I have long been a fan of small actions that create multiple benefits. Things that are both frugal and healthy, for example, or that both save money and have less of an environmental burden. I have realized one of our daily habits has not one—not two—not even three benefits—This action has four amazing benefits and I’m going to tell uou about it right now.
Awhile ago a friend asked me for my tips on how I keep my milk kefir. I’ve had more failures than successes with kefir over the years, so I really understand where she’s coming from. To be honest, I think my current state of kefir success is due entirely to the luck of my current needs matching up with the process.
At the end of this article I have a tip sheet compiled from the info in the post–for those who are in a hurry, or familiar with kefir and just want the quick version!
What is kefir?
Let me back up for a moment and just review what in the world kefir actually is. There is a lot of lore around kefir, as with all of the various pass-along ferments such as kombucha, sourdough, “friendship bread”, and so on. Kefir, like kombucha, is made with a SCOBY–a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast–that lives and grows, in this case, in milk. The kefir SCOBY needs dairy milk to stay alive, but can apparently be switched between dairy and non-dairy milk for anyone who can tolerate some dairy but prefers to consume other milks, as long as it regularly spends some time in a dairy environment.
Like kombucha and yogurt, kefir is a source of probiotics, friendly bacteria that help our digestion, and other processes in our bodies. While the science around whether it is possible to permanently change our gut microbiome through ingesting probiotics is spotty, I have read evidence that shows ingesting probiotics does keep us healthier.
In taste, kefir is a little like yogurt, but with a “fresher”, “cleaner” taste. For myself, after years of enjoying yogurt, I don’t really enjoy kefir straight-up, but I use mine in smoothies and don’t notice a bit of difference.
Some people can react to the high probiotic count in homemade kefir. It is very fresh and has literally billions of healthy bacteria. I have read suggestions of starting with a tablespoon a day, and then increasing by tablespoon once you find you can tolerate it.
For myself, I find that having my kefir-based smoothie in the morning feels great, whereas the few times I’ve tried to have a smoothie for a snack later in the day, it has hurt my stomach. I don’t know the reason for this, but now that I’ve noticed the trend, I make sure to keep my kefir consumption to the morning only.
Kefir vs. Yogurt
So, if kefir is so similar to yogurt, why in the world should you switch to making kefir?
The answer is simple: as in, kefir is so simple to make. The kefir culture is mesophilic, which means that, unlike yogurt, the culture grows in the moderate temperatures of your countertop. The upshot? Making kefir doesn’t require a pot, thermometer, stove-top or warmer. It’s as simple as pouring and walking away.
And as you likely already know, making your own dairy-based probiotics is SO MUCH CHEAPER than buying them, either in food or pill form. My daily kefir only costs me about 38 cents, and it is a food source as well, not just a vitamin.
Also, when you make your own fermented dairy you eliminate the plastic packaging that most purchased yogurts and kefir drinks are sold in.
My Way with Kefir
I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve tried to make kefir work for me, and this time it is working! Here is what is working for me, and a few tips on what I’ve learned through my trials and errors.
The key to kefir success seems to lie using it on a regular daily basis. Unlike kombucha, a slower-fermenting SCOBY, kefir seems to be somewhat less resilient, and I notice it is much, much happier with a daily refreshing of milk.
From what I’ve read, this is also likely what keeps kefir safe, as with such regular switching to a clean container, and fresh clean milk, it seems to be much less likely to get contaminated than kombucha.
If you are going to be traveling and have to break your kefir routine, you can put your refreshed SCOBY in the fridge for a few days. I’ve been told the ratio is 1 tbsp kefir to 1 cup milk, and that should be fine for 1 week. I find that even leaving it and refrigerating for a day or two leaves my kefir sluggish; however, a few days of daily refreshing and use has always perked it back up.
Keep in mind this is an occasional lapse, within a regular daily use pattern: if you are not using it daily, you may not find success. I think that was my biggest problem in the past. That, and I tried to ferment too much milk with too few grains, not realizing the 1 tbsp to 1 cup ratio was the best.
I keep my kefir in a mason jar on the counter, covered with a paper coffee filter secured with an elastic band. I make and use about a cup of kefir each day, using it in my morning smoothie.
Every morning I scoop the SCOBY from its current container into a clean mason jar with a plastic spoon, and pour a cup of fresh milk over it. I then pour the finished kefir from the original jar into my Magic Bullet jar for my smoothie. I use 2% local non-organic milk, but you can use any kind of dairy milk you prefer.
In this way, my SCOBY grows, and I’ve found once every couple of months or sooner I am able to split off a chunk to share with a friend. I love this culture sharing aspect of kefir, but if you are not inclined, the grains can be composted instead. I don’t have data on the safety of consuming them.
The ratio I was told when I got my grains was a tablespoon of SCOBY to a cup of milk. This ratio works well, but as the SCOBY grows, the fermentation speeds up. Warmer weather or a warmer environment also speeds up the fermentation. I have heard the word “overfermented” applied to kefir, but I don’t believe there is any problem or danger with consuming overfermented kefir. It does get more sour, and some people won’t like it, but in my smoothie I don’t really notice.
However, when I notice that my kefir is overfermenting in 24 hours, it tells me that my SCOBY has grown bigger than my needs, and it is time once again to share.
Kefir Tip Sheet
- ratio is 1 tbsp SCOBY to 1 cup milk
- kefir works best when refreshed every single day
- when SCOBY doubles in size, you can split it off, give half away to a friend, and go back to your 1 tbsp to 1 cup ratio
- you can refrigerate it in fresh milk for up to a week, though it will likely be sluggish for a few days
- revive and re-invigorate your kefir with several days of daily refreshes
- kefir may like higher-fat milk, so when dealing with sluggish kefir, a shot of cream may help to liven it up
- use a fresh clean jar each day
- cover with a breathable cover like a paper coffee filter secured with an elastic band, to keep out contaminants
- if you are not used to kefir, start with 1 tbsp, and increase the next day, to see how your body tolerates it
- I have found kefir can make me feel gross if I consume it later in the day, but in the morning it gives me no problems
- Fermentation time is related to temperature. It will go faster in the warmer months, and slower in the cooler months.
- in the cooler months it may benefit from being located near the stove
- the warmer temperatures will also make the SCOBY grow faster
- I’ve read that you should never touch your SCOBY with metal. However, stainless steel once in awhile shouldn’t be a problem. I do use a plastic spoon to scoop it out when I have one available.
- there is a ton of kefir information out there on the internet. A good place to start is Cultures For Health.
- It is more than likely you can find a source for a free SCOBY where you live. Try Google, CraigsList, Kijiji, Facebook, or word of mouth. There are also many folks who sell their grains, which can be great if you want a reliable source. Due to the fact that kefir seems to really like daily attention, I would try to find a local source rather than get one shipped through the mail, but there are several places that will guarantee their shipments.
Good luck everyone! And please let me know if you have any other tips, or any other questions about making kefir!
According to the WWF, only 10% of Canadians give themselves an “A” when it comes to being green. The irony is that with this self-grading, the more you know, the less of an impact you feel like you’re having. I’m pretty damn green: no car, no dryer, cloth diapers, pee wipes, etc. but still I don’t give myself an A.
What could I do better?
– eat more local, less imported stuff
– buy less packaged food
– get Bullfrogpowered
– a miriad other small things,
and . . .
– recycle greywater.
I’ve always just sortof assumed that since I’m in an apartment, there is no realistic way for me to recycle my greywater. I can’t change plumbing, and I don’t have a garden to receive the rescued greywater. Plus, we don’t pay the water bill–the landlord does–so the motivation isn’t quite as high as if it would actually save us money. (I’m into enlightened self-interest here!)
But this weekend, watching the water empty into the sink from our portable washer, I had a brain wave: how easy would it be to catch this water, reserve it in a 5 gallon bucket, and use it to flush the toilet? Turns out, very easy.
It’s astonishing how much water we use. Watching it go down the drain, you just don’t get the sense of how much water we use and waste every day. Catching it in a bucket, you see: here are 5 gallons of almost clean water flushing down the drain. Using that water to flush the toilet, you realize: I’m using a couple of gallons of greywater to flush, but normally that would be drinking water.
Argh. So I’m a bit obsessed with this water thing at the moment. The only problem, it’s a damn pain in the ass. I mean, we already have a diaper bucket and a diaper bag hanging out in our tiny bathroom. Now I’ve added a 5 gallon plastic bucket of greywater, just waiting for my daughter to accidentally knock it over and cause thousands of dollars in water damage to our downstairs neighbour’s apartment. We just don’t have the room . . . and yet . . . it’s like using hankies and cloth diapers. Once you stop throwing something away, it just feels so wasteful when you use the disposable version.
So, for now the greywater bucket stays. But for how long?????
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Waldorf education and way of life. Unfortunately I didn’t bookmark the specific article that really inspired me, but a few of the sites I was browsing were www.naturalfamilycrafts.com, and www.waldorfinthehome.org. (Update: Found it! The really inspiring article was here.) If I wasn’t such a staunch supporter of public school, I would totally send my kids to Waldorf school. (Ahh, also if I won the lottery.) I still don’t know or understand everything about it, but here are some Waldorf-y things I’m incorporating into our life this week:
The Natural World
Waldorf education stresses a connection with the natural world, as well as emphasizing natural materials, to foster a connection with nature and natural systems. Since we live in Downtown Ottawa and don’t have a car, it’s a bit hard to get out in The Nature. But we’re trying. Actually, the River is within walking distance and it offers a very natural setting in the middle of the city. We took a walk there today for an afternoon play date and had a really nice time. We saw ducks and heard red-wing blackbirds and watched the river flow . . .
When our little guy was born in October, Daddy would get up with our older girl, and watch morning cartoons. Mostly this was a coping mechanism because we were all too tired to think in the morning, especially while I was still night nursing both of them (crazy!). However, this quickly became the routine and has been the way the morning goes for the last six months. Today I did things differently. We got up together and instead of turning on the TV, my girl and I played. I had forgotten that she is often at her best in the morning, very focused and calm, and she really enjoyed the time together. Of course, it helped that the little guy was still sleeping, but I’m going to try to keep this going. Of course this isn’t specifically a Waldorf thing, but it certainly fits the theme.
Work as Play
When I read about this, it seemed so simple, I thought it wouldn’t really work, but it did. The idea is, instead of, say, putting the kids in front of the TV so you can cram in a load of laundry and quickly chop some veggies for soup, you involve your kids in the housework and make it a part of your activities for the day. This teaches the kids that they are not nuisances to be silenced while you frantically do the real but unpleasant work, but rather that housework can be fun, and a shared activity that involves satisfaction and learning, but also that the kids can be a part of making their home a nicer, cleaner, more orderly place. My girl is three, and she can now do things that actually help me and save me time. It was really pleasant doing housework with her today. Again, maybe today was special, but I’ll be trying this again for sure.
We are not a religious family, so we don’t have many spiritual practices in our household. However, the more I read, the more I see the value of rituals and valuing the spiritual side of life. It’s funny–even though I’m not religious and never have been, I do consider myself to be spiritual, mostly in connection with the natural world (this is probably why Waldorf appeals to me so much). So this idea of reverence really struck me. The article I read (which I cannot find, gosh darnit!) spoke about using gratitude as a path to reverence. That is, thinking about where things came from and thanking the creatures and forces and beings that brought these things to you. Our girl got right into this. For our broccoli soup at lunch, we thanked the Sunshine, and the farmer for the broccoli, and Daddy for buying the broccoli, and Mommy for making it. This idea of stopping to think about where things come from, and then thanking those who brought or created it is common to Buddhism as well.
A simplified play space
Okay, I’m working on this. But our girl’s room has become messy to the point of being dangerous. She just has too many toys, all out and accessible all the time. Quite often, she flits from one thing to another. Other times, she works in “creative destruction” of her toys, painting them, cutting their hair, etc., it makes me wonder if she really values them. So my plan is to take away all but a few of her toys to play with at one time. The other things are going into her closet, so she isn’t worried about missing them. It will only make a visit to the closet extra exciting, but once this is all in order, I will make sure she’s only playing with a few toys at a time.
Today just felt so wonderful and so right. I know not every day can be like today, but I’m going to continue the experiment. I figure it can only bring good things!
And here is our Waldorf Week Meal Plan:
Tuesday: tabouli and hummus
Wednesday: chicken stir fry with peanut sauce
Friday: black bean soup and cheese quesadillas
Saturday: fish of some sort
Sunday: spaghetti (I’ll try to make it to the Organic Farmer’s Market on Saturday for some local beef–wish me luck!)
I can’t believe this is only my third urban foraging experiment. Well, so far this one was more successful than the last two (though I’m not quite done, but almost!).
The beginning of it was particularly lovely. It was a HOT day, but the tree I picked from was in the shade, and as it was right next door, I could zip out while my girl was napping (my husband was there to watch her–don’t worry!) and pick in peace.
The picking was very easy and pleasant. The smell of the crabapples filled the air, and several people, including a small group of visitors from Spain, stopped to ask me what I was doing. It is amazing how impressed people become when they find out there is stuff to eat around them. It’s also amazing how much people want to talk when they come across someone doing something a little out of the ordinary. I think 4 different people stopped to chat or comment while I was out there.
And that was only a span of 15 or 20 minutes. And in that time I easily got the 13 cups of crabapples my recipe called for, and more! It’s so satisfying to hear the heavy plunk-plunk of fruit that is around 1 inch in diameter dropping into the jug (rather than tiny berries that seem to take forever!). On further review of the recipe I saw that it is adaptable for any quantity of fruit (juice), so the 16 cups (or 4 Litres) I gleaned worked out fine.
That was the fun part. The not-so-fun part was when I got them on the table and read the next instruction: “Stem and Quarter” 16 cups of crabapples. Gah! While it was lovely, warm and breezy outside, inside my dining room it was fairly sticky. Moreover, my back and legs hurt, and it turns out crabapples are surprisingly tough little fruit. I spent the next hour and a half chopping the little buggers. Every 5 minutes or so I would think about giving up, but the thought of reporting back to my loyal readers kept me going.
Well, I got through it (but BARELY!) and now had a big pot full of quartered crabapples, fragrant and read for the boil. And boil they did, for about 30 minutes, in the 80% humidity with a humidex of 38! But that’s just how hardcore I am. On reflection, I think chopping them in half only would be sufficient as they break down a lot in the water, and I could always mash them a bit if they seemed to be keeping their shape too much.
After boiling, I strained out the juice using cheesecloth instead of a jelly bag which I don’t have. I suspended the ball of crabapple pulp over a bowl overnight and dripped every last drop out of that ball of goo. I folded the cheesecloth so it was quadrupled, but it was still probably less fine than a jelly bag would have been. i didn’t squeeze the bag, but I suspect I won’t end up with crystal-clear gorgeous jelly, but a semi-opaque pinky stuff that will still be quite lovely.
After all this, I ended up with about 8 cups of juice, which I put in my freezer. THIS is where the satisfaction starts to come in. 8 cups of juice will get me lots of jars of jelly, especially after adding the sugar, and esPECially if I use tiny jars. PLUS if I get my act together today to put the pulp through the food mill to strain out the skins & seeds and then freeze it, I can make crabapple butter with that part. More yummy gifts for xmas!
I will wait until a cooler day in September before boiling the juice with sugar until the gel stage (have never done this–any advice??), pouring it into sterilized jars, and setting it into the hot water bath to finish. The nice thing about the butter is that it doesn’t have to gel, so that one will be even easier.
So my third urban foraging experiment has been a great success so far. I would even recommend it to other northern urban dwellers as a way to take advantage of this abundant fruit. I will report back with photos once I actually get the canning done.
I just finished reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Art of Power“, a wonderful book with a deliberately and cleverly misleading title, since the “power” he talks about is not the power that people are generally seeking, but rather the power to be calm and spread peace wherever you go and with whomever you meet.
Two of the practices he describes in this book (besides sitting meditation which most are familiar with) are a) general mindfulness, and b) walking meditation. I think he focuses on these practices in this book because they are very easy to incorporate into even the busiest of lives, but they help to centre you very effectively and quickly.
Mindfulness is the skill of bringing your mind into the present moment and not being taken away by thoughts, memories, worries, etc. Most buddhists do this through the breath. When you follow the breath you are drawn into your body, into the present moment, and you allow your thoughts and worries and regrets, etc. (as well as your plans, and desires, and nostalgic remembrances), to drop away, leaving you considerably less stressed and more focused.
Much is made of the power of sitting meditation where you watch the breath for extended periods, but Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that you can get some benefit by bringing mindfulness into your daily life in short snatches. For example, when the telephone rings, you can use that as a recall to the moment, and take one or two deep breaths to centre you before you answer. Or stopping at a red light, this can also be an opportunity to watch the breath.
He has a lovely poem that helps with this simple meditation. The word pairs are said silently with the in and out breath:
present moment, wonderful moment
I’ve been watching my breath and reciting this poem regularly over the last few weeks and it has given me access to many moments of calm and peace, helping me cope with some of the stresses of being heavily pregnant and parenting a toddler in the heat of late summer!
Walking meditation is an expansion of this mindfulness practice, but instead of focusing on the breath, you focus on your feet as you walk. Whenever you walk, the author explains, you should make your steps gentle on the earth. You are free, you do not need to hurry: walk calmly and slowly as if the purpose of walking is simply to walk.
As you walk, you can say the poem in pace with your breath, which will be in pace with your footsteps, maybe one in-breath for every two steps, or more.
Walking to work every day is so often a blur for me. It’s a short walk, but I usually spend the time thinking about work–sometimes bringing back some conflict from the day before, or worrying about what will be in my email inbox today. But since I’ve been practicing walking meditation, this time is so calm, such an island in my day, that I really feel that I can start taking refuge in the moment.
Now what does this have to do with a frugal or green mindset? I think plenty.
In terms of frugality, many of us turn to shopping and spending money when we are stressed. I am so guilty of this. And most of my stress-fuelled purchases have been big ones, undoing months of savings from baking my own bread and using baking soda for deodorant. The more tools I have to reduce stress and encourage a peaceful frame of mind, the less likely I am to go out shopping.
What’s more, the more value I place on being mindful and present, the less likely I am to seek distractions like magazines or shiny electronics. Think about it: if everyone started practicing mindful breathing on the bus, Blackberries would cease to exist!
The more unmindful consumerism in our world, the more energy and resource waste, the more landfill produced, the more waterways polluted. When we make our footsteps gentle on the earth, we also tend to reduce our ecological footprint by reducing consumption, waste and pollution.
Try these mindfulness techniques and see where you can fit them into your day. And please refer to any book by Thich Nhat Hanh to get a deeper, richer explanation of these practices. Check out his 1996 book The Long Road Turns to Joy on Google Books–a Limited Preview release specifically about walking meditation.
Basically, it uses Google Maps to calculate your distance from important amenities like grocery stores, libraries, parks, restaurants, cinemas, etc. to give your neighbourhood a certain score based on proximity. The higher the score, the less need you have for a car.
Our score in Centretown Ottawa? 93/100 (woo hoo!)
Our two old places in Toronto: 83 and 77 respectively
My parents’ place in Sudbury: 53
The house I grew up in: 10 out of 100
Interestingly, every move I’ve ever made has brought me to a more walkable location! (Well, except for my year in Montreal but we won’t count that.) Though I often dream about farm life, walkability is something I really value and would find it a major adjustment to live without. In fact, I think it’s a key component of my being frugal and urban!
So, what’s the deal with walkability? The website gives a few points:
Walkable neighborhoods offer surprising benefits to our health, the environment, and our communities.
Better health: A study in Washington State found that the average resident of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood weighs 7 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood.1 Residents of walkable neighborhoods drive less and suffer fewer car accidents, a leading cause of death between the ages of 15–45.
Reduction in greenhouse gas: Cars are a leading cause of global warming. Your feet are zero-pollution transportation machines.
More transportation options: Compact neighborhoods tend to have higher population density, which leads to more public transportation options and bicycle infrastructure. Not only is taking the bus cheaper than driving, but riding a bus is ten times safer than driving a car!2
Increased social capital: Walking increases social capital by promoting face-to-face interaction with your neighbors. Studies have shown that for every 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time spent in community activities falls by 10%.3
Stronger local businesses: Dense, walkable neighborhoods provide local businesses with the foot traffic they need to thrive. It’s easier for pedestrians to shop at many stores on one trip, since they don’t need to drive between destinations.
I would agree with all these points, and would also add that being able to walk to work (something possible in Centretown Ottawa) means having more time to spend at home with the kids. My “commute” is less than 5 minutes door-to-door, which means I maximize the time I can spend with my daughter instead of sitting in traffic. Same goes for my husband, whose “commute” is about double mine.
Another thing I’ve noticed in my years living in walkable neighbourhoods is that where people can walk, they do, and the fact that there are people out walking around, usually at all hours of the day & night, greatly increases the safety of neighbourhoods. Jane Jacobs calls this “eyes on the street”. The more mixed use and pedestrian traffic a neighbourhood has, the less crime tends to exist in a place. In fact, many parks in dense urban neighbourhoods are actually safer than suburban parks at night, simply because there are more people strolling around.
Finally, having a car would mean greatly increasing our cost of living since we would not only have to worry about the car (and most likely a car loan), but also the insurance, gas, maintenence and repairs that go along with car ownership. Not to mention an automatic $100/month just to park the thing!
I found this website really fun, and as you can see, used it to check out all the places I’ve ever lived. I would definitely use this when choosing our next apartment or house.