Q&A: Halloween Candy

  • October 17, 2012 9:27 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

With Halloween around the corner I just wanted to know your thoughts on Halloween candy. My kid is finally old enough to get into trick-or-treating, but I am not too keen on letting them have all that sugar, but I do not want to exclude them from the holiday festivities. Do you let your kid eat all their Halloween candy or throw it out? Do you only let them eat some of eat, and then give the rest away? I am really not sure and wanted your input.

Thanks,

Lindsey

Answer:

Hi Lindsey,

Thanks for your topical question. It’s true as Halloween is approaching, this is definitely something to think about. Not surprisingly I have been asked about this before–and yearly! Each year my approach changes, based on the age of my daughter. She is currently six. I haven’t decided yet what will happen this year, but I suspect it will be like last year. She goes to lots of Halloween parties, yanking various outfits from her dress up bin, and generally has a blast. If there is trick-or-treating or other candy giveaways involved, I swap candy with her. It’s all stuff she loves and it, unlike conventional versions, doesn’t contain lead, mercury, genetically modified high fructose corn syrup, or any number of dyes I’d rather she not eat. I’m very careful to make sure this swapping is not a hardship. I don’t want her to feel left out or weird. So I offer organic equivalents of jelly beans, kettle corn, chocolate, and more. When we went to one party last year I knew would be a candy fest, I stuffed our pockets with organic lollipops so she was able to eat something sweet as her friends did, too.

All of this said I have plenty of highly organic friends in my life who lift the rules for Halloween. It’s a very individual decision. I chose not to do this not only because I know too much, but also because Halloween has morphed into a week or sometimes a weeks-long extravaganza. I don’t want her eating conventional candy daily for several weeks. And I don’t let her eat her swapped organic candy for several weeks either. Everything in moderation.

One thing on my list for this year is making our own chocolate. We sometimes do this. It only involves coconut oil, cocoa powder, and honey. She loves the process, I’m in charge of the ingredients, and the results are delicious. I’m happy for her to eat as much of this as she wants. One of these years, I will throw a party so she can eat every single thing on offer. I just haven’t gotten around to it!

Happy Halloween.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: “Green” Kitchenware?

  • October 10, 2012 8:55 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

Looking to buy some new pans for my kitchen, and was wondering if you had any green recommendations for me?

Best,

Deb

Answer:

Hi Deb,

You’re not alone. This is a question I get often! Yes, there are ways to make sure that your new cookware is safe. As I explain in The Conscious Kitchen, you should opt for cast iron, stainless steel, or enamel-coated cast iron.

Cast Iron is great because it’s safe, cheap, endlessly durable, and retains heat very well. If you are looking to add more iron to your diet, you’re in luck; small amounts of the iron will leach out of the pan and into your food. Cast iron does require oil or butter so your food won’t stick to it, but it does become more non-stick over time, especially if you care for the pans well.

Enamel-coated cast iron is a bit pricier than the other two, but well worth the splurge. It’s cast iron with an enamel coating is composed of fine glass particles. Glass is nonreactive and very safe. It also retains the heat well and is extremely durable. I use my enamel-coated cast iron dutch oven so often it just lives on the top of my stove. There is no point in putting it away.

Stainless steel is another solid safe material for pots and pans. It’s lightweight and sturdy. Just don’t store acidic foods in it (tomato sauce, rhubarb) as this can start to break it down.

I prefer these three materials to any of the new “green” pans on the market. Many of these contain proprietary materials and “green” chemicals that make them similar to the non-stick pans I hope you’re replacing. I don’t want to cook in anything proprietary! And these just aren’t as durable as the tried and true materials mentioned above. I have heard from a lot of readers that they’ve bought various new “green” pans and they wound up falling apart quickly. Cast iron won’t fall apart!

Hope this helps you with your decision. If you’re looking for other kitchenware, check out The Conscious Kitchen for additional tips.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Eco-Benefits of Being a Vegetarian?

  • September 26, 2012 9:20 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I just had a question regarding meat. Everyone always stresses how sustainable becoming a vegetarian is. I obviously understand the animal rights aspect to becoming a vegetarian, I was just wondering if you could explain more of the environmental benefits of not eating meat to me? Thanks.

-Terry

Answer:

Terry,

Thanks for your question. Yes, there are many environmental benefits to giving up or at least limiting meat consumption. It decreases water use, methane production, the impact of growing animal feed, and much more. It’s not an easy thing to answer quickly, but I’ll try to outline the basics below. I urge you to do some reading on your own, too. The production of animals into meat is an amazing system to learn about, with many shocking twists, turns, and revelations.

If you’re into stats and numbers, this site compares water usage for various items. It says that it takes approximately 15415 litre/kg of water to produce beef and only 257 litre/kg of water for potatoes. I don’t know anyone who only eats potatoes, but there is also quite a difference between chicken and beef.

Then there’s methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. Cattle emit 80 million tons of methane annually, according to the EPA. And I haven’t even gotten to feed. Most animals are fed a grim mix of genetically modified soy and corn (neither are great for the environment as they require tremendous amounts of chemical sprays to grow), antibiotics (which create drug-resistant superbugs), and hormones.

All of this said, I am not personally a vegetarian for many, many reasons. Though I eat very little meat compared to most meat eaters I know. I have devoted a tremendous amount of research and thought to this decision and I only ever eat local, pastured, well-raised meat. I go into great detail on how and why to source this kind of meat in two of my books. I wrote  The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat with my butcher. I had interviewed him and his wife previously for  The Conscious Kitchen, which has a chapter concisely detailing meat labels, how shop, and other educational resources.

Keep in mind that becoming a vegetarian doesn’t immediately mean your environmental impact is nil. Many vegetarians continue to eat conventionally raised dairy and eggs–the eco-impact of these is far greater than their local, pastured counterparts. And if all of the soy you switch to eating is conventionally raised and coming from, say, China, that has its own not insignificant footprint. There have also been interesting studies done on the safety of soy-based diets. So all of this is worth considering as you weigh the pros and cons of giving up or eating less meat.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Non-toxic ways to deal with grain beetles?

  • August 22, 2012 7:49 pm

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

This weekend when I went to my pantry I found grain beetles in there. I’ve been suspecting them for a while, but now it’s undeniable. I prefer not to use the conventional toxic products people use. Are there any non-toxic ways to get rid of them?

Thanks.

-Henry

Answer:

Henry,

I feel your pain and am glad you don’t want to use bleach or a conventional pesticide to get rid of grain beetles. I did a little research for you, including posting on my Facebook author page for suggestions. Here’s what my FB fans had to say:

  • “I just washed everything down with safe dish detergent and kept everything in glass jars or tight fitting lidded enameled cans after.”
  • “Just composted ALL the boxed crackers/pasta/etc. that were open/infested, plus the bulk items…if sealed in glass they are easy to contain. It was mostly crackers that got nasty. And old stuff. Even paprika!”
  • “Skim beetles off the top of the rice when you cook it. Whatever. No big deal, really. They ARE in there, no matter what.”

All in all some good advice here. The key is to methodically go through what’s in your pantry–spices and all–and compost (or, sadly, throw out) what appears to be infested. Peer into open boxes of pasta, crackers, nuts, rice, corn kernels, flour, dried fruit–everything. Once you’re sure you’ve looked at everything, wipe the cabinets down with plant-based dish detergent. If you have honey, vinegar, or oils in your cabinet that have dribbled, wash these bottles off, too. You can then keep sealed containers of food in your pantry. If you don’t want to bother with sealing everything off, you can always keep rice and other grains–once opened–in the fridge.

I hope this does the trick. Let me know how it goes.

Best,

Alexandra


Q&A: My kid wants to dye her hair…

  • July 25, 2012 8:27 am

The Question:

Dear Alexandra,

Is there a non-toxic way for my daughter to color/dye a streak of her hair pink?

Thanks.

John

The Answer:

Hi John,

Ah hair dye. It is overwhelmingly toxic, so you’re right to ask.

Yes, there are definitely non-toxic ways to dye hair that work on kids, who pound for pound are more vulnerable than adults are. Not that I’m dying my hair given what I know!

First up, if you think your daughter is old enough to dye her hair, she’s probably old enough to hear the truth about conventional hair dye. I’d suggest explaining to her what the concerns are before you turn her down or suggest she go the natural route I describe below.

Regular food dyes can be used for hair coloring. You can either go with a store bought version–there are several brands available at national natural food store chains that are made from vegetable extracts, not artificial colorants. Or you can DIY, using things like beet juice as pinkish/reddish hair color. If your child has brown hair, you’ll probably want to do a lemon juice and/or peroxide “bleach” on the strip of choice before trying the beet juice. I can guarantee you it won’t look like a store bought artificial color, so a little parental warning before the experiment is probably in order. The process will be just as fun and you never know what it will look like when you try it. I hope it works!

Report back?

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Killing Bugs?

  • July 18, 2012 8:48 am

The Question:

Hi! I am reading your blog, and I also love the eco life! I also try to teach my kids respect for all living creatures. However, yesterday when a big spider stumbled across the kitchen floor I calmly took a piece of kleenex and promptly squished it! But, when I am standing there, satisfied with dead spider in hand, I suddenly see the question in my three year old boys look, and feel ashamed! How do I explain this? I am not that afraid of spiders, I just killed it because it was there! How do you deal with these sorts of things? Do you also squish spiders in front of your kids, and do you own a fly swatter and swat flies and wasps? And how do you explain this to your kids?

Jenny

The Answer:

Hi Jenny,

Thanks for writing. And good timing; I’m spending a lot of time in the buggy country this month to escape the heat of my urban hometown. When we’re in New York City and we find a bug–that isn’t a roach!–we tend to release it out the window. Not exactly sure a bug prefers being flung out of an urban window versus smushed, but my animal-loving 6-year-old daughter prefers it. That said, she also likes to capture fireflies and has killed more than a few of these beloved bugs herself, unwittingly.

Here’s the thing: We eat meat but we also have a family cat we refer to as her sister. I wrote a book with my butcher. During that research process I went to more than a few slaughters of local animals and toured a local slaughterhouse. This is complicated stuff. Is a spider more important than my cat? Is the cat more important than the pig or the steer I watched be slaughtered? You feel bad about that spider, but how about a mosquito? Or a tick embedded in your son? Or a water bug scuttling across your bathroom floor?

I was chatting about your question–and my above questions–with my lovely intern Kelley and she wrote me a very thoughtful email I want to share with you:

“This question made me think about my environmental ethics class I took last
semester.  In one unit we talked about what things in nature get
respect, so what has value in nature.

And there are these different ethical theories to it:
Biocentrism (or taylorism)–ALL things in nature have value, whether a
dolphin, ant, or flower. Killing either would be wrong.

Strong Anthropocentrism–Only humans matter, and we should not be
concerned about harming the environment or animals

Weak Anthropocentrism–Humans still matter the most but some things in
nature count too. So killing an ant wouldn’t be wrong, but killing a
whale would not.

I wrote a paper on it somewhere on which theory was the most
justifiable. But this just reminded me of what you said about your
book on butchering. How people are very concerned about slaughtering
pigs, and cows, but people never think twice about squashing a bug.”

So this is a long-winded answer from me and Kelley that isn’t really an answer. Most humans, devout vegans aside, do some sliding scale of animal killing. I certainly have done my fair share and I have mixed feelings about all of it–minus what I somehow believe can bring me and mine “harm” like those mosquitoes and ticks. My daughter is basically a vegetarian who devours bacon, and claims she wants to protect all animals, but also likes to pull worms apart and poke jelly fish with sticks. It’s complicated. If the look in your kid’s eyes gives you pause, take that pause and think about how you feel about what you’re doing, and the message it gets across. It may not change how you react, but it’s certainly a good thing to think about.

Hope this helps in some way.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Sealing Particleboard Furniture (Including Cribs)

  • September 22, 2011 8:07 am

THE QUESTION:

My superintendent is coming by today to set up the crib for baby #2. Last time around, I recall that you warned me not to put the kid in a (standard commercial) crib without applying some kind of sealant to keep it from . . . off-gassing, was it?

If so could I trouble you to remind me what that product was?…Thanks so much….
AK

THE ANSWER:

Thanks for the great question; lots of expecting parents have had similar inquiries. I answer this in The Complete Organic Pregnancy–and again in Planet Home!–and have excerpted a few paragraphs from the former below. Congrats on #2 and good luck!

When setting up a nursery, keep in mind that items you might want from small organic stores will take longer than you think to be shipped.  Allow plenty of time, or you’ll be running through Buy Buy Baby in labor with a plastic changing table in your shopping cart.  All the furniture in your nursery, and ideally the entire house, should be made of solid hardwood with a nontoxic finish.  Avoid particleboard and plywood, which are held together with toxic formaldehyde-based glues, as well as plastic.  We realize that plywood is ubiquitous.  If you have something that’s made of plywood, you can seal it with Safecoat Safe Seal, a water-based low-gloss sealer for highly porous surfaces.  Or speak to a Safecoat salesman about the best product for wood you want to seal.

Our basic advice is that you really won’t need half the stuff everyone insists you and your new pumpkin-sized roommate will need.  We prefer to spend more money on fewer items.  If you’re having trouble finding certified or recycled wood furniture for your baby, try to buy secondhand, or inherit hand-me-downs.  Americans use about 27 percent of the wood commercially harvested worldwide.  Much of it is harvested in an unsustainable (not naturally regenerating) manner, making the burden on forest ecosystems that much greater.

Q&A: Juice Bars And Pregnancy

  • September 16, 2011 12:30 pm
THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

Just recently finished [The Complete Organic Pregnancy]. My husband and I have been recently trying for a baby and prior to that I probably devoured a dozen books on pre-pregnancy and I have to say your book is the most substantial and downright fantastic out of all of them! What I appreciated most from your book was how easily your research and tips could translate into everyday life and also how to truly make both your body and the environment both inside and outside the most optimal possible.

In saying that, I am left with a few questions:

1. Juices: I now know to avoid them, but what about smoothies, ingredients consist of whole fresh organic fruits, organic milk and ice??

That’s it, thank you so very much! Your book is the best gift I could have asked for and consult it regularly!!

With gratitude,

Meika

THE ANSWER:
Meika actually sent a few questions, so I’m answering them in separate posts.

You’re so welcome! Thanks for writing in.

The juices you’re referring to are the ones found at juice bars and smoothie shops.  Often these juices are from conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and the juicing machines are breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria like E. coli. You cannot guarantee that the juicers have been cleaned regularly (or with what–i.e. chlorine bleach or other chemicals that leave residues that get into your drinks).  Because juice bar juices are unpasteurized, they’re a major concern if you’re pregnant.  Even organic juice products are suspect. Odwalla faced a total recall of their products in the 1990s due to E. coli.  It’s just not worth the risk when you’re expecting. Far better to get your fruit and veggie fix from the actual thing. Or, as I mention in The Conscious Kitchen (excerpted below), you can make your own at home. That way you know what the ingredients are, where they came from, and that your juicer is clean.
Fresh squeezed, 100 percent juice is fabulous in moderation.  Thankfully, it’s so expensive at my local organic organic juice bar that moderation isn’t a problem.  If you’re someone who really likes juice, look into buying an energy-efficient juicer.  Having your own means  you can control what kind of fruit is used (local or organic or sustainable), how much and what kind of sugar is added, and how the machine is cleaned.

Alternatives to fresh squeezed are a mixed bag.  Most store-bought juice actually contains very little juice, so it’s up to an adept label reader to find the real deal.  Otherwise, you may suck down a lot of unnecessary and expensive sugar water (along with other unexpected additives, like synthetic fragrance).  Organic jarred or cartoned juices are sometimes guilty of containing as much sugar or sweeteners as their conventional counterparts, but at least it’s not derived from genetically modified corn.  When it comes to artificial sweeteners, all bets are off.  I don’t put those things in my body, and suggest you don’t either.  Real sugar is vastly preferable, unless, of course, you have a medical condition that means you can’t tolerate it.

Hope that helps!
Best,
Alexandra

Q&A: Reusable Snack Bags

  • September 13, 2011 8:08 am

My daughter starts kindergarten today (!) so I thought I’d post a little back-to-school friendly question and answer exchange that happened recently on my Facebook page. If you’re not already chatting with me on Facebook, please “like” my author page and join in the discussions.

THE QUESTION:
Do you have any info on reusable snack bags?  I am wanting to make some, but all patterns, etc. say iron-on vinyl for the interior.  While they don’t have BPA, they do have phthalates.  Not cool.  Do you have an alternatives in mind?

-Melanie

THE ANSWER:

Glad you’re trying to avoid those little plastic baggies that can’t be recycled and clog our landfills.

Oh no way on the vinyl. Yuck. There are many many versions on the market from recycled plastic to nylon and back — none of them have vinyl. We have some that are hemp on front and a nylon-y fabric inside. Not entirely waterproof but machine washable/good enough for me. Check out reusablebags.com and GreenDepot.com. Many options.

Also, I found these on Etsy, which are what I bought [at Green Depot] and use at home.

Q&A: Dishwashers Vs. Washing By Hand

  • August 25, 2011 8:06 pm

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

What is your take on washing by hand and using a dishwasher??

Thanks, Meika

THE ANSWER:

Meika,

Thanks for your question.  The pros and cons of dishwashers have been debated down to the very last droplets of water, but at the end of the day they are more environmentally friendly than washing by hand, even if you factor in the energy used to manufacture and run the machine.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home re the eco-friendliest way to wash dishes:

Running a dishwasher filled with scraped–not rinsed–dishes using eco-friendly detergent free of chlorine and phosphates is preferable to washing by hand, especially if the machine has a good Energy Star rating and you don’t use the energy-draining heated dry option.  Only run the dishwasher when it is totally full (although be sure you’re not blocking the water or aeration methods with any dishes, or they won’t get clean).  Face everything inward.  Enzymes in detergent are there to eat off scum.  If you have over-rinsed your dishes, they will have nothing to work on and will therefore dull the surfaces.  Get to know your dishwasher: Does it have a heater or a fan?  Does it have a grinder?  Operate accordingly.  Don’t put everything under the sun in a dishwasher.  Opening the door a crack after the washing cycle is complete will help the dishes air-dry more completely, but it will also increase indoor air pollution.  Fragrances and chemicals (including chlorine) in traditional auto-dishwashing products get turned into vapors when the machine heats up, and so do the pollutants (possibly chlorine or chloroform, maybe radon) in municipal water.  We breathe these vapors as they vent out of the machine during the washing cycle, making dishwashers a major source of indoor air pollution.  Minimize the danger by using a natural (chlorine bleach-free) detergent and by not opening that door until the machine has had a chance to cool off.  Giving the racks a shake will help get the residual droplets off the dishes.  Keep in mind that your municipal water supply will likely provide your machine with chlorine anyway.  A whole house water filter will reduce some of the worst vapors, as will keeping your kitchen well-ventilated.  If your dishes aren’t getting as clean as you’d like them, try using less detergent if you have soft water and adding a natural rinse aid if you have hard water.  This keep minerals in the water from redepositing on your dishes.  You can buy a natural version, or simply use white vinegar.  If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, consider stainless steel interiors, which retain heat and reduce noise.  They also don’t off-gas (i.e., release fumes from the plastic) when heated to very high temperatures.

Hope this helps!

Best,

Alexandra