Saturday, November 22, 2008

RECIPE: iced Thanksgiving turkey cookies

I made these cookies for Thanksgiving, which is at our house this year and includes 8 chilren.  Nature Kidz helped me decorate them.  The cookie recipe I found online and tweaked to my own taste, and it's a winner.  I'm still searching for just the right icing recipe.  These are royal icing made with cocoa for a brown color, and the India Tree food colors for the accent colors; since the India Tree colors don't taste all that good I didn't want to use much of that.

Royal icing is nice because it dries nicely.  Another recipe I have which I have used is thinner and less effective for piping has a nice glossy finish.  I'd love a great recipe for a nice icing that can be worked for decorating and dries well so cookies can be stacked--email it to me!  

Till then, here's the cookie and icing recipe.  

Sugar Cookies
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
3 cups white sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
5 cups all-purpose flour (I use Eagle Mills' White/Ultragrain blend)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Mix together butter and sugar; beat in eggs and vanilla.  
Stir together dry ingredients and then incorporate into sugar/butter mixture.  Cover, and chill dough for at least one hour---but if you let it stay overnight it can get tough to work with.

Roll out cookies to about 1/4-1/2 in thickness (I use 3-4 inch cookie cutters) and bake at 400 for about 7=8 minutes.  Allow to cool completely before decorating.

Chocolate Royal Icing
(from Recipezaar)

1 lb powdered sugar
1/3 cup cocoa (Hershey's)
7 T. warm water
3 T powdered egg whites (like Just Whites)

mix powdered sugar, cocoa and egg whites.  Slowly add water until you get the consistency you want.  It's important to remember that with royal icing, you sometimes have to beat the mixture up to 8 minutes with a mixer to get the whipped, workable texture you want.  

For the colors on these cookies, leave out the cocoa to make white icing and then use the colors of your choice.  If you want natural coloring, you can try blueberry juice, cherry juice, beet juice, or some other vegetable/fruit colorings

Product Review: India Tree Natural Decorating Colors

$22.99 plus s&h 
set of three: red, yellow, blue
Rating: C--

India Tree is a Seattle-based company that sells "sugar, spices, and other fine food products from around the world" according to their website. I have used their powdered sugar
 to make cookie icing and it's really quite good.  I recently was on the prowl for natural substitutes for the food colors you can buy in the grocery store, which are of course artificial.  I did a thorough web search and found that the India Tree brand was the only one that seemed to have any positive reviews.  Even this brand had some negatives, ones that turned out to be true.

I wish I could rave about these, but I can't.   The package of three costs anywhere from $17-25 online; I wasn't able to find them locally anywhere--my Whole Foods carries India Tree products, including decorating sugars, but not these colors.  Two of the three places I found them online ended up not having them in stock. 

Once I finally got them in the mail I was ready to make Royal Icing for my Thanksgiving cookies (recipe to follow).  I followed the instructions and put a few drops of the yellow and the red in the icing to make orange.  I was never able to get more than the palest of peaches, and there is a decided flavor to the colorings, which is not pleasant to me.  The Kidz said it tasted like orange tic-tacs.  Unfortunately, I am not fond of orange tic-tacs.  Plus, I didn't see the resemblance.

I did some more internet research and found some other ideas, such as using cocoa, coffee, and berry juice to color icing.  I even tried cherry natural gelatin and got a nice pink out of it and a nice taste, too!

So for now, I have to recommend against using these as real alternatives to the saturated, dense colors you can get from artificial food colors.  If you're okay with more muted, pastel colors, trying berries and other natural foods is a cheaper--and tastier--way to go.  I will probably buy some of the decorating sugars to accent white icing in the future and see how they taste; they come in lots of beautiful, rich colors.  

Review: Hoover Steamvac Deluxe

Price: $165 including shipping from Ace Hardware Outlet
Rating: B+

I know, it  probably seems weird to have a loud electrical appliance on a "natural" themed website.  But we still have to clean, and I have petz and kidz, so, well, 'nuff said.  Instead of spending a lot of money on having pros come in I decided to get a carpet cleaner and try it out.

Now, as you can see, the machine came with some liquid cleaning solution which I don't use (not only so much because it's not natural, which it isn't, but because using soap on carpets can cause dirt to be attracted to the carpet more so than without).  Instead, I use a mixture of about 1/3 vinegar and 2/3 very hot water.  Vinegar is said to clean stains, eliminate odors, and freshen laundry and fabrics.  And it's natural! 

Well, I really love this machine.  Not only does it spray the water/vinegar mixture and then suck it back out, it has 3 rotating brushes to really scrub the carpet.  Plus, there's an awesome hand tool that also has rotating brushes for upholstered furniture and stairs.  And in a 3 story house, I gotta lotta stairs.

Basically, the machine worked.  My carpet it pretty new but it still pulled a lot of dirt out of my highest-traffic room--the family room--and we don't wear shoes in our house!  So I'm thrilled to have this machine and plan to use it monthly.  Don't hold me to that, though, as I'm a rather mediocre housekeeper.

But why the B+?  Because the hand tool is an incredibly huge pain to attach.  You have to remove the waste-water tank, change a part out, and then reassemble the whole thing. It's certainly not as easy to use as your everyday vacuum cleaner.

I know what you're thinking: "vinegar?  Ewww! The smell!"  And, well, yes, it ain't so pretty at first.  But as soon as it dries the smell is gone, and the house is clean.  And fresh.  And naturally so.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Natural vs. Mainstream: Lime Ice Pops

The Contenders:
Edy's Lime Fruit Bars, $4.15 for 6
365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods Brand) Lime Frozen Fruit Bars, $3.89 for 4

Edy's Ingredients: water, sugar, lime juice from concentrate, citric acid, citrus pulp, natural flavors, guar gum, carob bean gum, lime and lemon peel, ascorbic acid, Yellow #5, Green #3.

365 Ingredients: lime juice, water, cane sugar, natural stabilizers (guar gum, carob bean gum, carrageenan), citric acid.

As a person newly committed to natural living, I have a whole history of delicious and bad for me junk food for which I now have to find healthy replacements. I have long loved Edy's frozen fruit bars and, for "junk" food, they're really not all that bad.  A look at the ingredients shows that there is no high fructose corn syrup, and there is real lime juice and citrus pulp, though the juice comes from concentrate.  And there are those pesky artificial colors, a no-no on the Feingold program.  

So, while I was browsing Whole Foods the other day I saw these Lime Frozen Fruit Bars in their 365 Everyday Value store brand and thought I'd give them a try.  There are no artificial ingredients whatsoever, and the first ingredient is lime juice. NOT from concentrate.  

I made the sacrifice and tried one of each.  The Edy's brand is decidedly green, the color of artificial food colors.  I didn't have to read a book to figure this out--a fan of real key lime pie, I know that lime juice isn't actually green.  The 365 brand is nearly colorless.  So, to a kid, I guess the Edy's brand looks awesome.

And, truthfully, it is pretty good.  It  has the tart bite you'd expect in a citrus fruit bar, and does taste like lime--at least, it tastes a far sight more lime than the standard grocery store popsicle. But there is a bit of a weird aftertaste.  Overall, Edy's has made a step toward "real" food.  The texture is quite firm and dense.  More so than your usual firecracker pop or grape ice pop.  It's very smooth.

The 365 brand packaging is pretty lame.  It looks generic, which I suppose the 365 brand is supposed to be since it's a store brand.  It's green and has a picture of the nearly-white bar on the front.  The Edy's logo is more pleasing and, to someone raised in and inhabiting an environment full of bright eye-catching colors via advertising, the Edy's box promises flavor and healthfulness (it does, after all, say "fruit" and "fat-free" on the packaging).  In Whole Foods' defense, I suppose we Nature Momz might be suspicious of anything healthful that looks alarmingly like something McDonalds might sell.

But what the 365 lacks in branding it makes up for in taste.  I am so in love with this ice pop that I bought 3 boxes the other day and am treating myself to one bar per day.  At night. After the kids are in bed.  I have no intention of sharing.

The texture is smooth but with more give than the Edy's bar.  It's somewhere between the Edy's bar and a frozen lemonade.  The flavor is equal parts tart and sweet, and very refreshing.  It's not green, but it's just delicious.  It just tastes real--the way fountain lemonade just can't stack up to fresh-squeezed, Edy's can't hold a candle to 365 Everyday Lime Frozen Fruit Bars.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Product Review: Ian's Mini Chicken Patty Sandwiches

Ian's Mini Chicken Patty Sandwiches
Kidz Rating: D
Momz Rating: B

These were listed in my Feingold manual as acceptable for stage 1, so I bought them for Nature Kidz' dinner for a night when Nature Parentz wanted to eat something other than pizza or burritos (Kidz faves).  They look pretty darn kid-friendly.  They're about the size of a 4-year-old's palm, and we all know that for kids, especially girls (and most especially Nature Girlz in my house), cute rules.

They come in a 4-pack and cost about $5.  Ian's makes a good variety of kid-oriented foods geared toward children with allergies and parents who want a natural alternative to McYuckets.  Two of them can be cooked in the microwave for 90 seconds.

I tried one, and the bread was dense but soft, and the chicken patty had a pretty generic, mild taste. I thought for sure it would go over well with the Kidz.

Nature Girl #1, the "good eater", took one bite, made a sour face, and said, with her best attempt at Not Being Rude, "um, I don't like it."  She rated it a D. Nature Girl #2, my picky eater, didn't care for the bun but ate the entire chicken patty without a hint of a complaint.  She rated it just average.   The mere fact that she ate it without complaining makes it a winning choice for me.  But if both Girlz don't like it, it can't cross my threshold.  Mama'z not making 2 Nature Kidz meals in one night!

Overall, I think that they're a great choice for preschoolers and young kids who haven't gotten their tastes so much set yet--you know, the McYuckets virgins.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nature Kidz in Nature

Yesterday we took the kidz and dogz to Umstead State Park. One of the things I love about living in NC (we're recent transplants after 8 years in Tampa, FL) is the parks: we have a state park just minutes from our house, and loads of local area parks all around the metro area. We have parks with sailboats and paddle boats to rent, parks with miles and miles of walking trails, even a park with a carousel.

Umstead State Park has over 20 miles of walking trails. It's autumn in NC now, and I am realizing that this is my kidz' first ever real fall, since Central West Florida is not known for its deciduous trees. It was utterly beautiful yesterday, and it was such a joy watching the kidz run around, pick up leaves, and just enjoy the beauty of the place. Other than the sirens we heard at one point, it was very peaceful and quiet. We occasionally saw other people walking their dogs or running the trails.

It was a wonderful (and free!) outing and a great way for my Nature Kidz to experience autumn for the first time. Go check out your local parks and enjoy!

Amy's Organics Mac and Cheese

Amy's Macaroni and Cheese made from Organic Pasta
Kidz Rating: A (kid 1), C+ (kid 2)
Momz Rating: A

It's not easy finding prepared foods that aren't full of scary ingredients like artifical flavors, colors and preservatives that are made from petroleum. Amy's is a yummy, natural option that has the added bonus of not having any GMOs in it--it says so right on the box.

I have never been a fan of the scary blue box. My kids never had it until dining out, and of course they loved it. I've had a hard time weaning them off it. Can nuclear orange powder really somehow have any relation to actual cheese?

I love Amy's. Whenever I prepare this for my kids I always lick the spoon and scrape the sides of the box for my own secret treat. 6 year old Nature Kid loves it, too. 9 year old Nature Kid is less enthusiastic, calling it "goopy." Apparently all that real cheese offends her palate.

And the best part? This meal takes 3 minutes in my microwave and serves two Kidz (they eat this along with veggies and usually a bread or fruit, too).

Amy's isn't cheap. But it's comfort food one step away from Momz own.

Natural living in the 21st century Depression

Cherchie's White Bean Chili and a Home Made Slow-Cooker Alternative
Momz Rating: A
Dadz Rating: A+
Kidz Rating: B-

Momz Rating: B-
Dadz Rating: B+
Kidz Rating: C-

So, this afternoon I was slaving over my Kitchen Aid mixer making yummy cornbread from scratch and Cherchie's White Bean Chili for dinner when the doorbell rang. Nature Dad answered and, when he returned from a brief discussion with whomever was at the door, informed me that Thomasville (that's the furniture people--we live in NC) had people at the door asking if we wanted to buy furniture direct from the warehouse; they had two trucks full of stuff and were going door to door selling it.

Within two minutes, Nature Dad returned from the playroom after checking on Nature Girlz (they were being too quiet--we knew that they just had to be up to no good) and informed me that they were playing "homeless children." He asked if I remembered playing something like that as a child.

Of course not. We didn't even have the term homeless when I was a child.

Now, maybe it's because I recently watched Kit Kittredge for the second time, but this really affected me. Here I am trying to live a more back-to-basics, natural existence for my kids' sake, and someone (was it really Thomasville reps? was it stolen? Is Thomasville going under?) it out selling nice furniture out of the back of a truck, and the world seems to be crashing around us.

9 year old Nature Girl has been bringing home her ziploc bags from her lunch box--so I can use them again.

And I remarked the other day to another mom that I think I might go bankrupt at Whole Foods just trying to keep artificial junk out of my family's foods (Though I'm learning to find things at my local grocery store, too). Why is is that Cheetos are much cheaper than cheese? Why is it that, pound for pound, it's cheaper to buy fatty ground beef and Hamburger Helper than it is healthful meats and fresh vegetables? What's going to happen to our health in tough economic times?

I, for one, have no intention of turning to Velveeta and margarine.

The soup I made tonight claims to be "81 cents per serving" on its website (I think I paid a bit less than the site's retail price for my bag); I added some cut up chicken breast to it, and served it with homemade cornbread (another inexpensive option). While this meal was, of course, less costly (to our wallet and our health) than a meal out eating food of questionable provenance (did you know that many shredded cheeses have an anti-caking agent made from WOOD?), it is also labor-intensive and takes an 8-mile hike to Whole Foods to get everything (hello, Whole Foods, can you please open a store closer to me?)

But as for the food: I cooked the chili in my crockpot, bypassing the directions. I used a carton of natural low-sodium chicken broth to replace most of the water called for, and also added about a pound of cooked, chopped chicken breast. My additions made the meal not vegetarian, but leaving out the chicken broth and chicken makes a nice, inexpensive vegetarian meal (with leftovers!). The chili is also gluten-free. I topped each bowl with a hearty dollop of sour cream and shredded cheese.

The chili cooked in my crockpot all day while the Nature Peepz were out enjoying ourselves. The result was absolutely wonderful. Fall has really set in here, and it was a blustery day in the 50s. Chili was a great option for dinner. The white beans make for a creamy, thick, yummy concoction and Cherchie's adds just the right seasoning. I often make my own white bean chili, but I think I like the mix better than my recipe. The package states that it has jalapenos, and I suppose it does, but it's not an especially spicy food--suitable for kids for sure!

For the cornbread I used the basic recipe on the package of my corn meal. I don't use corn meal "mix" because I never really know what goes in there--I used House Autry Plain Yellow Corn Meal for this recipe. We found it to be really too dry--I had to choke it down. We like a moister corn bread, ever since a former neighbor baked a sinful recipe with sour cream and all sorts of other additions that my kids dubbed "corn cake" for its moist, sweet yummy-ness.

If you like a dense, crumbly corn bread, this one is good.

For my home made white crock pot chili, the recipe is from the Fix-it and Forget-it slow cooker cookbook and it's quite good and, based on the ingredients, suitable for Feingold Stage 2.

1 lb. bag large Great northern beans, soaked overnight
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut up (us all natural with no solution added)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 4.5 oz cans of green chilies
2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
14 1/2 oz can chicken broth (Whole Foods' 365 Organic Chicken Broth)
1 cup water

1. bring soaked beans to boil and simmer 20 min.  discard water.
2. brown chicken in 1-2 Tbsp. (Bertolli or 365 Every Day olive oil) oil in skillet.
3. combine everything in slow cooker and stir.
4. cover.  cook on high 5-6 hours or low for 12 hours.

You can serve with cheese, sour cream, or just as it is.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Home made Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookies

Momz rating: A-
Kidz rating: A-
Dadz rating: A

My 2 Kidz helped me make these cookies. I got the initial recipe from another blog (Gluten Free Girl), did some more searching since this recipe didn't specifically say "chewy" (a MUST in our house) and found another website (Chowhound) and created my own version using organic sugars, peanut butter, and egg, and adding some vanilla. I think the result turned out great! I got about 3 dozen small (1.5-2in) cookies out of this recipe.

The upside to this recipe is their chewiness; no one in my house likes a crunchy cookie, and of course peanut butter cookies are usually crunchy (note in the picture that these do not have the traditional fork-smashing pattern). Also, they get better with time--I actually (and this is unlike me) preferred them after cooling for about an hour to the fresh-out-of-the-oven taste. Because I rolled them in sugar before baking, they might be a bit too sugary. Overall it's an incredibly simple recipe that we managed to make in just a few minutes and pop in the oven while I was prepping for dinner.

Here's the recipe:

1 cup organic peanut butter (with only the ingredients peanuts and salt)
1 cup organic brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla (the real stuff, no artificial vanilla allowed!)
1 tsp baking soda

beat together the peanut butter, sugar, and egg. Add baking soda and vanilla and mix until dough becomes firm and malleable (it may seem too wet at first but let it mix a bit and it will thicken). Form dough into small (tablespoon sized) balls and, optionally, roll in white sugar (I used organic evaporated cane juice, which is not really "white" sugar). Place on cookie sheets and bake at 350 for about 10 minutes. When removing from the oven, make sure to let them sit on the cookie sheet to cool for about 5 min. (otherwise they may fall apart). Let cook completely and enjoy!

Product Review: Lifeway Probugs Organic Whole Milk Kefir (Sublime Slime Lime flavor).

: B+

Lifeway Organic Website
My first reaction to this product was to think that finally someone in the natural food industry has figured out kid packaging. The bright colors, yucky name ("Sublime Slime Lime"), and cool screw-off top seemed like a sure seller to me. Who bought the stuff while in the grocery store alone. Oops.

I'm going to try another flavor with my kids to see if they prefer that and will review later. I am a regular customer of Lifeway's "adult" versions of kefir--it's smooth, delicious, and, if you buy all the hype about probiotics, very good for you. I prefer to buy whole milk products for my kids since the Vitamin A that gets added to reduced and nonfat versions can have artificial elements, so I was thrilled to see these on the grocery store shelf. A closer look at the ingredients, however, says "Vitamin A Palmitate," which is always a warning flag to us Nature Momz. They have all the parent-friendly buzzwords on the front: organic, probiotic, and my favorite: "no spill spout."

My six year old (pickiest eater on the planet) was interested in the top--it's a cool black plastic device shaped similar to a 4-leaf clover. She told me at breakfast: "I don't want this, but I want the top." I told her to try it. And that if she wanted the top, she had to finish it. She tried it, made a face, and shook her head no. Tried it again, same reaction. She said it was too "banana-y" even though there was no banana in it.

My nine year old thought it looked cool enough to try (and who am I kidding, she's a great eater and will try most anything). She thought it was "okay" but didn't like it enough to want a full one of her own.

I tried it and I think it's delicious. Almost like a creamy lime popsicle, just not frozen. I say give it a try. After all, as the label says, the product is made with 100% renewable energy. Gotta support that!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Product Review: Tom's Toothpaste for Kids: rated "B-"

In our efforts to avoid artificial colors, flavors, and other unwanted additives, we recently purchased some Tom's toothpaste. Back in my crunchy vegetarian grad school days I'd used Tom's and liked it, other than the somewhat chalky texture. I bought the kid version at my local grocery store and asked my kids to give a review.

Kid 1: "this stuff smells and tastes like a strawberry banana smoothie! Yum!"
Kid 2: "this stuff smells. and it tastes awful!"

In a world where even toothpaste for kids comes with sparkles, stars, and cool shapes, Tom's "silly strawberry" flavored natural toothpaste, which is a regular white paste (kinda like what I used in the days before Aquafresh's fun stripes), is really rather bland looking. But it has a sweet fruity scent and cute, if unexciting, packaging. Its real selling point is written on the label: "This product does not contain saccharin, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colors, or flavors; or animal ingredients." Since food dyes, especially red ones, have been shown to have harmful effects, Tom's seems like a more healthful choice.

Thankfully, the child who declared it "yuck" didn't refuse to use it--she simply prefers her old red Colgate with stars. Go figure.

An Introduction

Welcome to Nature Kidz, where I try to cover all topics concerning natural living--from recipes and product reviews to natural cleaning supplies and news information.  As a mom, I have become increasingly worried about the artificial elements in our lives--and have learned that they're harder to avoid than I would ever have imagined! Just browse the grocery store, and every aisle is full of artificial flavors, colors, scents, and preservatives--from bread (which often has food dye!) to cat litter to milk.

Do you have a product you love, a recipe to share, or something you'd like reviewed here?  Email me ( and I'll post about it.  

My first blog entry will be a cleaning tip: I use white vinegar for almost everything, from cleaning up pet accidents to washing windows to freshening laundry.  I keep a spray bottle of vinegar and water in every bathroom and the kitchen, and have stopped buying bathroom cleaner, window cleaner, cleaners with fact, I've replaced nearly all my old cleaning supplies with this effective and CHEAP ingredient! Read more here.   If you're looking to start healthier living and feel overwhelmed, this is a great place to start!