Back to School: School Lunch Edition

It’s back to school time for me. This is our first full week of classes, and I have mixed feelings about starting back. A new school year is always exciting, but I’m having a hard time letting go of summer. What a wonderful summer it was! So much swimming and reading and napping and visiting family and friends. We took some great trips, too! Now I’m trying to get back to my school routine, with reading and getting up early and packing my lunch.

Confession: school lunch has always been a problem for me. It often involves something from the hospital cafe right behind my building. They have a fair number of healthy options (wraps, salads, fruits and veggies) but they’re expensive, and they’re packaged in a lot of plastic. I’ve been thinking about how to make my school lunches more affordable and sustainable. One problem has been heating things up – I can pack lunch from home, but I don’t like to microwave things in plastic containers. That’s where a serendipitous gift from my friend Adrienne comes in. Image

She brought me this beautiful bowl back from a summer long trip to Michigan. I do love handmade pottery. And now I have a bowl to keep in my office and heat my lunch in! I also brought in a fork and a mug from home, so that I can make tea and don’t have to use the disposable forks they provide in the cafe. Image

The glaze on the outside of the bowl reminds me of mountains. The mug (plus my stockpile of tea) should help me keep up with my plan to quit the diet sodas…which has been one of the hardest habit changes I’ve ever made. I’ve turned my corner of our  office (which I share with several other grad students – we chat. we confide. we share office supplies) into a little nest, with family photos on the bulletin board, a watercolor calendar for each month of the school year, and tickets from all the music and dance performances I go to on campus:


I can’t say this means I’m totally ready for the back-to-school rush…but at least I’ve got my lunch situation under control! I’ve also been checking out some vegetarian lunch ideas and recipes, like these from vegkitchen, and these from the family kitchen.  I think that on the days that I don’t have leftovers to reheat, these should give me some ideas! I hope they give you guys some ideas, too – what’s your favorite school/office packable lunch?


Dreaming of Spring: Upcycled Gardening

There are daffodils everywhere along the trail I walk with the pup. I saw them this morning, ready to bloom, looking confused but happy in the sunshine. No one has told them that it’s February 3rd. The weather has been weird, and they think it’s spring. It does feel like spring, the sky blue and the weather balmy. I think I’m going to wait on the garden plans, though. In the meantime…I’m enjoying looking at sustainable gardening posts on other blogs. Here’s a round up of my favorites:

1. Gutter gardening seems sort of perfect for my townhouse lifestyle – I have a tiny back deck and am always looking for container gardening tips and ideas so that my little garden can grow up and not out. The site even has a helpful how-to, and a list of plants and vegetables that will grow well in this!

2. The cinder block garden from Apartment Therapy; another upcycled project. Who knew cinder blocks could look so cool?! I think it would be a heavy and unpleasant task finding this many cinder blocks and bringing them home, but then I think about how amazing they would look on our front enclosure, with shade plants in them.

The Modern DIY Succulent Garden, from Apartment Therapy

Bonus: here’s another one with a puppy! I’m tempted to show it to Arlo so that he, too, can daydream about a cinder block garden, and how adorable he would look napping in front of it:

Annette’s Modern DIY Garden, also from Apartment Therapy

3. Help your neighborhood birds build glorious nests. I think this idea is my favorite, because it’s so simple, and because she went to the trouble of double checking this idea with the Cornell Ornithology Department and the Audubon Society to make sure it was safe for the birds. Talk about going the extra mile! So this is the idea I’ll leave you with – what are you looking forward to about the springtime?

Birds Nest Yarn Hanger How-To from

Urban composting (on the cheap!)

Starting my own compost heap has been on my minification to-do list for a long time! After all, composting helps keep food waste out of landfills and out of the water table, preventing everything from excess greenhouse gas production to dead zones in water bodies (created when the bacteria which feed on food waste multiply because we put food down our garbage disposals). Compost is also good for the garden, providing a sustainable, organic alternative to commercial fertilizers.

It took us a while to get started because we live in a townhouse with no yard, which meant we couldn’t do trench composting, the system with which I was most comfortable and familiar. We needed a system that didn’t smell, didn’t take up much space, and wouldn’t attract too many critters. And since we’re still on a graduate student budget, we needed it to be free. Enter the 75 gallon trash bin. (Note: this experiment continued for several years. I highly recommend going with a smaller barrel. Half this size at MOST. It’s more manageable, easier to turn, and you can reach the bottom of it to scoop or stir the compost much more easily!)

The trash bin fits neatly in the outdoor, fenced in storage area in front of our townhouse. Having now tested it out for over a month, I feel comfortable saying that anyone in an urban setting with a deck or outdoor enclosure, or rooftop access, could use the same system. My husband drilled holes in the bottom, sides and lid of the 75 gallon bin to allow for air flow. Every now and then we give it a good shake to aid the composting process. Every day I dump a bowl full of our eggshells, coffee grounds and produce trimmings into the bin. Since we’re vegetarian, we’re able to compost almost all of our food waste (composting meat is a more complicated process, better explained by someone who has actually tried it).

We’re still not a zero-waste kitchen, because we purchase some products that come in non-recyclable, non-compostable packaging, but at least we’re on our way! I’ve also started growing herbs, vegetables and a few fruits on our back deck in large containers – so far I’ve only harvested the basil, but I’m looking forward to a summer of fresh and ultra-local peppers, tomatoes and swiss chard! With very limited square footage but ample sunlight, I think we’ll be able to grow at least a few full meals’ worth of produce. Homesteading it ain’t, but it still feels good.

We’re using a bin we already owned (we used it as a trashcan – we gave it a really good scrubbing before converting it to a compost bin), but I think that when it fills up, we’ll get a second one – that way we can give the full container some time to break down and turn into compost in time for next spring’s container garden!

Here’s the step by step on how to set up your own trash can compost bin:

  • Drill holes in sides, bottom and top of bin. We drilled relatively small holes, close together. If you’re drilling larger holes, you’ll want to screen them in to keep your compost in and small furry critters out. (use a really sturdy bin, y’all. And again, I recommend going much smaller with your own compost bin. This thing was a beast!)
  • Place the bin on a milk crate, bricks, or whatever’s handy, to elevate it and promote air flow (like this):

  • Line bottom of bin with sticks and dirt, several inches deep.
  • Begin adding food waste. After each layer of food waste (“greens”), add a layer of “brown” material (I use leaves and toilet paper and paper towel rolls – coffee grounds also count as “browns”, which is helpful, because we generate quite a few of those in our household!)

  • Make sure the compost heap stays moist, and give it a regular shake/stir  to aid the process. You can use a long-handled shovel for the stirring. Aeration is important – without it, your compost will never decompose! We just (carefully) roll the trashcan on its side, making sure the lid stays on:

A short list of helpful composting “don’ts”:

  1. Don’t compost banana peels close to your house. Just don’t. We wound up with tiny fruit flies EVERYWHERE when I tossed a banana peel into our compost heap. Little did I know that the suckers would come from miles around, attracted by the smell of rotting banana, and that they would die all over my kitchen, for days on end. Lesson learned.
  2.  Don’t compost meat, fats such as butter, other dairy, or items cooked with these. You’ll wind up with rancid compost.
  3. This should be obvious, but don’t toss anything into your compost heap that isn’t going to break down. You can compost brown paper, for example, but that seemingly paper bag you bought your coffee beans in? Check it for a plastic lining – that’s not going to decompose! Tea bags are also sneaky – mine come with a little metal staple affixing the tag to the string – I have to remove the staple before I can compost the rest!

Our compost appears to be breaking down nicely, about 5 weeks in to the experiment.

Just as importantly, it doesn’t smell, doesn’t take up much space, and hasn’t been much trouble to maintain. I don’t know why we waited so long after moving into our townhouse (2 years!) to start our own compost heap, but I’m so glad we started! Happy composting, everybody.