Buying fruits and vegetables on a budget

Picking blueberries was a family affair!

Picking blueberries was a family affair!

This family needs a budget and we have one!  But as we “upgraded” the quality of our fruits and vegetables in response to learning about the most pesticide-covered produce, aka the dirty dozen, I had to adjust my budgeting expectations.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach for determining what to feed a family and how much to spend.  Would I love to buy local and organic produce exclusively?  Yes and I think it is preferable to buying conventional produce.  In the future I may buy only local and/or organic, but right now, our budget does not allow for it.  Instead, I am choosing to steward our food dollars as craftily as I can to get the best bang for our family’s buck. Here’s how I try to meet my family’s first goal for health eating: Eat more fruits and vegetables (and avoid as much pesticides as possible) while sticking to our budget.

My overall strategy for vegetables includes the following:

  • to only buy organic or less-pesticide local alternatives for all items on the dirty dozen
  • to shift as much food dollars to local options from growers who use organic methods
  • to eat seasonally much of the time
  • to buy bulk quantities of seasonal food when it is less expensive to preserve for when it is costly
  • to buy vegetables on the “clean 15” and other vegetables not available locally from the supermarket or discount store when on sale or available

More specifically and practically, here is how I address the items on the dirty dozen:

  1. Apples – I buy locally grown apples from growers who use IPM or integrated pest management techniques.  IPM fruit growers use “reduced risk pesticides” as well as other no risk techniques like using phermones to disrupt the mating of specific pests.  We save money by buying the apples directly from the growers in larger quantities and by buying seconds, which are apples that are slightly blemished or the wrong size for selling at the “normal” price.  Although these apples still contain pesticides, the amounts may be reduced 80-85% from what is used on a non-IPM apples.  In 2012, we dried apples and made applesauce.  We still have a bit left to get us through, but we will be excited to enjoy apples again in the late summer/early fall.
  2. Celery – I buy organic celery at the supermarket. I save the ends and leaves in the freezer to use for making bone broth so nothing goes to waste.
  3. Sweet bell peppers – I buy locally grown peppers from a farmer who is not certified organic but used organic methods.  This year, I was able to buy a large bag of seconds for a great price.  I then washed, stemmed, and halved the peppers and froze them in freezer bags.  I have used these peppers in soups, stews, and grain salads all winter.
  4. Peaches – I  buy locally grown peaches from growers who use IPM or integrated pest management techniques. See apples. We canned peaches in water last summer and we love them.  I can’t wait to can more of them! In 2011, we froze peaches to use in smoothies, although I prefer the canned ones.
  5. Strawberries – I buy locally grown from growers who use organic methods. Last year I did not buy any due to the relatively high cost.  I hope to buy some this year though because we missed them.
  6. Nectarines (imported) – I buy locally grown nectarines about once a year from growers who use IPM or integrated pest management techniques. See apples. Otherwise, we go without nectarines.
  7. Grapes – I do not buy them as a rule, although as with all of the other fruits and vegetables on the list, we have absolutely zero qualms about enjoying them when others offer them to us.  My kids love grapes and they taste good.
  8. Spinach – I buy organic at the supermarket on occasion  or I buy it from local growers who use organic methods.  This year, I’m trying to grow some for myself.
  9. Lettuce – I buy organic at the store on occasion   I much prefer to buy it from local growers who use organic methods and who grow amazingly tasty varieties that would never transport well and so are never available at the supermarket.  Last year I grew some for myself and it was so easy and delicious.  I hope to grow much more this year in our garden.
  10. Cucumbers – I forgot or didn’t know that this was on the list! I rarely buy cucumbers anyway, but I’ll peel the conventional ones and buy more local ones.  I do hope to buy some large quantities of “clean” ones this year to use for canning pickles.
  11. Blueberries (domestic) – I pick my own from a local farm that does not spray and freeze them to use in smoothies, pancakes, and baked goods all winter.  We still have one more bag left from the summer!
  12. Potatoes – I get potatoes in our winter CSA box from a farmer who uses organic methods. Otherwise, I go without potatoes or splurge on organic potatoes from the supermarket.  They are significantly more expensive than conventional potatoes, but I think they are worth it on occasion. Sweet potatoes, which are on the clean 15, are better for you and taste great, so we don’t miss potatoes much.

Although this is how I decided to respond to learning about the dirty dozen, I do not let it dictate how my family eats when not at home.  We do not worry about eating fruits or vegetables at other people’s houses or at restaurants nor do we ask for or inquire about the origins of the fruits or vegetables being offered to us.  We decided to change our buying habits partly to reduce our pesticide exposure and partly to vote with our food dollars about what we want and I feel that our approach accomplishes both in a way we feel comfortable with.

If you are wanting to buy “cleaner” produce, I hope my story gives you some ideas about how to make small changes while sticking to a budget. If you live in central PA, you can also check out exactly where I’m buying my local stuff on the Crunchy Connections page.


Reusable chopsticks: killing two birds with one arrow

When I was studying at National Taiwan University in Taipei, I saw a pair of stainless-steel, reusable, portable chopsticks for sale at the gift shop.  Since at this point I was eating every meal with chopsticks (except, of course, for my glorious fantuan breakfast–more on that in a future post!), and they were only a couple bucks, I figured I would pick up a pair for a more satisfying and sustainable chopstick experience.

As anyone who has eaten at a Chinese restaurant in the US knows, chopsticks often come in the disposable variety, which are made of either bamboo or wood–often in a single piece that you break apart.  Well, when you figure that there are well over a billion people in the Chinese-speaking world, and almost all of them are using chopsticks for almost every meal, if even a fraction of those chopsticks are disposable, that adds up to a whole lot of timber.  In fact, I didn’t really think about this until I read a recent Washington Post article about how China’s use of disposable chopsticks is a major contributor to deforestation.  Although I didn’t realize the full scale of it at the time, back in 2008 it did occur to me that the more I used my reusable chopsticks, the more trees I would be saving.

However, to be totally honest, the main reason I liked (and still like!) using my stainless-steel pair is that it makes me feel like a real chopstick pro.  These things come in a little case, and to fit in there they each come in two pieces that screw together–like two tiny pool hustler’s cues!  Every time I use them, I feel like James Bond assembling a weapon, preparing to exercise my license to kill on a plate of dumplings or a dish of pad thai.  Jen feels this makes me look a little weird (rightly, I might add), so she has asked me not to use them at the Chinese buffet.  So sadly, they don’t see as much use these days.  I do still keep them in my backpack at work though, and have more than once used them in a pinch to eat my lunch when I forget to bring a spoon or a fork.  Jen probably did not intend her bean burgers to be eaten that way, but you have to make due with what you have.

As it turns out, you can buy reusable stainless-steel chopsticks online that seem pretty much identical to the ones I use.  Now after realizing the plight of China’s forests, I like to think using them is both fun and crunchy–thus killing two birds with one arrow (as the saying goes in Chinese).

Like two tiny pool cues...

Like two tiny pool cues…

Freezer Cooking for Lunch: Veggie Bean Burgers

At the beginning of 2013, I found myself overwhelmed with all of the cooking, cleaning, parenting, diapering, laundry, planning, and so on that keeps this family going from week to week. I want to enjoy our everyday lives, so 2013 is being devoted to learning two things:

  1. how to adjust my attitude and expectations; and
  2. practical skills to simply life and make the day-to-day easier.

To further number 1, I’ve been reading a variety of books about parenting, relationships, and self-care and doing some self-reflection.  These kind of changes are hard, but worthwhile and I hope to share some of the great books I’ve been reading.  To further number 2, I’ve been streamlining some of our routines and learning how to freezer cook.

For the uninitiated, freezer cooking is just cooking food when you have the time so that you can freeze it to eat later when you don’t have enough time to cook (the way you want to). I’ve frozen things before on an ad hoc basis, but my recent adventures in freezer cooking are a little more structured and are focused on providing nutritious and delicious lunches for the whole family. For me to consider a recipe nutritious, lots of veggies are a must, but I also like lunch to be toddler-approved so that there isn’t too much drama.

This week, I had some extra time on a day where dinner was leftovers, so I decided to made a double recipe of bean burgers to freeze for later. Sadly, I couldn’t find a recipe that included some vegetables mixed in with the beans, so I had to make my own.  Although they came out a bit crumbly, they did freeze well and I think they taste great.  I lowered the amount of cumin in the recipe below due to Matt’s recommendations.  Both children loved these burgers, although they only ate a half-burger each because they were so large.  I served them with a little bit of tahini spread on top, but I think these might stick together even better if you threw in a bit of tahini to the burgers themselves.  I doubled the recipe below to make 16 burgers at a time.

Burgers before cooking.  Next time I'll get an after picture!

Burgers before cooking. Next time I’ll get an after picture!

Jen’s Freezer Friendly Veggie Bean Burgers  – Makes 8 large burgers

  • 1 can black beans (or 1.5 cups cooked black beans)
  • 1 can chickpeas (or 1.5 cups cooked chickpeas)
  • 1 sweet potato, shredded
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 cup mushrooms
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 egg

Use a food processor to do the following: shred sweet potato, finely chop green pepper, onion, mushrooms, and garlic, mostly process beans, leaving some chunks.  Combine processed ingredients, rolled oats, spices, and egg in large bowl and mix well.  Form mixture into 8 large patties and place on greased baking sheet.

Cook burgers at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.  Then flip burgers and cook for another 15-20 minutes until tops are browned.  Let cool on baking sheet.  Serve and eat immediately, or freeze for later.  Freeze on baking sheet or plates, then transfer to freezer bags.

To serve later, thaw for a few hours, then microwave or heat in oven. Serve these burgers plain or topped with tahini, sour cream with lime or hot sauce, or ketchup.  Add some raw vegetables and fruit or applesauce and you have a well-balanced meal that takes only a few minutes to pull together.

Basement Biking

This winter has been long and cold.  Although I’m doing really well with my goal to get myself and the kids outside every day for at least 15 minutes, some days we are only just making it.  15 minutes of playing in our yard, shoveling snow, or walking around the block doesn’t get all of the kids’ energy worked out by a long shot. So we have to stay busy indoors too.  Some of our favorite ways to burn off that excess steam include dancing around to fun music, jumping and racing around the house, and riding bikes in the basement.


I never would have thought to put our bikes in our unfinished basement, but fortunately, I saw one of my Facebook friends doing it with her kids.  I love learning tricks from other moms and this one has worked like a charm.  Pete has been getting much more use out of his bike and tricycle and the boys absolutely love tearing around downstairs before dinner or before bedtime.  My favorite part is that I get to work on laundry, straighten up my stuff down there, and enjoy Pete and John’s capering.  Sometimes it’s good exercise for me too!


Back to the basics

Super crunchy life = natural childbirth.
When we had our first child, we were so clueless about labor and childbirth. We went along with whatever the midwives and nurses suggested, which led to Pitocin, an epidural, and an episiotomy. Recovery wasn’t fun, but could have been worse. When we conceived our second child, we wanted something more. I began to search for a better way. I read several books on natural childbirth and techniques to achieve it. We hired a doula and took Bradley classes. We practiced relaxation and I made sure to prepare my body for labor. I wanted to feel everything this time around. I didn’t want to just have a baby, I wanted to be in control and connected to my body and the work it was doing. This is a life changing event!!!

Well, the time came, and all the practicing and preparing enabled me to have the most amazing birh experience! There were no interventions, no drugs, nothing but me listening to my body and allowing it to do what it was created to do. Because I had no drugs, my body felt so good that in no time I was up and walking around unassisted. I pushed my child to our hospital room! This whole experience is empowering! The confidence this builds is like nothing else.

I’m very grateful for my support that I was able to achieve this with their help, especially my husband.
There are many people who feel like drugs must be a necessary part of childbirth, but my story along with several women I know, is proof that it is simply not true. I recommend drug free to anyone. If I’m so blessed to have another child, it will be the same way. Drug free is for me!

On the road eats: giant breakfast cookies

Cookies in the oven

Cookies in the oven

Conventional wisdom dictates that you should plan your car travel with children at the times during the day they would normally be resting, like during afternoon naps or at bedtime.  Conventional wisdom does not work for my family. I have learned the hard way that my boys have a much higher tolerance for car travel in the early morning and they absolutely hate waking up from a nap in the car only to be still stuck in their car seats.  Consequently, the longer the trip will be, the earlier we must leave in the morning to avoid tears, restlessness, and the need for constant singing by one or both parents.

But my desire to leave as early as possible runs directly counter to my son’s desire to eat a lengthy breakfast as soon as he wakes up.  Enter Giant Breakfast Cookies from the Heavenly Homemaker. I came across this recipe one day and was immediately struck by how easy these would be to eat in the car.  Now that we don’t buy boxed cereal, it is difficult to find foods that children can eat without totally destroying the car with smears, crumbs, and dribbles.  All of the whole food snacks that Matt and I used to enjoy while traveling, including hard-boiled eggs, hummus, peanut butter, and even many fruits, are horribly messy for my little guys.  Our normal breakfast of baked oatmeal is a kid-pleaser, but it crumbles so bad that I once made Pete and John sit in a hotel bathtub to eat it so the crumbs would be contained.  While I don’t think cookies are the best breakfast choice, if it gets us on the road before 7am, I’ll make an exception.

My floors would be so much cleaner if they ate in the bathtub every day.

My floors would be so much cleaner if they ate in the bathtub every day.

I followed the instructions for soaking the cookies, but I used kefir instead of buttermilk in the recipe, and opted to use raisins and not chocolate chips to minimize messiness.  The cookies came out great and not too sweet and everyone loved them.  Unfortunately, they upset John’s digestive system.  We are going on the road again soon, so I want to tweak the recipe to make them even easier for John to digest by substituting the whole wheat flour with oats processed in the food processor and omitting the raisins.  Kids love raisins, but they are not easy to digest!  I will also make extra sure that all of the oats are getting wet with the kefir for soaking as I think the first time I did not have enough liquid in there.  I’ll share my new recipe if it is a success, but I would definitely recommend the original Giant Breakfast Cookies recipe available at Heavenly Homemakers something to eat on your travels.

Yet another thing to recycle: plastic bags

I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan of recycling. I know recycling still uses energy and that I could reduce my own energy consumption better by not creating waste that needs to be trashed OR recycled.  When evaluating my own habits, I try to remember the saying: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle (in that order).  I feel good recycling, better reusing, and best reducing!

That being said, recycling is often a great first step towards reducing.  Once I see how much waste I am generating, I am better able to appreciate the benefits of small changes.  Case in point: plastic bag recycling.

When we lived in RI, recycling most items was easy.  We threw tin, aluminum, glass, and plastic into one bin, and paperboard/cardboard/newspaper into another bin and the city picked it up. I only recycled the items accepted by the city, which did not include items like #5 plastics (i.e. yogurt containers) or plastic bags.  That recycling gravy train ended when we moved to central PA.  We’re working hard for our recycling in these parts!  Long story short, every type of recycling needs to be separated and we have to transport most of it to the recycling drop off during only narrowly defined hours. Similarly, our borough does not accept #5 plastics or plastic bags for recycling.

When we lived in RI, we just threw our plastic bags in the garbage.  They weren’t accepted in our bin for recycling and we reused some for kitty litter or other household uses. I comforted myself with the knowledge that we usually brought our bags to the supermarket and left it at that.  So when I was looking to reduce our overall trash amount in PA so we could comfortably purchase only the smallest trash pickup service, I did not think that recycling bags would make a big difference.  Then I did a little bit of online research.  There are a lot of different types of plastic and plastic bags that can be recycled, including:

  • Bread bags
  • Plastic storage bags, like ziploc bags
  • Bags that hold dried beans
  • Dry-cleaning bags
  • Clear plastic wrapping on paper towels and toilet paper and napkins
  • Those plastic “bubbles” of air that uses as packing material
  • Any bag or plastic labeled with #2 or #4
  • See even more examples here

I had no idea.  I thought that I could only recycle plastic grocery store bags at the recycling bins outside most supermarkets, but not so.  All of the above items and anything labeled #2 or #4 could be dropped off at those supermarket bins for free.

So I quickly set up my “plastic bag recycling center.” I knew I had to find a dedicated space, out of my way, where I could put all of this recycling to keep this new habit going strong.  I simply hung an extra canvas bag on a hook near my basement door.  When the bag is full, I bundle it all up (in a plastic bag, of course) to take to the local grocery store bin.  Because bags need to be dry, I have a clothespin that I keep over there to use for temporarily hanging bags out to dry.

My plastic bag recycling center

My plastic bag recycling center

Seeing all my plastic bags pile up has really motivated me to REDUCE all those bags coming into my life.  Some ways I’ve been able to reduce my plastic over the last year plus of bag recycling include:

  • Storing my re-usable grocery store bags in the trunk of my car.  That way I always have one when I need it at the grocery store, Target, hardware store, farmer’s market, mall, or thrift store.
  • Keeping a  small fold up bag in my purse, just in case I forget my bags in the car!
  • Baking my own bread, so very few bread bags.
  • Not bagging all produce items at the supermarket. A couple of lemons, limes, oranges, avocados, etc, can survive the cart.

Because I know that a lot of these “recycled” bags are probably ending up as “fuel cubes” burned to release toxins into the environment, I want to reduce even further.  I’ve noticed that many of the bags coming into my life are from others (my mom) bringing us items or from the farmers market, where it is impractical to forgo a bag.  Can you imagine me saying, “Well, I see that you have that 15 lbs of apples in a large plastic bag.  How about I transfer each one of them into my little cloth bags, one by one?”  I may not be able to eliminate of these bags and plastics, but I can think of a few more things to try like making or buying “produce” bags for use at the grocery store or buying beans in bulk quantity where they are sold in cloth sacks.  I also need to be stricter about remembering to use my bags every time I go to any store, not just grocery stores, where I am most accustomed to using them.

Any other ideas of how to reduce the amount of plastic coming into the house?