Always check the Label!

When it comes to living more naturally, what you eat is always one of the biggest concerns. I mean, we all eat several times a day and those of us pursuing a healthier lifestyle have, no doubt, at one time or another despaired over how unhealthy much of the food that’s readily available is.

Eating food as close to its natural state is the easiest way to eliminate chemicals from your diet. Buy fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, and prepare them yourself with herbs, spices, and other yummy natural flavors. Sometimes though, we all like a treat and baking can take a long time. So we grab some frozen yogurt or, one of my personal favorites has been Nutella. Yes there’s been a little “scandal” about Nutella lately. It mainly consists of hazelnuts and cocoa. I feel like it shouldn’t be a surprise to people that nuts and chocolate have fat and sugar in them.

That being said, I maybe buy a jar of it about twice a year. It’s great to spread on toast sometimes. The other day I was at the grocery store, contemplating a jar of it when I took a closer look at the label.

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Do you see that last ingredient there? Vanillin. Cheap artificial vanilla. You know, the kind you can taste in really sad ice cream and coffee flavor syrups. Now this isn’t the most harmful or terrifying of the chemical additives that one finds in their food nowadays, but it still bothers me. A product that brags about using real milk and cocoa has skimped out on the vanilla. I decided not to indulge in it because of this.

Just because a product advertises itself as something natural or has branded themselves in a positive, clean, natural way doesn’t mean you can skip the read-through. Breyers is a perfect example of this. Their “all natural” label really is made with milk, cream, sugar, and natural flavors. But not all of their ice cream is in spite of their advertising campaign.

So when it comes to buying anything premade, I always ere on the side of caution and make sure I read the label.

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Herb File: Mint

Mint: it’s not just for toothpaste.

Mint is an incredibly versatile herb that is easy to grow in your own garden, in fact you may have to keep it from spreading out into every patch of ground it can find. There are many different varieties of mint that are all delicious and useful. Check out your local garden store where you might even find exotic varieties like apple, pineapple, and ginger mints. For the purpose of this file, we’ll mostly be talking about basic varieties peppermint, spearmint, and corn mint, though you can explore and find which one you like best for taste and smell.

Mint leaves are very useful for hot weather since the main chemical component, menthol, lowers body temperature. Drinking or eating mint can produce a cooling sensation in your body on a hot day. Even rubbing crushed mint leaves against your pulse points can help relieve the feeling of being overheated, besides that, it will make you smell nice.

As aromatherapy, the fragrance of mint is refreshing and invigorating. When feeling sleepy and needing to focus, sometimes I’ll take a quick whiff of mint oil to revive myself. Drinking mint tea or smelling mint oil can also help clear block sinuses. It mixes well with eucalyptus to make a steam bowl, just add either mint and eucalyptus leaves or a few drops of their respective oils to a bowl, pour boiling water over top, and inhale. Don’t go too crazy with the mint, or  else you might feel a tingling sensation in your face.

The cooling sensation of mint can also make it a useful ingredient in soaps and salves for treating poison ivy and bug bites. Many “poison ivy” soaps have menthol in them which helps relieve the pain.

Mint is also the perfect addition to teas made with less tasty herbs. It’s gentle and helps digestion. The taste is strong enough to help mask the bitter and earthy flavors of feverfew, willow bark, and plenty of other herbs.

ImageMint is and will always be one of my favorite herbs because it’s so versatile and plentiful. It you have friends with mint, it’s easy enough to grow from cuttings or, as I did this year, grow from seeds. The seeds may be slow to start, but once they get started, they quickly spread and start spilling over their pots. They’re also easy to dry. Just take cuttings, tie them into small bundles and hang them upside down. I like to hang them in the closet, all of my clothing smells lovely then, especially if I’m dry lavender in the closet at the same time.

Visit Your Local Farm Store

Last week I made yet another trip down to Traugers, a farm along route 611 in Kintnersville PA. It’s a great family own farm and store. There are often children and dogs running through the store, in fact. If that doesn’t bother you then you can find many treasures therein.

They sell their own fresh produce as it comes in, as well as local honey, baked goods, candies, items from other local farms, and even some basic groceries like flour, apple butter (wait… that’s not a basic grocery?), and much more.

I picked up some of those great fresh beets in the upper left corner. They are terrific steamed or roasted.

Ideally, we should eat with the season. When a crop is in season we should make the most of it and enjoy it at its peak freshness.  Now, frozen and imported vegetables get us through the winter, but I blamed these (along with the worst culprit: canned vegetables) for being the reason why so many children and adults seem to hate vegetables.

First of all, there are so many different varieties of vegetables, it’s pretty impossible to hate them all. Just in the picture above there;s onions, garlic, beets, cucumbers, green beans, yellow beans. Something freshly picked is always better than something that’s taken a week or two from farm to table. That’s one of the best parts about supporting local farms.

The other great part is helping to keep alive family farms. More and more farmland is being bought up for development or sold to corporate farms to be used in prepackaged, over-produced food sold in grocery stores.

I think the best way to eat healthy is to know what you’re eating. Buying it straight from the source before it’s been tampered with or “improved” with chemical flavor enhancers, you know exactly what you’re getting. It gives you the opportunity to flex your creative culinary muscle with new recipes, or just nibble at something raw. Like these delicious little baby plums I bought a quart of:

They are only somewhat bigger than cherries with sweet, mild red flesh, and some tartness right around the pit.

Hopefully this has encouraged you to check out your own local farms to see what healthy and conscientious food choices you can make there. Many farms and orchards will even let you go out and pick your own apples, strawberries, and other fruits from their crop for a small fee.

Review: Burt’s Bees Sensitive Cleanser and Daily Moisturizing Cream

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I’ve been a fan of Burt’s Bees products for a long time. Their lotions and lip balms have long been a staple for my boudoir. Last week I decided to try their new line for sensitive skin. I’ve been plagued with sensitive skin since I was a child. It will break out with the least provocation or dry out if left unchecked.

The cleanser is different than I expected. It’s completely soap free, so it doesn’t foam up like many facial cleansers. It goes on your skin like a light cream– reminding me a little of old fashioned cold cream cleanser, actually. However, this is much lighter and more soothing. Never do you feel like your skin has been stripped after using it. It contains no fragrances, but is enriched with Cotton and Rice extracts, as well as Aloe, Sugar Cane extract, and Witch Hazel. It’s extremely gentle and comes in a large 6 ounce tube. You only need about a nickel sized blob for each use, so it’s fairly economical for around $10 a tube.

The Daily Moisturizing Cream is much like the cleanser with it’s long ingredient list of soothing extracts. It’s a very light lotion that smooths easily into your skin leaving it comfortable, but not oily. Unfortunately, it’s only packed in 1.8 ounce bottles,  meaning you’ll likely run out of it sooner than the cleanser. It also seems a little steep coming in at about $15.

Overall, the system is a good one. It’s helped sooth some of the redness and irritation of my skin. What’s more, I can feel good about using these products because of Burt’s Bees’ commitment to using natural ingredients. I do wish that they would release a sensitive skin toner as well. For these hot summer days when my skin gets a little oily, it would make a great addition to the set. These are in no way miracle products that have given me perfect skin in a week, but I think they are having a positive effect and may have a greater one in the long term.

I give it 4/5.

Summer Safety: Bites and Burn Remedies

Tomorrow (or this weekend if you couldn’t get off from work) many Americans will head outdoors, undeterred by scorching sun and active insects. Most people who have avoided those downsides of summer so far will get their first bad burn or insect bite this week. So how do you keep your friends and family from spending the day after the fourth lying on the couch moaning over sun burn or itchy bug bites?

Well, the old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” definitely applies in this case. To naturally deter bugs, there are some great repellents on the market such as Burt’s Bees. Or you could make your own using this recipe:

2 parts oil (extra virgin is one of the best and easiest to find)

1 part beeswax (available at craft and health food stores)

10-15 drops citronella essential oil

5-10 drops of cedar wood essential oil

5 drops of lavender essential oil

5 drops of tea tree or lemongrass essential oil

Directions: Heat oil over a double boiler (a glass bowl over a small pot of water makes for the easiest clean up). Add in the beeswax, stirring  until it melts into the oil. Then add essential oils, stirring gently, and use a pipette to transfer mixture into tubes, tins, or jars. You can pour it straight into a jar as well, but the wax will be hardening inside the bowl as you do.

This creates a soft but thick balm that is easy to toss in your bag for travel. Apply the balm to your arms, legs, neck, and any of your pulse points.

Note: In this recipe, one part equals one ounce. To make larger batches (1 part= 3 ounces for example), you should increase amount of essential oil accordingly.

Some essential oils in this recipe may be too strong for women who are nursing or pregnant.

Now, you are covered in strong natural oils, but there’s still the sun to contend with. The best way to prevent a burn is to use coverage like a hat. A baseball cap will help shade your face, a wider brim cap like a floppy sun hat or “booney” hat will give you more all around protection, helping shield your next and shoulders as well. A light, long sleeve shirt thrown over your tank top will also give protection.

Sunscreen is also a must. Here’s a great guide to choosing the best sunscreens that give protection without flooding your body with chemicals.

You might do all these things, but still end up with a painful strip of burn or a few itchy bug bites. What to do then? Being perpetually pale, thanks to my Scotch/Irish heritage and apparently possessing delicious, insect inviting blood; I’ve been in that position.

-For bites and stings, making a paste of baking soda can help draw out any venom and help reduce pain. This paste should be wet, but not runny. Just baking soda and a little water are all you need.

-If itching is persistent, apply a few drops of lavender essential oil straight to the bites. If you can come by it, geranium oil is one of the best at reducing itches, and it also helps sanitize the area. I recommend keeping it in the cupboard.

-For bad sunburns, within a few hours of the reddening, bathe the skin with a soft cloth soaked in a water/white vinegar solution. This will help draw some of the heat out of your skin, relieving some of the discomfort and hot feeling.

-Cool, unsweetened green tea can also be applied to sunburned skin within 24 hours after burning.

-24-72 hours after a burn your skin will likely start peeling. When this occurs you want to put back as much moisture as you can. Fresh aloe plant juice or unscented gel aloe from the drug store does this quite well. I’ve seen many people make the mistake of applying the aloe gel directly after being burned, you should use the vinegar or green tea cure before applying the aloe. The thick store bought gels can trap some of the heat  against your skin and cause more discomfort. I don’t usually recommend it be used until 24 hours after the burn. Home grown aloe can be used earlier with less risk because of its thinner consistency.

-My older brother swears by Jewelweed for treating bites and burns. It’s also recognized as a great poison ivy treatment. It grows wild in many yards and is often pulled with the rest of the weeds. Read about it here and you many be convinced to let a few stalks keep growing wild.

Hopefully these tips and recipes will make your summer celebrations as painless as possible.

Midsummer Bounty

It’s always important to plant according to your region and at the proper time of year. I was able to plant a few things a little early this year because we had such a mild winter. It was a gamble. If we had another temperature drop in April, a frost could have killed any sprouts. Fortunately, we didn’t and I’m now getting an early crop of green beans. Sometimes you have to trust your instinct, just be prepared if things go wrong.

This is the third year I’ve planted a garden at this new house and I’ve begun to learn what plants do better and where the sweet spots are. I also chose plants that will give me a cascading harvest- lettuces for early in the season (they grow quickly in May, but the heat kills them now). I also learned my lesson planting spinach directly in the ground two years ago- the insects feasted on them. This year, I planted them up in boxes and had almost zero interference from any pests. Often simple solutions like this can be used in lieu of possibly dangerous pesticides.

The aforementioned green beans are pictured below, freshly picked this morning. I have to check the plants every day, they seem to mature overnight. Sometimes I’ll hold off cooking harvested beans until the next day, so I can quickly pick over the plant one more time and find a few stragglers that made themselves ready– especially if there’s been rain overnight.

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The next for harvesting will be my tomatoes, the cherry tomatoes will be ready first followed by the larger varieties. Currently, the heat wave has been playing havoc with my plants. Temperatures over 90 with glaring sun and no rain can kill more delicate plants. I’ve been dutifully watering the tomatoes every day and snapping off any unneeded branches that are drying out and yellowing. Hopefully I’m keeping them wet enough for ripening. Tomatoes are finicky sometimes, but can easily be grown in pots in or outside.

Finally, just before the end of summer my squash will be ready. You can get a squash harvest earlier in the season if you purchase plants or start your seeds inside early in the spring and transplant them when the weather is favorable. I’ve always had great yield from seeds started outside, so that’s what I did again this year. Their blossoms are coming up now and by mid-August I should have some delicious green squash. I spread out the plants to two regions of the garden, but they are doing the best in the bed next to the house. They have optimum growing conditions there: sun in the morning and early afternoon, but shade in the hottest part of the day, good soil drainage, but not too much coverage that it prevents them from getting properly soaked in the rain.

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Squash are a great starter plant for those with thumbs more black than green. They take little upkeep once you get them started, they look very attractive in the garden, and they yield delicious fruit that can be cooked in a variety of ways. When mine start coming in, I’ll have to post some of my favorite recipes.

Crunchy Manifesto

Living a healthier, more natural life is something we hear a lot about lately. It seems like every other magazine and talk show tells us to eat more seaweed or use paper made from kangaroo poop. (Next week of course, they might tell us that the seaweed will kill us! Statements to be retracted the week after that.)

The problem most people have is trying to find balance. Can we really shed some of the chemicals from our life without having to take drastic and time consuming measures? And can these small changes make us healthier and happier? I think they can. No doubt, you’ve realized that it can be hard work to live more consciously. Not all of us can sell up and move out into the country to raise chickens on our own homestead. Not all of us would even want to do so.

Finding the way to balancing natural sensibilities in a crowded modern life is what this blog is here for. Each week I will post recipes, tutorials, product reviews, and consumer tips to help you sort through the piles of options out there. Learn from my mistakes and my triumphs, all splayed across the internet to make your journey easier. Each post will be accompanied by extras like photos, links, notes from friends and family that kindly let me experiment on them, and even the occasional interview with local farmers and herbalists.

So, welcome and please feel free to join the conversation.