Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nurture Your Furniture

Over the last decade, I’ve been substituting – wherever I can find viable alternatives – all chemical-based household cleaning and personal care products. The reason for this changeover is simple:  the commercial products contained chemical ingredients too harsh for my dry skin, sensitive teeth, and keen olfactory sense. Besides, ingredients such as Phthalates (endocrine disruptors), Perchloroethylene (also known as “PERC’; a neurotoxin,) or Triclosan and/or Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (anti-bacterial agents,) in commercial products prove – for me – far more hazardous than advantageous.

Recently, I found a new addition to my repertoire:  homemade wood cleaner and polishes. One recipe for unfinished furniture and wood surfaces and another for finished wood (varnished, lacquered, etc.). Both work exceptionally well and leave no sticky residue on the furniture…or me. The best feature of both is aroma. By using pure, essential (lemon) oil, their scents are subtle and soothing, not intense and irritating.

Unfinished-wood polish: Mix 1/2 cup of mineral oil with 1/2 teaspoon of lemon essential oil.
Finished-wood polish:  Mix 5 tablespoons mineral oil, 3/4 teaspoon lemon essential oil, and 1 tablespoon liquid dishwashing detergent. Stir until the solution becomes clear and then add 3 ounces of water, very slowly, stirring constantly.
(Note:  Both recipes should be stored in glass and a cool location.)
Before polishing (unfinished wood)
Before using either formula, clean the wood surface well with a soft, dry cloth. If furniture has accumulated a build-up of polish, dirt, or wax, these need removing before re-polishing. A mild vinegar solution (mixed 1:1 with water) works well. Moisten a cloth with the solution, wring out thoroughly, gently rub the surface clean, and dry immediately. Ensure the surface is completely dry before applying polish.
After polishing

With a soft cloth, apply small amounts of polish at a time, rubbing each application in thoroughly before adding more. Buff dry with a second cloth. Unfinished furniture and wood need oil to keep from drying and cracking but, while oils will give a more natural sheen than wax, they also have a tendency to attract dust and hold dirt. To remove any excess oil, sprinkle on a little cornstarch and continue buffing. The starch absorbs surplus oil and adds to the lustre.

Since my switchover began, I’ve noticed, with each additional substitution, a distinct lessening of allergies – both skin irritations and respiratory problems. While I’m grateful for the relief, this reason (alone) wouldn’t motivate me to continue using homemade alternatives if they didn’t work. These furniture care substitutes – and all my other replacements – do their job remarkably well. As added bonus, our budget gains tremendous savings by making these regularly used products with simple and low-cost ingredients.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Great Pumpkin, Where Are You?

With October’s cooler temperatures, I become like Linus, camped out at the nearest pumpkin patch.  In this case, that’s our local Farmer’s market.  Though Linus yearns for a toy delivery, the Great Pumpkin I seek is called "Sugar Pie."  Among the many pumpkin varieties, I’ve heard they’re the best for baking.  Like Linus, though, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Until I find a "Sugar Pie" I’ll make do with the standard field pumpkin.  Pound for pound, they’re powerhouse vegetables.  Not only are they economical, they’re packed with nutritional value.  Pumpkins have no saturated fat or cholesterol, yet are rich in anti-oxidants and dietary fiber.  They contain some of the highest levels of Vitamin A, as well as carotene and other flavonoids which enable the body to convert and absorb that vitamin.  This winter squash also provides Vitamin C, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Iron, Magnesium Phosphorus, Riboflavin, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.  And the benefits go beyond the vibrant flesh.  The seeds are also an excellent dietary source of fiber and mono-unsaturated fatty acids.  They are concentrated sources of protein, minerals, vitamins, and a substantial amount of the amino acid, tryptophan.

Fresh pumpkin (or squash) is a snap to prepare, and the puree freezes well, too.  Simply wash and dry the fruit’s exterior, then cut in half and remove the seeds and strings, reserving the seeds for roasting later.  Place, cut side down, on a parchment lined sheet pan and bake in a 325ยบ oven for about an hour (depending on size.)  The pumpkin is done when a knife is easily inserted through the shell.  Allow to cool slightly before handling, but the scraping and processing are done more easily while the pumpkin remains warm.  Puree the scooped pulp in a blender or food processor.  Strained to remove any strings or larger lumps, this puree was a lip-smacking favorite of both my kids when they were babies.

If you plan to bake with the freshly-made puree, allow it to cool to room temperature before using as an ingredient.  Store excess pumpkin puree in freezer-safe containers, allowing room for expansion in each container.  Average storage life for the frozen puree is about one year; although, no matter how well any produce is packaged, all frozen foods lose color, flavor, texture, and nutritional value the longer they’re stored.  Our supply usually lasts through to spring, when fresh produce is once again available.

While pumpkins are fresh and whole, there’s no rush to process them.  The squash family are self-contained packages which store easily and tidily.  As long as their stems remain firmly intact, and the pumpkins are kept in a cool, well-ventilated place (not subject to freezing), most have a shelf life of three months, and some as long as six months, depending on the variety.

Prior to processing, if you plan on using pumpkins for Halloween decoration, consider drawing on the pumpkin’s surface with a felt marker rather than carving out pieces.  This makes subsequent processing simpler:  the marker doesn’t affect the puree, the complete half-shells cook more evenly, and the flesh scrapes more thoroughly from larger shell pieces.

Eating seasonal foods has considerable benefits – both for budgets and nutritional intake. Pumpkins, because of their low cost and excellent food values, are clear champions of autumn.  No wonder Linus calls them great!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fruits of Summer

Summer has set in with its usual severity.
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge~

Summer, I've mentioned before , is not my best time of year.  It plays havoc with day-to-day cycles of work, sleep, cooking, and cleaning.  As further assault, summer’s low humidity, dusty winds, and harsh sun, are especially brutal to dry skin and hair.  Maybe it’s an act of contrition, but summer also provides fruits, herbs, and flowers, with which one can create amazingly-effective and soothing natural treatments to mitigate the damage.

My favourite concoctions are facial masks and hair conditioners. They’re easy to make, their effect is immediate, remarkable, and surprisingly long-lasting, and the ingredients are available in most grocery stores.  Best of all, these therapeutic applications cost very little if choosing produce on sale.
Cucumber Sensitive-Skin Mask

It's messy work
Feels SO good, though!
Just a few words of caution.  First, since many of these skin and hair care products are made with fresh produce, their shelf-life will be much shorter than commercial products.  And, storing homemade products will probably require refrigeration and non-reactive containers. Also, be prepared:  homemade blends, without the stabilizers and binders found in commercial products, have a messier application.  Although, the refreshing results make any preparation well worth it.
Grocery stores needn’t be the only source of natural ingredients.  Gardens, meadows and orchards are rich sources.  If your garden produces an over-abundance of tomatoes or cucumbers, instead of more canning you might try some nourishing skin care, rejuvenating facial masks, and cooling treatments.  Or, if you grow certain flowers and/or herbs, or have the ability to forage for them,  their astringent, anti-microbial, and/or soothing properties are excellent additives in products such as body washes, and provide gentler solutions for specific skin care issues.

In fact, an individual’s skin type often determines the most effective produce.  Dry hair and or sensitive skin types will likely enjoy the benefits of avocados and cucumbers, while oilier hair and skin types often prefer the toning effects of lemon or tomato.  These aren’t hard and fast rules, however, as lemon also moisturizes and avocado’s natural fats easily cut through oily build-up.

While produce remains seasonably available, it’s simple and relatively inexpensive to experiment with a variety of applications.  As a bonus, leftover produce can be eaten and it’s nutrients will nourish skin and hair from the inside out.  Summer may ravage the body but, in a conciliatory gesture, offers us many remedial goodies which allow us to clean, soothe, and nourish weathered skin and hair.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Of the many ways to save money, one of the most overlooked is frequent budget review.  During a  recent reassessment of our budget, I discovered troubling developments with a few utilities and services, partly due to altered usage and partly due to spiralling rates.  After placing several calls, changing a couple services, combining others, eliminating one, and acquiring some new equipment, the net results will save us upwards of $260 the first year (more in subsequent years.)  We now have better quality equipment, broader coverage and faster access to certain services.
There was definitely research involved.  First, I made enquiries about the various service packages each provider offers, noting rates and details for only those plans and packages suited to our needs.  I spoke with service representatives about possible add-on costs we might incur when making the changeover, such as contract pay-outs, new equipment costs (if any) and the accessibility of suppliers and installers.  Once the pertinent data was organized on a simple table, it was easy to see which plans offered us greatest value.

Our decisions made, I contacted current service providers to ascertain the end of billing periods.  By doing this, we were able to use up service already paid for, without incurring charges for a new billing cycle.  Many utilities today can be switched on or off simply by calling customer service  a day or two before service ends.  Others require up to thirty days notice.  Check your contract or call a service representative to be certain of your responsibility, to avoid added or pro-rata fees on your final bill.

If deciding to cancel a service, don’t burn bridges.  You may not need or want their service now, but at some point in the future there could be no other choice.  If you feel it necessary to voice your discontent, be concise not contentious.  We’ve received some very good offers after calmly explaining reasons for terminating a service, so be open to unexpected opportunities and,  if you’re willing to barter, have your comparison sheet at-hand.
Paying bills and balancing household accounts are relentless routines few people enjoy.  But, there are tremendous benefits to frequent budget analysis.  This is especially true during changes in life – like a new job, an addition to the family, or shifting travel requirements – when customary monthly expenditures can change dramatically.  By staying atop these variances, you can decide, in a timely manner, which are short-term fluctuations requiring endurance only, and which are permanent trends requiring adjustment(s).  Pricing and researching the many options may be time-consuming, but efforts pay off.  More than money is saved when paying for better-suited services, equipment, and/or plans.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Enlist the Kernel

Hi, my name is Gail and I’m a salt-aholic.  Or, I was until my doctor groused about my high blood pressure.  During the two years since that diagnosis, I’ve had to rethink and revise eating habits.  Cutting sodium was the highest priority, but saturated fats were also high on the no-no list.  Most of our cooking and food preparation is done from scratch so, with a few minor substitutions, it was easy to reduce these elements from our meals.  What I really  missed was my favourite crunchy treats – potato and tortilla chips.  Unable to renounce all salty delights, I turned to popcorn and its benefits have proven to be much greater than anticipated!

The first gain realized was in our grocery budget.  For less than the price of two family-sized bags of chips, we bought a 3.6 kg carton of brand-name popcorn kernels.  That carton produces a few dozen large bowls of popcorn.  The savings from that singular dietary switch are huge!  Even considering the added cost of oil and salt, we’re still saving several dollars each month.

Little did I know there were even greater health benefits than low-sodium and low-fat.  According to a press release by the American Chemical Society, popcorn is higher in antioxidants than fruits and vegetables.  Apparently, this is due to the concentration of polyphenols in popcorn as opposed to more diluted amounts in fresh produce.  And it’s not just the puffy white centres that are loaded with these antioxidants.  Turns out, those annoying little hulls that get stuck in the teeth do more than just add fibre.  They contain the greatest concentration of polyphenols.  The study does NOT suggest popcorn should replace fruits and vegetables in a wholesome diet, but it’s very clear this simple food can be a very healthy snack.

The method of cooking and the flavourings added will, of course, affect its nutritional values.  Of the various cooking methods for popcorn, our favourite is in oil.  Hot-air is much too flavourless and we don’t use a microwave.  I once would’ve doused hot-air popcorn in butter, but since we’re reducing saturated fats, another method had to be found.  That’s when I saw the cooking show ‘Good Eats’ hosted by Alton Brown.  Usually, salt is added after the popcorn is popped, and this often requires a teaspoon (or more) to properly season an 8-10 cup batch.  Brown’s method uses only ½ teaspoon of salt, added with the kernels, and its dispersal during cooking is much more even.  (Sometimes I substitute my own seasoned salt for an even lower sodium content.)  Also, by using peanut oil, there is a pleasing taste with none of the saturated fat of butter, and this oil easily tolerates the high-heat required for popping.

Hot Oil popping method:  Heat 1/3 cup peanut oil in a Dutch oven on medium-high heat.  Add 3 kernels of popcorn and wait until these pop before adding ½ cup of kernels and ½ teaspoon sea salt.  Shake pot to keep kernels from sticking, and remove from heat when the popping slows. 

Plain popcorn can get boring, though.  Fortunately, this mild-flavoured whole grain is easily jazzed up without negating its healthful benefits.  Hubby and I have developed a few spice, herb, and powdered milk blends that we use occasionally and sparingly.  Our favourite variations are Nacho- or Ranch-flavoured popcorn.

Nacho seasoning:  1 teaspoon chili powder, ½ teaspoon ground cumin, and ½ teaspoon garlic powder.  Just sprinkle on the hot, freshly-made popcorn, toss until well-coated, and then add ¼ cup parmesan cheese.
Ranch seasoning:  1 cup skim-milk powder, ½ teaspoon each – dried chives, parsley and dill weed, ¼ teaspoon each – garlic and onion powders,  1/8 teaspoon each – salt and pepper.  Combine ingredients in a food processor and blend until finely powdered.  Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of powder over fresh, hot popcorn while tossing to coat.
The only doctor who doesn’t like popcorn is my dentist.  While this snack has its obvious dietary benefits, it can also crack teeth or get stuck under the gums and cause abscess.  For this reason, some caution should be taken when eating popcorn.  Avoid the small, not fully opened kernels, and be sure to floss after noshing.

If, like me, you’re reducing your sodium intake but are hopelessly addicted to salty, crunchy snacks, you may want to enlist the kernel into your dietary regimen.  Popcorn will also increase your fibre intake, provide a treat rich in antioxidants, and spare your grocery budget.  Now that’s a powerhouse, whole grain munchie!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Until We Meet Again

With this post, Thriving On Thrift (TOT) marks its third anniversary.  Three YEARS!  It’s absolutely mindboggling how fast the time has flown.

During these last years, it’s been fun sharing our choices and routines.  Recently, though, it’s become apparent our most prominent “savers” have been covered.  While there are surely other topics for this blog, I don’t (yet) have the personal experience to cover those subjects effectively.  In fact, brainstorming fresh ideas has become difficult and not just on a creative level.  While the day-to-day practices we’ve developed over time are easy habits and actually relieve stress, my recent (intense) concentration on matters of saving has produced stress.  Rather than a sense of thriving, this increased focus has created feelings of lack.

I thought of ending the blog, but would be saddened to leave a project about which I still feel very passionate.  TOT has become such a familiar presence, yet sustaining its bi-weekly posting schedule is definitely feeling forced.  It’s when the blog feels most strained that my other writing projects (mainly fiction) chime in for attention.  (But, they’ve long been jealous of the hours I spend with the “other project.”)  Still, in those moments of doubt, I’ve been tempted to lay aside the exertions and create space in my  writing life for new challenges.  Then, just when I feel my mind’s tumblers sliding into place, I’m infused with the deep satisfaction felt while writing TOT, the enjoyment of friendships it’s prompted, and the warm glow of kind comments and emails I’ve received from readers.

The mental to-ing and fro-ing has been exhaustive…and exhausting.  Yet, the fact remains that subject matter is becoming leaner and the pleasure this blog once provided me is slowly eroding to panic as I scramble to plan future posts.  Then, the truth of the matter slapped me:  this extra time and energy, this fretting over lack, are all antitheses to this blog’s tenets.  I don’t mean that continuing would be a waste of time and energy, but persistent worry and struggle would be.  No, there’s no thrift in that course.

So, after much thought, I’ve decided to cut back the posting schedule to bi-monthly, from this point on.  This change will enable me to continue with a much-loved project but the reduced frequency will allow more time to develop and research new ideas.  As always, I remain open to topical proposals and look forward to exploring your suggestions.  Please leave a comment or send an email if you wish to see a subject covered. 

Until we meet again – on the second Thursday in April – I wish you and yours thriving days.