Take your pick of fun ways to be green and healthy on the home front. Ruth Brown looks at the benefits (or not) of do it yourself over going shopping.
The news about our planet is increasingly dire - oil is running out, the Earth is getting hotter and we all have too much stuff. At the same time, with small children keeping us busy, there's little time for saving the world.
Here at OHbaby! we take saving the planet seriously but it's got to be a practical step in the right direction which busy mums can achieve. Of course, there are lots of well-publicised ways of being eco-friendly - using energy-saving light bulbs, recycling as much as possible… but what else can the average family do to turn around the grim forecast for our planet?
We've looked for fun and interesting ways you can make a difference at home. We've consulted the experts and scored each eco activity out of five for how easy it is to achieve, its contribution to saving the planet, how much money you'll save and the health benefits for your family. But besides that, the feel good factor of doing something creative and healthy on the home front is likely to score top marks every time.
Baking bread, cakes, biscuits...
Do you like baking? If not, the amount of time and effort required for baking is hardly going to make you feel good, despite the health benefits and cost-savings for your family.
But many people get a huge kick out of creating fresh and delicious goodies. And the good news is it will save you a bit of cash as well as being a whole lot tastier and more nutritious.
Cakes and biscuits: Wendyl Nissen, who writes "Wendyl Wants to Know" in the New Zealand Herald, is a big fan of crushed-biscuit uncooked squares. They're easy, they use Round Wines or Vanilla Wines which don't have too much wrong with them, and children love them.
Wendyl says when you're looking at bought biscuits it's not all about artificial colours and preservatives - they might have five preservatives and five emulsifiers.
"They won't kill you but they don't need to be in there," she says.
If you're serious about baking, start buying in bulk from places like Bin Inn. You'll save more and reduce the packaging.
Bread: Bread-making is an old-fashioned homecraft that can seem daunting but if you talk to Wendyl, it's simply 10 minutes in the evening, leave to rise overnight and by lunchtime you'll have fresh bread. She has a no-knead recipe on her website, www.wendylsgreengoddess.co.nz.
"It's like a lot of old-fashioned recipes - it takes time but it's time when you can also be doing other things."
Making your own bread can save you money, particularly if you buy ingredients in bulk, but any nutritional gains depend on whether you buy Vogels or a cheaper supermarket brand. Using the cheapest supermarket flour, we estimated you could make a loaf for about $2.32. It's possible to buy a loaf of white for less than that but most good-quality multigrain breads are nearly double that price.
Some of the cheaper brands have emulsifiers and PH-regulators to keep the bread softer and fresher for longer. If your bread is still fresh and soft after a week in the fridge there's something that's making it do that and, "it's not very good!" says Wendyl.
These breads may also have colouring to keep it looking white and are likely to be higher in salt and sugar.
Jam: Making your own jam is something Grandma would do every summer, but again, it seems rather a chore.
Not really, says the irrepressible Wendyl. The point about preserving fruit is to capture that fresh ingredient in season so you can enjoy it in winter. It may be that you have some fresh fruit that needs using up. Why not make just one jar of jam? she says.
It won't cost much and will avoid the fillers, such as apple purée, used in some cheaper jams.
Making your own muesli
Breakfast cereals are increasingly getting a bad rap for the amount of salt and sugar in them. Try this toasted muesli that will taste delicious as well as being packed only with good things. You can tailor it to your family - maybe add a few rice bubbles or cornflakes at the end for a lighter version.
Remember, this recipe will make a lot of muesli. Price-wise, it will work out a bit cheaper than buying a box of muesli if you go to bulk-buy shops. And you'll know it has no refined sugar or salt.
1kg whole rolled oats
300g sunflower seeds
300g pumpkin seeds
300g blanched peanuts
300g blanched almonds
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup liquid honey
3 tbs maple syrup
2 tbs oil
1 cup raisins
1 cup dried apricots (chopped)
Cook for 10 minutes in a moderate oven then turn in the pan. Return to the oven and cook for another 10 minutes. Repeat process until golden brown. When cooled a little, add raisins and apricots.
Making your own cheese
Cheese-making is one of the latest crazes for enthusiastic home-makers, but is it really worth the time and effort required? And what's the pay-off - in the pocket as well as for the planet?
If you have preschoolers it's a good idea to stick to soft cheeses, says veteran cheese-maker Katherine Mowbray, who runs cheese-making courses. And if you're a lover of specialty cheeses you can save a packet at the supermarket. Two litres of whole pasteurised milk from the supermarket (cost: about $5.60) will make 300g of delicious haloumi. In comparison, the popular Lemnos haloumi sells for at least $9-10 per 180g at Countdown.
The cost of making feta, ricotta and quark are the same as for haloumi and Katherine assures us they taste so much better than bought ones.
"It's like the difference between a home-made muffin and a shop-bought one. A shop-bought one is nice but a fresh home-made one is so much nicer."
As for the health benefits, you'll certainly avoid some of the preservatives you find in supermarket cheeses but cheese is essentially preserved milk anyway, with salt, cultures and the removal of water keeping bacteria at bay.
Making your own cheese will save on food miles - and therefore the carbon footprint - if the bought alternative is from overseas, but for New Zealand products the saving is less significant.
Katherine, who has been making cheese for 27 years, is encouraging about mums and dads getting in the kitchen with the kids looking on or lending a hand.
"It's a wonderful thing for early childhood education - as far as little children learning and doing things goes."
While there are cheese-maker kits on the market, you don't really need such a lot of expensive gear for soft cheeses. A large strainer, plastic buckets, a big pot, cheesecloth, possibly sterilising tablets and a thermometer will be your main equipment.
For more info go to Katherine's site www.cheesemaking.co.nz.
Making cleaning products
Avoiding chemicals around the home is a number one winner for the environment and your family's health, particularly if any of you suffer skin conditions. But is it easy?
It's hard to beat the power of good old Jif, but if you want to give it a go, try baking soda moistened with water. As far as other cleaners go, there are some very easy alternatives to commercial ones that are just as effective and smell fresh and delicious. For the floor, simply fill a bucket with hot water, add a cup or two of white vinegar and a good sprinkle of teatree (or lavender) oil drops. The oil costs about $12 for 10ml.
For an effective spray-and-wipe, mix 350ml of hot water with 150ml of white vinegar, a good squirt of detergent, a teaspoon of borax or baking soda and a quarter teaspoon of teatree (or lavender or orange) oil.
Making your own dishwashing liquids and liquid hand soaps is not an easy or practical option but there's now a good range of eco-friendly products on the market which do cost a little more but are just as effective.
As far as eco-friendly laundry powder goes, for us the jury is still out on whether it's just as effective as conventionally-produced brands.
So basically it's very easy to make some cleaning products but for others you'll need to leave it to the experts.
Making skincare products
Ah, pretty smells, pretty bottles. But these luxury items are expensive and, if you read the ingredients, contain a welter of nasty-sounding chemicals.
Unfortunately, making up moisturisers and cleansers is not particularly easy. It requires a range of specialist ingredients, such as emulsifying wax and essential oils, plus be prepared for some costly "teething problems" as you seek out that perfectly balanced, silky cream that's just like a bought one.
At the same time, making skincare products can be a lot of fun, and not all of them require a high level of skill. Toners, scrubs and face masks made with fresh ingredients are easy and effective.
Make a fragrance diffuser
Choose your own naturally gorgeous scent for a home-made diffuser.
Make your own clothes
This is definitely a labour of love in these times when a tee-shirt costs $5-$10, thanks to cheap overseas labour in the garment industry. For children's clothing in particular, the idea of making a baby's onesie is almost laughable when you can buy one for less than $15. But running up a gathered skirt for your four year old or a flannelette nightie for a newborn? Now that's where the love comes in.
The fabrics themselves, on the other hand, win no prizes for eco-friendliness. In fact, the textile industry is the number one industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet, according to the Fabrics International website.
There's no doubt that if everyone started buying organic cotton sheets, towels and clothing the world would be a much better place because of the heavy use of insecticides and other highly poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals used in conventional cotton production.
Yet the cost of organic cotton is prohibitive on any large scale. You will often pay 50-100% more, and some things cost three times as much. If you're keen on home-sewing, though, and passionate about saving the earth, go to www.vidatextiles.co.nz for a great New Zealand range of gorgeous organic textiles.
For babies and children's clothes, though, things are a little different. While prices vary hugely, often it costs only a few more dollars to buy an organic cotton onesie. And most baby retailers now stock organic options.
Remember, even if you don't go organic when you're slaving over your sewing machine, at least you're not using cheap foreign labour in China.
Knit your own dishcloths!
Are you a knitter? There's nothing more satisfying than creating beautiful, soft woollens for baby. But have you thought about knitted dishcloths? They are all the rage. Green Goddess Wendyl Nissen has an easy pattern on her website, www. wendylsgreengoddess.co.nz, and there are many others online.
Knitted cotton dishcloths make an effective non-disposable wipe. They're super absorbent, soft but very hard-wearing, lasting for ages. They tend not to get smelly as quickly as synthetic cloths but for a quick disinfectant throw them in the microwave for two minutes and the bugs are dead.
Once converted you'll be knitting face cloths, baby cloths, floor cloths…
Upcycling old furniture
This is a sure-fire win on the eco scale. It can be as simple as buying an old set of drawers for $10, sanding and painting it then adding new drawer knobs. And hey, you've saved a tree!
Here is a retro cheese board from a second-hand shop. It is painted using test pot colours to make a cute and funky hook board (above). Total cost: around $40. If you don't have blackboard paint use low-sheen acrylic in any colour.
As well as saving cash and feeling good about yourself, the advantages of upcycling means you can avoid MDF furniture, ending up with a high-quality piece in solid wood that's unashamedly retro but with a modern finish. And it's a tenth of the price of a new one.
If you're feeling adventurous set your sights on a transformation, say, attaching a bookcase to the top of a set of drawers to create a handy Welsh dresser.
Or how about turning an old wooden TV cabinet into a dolls' house? That could be a long-term project for the whole family.
Drawers are essentially just boxes and shelves and ledges are literally just planks. You could pull out a drawer and attach it to a wall for a small shelf. Or arrange five of them - they don't even need to be of the same size - for a bespoke bookcase.
Another use for drawers is for under-the-bed storage. Simply add castors to the bottoms so they slide easily in and out.
While this is a high-scorer in most categories be aware of paint and glue fumes when creating your masterpiece.
Make your own baby wipes
This recipe for baby wipes is at www.wendylsgreengoddess.co.nz:
½ cup water
1 tbsp rosewater (antibacterial, antiseptic)
1 tbsp witchhazel (antiseptic, works well on itchy or inflamed skin)
Pour a little of the mixture into a plastic container with an airtight lid. Rip up small kitchen towels or Chux cloths and place in the bottom of the container. Add a little more liquid every time you have about 10 towels laid down. Continue layering until you have soaked all the cloths. Then put on the airtight lid.