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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Eating Sustainably When You Need Quick Meals

“Why No Recipe Postings Lately?”

 

Ah, this is a question I’ve been asked several times in the last few weeks. The tasty soups, the yummy squash recipes, the pancrack… they were popular posts! Why have the recipes been lagging?

 

It boils down to my living a more active, busy lifestyle. The truth is: I have not had much time to experiment in the kitchen. In fact, I have not had much time to make much of anything!

 

There was a while there where I even fell off the wagon, and ate out several days a week. I admit it: when I work ten to twelve hours a day, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to cook. And I’ll admit also that I ate out for lunch several times a week. Gasp! Generally I ate sustainably-sourced foods, but still – not so sustainable for the bank account, nor my figure.

 

Now I am coming back into equilibrium. I’ve come to terms with my new lifestyle, and I’m finding ways to reconcile it with my own beliefs of simplicity and sustainability.  Several readers have expressed similar needs to live sustainably while living actively as well, so I’ve compiled some of my favorite quick and easy local meals.

 

5 Quick Lunches

 

1. Grill some veggies the night before, and then boil some pasta or rice while you’re eating breakfast in the morning. Then throw it in a reusable container, and you’re off.

 

Quick Seasonal Salad


2.  Quick salad. Rip up some lettuce and/or mixed greens into a reusable container, pour in several beans (I like garbanzos or favas), add some seasonal raw veggies (carrots, tomatoes, snow peas, etc), and top with a quickly made salad dressing. You can bring a couple slices of whole wheat bread for some added protein and grains if you like. For the dressing, I make it with 2-3 parts olive oil, 2/3 parts balsamic vinegar, 1/3 parts lemon juice, and a bit of salt and pepper. Alternatively, you can add a mustard instead of the lemon juice, or soy sauce instead of the vinegar.

 

Quick Tacos

 

3.  Eggs, salsa, and veggies with corn tortillas. This is one of my favorites. I scramble some eggs with zucchini, asparagus, onions, or greens. Then put them in a reusable container with a dollop of salsa on top, and some fresh cilantro if I have it. Then wrap up some tortillas that I can quickly throw in the microwave later at work. Viola, yummy tacos. You can also substitute beans for the eggs, and tortilla chips for the tortillas if you like.

 

4.  Raw fruits and veggies, with some cheese or meat. Now is the perfect season to cut up (or throw in whole) some raw veggies and fruit. Slice a bit of cheese or meat for protein, and you have a wonderfully balanced and tasty meal.

 

Pasta with Red Sauce


5.  Pasta with red sauce and grated parmesan cheese. You can make the sauce in large batches and freeze it. You can make extra sauce the night before. Or you can do what we often do, which is to buy locally-made sauce. Then boil the pasta while you’re eating breakfast in the morning, throw it in a reusable container, top it with cold sauce (you’re going to refrigerate it until lunch time anyway), grate a bit of cheese on top, and you’re off.

 

 

5 Quick Dinners

 

Aside from the same five meals above, which are equally good as dinners, here are some of my favorites:

 

Whole Wheat Pasta with Sauteed Tomatoes, Garlic, and Basil

 

1.  Sauteed veggies with whole wheat pasta. Boil the pasta as you saute the veggies (our favorites are asparagus and onions, or beans and garlic). Preserve a cup (or two if you’re making it for 4 people) of the pasta water before you strain the pasta. Then add the pasta water to the veggies, add extra salt and pepper to taste, and mix with the pasta. This gives it a nice pasta sauce flavor without having to make a sauce too. When tomatoes are in season, you can saute tomatoes, basil, and garlic for a quick sauce.

 

Grilled Eggplant and Mozzarella Sandwiches

 

2.  Grilled sandwiches. Roast veggies using this easy recipe, but slice them length-wise and fairly thinly. Roasted vegetables will keep for several days in the fridge. When you’re in need of a quick dinner, pull them out, put them on top of sliced whole wheat bread (you can spread the bread with mustard, mayo, pesto, or tomato sauce), top them with some mozzarella or other local cheese, and stick in the toaster oven for several minutes (on 400F or so) until the veggies are warm and the cheese is melted. Yum!

 

Raviolis

 

3.  Raviolis. We buy locally-made raviolis, usually filled with squash or mushrooms. While the raviolis are boiling, saute some mushrooms, garlic, and sage. When you strain the raviolis, reserve a bit of the pasta water and stir it into the mushrooms. Then mix the ingredients together and top with a bit of parmesan cheese. When tomato season starts, we saute tomatoes and basil with it. We usually eat raviolis with a simple salad (see #2 under lunches).

 

Grilled Veggies with Couscous

 

4.  Grilled vegetables with couscous. Roasting takes VERY little time, but you do have to put the veggies in the oven about an hour ahead of meal time – that is the only catch. Roast the veggies using this easy recipe adding some thyme or other fresh spices if you have them, and five minutes before they’re done, make a pot of couscous (follow the recipe on the package or bulk bin). Fluff the couscous, mix the veggies in, and voila.

 

Fresh Mozzarella, Tomatoes, Basil, and Bread


5.  Fresh Mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and fresh bread. YUM. You can make your own mozzarella, but we usually buy locally-made mozzarella (from the farmer’s market, local deli, or spud.com). You can drizzle it with a bit of olive oil if you like. This only works when tomatoes and basil are fresh and in season, either from the garden or from the market.

 

All of these quick meals can be made easily with local, seasonal ingredients. Enjoy!


In addition to these homecooked meals, we often eat simple pre-made foods from local companies that source their ingredients locally and/or organically. Our favorites include frozen pizza, red pepper and tomato soup, and hummus and pita bread. Check around your local grocery store or market – you may be surprised at how easy it is to find quick pre-made meals from local, sustainable companies.


What Else Would You Add?

How Far Have You Come?

Me in January, 2009

 

I’m back!  Thank you for your patience.  This morning I was reading through many of the comments here, and a comment by Charlene got me thinking.  She wrote “I try to rack my memory banks to remember how we lived before plastic and change my ways.”  And that got me thinking:  how far have we each come in one year?  Five years?  Ten?


Where Was I One Year Ago?


We have a record of that with this blog, which I started almost exactly a year ago.  So I won’t go into that…


Me with documentary film crew in Turkey, 2004


Where Was I Five Years Ago?


Wow.  I was living in LA, working in the film industry and going to school.  I was eating Subway sandwiches and take-out pasta on a regular basis, as fuel for my late-night film editing sessions.  I was using mostly “green” products, because that’s something I’d been working on for a while.  I was using an awful lot of water on long showers, I was not very aware of my electric use – some of my bulbs were CFLs, but not all of them, and I believe I even left my computer running on a regular basis (!).  I drove to work every day.  I was aware of the problems of climate change, but I didn’t think about it often.  It worried me, but it seemed like a distant idea.


I hadn’t heard of a CSA, nor shopped at a farmer’s market.  I hadn’t started cooking at home much, nor making homemade cleaning solutions.  I had a few herb pots and lots of indoor plants, but otherwise hadn’t grown a food garden since I was a kid.  I hadn’t taken the bus in 6 years (since moving to Los Angeles).  Eating and living locally were not things I thought about at all.


Pretty incredible, isn’t it?


The only digital picture I have (whew, it was before digital!), in 1996 just before moving to LA


Where Was I Ten Years Ago?


Now it gets interesting.  I was still in Los Angeles.  I was working as an Art Director on film and television projects.  My job was to create sets out of nothing.  Every day I created new sets that I filled with stuff that I (and my team) found by driving around the city, renting from different rental houses, but largely BUYING NEW THINGS.  From big pieces of furniture, down to the paper and pencils on each desk of an office set.  My job was to design spaces, build them quickly (often from the ground up, without any “green” materials), fill them with disposable things, and tear them all down.  Sure, we kept several of the items to use again (which I kept in a large storage locker), but for the most part, we threw stuff away or gave it away.  And I mean STUFF.


I put thousands of miles on my car each month.  I managed a whole Art Department crew of people who did the same.  I took cheap, plentiful gas for granted.  My goal was to create projects that made the world a better place, but I wasn’t there yet.  I was still learning, and hoping.


I recycled at home, as I have since I learned about recycling (about 25 years ago).  But the amount of thrown away stuff at work each day filled dumpsters, as is the culture of the film and television industry. 


I ate out for lunch every day, and often for dinner, too.  Lunches were often fast food, eaten in the car on the run.  (My car was a pigsty!


I still used fairly natural cleaning products, but mostly because my skin is very sensitive to most cleansers.  I certainly cared about the environment, but didn’t think about it very often.


No garden, virtually no local or seasonal food (unless it was by accident or because it was tastier), no walking or busing, no conscientious water and utility use… my lifestyle was virtually unrecognizable from the way it is today.


I have come a long way.  A very long way.  How about you?

Back Soon

I’m back home now, having had a wonderful, relaxing vacation.  At the moment I’m playing a bit of catch-up, so I’ll be back writing soon.  For those of you who spent some time Conversing while I was gone, THANK YOU.  Please continue to ask questions, voice thoughts, and so on until I get back – I’m learning, too!

Converse!

Hi everyone.  Matt and I are going away for a few days for a much-needed vacation.  We’re visiting a college friend who is getting married, and then will spend some time just relaxing.  I’m looking forward to it very much. It will only be for a few days but I’m looking forward to it. We realized we have not really been on a vacation since our honeymoon 3 years ago!  That’s me in Mexico City 3 years ago, the last day I had a vacation:

 

On My Last Vacation, 3 Years Ago

 

So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to start a conversation.  We discussed a bit about an open forum.  Eventually I will see about starting a “real” forum, but for now, let’s use what we have.  I think it would be fun to open up this post to asking one another questions we have been pondering, to sharing ideas, to blabbing about whatever strikes our fancy.  We’re all knowledgeable in different ways, so let’s share our knowledge.


What has been driving you bonkers, something you just can’t find a good simple solution to?  Questions about why your garden plants are wilting?  Updates about what you’ve been doing in your community?  Don’t be shy now, we’re all learning together!  Ask and chat away!


Of course, as always, do be nice and respectful please. 

 

And PS, I will be very sad if I come back on Tuesday to no juicy discussions here.  So please join the conversation!  Come -

 

Converse!

 

Organic Ant Control

"Go to the ant and be wise" by Pandlyan on Flickr

 

I have lived in the north, south, east, and west – and ants find you know matter where you live!  I have tried all sorts of different organic sprays and urban legend tinctures.  Most things work a little bit and then the ants come back.

 

So how do you get rid of ants?  Here’s what I’ve found that works best:

 

In The Home

 

First off, you have to trace your ant trail as far as you can trace it.  That means across the windowsill or the floor, through the window or door, and outside.  If they are coming through a crack in the wall or ceiling, you may not be able to do this, but at least follow it to the crack.  If they’re coming through a wall, you may be able to go around to the outside of your house and find where they’re coming in.

 

Then you’ll need to get rid of the trail.  If you only kill the ants you see, more ants will return in their place, following an ant trail established by scent.  The best way I have found to get rid of the ant trail is to spray it with orange oil cleaner (which you can find in any health food store – try to find one that isn’t dyed orange, and is a natural color).  I spray the entire trail inside with a hefty dose of orange oil cleaner, and leave it there for several minutes.  Then I wipe it clean, go outside, and do the same.

 

After I’ve gotten rid of the trail, I spray the orange oil cleaner into the entry point on the outside of the house (if I can find it).  That means every crack, crevice, window, or doorway where they are coming in.  Don’t wipe the spray clean – just leave it.


In a pinch, you can also use straight vinegar in a spray bottle.  In my experience this does not last as long – the ants find their way back a day or two later.  But if you need to take immediate action, this will help.  You can also combine it with shaking some ground cinnamon into the corner or crevice where the ants are coming into the house.  It may look a little weird, but the ants will not cross the cinnamon.  Baking soda can work as well, though again, not as well as the orange oil.

 

In The Garden

 

In the garden, I leave ants alone because they help break down the nutrients for plants – they’re a natural part of the garden ecosystem.  However, if you have a serious infestation (sometimes ants will bring in aphids), or if you want to get rid of fire ants, you can deter them.  Try scattering ground cinnamon, wood ash, and/or diatomaceous earth around the perimeter of your beds.


Anyone else have any organic ant deterrent tricks?


This post was inspired by a comment from Charlene – thanks for asking, Charlene!

Ways To Live Simply While Leading A Busy Life

 

That sounds a bit impossible, doesn’t it?  It’s almost an oxymoron.  Simple living is about stripping away what does not matter to focus on what does.  It’s also about treading lightly by making your own, doing your own, working at home.  Unfortunately, that’s not always easy when we are working 40-60 hours/week, when we’re working hard to be good parents, when we’re taking care of our parents and grandparents, and when we spend time trying to make our communities stronger.


Do you always have time to live simply?  I bet some of us would say that we make time, because it’s important to us.  And truly, it is a lifestyle choice.  Each of us have different priorities and we make conscious choices about what we do.  Living simply does sometimes require working hard at home, which is very healthy, fulfilling, and environmentally sound.


But for many of us, the realities of life make it tough to be healthy, fulfilled, and environmentally sound.  We’re too busy.  However, I believe there is a way for a person who is “busy” to also live simply and sustainably.  So if you find yourself not having enough time to live simply, this post is for you.


My Busy Life


So you know where I am coming from, here is my lifestyle in a nutshell:


For the last 9 months I have been starting a business building online and offline communities that strengthen mission-driven businesses, NGOs, and government organizations.  Our idea is to change the world by providing business solutions that are good for the world.  Since it is a start-up, I pay the bills by writing strategic plans and grant proposals for city, state, and county governments to obtain federal funding for their many community development projects.  These are the HUD funds that pay for most of the community service programs in any municipality – so I help the municipalities get the grants, and figure out where their communities need the most help – where to put their money.


On the side, I write and maintain this website, write articles at the co-op, co-head the gardening committee at our sustainable neighborhood group, and dabble in other neighborhood projects.  I have a family that includes my husband, Raisin (cat), and Ellis (dog).  But I also have a 98-year old grandfather I try to spend time with at least once a week, as well as my parents.  My mom and I have been replanting her front, back, and side yard with fruits and vegetables galore – no small task!  And I have a community garden plot that is – I found out when I actually Googled it – almost 2 miles away.


So needless to say, I am a pretty darn busy person.  But I don’t want to cut back on all of the things I do, because I believe they are extremely important to the world, my family, and myself.  Therefore, I have had to rethink simple and sustainable living to make it more efficient for my own needs.


Moving Toward Efficient Simplicity


Here are some of the things I do to live simply despite having a lot going on in my life:


1.  Find ways to fulfill several needs with one activity. For instance, I need daily exercise, I need to eat healthy and local food, I need some quiet time to myself.  Instead of going to the gym, the farmer’s market, and doing yoga or some other meditative activity, I walk to my community garden plot where I grow my own food.  In an hour or so, I exercise, grow healthy local food, and have my own relaxation time.


2.  Consolidate several days’ intermittent work into one or two days. We all have activities that we do each and every day.  But some of those things can be consolidated and take less time if you do them all at once on one or two days.


For instance, my own writing: I try to post here every day.  But I do much of my writing in one or two days – it takes less time overall because I’m already in the groove of writing and can easily go from writing one idea to the next.  By consolidating time my writing, I have less warm-up time or prep-time overall. For those of you with kids, maybe you can make the bulk of your school lunches in one or two days instead of doing it every day.  Or pay all of your bills in one sitting, or make one big pot of soup for dinner that you can eat over several days….


3.  Get local food delivered and/or shop once a week. We use Spud.com and love it.  You can also use a CSA, a vegetable delivery service, or some other food delivery service in your area.  If you can’t get good food delivered, try shopping just once a week.  This requires some planning on your part, but it gets easy very fast.  We don’t plan our menus, but you may find that works better for you.


The benefits are wonderful and true to our values: our groceries get a carpool, which reduces our carbon footprint.  We buy from a good company with strong local values that gives back to the community and values me as a customer.  And we easily choose local and seasonal foods – Spud tells you about an item’s origin (you can read about each farmer), how far each item has traveled, and even averages out your total food miles when you check out.


4.  Eat fresh foods. You don’t have to cook every night to eat locally.  We often cut up fresh fruits and vegetables, put them on a plate, and eat them for dinner.  It’s a tasty delight, especially when you’re eating seasonally so that each food is rich in flavor!


Sometimes we make a bit of humus to go with it (easy – throw garbanzo beans in a blender with some oil, lemon juice, and salt) and maybe some toast made from local bread.  Dinner can be made in 5 or 10 minutes, with few dishes to clean in the end.  Yet it’s still very satisfying.

 

(Also try some of my recipes – most of them are easy, “stick it all in a pot and cook it” type recipes.)


5.  Utilize your community. We can’t do this alone.


For instance, I don’t sew or knit – I’d like to but I just don’t have the time to learn and do it right now (I imagine I will later in my life).  So I don’t make my own clothes.  But, there are lots of people in my neighborhood who resell clothing.  By buying reused clothing, I’m staying true to my values – my clothes may not be homemade, but they still have a low environmental impact.  Plus I’m supporting a local business.


This works in a number of instances.  Why go out and buy a tool for your garden, if you can just knock on your neighbor’s door and borrow it – which saves money, time, and resources, and makes your community stronger?


6.  Walk. Many of you know we moved to a walkable neighborhood last year, so that we would not have to drive everywhere. If you live in the city, or live within walking distance of work or stores, take advantage of it.  Overall, my stress level is much lower and I tend to consolidate my trips when I walk places.  So even if it takes a bit longer, it is worth it on a number of levels.  I am healthier, too, because my transportation is my exercise.  And I’m not using any fuel, nor am I releasing any greenhouse gases.


Even if you live in a suburban or rural area, there are opportunities for walking.  If you are at one store and need to go to another nearby store, walk there.  Even if it’s across a large parking lot, or down the street.  It really does not save much time to drive there (time yourself doing both things if you doubt that), plus it’s better for your health and that of the environment to walk.


7.  Consolidate errands. Whether biking, walking, busing, or driving, errands take time.  By consolidating errands into one or two trips – and taking care of them while you’re already going that direction – you can save a great deal of time, and often fuel and money.


8.  Take time to regenerate. I almost always include this step in anything we do, because it is so important.  I am much more efficient if I am refreshed.  So that means I sleep 7-8 hours a night, so that my head is clear when I work and I end up getting more done in less time.


But this is not just about sleep, we also need some personal regeneration time – whether it’s having breakfast in the morning where we sit and read the paper, or taking an evening walk with the dog and/or our partner, or gardening in the yard.  Whatever it is, take that time for yourself so that you are more productive throughout the week.


9.  Find simple solutions to things that have become too complex in your life. A good example of this for me as been going no ‘poo and making my own deodorant and cleaning products.  These have been complicating my life for a long time, as I have searched for environmentally-friendly products that really work, only to find that often they don’t work for me or have some bad ingredient in them or are way too expensive.


But aha! – now I just need baking soda and vinegar for most of my needs.  It takes 30 seconds to mix up the ingredients, and they’re simple and effective to use.  Instead of worrying about buying 10 different products, I just keep vinegar and baking soda on my recurring Spud order (see #3) and don’t worry about it at all!


10.  What else? Alright, I know you all have some great ideas.  Let’s help each other out here, and chime in!  What else do you do to save time while living a simple, sustainable life?


Thanks to Beany and Laura for asking the great questions that sparked this post – more thoughts to come.


Our Community

Hello everyone.  A comment left here last week really shook my motivation to write.  There are 40-50,000 people that come here to read each month, and one of them got me down.  It seems silly but I guess it means I’m human!  Anyway, I apologize to the rest of you for letting it keep me from writing.


I love the community we have here.  I love how we push each other to do a bit more, work a little harder, love a little stronger.  I love the passion we all have for life and for doing the things that matter to us.  I love that we come from such different walks of life, and that this fact does not keep us apart but rather makes us stronger and more interesting as a community.


And because we are a community, I ask you to let me know if there are things that you’d like to see differently here.  Are there post topics you particularly like to read?  Topics that don’t help you as much?  Topics you wish I would write about?  Or any other constructive criticisms that would make this site stronger?


Please feel free to communicate openly and honestly here.  Not just in this post, but in any post.  Or via email, if you’re more comfortable.  Let’s keep our communication strong and healthy!!


Thank you all for reading.  And I appreciate very much all of you who regularly leave comments, or chime in occasionally.  I love to read your words, and to find out what you’re thinking.  I encourage any of you who haven’t written to come out and introduce yourself whenever you are comfortable.  I would love to hear from you!

 

I’m off to work this morning.  But while I’m gone, I wanted to ask you for your quick thoughts:

 

One of the things I’ve been thinking about this week is that maybe we can have an open forum once a week, where we ask questions of one another, talk about the things we’re working on, voice any concerns or roadblocks we’re finding in our lives, and all in all just support and learn from one another.  Maybe we can call it the Sustainability Forum.  Does that sound useful to you?  I thought it might be a way to open up conversation and have a little fun.  What do you think?

 

Thanks for your thoughts!  Have a wonderful day.