Wednesday, January 30

Small Steps: All Natural Moisturizer

It's embarrassing to admit now, but when a Mary Kay Lady told me that the reason you're not supposed to mix and match skin care is because the differing formulas can react with each other and create "chemical warfare on your face", I believed her and imagined some logic there. Now, I wonder what I was thinking - shouldn't my first response have been "No way am I putting something on my face that is a viable contestant in chemical warfare!!"?

So when I dropped Mary Kay and started using up the last of my products, I knew for certain that whatever I replaced them with wouldn't come with any crazy warnings. I'd find things that worked and were perfectly safe - no matter what else I used them with! Also on my list of crucial criteria was that any new products had to be something I could make myself; I'm done using products that other people can change the formula on or cycle out at their whim.

Enter the absolute easiest product change I have ever made: Coconut Oil Moisturizer. I was inspired by the recipes over on Crunchy Betty, but the one I use is ludicrously simple: melt organic virgin coconut oil and add a few drops of Tea Tree and Lavender essential oils. Pour into a pretty jar (with a lid) and let cool (it will solidify). To apply, rub your fingertips on the top of the oil, picking up a thin film. Apply to your face (again, very thinly). Done! (Note: this works best after washing your face with warm water or taking a shower.)

I've always had oily skin, so at first I recoiled from the idea of applying straight oil to my face. But counter-intuitively, this moisturizer actually makes my skin less oily. It absorbs completely into your skin (and if you put on too much, the excess just wipes off cleanly) and leaves you feeling soft and healthy. Both coconut oil and Tea Tree oil have anti-bacterial/anti-microbial properties that help prevent breakouts, which is a happy bonus.

All ingredients are completely safe things you should have around the house anyway, and you use so little that it lasts forever and costs pennies per day. This Small Step is going to save me a huge amount of money, time and hassle this year. I'm still working through my back-stock of cleanser, but I hope when the time comes to transition off of that as well I'm able to find an alternative as appealing and effective as this one!

Monday, January 28

Menu Idea Monday: Sweet Potato Hash

While I don't follow a Paleo diet myself (being entirely too much of a starch based life form to ever pull it off), I do like to follow Paleo blogs because I've found that they tend to put together combinations that I haven't seen elsewhere. They're also very serious about good flavor and quality ingredients. So when Sweet Potato Hash showed up on Pinterest labeled as a Paleo recipe, I thought I'd check it out.

Sweet Potato Hash from Nom Nom Paleo
Admittedly, I can't make regular hash browns to save my life. Not from frozen store bought potatoes, not from scratch - just not at all. So I approached this recipe warily, but I'm so glad I tried it!!

This is the epitome of cheap, healthy food. Sweet potatoes, herbs, and butter or coconut oil. Throw a fried egg on top and you have a versatile meal that comes together easily and is delicious for breakfast, lunch or dinner!

We found this filling and very satisfying. Definitely make extra - the potatoes cook down and with as yummy as this is you'll want seconds! Check out the recipe over at Nom Nom Paleo and enjoy!

Sunday, January 27

Grace by Max Lucado

I don't know why I pick up Max Lucado books when they show up on Booksneeze. He's a good writer; his books are well organized, well written and he picks examples that clearly convey his point.

Like his other books, however, I found Grace lacking something. I just wasn't drawn in or moved. It was a positive and important message, but it just didn't quite connect for me.

Grace's message is timely: we are, as he points out, an exhausted generation that has (like so many before us) forgotten or failed to understand the all-sufficiency of Grace. We question the staying power of salvation, and underestimate the impact true Godly grace should have on our lives and, through us, on the lives of others.

If you're exhausted, worried about never being "good enough" to make it to Heaven, or generally appreciate Lucado's work, you'll most likely appreciate this book. But I can't personally recommend it, because I just wasn't that impressed. It's basic and to the point, but not the kind of book that stays with you or really makes you think about anything.

Thursday, January 24

Small Steps: All Natural Hair Care

I've always had long, fine hair. Years of working in food service put me solidly in the habit of washing it every day to scrub out the odor of rancid grease which, as you can imagine, was rather hard on my hair. My husband has always been more generous about buying me good shampoo and conditioner than I have been about buying or using it for myself.  It was painful for my frugal heart to cough up good money on products I then washed down the drain when they frequently failed to give me the cooperative, non-frizzy hair I wanted anyway.

I read a lot about natural hair care; there's a tremendous amount of information online and honestly, it's not all encouraging. People talk about the horrible detox phase as they strip years of gunk build up off their hair, the off smells from bad vinegar rinses, time spent making their own products, and online sources for buying six different ingredients you'd never otherwise have in the house.

Rosemary Mint Herbal Shampoo Bar from Frugally Sustainable
Finally, I found something that looked like it might work for me: all natural Shampoo Bars from Frugally Sustainable. (The first link takes you to the recipe to make your own, the second to her Etsy shop to buy them pre-made.)

I decided to give it a try in the middle of December while thoughts about Small Steps were fomenting in my head. Since I was working from home for a couple weeks, I figured if it all went badly and my hair was a train wreck it wouldn't matter - no one would see me! Lol.

When my shampoo bar arrived, it smelled amazing. (Several scents are available, and I chose Rosemary Mint.) I washed my hair every day, and definitely noticed a change in texture when I made the switch. It wasn't sticky, exactly, just kind of coarse - like I could feel the build up oozing out. Rather unappealing, but it only lasted about three days - far less than I'd expected. I also started using a Cider Vinegar Conditioning Rinse (1 part apple cider vinegar to 3 parts water, plus a couple drops of the essential oils of your choice [optional] for scent).

What a difference! The texture of my hair has completely changed since I started this new regimen. It is dramatically softer, no longer gets oily or frizzy, and is less prone to static. As an unexpected bonus, I discovered that it didn't need to be washed every other day (as had been my practice the last couple months). I use the cider vinegar rinse every other day but I now wash my hair only once a week! If you'd told me two months ago that I'd ever say that, I'd have told you that you were crazy! 

Needless to say, this Small Step has resulted in even more positive results than I expected and I'm very happy. For $6 a bar (which will last forever, even with my long hair since I only have to use it once a week), I don't expect to get into making my own any time soon - I'll buy a handful, stash them in the closet and be good for the rest of the year. As for the rinse, it works out to $1 a gallon... I think I can handle that!

Quick Tips:

Don't skip the rinse - there are lots of rinses out there, including herbal based ones that are equally cheap and easy to make if you decide you don't like the vinegar option, but the shampoo doesn't condition alone so make sure you pick some kind of rinse to use with it. Also, seriously consider investing two bucks in a spray bottle for your rinse. It's faster and easier than pouring it on, and you won't waste any!

Use the right shampoo for your hair type - I got the rosemary mint because I liked the scent, but probably should have gotten lavender because I have lighter hair. It doesn't really matter, unless you color your hair though.

Lather first - lather the shampoo up in your hands and then apply to your head. Don't rub the bar directly on your head - it's hard to spread out and work in, and you'll use way more than you need. You can buy little mesh soap bar nets for $1 that make it super easy to work up a lather, if that helps.

Monday, January 21

Menu Idea Monday: BBQ Potatoes

Sadly, this post could also be titled New Recipes Don't Always Work.

I saw this lovely picture of golden potatoes, soft on the top and crispy on the bottom over at Kyotic Kitchen. They looked delectable, and I gave them a whirl (completely followed the instructions).

The temperature setting for the oven looked a little low to me, but I followed in the instructions. At what was supposed to be the end of cooking time, the liquid was nowhere near evaporated and the potatoes were still hard.

A couple hours later, the liquid was gone but the potatoes were rubbery and still not caramelized on bottom. I'm pretty sure that low oven temp was the culprit.

While I intend to try this again with less liquid and a higher cooking temp, I post it here as a reminder that experimenting in the kitchen doesn't always end with the desired results. Keep a backup on hand and keep playing with recipes! At least the fox who eats our compost dined well that night...

Wednesday, January 16

Small Steps: Dropping Mary Kay

Sunday I introduced my new blog category Small Steps. Although it happened last summer/fall, I decided that my decision to drop Mary Kay needed to be included in this category because it is was a catalyst for several Small Steps I've taken already.

Three years ago, in a time of serious stress and transition in my life, I was introduced to the “Mary Kay Opportunity”. Despite niggling concerns I couldn't really pin down, I decided to become a consultant, primarily because I desperately needed something that would let me set my own schedule without requiring costly or time consuming training to get started in. So I began both selling and using MK cosmetics.

This past summer/fall, however, I officially ended that period of my life. There were lots of reasons that I won't get into here (though if you are approached about the “MK Opportunity” I strongly encourage you to check out first). In keeping with the Small Steps theme, however, I'm going to focus here on the discord between the kind of life I want to be leading and selling/using MK.

Mary Kay, for all their advertising, is not a “green” company. The products are not cheap, and there's an endless push to buy lots of them (to the point that new formulas often don't work if not used in conjunction with the corresponding products). You have to dig to find the ingredient lists, and the products uniformly receive unflattering safety reports from Skin Deep. The company isn't honest with its consultants, and engages in business practices I do not want my money going to support. This was an area in my life that needed a change. 

So I resolved to use up my remaining product (because I hate to be wasteful), and started asking myself questions. 

What do I want in skin care/cosmetics?
What kinds of ingredients are safe, sustainable and healthy?
Do I have to be beholden to a company for this stuff? If people made their own cosmetics for centuries before modern companies took over the market, why can't I?

Since you can't take Small Steps without the right information, I'd like to share some of facts:
  • Although cosmetics are a regulated industry, many skin care and cosmetic products contain dangerous or unhealthy ingredients. (Check out Skin Deep for product assessments and industry info.)

  • Many products have all natural substitutes that are easy and inexpensive to make yourself or that can be purchased online from ethical, independent small businesses. (The sugar scrub I posted recently is a great example of this – why pay a spa or mall store big bucks for something you can do safer and more cheaply yourself?)

  • Quality matters. Toxins that seep through our skin from cosmetic and skin care products can be just as toxic and bad for us as eating food that's full of junk. Whether you make your own products or buy them, it's important to pay attention to the ingredients.

  • Finally, both personal experience and reading other people's experiences suggests that one of the biggest hurdles in switching skin care or cosmetic products is warped expectations! We are all so used to the consistencies, claims and containers of modern companies that initial forays into alternatives can feel odd just because they're so different. If you want to explore changes in this area of your life, go into with an open mind and make sure you're assessing products on their efficacy and “fit” rather than on how they compare to what you've used in the past.
This got long, so I'll end here, but stay tuned for info on the great alternatives I've found so far!

Monday, January 14

Menu Idea Monday: Mexican Quinoa Skillet

It's winter. Snowy, slushy roads make commutes take longer and everyone is either sick or trying not to get sick. So today's recipe is an easy, nutrient-packed dish that take 25 minutes start to finish and reheats well for your convenience: Mexican Ground Beef Quinoa Skillet.

Just made this a couple days ago - sorry I wasn't talented enough to take a picture to post with it!

Mexican Ground Beef Quinoa Skillet

1 lb ground beef
1/2 cup chopped onions
(1) 15oz can diced tomatoes (I use the Italian seasoned kind)
1 1/2 tbsp chili powder (or just sprinkle in a little cayenne pepper to taste)
1 cup quinoa
1 1/2 cups water (or stock)
1 tsp cumin

Brown the beef and the onion in a skillet. Add remaining ingredients, and simmer uncovered 20 minutes (or until quinoa is soft - may take slightly less time depending on your stove). Serve & enjoy. Reheats fine in the microwave (if you must) or even better in a skillet. Add a little water to it, drop a lid on and let sit over medium low heat for a couple minutes and you're good to go!

Recipe Notes: Quinoa is a powerhouse nutrient - extremely good for you and yummy besides! You can easily change up the recipe - sub shrimp or chicken for the beef if you want, or toss in a handful of diced veggies. Any kind you have on hand will work. I also like to use chicken stock instead of water for a little added nutrient and flavor boost.

Sunday, January 13

Small Steps: The Beginning

In early December, my brain was a churning mass of divergent tendrils of thought, most of them not positive. (My brain never works quite as well when my Prince isn't home to serve as a sounding bound and perspective orienter.)

Among the chaos were the following ideas:

I really need to find an alternative to the Mary Kay products I was using since I'm (finally!) almost done using them up.

I wonder if I can dye my hair myself without making an ungodly mess. I need to remember a lot more often that I'm not in food service any more – I could be doing a lot more creative stuff than I am.

There is a ridiculous amount of information in circulation as accepted fact that is terribly wrong and ignorant. It's rather disgusting how much I simply don't know. Sigh. Why do I read so much?

New year, new house projects. So much I want to do! Why didn't I get any patience genes?

I really freaking hate reading the news headlines these days... the world is such a mess at such high levels.

As overwhelming and frustrating as those thoughts often were, I've never really been a despair kind of girl. So, after letting stuff swirl around and ferment together for a bit, my brain kicked out its usual response: “Okay. How do we fix it?”

Somehow, all those tangents distilled and coalesced into one idea: start small.

Obviously I'm not going to “fix” the world, but the answer to improving any situation is to start with yourself and the world within your own four walls. So in 2013, I'm challenging myself take small steps. I'm going to reassess with fresh eyes the things I take for granted about my habits and my home, and then do my homework. Is there a reason why something is the way it is, or can I make a small change somewhere and do it better?

Image borrowed from here.
Some changes will be physical, replacing products or habits with alternatives that are a better fit for my life and how I want to live. Others will be mental – how I look at or value something. I expect to pick up new skills along the way, do a TON of investigative reading, and engage in a little trial and error. I'll track this journey here on the blog in hopes that some of what I learn helps other people make positive changes in their lives as well. I'll label all posts related to this theme with the tag Small Steps.

I've made the first couple Small Steps already, so look for more blog posts related to this soon!

PS - If I'd gotten this started sooner, Eric's LED post from last week would probably have fit neatly under this category!

Monday, January 7

Menu Idea Monday: Glazed Butter Cookies

I know that it's probably rude to post a cookie recipe when so much of the world is jumping eagerly (and a bit anxiously) into New Year's resolutions that revolve around fitness and clean eating. But sugar cookies are a classic and have always been a challenge for me, and it doesn't seem right not to share now that I've found a recipe that works so much better than any other I've ever tried.

So if you're sugar detoxing or eating clean more power to you! Tuck the link below away for next Christmas and forget it for now. But if you're like me, and have people in your life who truly appreciate good sugar cookies, copy this out and keep it on hand - you'll be very glad you did!

These Best Glazed Butter Cookies are from the wonderful people over at Cook's Illustrated, from their Science of Good Cooking cookbook.

I spread a little tinted buttercream frosting on mine, instead of glaze, but they were the perfect sugar cookie. Sturdy enough to take to a party, but never hard or stale. My apologies to Betty Crocker, but this easy-to-work-with dough has officially become my go-to recipe.

PS - Don't have a buttercream frosting recipe? Wilton's is a pretty no-fail option - just use all butter instead of the shortening.

Sunday, January 6

LED for Efficiency

Incandescent Reading Lamp
LED Reading Lamp
Last May, I went on an inquisition in my new house after I received my first electric bill, and got rid of all the incandescent light bulbs on the property, replacing them with LED versions.  LEDs run cool, which means you're not converting electricity into heat while having some lights on.  LEDs also are a light emitting diode (hence their namesake is derived) instead of a metallic filament, therefore require far less energy to excite.  How much less?  A typical reading lamp usually has a 40 - 65 watt bulb in them.  Their direct replacement is a 9 watt LED!  These LED bulbs offer a cleaner spread of light for less than one quarter the cost.  If you're like me and have the Living Room and Kitchen lights on at all times the house is occupied, these upgrades are a must have.  Yes, they're more expensive, but look at the return on investment.  LEDs don't shatter if dropped, and are proven to last many times longer than the 19th century technology of incandescent bulbs.  After my total house replacement, my electric bill dropped 200 kilowatt hours/month!  At that rate, I'll have a complete return on investment by this coming summer! 

LED Directional Bulb
I have also endeavored to add this new technology into my Suby, replacing the directional lights with LED with other stations to follow.  They're once again brighter in color, and use 1/4 the electricity.  Less electrical demand means less frequency the Alternator has to kick on to replenish the battery, and that equates to better fuel economy.  The change is minute, however, so this pursuit is more on principle.   But seeing as I log at least 500 miles a week on my work commute alone, I do believe that every little bit helps.

It's a shame Uncle Sam ignores such innovations of efficiency.

Saturday, January 5

A Rare Occurrence

I had to share an occasion that is as rare as an honest politician:  after three hours of sweeping, mopping, and a fresh coat of wax, the hardwood floors are spotless!  And look at that shine that defines just how ragged and arid my hands are after all the buffing motions that would make Mr. Miyagi proud.

 (Kindly ignore the spare bedroom's door that is getting a fresh coat of paint as we speak.)

It was a short lived victory, seeing as we had two abominable snow puppies ready to come in after an afternoon of chasing each other around.  Oh well, if you want to be a Border Collie parent, there's certain sacrifices.