  Well ... the kids will have the Matchboxes forever; I'm planning to raid Freddie's excess of Play-Doh minis for the few girls in our 'hood.  So it's not disposable.  And the Chinese yo-yos can be recycled.

Speaking of the yo-yos, Fern - Chinese!  It's all made in China.  True.  I'm part of the problem.  But if I can't splurge now and then, I'll go crazy!  We rarely drive, we recycle like mad, I'm super careful about our energy use and do my best to make green choices in our regular consumer habits.  Can't we have a holiday?

At what cost, Fern?  What if those yo-yos were put together by prison labor in China?  $3.99 for 30 yo-yos?  No economy of scale makes consumer goods that cheap without adverse impact.  Yes.  You're right, inner voice.  They're wasteful and possibly dangerous.  But I want them, I want them, I want them!  I want to be the cool mom this Halloween, not the one handing out one tiny pack of spelt pretzels.  I'm already the mom who wraps presents in the comics and sends whole wheat everything in Freddie's lunchbox.

And anyhow, Inner Voice, THERE WAS NO GREEN ALTERNATIVE!  I suppose I could've bought Annie's Cheddar Bunnies in individual packages, but they're not enough of a treat to meet my criteria - 'round here, most kids eat those on a daily basis.  Animal crackers work because our under five crowd is easy to please.

I suppose I might have Franklin scoop up a handful of Dum Dum pops from the corner store.  They're manufactured about eight hours away - not local, but not Cote d'Ivoire, either.  And the Spangler Candy Company is family-owned, which makes me feel a smidge better about this overindulgence.

It's not a save-the-world decision.  It's the opposite, and I made it knowingly.

File this under "Green Guilt," while I renew my commitment to cloth diapering, second-hand finery and trying to source more of our food locally.

I have a lot of packaging to make up for.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Are You Okay with Hand-Me-Downs?

My neighbors, a group of people for whom I am deeply grateful, recently threw us a surprise baby shower for Fiona.

We live in an interesting place - there's a fair amount of job security, given that many of our neighbors work for the federal government or are active duty military.  (The latter group has a job security that is downright terrifying.)  But our incomes are relatively modest when you consider the cost of living in the nation's capital.  And so while most of us are two-income, professional families that appear to earn quite a bit, our lifestyles are by no means lavish.

This isn't the kind of 'hood that attracts people longing for the Glamorous Life, either.  I suppose some of our neighbors could've stretched and a fancier 'burb, but it would've meant living outside the beltway.

Most of us are at least a little bit green, though it's inconsistent.  The only family of hardcore vegetarians includes a shopaholic mom; the only family that really eats local also commutes via car.  

But in recent days, a number of neighbors have asked how I feel about hand-me-downs.  

My attitude?  Bring 'em on!

Could we afford to kit out our kid?  Of course!  But why?  If there are perfectly good kid clothes sitting in someone else's closet, I'm more than willing to dress Fiona in secondhand finery.  Much of her baby clothing has come second-hand already, through the local thrift store and my favorite consignment shop.

But here's what puzzles me - if they're asking it must mean either:

1.  They admire and respect my personal style and approach to dressing Freddie and don't want to interfere with our sartorial decision-making.

With a glance down at my well-worn, $3 clearance rack maternity khakis from pregnancy #1, I can safely conclude that's not it.

2.  Some people consider hand-me-downs inappropriate or even insulting.  Or something.

Looking back, I remember my mother disliking the hand-me-downs we received from a pair of cousins.  But then, my cousins were allowed to adopt trendy, more adult styles a few grade levels earlier than we were.  When we were all still in little girl sundresses, I seem to recall wearing quite a few of Hester and Hattie's things.

Other than issues of appropriateness, I can't fathom a reason to say no to 2T tee shirts.  Should some of the tees declare Fiona a diva, princess or spoiled brat, I'll simply tuck those in the back of the box to be returned.

So ... I don't get it.  Why would someone object to gently used kids' clothing?  I'll probably still splurge on a few special occasion outfits and the like, but that's easier to do if most of her gear comes free of charge.

Why would anyone turn down such painless generosity?