Monday, March 30, 2009

Let's Eat Out!

Eating out is tough for those of us who would like to eat a more organic and/or minimally processed diet. And if you’re trying to eat out with kids and on a budget, it’s even tougher. My six-year-old loves fast food restaurants as much as any six-year-old, but I really believe it’s the playland and the toys in the kids meals that are the source of his affection. I’m not sure he even tastes the food since he eats it as fast as humanly possible so he can get to the toy in the kids meal and hit the playland. Too bad there aren’t any restaurants serving healthy meals that come with free action figures and a human habitrail. In a pinch we will choose Wendy’s if we’re on the road. At least there I can get a baked potato and the kids usually choose mandarin oranges over French fries (although I’m not sure which is worse – all the added sugar or the nasty grease). So I was excited to read an article recently in Kiwi magazine (A magazine for “Growing families the natural and organic way”, which I highly recommend too - that showcased some restaurants that serve healthier, organic faire and are reasonably priced. Here’s what they said about three restaurants in our area:

Panera Bread (throughout the US and Canada)
This popular sandwich chain serves only antibiotic-free chicken in its salads, sandwiches, and soups. Panera recently reworked its kids’ menu to include organic juice, yogurt, and milk, as well as grilled cheese sandwiches made with organic cheese and a PB&J with natural peanut butter and whole-grain bread

I had an opportunity to eat at Panera recently. I was meeting a friend and was sans-kids, so I didn’t get to sample the kid menu, but their salads were interesting and full of fruits and veggies beyond the usual lettuce. I do have to say though, that the luscious pastries in the showcase (right on kid eye level) were most likely not so organic or healthy. Still, it definitely beats fast food and really didn’t cost much more.

Chipotle (Throughout the US and Canada)
Chipotle is the country’s largest chain restaurant to embrace organic; it stuffs its burritos, tacos, and salads with chicken and beef raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics. All cheese and sour cream are free of the synthetic hormone rBGH, and 30% of Chipotle’s beans are organic. With more than 500 locations across the country, this Mexican eatery is now pursuing LEED (green building) certification for its partially wind-powered Gurnee, Illinois restaurant.

I’ve never eaten at Chipotle, but a teenager I know, who’s very much in the know, told me it’s the best. And that particular teenager wouldn’t be the least bit worried about whether the ingredients were organic or not.

Elevation Burger (Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia)
Featuring patties for all manner of burger lovers (meat eaters, vegetarians, and even vegans), Elevation uses organic, grass-fed, free-range beef and locally sourced ingredients whenever practical. After cooking its fries in heart-healthy olive oil, the restaurant donates its leftover grease for conversion into biodiesel. Elevation is currently pursuing LEED certification for each newly constructed restaurant. The chain also employs eco-friendly equipment, low or no-VOC paints and finishes, and energy-efficient lighting.

I’ve never even heard of Elevation Burger, but now I’m on the look out. It sounds like my kind of place. Below are some of the other restaurants listed by Kiwi magazine as embracing the benefits of organic foods and environmental responsibility. I think it’s important that those of us who support this kind of change should also support these restaurants. So next time you itching for a night away from your kitchen and the fight with the kids over who does the dishes – do something good for your family and good for our planet and patronize one of these restaurants.

Burger Lounge (Southern California)
Burgerville (Oregon, Washington, Vancouver)
O’Naturals (Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina)
Organic To Go (California, Washington, Washington DC)
Le Pain Quotidien (California, Connecticut, New York, Washington DC)
Pizza Fusion (Arizone, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington)
TerraBurger (Texas, with more locations opening soon)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Talking Trash and Earth Hour

This morning as I was crushing another cereal box for the recycling bin and dropping the apple peels in the compost, I realized that trash has changed a lot since I was a kid. Back then (and I won’t say when “back then” was) we threw everything away. I remember we had three big trash cans in our garage filled to the brim and then some. The garbage men walked up our driveway, lifted the garage door, and carted them out to the street. Then they put the trash cans back in the garage and closed the door again. Times have changed. Between composting, recycling, and my plastic container fetish, we have about two or three bags of trash each week. They all fit in one trash can that we roll down to the street. The garbage men pick them up, along with all the recycling, empty them in their truck, and fling the cans back in to our driveway with as much force as possible. Sometimes the can rolls back in to the street to create an obstacle course for our neighbors. Like I said, trash has changed.

My kids have grown up with compost and recycling. They don’t know any different. They know all about saving the planet and global warming. They are concerned about the rainforest. Teaching your kids to live a life that is good for them and for this world isn’t as hard as it used to be. Being green is “in”. As much as they might complain about changes to their lifestyle that involve the loss of cheese curls and soda, they will adapt. And it will be what they know. Once they become parents themselves they’ll even appreciate it.

This weekend there is a great opportunity to create a memory for your children and do something good for the planet. Last year 50 million people participated in Earth Hour and created the largest voluntary power-down in history. This year it could be even bigger. I’m already planning our evening. I’m gathering candles and games and yummy snacks. At 8:25, we’ll send the kids all over the house to turn off everything. Even though Earth Hour organizers are only directing us to turn off lights, we’re going for broke in our household. We have a Black and Decker gadget that tells us how much power we’re using in our house at any given moment – we’ll try to make it say 0. We’ll light a fire if it’s cold and light lots and lots of candles and then for one hour we will be together and have fun without using any electricity. My kids are stoked for this, as am I. We can’t wait. What can your family do for Earth Hour? Don’t miss this opportunity to teach your children about conservation and have a great family memory to show for it.

One other thought, if 8:30-9:30pm this Saturday doesn’t work for you, pick another time. Your kids will never know it wasn’t the real “Earth Hour”. Besides if you do it sometime within 24 hours of our Earth Hour, you’re bound to be participating in Earth Hour somewhere on the planet. It’s important that we find ways to pass on our commitment to a planet-conscious lifestyle. Here’s a great chance. And don’t forget Earth Day is coming in April – start making plans now!

You can learn all about Earth Hour at Earth Hour is a worldwide event. You can check out other people’s posts, videos, and tweets from all over the world. You can join the Earth Hour group or just be a fan on Facebook. Isn’t it cool to be part of something so big?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Happy Snacking!

Yesterday I read a New York Times article my husband forwarded to me that really said what I tried to say in my post A Cheese Curl is Not Just a Cheese Curl. It pointed out that just because something is labeled certified organic does not mean it is necessarily better for you. Sometimes the certified organic milk you purchase in good faith was ultra pasteurized in New Zealand. I’m fundamentally opposed to overheating my food, but beyond that consider the carbon footprint left by the effort of bringing this milk to you. But it’s organic, you cry. True, it’s technically organic, but it’s not organic in the true spirit of the organic movement.

The organic movement was born from a desire to do the right thing – for our bodies, for our land, for our animals, and for our world. It’s simplifying our lifestyle, knowing what goes in to the food we eat, and caring about future generations. My motives for going organic were purely selfish (to fix my son’s health), but I’ve grown to understand and be committed to all the other pieces of living an organic lifestyle. So it bothers me when it is assumed that an organic lifestyle is simply eating foods that are certified organic. As I pointed out in a previous post, a cheese curl may be certified organic, but that doesn’t make it good for you.

So don’t be blinded by the little green and white certified organic symbol. Healthy and locally grown means more. Feed your family whole foods and stay away from the processed foods as much as possible. Your kids don’t need to eat cheese curls and soda. Even if the cheese curls and soda are organic, they’re still bad for you. True, it’s a fact that my kids want them (I’m sure yours do to) so the challenge is to find foods that they like and have a certain “thrill” factor. A carrot stick does not have the thrill factor, but fresh raspberries and a few carob or grain-sweetened chocolate chips in vanilla yogurt does. My kids munch on popcorn most afternoons after school. They take it outside to share with the chickens and have great fun seeing what kinds of predicaments you can get a chicken in to when it is chasing popcorn. Recently we made homemade pretzels after school. We hadn’t done it in awhile (probably since one of the older ones was learning his letters and we practiced making his name). Baking soft pretzels takes no time at all. Here’s one simple recipe:

Miss Sally’s Pretzels (Miss Sally was Brady’s 2-year-old teacher – thanks Sally!)
11/2 C warm water
1 envelope (2 ¼ teaspoons) yeast
4 C flour (I used half organic unbleached white and half whole wheat)
1 t salt
1T sugar (I used succanat)
Coarse salt (coarse ground celtic sea salt)
1 egg

Mix warm water, yeast and sugar.
Set this mixture aside for five minutes. Pour salt and flour into bowl. Add yeast mixture to make dough. Roll dough in to shapes (this is the part your kids will have fun with).
Brush egg onto the shapes with pastry brush and sprinkle with coarse salt.

Bake at 425 for 12 minutes.

Other great snack ideas:
“Ants on a Log” celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins
Toast with honey and cinnamon
Pooh Sandwiches – whole grain crackers or graham crackers with peanut butter and honey
Power mix – cashews, sunflower seeds, raisins, grain-sweetened chocolate chips, and any other nut or unsweetened sugar mixed together
Pretzels dipped in mustard
Frozen blueberries (or grapes or cherries)
Dried apricots dipped in melted dark chocolate and sprinkled with pistachios
Fresh strawberries
Oranges already sliced up
(for some reason kids will gobble up oranges if you do the work for them, yet ignore the bag of them in the fridge)
Hardboiled eggs served in egg cup (remember those cute little egg cups that your grandmother used to have? You can still get them and for some reason they make eggs much more inviting especially if there is an assortment to choose from)
Pickle platter (put an assortment of pickles arranged artfully on a plate and surprise your kids – let them use toothpicks to eat them, even better)
Nachos (whole grain corn chips with raw milk cheddar cheese melted on top, add chopped tomatoes or olives if your kids go in for that sort of thing)

If you’ve got a great snack idea, please comment to this post with it – I need more ideas!
Also, if you’d like to check out the New York Times article mentioned above see The article is called Eating Food That’s Better For You – Organic or Not by Mark Bittman and can be found in the March 22 edition.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Buying By the Cow

The year we began buying our beef by the cow is the year all my children decided they liked steak (even the vegetarian one). Friends raise their eyebrows when I tell them I’m buying half a cow. They’ve come to expect extremes from me when it comes to food. Buying your meat by the animal is much, much cheaper than buying it in Styrofoam cartons from the butcher. And don’t worry – it doesn’t arrive on four legs.

The first task is to find a farmer who sells their cows, hogs, or sheep whole or half. There are many that do (how do you think your butcher buys them?). Ask around at your local butcher shop, farmer’s market, or check online. Two great sites online to get you started are and Pick a farmer that raises animals without growth hormones, unnecessary antibiotics, and preferably on grass. If the farm is certified organic – great (although the price will be higher).

A half a cow will feed my family of five for nearly a year. We eat beef about 1-2 a week. The price does go down if you buy an entire cow, but I like my beef to be fairly fresh, so we buy just the half. If you have a friend to split the cow with you can both save lots. When you order you will be told the cost of the beef per pound. Be sure to ask if this price includes the butchering and packaging (most do). When you place your order, you fill out an order form telling the butcher things like how much steak you want vs. how much hamburger, how many pounds per roast, and how thick the steaks should be cut. I always feel like royalty when I direct my steaks to be cut 1½” thick and order the percentage of fat I would like in my burger. Oh, and package my burger in one pound packs with a few three pound packs thrown in for parties. Nobody grants my wishes like the butcher.

It generally takes about two weeks from when you order your cow until you are carting it home. It arrives flash-frozen and vacumm packed in plastic packages. The hamburger comes in neat little blocks that stack great in my freezer. We had an exceptionally big cow last year and some of the hamburger was in our freezer over a year but still tasted great.

All that savings and convenience is well and good, but the taste is the best reason to buy your cow local, fresh and untainted by growth hormones and antibiotics. In fact my six year old just listed steak as his favorite food on a homework sheet for first grade. Prior to our conversion to buying grass fed black angus beef, my kids refused most steaks. If they did eat it, they would chew it like gum and leave it in unsightly lumps on the edges of their placemats. But that was before they tasted “our cow”. That was before we could afford to feed them filet mignon on a Tuesday because we paid the same price per pound for the filet mignon as we did for the hamburger we grilled over the weekend. The beef they are eating is better than beef they would get in most restaurants. It melts in your mouth and is so tender it never needs a steak knife. I could go on but suffice it to say – buy your own grass fed black angus cow and you will never go back to eating plain old steak.

This past weekend we purchased our first whole hog. Very exciting. (I’ve told you it takes very little to get me excited) We picked up the pig from the farm where it was raised – a picture perfect Amish farm with turkeys that look just like the ones my kids draw using their fingers for feathers. Our pig cost $3 a pound, so the total bill was $465. The weight is the hanging weight (after the hog is drained). For that money we received 2 fifteen pound hams (OMG how will we ever eat that much ham?), four 4lb roasts (I just pulled out the grocery store circular and it had organic pork roast on sale for $4.49 a lb – boy do I feel justified!), 40 lbs of sausage (breakfast links, seasoned coils, and regular coils), 18 lbs of pork chops, 2 tenderloins, 8 lbs of spare ribs, and 18 pounds of bacon.

I know you’re first concern is –where do you put all that meat? It doesn’t take as much room as you would think. The hog fit neatly in to two big coolers when we picked it up. We have a standing freezer that is about the same size as our refrigerator and the cow and pig take up about half of it. My adorable nerdy husband plans to make up a spreadsheet showing the cost of buying by the pig and buying the same thing from the grocery store just to make a point, but I don’t need the numbers to tell me. The food is fresher, healthier, tastes better, and supports my neighbors. It’s just an added bonus that it costs less too!

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's What You Put In, not On

Yesterday I made my monthly trek to Trader Joes. As I made my selections it did occur to me that some of the food I was choosing cost significantly more than a similar version in the grocery store. But the food I selected was pesticide free, hormone free, additive free, preservative free, and in many cases certified organic. Organic food costs more. I won’t tell you any different. I will extol all the ways you can spend less through your own efforts, resourcefulness, gardens, and preserving, but the bottom line is it may cost you more, especially in the beginning. This should not be a deterrent because this is life or death we’re talking about. Feeding your family healthy food will protect them for a lifetime. There is no cost too high for avoiding things like cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and diabetes. And you’ll never know if you dodged these bullets because you ate and lived well or because you are lucky. Science has yet to connect all the dots, but we cannot afford to wait. Trust your instincts and common sense. And eat things that you recognize. Best not to take chances on your health.

So how do we afford it? Well, maybe we need to take a long hard look at the budget and figure out how to save in other areas. When I confessed to my mother-in-law that I was shopping at Goodwill these days (and that’s a whole other post – have you been there lately? As my son would say “It’s the bomb.”), she said that makes perfect sense to her. She pointed out that you should care about and spend more on the things you put in your body than on your body. Amen.

Choosing to live a healthier, more planet conscious life will cost more in some ways and less in others. You can save money by making and growing much of your own food and by cleaning with simple inexpensive products. But there will be some things that cost a premium. It's a balance you have to find for your own budget and your own life. If may be "cheaper" for you to pay the high cost of an organic item versus make it yourself. Your time is worth money too. As the world has finally begun to get onboard, I truly believe the cost of organics will go down as the options increase.

We find ways to afford the things that are really important to us. It comes down to priorities, and maybe a little creative bookkeeping. So I shop at Goodwill, swap books with friends or use the library, and wait for movies to hit the $2 movie house. Meanwhile, my family eats grass fed, organic filet mignon, local hormone free milk, and organic pesticide free strawberries. Seems like a fair trade to me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

You Do Not Need a Bendaroo

Watching TV costs you money. And I’m not talking about cable or dish network or satellite or anything like that. We have a television in our house and no service except what comes free from the sky. With Kid # 1 and Kid #2 we were able to get by with the occasional video or DVD. Nothing on the regular stations (all three of them!) interested them. But Kid # 3 has been a different story. He plans his week around the two hours of uninterrupted screen time on Saturday morning. And this has cost me money.

This week it’s the bendaroos. His life will not be complete until he has this overpriced, over-hyped toy. He can tell you all the benefits and features, word for word from the commercials that were pounded in to his head this past Saturday morning. Before that it was the Alive Lion Cub or the Mega- Ship Shark Attack. There is always something that he finds lacking in his life by 11am on Saturday. And then I have to listen to the begging and bargaining all week. This week there were actual tears over the bendaroos. I happened in to a Toys R Us and checked them out for myself. It took awhile to locate this ubertoy which, apparently is only a must have for my son since the clerk had no idea what I was talking about (“benda-what??” “Roos, you know like a kangaroo, only bendy” Am I really having this conversation??). $20 bucks! That’s what they wanted for a box of wax covered pipecleaners. So I did what every sensible parent does these days, I went home and looked online. Still $20 bucks and the reviews were horrible. There were even directions on how to lodge a better business bureau complaint if you have already purchased this toy. Wow. And still he whines.

My point is that he would have never known about Bendaroos or Shark Attack or any of the other overpriced toys that he attempts to con his grandparents in to buying for him if he wasn’t watching television. So here’s my affordable organic tip for the day – turn off the tube. Find something for your kids to do that doesn’t involve a screen. And here’s an even bigger tip – let them be bored. The best ideas come when someone has time to be bored. Finally their brain is unencumbered by flying digital images and unending noise. There’s creativity to be had in silence. Kids will whine about being bored. They will complain. And that’s when you just say something like, “huh.” Be completely noncommittal because – and here’s the important thing to remember – their boredom is not your problem. It’s theirs and if they really own it they won’t stay bored for long. They will find some way to amuse themselves. Who knows, maybe they’ll open a book. Or pull out the markers. Or dig out that overpriced, over-hyped talking lion cub that they just had to have a few months ago.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Virtues of Vinegar

Cleaning is not my favorite activity. Is it anybody’s? My house is serviceably clean, it’s not going to make anyone sick, but it isn’t ready for a photo shoot by a long shot. Other than health, the only reason I clean is because otherwise I might go nuts. I can’t stand clutter, yet I am surrounded by it. My kids create it. It’s three against one, so I am almost always on the losing end. I just can’t keep up and many days I stay outside where I’m happier and I can’t see it. Still, cleaning is a necessary evil.

I used to go in for every new cleaning product that promised to make cleaning easier and faster. I tried everything that came along and usually loved it for about a week. Then it got pushed to the back of the closet with the other dozens of bottles, sticks, cloths, and powders. These days my cleaning closet has only a few things in it. I’m saving a ton of money and cleaning the way my grandmother did.

I was motivated to clean out the closet for the same reasons I was motivated to clean up our diet – health. In my battle to reclaim my youngest son’s health, I started with the household cleaning products figuring that the air we breathe affects every molecule of our being. We disposed of all toxic cleaning solutions, detergents, shampoos, and soaps. Reading up on alternatives, I discovered that many of the things our grandparents cleaned with are all natural, safe, and work as well, sometimes better, than their modern equivalents. Vinegar can do anything! You name it and vinegar can do it. If you google it, you’ll find site after site extolling the many uses of vinegar.

I use vinegar as my primary cleaning agent. I have spray bottles filled with it stashed all over the house. I use it for kitchen counters, the kitchen table, bathroom counters, sinks, and fixtures. It really makes stainless steel shine. It also works wonders on mildew stains and tile. We have a bathroom ceiling in the older section of our house that constantly grows mildew spots. (Someday it will have a bathroom fan installed in it, hint, hint.) When we first lived in this house I chased after those spots with every kind of bleach out there, only to end up with a headache from the fumes, foggy contacts, and tired arms. Nothing would move them. Then I discovered vinegar and walah! I just spray and they wipe away. A miracle (I’m easily impressed).

I use vinegar to remove any kind of stink from shoes, equipment, trash cans, coolers, and the inside of the free freezer we received that had been closed up for a year. It cleans tile and wood floor, and diluted with water does an awesome job on windows. My younger kids love to clean windows and now I don’t have to worry when I give them a spray bottle and tell them to have at it. Vinegar can’t hurt them. No more worries about Windex wars. Vinegar is a great fabric cleaner too. It removes food, crayon, and God-knows-what-else stains from my couch cushions.

I go through lots of vinegar in my laundry room. Vinegar works great as a fabric softener. It won’t hurt fragile fabrics and it removes any smells. I put about a half cup in the fabric softener dispenser and another half cup in the bleach dispenser with every load.

The best thing about vinegar is that costs only about $2 a gallon. Talk about a deal. On the things that can’t be cleaned with vinegar I use borax, murphy’s soap, and hydrogen peroxide. If you worry about killing all the germs in toilets or on counters, spray some hydrogen peroxide – it’ll kill anything. You can also use the hydrogen peroxide on your fruits and vegetables if you don’t trust plain water. Hydrogen peroxide has no taste and no real smell, so you won’t even notice it.

I’m sure you’ve discovered your own uses for vinegar and other natural, inexpensive cleaning products. I’d love to hear about them – I’m always looking for ways to do things faster, easier, and cheaper. This week I’m making my own laundry detergent. I’ll say right up front that I’m skeptical about the cost savings and the amount of time it will take. But a friend makes her own, so I’m inspired to try it too. I’ll let you know how that works out.

One amazing side effect of losing all the toxic fumes in our house is that my oldest son’s asthma has been nearly non-existent since we cleared the air. And talk about kid-friendly organics - when friends visit with toddlers I never have to worry because pretty much everything in my cleaning closet and under my sinks is edible.

Friday, March 13, 2009


I’ve always thought that bagels would be difficult to make. I imagined a lengthy, complicated, messy process. No so! I was really excited to try a recipe I found on the blog called journey to thrift. ( Journey to Thrift has a bunch of great recipes on it and the author writes very clearly and include pictures which really helps. I’ve just cut and pasted her recipe below in case you want to give it a shot.

I’ve made three batches of bagels now and all turned out fabulous. It takes less than an hour and requires no special talent, although a breadmaker does simplify the process tremendously. Best of all, I’m saving lots of money. These bagels cost just cents to create. Makes it very clear how so many bagel shops could be surviving even in these times. Their profit margin is huge.

So try making some bagels this weekend – you probably have everything you need in your kitchen right now. If you don’t have a breadmaker, here’s how I would make the dough:

1. Dissolve yeast in 1 ¼ cups of water.
2. Add salt and sugar.
3. Whisk together cinnamon and flour
4. Add flour to yeast mixture and knead well. (the kneading time in the breadmaker is 20 minutes – so knead as long as you can stand it and ask your kids for help.)

Note – I used all whole wheat bread flour in my recipe, and of course, snuck in a little flax seed meal (1/4 cup). I also substituted succanot for the brown sugar and they turned out just fine. Oh, and cooking these babies will make your house smell divine!

I’m planning on experimenting with taking out the cinnamon and adding asiago cheese and olive pieces. There are so many possibilities! I’m sure you could just throw in some raisins (I won’t do this because my kids believe raisins become poisonous when baked in to anything.) or nuts. I’m going to try adding eggs to the mixture next go round. Let me know if you discover any great variations!


1 1/4 cup warm water (not to exceed 110º F)
3 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
3 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp cinnamon
2 1/2 tsp rapid-rise yeast

3 quarts water (for boiling)
1 tbsp honey (for boiling)

Egg Mixture (brush on before baking):
1 egg
1 tbsp

Set bread machine to dough cycle. Add ingredients into bread machine pan in order listed. Run through initial dough cycle, approximately 20 - 30 min (in my machine this took a little over 30 min). Remove from machine after kneading, and machine moves to "rise". Transfer dough to lightly floured surface. Separate dough into 6 balls. Set aside one or two 1/4" balls for testing in the next step.

Preheat oven to 400º. In a large pan, set 2-3 quarts of water and 1 tbsp of honey to boil. Poke a hole in center of dough ball with your thumb and stretch to form an even circle. Set on floured surface and lightly cover in plastic wrap to rise (approximately 10-15 minutes). The plastic wrap keeps a skin from forming on the bagel surface and restricting the rise. I also covered the plastic wrap with a dish towel. I don't know that this was necessary, but it just felt like the right thing to do.

After dough has risen, check boiling water. Water should be heated to a steady rolling boil before beginning this step. Drop small "tester" dough balls into the water. If the "testers" immediately sink, and then pop back up to the surface, your water is ready for the bagels.

Drop bagels into water 2-3 at a time for 1 1/2 min on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon, and set aside on a wire rack to cool for a minute or two. Repeat with remaining bagels.

Set cooled bagels on a jelly-roll pan, or like baking surface lightly sprinkled with cornmeal.

Brush tops of bagels with egg mixture (1 egg + 1 tbsp water). (I also saved my egg mixture for the next batch).

Bake for 15 min at 400º. Remove and cool on racks.

The really awesome part:
Since I buy my flour in bulk (25 lbs of bread flour is $6.99 at my local warehouse store), these (fresh & oh-so delicious) bagels cost under 75¢ to make. Wow!

My last batch stored very well for one week without any noticeable staleness or spoilage.

Note: If you want to see this recipe with pictures, check our her blog. Look in the archives. It's a February post.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Drinking Problem

Cut out the soda. I know you’ve heard this and it is hard, but it should be your first priority for about a million reasons. There are so many things that are bad about soda – the sugar, the sodium, caffeine, the artificial colors, artificial flavorings. Kids don’t need soda. Now, I’m not saying I never let my kids have soda. If they are at someone’s house and they’re offered one or we are out to eat, I certainly let them have one if they want one. But I don’t keep them in my house as an option for them to drink at home. That’s the bottom line – if you don’t buy it, they can’t drink it. I know it will be hard (especially if you are a soda drinker), but it must be done.

Here’s two great reasons, other than health, for cutting out the soda – One, it will save you lots of money. You will be shocked at how much lower your grocery bill will be if you cut out the soda. Even on sale, we spend fortunes on it. And two, you’ll lose weight. Many people drink soda like water and the calories add up. Even if you drink diet soda – you’ll still lose weight. This was a pleasant surprise I discovered when I finally gave up my beloved fresca. I’m not sure if it was the sodium or the sugar cravings that ensued from drinking diet soda, but when I dropped the diet soda, I dropped about five pounds!

Water or watered down organic juice, local cider (in season) or milk are the options kids have at my house. Soda has never been an option. One of my kids chooses water over any other beverage, even at a restaurant. We do make lemonade in the summer (from real lemons) and when we visited the grandparents in Florida we made real orange juice from the oranges on their trees and brought back as much as we could carry. If you just can’t bear to part with it, there are expensive organic versions of soda. I’ve bought these on special occasions and they go over just fine, especially the root beer. A pitcher of ice cold water in your refrigerator has more appeal to kids than you would expect. It's much more special than ordinary tap water. Try it. If you want to get fancy (or you're on city water), add some lemon or lime slices - even better.

Giving up my soda habit was not easy. Diet soda was my water for years. These days I drink tea all the time. I keep a pitcher of cold home brew tea in the refrigerator at all times and I enjoy experimenting with new teas. I try to stick to green tea as much as possible because of its many health benefits. Instead of thinking of how hard it will be to give up soda, start thinking of all the alternatives you can choose instead.

A word about caffeine – it’s a drug. It really is. If you don’t believe me, try giving it up. But do give it up if you can. I promise you’ll sleep easier and discover you don’t need as much sleep. You’ll be healthier, happier, and the people around you won’t be victim to your caffeine fueled mood swings. You don’t need it and if you’re determined to be healthy – give it up. Don’t start your kids on the bad habit either. You have the power to get them off caffeine now – use it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What to Pack for Lunch

What to pack for lunch? There are so many options. You really could pack anything as long as it:
1. Doesn’t need to be heated up
2. Can be eaten in 15 minutes or less (the average time most kids have to actually eat, rather than socialize. Less, in the case of my yappy daughter)
3. Won’t make your kids’ friends gag (and thus make your kid too embarrassed to eat said food. This works in reverse for my six year old. If it would make his friends gag – he’ll be even more likely to eat it!)

Most kids would rather snack than eat a real meal, so pulling together a collection of healthy snacks works great. Try to think outside the box. A packed lunch doesn’t have to include a sandwich to be healthy. Besides, most kids skip the sandwich anyway. Mix it up and keep them guessing. If you’re the anal creative sort you could write up a menu at the beginning of the week and let your kids choose their lunches. Make lists of acceptable appetizers, entrees, side dishes, and desserts and let them place their order. Saves you from having to think each morning.

Here is an assortment of ideas to get you started:

Bagel with cream cheese and jelly. (I’ve discovered a wonderful bagel recipe – I’ll post it this week. It’ll save you lots of money if your kids are bagel-eaters.)
Cheese and crackers (cheese sticks or “square” cheese in the wrapper or cut up your own. Just be sure if the cheese isn’t wrapped to pack it separate from the crackers or it will make the crackers soggy –ew!)
Nuts (cashews, pistachios, almonds all go over well with my kids. There’s lots of good stuff in nuts and the bonus is you only need a few to get powerful benefits)
Dried fruit (craisins, raisins, dried apricots, dried cherries – like nuts you don’t need many to get some good nutrients.)
Ham and cheese rolled up with a toothpick (put a toothpick through any food and kids will eat it, just to have the toothpick for sword fighting. You can also decorate the roll up with a pickle or an olive.)
Veggies and dip (I just ordered a crinkle cutter so that I can make the veggies look even more appetizing. I’m sure you know by now that kids will eat anything with dip. Just be sure to pack your own healthy dip and avoid the saturated fat laden, heavily processed dressings and dips available in convenient little packs. Don’t sacrifice your kids’ health for convenience! You can buy organic prepared ranch dressing or make your own easily with a mix like Simply Organic and pack them in re-usable extra small plastic containers.)
Yogurt and pretzels. (These can be packed separately or intentionally together to be used as a dip. Stoneyfield farm makes kid size organic yogurts and Trader Joes brand kid yogurt is also delicious. I avoid most other brands because they have so many artificial flavors and colors and tons of preservatives.)
Peanut Butter and apples or grapes or the old standby “ants on a log” (peanut butter on a celery stick with raisins dotting the peanut butter. That one might be hard to keep in good condition by lunchtime. My kids love dipping apples or grapes in peanut butter – tastes like a PB&J minus the bread. Just fill an extra small plastic container with a few tablespoons of peanut butter and send along lots of things to dip in it.)
Wheat crackers with cream cheese (since this is my daughter’s favorite I had to include it. She loves little cracker sandwiches with cream cheese inside.)
Peanut Butter crackers
Peanut Butter and Honey sandwich (just go easy on the honey or it will saturate the bread and ruin the sandwich)
Humus and pita chips (I’m putting this in because I know some people might be able to get their kids to eat this. I don’t pack it because of the killer garlic breath that ensues. I don’t want people avoiding my kid all afternoon)
Cheese or cheese & chicken or cheese & bean Quesadilla (first make sure your kid will eat one cold)
Anything in a wrap (if you wrap anything in a healthy soft tortilla and secure it with a toothpick you have a good shot. Remember the draw of the toothpick. Fill the tortilla with PB&J, ham and cheese, cream cheese and cucumber, be creative)
Powermix (nuts, sunflower seeds, raisins, carob chips, even cereal, add what your child likes and then throw in a few new things)

Adding extras like yogurt, fruit, homemade cookies, and snack crackers can round out your lunch. One thing I’ve discovered about packing the extras is that you need to keep them separate from after school snacks. Make the things that appear in their lunch box special by saving for just that purpose. My kids can’t survive with out Cheezits or Goldfish. Nevermind that there are a plethora of organic cheese cracker brands out there. They tell me that none of them measure up. So, being the wimp that I am, this is one place that I cave. They often get a small snack of cheezits or goldfish in their lunches. But they can’t come home from school and eat the rest of the box.

Bottom line is try to get some protein and fiber and a little fat in to your kids at lunchtime. If you’re doing well you also get in some fruits and vegetables. I know that if I pack lots of snack crackers and a couple big cookies, no matter if those foods are organic or not, my kids won’t eat the rest of their lunch. They’ll leave the good stuff. It takes awhile, but you can figure out what the balance of healthy foods and not-so-healthy foods needs to be to ensure that your kid gets the nutrients he needs to get through the afternoon.

I’d love to hear more ideas for packing lunches. If you’re still reading this, you’re probably thinking, “She didn’t mention……… and my kids love that.” So mention it! I need some new ideas!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Not Just Any Old PB&J

It’s easy to get in to a rut when packing lunches. After all, you’re barely awake, you are definitely not feeling creative, and each kid wants something different. So you pack the same thing over and over. Now granted there are certain kids who like knowing what to expect. They find comfort in eating the same foods over and over again. I’ve got a couple of those. But one thing about a packed lunch – it always has a captive audience. The child is hungry and what else is she going to eat? She might as well try it. This is your chance! That’s the way I like to look at it. The rest of this week I’ll be posting lots of ideas, but we’ll start with something nearly everyone packs most weeks – peanut butter and jelly.

We definitely use this one the most. The difference between my peanut butter and jelly and the school’s peanut butter and jelly is that mine’s healthy. It’s on homemade bread made from whole wheat and spelt flours with flax seed and molasses. Yum. If you’ve got a bread machine, try this recipe (it’s at the end). If can’t make your own, organic bread is something you might want to invest in. After all, your child’s lunch is built on this ingredient. Organic bread doesn’t cost that much more than regular bread and freezes just fine – so watch for sales.

Making your own peanut butter is not difficult, but it is not necessarily less expensive than buying organic peanut butter. There are many different brands available these days and the competition is pretty fierce, so the price is reasonable. If you remember trying natural peanut butter when you were young, you probably remember how the oil tends to separate and gather at the top. It is definitely separated when you first open a jar, but organic peanut butter should be kept in the refrigerator, so there’s any easy way to solve that problem. When you first open the jar, take a good strong mixing spoon or spatula and mix up the peanut butter thoroughly (this will take some time), then place it in the refrigerator. The peanut butter won’t separate again unless you heat it up.

There are some really yummy brands to choose from. I love Trader Joe’s brand organic Valencia peanut butter. The ingredients are peanuts and olive oil. The Valencia peanuts are naturally a little sweet, so the peanut butter is delicious. My kids also like the Maranatha brand. Try a few, you’ll find your favorite.

I do make my own peanut butter for myself. My kids turn their noses at the course texture, but they don’t know what they’re missing. I mix equal parts soy nuts and peanuts (about 1 ½ cups each) and add some honey (3 tablespoons) and olive oil (5-7 tablespoons), then process in the food processor for several minutes – delicious. You can also make it with other kinds of nuts. If you raise your children on this peanut butter before they get a slurp of processed smooth peanut butter – they’ll never know any different and probably won’t like processed peanut butter when they try it.

You’ll definitely save tons of money if you can make your own jelly, but that requires time and berries, so I’ll save instructions on that for summer. For now, opt for brands that have less sugar and few ingredients. Read the label and check around at local produce markets. Many times they have homemade canned jellies and jams to sell. These may be heavy in sugar but are probably much healthier than store bought jelly.

Whole Wheat Bread with Spelt flour, Flax seed, and Molasses
(bread machine recipe)

Place these ingredients in your machine in the following order:
1 ½ cup water
1 ½ Tablespoon olive oil
2 Tablespoons molasses
2 Tablespoons succanot (or 1 tablespoon cane sugar)
2 teaspoons celtic sea salt (or 1 ½ teaspoons regular salt)
1/3 cup ground flax seed
3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup spelt flour
2 teaspoons yeast

Cook in bread maker on whole wheat setting.
Note: When packing bread machine bread sandwiches, I cut off at least two sides of crust so the sandwich isn’t so intimidating and so it will fit in the sandwich keeper. If you are trying to disguise the homemade bread, cut off all the crusts and your kids won’t know the difference.

Monday, March 9, 2009

To Pack or Not to Pack (Lunch)

To pack or not to pack – isn’t that the big question? My kids have only recently been allowed to buy school lunch (they have the meanest mom in the world). I finally caved because it seemed that if I dug my heels in they would only want to buy lunch more – even stuff like fish sticks and sloppy joes which they have traditionally hated. So I agreed to allow them to purchase lunch one day a week if they want. Funny thing is they almost always choose to pack. The only exception being Breakfast-for-Lunch day. They can’t resist the pancakes and more importantly – the syrup. I cringe at the thought of them fueling up on processed pancake mix, corn syrup mixed with artificial flavors and coloring, and bad fat-laden homefries. There is not a vegetable or even a fruit to be had. But it’s the sacrifice I make to keep the peace and to keep them from resenting our food choices.

School lunch, at least in my experience, is by nature loaded with processed food and artificial ingredients. How else can you feed so many children so cheaply? All I can say is “shame on our government”. I completely understand the budget restrictions and hard choices, but I don’t accept them. Our children deserve better. Rather than climbing up on my soapbox, I’ll just leave it at that.

But what I wanted to write about is packing lunches. First rule – don’t always pack the same stuff. You’d get bored if you had to eat the same thing day after day. I know you have a million other things to do in the morning and believe me I know it’s hard to keep coming up with ideas, but do it. These are your kids we’re talking about. And it’s also an opportunity to get some good things in them if you’re sneaky enough. I know some kids are fussy – but change something up as much as possible. In the next post or two I’m going to give you some ideas.

Here’s our plan. First, we avoid baggies. Baggies are the bane of my existence. Have you ever considered anything so wasteful? I can’t get around them on many occasions, but I do avoid them when packing lunches. We buy the tiny re-usable plastic containers. Now, I know plastic is on the black list these days, but I will use it under these conditions-
1.) Never wash plastic in the dishwasher. I wash the plastic by hand, with warm water and soap – never scalding hot.
2.) Don’t pack anything hot in the plastic.
Following these rules, I’m able to get through the school year on just a few packs of the things. The kids eat their food and put the plastic back in their lunchboxes. There are some accidents occasionally – lost lids and crushed containers – but no one and no system is perfect. This works for us.

This week I’m going to write about what I put in these lunches. I’ll start with dessert because that’s the most important piece. An entire lunch can rise or fall on the quality of the dessert! My kids love chocolate chip cookies. So I bake a huge batch most weekends and freeze them. I take the cookies out each morning and pack them in their little plastic container. By the time the kids eat them they have thawed out and are nice and moist. Freezing them keeps them fresh without me having to bake them frequently. One big batch, hidden well in the freezer will last me two weeks.

The way I make the right size cookies for the extra small Ziplock containers is by using a tiny ice cream scoop I got from Pampered Chef to measure out the dough when baking. I think a melon baler might work great too. The cookies are incredibly uniform and could be mistaken for store bought (which is sometimes a good thing in certain situations).

Here’s my very loosey-goosey recipe. I change up the recipe frequently, so I’m writing in lots of options. Treat this like step aerobics and pick the option that you can handle best.

A Little Bit Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookies
½ cup butter
½ cup coconut oil (if you don’t have/like coconut oil you can just substitute another ½ cup butter. But coconut oil is good for your immune system and makes the cookies really crispy. You can always start out with ¼ cup coconut oil and ¾ cup butter if that seems less crazy!)
1 cup succanot (or 1 cup white sugar) (Succanot is raw cane sugar. It’s less processed and although no sugar is good for you, I think this is better than white processed sugar)
1 cup brown sugar (or 1 cup rapidura – another raw sugar that is a good sub for brown)
2 teaspoons vanilla (use real extract not imitation – you will taste the difference)
2 eggs
1 cup organic white flour
1 ¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour (be sure to use fresh whole wheat flour – stale flour is awful – especially stale whole wheat flour. Keep it in something other than the bag it came in to prevent this from happening. If you don’t go through it as fast as me, keep it in the freezer and it will stay fresh.)
1/3 cup almond meal (Trader Joes carries this. Many grocery stores carry the Red Mill brand almond meal in the organics section. You can substitute it for part of the flour in any recipe calling for flour. If you’re not in to it, you can leave it out – but it really makes a yummy cookie or pancake or bread or just about anything)
¼ cup ground flax seed (you can add more of this if you mask it with something like Toffee bits – I know they’re processed, but it’s a trade off – flax seed is SOOOOO good for you. You can also leave it out, but this is something that cancels out some of the bad stuff in this cookie because it’s such a powerhouse food. Flax seed adds moisture and can even be substituted for some of the butter in a recipe. Just don’t go overboard or you’ll get caught!)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
(I use celtic sea salt and increase it to almost 1 teaspoon)
2 cups grain sweetened chocolate chips (or use a good chocolate chip like Ghirardelli’s – cheap chips cheapen the cookie in ways other than price)

1. Preheat oven to 375. (I warm the pans in the oven while it is preheating. Usually I’m working with a cooking stone, but even if I’m not I do this. I think it makes the cookie crispy on the outside and chewy inside.)
2. Cream butter, oil, and sugars. Add vanilla and eggs. Beat well. (If it’s cool out and I’m using coconut oil it will be kind of hard, so I beat it much longer than if I do when it is warm to ensure that it is evenly spread through the batter.)
3. Mix together flours, almond meal, flax seed, baking soda, and salt with whisk. Add to batter. Beat until mixed well. Add in chocolate chips.
4. Use mini ice cream scoop or melon baler to drop small tablespoons on to pan.
Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the cookies and whether you heated the pans. It also depends on your oven, so watch your cookies carefully the first few times.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Chickens and Truth Telling

I promise this is the last of my chicken musings. I know I've got a bird problem, as evidenced by the shoe box I brought home from my children's school today. My mistake was volunteering in my daughter's classroom where they just hatched a bunch of chicks for their science unit on embrylogy. (Sorry honey, if you're reading this from China - what's three more?) I wrote this a few months back when I was wrestling with a question all parents must come to terms with at some point. Although, I’m betting most parents don’t have chickens (and dogs and Fed Ex men) that force their hand like this. Still, I think it’s universal.

How do I tell my children that the dog killed a chicken? Not a question most people are musing over. Although my subject matter is different, the issues are there for all parents. Do you tell the whole truth, the candy-coated truth, or a partial truth? Or, do you just not tell them at all? A chicken’s missing? I wonder what happened?

We have/had 14 chickens and one fox hound. The fox hound, Lucy, lives happily outside within the bounds of her invisible fence. The chickens, which lay organic, free-range eggs for us, live in and around their chicken pen and hen house. But sometimes they wander a little far a field, especially since we lost our rooster to a chicken hawk. They are leaderless and sometimes they forget the way home.

The Fed-Ex guy innocently drove up our driveway (too fast I am sure, but I wasn’t there to witness) and startled the dog, who startled the chickens who had wandered into the invisible fence land. Chickens aren’t that smart and they certainly aren’t that fast, so in their fluster one didn’t make it over the line fast enough and Lucy pounced. She shook it to death and then left it for a fox to cart away (which it must have since there is no evidence left). The only reason I know the exact order of events is that the Fed Ex guy happily relayed the episode the next day when he arrived with another delivery. He seemed impressed with my dog and not the least bit sympathetic to the chicken in question.

You have to understand that these aren’t just chickens. They are pets, individually named and marked with a colorful beaded anklet. We raised them in the kids’ old pack and play crib in our mudroom last spring. One of our chickens marched in the pet parade and won an award for originality. My daughter can tell you the personal habits and characteristics of each hen. Lou-Lou talks a lot and likes to be the center of the action. Mrs. Brutus lays the biggest eggs. Chicory likes to roost on the lawn mower. She knows these birds.

The kids will be home from school soon and I have to tell them something. They will notice a missing bird. How it got by them yesterday I don’t know except that it was raining and I was the one who closed the hen house without counting noses (beaks). I could easily blame a hawk again. I’m sure I would if the Fed Ex guy hadn’t given me the low down. I could say nothing, wait for them to come tell me a bird is missing, act dumb, and let them draw their own conclusions. But I am their mother. I expect the truth from them, so how can I not give them the truth? They will hate the dog for a day or two. It’s not her fault. She’s just doing what dogs do.

I guess it comes down to trust. I have to trust them to handle the truth – to understand that the dog was just being a dog, the chicken a chicken, and the Fed Ex man, the Fed Ex man. They deserve the truth from me and besides that I’m not a very convincing liar. The truth is always the safest bet. The truth will not come back to haunt you. I can only teach this to my children by living it myself. So that’s it, I will tell them the truth, trust them with it, (and then be sure to mention that the Fed Ex man was delivering our tickets to Disney World).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More chicken musings

Raising chickens has brought to life the real meaning of the well worn phrases “pecking order”, “coming home to roost”, and most certainly about a “fox in the hen house”. Nearly every morning I’m counting my chickens and our birds chatter like a bunch of old hens. My children, and especially my husband, delight in discovering more and more of our common idioms that originated with chickens. We understand literally about getting your feathers ruffled and having something to crow about. By the way, roosters don’t need much to crow about. They crow not just in the morning but all day long whenever they are startled and many times for no apparent reason. There is much that is amusing and surprisingly, a lot that is beautiful, about raising chickens.

I love gathering the eggs. We attempted to convince our hens to lay their eggs in the hen house early in this process. We were very proud of ourselves when we managed to fool them in to laying their eggs in the cat litter boxes we’d provided. We planted plastic easter eggs filled with sand among the wood shavings that filled each box and in no time real eggs began appearing snuggled next to the fake ones. This worked just fine until the hens discovered the hay pile. They much prefer perching as high as they can hop/fly on the stacks of hay. They burrow little nests in the tops of bales and happily lay their eggs. Sometimes several hens will lay their eggs in the same “nest”. In the evening when I collect the eggs it is like an Easter egg hunt. All those stories about collecting the fresh eggs each morning were wrong – our chickens lay their eggs during the day, not the night. I love climbing over the bales searching for the hidden eggs. The hens move their nests periodically. They seem a bit affronted that someone is stealing their eggs. Every now and then they secure a really good spot and I miss their eggs for a few days. When this happens, soon all the chickens are laying in the same safe spot and this gives them away because I notice the drop in production and renew my efforts to find the missing eggs.

I have to wait to collect the eggs until the hens are already in their roosts for the night, otherwise I am followed by scolding birds as I search and gather. This makes me feel incredibly guilty and just a bit threatened. I look in to their angry faces, and imagine what they could do with their pointy beaks if they really lost their cool. I know if I were a hen and I’d worked to pop out what are increasingly becoming jumbo size eggs, I’d be pretty furious with the giant who kept stealing them. I’d begin to plan attacks on the said giant’s ankles at the very least.

Walking back to the house with my basket of eggs I always feel a little bit awed. Here is nature providing. A hundred years ago everyone kept chickens and it’s easy to see why. They eat scraps and bugs and grass and weeds, keep the ticks and grubs in check, and fertilize the gardens. And in return you get delicious, fresh eggs filled with protein and vitamins that sustain. Eggs are one of the few foods all three of my children will eat. Now that we have chickens I keep an egg carton of hard boiled eggs ready to go at all times. They make the perfect snack. And hopefully come summer we will have a few less Japanese beetles devouring my raspberries thanks to the chickens’ healthy appetite for grubs. It’s a win-win. Nature as it was intended to be.

As the winter marches on, the hay piles are shrinking (the ponies must be fed) and I worry where the girls will lay their eggs come spring. I can’t imagine them going back to the liter boxes after the adventures of laying on the hay pile. No doubt my egg hunting will continue far beyond Easter.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Free Range Life

This is part of an essay called Free Range Life that I wrote last summer. It’s just for fun, but if you’re considering chickens of your own, it’s another data point.

I knew we’d crossed some kind of line when my daughter brought a chicken to soccer practice. A real chicken. On a leash. She was rehearsing “Thing Two” (one of our most cooperative hens) for her turn in the Pet Parade the following weekend. A year ago chickens were just pictures in children’s stories at the library. Now, our property is cluttered with them.

Our chicken adventure began innocently enough we just wanted some cheap organic eggs. After talking with other chicken keepers in our area, factoring the foxes, hawks, and our own dog (who killed many of our neighbor’s free range chickens when they ranged in to her invisible fence area) and allowing for this expected attrition, we determined that we needed 10-12 chicks to end up with the right number of eggs for our family. Just like shopping at Target, when I went to the feed store to order the peeps, I came home with much more than was on my list. We ordered our “peeps” (one day old chicks) sexed - which means that they would all grow up to be hens. A few months later, we learned that sexing new chicks is an imprecise science as three out of eighteen of our peeps turned out to be roosters.

After hearing the story of how a neighbor lost 22 chickens in one night to a mink, my husband, engineer that he is, took it upon himself to build the most heavily fortified chicken coop in the county. Nothing is getting in to our hen house (unless someone forgets to go shut the door each night!)

Our herd of 18 chickens was slowly thinned (not due to any foxes in the hen house you can be sure!). We lost one chick early on when we first moved them outside. We’re not sure what the culprit was, but the dangers of life outside our mudroom heightened our attachment to our girls. We willingly gave away two roosters keeping the nicest one – Snowball – and ridding ourselves of the mean ones – Rocky and Brutus. Our children were much relieved when the roosters found homes with some local 4-Hers, rather than on someone’s dinner table. We did propose eating them ourselves, however, I’m afraid it would have put my children off chicken forever and the process itself seemed extremely feather-filled. As my fellow chicken keeper friend says, “I don’t eat anyone I know.”

We were happily down to 15 chickens when a real tragedy struck. Snowball disappeared. After looking for clues, making desperate phone calls, and conducting a search, it was determined that Snowball was taken by a hawk. I thought chicken hawks were Looney Tunes cartoon characters, but I was wrong. The very next day, my husband caught another hawk making an attempt on one of our hens. The commotion and a faster than expected hen, foiled the hawk’s plan, but now the threat was real. If we want to free range our chickens, there is not much we can do to defend them from hawks. For now, I keep one ear cocked for the telltale sound of a hawk (it sounds just like the eery squawking at the beginning of a scary movie) and sprint outside screaming and waving my arms at the first alarm. So far, I’ve definitely worried my cats and confused my chickens, but have yet to frighten off a hawk.

The loss of our rooster, Snowball, has had some other odd effects. The first morning without Snowball, the hens would not come out of the hen house. They just couldn’t figure out what to do if Snowball wasn’t there to lead them. I have to say, as a strong independent woman, I was disappointed. Do these girls really need a guy around to lead them? Apparently they need someone, and as it turns out that someone became me. They began following me. They even follow me back to the house and hang around on the porch waiting for me. Eventually they are lured away by the prospect of bugs and tomatoes in my garden, but as soon as I appear outside they come running to me. If you’ve never seen 14 chickens running top speed towards you, you’re really missing out. It is the funniest sight and completely endears me to them even though I’m sick of cleaning up chicken poop from my front stoop. When chickens run there is a side to side lurch much like you might imagine Fat Albert would have if Fat Albert ever ran. They pick up their feet extra high so as not to trip over them, kind of like walking in snow boots. It is comical to watch. Sometimes they even flap their wings like they might become airborne if they just could trip along faster. I’m a runner myself and some days when I’m jogging down the road before dawn and no one is watching, I try out their style and it makes me grin.

The training session on the soccer field was a bit of disaster. Much to my daughter’s frustration, the chicken would only go backwards on the leash. But she was undeterred and simply enlisted another more cooperative hen, Sunny. After a few more outings, Sunny did make it to the Pet Parade and she and my daughter won an award for originality. Sunny has resumed her normal life again amongst the girls. The egg production is still stuck at three a day, but I’ve been told the day is coming when we will have 14 eggs a day. I’m a little concerned about that so I’m hording egg cartons and making a mental list of all the people who will appreciate some fresh, organic, free-ranged-on-my-porch eggs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Chick Story

Here is the story of our chicks. At the bottom I’ll give you all the details for raising your own, so if you don’t have time for my yapping about our chicks, skip right to the technical details. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine doing something yourself when you’ve heard someone else’s story.

There were lots of good reasons for bringing home six chicks. Maybe not as many “good”, but certainly understandable reasons for the dozen more that followed a month later. Technically, they are called “peeps” and their arrival in a small box resembling a Happy Meal container brought about a new adventure for our family.

We raised our chicks in a pack-n-play in our mud room with the door shut tight to keep out the two curious cats. When left alone they liked to huddle in a huge mass of multicolor feathers all clustered around the rubber duckie my daughter had given them to play with so they wouldn’t be bored. They provided unending entertainment for my younger children. Each chick was given a name and, although they all pretty much looked the same to me, my children began telling long stories of the adventures of Chickoree, Axomillie, Plum, Queen feather-a-lot, and Sami & Liam (the Rhode Island Reds named after their cousins in Rhode Island – never mind that all the chicks were girls – or so we thought).

One morning we opened the door to the mudroom to the shock of an empty pack-n-play. Had the cats finally lived out their fantasy? Another glance around the room at the chick poop everywhere and the answer was clear. They’d made their escape. For weeks they had been “flying” around their pen. It was adorable to watch. Lots of effort and frantic flapping just to rise an inch or two off the ground and one more successful chick who had taken to roosting on top of the waterer. But now they had all “flown the coop”, my husband pointed out gleefully. It was not the first time he would employ a chicken metaphor to illustrate his point. It didn’t take long to find them all – huddled together underneath the pack-n-play.

It was time for the chicks to move out. And not a moment too soon, as the stench seeping out from under the mudroom door was beginning to permeate the entire house. The chicks moved in to a borrowed “Chicken tractor” that our neighbor lent us. If you were not raised on a farm, the phrase chicken tractor might conjure up all kinds of strange ideas – as it did for us when our neighbor first suggested it. A chicken tractor is actually a giant wire cage on wheels. You move it around the yard and the chicks can peck the ground and get to know the world safely.

It was not long after the chicks first moved outside that we had our first casualty. One of the chicks was murdered in cold blood with no evidence left but a neck-less chicken embedded in the side of the tractor. We didn’t want to imagine what would have done this to our precious chick and after another call to our knowledgeable neighbor, we moved a cat carrier we could close securely at night in to the tractor.

When we moved the tractor in to the horse pasture, one of our ponies, Dolly, was delighted. She spent her days hovering over the chicks, using the corners of the tractor as her personal scratching post, nibbling the chick fed that scattered the edges of the tractor, but generally just dozing with her head positioned over the tractor. It was adorable to watch her adopt those chicks as her own. As the hens have grown she still enjoys them, allowing them to share her hay pile and peck around her when she lays down for a nap. Some animals, like some people, just have a knack for caretaking. Dolly has always been an ornery pony not to be trusted with children on her back or other pony’s food nearby. So it has been quite enlightening to see this side of her. I guess we all have our redeeming qualities.

Technical details:
You can order chicks from many feed stores and also through catalogs. Now is the time to order to get spring chicks (think Easter). When they arrive, they are called “peeps” and are about one day old. You’ll know why they’re called peeps as soon as you bring them home because that is the noise they make, literally, “peep”. Amazingly cute. If you order them from a catalog they’ll arrive at your door in a small, noisy box with air holes. Your delivery person will get a kick out of it.

Your new peeps need a small enclosure with some kind of safe bedding. We used our old Pack-n-Play leftover from when my kids were babies. You can also use a plastic storage bin with high sides or a galvanized feed tub. I covered the bottom of our pack-n-play with several newspapers and covered the paper with an old crib sheet. Then I covered the crib sheet with vermiculite and peat moss. I chose vermiculite and peat moss so that when I cleaned out the cage I could dump it on my gardens to enrich my flower beds along with the chicken manure (one of the greatest fertilizers!!). I put the newspaper in my compost and threw the crib sheet in the washing machine. This made cleaning simple which helps because it must be done at increasingly frequent intervals as the chicks grow. You can also use hamster bedding or newspaper or anything that won’t hurt them if they ingest it (chicks spent 90% of their days pecking things).

You’ll need a heat lamp, waterer and chick feeder (available at feed/hardware stores). You can’t just use a cat dish because the chicks will fall in it, poop in it, and knock it over. I use the waterers and feeders that attach to a quart size jar. They’re small inexpensive plastic do-woppys that screw on the jar and you invert it for steady food/water. We fed them non-medicated chick starter. Not all stores carry the non-medicated version, but as long as you keep their cage clean there’s no reason for the unnecessary antibiotics.

The only problem we had with our chicks was some fairly bad diarrhea which stuck to their butts. You don’t want to know about picking dried poop off chick butts, but I was only able to do this because I’ve raised three babies. Anyway, to avoid the diarrhea just add some cornmeal to their feed. Worked like a charm. We were also told to try yogurt, but that got very messy and the chicks didn’t eat much of it.

When the weather was nice we moved the pack n play (with a secure chicken wire lid my husband pieced together) outside so they could enjoy the sunshine and air. When the chicks were about six weeks old they were ready to move in to the chicken tractor outside fulltime. I don’t think a chicken tractor is completely necessary, it was just very convenient. If you have a contained, secure pen ready to go, you can move them directly to that. When our chicks were about 12 weeks old they were ready to live on the open range. We did lose one to a hawk and one to our dog early on, but since then (knock on wood) all are present and accounted for.

A book that was helpful was Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow. It has lots of information on raising chicks, chicken breeds, hen houses, and pretty much everything you could ever want to know about chicken keeping. Sometimes it had a little too much information causing me to fret over the seemingly hundreds of things that could go wrong with our chicks.

Monday, March 2, 2009

It's Chicken Week!

This week is chicken week. I’ve been waiting to write about keeping chickens and organic eggs because I have too much to say and this blog is called kid-friendly organic life and not kid-friendly organic life with chickens. My hens (and those pesky roosters) are teaching me many things about chicken keeping, eggs, children, and life. So this week I’m going to post a whole bunch of information and some reflections on chickens. I’ll start with the scoop on keeping chickens. It’s really very simple, and in my opinion, much easier and certainly more profitable than keeping hamsters.

Keeping chickens is not difficult. If you have enough property, I encourage you to try it out. Even if you don't have much property I still encourage you to try it out. I know people who keep chickens in small pens in the city or even fancy neighborhoods. If you really want to do it, check your neighborhood code and find out what kinds of pets are legal. Chances are you can keep a chicken. They don’t require a ton of space and unless you have a rooster they don’t make much noise.

My husband jokes that the first egg we collected cost about $250 and each egg thereafter has been a little less expensive. Here is our breakdown:

Wood for hen house (we used lots of old junk lumber we had laying around plus an antique door my neighbor was throwing out) $75
Fencing (we use chicken wire stapled partly to some other fencing and partly hung on metal electric fence posts) $50
Electric water heater $60
Feeders $25
Peeps (1 day old chicks) $54 ($3 x 18)

Feeding the chickens costs a little more in the spring and summer when they are confined to their pen for 23 hours a day. We raised 18 peeps in three months on less than 2 bags of chick feed (the kind with no antibiotics added). Chicken feed costs $13 for a 50 pound bag. We use 2 bags a month when they are in the pen and less than a bag a month when they are being free ranged. We also feed them lots of table scraps. They love bread crusts, leftover pasta, cereal, snack food, cheese, eggs, old fruit, lettuce, and especially popcorn. If you’ve got kids in the house, you’ve got plenty of chicken feed leftover after every meal. Sometimes I buy the hens some bird seed as a special treat – they love the black oil sunflower seeds and will become ferocious in their battles to get to them.

Now here’s the best part. Most good laying hens lay an egg every day. At this point we give away all our extras, but I can see the wheels turning in my entrepreneur daughter and chief chicken keeper. I’ve been told by other chicken-keepers that fresh eggs that have just been collected will keep for three weeks at room temperature. We refrigerate ours immediately and they are good for at least 3 months. I mark the full containers with the date they were collected. Chickens will not lay as much in the winter. We had been led to believe they would not lay at all and so stockpiled nearly 14 dozen eggs, but our chickens never stopped. They did slow down to about ½ their rate, but that is still at least 6 every day. I’ve been told that you can also freeze eggs. We haven’t resorted to that yet, our freezer is pretty spoken for. I have cracked a frozen egg on an especially cold day and it looks really cool but cooks up just like an unfrozen one.

Fresh organic, free ranged eggs can cost up to $4.50 a dozen. My hens are already coming close to earning their keep and somewhere down the line they should be profitable too. But for now, just having them around for entertainment and enlightenment is good enough for me.

If you have specific questions about setting up your own chicken operation, please let me know. I’d be happy to answer what I can and/or get answers for you from the “chicken lady” who lives down the street. She knows everything about chickens and has fielded my stupidest questions with incredible kindness.