Green Living & Sustainability

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


Lego Play

It’s that time of year when people everywhere are mulling over gifts for children. I’ve been thinking a lot about it myself — especially the whole toys thing. Even with all of my efforts to keep them to a minimum and not buy into the commercial culture, it still seems like my girls have too many toys. But I know it’s not simply about volume, it’s the kind of toys they have as well.

One of the things relatives and friends have noticed about S and H is how imaginative they are in their play. This is likely due to the fact that, for the first four and a half years of their lives, they probably had no toys; instead, they would have played with whatever they found in their natural environment — sticks, stones, who knows what else. They now seem to be able to envision endless possibilities and create amazing scenarios with basic objects.

In this BBC News article, psychologist Oliver James says young children are better off “colonizing objects” in their environment because they discover their identity through fantasy play. “If their toys offer a limited repertoire, this process is eroded,” he says.

This is why I’m reluctant to buy a house or camper for my daughters’ little toy critters: Wouldn’t they be better off continuing to build such things with their legos and blocks? And while I’m not particularly thrilled that underwear and socks get used as baby doll head gear, I do like that froggy’s long spindly legs and arms get tied up so he can be used as a turkey for pretend Thanksgiving dinners.

Some toys seem like no-brainers — like wooden blocks and dolls, for example. In the article I mentioned above, author Liat Hughes Joshi says there are three factors that make a brilliant toy: “Social value — a dolls’ house allows children to play together, versatility — Lego bricks can be made into anything, and durability — such as a wooden train track that the child will use for years.”

Those seem like good guidelines for toys to me.

What are your guidelines for buying toys? Are there things you steer away from or particularly like?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


Linocut Rejoice Card on Etsy

I love beautiful cards, and I think they’re particularly special in an age when so much of our communication is digital. There’s something about holding an artfully designed card in your hands, especially when it’s been handmade or selected just for you — or by you, for someone you care about.

As I mentioned recently, this year we’re planning to send photo cards for Christmas. We’ve never done it before, but so many people want to lay eyes on our little girls (and I don’t blame them one bit). Although I also love to receive photo cards during the holidays, there’s always a little thrill when a loved one sends a card that’s handmade or artfully created. The thought made me curious about what different Etsy shops might be offering this year… Here’s a small sampling of what caught my eye:

Owl in the Snow Card from Etsy

Owl in the Snow (watercolor and ink). This card makes me feel the peace and loveliness of a soft snow on a wintry evening. I love it.

Recycled Paper Card from Etsy

Recycled Card (black ink). This one comes in a set of 20, and I like how simple it is. (Gives me ideas for homemade cards of my own sometime, too.)

Brownstone Christmas Card on Etsy

A Brownstone Christmas (recycled paper and black pen). I love pen and ink renderings, and there’s something cool about sending a card with your house or another memorable building on it. If you live in a city with lots of brownstones, this might be right up your alley.

Yeti Card on Etsy

Yeti. This illustrated card makes me smile; it’s so darn cute!

Letterpress Cards from Etsy

Letterpress Cards: Holy Family Ornament and Let It Snow. I am a fan of letterpress anything, and Etsy carries so many lovely holiday letterpress cards.

Pudding Card from Etsy

Pudding card. There’s something I love about this one… It’s also letterpress, which might be it — or maybe I just love anything that makes me think of a delectable Christmas pudding. And then there’s that adorable little sprig of holly on top… I don’t know, but I dig it!

Linocut Sheep Card on Etsy

Linocut Sheep (oil based ink). This card is one in a set of four (another of which is the Rejoice card at the top of this post). The whole “deck of cards” style is great — different and fun.

Jodi Queenan Holy Family Card

Jodi Queenan Cards: Holy Family and To the World. I have one of Queenan’s limited prints of a mother and her twin daughters in my girls’ bedroom. I just love her work.

Jodi Queenan World Peace Card

And last but not least:


Peace to the World. This a 5×7 card, so it would be a lovely one to frame and use in a child’s room. I love its whimsical style; the entire illustration is just precious.

There are so many beautiful cards out there! Hope you get at least one in your mailbox this year. I’d love to know if any of the ones I selected above stand out to you, or if you’ve got any favorites you’ve seen online.

All images via from their respective Etsy shops


What Big Girls Do: Veritey

October 16, 2013

Amy and Adrienne

Say hello to Adrienne Peres (right) and Amy Ziff (left), two women who saw a need and did something about it. In January, they launched Veritey, an online resource for people looking for the best “clean” products for themselves and their families. The site caught my attention because I’m always looking for the healthiest stuff I can find, which is much easier said than done. Whether it’s researching natural makeup, non-toxic cleaning products, gifts for my kids, or water filters, I want resources I can trust that will point me in the right direction — and Veritey looks to be one of those places. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Adrienne about her mission to help people like you and me find the best products out there!


Zoe Saint-Paul: Adrienne, have you always been interested in health and wellness? Were you always diligent about the products you purchased?

Adrienne Peres: Yes, I have, although my interest has evolved over the years. Like many people, I spent a considerable amount of time incorporating a healthy diet and exercise routine into my life, as well as regular visits to the doctor. However, over the past few years, I’ve thought much more deeply about “product health” — what I use for me, my family, my home — and how it impacts our health and our environment. I try hard to be a conscientious consumer, but it’s so hard to understand what products are truly “good” versus just marketing hype (a.k.a. “greenwashing”).

Veritey’s mission is ambitious: You run a wide range of product reviews and are building a community on the site. What inspired you to launch Veritey, and what are your hopes for it?

Veritey was created because two moms couldn’t find easy, concise information about what products are good and effective. Amy and I worked together for 10 years, first at an e-commerce startup in New York and then at Travelocity. We would often talk about the issues we faced in researching products and how much time it took. In addition, my family has a long history of breast cancer, and I’m very interested in finding ways to reduce the likelihood of developing the disease. A healthy lifestyle — food, exercise, and smart product choices — all contribute to reducing risk. Our hope for Veritey is to build awareness that we are all responsible for being smart consumers and for what we allow into our homes and lives.

Veritey Founders

How does Veritey differ from other product review sites out there — such as Environmental Working Group (EWG), GoodGuide, Mighty Nest, etc.?

Great question! We look at ourselves as curators. Many of the sites out there are quite massive, and it’s difficult to find an answer to the question, “What should I buy?” Veritey does just that. We have a rigorous vetting process that involves researching, analyzing, and testing every product (we have 50 separate criteria, plus a Science and Expert Panel to inform our research), so that we can say with certainty that a product is not only good but effective.

What should I be most concerned about when I’m deciding on a product?

Be concerned about what’s not on the label! For example, cosmetics companies don’t have to tell us what all the ingredients are: flavor, fragrance, and “trade secret” ingredients are exempt. Even though the FDA does require certain facts and legal grounds for a company to have something considered a trade secret, the company can add “and other ingredients” at the end of the ingredient declaration. Ingredient disclosure laws don’t apply to products used at “professional establishments or samples distributed free of charge,” and companies don’t have to declare a “masking agent” (an ingredient used to cover up a nasty smell) if it is “in a product at an insignificant level” — although this level is not defined. (For additional clarification, see the FDA’s site.) We recommend looking for conscientious manufacturers that are very upfront about disclosing exactly what’s in a product, as well as their sourcing and production process.

Do you have a team of reviewers? How do you select the products you review?

Amy and I are the final reviewers and arbiters of what goes on the site. We do have a group of interns and volunteers who help us get through some of the vetting process, and we have a community of Veritey fans and followers who are always recommending new products that they love. We select products based on categories where we see a strong need. Veritey launched with product density in the categories of Baby & Kids, Bath & Body, Beauty, and Household Cleaners.

What goes into determining the rating a product receives?

We look at many different criteria, ranging from ingredients to sourcing to production process to labor practices to product efficacy. We’ve built a database of thousands of chemicals and ingredients, which helps us quickly verify whether an ingredient passes our screening. When we have questions about a particular factor, we contact the manufacturer. We also rely on our Science and Expert panel, which is composed of leading doctors, scientists, and researchers. This panel informs the way we think about some of the thornier questions that come up from our investigations.

Amy and Adrienne2

How long does it take between hearing about a product and getting a review up on the site?

It depends. Sometimes the process is very fast, such as when manufacturers are clear and upfront about their products and have been certified by upstanding entities (the Non-GMO Project is one example). Other times, it can take a while because we really dig in on ingredients and processes, and that research is time-consuming. It’s one of the reasons Veritey started in the first place: It’s challenging to do this research on your own.

Can you share some of your favorite products — the ones you think are the best of the best?

To be honest, we love all of the products on our site! We’ve tested and tried and used these products over time, so we’re fans of whatever we feature. And you can read about “Why We Love It” with every single product.

Where do you see Veritey in five years?

We’d love to spark a movement that shifts market share to companies who are pioneering a purer path. By voting with our dollars, we can make manufacturers accountable for their products. And that level of accountability needs to extend to our government as well: We want to see laws enacted that provide transparency and accountability for products — laws that are often found in Canada and Europe but not here in our own country. We’re entrepreneurs, so we see this combination of capitalism and idealism (what we’ve termed “Capidealism”TM) as the best way to move the needle.


Thank you, Adrienne, for not only telling us about Veritey, but for devoting your time and talents to helping us all find healthier products. Friends, I’ve signed up for Veritey’s newsletter and joined the site so I can ask questions and share information; check it out for yourself and keep Veritey in mind when you’re looking for the best stuff for you and your family!

By the way, this is the third installment of my “What Big Girls Do” series; you can read the other two here and here. The story behind this series is this: Whenever I’m about to do something that scares the pants off me, I whisper a prayer and say to myself, “Zoe, this is what big girls do.” And then I make the leap. It always helps! And that’s the spirit I hope to capture with this series. I interview women who are doing creative, courageous, inspiring things, and I hope their stories ignite your own dreams.

Images via Adrienne Peres


Real Food

It’s time to resurrect the Ask SlowMama series! This is where I get to don some of my favorite hats all at once: advice columnist, life coach, counselor, consultant, big sis, woman with an opinion. Ha! If you’ve got a burning question — whether it’s practical, personal, or even something about me or this site — please drop me a line. If I post your question on SlowMama, I’ll never use your full name — just initials, first name only, or a pseudonym (your choice) — so fear not.

Here’s a question I received recently on a subject near and dear to my heart:

Where you would tell someone to start who’s interested in eating healthier but isn’t sure where to begin? Should they go whole hog (er, so to speak)? Make small changes? Organic vs. local?  What is the single most important change you could make to your diet?

I wish more people asked this question! Changing your diet is one of the hardest things to do, because eating is emotional, cultural, habitual, and practical. It’s also one of the single best things you can do to improve your life.

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are dietary approaches, but if I were helping someone figure out where to start, I’d first ask a few more questions to better assess where the person is in terms of his or her diet. Some people are drinking three sodas a day and eating fast food; some rely on frozen entrees from the supermarket much of the week, or live with relatives who serve triple helpings of pasta every night; others may already be eating pretty well but want to take it to the next level.

If I had to give a single piece of advice that applies to everyone, no matter who they are, it would be the seven words that open Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That pretty much sums it up, and every reputable eating philosophy out there embraces it.

But so that I can keep blathering on about one of my favorite subjects, let’s go a bit further:

If you’re addicted to soda and eating fast food and junk food, my advice would be to start substituting your three worst habits with healthier options — so, instead of soda, choosing water, natural juice, or natural carbonated beverages; instead of late-night chip binges, choosing home-popped popcorn with a little sea salt; instead of the regular fast-food stops, brown-bagging it for lunch or finding new restaurants with healthier options.

If you’re already past that and are cooking at home and choosing restaurant meals wisely, I’d suggest you start significantly reducing your intake of refined sugars and flours. Elimination often doesn’t work without substitutions, though, so honey, maple syrup, stevia, and xylitol can be used in place of refined sugar, and whole grains can be used in place of white flours.

And if you’re already well on your way with all of these steps, the next thing you can start to think about is the kind of meat you’re consuming, the kinds of fats and oils you’re using, incorporating fermented foods into your diet, and paying more attention to super foods.

I don’t advise going whole hog when it comes to changing your diet. It almost never works; most of us need to make gradual changes so we can get used to eating differently, hang on to some of what’s familiar and comforting while we’re at it, and allow our taste buds to adjust.

I do think organic is better, generally. I wrote about the complexities of organic vs. local food a while back, and how I myself go about making these decisions.

While there are dietary principles that work across the board, I don’t believe there is one diet that works for everyone. For that reason, it’s important to pay attention to what makes you feel better as you make changes. Some people do okay with dairy; others do not. Same with meat, gluten, alcohol, etc. It’s also just as important to pay attention to the things that help you eat better, such as cooking at home, eating with others at the table, and dealing with emotional issues that cause cravings and binges.

One of the most helpful things you can do when trying to make dietary changes is to seek out blogs, websites, and cookbooks that can offer recipes and encouragement. One place you might start is Andrea Howe’s blog “For the Love Of…“: Andrea recently started a clean-eating lifestyle and is now writing a series, “31 Days of Clean Eating Made Approachable and Affordable,” on how she did it. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to her search for healthier eating habits and be inspired by her practical ideas.

Readers, I’d love to hear from you: What’s the single biggest change you’ve made to your diet, and how did it affect you? Where do you want to go next with improving how you eat?

And don’t forget to send along any questions you want me to address in an upcoming Ask SlowMama column!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul