Green Living & Sustainability

Using Essential Oils

March 24, 2015

Bokeh Bark

A lot of people I know use essential oils now. They claim these oils help with various kinds of conditions: insomnia, viruses, infection, high blood pressure, etc. Many parents are using them for their children’s ailments, too.

For the uninitiated, an essential oil is a concentrated liquid containing compounds from plants.  “Essential,” here doesn’t mean “necessary,” but that the oil contains the “essence” of the plant’s fragrance and properties. Essential oils are used in all kinds of products and have been used throughout history for medicinal reasons.

Claims for how effective they are for treating illnesses are regulated in most countries, but a medical doctor I spoke with recently said that while she’s still skeptical about the general public using essential oils, she’s impressed by mounting scientific evidence showing the ability of some of them to fight bacterial and antibiotic-resistant infections.

I had a brief venture into the land of essential oils myself: When I was constantly battling sinus infections the first few months my daughters were home, and they were dealing with sinus colds and congestion, I used some essential oils in a diffuser on the advice of a naturopath — with much success. Later on, though, when I got a little experimental (and careless) with another oil I picked up, my husband ended up with heart palpitations and couldn’t sleep all night. Oops.

I don’t think there’s any question that essential oils work, at least for some things; it’s just that you need to know what you’re doing, and use a high quality product.

Have you ever used essential oils for medicinal reasons, home made cleaning products, or anything else? I’d love to hear about your experience, as well as what companies you think are putting out the best products.

Image from picography


Ode to the Coconut

February 10, 2015

Coconut Tree
I grew up far from the tropics, so mangoes, papayas, and similar fruits hanging on trees in the South Pacific were rare treats. When my father spotted a coconut in a grocery store, he’d bring it home, hammer a hole in it, drain out the juice, and chop the flesh up for us to eat. I loved the flavor then, but I had no idea that I’d eventually come to idolize this bulbous fruit.

The coconut has gotten a lot of exposure in recent years, thanks to health and food bloggers. Recently, it hit the big time with Starbucks’ announcement that it would begin offering coconut milk with its beverages. But most people still don’t know all you can do with this marvelous fruit:

You can eat it. There’s the shredded coconut many of us grew up with, and the raw flesh, of course, but I use coconut oil a lot in place of butter, and by itself as a supplement. I make coconut cream as a replacement for whipped cream, and my new favorite variation is coconut butter — I’ve taken to eating a tablespoon of it here and there when I’m craving something sweet. But it’s also used in sauces, desserts, and a host of other things. Which leads me to…

You can cook and bake with it. I use coconut oil to sauté vegetables and cook popcorn; in baking, I use it in place of other oils and coconut milk as a substitute for dairy. For cakes, muffins, and pancakes I use coconut flour. Do you remember the chia seed coconut milk pudding I made for breakfast a while back? Yum.

Raw Coconut
You can drink it. Smoothies, anybody? I use coconut milk in our smoothies, cereal, and oatmeal all the time. I also use coconut water in smoothies, too — especially in the summer. Drinking coconut water by itself is still growing on me, and some brands are tastier than others, but it’s one of the best ways to hydrate because it’s so high in electrolytes and potassium and low in sugar.

You can use it as a body product. I’m back to oil pulling because it makes my mouth feel cleaner and my teeth feel better, plus I hear it may help guard against viruses and bacterial infections. I’m also going to start oil cleansing soon. (I’ll write a separate post on this soon to fill you in.) I use coconut oil on my daughters’ hair and skin a lot — sometimes blended with other ingredients, like shea butter, and sometimes just by itself. It’s my go-to skincare product. I’ve also used it to remove makeup, heal children’s bum rashes, and soften callouses.

Is there anything this fruit can’t do? I bet we can run cars on it, heat our homes with it, and water money trees with it; we just don’t know it yet!

Are you a fan of coconut? What are your favorite ways to use it?

Images from free images


Wheat-Free School Lunches

September 10, 2014

School Lunches
Our family is eating a low-wheat, low-gluten diet right now. (Well, maybe not B, but give me a husband you can totally control and I’ll give you good money. Ha.) Not because we know for sure that anyone in here is intolerant to wheat, but I know my daughters have some food sensitivities, so I’ve eliminated or reduced items that I think are the most likely culprits. Wheat is one of them, and reading articles like this about modern wheat reinforces my desire to keep eating this way.

I’ve tried going totally wheat- (and gluten-) free before, and I find it very challenging, so for now we’re a little relaxed about it — which means acting like we’re wheat-free, but letting things slide when we forget, or when everyone’s just begging for something that has wheat. (Have I mentioned my girls adore bread? It’s one of their favorite things in life. Mine, too.)

Now that I’m packing lunches twice a week when the girls attend their cooperative school, I’m looking everywhere for wheat-free lunch ideas. It hasn’t been too hard to come up with some so far, but since they really, really want sandwiches, I’m trying to find alternatives they’ll enjoy that are also easy for me to prepare. Here are a couple I made recently:

Wheat-free lunch #1:

  • 2 boiled eggs (with a side of sea salt)
  • rice crackers
  • baby carrots
  • apple
  • piece of dark chocolate

Wheat-free lunch #2:

  • sliced organic turkey wrapped around lettuce
  • veggie puffs
  • mini seaweed sheets
  • applesauce

With each lunch they drink water, from those cute little personalized bottles above. The eggs were a little stinky, and the girls thought the rolled-up meat was a bit weird, but they ate it. (I did promise them they can occasionally have a sandwich, but I’m using a sprouted grain bread for that.) I gave them Lara bars the other day for snack time, and they weren’t big fans. Maybe I need to switch up the flavors.

S With Lunch Gear

If you are wheat- or gluten-free — or close to it — I’d love to hear your favorite kids’ lunches, as well as your  go-to websites and blogs for recipes!

By the way, the girl’s adorable water bottles are from Stuck on You. You can choose among many designs and have your child’s name personalized on them — perfect for school! And I found the freezable lunch bags at Mighty Nest; they’ve got a great selection.

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul


Natural Deodorants
You might not want to come near me after I tell you this, but I quit using antiperspirant a few years ago. Something about aluminum and various kinds of chemicals seeping into my pores every day was starting to freak me out. The problem was, I don’t exactly smell like violets blowing in the breeze without deodorant (much to my super-smeller husband’s disappointment), and my journey to find something natural that actually worked wasn’t so easy.

For years I toyed with various natural deodorants. I’d spot a new one at Whole Foods or a natural food store and give it a try, but nothing really did the trick. I began to wonder whether I was just too stinky for anything to work and I was destined to be smelly, wash my armpits every hour, or go back to antiperspirant.

I’m stubborn, though, and eventually, through some online reviews and personal recommendations, I found a few great products that actually work — even in the summertime heat or when I’m active. Sometimes I may need to re-apply them if I’ve worked up a sweat or I’m going out for the evening, but that was often the case with conventional products anyway.

Since I know there are others like me out there who’d love to go natural but can’t find effective products, I wanted to share my finds. Of course, all body chemistries are different, and one person may have better luck with one deodorant than another. Also, it’s important to remember there are no natural antiperspirants: If you’re looking for something to actually reduce your perspiration (not just neutralize its odor), deodorants aren’t going to do much. But keeping all that in mind, here are three products I want to tell you about:

Real PurityI came across a blogger a while back who praised Real Purity natural deodorant up and down, saying she had tried tons of brands and this was the only one that worked. Something about her review made me want to take the chance, so I ordered some. It was the first product that actually worked for me, too. I like that it comes as a roll-on, but the down side is that if you don’t use it for a while, the roll-on ball can get stuck. Still, I felt like a hit the jackpot when I discovered this one.

SoapWallaSoapWalla was the second natural deodorant I tried (that worked), and it soon became my favorite. At first, I didn’t like that it was a cream; something about applying it with my fingers wasn’t very appealing. But I got used to it, and even came to prefer it. This one gives even longer coverage than my roll-on, and I dig the herbal scent. Each batch is made to order, and the testimonials on the website will probably sell you if my own pitch doesn’t. I really love this stuff.

Primal Pit PasteMy friend Jamie kept raving about Primal Pit Paste’s deodorant cream, so even though I was happy with my SoapWalla, I ordered some. I really like it, but next time I want to try a scented one — maybe the lavender or orange creamsicle. Primal Pit Paste gives me about the same strength and length of coverage as SoapWalla, but what sets it apart is the texture: It’s very smooth and creamy, making it ideal for applying right after shaving.

I can’t promise that you’ll have the same good luck with all of these products, but in my experience, they’re hands-down better than most of the natural deodorants you’ll find on store shelves.

Would you switch to a natural deodorant? Do you have any products or brands to recommend?

Please note: None of the companies that make the deodorants above asked me to review their products, nor did they know in advance that I’d be writing this post. I just like these products and wanted to share them with you!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


Pull Up a Chair

July 18, 2014

Organic Cabbage
We decided to participate in a CSA this year, and so far it’s been great. In case the acronym is unfamiliar, CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”: You pay up front for a share of the produce a farm grows during its season, and once a week you get a delivery of whatever is ready to be picked. Our CSA farm grows organic produce and delivers to our neighborhood; their stuff is top notch and well worth the cost — less expensive than buying high-quality vegetables at the grocery store each week.

We did a CSA a few years back, but we were deluged with so many greens I didn’t know what to do (given there were only two of us, including my picky vegetable eater of a husband, and one very small freezer). Now, however, I’ve got two kids and a VitaMix, so I felt equipped to jump back on the CSA train and try again.

I love planning meals around what’s in season (and in my fridge), but it can be hard to track down recipes this way. (If you know any great sites that organize recipes based on ingredients, do tell!) I’ve had beautiful cabbages recently, and while I love the idea of cabbage, I’m often at a loss as to what to do with them. Sautéing it wasn’t much of a hit in my house, and traditional cole slaw gets a little dull. But I’m grateful to an Instagram follower who recommended this Thai crunch salad from Against All Grain. I made it last night and it was a big hit. I didn’t include the snap peas (hubby’s not a fan) or the cucumber (girls don’t like them), but I did everything else pretty much verbatim (except for the coconut amines in the dressing — who has those lying around?). Anyway, yum!

Also, I made raw broccoli salad for the first time this week. We eat a lot of broccoli in our house, usually steamed, and I’ve been getting bored with it lately. The raw salad was simple: three cups of raw broccoli shredded in the food processor, toasted cumin seeds, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, raisins, and sliced almonds. Sadly, the rest of the family didn’t end up being fans, but I really liked it (and felt vindicated when my sister-in-law tried a spoonful and asked for the recipe).

Anyway, I’m not sure what’s on the menu this weekend, but I do have a fun girls’ night planned tomorrow to celebrate my sister-in-law’s birthday. (Have I mentioned how great it is to have family in the hood now? I’m loving it!) Since Noemi is from Spain, I’m offering some Spanish red wine today in her honor. Grab a glass and tell me about your week! Here’s my high and low:

Low: This past week I was very sad about the loss of a friend’s baby in childbirth. And I can’t stop reading the news about the recent jumbo jet disaster — so awful! My thoughts and prayers are with all those mourning the loss of loved ones this week.

High: Sometimes I stop and marvel at just how far our girls have come since they arrived not even two years ago. It’s easy to forget, but I like to really let it sink in every now and then. I’ll have to post an update soon on how everybody’s doing around here.

Have a lovely weekend, wherever you are, and I’ll see you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


Peru from Above
What are you up to this Earth Day? Saving whales? Installing solar panels? Banning paper towels in your home for good? Me neither — though more power to you, if you are doing any of that. Instead, I’m aiming for something a little more doable right now: planning a few activities and projects to help my children think more about what it means to take care of our planet, appreciate nature, be less wasteful, and be good stewards of our natural resources. Here are a few things on our list:

A neighborhood trash pick-up. My daughters already point out garbage to me on the streets all the time; they know that littering is “not good,” and we talk about it a lot. Baltimore isn’t one of our nation’s cleanest cities, and whether it’s the high school kids across the street throwing their wrappers on the sidewalk, or neighbors’ garbage blowing around when they set out their bins, the trash can pile up. This week we’re going to put on some gloves, grab a bag, and pick up a little.

Making a paper-mache planet. I haven’t done a paper mache project with my daughters yet, so if I can find round balloons somewhere, we’re going to make an Earth and talk about its components: oceans, mountains, deserts, plains. We’re already learning about these things in our geography studies, so it will fit in with our homeschooling nicely.

Planting seeds. It’s that time of year, and I’ve been wanting to plant something together that the girls can tend and watch grow. We’ll need to rig something up to make sure the squirrels can’t get to it (they’ve defeated me and my little container gardens time and time again), but I’ve purchased some seed packages for herbs and flowers — plus some cat grass, which I love.

An up-cycling project. We’re going to take something we might otherwise throw away and create something new with it. This needs to be simple for five-year-olds — no turning old sweaters into trend-setting dresses or anything — but given how imaginative my daughters are, I think they’ll enjoy choosing something from our recycle bins or giveaway bags, and making something new.

Are you doing anything to mark Earth Day? Got any new habits you’d like to start when it comes to being more green-friendly?

Image: Lisa M.


Do You Wear Perfume?

April 2, 2014

Perfume Bottles
I’ll always remember my very first perfume: a small roll-on vial of something that smelled like lemons. I thought it was the best, though was always disappointed when it would disappear after about an hour. Wearing perfume seemed a very sophisticated and feminine thing to do, and most of the adult women in my life had some on their dressing tables; even my mother — not the perfume type —  kept a bottle of Chanel among her things for special occasions.

As I got older, I would try perfumes here and there — sometimes in department stores or at friend’s homes, or even by rubbing those magazine samples on my neck and wrists. Nothing ever stuck. I always wanted to find a “signature scent”; friends had them and it seemed so cool. But I could never find one that seemed right. Plus, the truth was, I just didn’t really like perfume — it was too strong, and too much of a bother; I preferred to let my soap, shampoo, or moisturizer do the job. (And boyfriends never seemed to care for perfume on me anyway.)

Thankfully, aromatherapy came to the rescue, and now I can find essential-oil mixtures that reflect my preference for natural products and are much more suited to me, scent-wise. I remember spending a fun afternoon with two friends at an aromatherapy bar coming up with signature scents a few years ago. It was so interesting to see how each of us was drawn to different ones — and we smelled a lot of them! What made one of us ooh and ahh made the other turn her nose up, and vice versa. One friend loved florals and strong exotic scents, whereas I am (still) drawn to fruity/citrus scents and anything woodsy. (Turns out I like to smell like a man: my signature scent had things like balsam fir and spruce.) I’m also drawn to things like ylang ylang, vanilla, ginger, frankincense, and patchouli.

I’d love to know if you wear perfume or essential oils. Do you have a signature scent?

Image: Iron-on transfer of vintage perfume bottles on Carte Postale from Room 29 Etsy shop




Spring Cleaning

March 24, 2014

Brooms In spite of the fact that we may actually see more snow around here this week, spring has officially sprung, and spring cleaning is on my mind. Truth be told, I hate cleaning, but I absolutely love a clean, organized house, so I’m always looking for ways to get there.

Usually, spring cleaning is all about a deep cleanse of everything, getting rid of excess stuff, and airing out the house. But I find the prospect of all that a little daunting, so I like to take it in smaller steps or projects. When it comes to actual cleaning, here are some of the tasks recommended on Martha Stewart for spring cleaning:

  • Clean rugs, carpets and floors
  • Clean windows
  • Clean shades and curtains
  • Clean fridge and freezer
  • Vacuum, rotate, and flip mattresses and furniture cushions
  • Replace filters
  • Do a safety check (replace batteries in smoke detectors, check fire extinguishers, etc.)
  • Clean out closets/edit wardrobes

I could stand to do pretty much every one of those, but this spring I’m a little more focused on decluttering and reorganizing. There are some rooms in our house that are out of control, so I’m thinking of tackling each room in order of priority — with my bedroom and the kitchen at the top of the list.

I also want to try my hand at some natural, homemade cleaners this season for any actual cleaning I get to. Here’s an all-purpose cleaner recipe on my list.

Are you gearing up for any spring cleaning? How will you approach it this year? Any tips to share?

Image via Notforgotten Farm


Selecting Sheets
I can’t be the only one who’s wondered how to find a good set of sheets. What is thread count, and does it really matter? What’s the different between percale and sateen? Are certain kinds of cotton better? What should I expect to pay? And should I splurge for organic?

All good questions — and I now have some answers, thanks to Carla Wing, the proprietress of Phina’s for the Home, a fine linens shop in downtown Baltimore. Carla knows a lot about sheets (and towels and pillows and bathrobes…), so I knew she’d be the perfect person to give me the lowdown. [click to continue…]


Being a Principled Shopper

February 18, 2014

Apologies for the site being down yesterday! Apparently, my hosting company had a major server crash that took all day to fix. Here’s hoping we don’t experience such a long interruption again. Now back to our regularly scheduled programing…

Banana Farmers in Kenya When you shop, do you consider who and what you’re supporting? Do you select or avoid certain brands when buying groceries, for example, or have you ever boycotted a company?

I think most of us want to be principled shoppers, but it can get a little crazy trying to figure out what to buy and what to avoid. It’s much easier to ignore it all and keep trucking. Besides, does my little purchase on a given day really matter one way or another?

Well, the way I see it, yes and no. Even though my little $5 or $10 may not matter much, I feel like I have a responsibility to use my money well. And if I’m spending that money once or twice a week on the same product, it adds up. Plus, it seems to me that, if each of us acted like our independent choices did matter, it might collectively make a difference.

At the same time, if I were to boycott every store and company I don’t like or whose practices I question, life would become very complicated very quickly. I’d spend even more time that I already do researching, fretting, driving all over town, and doing without conveniences that help our family life run more smoothly.

While some people might choose a corporation or two they refuse to buy products from, I’ve handled it so far by focusing on one big area: food. I’m very mindful about what I buy and eat (for health, taste, economic, and ethical reasons). What this means, however, is that I can’t simply go to one grocery store and call it a day: Our food ends up coming from five or six different places.

When it comes to other areas of my life, though, I’m not so diligent. I still buy clothes from regular retailers because I can’t sew, can’t find everything I need at consignment shops, and can’t afford to buy all my clothes from independent designers. And I make compromises on other items we need: Since becoming a mom, I’ve actually set foot in a Walmart more times than I care to admit, because it’s five minutes from our house and there are no comparable stores near by. I could make the longer trek to get the same items from a Target, but is it really that much better?

I’m curious how you handle this. Do you research the brands and companies you’re supporting? How do you make your decisions? Or is this something you find so overwhelming or confusing that you don’t pay it too much attention?

Image via Agra Africa