Transitions

For my birthday, I gave myself the book Radical Homemakers.  I have to admit that nothing in the book was shocking to me.  I grew up in a home where my mother stayed home and made the bread from scratch, we dried our clothes on the laundry line and were homeschooled for years.  I will be the first to admit that once I was out of the house and had started my own career, I was lured away from my simple roots with the promises of trendy, mainstream products.  However, within the first year of my marriage and living in my own home, taking care of it at my own pace, I realized it wasn’t the path we were meant to take.  The spring of 2007, I planted my first garden with the intent of learning to preseve some of the produce.  I re-learned to cook and started to blog.  That May, I quit my job which paid very well and demanded absurd hours in the interest of losing the commute and the stress.  My pay working full time went from $20/hr to just under $10/hr.  I would still be working a full week, but the drive to the office went from 45 minutes to 7.  At first, I was scared that we wouldn’t be able to make it with me bringing in such a measly amount of income.  We cut debt, reworked our budget and prioritezed our spending.  I learned to do more things on my own and clipped my first coupon.  Within a few months, we had discovered that we could actually live a really nice life this way!  I was so happy to not be stressed, I was off all medications and no longer was paying a weekly co-pay at 2 different physicians’ offices!  
In October of 2008, I got pregnant with Liam.  After 2 miscarriages and an inordinate amount of struggles involving our desire for children, it was a wonderfully welcome surprise.  We planned a quiet homebirth, to use cloth diapers and to breastfeed.  Once again, we prepared to simplify our budget even further as I would be moving from a 5 day work week to 2 8 hour days.  I’ve written before about our decisions with parenting and how there are the occaisional moments when I do wonder if he’s getting everything he needs from life when compared to his playmates’ flashy lives.  In the end, I do believe we made the right decisions.
This last year, we started a journey in our lives to move homes, downsize and renovate.  After my grandmother’s death, I inherited her home.  Normally, this would be exciting.  However, this happened when the real estate market in our area is at a stunning low and we were going to lose a great deal of money if we were to sell the property.  After much thought and prayer, we decided to move from our precious first home where our marriage was built and our son was born to a home that I was partially raised in.  On July 31st, the carpet was laid and we realized that we were really doing this project, whether we were ready to or not.  A few weeks later, I realized I was pregnant again… not just worn out from working at the house everyday in addition to my regular life!  It was at this time that we realized we had made the best decision as far as the home renovation was going.  It was going slowly because we chose to work on it as we had the cash in had, putting nothing on credit.  In addition to that, the house was getting it’s first splashes of color on the walls and we decided to spend the extra money so we could use no VOC paint.  At this time, I chose to quit my job and work from home in the evenings tutoring online. 

For us, this path has been one of constant change and learning.  We won’t have a garden this spring since I am due in early April and the ground breaking so we could prepare a space was at the bottom of the priority list.  Instead, we’ll be supporting our local farmers for our produce that I’ll be canning and freezing.  We are planning another homebirth, breastfeeding and cloth diapers.  As I look around, I’m so happy that I can say that we are raising our children and living our life the way we want.  We aren’t making decisions based on the popular vote and we don’t live busy lives.  I keep our home as quiet and peaceful as possible, a topic I’ll be writing more about in the coming posts.  My grocery bill is manageable because we don’t purchase the processed foods that add up so quickly and my laundry smells fresh and clean because of my beloved Soap Nuts!  I am anxious to share with you this week and hope that maybe I will be able to show you that it’s ok to go your own way…. even if no one agrees!

Greek Pasta Casserole

Do you ever taste a meal someone else made and have to have the recipe?  I do.  And I ask for that recipe and 9 times out of 10, I never get around to making it.  I hate that about myself.  I have so many recipes and so many ideas, that I just don’t often wind up doing the “plan”.  This week for instance, I made so much food last week and over the weekend, I’ve just really been heating things up.  I do feel badly for my husband and child, but I’ve entered the 3rd trimester and sometimes my energy flags.  Now this meal I had every intention of making just like it was served to me.  However, when it came down to making it, I realized that I didn’t have all the ingredients and things that I assumed were in it, were not.  Therefore, I tried.  I really did, but in the end, it’s not too much like what I had originally craved.  Now, I will tell you that the original recipe does not call for meat, but my midwife is concerned that I haven’t been eating as heartily as I should be at this stage in the game, so I added the ground beef.  It could easily be left out and the dish would be just a wonderful!
Greek Pasta Casserole
  • 1 lb. pasta (I used mini ziti, but you could use any shape you desire)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 roasted red pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 4 oz can olives (I used the chopped up ones, because I thought my son would eat them better, but you could also serve this with sliced olives or green olives.)
  • 1 pint diced tomatoes (I used some from the stash I canned this summer… love popping open those jars!)
  • 8 oz. Cheddar Cheese, shredded
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup (or you could use this recipe and make your own!  It’s really simple and doesn’t take much more time than it would to boil your pasta for this recipe.)
  • 1/4 cup milk (use only if you are using the canned soup, if not omit)

 In a large saute pan, cook up your ground beef.  I used the fat from the meat to saute the onions, garlic and peppers as well so there was no waste and it cooked together.  Yum!  Add the water as you need to keep things from sticking to the pan.  Then, stir in the olives and tomatoes and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer for about 15 minutes.  In the meantime, preheat your oven to 350 degrees and boil your pasta.  I also used this time to shred my cheese since I only buy it in blocks and not preshredded.  When everything is ready, pour half of pasta into a buttered 9 by 13 inch baking dish.  Spread half the meat mixture and half the cheese over the top and then do a final layer of the pasta, meat mixture and cheese.  If you are using a can of soup, mix it together with the milk and then spread it over the top.  If you made your own soup, just pour it over the casserole and spread as necessary.  Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.  Makes enough to serve 6-8 people, but this does make excellent leftovers and freezes well.

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix

2 years ago, I made my hot chocolate by slowly melting chocolate in heavy cream over low heat.  It was a wonderful, it was decadent and it was not very child-friendly.  Well, my child didn’t like it.  So this winter I’ve been testing some varieties of hot cocoa mixes that I could make in a large batch and just have on hand.  Between my husband and newly-converted son, we go through a lot of hot cocoa.  I keep our jar of mix on the counter by the coffee pot and the microwave.  This way, I can add it to a cup of coffee to jazz up my morning or heat up a cup of whole milk.
Hot Cocoa Mix
  • 3 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 1/4 c. dark cocoa powder
  • 1 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 Tbsp. sea salt
Whisk all the ingredients together.  Put them in an air tight container to store.  When you are ready to make a cup, warm 1 cup of whole milk and stir in 2 Tbsp. of the mix.  You can top it with fresh whipped cream or marshmallows.  This recipe makes enough mix for 92 8 ounce cups of cocoa.
*For the cheflets:  Make sure the cocoa is only lukewarm before serving your little ones… no one likes a burnt tongue, no matter how wonderful the drink is!*

Changes

It started because I had an appointment with my chiropractor in early December. I hadn’t been in to see him since a few days before I had Sylvia, so I was in serious need of an adjustment. The point was brought up that I really needed to take better care of myself, because as the mom, if I fall apart, the whole family suffers. I drove home in a sort of stupor. My mother died far too young from a chronic illness that brought a lot of pain to my family. Suddenly, it seemed that although I had gotten myself back on track through the October Unprocessed Challenge, I just wasn’t where I needed to be. I’m an all or nothing sort of person, so picking one area of my life to change isn’t easy for me.

I decided to change 3 things in my life: my shampoo, my makeup and my diet. I was about out of shampoo and foundation, so I wasn’t going to be wasting anything. I hate waste. I used be a vegetarian, so this change wasn’t going to be as hard as it was going to be an exercise in flexibility. My husband and son weren’t really on board with the elimination of meat, specifically beef. In the end, I decided that for myself, I’d only eat meat at supper when the rest of the family was eating, unless I had already planned a vegetarian meal.

Shampoo was the first experiment since I got to that one right away.  I decided that as this was such a major change since our hair and scalps would need to acclimate, I would allow 2-3 weeks for the experiment.  I checked out a post on The Crunchy Chicken and in reading through the comments, discovered that Deanna suggested trying shampoo bars from a company located about an hour away from my home. Thrilled, I perused the website and was even more delighted to note that they offered samples of the bars so one can determine which formula is the best suited for them.  I ordered 2 kinds and sat back to wait.  In the meantime, I used my children’s shampoo from Burt’s Bees since I had had to stop using the shampoo my husband used because in November, I suddenly developed a rash around my hairline after my showers.   The shampoo bars arrived in the mail a few days later and I eagerly tore into them.  Honestly, I debated whether or not I should just hop in the shower again so I could wash my hair right away.  I controlled myself and waited until the next day.  When it came down to it, washing my hair with the shampoo bar was… odd.  It lathered nicely, but my hair felt so strange.  I couldn’t run my fingers through it, with the hair slipping easily through.  Instead, it felt squeaky and thick.  I let my hair air dry and couldn’t keep my hands out of it.  It felt thick and fluffy and just plain healthy.  I only tried the one type of shampoo bar, since it was working and I didn’t want to add another variable into my experiment.  My husband tried both bars willy-nilly.

For about 3 days, there was a honeymoon period.  I loved my hair.  I loved that it wasn’t stripped of all the goodness and I wasn’t piling chemicals on my head every morning.  Then, I realized that my scalp was peeling all over the place.  Not like dandruff, but like I had a bad sunburn.  It was awful.  Bits of my scalp were everywhere.  For years, I’d washed my hair with the same industrial strength dandruff shampoo my husband used, conditioned it and went on my merry way.  I had no idea the damage I was doing to my scalp and the dependence my scalp was developing on the chemicals.   I talked to a friend who also used a shampoo bar and did some research online and came up with a solution.  Mixing together sea salt, tea tree oil and apple cider vinegar I made an exfolliant for my scalp that would not only scrub the scalp, but also aid in the healing process while my skin adjusted to not being bombarded with chemicals.  Finally, I added a vinegar rinse to condition my hair.  The day I added these products, my hair was back to being the way I remember it as a child.  Thick, curly and soft.  As long as I maintain these steps, which take all of 45 seconds, I’m pleased with my hair and scalp.  By the end of week 2, I was (and still am) convinced to keep the shampoo bars in our shower.  I’ve never tried the second kind I bought.  In this case, I found something that worked and I’m happy!

My husband’s hair?  I have bought that man serious dandruff shampoo for years.  I’ve tried natural shampoos, but nothing seemed to work for him.  I was so wrapped up in my own hair issues that I totally forgot to check in with him and see how things were going until almost a week after we had started.  He reported that he liked both bars of soap, except that since I tend to actually rub the bar on my head it had hair woven into the soap.  His complaint was that everywhere he turns, my hair is there.  What he didn’t complain about, though, was his scalp.  Suddenly, after years of him struggling with a flaking scalp, it was clear.  No more flaking.  No more itching.  Wow.

Next up was my makeup.  Since the foundation was gone, I ordered new from HoneyBee Gardens.  Abbie at the Farmer’s Daughter had mentioned it a while ago in a blog post about her beauty product choices.  I ordered the powdered formula and was very excited to see it arrive in the mail.  It’s the same basic concept as Clinique’s Almost Powder Makeup which I had used in the past.  I’ve tried using natural products in the past and was always put off by cost, texture or a distinct herbal smell.  With this, I smelled nothing.  The texture was one I had used in the past and paid nearly double for.  I also added in the mascara since that week my suddenly began to burn whenever I put on what I had in my makeup bag.  Now, I smell honey whenever I put my mascara on.  My attempt to change the products in my makeup bag was a simple, painless change.

The diet was a much greater challenge than I had imagined.  I was a vegetarian from the time I was 9 all the way until I got married at age 24.  Every now and then, I’d have meat in college, but for the most part, I stuck with my vegetables.  I know how to meal plan as a vegetarian, I know how to grocery shop.  This experience for me, opened my eyes to the staples I grew up with in my cupboards that no longer took up residence in my own.  For instance, I am currently craving an Indian side dish comprised mainly of Dal.  I have no idea where to purchase this in my town.  My parents belonged to a food co-op.  I don’t.  Aside from the cupboard challenges, I realized that I needed to plan a little better so lunch wasn’t goldfish crackers and apples.  And I need to expand my protein sources.  I know I used to live on beans, eggs and cheese, but it’s taking longer than 2 weeks to get my digestive system back in order.  I checked a few books out from the library and am still working my way through them.  Since I’m still nursing, I am relearning some things concerning protein intakes.  The biggest lesson I’ve learned by changing my diet is that breakfast is absolutely essential.  Since I’m not eating a turkey sandwich after Sylvi’s 330am feeding on a regular basis, I can no longer justify coffee only until lunch.  Breakfast has changed my life.  Even just a bowl of Cheerios has an impact on how my day goes.  I have decided that while I won’t be returning to a vegetarian lifestyle, I am going to keep up with the general idea of my experiment.  Since the food I’ve been eating isn’t as heavy, I need to be a little more mindful about what and when I’m eating.  I’m still working out the details, but I’m enjoying trying new recipes and tinkering in the kitchen.

All in all, I’m glad there was the challenge to experiment since that challenge helped me to have a reason to try the shampoo bars and makeup.  And once I got to thinking about how I was changing these things on the outside of my body, it wouldn’t hurt to make a greater effort with what I was putting in my body.  I’ve made a decision that I need to take better care of myself and in order to do that, little steps needed to happen.  The reason why I rarely change course from the normal is because I hate the experimentation.  I don’t like to set up an experiment and then not have a successful outcome.  I was a little anxious starting these experiments.  To tell the truth, I didn’t leave my house for the first 3 days of the shampoo and makeup.  I already am a mother of small children and look like it.  I didn’t want my hair to add any more fodder to the thought that I don’t take care of myself as well as I should.  As a final result of this experiment, I’ve decided to keep the shampoo and makeup, be flexible with my diet and add in regular sessions of yoga to help strengthen my back.  I’m anxious to continue these changes in the new year and make even more as I seek to eliminate the toxins in our home, plant our first garden at this home and expand my culinary skills!

My dynamic duo

I have a membership to one of those buy-toilet-paper-in-bulk places.  I get my photos printed there, I buy my dog food in bags that weigh more than my child and dogs combined and I buy 13 pound bags of baking soda there.  Yes.  Baking soda.  Not cases of cream cheese, baking soda.  I use baking soda in a number of different ways around the house and alongside it: white vinegar.  Vinegar you can purchase in 2 gallon-sized jugs for a dollar and change, but you’d be surprised how quickly I go through it!  Since we use as little as possible of the commercial cleaners in our house and have been pleased, I thought I would share some uses that I find the most valuable.

  • Every load of diapers gets a half scoop of baking soda.  I use it to cut any odors that reside in the diapers.
  • Adding a half cup of white vinegar to a soak cycle of diapers strips them as well as bleach does of odors, stains and general ick that could be lurking.  I try to strip the diapers on a regular basis, just in case there are any germs or super stinks lurking.
  • Baking soda is a wonderful scrubbing agent for your bathtub.  Sprinkle a little in the tub, and if there’s a stain on the porcelain, make a paste of baking soda and water and give it some time to sit.  Scrub your tub with a sponge and then relax knowing that the next time you take a bath, your water won’t have any chemical residues floating in it.
  • Vinegar also is effective in treating hard water buildup.  Soaking a cloth in vinegar and then allowing it to sit on the hard water effected area is a great way to break up the buildup so that you can clean it off.
  • Slow drain?  Every home I have lived in has had drains with the urgency of grass growing.  Half a cup of baking soda poured down the drain and then chased with a whole cup of vinegar is a great way to avoid using chemical drain uncloggers.  Rinse with hot tap water.
  • Bath, pool and sand box toys can get really nasty.  My son loves the squirt toys and therefore we have tons of them.  Inside and outside.  Once a week, I fill the sink with hot water and vinegar and soak the bath toys.  The ones that aren’t squirty just get a good scrub, but the ones that can squirt, I fill with the water/vinegar and let them set for about 15 minutes.  When that time is up, I shake the toys really well and squirt them out.  I rinse them again with hot water since Liam likes to put the toys in his mouth and chew on them.  Then, I drain them upside down overnight.  From time to time, there are going to be toys that sat out in the rain or were forgotten about full of bath water that you can’t quite get clean, but generally speaking, I have had great success!
  • Not everyone has a piano in their home, but I am fortunate enough to have my mother’s.  Liam loves to play it with his grubby little fingers and I have found that a little bit of vinegar on a damp rag cleans those precious little fingerprints off in time for company.
  • It doesn’t matter how hard I try, but my microwave is often the victim of exploding leftovers.  Fill a bowl with 1 cup of water and a 1/4 cup baking soda or vinegar.  Close the door and turn the microwaves on for 5 minutes.  When the cycle is done, you should be able to wipe the inside of your microwave out easily.
  • And finally, vinegar has many different forms that when experiemented with can change the flavors of sauces, marinades and dressings.

The above list is of only the uses I have for vinegar and baking soda, but if you do a simple internet search looking for “household uses”, you might be surprised what you find.  And you might be able to find more ways to cut out the chemicals and move on your way to living a greener, healthier life.

Breakfast for a Monkey

When Matt and I got married, Jack Johnson was just gaining popularity in the music world.  We bought his cd while we were on our honeymoon and I must tell you that every time I hear those songs, I am suddenly in the front seat of our rented Pontiac Grand Prix, driving around Georgia.  When Liam was a tiny baby, I would often play the cd for him to wind down to and eventually, we discovered that he would last for the hour-long drive to visit his grandparents much better if Jack was singing.  For years, Matt has asked me to come up with a version of banana pancakes that we could use to pretend it was the weekend.  Recently, I combined 2 recipes and Liam ate 4 pancakes the first time I introduced them!
This recipe is the perfect blend of comfort and convenience.  I tweaked the recipe for a pancake mix I found online keep a batch in my cupboard all the time.  When I want to make plain pancakes, I do, but when the mood strikes for a flavored option, it’s easy to change.  What’s even better is that these pancakes freeze very well and will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days.  Since Liam and I are the only ones eating breakfast in the house right now, it works out for us!
Pancake Mix:
  • 4 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup wheat germ
  • 3 1/2 cups ground whole oats
  • 3 Tbsp. sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly.  Sift if you’d like.  Store in an airtight container in the freezer indefinitely or on the counter/in your cabinet for up to 3 weeks.  When you are ready to prepare the pancakes, all you have to do is take 1 cup of the mix, 1 cup of water/milk/buttermilk and 1 whole egg.  Beat them together and cook them on an ungreased griddle until golden brown on both sides.
For the monkeys:  Replace the 1 egg with a whole banana, smashed as smoothly as you like.  I mash mine into a puree so I’m certain that the cake cooks the whole way through.  Add 1/2 tsp. cinnamon and 1/4 tsp. nutmeg to the mix, banana and milk.  Beat together and cook as above.  It’s like having dessert for breakfast!
* For the cheflets: This is a perfect way to introduce a wholesome breakfast to your budding foodie!  As long as you are certain your little one has no reactions to wheat, tear a cooled pancake into little strips and let your son/daughter go to town!  This is an excellent way to encourage self-feeding and also a good method to make sure there is a variety of nutrients in that meal!

Broccoli and Chicken Bake

I adore broccoli.  And so does my toddler.  Although he no longer uses it as a scepter to instruct me in feeding, broccoli is one of those veggies that I don’t have to spend a great deal of time hiding in his food.  Although, I do suppose that if he were presented with the option to have a banana or broccoli, he’d take the banana… but I digress.  I turned this dish which was a sure-fire child pleaser into a one-pot meal by adding rice to the bottom of the pan, and wound up pleasing myself with the simplicity of it!
Broccoli and Chicken Bake
  • 1lb Chicken breasts
  • 1 head of broccoli, chopped
  • 1 cup rice, uncooked
  • 1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 c. milk
  • 1 1/2 c. shredded cheese (I used a cheddar/Monterrey jack)
  • 1/2 Tbsp. Paprika
  • 1 Tbsp. prepared mustard
  • 1 clove minced garlic
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Butter the bottom of a casserole dish that measures about 9×9 inches.  Pour the rice straight into the pan and add the broth.  In a small pan over medium heat, melt the butter until it is completely liquid and then whisk in the flour.  When the flour is thickened, slowly stream in half of the milk.  Add in the paprika, mustard, garlic and half of the cheese and whisk until the sauce starts to come together.  Stream in the rest of the milk, whisking constantly, and then add the last of the cheese.  You should have a thin cheese sauce now.  Add in the broccoli and heat through.  Pour some of the cheese sauce over the rice so that it is well covered and then place the chicken breasts on top.  Cover the chicken with the rest of the sauce.  Bake for 45 minutes.

*Optional: At the end of the baking time, sprinkle bread crumbs over the casserole dish and dot with butter.  Return to the oven and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes.*