Real food, real quick

The past year has been full of life-changing events amid the backdrop of home renovation. With the second floor bathroom done and the third floor taken apart and put back together again, finding time to cook everyday meals has been a challenge.

We were quickly reined in by a few too many trips to the pediatric dentist’s office, realizing sugar was the culprit. But is this the way to teach kids to dial down the sugar? Can we teach them that food doesn’t have to come in a plastic wrapper or a box covered with claims that it’s healthy when it’s really not? Like many families, we got caught in the tug of war of getting kids to eat and keeping the peace. This is a tightrope to be sure.

Starting small, with leftover lumber from the third floor, we constructed raised garden beds, filled them with organic soil, and planted tomatoes, lettuce and herbs, hoping for the best. has easy-to-follow resources for organic gardening.

The results came in slowly between bouts of freezing cold spring weather and some sunnier days. The kids ventured outside, away from electronics, without being asked. Greens ended up on dinner plates. There were complaints at the beginning, and some nights there still are. But the greens are being eaten. Any parent who’s gone from zero to “they ate something” knows how truly sweet it is. We now have access to real food that’s as quick as it comes, right out the back door.

Recycled Bathroom Reno

Sometimes a room needs a little TLC right away, just to hold everything over until the real renovation can begin. Such was the case for the past two years with the second floor bathroom, which was doing just fine with a few minor upgrades until a leak proved to be the tipping point.

This has been a total – and unexpected – gut job, removing over 100 years of plumbing, tile and flooring. Thankfully the amazing crews that have been here for the rest of the house stepped up to the plate and worked around hectic holiday schedules, from Thanksgiving well past New Year’s. Bringing everything from plumbing to structural framing to electrical up to code has taken time. Now that it’s almost spring, we’re a few weeks from completion.

This is always the sweet spot in a project, when the environmental testing is long over with, the layers of debris are peeled away, the permits have been applied for, and municipal inspections have been passed. Here’s a few highlights of the processes and products used:

– As with any reno, I started with environmental testing. Lead testing was done before moving in, so that was already crossed off the list. I tested old floor tiles and wallboard for asbestos, which can be found in hundreds of building products. The EPA has a full guide here to asbestos information and resources.

– Having found asbestos in the old PVC floor tiles, I hired a certified firm for removal. Air sampling came back the same day showing all was well, and the firm provided documentation. Note…before any asbestos removal job, the state may need to be notified (as is the case in NJ) with a 10-day wait period. The delays and cost definitely ate into the budget and timeline, but the upside was knowing it was getting done right.

– I chose recycled denim insulation from Bonded Logic, which my carpenter loved. The town inspectors liked it, too and it became a talking point of the project. It runs pricier than conventional fiberglass insulation, but it’s a healthier product with out the toxic flame retardants or respiratory risks as with other insulations.

– With the recycled-content Florim USA tile in the downstairs bathroom holding up beautifully, I bought it again for this bathroom. At under $5 per square foot (uninstalled), it’s domestically made and purchased through a family-owned local store.

The other finishing touches such as paint, window framing, and built-in cabinetry are still in the works, so more on that to come.

Growing a Greener Garden

Gardens are used around the world as places of contemplation and healing. Whether your outdoor space is a balcony, a few windowsill pots or a large yard, a little green can make everything healthier for mind and body.

According to the EPA, we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, which makes any outdoor space all the more essential.

At the healthy home project, decades of overgrowth in the yard needs to be cleared to make way for some fresh plants. We’ll also be creating spaces for the kids to play and adults to relax.

Clearing out the overgrowth has taken over two and a half years, even with calling in landscapers twice to help with the larger bushes and haul away truckloads of debris. In the yard, just beyond “the field” there’s “the jungle,” a grove of invasive bamboo-like plants that are nearly impossible to eradicate. Not using pesticides means digging them up by the roots season after season to first thin out and then ensure nothing grows back. The plumber just happens to have a roto-tiller and has been enlisted to ready the space for a fresh start.

Fitting in landscaping to an already full schedule just means getting things done in small steps. Here are a few ideas for maximizing time and resources:

-Skip the pesticides – Whatever the gardening challenge, there is a natural, toxin-free solution. features DIY instructions to create a lush lawn without the chemicals.

-Reinvent and Reuse – Found objects such as old wooden shutters or antique windows are easy, low or no-cost ways to add interest to a garden. Habitat for Humanity ReStores and Goodwill are treasure troves of ideas for accent pieces. Our garden bench came from a local Goodwill, which means this piece is reclaimed and recycled, and cost about 75% less.

– Water right – tested garden hoses and found that many contain toxins like lead and plasticizers, which can leach into the water especially in hot weather. I’ve bought many hoses over the years from big box stores and all have ended up in the trash. Rather than create more waste, I sprung for the WaterRight hose, made in the USA. It’s 100% lead-free polyurethane that’s also phthalate-free, BPA-free and PVC-free from a family-owned business.

– Tap into the Neighbor Network – has groups all over the country where neighbors regularly offer (and request) plant clippings, pots and other gardening items, all for free.

Bringing Home to the Hospital Room

Some aspects of home life (including renovations) go on hold when a friend or family member becomes ill. Thankfully there are simple ways to bring familiarity – and a little more of home – to the patient room, whether for a day or an extended stay. (Note: As always, it’s best to check with the patient care team first).

1. Let the light in. Research shows patients who have access to nature may heal faster, have reduced stress and may require less pain medication. A window can connect the patient with the outside world that may seem a world away. Even a simple picture of a nature scene can bring a calming focal point to the space. Outdoor gardens are increasingly being used as healing spaces as well.

2. Bring in soothing sounds. An iPod or small radio can lift spirits and transform a place with sound. Some hospital rooms or patient lounges may even be outfitted with stereos. Favorite songs can bring back memories for the patient and lift the mood for visitors as well. In the medical setting, music has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, boost endorphin production and more.

3. Bring in comfort with familiar photos, a soft blanket or plush stuffed animal as a tangible reminder of home that also brightens up the space.

4. Essential oils, used for centuries, can change the mood in a room by calming anxiety, bringing increased focus, reducing nausea or simply promoting relaxation. The National Library of Medicine provides an overview of aromatherapy, including resource links and research. (Note: Care must be used with essential oils as they’re highly concentrated.)

5. Healing laughter…One of the best experiences may be watching a comedy together, playing a silly board game or reading a funny book.

6. Take breaks. Taking turns with visiting, and getting back home every so often can be an essential part of keeping balance in what may be a tumultuous time.

7. Bring in the spiritual. On-site chapels, meditation rooms, and pastoral care services at the bedside can bring in a sense of home and community. Free guided meditations from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and calming meditations for kids and adults alike, benefiting the nonprofit Kula for Karma are also available online.

Easy, Organic Bed and Bath

Kids naturally gravitate to softness and warmth, whether its a snuggly blanket or a soft landing spot. For its practicality and affordability, cotton is a great fiber for everything from bedding to towels. But toxic finishes labeled as “easy care,” “permanent press,” “wrinkle-free” or “no iron” have an unhealthy side. As the NY Times reports, the resin that makes textiles “wrinkle free” releases formaldehyde, a toxin linked to contact dermatitis and other adverse health effects. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers formaldehyde a known human carcinogen.

What’s more, conventionally-grown cotton is one of the most pesticide-intensive crops on the planet. “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 84 million pounds of pesticides were applied” in addition to “two billion pounds of fertilizers…on the same fields. Seven of the 15 pesticides commonly used on cotton in the United States are listed as ‘possible,’ ‘likely,’ ‘probable’ or ‘known’ human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency” reports the National Wildlife FederationThankfully, there are easy ways to switch to healthier options.

The solution? Cotton without the “easy care” finishes, and if possible, made with organic cotton. If it sounds expensive, it’s time to take a look at some super affordable options!

For Baby – A baby’s layette is a great place to start, with organics increasingly available at big box stores (BuyBuy Baby, etc). In support of locally-owned, brick-and-mortar stores, there’s GreenDepot and the beautiful Hudson Street Organic Baby & Kids, the first organic baby store in northern NJ. LifeKind is an easy, go-to online resource with both practical and hard-to-find items, especially for those with chemical sensitivities.

For the whole familyGaiam jersey cotton sheets withstand just about anything kids can dish out. They last year after year, hold their color and are naturally wrinkle resistant (without the formaldehyde finish in “no iron” cotton sheets). For organic woven cotton sheets, Threshold brand (at Target) are economical and wear well. Like Gaiam sheets, they’re available in a range of colors and patterns. For something more luxe, Coyuchi, West Elm and Pottery Barn’s organic cotton options deliver.

For the bath – Organic cotton towels and shower curtains from LifeKind, Coyuchi, Pottery Barn and Viva Terra make decorating the bath easy. Some sites offer coupons for first-time orders, seasonal clearances, as well as regular discounts to email subscribers.

Organic cotton is an easy way to bring warmth to a space without toxic pesticides and finishes, making all our communities a little healthier.