Thursday, February 27, 2014

Time to Get Moving!

One of my oft-pronounced but rarely followed through upon New Year's Intentions is to get more exercise. I was always a really active person, for most of my life. Even when I was the mother of young kids, we were out walking constantly, and I found time for yoga and occasional running. But as my kids got older and I started working full time, it became harder and harder to fit exercise into my day. This lack of movement, along with the normal downward spiral of aging, has left me woefully out of shape. Although I eat far healthier now than I ever have, My 42-year-old self is carrying around an extra 30 lbs that just weren't there in my late thirties. I currently weigh more than I did at 9 months pregnant (yikes!) and my waist measurement has increased by 4 inches. I am very aware that eating well is not enough... I know that I need to get back into some good exercise habits, too, if I am to be truly healthy.

But... knowing and doing are two very different things, no?

This is a very popular topic among my fellow Mom Friends. We are often lamenting about our changing bodies and our busy schedules and how to find time to take care of ourselves. In order to support each other in that goal, one of these friends organized a Zumba class for a group of us last night. I have never done Zumba before, and I will say it was an eye-opening experience! First of all, it was really fun. Second of all, it was really challenging, much more challenging than I expected. This definitely drove home just how how of shape I've gotten, as a few years ago that class would have been pretty easy for me. I may kid myself that I'm pretty healthy, but seeing my doughy middle-aged self struggling along through that class in the wall of mirrors was quite humbling. Perhaps this is just the motivation I needed to make a real commitment toward finding the time to work out, no matter what.

I am enlisting the support and encouragement of friends and family, to keep me honest and keep me moving. I have plans to start walking with a good friend once a week after work, plans to attend Zumba once a week, plans to run with my daughter a couple of times a week. Another big step toward getting myself into shape: I signed up for a mud run obstacle coarse in the summer, to give myself a goal to work toward.

No more excuses. I need to do this.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Planning the Garden

We are FINALLY down to the last month of Winter! This year, Winter has really put us through the ringer, here in New England. We've suffered through extreme cold, frozen pipes, and there is still tons of snow out there. Except that at this time of year, it's no longer that lovely, frosty-white blanket over everything, but instead it is just huge, filthy grey, solid snowbanks.  Yuck.

But... we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're getting a few warmer days. Some of the snow is starting to melt. The maple trees have been tapped, and sap is starting to flow. And... the seed catalogs are arriving in the mail!

For the last couple of days I have been sitting with my Garden Journal, looking back at past year's plans, and drawing up the new plan for this year. When planning each year's garden, we take certain things into consideration when deciding what to plant and where. First of all, we make sure we rotate the crops in our 7 raised beds, to keep the soil healthy. We also consider what plants grow well with other plants, and the amount of sun each bed gets. We take a look through our notes from previous years, to remind us of our successes and challenges.

In addition to our perennial herb garden (with thyme, chives, rosemary, oregano, lemon balm and mints) and our little berry patch, we plan to grow:
This year's plan, in progress

Green beans
Summer Squash
Annual herbs, such as basil, parsely and cilantro

Even though, at this moment, all the garden beds are still buried under a thick layer of snow, with only the raspberry trellises poking up through, I can feel that the end is near. By next week, on the kitchen window sill, seedlings will be preparing to sprout, and Spring will be getting closer day by day.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Fruity Water

 "Soda" is most definitely a four-letter word in our Clean-Eating family. I'm of the opinion that soda is one of the very worst things you can possibly put into your body. Numerous studies have shown that nothing good can come from drinking this toxic stuff. And, it turns out, diet soda is just as bad as regular. I'm proud to say that my kids have never touched the stuff, and I haven't had any since I was a child myself.

But here is our dark little secret: When I first met The Man of the House, he was *gasp* a soda drinker! Though he was already vegetarian, and had a desire to live a healthier lifestyle, he did still have a few old habits to break, soda being one of them. When he met me, he switched to Vitamin Water, figuring that was surely a much healthier choice. Going further, he chose to go with Vitamin Water Zero, which claims to be all natural and have zero calories. Sounds a bit too good to be true, but still better than soda, right?

Well, maybe not so much. Upon hearing about the lawsuit being brought against Vitamin Water for false claims about the true "healthiness" of their beverage, I started reading more closely into this. The first article I read referred mostly to the sugar-laden version of the beverage, but in reading a bit more about this, it seems that Zero isn't such a healthy choice, either.

Freshly-made Fruity Water:
Lemon-Orange,Strawberry-Lemon &Orange 
So, The Man decided that maybe he should give it up and just stick with straight water. And he did. But boy, he missed having his once-a-day fruit-flavored Vitamin Water! So to fill that void for him, we started making what we have come to call, "Fruity Water." This is exactly what it sounds like... sliced up fresh fruit in water. Pretty much any fruit will do... citrus, berries, kiwi, mango... whatever you like. It's best to use filtered water, if you can. We put ours in mason jars, because, well, we pretty much put everything in mason jars. And also because then The Man can just grab a jar out of the fridge and go. But sometimes we put it in our glass pitcher, which looks really fancy and pretty.

According to The Man, this stuff tastes best when it sits in the fridge for a couple of days before you drink it, so that the water gets really fruity.
Frosty, delicious Strawberry-Lemon Fruity Water
Ready to enjoy.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

More Fun with Cashew "Cheese"!

You might all get sick and tired of me going on and on about cashew cheese. But seriously... this stuff has changed my life! Before this vegan transition, I loved cheese, and really thought that I would miss it. But this cashew cheese totally fills the void for me, when I'm craving some creamy, cheesy comfort. To keep things from getting boring, I am constantly experimenting with different flavors and additions. This most recent experiment I think it pretty special, so I wanted to share it here.

I'm calling this one Sundried Tomato and Basil Cashew Cheese. I started out making my standard, basic cashew cheese, except that I added one extra clove of garlic, then I tossed a handful of Trader Joe's sundried tomatoes (the dry ones, not the ones in oil) and a handful of fresh basil leaves into the mix, and processed until all the tomatoes were chopped up well.  I think this just might be a new favorite version of this "cheese." Seriously, SO GOOD. Back in the days when I was eating dairy and gluten with abandon, I used to sometimes get a bagel with sundried tomato cream cheese at Brueggers. This "cheese" reminds me of that. Perhaps soon I will try some on a GF bagel!

Because of the lovely combination of Italian flavors (tomato, basil, garlic) this one seemed like a natural to go with pasta. So for dinner, we whisked in some unsweetened hemp milk, and tossed it with some GF pasta, and some greens that I had sauteed with some thinly-sliced onions. It turned out to be some really satisfying, creamy, delicious comfort food. This is like a fancier cousin to my new favorite "Spaghetti and Broccoli" recipe. Who knew Clean Eating could be so good?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Basement Organization, Part 2

I've been talking quite a bit here about my ongoing Basement Organization Project. As I've been writing about organizing the basement, I've noticed that although our basement isn't particularly large, we kind of have it divided into "zones."  This wasn't an intentional thing, at first, but it's working, and it definitely helps with keeping things in order. Loosely, these zones are:

Laundry area
Tool bench area
Holiday/Party storage
Backup food storage
Extra paint, painting supplies, etc
Cat corner (where the litter boxes are, and where we store the cat carrier boxes)
Camping stuff
Memorabilia and Misc. Storage (aka "Stuff We're Not Currently Using But Will Eventually")
More Misc. Storage

I plan to further purge and condense more of our stuff, to maybe just have one small area of  "Miscellaneous Storage" I am all about clearing clutter, these days! Simplify!

So... moving on! Last week I shared my tool bench area, and holiday storage. Today I'm moving on to our basement food pantry area.

Our basement pantry shelves
Because we have a large family (and some daycare kids) we buy lots of stuff in bulk. Judging from the long lines we encounter at our local Costco, we are definitely not the only family to do this. There are benefits to buying in bulk, mostly that it's definitely cheaper. It's also nice to have extra food on hand in case bad weather or some other disaster or illness keeps you from getting to the store for a few days. But the downside is that most of us can't fit very many gigantic five pound boxes of food in our kitchens, so if you're going to buy in bulk, you need a place to store the overflow. We have carved out a little spot in our basement to serve as a food storage area. We have an old chest freezer, and next to that we set up two sets of old wooden shelves. They aren't fancy, but they serve the purpose. In addition to storing our Costco overflow, we also store our home-canned jams, preserves, apple butter and applesauce (of which there is very little left, at this time of year) You might also notice that on the bottom shelf we keep several gallons of spring water. We started doing this a few years ago, after there had been a water main break in our area, and we were left without water for a couple of days. All the stores around us quickly ran out of bottled water, and we had to drive five miles to find any. After that, we decided it's sensible to keep some water on hand, just in case. We keep a few jugs in the freezer, too, which, in addition to being good for emergencies, are great for putting into the cooler when we go camping. The frozen gallons stay cold longer than regular ice or ice packs, and as they thaw you have fresh drinking water. Just make sure you pour a little out of the jug before freezing, to allow for expansion. Speaking of the freezer, I've had a few people ask me why a vegetarian family needs a big chest freezer. Well, freezers aren't just for meat, folks! We keep stuff we've frozen from our garden in there, and I often make large batches of soups, stews and chili which I keep in the freezer for quick dinners. To help me remember what we have in there, I keep a running list on the front of the freezer. When I take something out I cross it off, and when I add something, I jot it down, along with dates.

Time for me to wrap up! I've got a stack of seed catalogs to go through over the next few days. After very long, cold winter, it's finally time to start planning the garden and ordering seeds. Yay!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Big Life Changes!

So I hinted in my recent Basement Organization post that we had some big changes in the works here at the Homestead. Here's what's going on:

Some things happened these past couple of years which have really made me rethink my priorities. Most significantly, in the spring of 2012, my kids' dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He lost his battle with the disease in January of 2013. As you might imagine, this experience has made me examine my own life more closely. It made me think about how I'm living day to day, and my relationships with those I love. None of us know when our time will come... when it happens, what regrets will you have? What would you wish you had done differently? When I asked myself those questions, I realized that there were a lot of things I would like to change. First and foremost, I decided I really need to change jobs.

Currently, I run a home daycare, which I started in my early days as a single mother. I chose the job mostly out of necessity. The part-time writing job I had at the time was just not enough to support us, so I needed something else. But I also wanted to continue homeschooling my children, as we always had. My youngest was only four years old at the time, with special needs. I couldn't bear the idea of putting him in preschool. Prior to having my kids, I had spent several years working in Early Childhood Education, so getting licensed and opening a home daycare was a natural choice.  And it was a good choice, as it kept food on the table and a roof over our heads. Eventually, The Man and I decided to expand to a large daycare, and he came to work with me, to allow us more flexibility in caring for our kids.

But still...  It's not easy, juggling my home life and work, and I often feel that my own kids are not getting the best of me. You see, this job, running a daycare, is hard sometimes. The days are very long. We have our daycare kids here 9-10 hours a day, and then there is a lot of cleaning, planning and paperwork that needs to be done, so it's not uncommon for me to work 12 or more hours a day. Although the man and I "tag team" the homeschooling and getting the big kids to their activities, the fact of the matter is that when you run a daycare, you routinely have to put other people's kids before your own. So, although I am home with my kids, I am preoccupied with work stuff. I need to make a change, so I can be more "present" for my own children. I need a job with more flexibility, so that my top priority can be my home and family.

Also, I would love to go back to doing work that feeds my soul, and stimulates me intellectually and creatively. I want to set this example for my children, so that they, too, may someday choose a career which they are passionate about. One of my intentions for this year has been to get the ball rolling on a new career that I can feel really excited about, and I'm pleased to say that I have been doing just that. I have some great projects in the works, which I hope will start to become lucrative by the time our daycare closes in September.

Meanwhile, I'm tired. Daycare and homeschool Monday through Friday, writing, networking and laying the groundwork for a new career nights and weekends. But, even though I'm tired, it feels wonderful to know that this is part of a grand plan toward living a life without regrets.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Basement Organization, Part 1

Here in New England, we are expecting a big ol' snowstorm for the this long President's Day weekend. Snow is supposed to roll in late this afternoon, and dump 6-10 inches on our area. Since I'm going to be snowed in with my family, I plan to spend some time working on my ongoing Basement Organization Project. As of this writing, I currently have about 2/3 of the basement looking about as clean and organized as it's going to get. Our basement is not at all a "pretty" basement. Our house was built in 1895, with a stone foundation, and a dirt-floor basement. At some point someone dumped some cement onto the floor, but it's patchy and unlevel and looks perpetually filthy. the "walls" are a hodge-podge of stone, plywood and random pieces of scrap paneling that have been pieced together by the various inhabitants of our home over the last 100+ years. The ceilings are low, and it's dark and damp. I guess the reason I am saying this is to let you know not to expect to see the kind of beautiful basements you'll see on Martha Stewart and Pinterest. Our basement is just an old New England basement, nothin' fancy, but it's what we have, so we work with it.

So... with that in mind, here is the left half of my basement, all organized and tidy. I really wish I had thought to take some "before" photos, but because I started this process at least a year ago, I just didn't think there would ever been and "after" worth photographing. The basement was such a mess, it seemed it would never be really tidy. But... I did a few massive purges, and got rid of several trash bags of stuff, along with several boxes that we donated. I then went on to organize what was left into neat plastic bins. I do LOVE me some nice storage bins.

This is my favorite little organized spot: The holiday decorations. I found these bins on Clearance around February a couple of years ago, and bought them right up. I had been paring down our decorations each year for a while now, but when I got these bins, I was determined that I would keep only what fit in these, and the rest would go. Funny thing is, since we've been decorating our tree with all handmade nature ornaments for the last couple of years, we don't even use any of our old ornaments anymore. Those may be purged eventually, too.

Next to the winter holiday stuff, I have some other bins filled with spring and fall decorations, party supplies and mailing supplies. 

Across from the storage bins, we have our tool bench area. This was QUITE a project to get organized, as previously all our tools were tossed willy-nilly into various tool boxes. We could never find anything. It was maddening. Since the pegboards were already there, I decided to sort all the tools by type and hang them up. We now know exactly what we have, and where to find it. All the screws, nails, hooks, etc are sorted into small jars. Larger tools, like drills and such, are in labeled plastic bins, along with electrical supplies and plumbing supplies, stored under the bench.. In the extra space under there, we store our window air conditioners and fans when it's not summer. 

Down at the end is where all of my old paints, easels and art supplies are currently living. When we opened the daycare five years ago, I no longer had space upstairs to paint, so everything ended up in the basement. I am currently making some life changes (more on that in another post!) which will hopefully allow me to find some time to make Art again soon.

In the interest of keeping this post from getting way too long, I will wrap things up here! Sometime next week I will do a post on the Laundry, Food pantry areas of the basement (and maybe a few other areas, as well) But first... tomorrow I will do a quick "Pizza Post"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Another Use for Wool Dryer Balls

This post could also be titled, "What Happens When One of Your Kittens Steals One Of Your Wool Dryer Balls."

When I made these, I didn't realize they could also serve as cat toys, which can entertain your kitten for hours. This is what happened when Murphy, one of our kittens, got his paws on one of our dryer balls:

Perhaps I will make some more of these, specifically for the cats, so they'll leave mine alone. Might be a fun project for our next snow day!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

DIY Wool Dryer Balls

The Man is the primary laundry-doer here at the Homestead, which is something that I'm ever-so-grateful for. He was asking me the other day if there are any all-natural alternatives to chemical  dryer sheets, to deal with the pesky problem of all the static we get in the laundry this time of year, when all those fleece pajamas are in the wash. I had heard of wool dryer balls, though I had never tried them myself before. I went searching for some online, and found some, but I just couldn't see spending $34 for 6 balls of wool. So, I decided to make my own! I googled around a bit, and found that there different ways to go about making dryer balls. Some people use wool roving, some wool yarn, and some use both together. Since I knit, I happen to have tons of leftover scraps of wool already here at home, so I just used that. The only important thing is to make sure it's regular ol' wool, not superwash or a blend.

Making dryer balls is super easy... just wind yarn into a ball, just like you do when you, you know... wind yarn into a ball. Keep winding until it's around the size of a tennis ball, then tuck the end in.

Next, tie the balls into some old tights or hose, and put them in the washer on a hot wash cycle with a cold rinse cycle. I tossed mine in with a load of towels. This will felt the wool. Depending on the type of yarn you used, you might need a few of cycles through the wash to get them felted up nicely. Mine took three times through. Once they are sufficiently felted, cut them out of the stocking and toss them into the dryer. That's it! Just leave them in the dryer as you do laundry. They will reduce drying time and static. Though we have noticed that when we have a lot of polar fleece in the wash, they don't totally eliminate ALL static, but it is definitely much less than without the dryer balls. And best of all... totally FREE to make, if you already have yarn in the house, as I did. Even if you have to buy wool, they would still be pretty cheap to make, as you could just get whatever wool is on clearance.
Our finished dryer balls... not the prettiest, as they're
made of scrap yarn, but they do the job.
A side effect of this project? It reminded me just how much I love making felted wool things. Perhaps another wool DIY post will be coming soon... ;)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Healthy Vegan Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

I have a real weakness for baked goods. Nothings says comfort to me like a cup of tea and something warm from the oven. Even though I now avoid flour, sugar and dairy, I still crave a cookie now and then, so I've been working on recipes for healthy alternatives. The family was skeptical that I could come up with a cookie that would be both healthy and tasty, but I won them over with this recipe.

These cookies are loaded with protein from almond butter, and are naturally sweetened with a little maple syrup. Chewy raisins add a bit of sweetness, as well. They are a little bit less sweet than traditional cookies, but they are still sweet enough to be satisfying.

Healthy Vegan Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

2/3 cup almond butter
1/4 cup applesauce
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp cinnamon
2 cups oats
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350. Mix together the first five ingredients until smooth. Stir in the oats and raisins. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from pans immediately and cool for 10 minutes.