It’s diet time

It’s time for the Bieners to get leaner.  Don’t get me wrong. We’re not doing anything crazy like cutting down on ice cream sundaes or our regular chocolatey indulgences. No, I’m talking about a different kind of slimming down. I’m talking carbon diet.

You know? Carbon diet.  As in — does this road trip make my footprint look fat?

Thing is, we’ve decided to take a big old road trip this summer.  Wagons east, loading up the car, stuffing it full of luggage, kids and gasoline.  The kids and the suitcases I can manage; it’s all that fossil fuel that’s making me feel guilty.

We make this trip each year, but there’s something about standing and pumping that gasoline every 6 hours or so for days on end that makes it feel like more of a carbon splurge than the jet fuel we usually consume on this bit of travel.  I’m feeling the need to assuage some of my guilt before we hit the road.

So I hit the internet.  There are loads of dietary options floating around on the internet.

We could go meat-free for a couple of months.   Studies reveal that one kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home.

Speaking of lights, we could take a cue from Earth Hour and sit around in the dark a little more often. Or, once summer hits we could forgo turning on the air conditioning, and just rely on that old fashioned evening breeze.  I could cut down my 36 weekly trips to get groceries to just one car ride a week to the store.  That sounds delightful. In fact, I’m pledging right here, right now to make that one a reality.  So what if my family eats pancakes for dinner every now and then?  At least I finally learned to make them the right way.

So many worthy ideas, and yet all options paled in comparison once I happened upon the perfect solution to our proposed carbon diet: chocolate!  As in climate change chocolate. Each bar comes with an offset of 133 carbon dioxide reductions, which is roughly the size of the average American daily footprint.  Also, the recycled wrappers are coated in clever tips to help us tread more lightly upon our planet.

All I need is a moment to crunch the numbers. Let’s see:

  • 4 people in our happy little family
  • 1600 miles to go
  • One 1999 Subaru getting approximately 26 miles/gallon

Ok then. Assuming my calculations are correct, and adjusting for varying wind velocity, I’ll need to eat about 5,893 candy bars to make peace with the world.

It’s a small price to pay.  I think this diet and I are going to be great friends.

What’s the big deal about HFCS?

It goes something like this:

It’s a beautiful day. An attractive couple is enjoying a romantic picnic in the park.  It’s the perfect setting for a dollop of propaganda.  Have you seen these commercials by the corn syrup lobby?  She’s licking a popsicle and offering him a taste.  “Oh no,” shuns he, “it’s got high fructose corn syrup.”  She tosses her honey-hued hair and bats an eyelash. “So? What’s wrong with corn syrup? It’s practically a vegetable.”

He caves.  I think it’s the seductive giggles more than the strength of her argument, but that may just be my skewed interpretation of what happens where men and women and popsicles intersect.

“Corn syrup is fine.  Moderation,” she touts, “is key.”

Ok princess, that one I’ll give you.  Moderation is key. Moderation allows me to indulge in a sweet snack every day without beating myself up about it.

But her argument leaks. How exactly does one moderate when the sneaky substance lurks in every nook and cranny of the supermarket? It’s not as though we seek out corn syrup, insisting on seconds or thirds of those tantalizing ice pops.  It sneaks it to our diets by way of soft drinks, cereals, and condiments.  Crackers, bread and peanut butter.  And just about anything else that we buy in a box.

It’s everywhere.  That Snarky Spy of Safeway.  That Trojan horse of Target.

So what? Who cares?  Sugar by any other name, as the saying more or less goes, right?  Is it really that big of a deal if my sweetness takes the form of honey or brown sugar or highly processed high fructose corn syrup?

Yes. It is a big deal.  Recent studies have found that food items loaded with HFCS have unacceptably high levels of mercury.  Mercury is linked to problems in brain development.  HFCS is also blamed for the recent and drastic increase in diabetes in our country.  That super-sized soda sits on the side of the meal pretending to be a harmless drink; our body devours it like a bag of Halloween candy.

Not that I’m picking a fight with Halloween.  Let’s just call a spade, a spade, shall we?

Which is in fact my big hang-up with HCFS:  Awareness.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I sit down and eat my way through the kids’ bags of Halloween candy.  A bad idea, sure.  But I am fully aware that I have just consumed my share of sweets for the millennium, and presumably, I would make up for that indulgence with a nice healthy lunch.

You know, a healthy lunch, like a salad, a yogurt and a glass of chocolate milk?  But chances are that the salad dressing, the yogurt and the milk are all packed with high fructose corn syrup.  Which means in my deluded quest for health I have just consumed the equivalent of another jumbo-sized bag of m+ms.  I’ve been fooled.

It’s not fair.  I want full credit when I eat my greens.  I do not want my veggie intake tallied in the dessert column down there in internal accounting.  And I don’t want to unwittingly spoon this over-processed, mercury-laden, spy of a pseudo-food into my kids, like I did yesterday when I poured out their Rice Krispies.

It feels lousy to be fooled.


Want more information about this stuff?  Read Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma.  It’s one of my favorites.  Also add the documentary King Corn to your Netflix list.  Two crazy college grads try to grow some corn, and get themselves educated in the process.

Daphne’s Tips at the Store:

  1. If the item says HONEY in the title (ie, Honey Wheat Bread,) it usually DOES NOT include HFCS.  This is not always true, but a good quick rule of thumb.
  2. The aisles on the inside harbor the most hiding places for HFCS.  Shop the outside perimeter.
  3. If it comes in a box, a bag, or a jar, take a quick glance at the ingredients.
  4. Nothing we eat should have 546 ingredients in it.
  5. If you want that Popsicle, eat the Popsicle.  And enjoy it in full awareness.

I’ll take one latte…and 23 fifth graders please

According to my best friend forever, Michelle, it’s time to get moving on this year’s garden.  Right-o, let me see; I need 27 starter potatoes, a pack of cucumber seeds, a roto-tiller, and HOLD THE PHONE!  I’m going about this all wrong.  Forget the roto-tiller, I’ll take an iced latte and 23 fifth graders.

Michelle Obama (you know? my BFF,) had the most fabulous idea.  Actually, I think I’ll grab credit for the garden idea.  I have been telling her forever that ripping up that useless, chemically-dependent rolling green lawn in favor of an organic kitchen garden is the way to go.

She came up with fifth grader part, but adding in the latte was all me.  I’m civilized like that.

Honestly, the First Lady may not be totally aware of our budding friendship just yet.  It is an inevitability once she learns how much we have in common.  We both have two daughters who enjoy a nice game of bowling (although her’s play the video game while mine rock the real deal.)

Not for nothing, but my kids do rock the bowling alley with style.  And grace.  What’s better than a sport that can be played sitting down?

I digress.

I was demonstrating the leagues of things that Michelle O and I have in common.  For instance, we both are concerned with getting our kids to eat well.  We both have been know to say things like “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

Granted she said it to The NY Times, and I say it mostly to the swaths of prisoners I keep chained in my kitchen well-intentioned friends who drop by for a cup of coffee.

To top it all off, I just know our husbands would get along. They both play basketball and in their spare time serve as leaders of the free world.  True, Dave’s record on influencing foreign dignitaries is less than impressive, but his jump shot is all that and a bag of organic chips.   Not that the President should read that as a challenge.  Dave is much to busy organizing fifth graders in our back yard to fly to DC for a game of pick-up.

Ok then. Now that I have seamlessly covered organic gardening, politics, basketball, bowling, fifth graders, and lattes I can get back to that point I was trying to make…

Sorry, no time for points.  Let me sum up:

  1. Rip up your lawn.
  2. Plant a garden.
  3. Put a fifth grader (or twenty-three) to work.
  4. Sit back, relax, and participate in your local bring-a-family-bowling-night.

The 2009 Bring-A-Family-Bowling Winners

Nice looking group, right?  I can’t make any promises, Michelle; but the Obamas do have a decent chance at becoming next year’s lucky recipients.  (Don’t worry about skill; we’re all here to have fun.  Besides, I’m pretty sure that only the youngest in our group scored upward of 50 points.)

Changes in altitude, plenty of attitude

This weekend brought not only the first day of a spring break full of sassy pre-pre-teen attitude, but also the first day of spring.  Eternal optimist that I’m known to be, I chose to focus on welcoming the new season, and not on the emotional trip that is repetitive eye-rolling.  I’m a glass half full kind of gal that way.  Anyway, first day of spring…picnic time, right?  Well, that’s pretty much what we did. Only we did it slope-side.

Because one of the key benefits of waiting until mid-March to hit the slopes for the first time is the beautiful sunshiny weather.  And really, with skies so blue and trees so green the dark brown stink eye from my eight-year old pretty much just rolled right off my back.

Once we sat out the time-outs and got the group up the mountain, there really were no complaints from the happy campers.  At least during the second and a half that it took to snap this picture.

Even old grouchy eyes set her attitude aside for a little while.  Long enough to flash me this smile on the chairlift.

With smiles all around we thought it best to call it quits on the early side, get out before things got ugly.   Theoretically that is.  We actually called it quits when they sank down into the mashed potato-like late season snow and couldn’t muster the power to get back up.  The whiny sirens of tired children rang out across the mountain-tops, and we packed it in.

Which got us back home with plenty of time to hit the yard and get down to work.  We raked and snipped and watered and cut back the beautiful dried grasses so that now everything looks pretty awful.  Dried out and shriveled up and just waiting.  Brown ugly springtime.  Well, except for the rhubarb.  I know rhubarb and I have our history, but I really have come to love this stuff.  It’s predictable. It’s tasty.  And up it pops, no matter what

The raspberries are putting out their buds too.  It is interesting that even as I renew my pledge to pay more attention to the healthy vegetables in my life, it is the sweet dessert ingredients that never fail me. They require nothing, and they deliver year after year insisting only that I promise to eat my dessert.

And that’s a promise I’m willing to make.

Pretty please with chard on top

Rainbow chard is the prima donna of the produce aisle. Just take a look at this princess of a vegetable–

You should see its colors pop against the other dull greens stacked in the produce aisle.  Here, in the middle of February, when everything else seems shades of tan, the chard looks exotic.  It’s no wonder the children clamor for nibble. But children have to learn that throwing a temper tantrum and begging is simply not appropriate grocery store behavior.  No matter how much they want that veggie.

Of course I jest.  If my kids express even the most remote interest in a food that falls into a green category, I’m all for it.  So when I left it up to them to choose a veggie for the night, they were drawn to the amazing technicolor dream-chard.  No contest. How could boring broccoli even hope to hold a candle to such a dazzling veggie?

I thought it at best a begrudging choice, but then something incredible happened.  We were tucking into our Friday night movie and popcorn when Acadia spoke. Five years and counting and I still never know what may come out of that child’s mouth.

I don’t want any popcorn.  Can I have some chard instead? The purple leaf, please?

I kid you not.  The child asked for a leafy snack.  And said please.

Acadia’s movie treat aside, chard is a tough chew.  It looks a little like spinach, but the leaves are thicker, waxier and denser.  Still, there are ways to get the whole family to eat it, and receive a heaping dose of the good stuff in the process.  But chard is more than just a pretty face; it’s jam packed with good stuff.

Swiss chard is good for your lungs, bones and heart.  It’s a notorious cancer fighter.  It’s loaded with fiber, and vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, and vitamin E.   And copper, calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, protein, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, folate, biotin, niacin and pantothenic acid.

Not familiar with that last one? Lucky you have me, and lucky me, I have wikipedia.  Pantothenic acid is another name for vitamin B5, a water-soluble vitamin required to sustain life. Sustaining life is good.

And I thought the biggest triumph of the Swiss was Toblerone chocolate.  Mmm, Toblerone.  So so good.  But I digress…

On a return trip to the store this weekend I giddily pointed out the chard,  and graciously offered to buy more for my young connoisseur.

Uh, no thanks mom.  I don’t need any.

Oh, well.  It was a good thing while it lasted.

Can you tell me how to get, how to get . . .

Now that we all know where baby frogs come from, it’s time to move on.  I know that once upon a time I got my head all wrapped up in the business of making baby squash, but that too is old news.  Next up on the madcap quest to uncover all the secrets of reproduction?  Could you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

Wait, no! Not the guys from Sesame Street. I certainly don’t want Ernie doling out the ABCs of S.E.X.  And really, I’m just looking for the low-down on sesame seeds.  Anyone out there heard of a sesame tree?  Do those little guys grow right on the bagels? I need help!  Could you tell me how they get, how they get those sesame seeds?

Once again my children have managed to elucidate the gaping holes in my education.  Simply by asking a question.  For argument’s sake let’s even say it’s an innocent question, one designed to extract information and not, oh I don’t know, intent on proving once again that mommy knows absolutely nothing and who on earth thought she was qualified to raise future citizens of this world?

The coffee was still percolating, but the bagels, encrusted with toasty sesame seeds, sat on the table,  causing Acadia’s thoughts to turn to mining the remaining mysteries of her world.

Acadia, “Mom? Where do sesame seeds come from?”

My answer, “You know, they fall off the bagels,” didn’t make the cut.

Nor did Kira’s answer. “Sunflowers, duh.”

Nor did Dave’s answer, “Sesame Street, duh.”

You know, that cute little shop down on the lower East side. Hoopers, I think it’s called? The one with the incredible smells that unfurl and wrap even Oscar’s trash can in its fresh-baked aromas.

Acadia was not amused.

And as PBS was the electronic parenting tool of the 1970s, so google is the trusty crutch of parenting these days.

Just a few seconds on the laptop turned up this, the elusive sesame plant,

growing not on Sesame St. as previously thought, but in tropical regions around the world. It was first domesticated in India, and is found throughout Asia and Africa.  Hey, this is fun!  Come on! Let’s learn more about this secretive seed…

You’re sure to be hit at your next cocktail party, just casually drop one of these nuggets into conversation and watch your friends be wowed:

  • The sesame seed is the first recorded seasoning in history, dating back as far as 3,000 B.C.
  • It didn’t actually say this anywhere, but I’ll bet there are some killer recipes etched beneath the dead mammoths and the stick figure guys with arrows on some cave walls over there.
  • The sesame plant is official known as Sesamum Indicum, and can reach 6 feet high. I know. It’s amazing.
  • Ever wonder where that super cool saying “open sesame” came from? Unconfirmed rumors (hello fact-checking?) say that the mature sesame seed pod splits open with such an impressive pop, that people everywhere spontaneously took up with the catchy phrase. Just something to ponder as you try to get baby to open his mouth for another tasty spoon of pureed peas.

Talkin’ Trash

This guy loves trash.  And he’s not just talking trash, he’s collecting it.

Bizarre, right? Why would someone save their trash for an entire year?  Perhaps he’s looking to usurp Oscar the Grouch.  Or maybe he’s making a point.  His point?  We don’t have to be nation of garbage-addicts.

In a fit of procrastination I came across this news story, which chronicles the year during which Dave Chameides and his family saved every last piece of trash that they accumulated.  Biodegradables were composted, but recyclables and straight-up garbage was stacked and stored.  He’s got the pictures, in which his trash is more organized and orderly than the bookshelves in my living room.  I’ve got to think that there are a number of lessons to be learned in facing down, all at once, a year’s worth of wine bottles consumed, shoe boxes purchased, and hard plastic wraps wrestled from birthday gifts or beading kits.  It would be humbling.

Or, as Dave explains, it would stepping up and taking responsibility.  Which he did in a big way when he carted his vacation-based refuge home with him.   This guy is committed, or should be committed.  Either way, there’s a lesson there.

He stored his collection in the basement. His wife had to be grateful that the family created nowhere near the American average of 1600 pounds of trash, and not just because it earns them some serious eco-bragging rights.

When it comes to eco-bragging, I won’t be doing much for a while.  Sure, we’ve done well by ridding ourselves of the paper goods. Gone are the plastic grocery bags.  But I’m lugging around some guilt regarding my silence during the recent spate of holiday parties at the elementary school.

I sat, and I kept quiet as convenience won out over consciousness. Scores of ubiquitous water bottles filled the classroom, enough for every child, sibling and parent to drink his weight in water during an hour-long party.  And so, inspired by “Sustainable Dave,” I hereby promise to stand up (or at least sit down and send off a fiery email) suggesting we use pitchers for school parties next year.

It’s a little crusade, but I’m making it mine.

Check out Dave’s site 365 solutions for some great tips on cutting down on household trash. Just promise to send me a picture if you decide to knit a sweater from shed dog hair.

Only November, so where’d all that food go?

Perhaps you remember our good pal, Squiggy? The famous fiend of the savage sunflower attack of ’08? That notorious backyard napper? Well, let’s just say he’s all caught up on his sleep and not wasting his time batting around flowers anymore.  He’s all business.

And I’m kind of falling in awe with the little guy. Such a busy beaver rodent. Scurrying to and fro gathering apples from the tippy top of our tree and pumpkins from doorstops around the neighborhood, all in a thorough preparation to keep his furry family fed.  I’m passing my parent-of-the-year award over to Squiggy.  Perhaps my children as well, since I totally missed the boat on shoring up my shelves for the long cold winter.

It’s November. Only mid-November, and gone are the pounds of delicious strawberry applesauce. Gone are the hundreds of jars of jam.  Of course you remember the freezer full of squash puree that my dear parents put up in my absence? Gone. Every last ziploc baggie of it, gone.  What’s left? Two jars of tomato sauce.  I’ll consider it serendipitous that the kids prefer pasta and pizza sans sauce while I try to configure a lasagna that’ll take us through Spring.

As I gaze into my bare cupboards I think of Barbara Kingsolver.  She made it seem fun and easy to keep her family fed on homegrown efforts.  I think too of Frontier House, a gem of a reality show on PBS a few years back.  The mission: survive out on the homestead.  Those who failed to put up enough food and firewood by the time the snows came got voted off.  (Disclaimer: no families were left to freeze and/or starve in the making of this show.)

This much I know is true:

  1. I worked hard.  I planted. I picked. I pureed.
  2. The food did not last. My family is doomed to starvation (let’s pretend that old nag Nellie is not well enough to make the trip to SuperTarget.)
  3. I am fiercely competitive.
  4. I will not be voted off this homestead.
  5. Squiggy sure is looking plump these days…
  6. Stuffed full as he is with fresh apples and pumpkin…
  7. I’ll just tell the kids he went away for little awhile,
  8. A vacation, a little squirrel sales trip, that’s all. Nothing to worry about kids,
  9. Now sit down and eat your dinner.

What about those pumpkins?

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. We need to talk about those post-Halloween pumpkins. They are still handy, you know, once the cute pictures have been snapped and the last of the candy has been pilfered from the children’s hiding spots.

The way I see it, once the carving knife has been retired there are a couple of options.

Option Number One: Stage your own Disney-esque critter film festival. I set the bait and then used my extensive techno-abilities to create the following neat-o retro flip-book-style film. Simply wiggle your computer back and forth to see Squiggy in full animated motion.

We first meet Squiggy as he cautiously approaches the treasure,

He gives it a little sniff-sniff,

Then dives in, ass over tea-kettle.

He perches, savoring the fruits of his labor.

Finally we see our hero; leaning in exhaustion and searching for the inner strength to carry on.

I know, I know, it’s touching and sweet. I am a woman of many talents. But for those of you who may be hesitant about challenging Mr. Disney and his world of critter creations, there is another way to go.

Option Number Two: When life rots the pumpkins, make pumpkin puree! That way, with a freezer of golden orange mush and just a modicum of self restraint you too can enjoy pumpkin treats on many a snowy day to come.

I love these muffins but I do recognize that it’s time to branch out. I hereby promise to collect, cook, taste and share recipes for other pumpkin treats. Soon.

Pumpkin is perfect for reasons beyond just keeping muffins moist without adding fat. If you’re into the health thing, or just wish you knew more about our favorite gourd, swing by Kermit’s Corner. We’ve got a list of interesting factoids about what a couple of cups of pumpkin can do for you.

Happy feasting!

Pick a peck of pumpkins

Disclosure: I don’t know how all those bloggers out there stay on top of things. I write the stuff down, really I do, but then there were election results to check 157 times a day (phew, anyone else happy that that’s behind us?) There’s the laundry to swap out, and then it’s time for swim lessons and dinner, and well, here I am weeks later and that brilliant piece o’ literature I prepared is all yellowed and crinkly.

So for this post I’m going to take you back, back a few weeks when the weather was still on the fence and I was feeling crabby about the sunshiny threat of an eternal summer. Back when the innocent days of early October beckoned our family to the pumpkin farm…

I was thinking pumpkins and spiced cider, but the wishy-washy weather felt differently, rearing its sunny head to the delight of the raspberries and other evil pollen producers that extended my sneezy season well beyond the limits of what a rational person should have to bear.

Lovely, yeah; sweet, sure. Everything coming up floral; frankly, I’m over it. Hello? Ice and snow? I’m bumping up against the legal limits for Sudafed purchases here.

Still, the unseasonable warmth did provide a nice opportunity to hit the pumpkin patch unburdened by heavy coats and muddy boots. The corn maze was high and the wheat was a’waving as we met up with Uncle David and cousin Felix to pick a perfect gourd, or five.

The children frolicked in the corn and fed some chickens. And occasionally gave in to mom’s irritating requests for pictures.

We came. We picked. Maybe we whined a little bit but that’s only because it was really hot and the hay was poking through the flip flops and come on when is it going to be time for lunch? You know, pumpkin patch perfection.

After all, Acadia found this guy, and he kept her pretty busy.