Thursday, December 31, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is Considered Middle Class in America?

Last year, I ran across Bob Sullivan's "Restless Project" series on Money Talks News, in which he argued that today, a middle-class family needs to spend at least $100,000 a year "just to feel like it's paying all the bills." I took issue with some of his calculations, and you can read about why in the original post, but I was interested by his attempt to pin down the idea of just what a middle-class lifestyle means. According to his argument, a typical middle-class family has:
  • Two working parents
  • One child in day care
  • One child in private school
  • A 3-bedroom apartment "near one of America's largest cities - Washington, D.C., or Seattle, or Chicago"
  • $500 per month in student loan debt
I had this picture in the back of my mind as I worked on my latest Money Crashers article, which explores just what it means to be middle class. As it turns out, defining the middle class is an extremely touchy subject, and no two authorities seem to agree on what the term really means. I explored news articles, academics, and opinion surveys, and I found many different definitions based on many different factors, from income and net worth to lifestyle and life goals.

I find this topic interesting from a personal point of view, because I'm always trying to figure out where exactly in the American class structure I personally belong. I've never been entirely sure whether the term "middle-class" really fits me or not, and I feel like my research on this article has only muddied the waters further. According to some definitions, like Robert Reich's (which defines a household as middle-class if its annual income falls anywhere between $21,433 and $112,262), Brian and I are solidly middle-class. Yet according to other guidelines, like this interactive graphic in the New York Times, our combination of income, wealth, jobs, and education makes us upper-middle-class rather than middle-class. And our lifestyle makes us middle-class in some ways (owning a home, having health insurance, saving for retirement) but not others (no kids, no regular vacations, annual spending below $38,000 per year). So I still can't say definitively whether I belong to the middle class or not—but at least I can explain why I'm not sure.

Anyway, if you're interested in the same question, whether from a personal standpoint or a purely academic one, you can examine the topic from all angles here:

What Is Considered Middle Class in America? – Definition, Income Range & Jobs

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A disturbing discovery about Fair Trade

Way back in May, while working on my article about organic food for Money Crashers, I noticed that they'd never actually done a piece on the site about Fair Trade. So I added that topic to my list of article ideas, and this month I finally got around to writing the article. In it, I discuss the goals of the Fair Trade movement, the various Fair Trade labels and what they mean, where to find various kinds of Fair Trade products, and how to buy Fair Trade on a budget. You can read about all that here: What Is Fair Trade and What Does It Mean? – Definition, Products & Facts

While working on this piece, I discovered something rather interesting. As I mentioned two years ago, I now buy all my coffee from IKEA because it's UTZ Certified—but I'd always sort of assumed that in doing so, I was making a kind of ecofrugal compromise. UTZ is often described as "Fair Trade light," so I figured its environmental and social standards weren't as stringent as "real" Fair Trade's—but since it's still a lot better than mainstream coffee, I considered it the best overall balance between cost and sustainability.

Well, it turns out I may have had it backwards. While researching Fair Trade standards, I came across a very troubling article in The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper. Researchers from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London had spent four whole years investigating plantations in Ethiopia and Uganda, and they made a startling discovery: the workers in the areas dominated by Fair Trade collectives generally made less money and had worse working conditions than those where the main growers were big plantations run by big, evil international corporations. This was true even when they controlled for other factors, like the scale of production.

Furthermore, the researchers found that the community development projects funded by Fair Trade premiums—things like schools and medical clinics—often weren't available to the poorest workers. One cooperative had installed new toilets, but they were only for the use of the co-op's senior managers. Another had built a medical clinic, but the families of the cooperative's former workers couldn't use it without paying a fee. And one used the Fair Trade premiums to improve its schools, not by cutting fees so more students could afford to go there, but by building new housing for the teachers, who were already far wealthier than its workers. As a result, the school fees remain out of most workers' reach.

Still more disturbing was the Fairtrade Foundation's response to the SOAS report. They began by saying they "welcomed" the research and would use it to improve their work—but they followed that up by saying the whole thing was fundamentally flawed and shouldn't be taken seriously. They also claimed that "many independent academic studies" showed their Fair Trade model actually does improve the lives of the poor, so this report, which found otherwise, simply couldn't be right. In other words, rather than expressing their concerns about the report's findings and pledging to root out the problems it exposed, they basically said, "Nuh-uh!"

SOAS itself released a response to the Fairtrade Foundation, pointing out several problems with the accusations it made:

  1. The Fairtrade Foundation claims that SOAS "failed to find Fairtrade certified farms for half its research sites...making a balanced comparison between Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade systems impossible." SOAS points out that they did not "fail to find" anything; the whole point of their research was to compare areas dominated by Fairtrade production with areas that weren't. That doesn't "make a balanced comparison impossible"; it's the very thing that makes it possible.
  2. Fairtrade says the SOAS comparisons were "distorted," because they looked both at large plantations and at small grower collectives. SOAS explains that, first of all, they controlled for size and still found that Fairtrade has no benefit; and second, what matters to consumers is whether the workers are better off or worse, and they were generally better off on the big farms because they paid more, had better working conditions, and provided more days of work. (As a side note, this mades the decision of Fair Trade USA to split off from Fairtrade International in 2011 so that it could apply its certification to large plantations as well as small collectives—widely lambasted at the time by Fair Trade groups such as Equal Exchange and the Fair World Project—seem not only reasonable, but constructive.)
  3. Fairtrade claims that other studies show their model does work. SOAS points out that their own study is "by far the most rigorous study of the impact of Fairtrade on workers to date," and the other studies Fairtrade refers to were mostly their own work. In one case, they looked at three producer organizations and talked to a grand total of four workers—in the presence of their manager. In another study, the researchers refused to go beyond a four-hour drive from Nairobi because they didn't want to spend a night outside the capital. And in a third, which involved "3,750 interviews across six products in just 30 days," the researchers themselves remarked on how little they had managed to learn. And finally, SOAS notes, while Fairtrade claims its studies prove the Fairtrade model improves the lives of workers, most "independent reviews of impact studies" find little to no evidence that it does.
So in short, the most extensive study of Fair Trade (or rather, the Fairtrade International model) finds that it doesn't help workers, and may actually harm them. Under the circumstances, I think my decision to go with UTZ-certified coffee—which, unlike Fairtrade, focuses largely on "better farming methods" to improve yields, and hence raise incomes—may actually be the best possible choice.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Money Crashers: 4 Things With Falling Prices That Are More Affordable Than Ever

Remember how, last April, I made the discovery that a home solar system might be more affordable than I realized? I'd sought out quotes on solar panels in the past, but the upshot at that time seemed to be that our electric bills were so low, a solar system wouldn't really pay for itself over its lifetime. However, when I rechecked the figures last spring, I found that the cost of solar energy had apparently dropped enough to make solar panels a reasonable investment—though they'd still take around 10 years to pay for themselves in energy savings.

As it turns out, solar power is only one item that's fallen dramatically in price in recent years. Gas prices have dropped sharply in the past year or two, while airfares and electronics have been declining in cost for decades. My latest piece for Money Crashers discusses the reasons why these four items have fallen in price, how their lower costs could affect you, and whether the trend is likely to continue.

Read about it here: 4 Things With Falling Prices That Are More Affordable Than Ever

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Money Crashers: What to Do With Unwanted Holiday Gifts

My previous Money Crashers, on buying and making green holiday gifts, came out a bit late for Christmas (and way too late for Hanukkah). This one, by contrast, is a bit early: It's all about what to do with those holiday gifts you can't use. I offer tips on making returns and exchanges go smoothly, as well as advice on considerate regifting. There's also a section on how to host a post-holiday gift swap party, where you and your pals can exchange your unwanted gifts for others that, ideally, are more useful.

Read it here: What to Do With Unwanted Holiday Gifts – How to Return, Exchange & Regift

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Money Crashers: Green Gifts for the Holidays

When I started working for the now-defunct ShopSmart site last year, one of the articles I proposed was eco-friendly gifts for the holidays. They rejected it on the grounds that "green" stories didn't "resonate" with their readers, but I held on to the idea and successfully pitched it to Money Crashers this year. The article discusses what types of gifts are considered "green," offers green gift ideas for various types of people, and points you toward DIY resources for making your own. I made a particular point of getting it written before Thanksgiving, so they'd have plenty of time to get it up on the site before Christmas.

Well, turns out I needn't have bothered. Money Crashers sat on the article for weeks and finally got around to publishing it today—four whole days before Christmas, and over a week past the end of Hanukkah. By this time, everyone except the most extreme procrastinators is already finished with holiday shopping, and no one has any time to start a new DIY project before Santa comes crashing down the chimney.

But seeing as how it's there, I suppose I might as well pass it along to all of you. Even if it's too late for this Christmas, I suppose it can always I help you get a head start on some ideas for next year. Here's the article: How to Buy or Make Green, Eco-Friendly Gifts for the Holidays

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: The Changing of the Garden

As usual, Brian and I are spending Christmas week in Indiana with his family, away from our house and our garden. But we've also stuck with the tradition we started last year of bringing the Fedco seed catalogue with us, so we can discuss this year's garden and choose crops for next year.

This year, some crops did very well, others very poorly—and they weren't necessarily the same crops that performed well or poorly in the past. So I'm going to do this post in the style of the "hits and misses" column in the paper, outlining our garden's successes and failures of 2015 and what we intend to do about them in 2016.

HIT: The arugula, which gave us only a modest crop in the spring, but then reseeded itself (partly in the bed where it was planted, partly in the paths between the beds) to provide a much more ample crop in the fall. In fact, the fall crop of arugula is still producing, even after several hard frosts, and probably will keep going until either we eat it all or the ground freezes solid.
To do: Replenish our stock of this variety (Rocket OG) for next year.

The basil, which once again produced a monster crop this year thanks to our "carpet sowing" method. We have stored enough, both in frozen cubes and packed in oil, to get us through the winter easily (especially since we still have a tiny bit of our 2014 crop left).
To do: Replenish our stock of this variety (Sweet Basil OG) and stick with the "carpet sowing" method.

MISS: The broccolini, a new crop that we tried for the first time this year. We'd had no success growing standard broccoli, but we hoped that the broccolini might prove easier to grow and possibly tastier as well. But alas, like the head broccoli, it produced only a few little, scrawny stalks.
To do: Drop the broccolini as a crop and instead take another crack at growing eggplant, a veggie we go through quite a lot of since we discovered/invented our recipe for eggplant and string beans in garlic sauce. Our previous attempts to grow eggplant were miserable failures; first the squirrels pulled the fruits off before they got larger than thumb-sized, and then, after Brian invented his squirrel excluder to keep them out, the seedlings we started were so scrawny that they never produced any decent-sized fruits. But Brian thinks our new seed starting method, which combines sterilized garden soil with potting mix, may succeed in producing large enough plants to give us decent-sized fruits. So we're planning to buy some of the Pingtung variety, a long Chinese-style eggplant that's supposed to be vigorous and reasonably high-yielding.

MISS: The Brussels sprouts. We made a point of starting them early this year, and the plants got nice and big and leafy...but the actual sprouts, the part you eat, still haven't grown big enough to harvest. On the plus side, the plants still seem to be healthy even despite the near-freezing temperatures, so we figure we'll just leave them out there in the garden until they either die or provide edible sprouts. If they're still alive in the spring, we'll just let them stay put.
To do: Seeing as how we did manage to get some actual sprouts on the plants this year, we figure it's worth one more try to see if we can get any that are big enough to make a nice batch of roasted Brussels sprouts. This time, we're planning to try removing the lower leaves from the plant, which is supposed to encourage the sprouts to grow bigger. If that still doesn't give us a decent harvest, I think we'll just give up on this crop and resign ourselves to buying our sprouts at the store.

MISS: The cucumbers. Although both varieties we planted this year, the Marketmore and the Calypso, are listed in the catalogue as "tolerant to PM" (powdery mildew), both sets of vines were pretty badly infected with it this year, as were all our other squash plants. We still got a modest crop off them, but not nearly as many as we were anticipating, considering the absurdly huge harvest we got in 2014.
To do: Don't ditch the remaining Calypso and Marketmore seeds we have, but do add a new variety, Cross Country, which is described as actually "resistant to PM" rather than merely "tolerant."

HIT: The green beans, a bush variety called Provider OG that gave us a pretty decent harvest—enough for a few meals—in only three squares of space.
To do: Check our stock of these seeds, and buy more if needed.

HIT: The leeks, which produced plenty of healthy, decent-sized plants.
To do: Check our stock of this variety (Lincoln), and buy more if needed.

MISS: The lettuce. We planted three varieties of lettuce this year: the Summer Mix we grew last year, a new variety called Blushed Butter Oaks that was supposed to be an early producer, and a cold-hardy variety called Winter Marvel that could allegedly keep producing all winter long. Unfortunately, none of these gave us much of a crop. The Blushed Butter Oaks produced almost nothing; the Summer Mix gave us a few scattered leaves throughout the summer; and the Winter Marvel has yet to yield a significant amount—though it is still growing, so I guess there's hope for the winter.
To do: Let the Winter Marvel overwinter and see how it does before deciding whether it's worth planting more next year. In the spring, we'll try going back to a butterhead variety—perhaps the Tom Thumb we've grown successfully in the past, or maybe a new one like Bronze Mignonette. But since we can't count on a good crop of lettuce with any of these varieties, we'll devote less space to it next year—maybe just three or four squares—and plant the rest with New Zealand spinach. (We bought some of this last year, planning to plant it in the side yard, and then forgot to do it, so we'll try it in the garden next year and hope it's still good.)

MIXED: The lima beans. The vines grew to huge size and looked really impressive, but we didn't actually get that much edible material off them.
To do: Go ahead and plant them again next year. They didn't give us that much food, but they didn't take up that much space, either, since they grew entirely on trellises—and Brian says he finds it very satisfying to see at least one set of really big, green, thriving plants in the garden.

HIT: Our new Vanilla marigolds, which bloomed clear into November and supplied us with lots of beautiful blossoms for the table (though unfortunately we had to keep them under glass so the kitties wouldn't eat them). I couldn't tell whether they actually did anything to keep bugs off the tomatoes, as marigolds are supposed to do, but they sure looked nice.
To do: Go ahead and buy some more of these. At $1.30 for a tiny little packet, they're a bit pricier than some of our other crops, but they're still way cheaper than buying fresh-cut flowers.

MISS: The peppers. Since we've had such terrible luck with pepper seedlings in the past, we decided not to start any peppers at all this year, but to buy four plants at the Rutgers plant sale. Two of these, a jalapeno and a frying pepper called Mamma Mia Giallo, did okay, but both the bell peppers—Staddons Select and Chocolate Beauty—failed miserably, producing maybe one or two edible peppers apiece.
To do: Since bell peppers never seem to do well in our yard no matter what we do, we're not bothering with them at all next year. And since we already have plenty of jalapenos in the freezer, we shouldn't need to grow more of those next year either. So we're going to buy another frying pepper (the Jimmy Nardello variety we've tried with moderate success in the past) and make another attempt to order the highly touted Klari Baby Cheese pepper, making absolutely sure to say NO SUBSTITUTIONS on the order form this time. Then we'll start these with our new seed-starting method and see whether the resulting plants are healthy enough to go out in the garden without being mistaken for worms by hungry birds.

HIT: The scallions. Our generic white scallion seeds, carpet sown across four squares, kept us in scallions all summer long.
To do: Check our stock of these seeds and replenish as needed.

HIT: Our new Cascadia snap peas, which gave us a plentiful crop that lasted well into June.
To do: Continue to devote one full trellis to this crop next year (and continue to start them as early as possible).

MIXED: The butternut squash. We grew two varieties this year, the fast-ripening Ponca Baby and the larger Waltham OG, and neither one gave us all that many squash. Moreover, some of the Walthams didn't ripen fully before the frost hit and we had to pick them all.
To do: After searching the catalogue, we couldn't find another variety that was both good-sized and fast-growing, so we're planning to continue planting both of these next year. That way we can hope to get some larger squash, while still being sure of some that will have a chance to ripen fully.

MIXED: The tomatoes. We grew four varieties this year:
  1. our usual highly productive Sun Golds;
  2. a new mid-season variety called Black Prince OG, which was moderately productive;
  3. Amish Paste, which didn't give us that many overall, but kept going longer into the fall than the others; and
  4. Moskvitch, an early-season plant we bought at the Rutgers plant sale, which didn't actually produce much of anything.
To do: Stick with the first three, but try to find a new early-season tomato that we can start ourselves. With our new seed-starting method, we figure we have a good chance of producing a vigorous enough plant to actually give us an early crop. We've got our eye on a variety called Glacier, which ripens in a mere 56 days and is highly cold-tolerant.

HIT: The zucchini. Even though we lost one of our two plants to squash vine borers and the other suffered badly from powdery mildew, we still managed to get a reasonably
plentiful crop.
To do: Stick with the Raven variety we grew this year. We considered trying a new one called Sebring that's supposed to resist powdery mildew, but there's no such thing as a zucchini plant that can resist borers, and we can't be sure the Sebring's overall production will match the Raven. So we're keeping the bird in the hand.

So those are our plants for our 2016 garden. As soon as we get home, we'll check our existing seed supply and place our order with Fedco, so we have as good a chance as possible of getting everything on our list. Stay tuned to hear more about our new crops in February, when the Festival of Seeds rolls around.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is the Tiny House Movement

About a year ago, I stumbled on the phenomenon of Tiny Houses while browsing on HGTV (the only channel in our cable lineup that I actually miss now that we're cable-free again). I found these minute homes oddly fascinating; they're so small they look almost like a child's playhouse, yet they're so fully fitted out that you can actually live in them - and live pretty well, if the shows are to be believed. Watching the Tiny House shows is like exploring the model apartments at IKEA, which somehow pack space for cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, working and relaxing into 250 or 400 square feet. You keep finding new nooks and crannies turned to uses you never would have imagined and marveling at the designers' cleverness.

The whole concept intrigued me so much that I decided to write a story for Money Crashers about it—basically allowing me to spend a couple of days exploring Tiny House sites and get paid for it. In the article, I outline the various types of tiny houses, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of living in a space less than 500 square feet in size. Then I provide profiles of several tiny house owners - single folks, families, and collectives - and discuss the ways they cope with the challenges of tiny house living. Finally, I wrap it all up with some resources for those who would like to find out more.

Read all about it here: What Is the Tiny House Movement – Plans, Resources, Pros & Cons

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Money Crashers: What Are Pop-Up Retail Stores

For a few years now, I've been lamenting about all the empty storefronts along Raritan Avenue (the main drag here in Highland Park). It seemed like every time a new store opened up to fill one of the vacancies, another one would close somewhere else, and the total number of blank store windows never got any smaller.

Just recently, however, it's started to seem like the tide is finally turning. The last several stores to have closed along Raritan Avenue in the past few months have all found new tenants almost immediately. The former health food store turned into additional space for a gym two doors down the street; a Chinese restaurant reopened with a new name; an organic spa turned into a new spa; a thrift shop became a new salon (something our town can apparently support a virtually unlimited number of); and a jewelry shop closed briefly and reopened as a "vintage" shop (which still sells mostly jewelry, so I think that was more rebranding than replacement).

And a couple of weeks ago, one of the empty storefronts across from the supermarket suddenly started sporting holiday decorations, an assortment of gift baskets, and a sign in the window saying "Pino's Holiday Baskets." A signboard inside the door explained that this was a "pop-up" expansion of Pino's, a local wine store that's been a Highland Park fixture for 85 years.

Pop-up stores, for those who don't know, are temporary businesses that set up shop in empty storefronts and other unused spaces, like public parks. Some, like the Pino's store, provide extra space for local businesses; others are new outlets for local artists and artisans. Some even serve as short-term "incubators" for businesses that eventually find a permanent home.

Coincidentally, not long before the Pino's pop-up store opened, I wrote an article all about this new business trend for Money Crashers, which has just been posted. It goes into details about the different types of pop-up stores, the ways they can benefit a community, and how to host your own one-day pop-up event...or even start a local pop-up initiative to encourage this type of store on a regular basis.

Get all the details here: What Are Pop-Up Retail Stores – Benefits and How to Support Them

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Soup of the Month: Sausage-Spinach Soup

Well, here it is at last: the final Soup of the Month for 2015. And this is a particularly special recipe to wrap up the year with, because it's the first one I invented all by myself.

This recipe is loosely based on Brian's vegetarian chili recipe, which substitutes Lightlife Gimme Lean Veggie Beef for ground beef. For the two of us, he browns half a tube of the Gimme Lean, then sets it aside and sautes a chopped green pepper, onion, and garlic. Then all this goes into the pot with two cups (or one can) of cooked kidney beans, a can of tomatoes, and three tablespoons of our homemade chili powder, and he just simmers it until it's nice and thick.

Brian was planning on making this chili for his family over Christmas, but he thought we might have to bring our own tube of Gimme Lean, because the stores in their area don't seem to sell it. I suggested Trader Joe's, but he reminded me that they no longer carry the Gimme Lean beef; they only have the sausage version. And that got me wondering: just what would you have if you tried to make this recipe with the sausage instead of the beef?

I quickly realized it wouldn't work as a chili, because the flavors aren't compatible. But you could use the same basic method—brown the sausage, then the veggies, then put it all in a pot with beans and appropriate seasonings. I thought white beans would probably make a better complement to the sausage than kidney beans, and sage and bay leaf would make compatible seasonings. I hesitated over the tomatoes, but eventually decided to leave them out and use veggie stock instead to make up the volume. And then, since it seemed like it could still use some more veggies, I decided some spinach would make a good finishing touch.

Now, we actually ended up making two versions of this, because the first time he tried it, Brian forgot the spinach. He also used veggie stock made with our Penzey's Vegetable Soup Base, a powerful, savory mix that's great for raising the flavor of an otherwise bland vegetable soup—but this stuff already had plenty of flavor from the sausage and onion and garlic and seasonings in there, so when made the soup base, it was actually too flavorful. Brian said he quite liked it, but I thought it was a bit too much, and I also felt like it really needed more veggies.

So the next night, we tried it again, leaving out the soup base and throwing in half a pound of thawed frozen spinach—plus an extra can of white beans so the spinach wouldn't be too dominant. Yet even so, the finished dish was awfully spinach-heavy. As I suspected, it had plenty of flavor even without the soup stock—all Brian had to add was a teaspoon of salt—but the spinach really dominated the texture.

I think the ideal version of this soup would probably be a cross between the first and second versions: some spinach, but not so much that it's the primary ingredient, and some soup base, but not so much that the flavor packs too hard a punch. So I think we'll be trying this again some time soon, this time cutting back the spinach to just 4 ounces, or else substituting an equal volume of chopped fresh spinach (which is less dense) for frozen. And perhaps we'll use some of the Penzey's soup base in the stock, but at half rather than full strength. With those two tweaks, I think this soup will be exactly what I envisioned: a hearty, savory, filling soup that, eked out by whole-wheat biscuits, makes a satisfying meal on a cold winter night. In other words, an ideal alternative to chili when you're in the mood for a change of flavor.

So, with this recipe, I've successfully carried out my resolution to try a new soup or salad each month for 2015. But I have to admit, it wasn't easy. Limiting myself to soups and salads, rather than any kind of veggie dish, made it much harder to find suitable recipes, and there were some months when I ended up having to fudge the definition of "soup" or "salad" a bit to squeeze my recipe in. Plus there were a couple of interesting-looking new recipes that I clipped out of magazines but ended up not trying, because they weren't soups or salads, and if I only had time to try one new dish that month, it had to be a soup or a salad.

So I think for 2016, I'll probably expand my horizons a little. Instead of limiting myself to soups and salads, I'll make my Recipe of the Month any dish that puts either fruit or veggies front and center as the focus of the meal. That should promote my ultimate goal of making healthy fruits and veggies a bigger part of my diet, without putting too many restrictions on how we accomplish that goal.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Become a Vegetarian

I just had a look at the list of labels I use on my posts here, and I discovered, not much to my surprise, that the most common of all is "food." (It's currently beating "gardening" by 178 posts to 143.) I think this topic comes up more often than any other for two reasons:
  1. It's something you need every day. Home renovations may only get done every few years; new crops only go into the garden once a year; but you've always got to eat.
  2. It's an infinitely rich and varied topic. There are only so many things you can say about yard sale shopping or invasive plants (though every so often I do learn something new), but there's literally no limit to the number of ways to grow, prepare, and serve food.
Since I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, a large percentage of the posts I make about food are about vegetarian cooking. I'm not a true vegetarian, as I'll eat meat that's humanely raised, but since that stuff is pretty expensive, we eat very few meals that truly center on meat. We'll do it for something truly worthwhile, like Chicken in Rhubarb Sauce, but most of our meals contain no meat at all or use only a touch of it as a flavoring agent, like a bit of bacon in a pot of baked beans. The only reason I haven't made "vegetarian" a separate category is that nearly all the recipes I post are vegetarian anyway, so it seemed superfluous.

However, I've never really made a post here that was specifically about vegetarianism: its benefits, its challenges, and the ways to adapt to it if you're used to a meat-centered diet. So for those who are curious to learn more about this subject, my latest Money Crashers article is a good place to look. It's a complete primer on vegetarianism, covering:
  • The many different types of vegetarian diets, and what they all mean
  • The answer to the age-old question, "But what do you eat?"
  • The benefits of a meatless or meat-light diet, including animal welfare, environmental benefits, health benefits, and lower cost
  • How to make sure you get enough of specific nutrients
  • Learning how to cook vegetarian
  • How to stick to a vegetarian diet when eating out or dining with friends 
Get all the details here: How to Become a Vegetarian – Diet Types, Benefits Challenges

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cat-safe holiday decorations

A couple of years ago, I started putting up holiday decorations indoors as well as out. Since the decorations I use outside are a simple mixture of natural greenery and ribbons, I continued this theme inside, with bits of evergreen, pine cones, and red berries, dressed up with some bright holiday ribbon. The only store-bought touch was the jingle-bell ornaments I hung from lengths of ribbon on each of the doors along the upstairs hallway.

I was pretty satisfied with this decorating scheme, but it didn't take me more than a minute to realize some parts of it just weren't going to work with our new cats in the house. Unlike sedate Amélie, who almost never jumped on anything higher than the futon, these cats get into, onto, and through everything within reach. If I tried to put baskets of evergreens on top of the tables, the cats would be sure to drag all the green stuff out of the baskets to play with or, worse still, eat. As for those little jingly bells, I was sure the kitties would find them so fascinating that they would jump up and bat at the doors as many times as it took to bring them down, and when that was done, they'd try to pull down the ribbon and shred it.

So this year, I figured I'd have to modify my decorations to make them cat-safe. For the most part, this meant putting them in high-up locations where the cats either can't or don't care to jump. Thus, I was able to keep my little pots of greenery on top of the living room bookshelf...

...and even add a couple more on the office bookcase.

I was also able to keep the bunches of evergreens in the pitchers on top of the living room TV cabinet, since that surface is too cluttered with pottery for the cats to jump on it. In fact, we've even added a few new items, a set of dessert dishes from my folks...and since I couldn't use the jingle-bell ornaments on the doors, I came up with the idea of putting them into these dessert dishes with a little spray of evergreen each and then twining the ribbons around their stems. That looked so nice that I added one to the colander full of pine cones, as well, and I think the finished display is both festive and elegant.

That still left me with one jingle-bell and length of attached ribbon, and I found the perfect place for that on top of the bathroom medicine chest, yet another spot the cats don't jump onto because it's too narrow for them. I just tucked the bell into the potted plant that's sitting up there, twined the ribbon around its basket, and set a little pear ornament next to it to reinforce the holiday theme.

In the kitchen, I was able to keep my usual arrangement on top of the refrigerator, with a pair of snowman salt and pepper shakers accompanied by a star tree topper my folks got us from Ten Thousand Villages. I added another of my little evergreen pots and our menorah to round out this holiday grouping. (We figure we'll have to set the menorah up there after lighting it all throughout Hanukkah anyway, since it's the only place we can put it where it's out of the cats' reach and away from anything flammable.)

That left me with no decorations in the guest room or anywhere downstairs. There is one surface in the guest room that's out of the cats' reach, but it's entirely covered with toys (mostly belonging to Brian, though I'll own up to a few of them). But toys are a natural match for Christmas, so I figured all they needed was something to dress them up. I was all out of the red and silver sparkly ribbon, so I pulled out a length of some other holiday ribbon I had and draped that around the shoulders of the Iron Giant and across the rest of the gathering.

The big downstairs room (still can't quite make up my mind what to call it—I thought I'd settled on "rec room," but it doesn't roll naturally off my tongue) posed a problem. Last year I put pots of evergreens on both windowsills, but I know the cats habitually hang out on one of those windowsills, and the other is at least theoretically reachable for them. I could only find one spot that was definitely out of the cats' reach: a teeny-weeny little shelf on the very top of the etagère where we keep our family photos. So I set one last little pot of evergreens in that spot, though it isn't much decoration for such a large room. Maybe I need to make something a little bigger, like one of those miniature tabletop Christmas trees. In that spot, we could probably even hang ornaments on it without having to fear that they'd end up as cat toys.

And finally, since I'd added some decoration in the upstairs bathroom, I decided to do some in the downstairs bath as well. The one high-up spot is on top of the corner cabinet where I keep my collection of cobalt glassware, so I did the same thing there that I'd done with the toys in the office; twined the last little bits of silver ribbon through the glassware, as well as a piece of gold star garland that I'd picked up at some office party. Since the downstairs bath has a sort of sun-moon-and-stars decorating scheme, this fits in quite nicely.

Ta-da! Cat-safe holiday decorations, on a budget. In fact, since all the ribbon and other materials was reused from last year, we actually didn't spend a penny on them. Though I might be inclined to pop into the dollar store and see if I can find any more of that red or silver ribbon...I think there are a couple of light fixtures I could drape some on while still keeping it out of reach of curious paws.