Lemon-Garlic-Herb Roast Chicken

The really nice people that sell the grass-fed organic meat we pick up for a small fortune most weeks at the farmer’s market evidently don’t have the technology to break down a chicken.

So we end up with a whole chicken a lot more often than I have menus that would, er, require a whole chicken. And while I once helped slaughter chickens on a real farm in South Dakota (which is a story for another day), I don’t myself feeling like hacking away until it ends up in pieces, most days.

So I’ve played around a little bit with James McNair’s roast chicken recipe, which is the best one I’ve found. Below is an adaptation with some variations on a theme. No matter how you cut it, lemon, garlic, butter and herbs slathered all over a hunk of chicken is really a no-miss proposition.

Ingredients:

Whole chicken (we like organic, pasture-raised; here’s why)

Fresh herbs: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon or whatever compatible mix you have, chopped finely

3 Tbls (grass-fed organic) butter

3 cloves (organic) garlic, chopped fine

1 lemon (organic is best, since you will stick the whole thing in the chicken); halved, juiced and partially zested

Salt and pepper

3 cups (organic) chicken stock or water

3 good-sized (organic) potatoes, cubed

2-3 (organic) carrots, sliced in rounds

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the garlic, zest, salt, lemon juice, pepper and herbs into the butter and put the chicken in a roasting pan.

Decide whether you will take the high road or low road — here are your choices, in that order:

1) Get all up in it by following Mr. McNair’s directions to carefully use your fingers to slip the buttery mixture between the skin and meat of the chicken. This is wonderful when you have the time and inclination to bother, as it seals in the flavors. But it is time-consuming and brings you into very close and messy contact with the bird.

2) Take the easy road by melting the butter mixture a bit in the microwave and pour over the chicken, spreading it around a bit. I’ll admit this is what I do most days and it turns out pretty tasty.

Stick the lemon and any additional fresh herbs you’d like into the cavity. Add the water or stock to the pan and throw in the carrots and potatoes. Put the chicken in the oven for 15 minutes.

Lower the heat to 350 degrees and cook for an additional hour and a half, or until done. Mr. McNair roasts it uncovered, basting every 15 minutes. As I always want to hang out with Maya instead of basting something, I cover it instead and just leave it more or less undisturbed until done. (If you do leave it uncovered, be sure the potatoes and carrots are submerged in liquid or they will dry out.)

Let it rest for ten minutes or so after removing from the oven. Enjoy with brown rice if you wish.

Space Invaders: Here Come the Jelly Fish

Beautiful clouds of undulating ooze, these jelly fish were the obvious stars of my recent trip to the National Aquarium. With hours to kill after finding myself in downtown Baltimore, visiting the museum seemed an ideal way to pass the time.

Stuck way off in a corner of the sprawling facility was a small but gorgeously menacing exhibition, which had as its focus the rapid population spikes of jellies in many U.S. waterways. While it was easy to admire their silent grace in the water and the incredible variety of shapes they formed while swimming, it was equally easy to imagine their tentacles creepily drifting my way in the surf. Below are the Lion’s Mane jellies, which deliver a nasty sting.

As the museum made clear, an over-abundance of jelly fish is not a good sign for the health of the oceans and waterways. Some are carried by ships into faraway waters, where they spread from a lack of predators in their new ecosystem, while others merely multiply in place from weakened environmental conditions.

The exhibition spelled out the causes in no uncertain terms: the warming seas from climate change, the death of natural predators like sea turtles from habitat loss and strangulation-by-plastic-bag-imitating-a-jelly (ugh), and the loss of oxygen in the water from pollution that allows jellies to move in by the cloudful.

In fact, the whole museum was, in one way or another, a sign that we could usefully re-examine the ethics of fish consumption. Set in between the tanks of cruising nurse sharks was a light-board that brightly illuminated the dire situation created by over-fishing and the lack of effective inter-governmental agreements in much of our global waters. Whether talking about the population crashes in ocean species expected by 2050, or showing breathtaking images of colorful snakes and fish from one of the only three healthy reefs in all of Indonesia, the underlying message about ongoing ocean degradation was inescapable.

Combined with pollution and the inter-dependency of life-systems that ripple changes up the food chain with brutal efficiency, it is hard to believe that the kinds of delicate arrangements that support a robust chain of ocean life will still be around for Maya and her children to enjoy, either as mere spectacle or food.

I still remember reading a chilling account years ago about what the take-over of invasive exotics would look like in a prescient Harper’s article, Planet of Weeds, detailing how kudzu and snakefish would decimate native systems. An ocean full of little else but jellies belongs in such an inverted Garden of Excess. After all, they go back 600 million years and are extremely well designed to persist.

And then, as a devastating benchmark for loss, there was this TED talk by a marine biologist who makes an incredible claim that is all too credible: coral reefs have been depleted by humans so profoundly over the last few hundred years that our view of what a healthy reef looks like is actually based on an already-degraded ecosystem.

We can do better in terms of creating marine systems that nurture both the fish we like to eat and life more generally, as another TED talk by chef Dan Barber (one of my favorites) shows, and I’ll post in the future about the debates over eating fish, which is a knotty problem from both a nutritional and environmental sustainability perspective.

But today, there were the jellies, and the slow dance of our doom. On the larger questions, I came away from the encounter with an eerie feeling that the political and social obstacles to saving our oceans from rapid destruction — particularly given the “natural” inclinations of exotics like these stunning jelly invaders to exploit any niches we open to their long arms — are steep indeed.

It’s a system after all, and a highly complex, responsive one that utterly disrespects the prosaic boundaries of our political arrangements. It will be merciless about our many, predictable mistakes, like failing to thoroughly clean the hull of a ship.

When I looked at all the jellies, with their mindless movements that somehow flow in the direction of our follies, I felt a little chill. And when I put my fingers to the glass to take a picture, it was cold, just like the ocean deep.

Burning Questions: An FAQ on Flame Retardants in Furniture

A flame from a burning candle

Whenever I scan the search engine subjects through which people now stumble over my blog, it becomes clear that the major thing everyone wants to know is whether they have a toxic sofa in their house and what in the blazes they are supposed to do about it.

So below I have compiled an FAQ based upon the research I did, the amazing investigation by the Chicago Tribune, and what’s happened since. If there are other burning questions on your mind, please let me know!

Q1: Is my sofa or upholstered chair full of toxic flame retardants?

I’m so sorry to have to be the one to break it to you, but the answer is yes.

While that sinks in, you can peruse the only caveats:

1) Your furniture is so groovy it dates back to the early ’70s (pre-1975, to be precise);

2) You bought this furniture from a local custom furniture supplier who never sells furniture in California and you specifically asked that supplier about whether the foam they used has any kind of flame retardant in it; or

3) You paid a small fortune for the sofa and bought it from a certified “green” supplier with whom you discussed this very issue. At length. With specificity. And, very likely, paid extra for the privilege of toxic-free-ness.

If, on the other hand, your furniture came from any national manufacturer (including Crate & Barrel, West Elm, Ikea, Overstock or basically anyone else that would sell a stick of furniture in California, at least some of the time), it has some kind of chemical flame retardant in it.

A stupid California rule, Technical Bulletin 117, requires flame retardant properties in upholstered and many other consumer products that results in these chemicals being part of any upholstered furniture sold basically anywhere, given the sheer size of California’s economy and influence on the national market. (In addition, the federal government requires cars to meet fire resistance standards which drive companies to include these chemicals in car upholstery, which is a topic for another day.)

Sadly, there is a lot of greenwashing on this point. Sofas sold as “green” because they have some soy foam in them instead of all polyurethane foam, or because they have certified hardwoods, almost all still have chemical flame retardants in them.

Also, furniture can have a label like the “Certipur” label, or a sticker or label that says it is “PBDE-free” or some such, and likely still has chemical flame retardants in it. (For example, when I called Crate & Barrel, they told me that the sofa I had in mind was “PBDE-free” but upon further questioning and after some considerable hold time, revealed that it did have “chlorinated phosphates” in it as a chemical flame retardant. That is probably, but not certainly, “chlorinated tris,” or TDCPP, which is discussed below.)

Q2: What kind of toxic chemical flame retardants does my sofa have in it?

Ah, you want to know what harmful chemicals are in your house? Sorry, that’s proprietary.

Basically, the furniture manufacturers and foam suppliers have refused to give this information in any usable form even to scientific researchers. For years. This meant that even crack scientists like Heather Stapleton had to become detectives, asking people in their circles to literally cut small sections of sofa out of their couches and mail them to them to be tested. They called these “couch biopsies,” which is kind of cute given the carcinogenic properties of many of these chemicals.

That’s one way Stapleton figured out, for example, that although Ikea and other furniture companies had been publicly bragging about being free of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a particularly nasty and notorious type of flame retardant, that Ikea was using a type of chlorinated tris instead.

Chlorinated tris (one kind of these chemicals are also called TDCPP) made headlines back in the 1970s when it was actually banned from children’s pajamas after it showed up in children’s urine after only a few days wearing their chemical PJs and was shown to be a potent mutagen. Unfortunately, it was not banned for every use, and so furniture makers evidently thought it a brilliant turn to start sticking it into sofa cushions sometime around 2005, when PBDE’s fell under a public cloud of PR toxicity.

Now, there’s a new chemical fire sheriff in town, Firemaster 550, which researchers don’t know much about. And the chemical makers have also rumbled publicly about a chemical switcherooni with some other new kind chemical flame fixant, as reported by the Tribune series. In short, no one knows what, exactly, is in the millions of products in homes and on the market today, and the only way to really know for sure is to ask the company that sold you the sofa. And wait on hold. And insist on getting a specific answer.

If you do make a call about your furniture, please let me know what happened in the comments to this post, and I will track these and publish as complete a list as we can all come up with, working together.

Here’s one thought on what to ask: “Specifically what kind of chemical flame retardant is used on the fabric and/or foam of this furniture I own/am thinking of buying? I would like to know the name of the chemical in particular…. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Q3: What’s the harm of chemical flame retardants?

Here’s where, if my first-hand experience is any guide, the mind rebels. It’s really close to impossible to feel comfortable in mi casa ever again. Which is an outrageously unfair situation for all of us, for obvious reasons.

Basically, the harm from chemical flame retardants depends in part on what kind of chemical it is, of course. And since we mostly do not have that information, here’s what is reasonable to say:

1) Flame retardants suck. PBDEs, for example — the chemicals that are likely in any furniture produced before 2005 — are linked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “neurobehavioral” harms. As the EPA put it:

EPA is concerned that certain PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment.

About the others, here’s Stapleton again:

TDCPP is a suspected carcinogen and other “Tris” chemicals are known carcinogens (e.g., TCEP).

Some of our research has shown that TDCPP is just as potent a neurotoxicant as the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos had its indoor permit withdrawn by the EPA due to concerns about neurotoxicity.

And FireMaster 550 contains chemicals that may also be neurotoxicants and endocrine disruptors…we’re trying to evaluate this now.

2) Flame retardants don’t help save us in fires. Thanks to testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, we now know that chemical flame retardants don’t do anything to make a fire safer, but make it more toxic and dangerous by causing the release of harmful fumes when an item burns.

As Stapleton explained:

They are suppose to slow down the rate at which the product burns, but some tests shows that this only slows down the rate by maybe 2-3 seconds. In addition, by having flame retardants in the foam, you generate more smoke, soot and carbon monoxide when they burn, which is a concern because many people die of smoke inhalation during a fire. So one might actually argue that the presence of these chemicals in foam containing furniture increases fire hazards!

3) Flame retardants don’t stay put, but instead get into our bodies.  In fact, as Stapleton found in tests of indoor air which have been sadly confirmed, chemical flame retardants get into household dust, into the air we breathe, and thereby into our bloodstream.

They pose a particular risk to young children (and to pets), who are in the house for long periods of time, playing on the ground, and put everything into their mouths. In fact, one shocking 2011 study found that Mexican-American children in California had PBDE levels that were 7 times higher than that of their age counterparts living in Mexico.

Here’s the EPA again:

PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics, foam, fabrics, or other products in which they are used, making them more likely to leach out of these products.

Q3: Where else are chemical flame retardants in my house and life?

Turns out, these delightful chemicals tend to be wherever foam is found, and then some. They are in your car seat and child’s car seat, are used to treat electronics like televisions and computers, and are in some other types of products with foam like bedding, rugs, strollers and nursing pillows.

While California suspended the rules with regard to bedding in 2010 and some “juvenile products” in March 2011, these items still may contain chemical flame retardants as this stunning 2012 study found was true of 85 percent of baby products, including co-sleepers and nursing pillows. Older items almost certainly are laden with chemical ick, to put it scientifically.

Adding insult to injury, I also must tell you that polyurethane foam is not very cool, in and of itself, given that it’s made with toluene and other suspect chemicals, as you can read about from informed sources in the comments here that recommend latex instead.

Q4: What can I do about this, now that the flame-retardant foam is no longer pulled over my eyes?

First, if you are not in the market for new furniture given these uncertain economic times, here are a few ideas:

  1. Open the windows and air out the room (and car) whenever you can;
  2. Wash your hands (and your child’s hands) frequently, and definitely before eating;
  3. Vacuum more often, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and move furniture to get the dust underneath;
  4. If upholstery is damaged or leaking, fix it promptly and re-establish a seal (use duct tape if you need to);
  5. Minimize polyurethane foam products (polyester foam is better, according to Stapleton);
  6. Don’t let children spend time unnecessarily in car seats (or in strollers, play pens or pack-and-plays with foam padding — look for an Oeko Tex certification on fabrics);
  7. As some innovative commenters have suggested, think about purchasing or making a sofa cover in a tightly-woven or allergenic fabric and use an upholstery stapler and thick fabric on the underbelly of the furniture (note: I have no proof whatsoever of whether this would work, but since dust is the medium here, it stands to reason that it might help).

Please note that no one really recommends re-upholstering items, as this will release far more dust from the furniture than merely keeping it around.

Second, from least invasive of your lifestyle to most, here are some thoughts about furniture options:

  1. Avoid buying products when you can that are labeled “flame retardant” or “Meets California Technical Bulletin 117″ or “Complies with TB 117″ or some such nonsense;
  2. Look for furniture from before 1975 or so (if you can stand the dust and dust mites!);
  3. Look for non-upholstered options when feasible, i.e. dining room chairs, or even wooden recliners with pillows you could design or have made to fit (as I did here through a seamstress on Etsy);
  4. Avoid adding suspect chemicals to new furniture by turning down optional stain-guard treatments;
  5. Make your own sofa using a daybed, as in the inventive comments to this post from SallyS, or use an organic mattress to build a new sofa, as outlined here;
  6. Check out the possible suppliers for flame-retardant free sofas in Sofa Saga Part Two and Part Four (as well as some additional suggestions and links in the comments from helpful readers).

Third, if you’re generally concerned about chemicals and furniture, you might also pause to consider the type of wood products you’re bringing into your home.

Furniture is just not made with the quality and care that it used to be, and even fairly expensive furniture, as well as the cheaper stuff, has plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) in parts of it (like drawer bottoms and backs).

These pressed wood products off-gas for the life of the product, and can contain formaldehyde as well as toxic glues and solvents. If you can find solid wood items, that’s certainly best. I’ve found that Craigslist, Ebay, yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores and antiques stores are all good potential sources for these, and that even mainstream stores carry some items that are solid wood.

Fourth and last, the most important thing we all can do is to weigh in as the state of California considers where to go now on its inane flame retardant rule. Governor Edmund Brown has just asked state regulators to rewrite the standard following public pressure to change it. But make no mistake: getting a better rule will require a battle royale with the chemical industry, and its considerable bag of tricks.

There will be a public comment period, which I promise to monitor, so that we can all weigh in to say exactly how ticked off we are about this standard, which has introduced chemical poison into every home in America, and into the bodies of our children. Please stay tuned for that!

And if you do pick up the phone or email a furniture company about your own furniture, please do let us know what they say, so that everyone can learn from your valuable time on hold…

More resources on flame retardants and furniture:

The Impossibility of Modern Motherhood (and What To Do About It)

Washington hikers (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This post could just as easily be called: “Why Women Will Never Have it All, But Still Should Fight For More.”

Today’s Atlantic Monthly contains a blockbuster piece from Anne-Marie Slaughter on modern feminism, motherhood, and the demands of work, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Overall, Slaughter gives us a thoughtful discussion of the real agony working women experience in choosing between the demands of their careers and the joys and trials of parenting. The article also contains enough personal reflections to be refreshingly candid, which is a particularly welcome turn from someone with such a robust career in high-profile politics.

Like my own prior admissions of ambivalence about my choices with Maya, and my impulse to pointedly complain about the structurally unreasonable demands on women in a response to the absurd attacks earlier this spring by Elisabeth Badinter, Slaughter has decided to put down the “we-can-do-it-all” cheerleader pom-poms that sometimes obscures what should be the real goals of the women’s movement, and to keep it real instead.

She points out something about her talks with students that I’ve also found: women in their twenties who happen to be in my orbit generally observe the frantic pace of my efforts to juggle a baby, work and, lately, a blog, with a bemused and tragic smile, as if to say — how is this all supposed to work again? So we’re not fooling anyone, least of all the women coming up next who will grapple themselves with all these questions.

The truth is — if we’ll only admit it to each other — it doesn’t work very well. Like many women, but certainly not all, I’m far too invested in my professional identity to choose to “stay home,” as we all awkwardly say (as if moms “stay” anywhere for very long). But that doesn’t mean I’m not beset with regret most days, or that when the nanny and her son joined us at the pool the other night, and Maya obviously felt more drawn to play with them than me, I didn’t quietly, invisibly, seethe about it. After all, she spends five days every week with her, and only two with me, I thought, with more than a twinge of envy.

The challenge for mothers to our sense of priorities is profound, particularly when we acknowledge, as Slaughter tries to, that despite our efforts to achieve 50-50 parenting, the bonds that women have with their children are irreplaceably, undeniably deep. Whoever else they may have in their lives, she notes, for children a mother’s role is “indispensable,” and she makes a point of citing half a dozen powerful Washington moms (and dads) who agree with her or have left careers for at least some time to attend to the needs of their families.

I particularly enjoyed the criticism she has for female exec flavor-of-the-month Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, whose work habits have now morphed into a kind of reproachful working moms’ urban legend. She dismantles the half-truths women like Sandberg promote: that “it’s possible if you just are committed enough,” or “it’s possible if you marry the right person,” pointing to serious but no-duh propositions like the fact that the school and work day are not aligned to make working easier, and that even the ideal marital arrangements can run up against a mom’s ambivalence about leaving her child.

Notably, Slaughter fails to consider what happens to women who unluckily choose a less angelically supportive partner, women who have no partner at all (single moms are raising fully one-quarter of America’s kids, and are a much higher percentage of minority and low-income households), or parents who might imagine a life with far more balance than the work schedules she describes, which are downright punishing. Despite her critique, even she can’t quite let go of the boosterism and elitism embedded in these expectations. In fact, at one point Slaughter unwittingly, and almost comically, reveals just how much she’s lived inside the privilege bubble by ridiculously claiming, with what appears to be a straight face, that “[j]ust about every woman who could plausibly be tapped [for a high-level Washington job] is already in government.”

She also projects a bit too much from her own experiences with her child’s troubled teen years and thus understates the problem. She notes that a woman would want to be free to stay home, or to put family first, when her children “are 8 to 18,” a period of absence from the workforce which she calculates as ten years.

But the developmental stages from birth to 3 years old are at least as significant, if not more so, to a child’s growth, and any family with multiple children who are not twins would require this window of time to expand to account for siblings. And what about aging parents, or non-traditional families, or widely spread out births? Slaughter’s too-neat math fails, once again, to account for the variety and complexity of family obligations and women’s lives, and thus, the changes we need will be more far-reaching and fundamental than she suggests.

She does include a discussion of the problems that women, and career women in particular, now face with fertility at our more advanced maternal age. But even here her advice can be a bit tone-deaf, to say the least.

Given her own difficulties conceiving, Slaughter blithely recommends that women under 35 freeze their eggs. But she ignores the high costs of this advice. It seems utterly unrealistic to think that most women, or even most “career women” in their late 20s and early 30s, will have $7,000 to $15,000-odd just lying around (or double that amount if they need a second go at it). And even with all that expense and medical hassle, there is only a 40 to 50 percent chance of success, which makes it a pretty expensive gamble for most people.

As this has been an area in which people I love have experienced completely crushing kinds of disappointment, I think it’s critical that we not gloss over how hard this question of timing is for women, or, even worse, attempt to erase the problem by suggesting that an expensive scientific half-miracle is in the cards for all of us.

Last, although she casts her story as a cautionary tale for professional over-achievers, even Slaughter appears at times to need to prove to us, the reader, that despite her recent, renewed dedication to mommyhood, she’s really very smart and all. When her acquaintances cuckoo over the loss of such a brilliant mind to policymaking circles in Washington, it’s hard not to consider that for all but a handful of moms, whatever choices — and deep personal sacrifices in terms of ambition and foregone possibility — they make usually go unnoticed, remaining unremarkable except to them, or if they are one of the “lucky” ones, to their partners as well. Unless you’re Slaughter, or Mary Matalin, or that ilk, rarely in women’s lives are the costs of these sorts of decisions even added up.

Still, on the whole, the article is a timely and important account — the beginning of a picture of what really needs to change to make women’s lives more manageable, meaningful and free. While some internal agonizing about working and raising children is probably written into the script, steps to achieve wider agreement on what a “work-life balance” really means would help greatly to transform the sharp corners of our ambivalence into a cushier, more shapely set of supports.

Slaughter proposes a few, all of which I liked, including aligning school days better with work, allowing more flexible workplace arrangements, and shifting understandings in the workplace to lessen or eliminate penalties for women (and I assume, men) who would like to take a few years away from their careers to focus on family. And she closes the piece with a straight-up appeal to businesses to see new value in the many older women discarded as workers today.

I also deeply appreciated her call to all of us to stop making up fake, more “serious-sounding” excuses when we really have something to do that takes time out of work for family. If we all stopped lying and were honest about our obligations, this would give all of us, in turn, permission to have a life and work as well. And the perception of employers and co-workers that attempting this balance openly makes us “unserious” is in itself toxic to getting what we want, or even, achieving any kind of accurate picture of how hard this all really is.

To her ideas I would add more radical structural ones that still seem blindingly obvious to me, and that would lend a hand to many more women: mandatory paid parental leave of up to one year as they have in Canada and Europe; better pay for low-wage workers so that they can better balance the needs of work and family; far more accurate (read: adequate) child-care tax credits and robust funding for programs that work like Healthy Start; pay for low-income moms at a fair wage for caring for their own children (what better work program in a recession?); and paycheck fairness — the crazy idea that equal work deserves equal pay. Moreover, we must also extend every protection we have — and those we may win — on behalf of women, families and married couples to include same-sex couples and nontraditional families.

The truth is, the job of feminists in making society better for families is, at most, half-done. We don’t acknowledge often enough how partial our sense of completeness is in our own lives, and how tenuous is the wish-and-a-prayer is that it’s all constructed on. Instead, we suit up, kiss the baby goodbye, and push on with our many dutiful roles: pay the bills, send a tweet, call our own mom, plan a playdate, cook dinner, kiss our partner, work late, and somehow try to get some sleep.

A friend said to me on the playground the other day, “I never thought my life would be this hard.” I nodded. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of exploding opportunities and shape-shifting for women, and was told that anything I wanted was possible.

That turns out to be true in some ways only, and not even, perhaps, what I want anymore. In fact, it now seems like we’ve asked for so much responsibility, so much opportunity, that it’s exhausting — even superhuman — just to be us. Slaughter says that’s true of the overachievers — she misses the point that this is part of the fabric of all of our expectations, and that even “ordinary” women are now edging, however reluctantly, towards superhero status.

The next generation of women, looking up at the utter craziness that is our lives, must force governments and corporations to create the structural supports and understandings women need. What feminism will really mean is not that women can do it all — we certainly can, as we’ve all run ourselves into the ground to show everyone — but really, why should we?

Women of my generation — and older, like Slaughter’s — can help them. First, by being honest about what it’s really like to be us, as she has been and I have tried to be. And second, by raising these issues again and again, and joining the fight when the day comes — and it will come, my friends — that there is something big worth winning.

Salmon Burgers with Basil and Orange

It’s summer, and the real question most evenings is what easy, healthy meal I can throw together right after work that we can pack up for a short evening excursion to the pool.

These simple, Omega-3 rich salmon burgers certainly fit the bill. They take only 5 minutes to mix and another 10 at most to cook, and can be packed up on top of some fresh spinach and diced tomatoes and eaten with a fork, or thrown unceremoniously into a sliced wholegrain bun with a smear of mayo or tartar sauce.

I do pan-fry them, because they would be a little delicate to grill unless you used a (stainless steel) grill pan. Once they cook a little, they tend to hold together decently well.

As a bonus, Maya loves these, and it’s not easy to get a toddler to eat fish!

Ingredients:

1 can (wild-caught) salmon (the BPA-free brands are: Oregon’s Choice, Wild Planet, Vital Choice and Eco-fish)

2 (organic, pastured) eggs

1 Tbl (organic) dijon mustard

6 Tbls (organic) Panko bread crumbs (these do exist; I found them in the organic specialty section at Whole Foods)

1 (organic) orange, sliced in half and one-half juiced

2 Tbls chopped fresh (organic) basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Balsamic vinegar for finishing

Directions:

Empty the can of salmon into a bowl and pick out the small bones. Add mustard, basil, orange juice, bread crumbs, and salt and pepper. Let the mixture sit while you warm the pan with a generous amount of olive oil.

Form into patties and fry in the oil, turning infrequently. Makes about 8 patties.

Serve over bed of greens, such as fresh spinach, topped with a squeeze of the other side of the orange, and a dribble of balsamic vinegar, with a side of (organic) tartar sauce, or on a bun.

20 Healthy, Easy Toddler & Adult Breakfasts (That Are Not Cheerios)

This is a picture of Yogurt Burst Cheerios tha...

Unlike most of America (if we are to believe the staggering number of options in the grocery store), I’m not a big cereal person. It never has the get-up-and-go I actually need in the morning to jump-start my confrontation with living.

I’ll do a post later on my views on toddler nutrition, but in the meantime, suffice it to say, I’m somewhat skeptical about wheat, and in particular, about highly refined wheat products. (See, for example, this exploration by a critic of The China Study of the raw data from counties in China on wheat consumption and its relationship to obesity, heart disease and a host of other ills.) As a fascinating side-note: people who eat a lot of flour are considered, in my husband’s native India, to be just a little bit dumber than other people, which I find interesting, if not at all scientific.

The “Nourishing Traditions” folks are also critical of seeds and grains as hard to digest due to the phytic acid (and of expeller-pressed grains as particularly bad), and point out that people who are healthier around the world generally soak their grains before cooking them. So while I’m not quite ready to join the anti-gluten crowd, I do look for ways to keep things wholegrain, and try to avoid the pancake/waffle/breakfast strudel temptation. I do love the chia seed pudding below, but it soaks all night in milk…

(Distracting side-note: While I appreciate their back-to-basics approach to whole and farm-fresh foods, I also feel compelled to say in my persnickety way that I do not agree with everything about the dietary recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). For example, I do not think raw milk should be given to children, because it is risks their health and even their lives — in addition to e coli, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are also a threat, as you can read from a milk producer’s comments here to a WAPF blogger’s post full of dangerously poor advice on this particular question. For those interested in this debate, a more serious and balanced discussion of the health and political issues with raw milk is here.)

But back to breakfast. On its own, the refined sugar in most cereals is worth avoiding, especially in cereals marketed to children. And just to ensure we’re all a bit underwhelmed by the latest ad campaign for Fruity-Loop Cinnamon Crunchios, Marion Nestle’s food tome, What to Eat, has a long chapter on the suspect politics behind the cereal aisle and the fakey marketing claims of heart-healthiness stamped on virtually every box. So I think it’s important to think beyond the box for breakfast, and hopefully in the direction of nourishing, low-sugar, healthy and nutrient-rich meals.

I try to make a warm breakfast most mornings, if time allows. Cooking is a pleasant way to get over the fact that Maya has rousted me from bed far earlier than seems humanly possible, and she often takes great pleasure in climbing up on a chair and playing at sous chef.

Eggs, in particular, are a favorite, as they are healthy, full of vitamins and minerals, and a complete food. I do think it’s important to cook them thoroughly, as rates for salmonella poisoning are too high and many farm conditions for eggs are atrocious. We like organic, pastured eggs from small farms for this reason, and because they are also higher in vitamins and minerals from the chicken’s more natural diet of grubs and seeds. (Just a “free range” label is misleading; it often means that the chicken never went outside.) As you’ll see from the suggestions below, there’s a reason why Maya’s favorite things to make in her own small wooden kitchen are eggs!

Below are more than 20 half-decent ideas for a fairly easy and delicious breakfast, with a bonus: most, if not all, would appeal to adults, and also are good candidates for a busy toddler’s begrudging consideration:

  1. Simple french toast, with dense wholegrain, good quality bread. To pasture-raised organic eggs, I add whole, grass-fed organic milk, vanilla and cinnamon, soak the bread and cook it in organic, grass-fed butter, which provides plenty of flavor even without maple syrup or other sugars; if you need something sweet on top, pan roasting fresh orange slices for half a minute can do the trick, and fresh berries are also delicious in this role;
  2. An even easier variation on the above is an Egg-in-the-Hole: pinch a hole in the bread, fry the bread in some butter, and drop an egg into the open space;
  3. Hard-boiled eggs on buttered wholegrain toast (with specifics as above in 1); 7-8 minutes of boiling will cook eggs thoroughly; add pepper and a touch of salt;
  4. Egg scrambles, which are a great way to bring veggies to the breakfast menu. Just add butter to the pan, and cook the vegetables until the moisture is mostly gone. Favorite combinations include: 1) feta, tomato, spinach; 2) peppers, cheddar and green onion; 3) caramelized onion and swiss; 4) cauliflower with a touch of mild curry and cilantro.
  5. Frittatas, like this one with cauliflower, spinach and asparagus (boiled or steamed potatoes, peas, or julienned zucchini, are also good options; sausage can be added as well);
  6. Fritters: I don’t used canned veggies, so I take 1/2 cup of frozen vegetables (like corn and peas, and cook in water in the microwave for 2 minutes in a small glass bowl, then drain). Mix the vegetables with an egg, pinch of salt and about a tablespoon of flour and cook in melted butter or oil (I use medium-heat organic coconut oil) to make fritters. Variations to try: add grated carrot, grated coconut, fresh mild herbs like basil, mint, or cilantro. Serve with plain yogurt for dipping.
  7. Egg salad: Everyone has their own recipe, I’m sure. I use hard-boiled eggs, a small dice of (organic) apples, onions and celery, with a dollop of (organic) mayonnaise, a dash of salt, pepper and cumin, and chopped slivered almonds, and serve on buttered toast;
  8. Channeling the wonderful Julia Child, a one or two-egg omelet — when I’m feeling bold, I add a streak of pesto, a smear of (organic) ricotta cheese, and diced tomatoes just before attempting to fold it neatly in half like our hero;
  9. Easy herb popovers, which I serve with smoked (wild-caught) salmon or scrambled eggs with spinach (these do use flour, but are mostly eggs, and are so worth it anyway);
  10. Fried slabs of polenta with melted cheese and fried eggs (to avoid the plastic packaging of ready-made, here’s a dead-easy way to make your own rosemary polenta);
  11. Oatmeal (here are directions for soaking it overnight to make it super-nourishing); I add flaked, unsulphured organic coconut; organic flax and chia seeds, whole milk for cooking and on top, unsulphured, organic raisins or other dried fruit, cinnamon and a small amount of blackstrap molasses, which is high in iron, and then add fresh berries when cooked (this sounds like a lot of ingredients to have on hand, but Maya likes this so much that I just buy the stuff and keep it together in the cupboard); I’ll note that oatmeal is also considered a very supportive food for pregnant and nursing moms, and assists with lactation, as do coconut and flax;
  12. Coconut Raisin-Nut Cous-Cous, as I describe here (in addition to what’s in the recipe at the link, I’ll note that walnuts, which can be chopped small, are high in Omega 3s);
  13. Brown rice pudding: in a similar turn, just take last night’s cooked brown (organic) rice, cook with milk at a level that almost submerges the rice, add cinnamon, raisins, grated coconut, a touch of vanilla and cashews, and boil gently until soft;
  14. Brown rice, coconut and green lentils, cooked with coconut milk: (Soak the rice for as long as you can — an hour is best if you have the time, but even 20 minutes is better than nothing.) Add 2 cups rice and 1 cup split green lentils (also called moong dal) to the (stainless steel) rice cooker, with 6 1/2 cups water and 1 can of (BPA-free Native Forest brand organic) coconut milk. Cook as normal. Variations: add grated coconut, grated carrots, fresh or frozen peas, cinnamon or grated nutmeg.
  15. Thick wholegrain toast spread with ricotta and sliced dried or fresh figs (if using dried, moisten first and microwave for 15 seconds before slicing), warmed slightly in the toaster or regular oven, or toast with sliced bananas and cashew or peanut butter;
  16. Grilled cheese sandwich (it had to be in here somewhere!): I add black bean hummus spread and thin slices of tomatoes to the sandwich, and have been known to slip in fancy gruyere or other nice cheeses that Maya will only eat melted;
  17. Sweet potatoes, cooked in the microwave, contents scooped out and mashed with cashew or peanut butter and a little milk until smooth and creamy;
  18. Wholewheat quesadillas: with roasted red peppers and cheddar; or mushrooms and swiss cheese, with plain yogurt for dipping;
  19. Simple huevos rancheros: chop tomatoes and garlic and saute, add can of (BPA-free Eden brand organic) black beans, serve with scrambled or fried eggs,  avocado slices and warmed tortillas, salsa or diced tomatoes optional;
  20. A make-ahead option: Wholewheat or rice flour carrot, banana, pumpkin or zucchini bread or muffins with cream cheese or ricotta cheese (I’ll add raisins, flax seeds and nuts to anything);
  21. A bonus no-cook, make-ahead option: Chia seed pudding: combine 2/3 cups (organic) chia seeds, 2 cups whole organic milk, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, a touch of sugar and a Tbl of shredded coconut (optional) and leave overnight in the refrigerator for a delicious, omega-3 rich pudding. Serve with fresh blackberries if you have ’em. (Note: chia seeds, due to uncertainty about their properties, are not recommended for pregnant and nursing women, or people with high triglycerides);
  22. A bonus no-cook option for really hot days: fruit salad with mint and grated coconut — just use whatever fruit is in the house, and serve it up with plain yogurt for dipping or drop it all into a (glass) blender for a smoothie. To avoid having to use ice and diluting it, try frozen (organic) fruit instead. When they’re not looking, you can even sneak in some avocado and get away with it, most days.

Update:

Here’s three more we like recently that are super-fast for on-the-go mornings:

  1. Raisins and seeds: Maya loves raisins (I use unsulphured organic ones given the high levels of pesticides on grapes), mixed with organic chopped nuts, pumpkin seeds and other squirrely seeds from the bulk foods aisle. I’ll also throw in some grated coconut.
  2. Low-sugar flavored yogurt with granola, ’nuff said.
  3. Rice or spelt cakes with peanut/almond/cashew butter, raisins optional. (I’m using more rice alternatives given the issues with arsenic in rice, opt for brown organic rice cakes, which have less arsenic, with minimal or no additives.)

###

If you like this post, you may want to check out an old, still-functioning grist mill my parents discovered for freshly milled flour, grits, polenta and oats, which are amazing (though not organic). They can be mail-ordered by the pound unless you happen to live near Oak Ridge, NC, in which case you should really just go pick up some of these tasty grits.

You might also like:

I hope this adds a few ideas to your early-morning arsenal!

California Governor Brown Orders State to Change Flame Retardant Rule

Clariant International Ltd: Clariant features ...

 

Breaking news! And great news! An obscure law in California is the only reason that there are harmful chemical flame retardants in furniture, and as of today, they will start a process to change that rule. Now we’ll just have to make sure that the state’s rule change gets rid of harmful — and potentially harmful — chemicals.

Here’s the statement from Gov. Edmund Brown in full:

6-18-2012

SACRAMENTO – In an effort to protect public safety by reducing the use of toxic flame retardants, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today directed state agencies to revise flammability standards for upholstered furniture sold in the state.

Governor Brown has asked the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to review the state’s four-decade-old flammability standards and recommend changes to reduce toxic flame retardants while continuing to ensure fire safety.

“Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment,” said Governor Brown. “We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals.”

Studies show that humans are at risk from exposure to toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in upholstered furniture. A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group found that toddlers often have three times the level of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies as their parents, and California children have some of the highest levels of toxic flame retardants in their bodies.

A peer-reviewed study by scientists at Cal/EPA found that California women have much higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their breast tissue than women in other states and countries. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found statistically significant associations between flame retardant levels in the blood of California women and reduced fertility. The researchers believe this link may result from alterations in thyroid hormone levels after exposure to the chemicals.

Numerous studies demonstrate that firefighters have significantly elevated rates of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and brain cancer. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that firefighters have a significantly elevated risk of cancer that may be attributed to toxic chemicals they inhale, including flame retardants.

The guidelines in place now—Technical Bulletin 117 for flammability standards—will be updated to reflect modern manufacturing methods that can lower the use of harmful chemicals.

The process to change these regulations will include workshops and the opportunity for public comment as well as administrative review.

Mt. Fugi, exactly 36 Times

Woodblock made ca. 1930 exactly the same way a...

In honor of the closing this weekend of the Sackler Gallery’s exhibition on Hokusai, I am posting a poem I wrote years ago about this exhibition after seeing it at a museum in Golden Gate Park.

Pictures of the floating world

What we read in nature is intention. Forgetful observers of
any mountain, appearing in our dreams, like thirty-six scenes
by Hokusai. Prussian blue water, tiny people
repairing the roof of their store, or celebrating blowsy

cherry blossoms. Their faces are smudged so as to make them
us. No one dancing at the picnic sees the fragile flowers,
or the mountain, that pale triangle marooned
in middle sky which forbodes nothing.

There is a storm. In two gravel-handed woodcuts
Mt. Fuji is angry, split by lava-red lightning, or wholly lit
with the passion of weather. It is possible to view the mountain
thirty-six times and never see it. There is the matter of

backdrop, some fish on the line, a hole in the roof again
this rainy Tuesday. There is the problem of distance, how we
look across and cannot comprehend. We stop to drink, the cup
is inexhaustible, then dry.

Un-Canny: What’s the “Instead of” for BPA?

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup I, 1968.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup I, 1968. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Looks like I’m not the only one wondering exactly what food packaging suppliers are using in cans and bottle lids if they are NOT using BPA.

The good people over at Healthy Child, Healthy World are also all over the issue, running a great social media campaign focusing on the iconic Campbell’s company. Andy Warhol would be most proud. Or not. He could be a little catty, so I suppose it’s hard to say.

Anyhoo, back to the issue of what’s in our food. As they say, some of the alternatives are no better, and could even be worse, than Bisphenol-A (BPA) for can linings:

There are a few alternatives to BPA that aren’t any better for our health. BPS, a “chemical cousin” of BPA is not a safer alternative…

The notoriously bad plastic PVC is an FDA-approved alternative for BPA in can linings, despite the fact that vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen.

 
There’s that vinyl again. As I noted in my recipe for coconut couscous, I remain concerned that Native Forestbrand has not responded to my emails asking them what is the BPA substitute they are using for can linings. If it’s vinyl, it could be worse than BPA. I’ll be very keen to get their response, as we like cooking with coconut milk.
 
What to do about all this? Raising consumer awareness is the first big step towards change and accountability. Here’s the social media suggestions from Healthy Child, Healthy World:
 
 
Here are sample tweets you can use on Twitter or Facebook. And be sure to look at the Healthy Child Healthy World Facebook page for updates! Please share this action with your friends and family!
 
 
And here’s a link to Campbell’s Facebook page, which would be a great place to post similar messages!
 

The Safest Sippy Cups, Ever…

To sip, to sup, to drink from a cup…

One of our issues with transitioning from a bottle has been our extended search for a sippy cup that doesn’t raise environmental health concerns. As you can see, we’ve collected a shocking number of options, a few of which were inherited.

Yet none, really, are perfect. The ideal sippy cup would be: 1) totally safe to drink liquids from after being washed repeatedly in the dishwasher; 2) durable; 3) comfortable for a young toddler to use; 4) an aid in teaching a child how to drink from a cup. This is harder to find than you might think, given that we, as a society, evidently saw the need to make this other ridiculous thing first.

So ok, generally, it may be that we are not supposed to use sippy cups for our kids. Whatev. I don’t know a family that skips ’em entirely, given the propensity of small children to spill anything even remotely liquid-like (all over their brand-new jumper from Grandma, just before leaving the house). But if you’re one of those rare, and admittedly far superior, families, then you can just hang out calmly in your unnatural Zen-like environment while you await my upcoming post on greener ways to store food at home.

In the meantime, while I’ve hardly found the best sippy cups, “ever,” I think I’ve spotted some of the good, the bad and the dubious. I scored the sippy cups I’m reviewing below on three major areas, worth a total of 5 points each: 1) environmental health; 2) transparency; and 3) durability and use. (I’ll put the scoring system at the bottom of the post, for those who regularly indulge their inner nerd and are just dying to see how I made the call on points.)

The winning types (based on my not-at-all-scientific and freshly invented scoring system) are basically the ones mostly made of stainless steel. From the top —

First Tier

  • Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles: Pura bottles come with a silicone nipple and all stainless steel components, and come in two sizes (5 and 11 ounces) and in colors as well as plain stainless steel. (There are also adult bottles with a stainless steel cap in the interior of the bottle.) While stainless steel can leach as explained below, the company claims this product has no leaching of heavy metals in tests. There are also new silicone covers that slip onto the outside, to address parents’ complaints that the bottles got too cold in the fridge, presumably. The nipple that comes with it is very much like a bottle nipple with a slightly adjusted shape, but has basically no flow control and is fast and open to spills (see the picture at the top for the shape). The ring and size do also accommodate a wide range of other nipples on the market for baby bottles. There were consumer complaints on Amazon due to sharp edges on the ring, but ours has no such issue, so I wonder if this has been addressed by a company re-design. In addition, there were stories of paint chipping off the colored ones (which seems to be consistent problem with enameled stainless products), so we got the plain silver. I also liked the completeness of the company’s information on its Website on the environmental health issues. We hand-wash the nipple, but put the ring and bottle in the dishwasher. Overall, while it has some use and convenience issues, this product is as close as it gets to good in this marketplace. Score: Environmental health: 5; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 1 = 11 out of 15.
  • Klean Kanteen toddler bottles: This product does have some plastic on the sippy part. But the company is highly transparent, putting the type of plastic on its Web site, and identifying it as polypropylene (number 5), which is generally considered a safer and non-leaching plastic. And KK is waging a “I love boobies” campaign, which you just gotta like. (For adult bottles, I’ll note that they also have an entirely stainless steel option for caps.) The flow rate here is fast, and some of the bottles are a bit too big around for younger toddlers to hold properly. Consumers on Amazon raised two main issues: that the plastic ring can crack if dropped, and that the bottle leaks and is too cold from the fridge. There are replacement rings for sale, but that is understandably a pain, and the other issues could be a problem if you are inclined to let the child nurse a sippy cup over the day or store it in the fridge. Since we give Maya a drink and monitor the situation to remove it from her mischievous grasp the minute she seems ready to paint the floor with liquid, the leaking is not as much an issue for us, though I do wish there was a cover of some kind for putting it in the diaper bag. We handwash the plastic parts, but put the bottle in the dishwasher. The company notes that it recommends plain silver for families with toddlers who chew on things, although the acrylic paint is, they claim, safe (consumers also note a chipping problem here). Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 3 = 11 out of 15.

Second tier

  • Lifefactory 4-ounce and 9-ounce glass bottles: These glass bottles of borosilicate glass (which is less breakable) with silicone sleeves are now made in Poland, France and the U.S., depending on the components. We use ours with a bottle nipple, but parents evidently love these smaller ones for babies. For some reason, Amazon’s listing for the sippy caps as a stand-alone product drew complaints that they break, that the valves are difficult to use, and that they leak. In terms of what plastic is used for the sippy caps, strangely, the Lifefactory Web site doesn’t say, although it provides a lot of other good information, and does indicate that the baby products are “bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalate, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) free.” In response to my email, the company let me know the sippy caps are polypropylene, a safer form of plastic. Obviously, glass is a safe container for liquids, so long as it does not break, and in our experience, the silicone sleeve would be protective against all but the most ticked-off child who deliberately throws the bottle into a brick wall. We put our bottle in the dishwasher, but have removed the sleeve even though the company indicates that you don’t need to do so. If we had a lot of these, we’d have to rethink this step, because getting the sleeve back on is a chore. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Crocodile Creek Drinking Bottles: These are really for older kids (rated 3 plus years), so a friend, not us, owns this type. They are a 10-ounce stainless steel bottle with cute exterior painted designs, a plastic lid and a pull-up spout. The company’s Web site indicates that: “our drinking bottles are made of high-quality stainless steel #304. The lid is HDPE#2 and the cap is PP#5. All materials are completely recyclable and are lead-free, phthalate-free, BPA-free and PVC-free.” According to consumer reviews, they cannot go into the dishwasher, have been know to dent and leak, and to have badly chipping paint after limited use. In addition, one reviewer talked about a metallic taste with acidic juices after some hours in the bottle. Still, at least the interior (unlike the Sigg bottles I’ll discuss below) is stainless steel and not aluminum with a interior plastic overlay. So while they look similar to Sigg bottles, they are the better type of this product. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 4; Durability/use: 2 = 9 out of 15.

  • Thermos Foogo Phases Leak Proof Stainless Steel Sippy Cup: This 7-ounce cup (the blue and yellow one in the picture) has an acceptable flow, fits nicely in a toddler’s hands, and has a stainless steel body with a plastic top. It is insulated, and allegedly is safe for hot and cold beverages and will maintain temperature for house. About the plastics, the company’s materials say: “these containers are made from FDA-approved materials, and all of their plastic components are BPA-free.” Upon my email request, they told me that the plastics are “polypropylene which is BPA and PVC free,” and this listing of the product by MightyNest says that they are  pthalate-free (though made in China). Maya likes this cup, though she also likes to push the spout through all the way, spilling its contents everywhere. On Amazon, a few consumers reported leaks, many said the insulation didn’t really work, and one reported that the spout had become black, moldy, “sticky and brittle.” We handwash this cup generally, but occasionally have put the bottle base only through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Kid Basix Safe Sippy 2: (This is the green and orange one above.) This sippy comes with a conversion to a straw set-up and is a nice shape and size, with an acceptable flow rate for toddlers and a cap for travel. There are a set of complicated valves that come with it that I’ve never bothered to use. While the Website has some information on the plastics used, which are pthalate- and BPA-free, I had to write them a note to get more information on the plastics, and here’s what they said: “There is no PVC in the cup or any of its parts. The Cap, Lid, Spout and Handles are made of #5 Polypropylene. The Straw is made of LDPE #4.” (These are generally considered safer plastics; more info about these plastics by number and their safety is below.) We handwash this cup and have had no issues, really, outside of that small inconvenience. However, consumer complaints on Amazon indicate frustration about missing all the small pieces and parts, and a number of them raise an issue about a persistent, gross milk smell that seems related to bacteria trapped between the plastic cover and bottle, and that is not resolved by repeated trips through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/Use: 2 = 8 out of 15.
  • Green Sprouts Stainless Steel Bottle: This is a basic stainless steel water bottle (the exclusively green one, above) with a plastic rubbery-spout. The spout is hard for Maya to use, as it requires considerable suction. The Green Sprouts company claims the product has “no BPA, PVC, Lead, or Phthalates,” which is nice, but does not identify the plastic (after an email, the customer service identified the plastic as PVC-free polypropylene and the spout as silicone). There is no information about the grade of stainless steel used in the cup, which feels thinner than the other cups. It can go in the dishwasher once the plastic top is removed, though a plastic ring remains. Most critically, when we first got this cup, Maya immediately plucked the inner part of the spout out of the middle with two fingers, and put it in her mouth. It’s a terrible shape and choking hazard, and easy to remove for a child, so it raises a serious safety concern, as reflected by other parent reviews on Amazon as well. Score: Environmental Health: 3 (unknown); Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 0 = 6 out of 15 but with a serious safety issue for young children.

Off my list entirely:

  • Sigg Aluminum bottles: Despite the really cute designs, these are aluminum bottles covered with a interior coating that Sigg refuses to identify, except to say as follows: “The new EcoCare liner by SIGG is comprised of many ingredients. The primary compounds utilized are a special combination of ultra-thin layer forming co-polyesters, many of which are commonly found in different variations across a variety of well-known food and beverage brand products. The materials used in producing the liner are BPA-Free and Phthalate-Free, as well as being free of any VOCs (volatile organic compounds).” Note PVC is not on this list of excluded plastics. Aluminum itself is not the safest ingredient, so you might also worry about scratches or erosion that uncover the metal. Moreover, Sigg basically deceived consumers a few years back about whether its bottles contained BPA in the lining, which they did prior to August 2008. Boo. (And Gaiam’s aluminum bottles were far worse on the BPA front, so they’re out too, in my mind.)
  • Think Baby and Green to Grow “better” plastic bottles: We’ve also now decided, down the road a bit, that the troubling 2011 study showing that endocrine disruptors (like BPA) leach from most plastic products (even ones labeled BPA-free) mean that we’re leaving plastic behind whenever we can. We handwashed and babied these, but now I wish I’d never gotten them in the first place. Still, if you want to go the plastic route, Think Baby in particular does seem like a better option than other plastic cups.

Does stainless steel leach?

Yes. A teensy amount of nickel and chromium (or at least cookware does when heated or scratched or both). While this is not likely a health issue so long as you do not have a nickel allergy, it’s not a great idea to store hot or warm items, or highly acidic items, in stainless steel. (This applies to cookware as well, obviously.)

What’s the problem with plastic?

After going to the grocery store tonight, I started thinking about how almost all our food is stored in plastic, so really, what’s the big deal? While it’s certainly not ideal that virtually all food is stored that way, the main issue with something like a sippy cup is that we repeatedly use it and will wash or put it in the dishwasher, exposing it to heat and wear that will cause it to leach chemicals if made of plastic.

Most of the plastic containers for food — i.e., yogurt, milk (yes, there’s polyethylene on the inside of cardboard milk containers, as a Horizon representative told me on the phone last week), etc, are marked 1, 2, or 5, as I’ve noticed through my odd habit of squinting at the bottom of random containers. These are generally considered safer plastics, but none are robust enough for repeated use.

Instead, the plastic that is sold for re-usable applications has generally been number 7, or polycarbonate, plastic, which can contain BPA. And even bottles and cups labeled “BPA-free” can leach endocrine disrupting chemicals. In addition, some manufacturers appear to have replaced BPA with something just as bad. Anyway, sippy cups are a durable item we can actually easily do something about, unlike almost everything else at the store. (Want to rid yourself of all that store-bought plastic too? Here’s a blogger who’s admirably trying.)

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density...

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density polyethylene (HDPE) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a quick summary of the safety and recycling of plastics-by-number (found in a small triangle on the bottom of bottles and other containers):

1) PETE, aka PET (polyethylene terephthalate): Used for most transparent bottles, such as water, soda, cooking oil, and medicine bottles. Generally safe to use (not reuse); generally recycled.

2) HDPE (high density polyethylene): Sturdy, rigid plastic found in reusable food storage containers, milk and detergent bottles. Generally safe; generally recycled.

3) PVC (polyvinyl chloride): Used for plastic wrap, and detergent and cooking oil bottles. Also used for water systems in households. Additives in PVC can increase the risk of birth defects and hormone- related cancers. Its production is hazardous to workers and the environment. Generally not safe; not recycled.

4) LDPE (low density polyethylene): Flexible plastic used for bags or wraps, such as produce bags and baby bottle liners. Most number 4 plastics are not designed for reuse. Generally safe; generally not recycled.

5) PPE, aka PP (polypropolene): Pliable plastic found in squeeze bottles, reusable food containers, and yogurt and margarine tubs. Generally safe; generally recycled.

6) PS (polystyrene): Used in rigid take out containers and foam meat trays. Can leach styrene when heated, a possible endocrine disrupter and human carcinogen. Not safe when heated; generally not recycled.

7) Other most often refers to PC (polycarbonate): This plastic is most commonly used for baby bottles, five gallon water jugs, and reusable sports water bottles. It can leach out the hormone disrupter bisphenol A, especially when heated. Because this group can include various other plastics, it has limited recycling potential.

Other Issues with Sippy Cups

Some dentists and speech pathologists do raise issues with sippy cups and speech development. Teaching children to drink from a straw is supposed to help, particularly if you are grappling with speech delays.

In addition, it’s best to stay on top of where the cups land if you don’t want your toddler rediscovering it a few days later and drinking its well-mellowed contents! And monitoring may pay off: a new study shows there are a substantial number of injuries from toddlers tripping while walking around with sippy cups and bottles and taking it in the teeth.

The other major issue I feel obliged to flag, given my recent post on bottle feeding and obesity, is what goes in the cup. We stay away almost entirely from refined or extra sugar in Maya’s diet, including juice. Instead, she drinks water and milk and has never yet been made aware that beverages can be full of what she always calls (with an almost mystical look of bliss on her face) “suuugar.”

Sippy cups, to the extent that they are highly convenient sugar-delivery devices, are likely problematic mostly for this reason, so (if it’s not too late), you may want to attempt the cruel but effective total denial strategy we’ve used, which has worked fairly well.

My rating system for a score of 0 to 15:

Environmental Health:

  • 5 = no chemicals of concern and no plastic
  • 4 = no chemicals of concern / plastics considered safer & outside areas of use
  • 3 = no chemicals of concern / some safer plastics in areas for use
  • 2 = some chemicals of concern near areas of accessibility and use
  • 1 = serious chemicals of concern in accessible area
  • 0 = outright hazard to health

Transparency:

  • 5 = information about components and plastics fully presented on company Web site
  • 4 = information about components and plastics partially presented on company Web site
  • 3 = information not on Web site, but fully answered upon email inquiry
  • 2 = information not on Web site, and only partially answered by email inquiry
  • 1 = response to email, limited or no information provided
  • 0 = no email response

Durability and Use:

  • 5 = No consumer complaints on durability, safety or ease of use
  • 4 = Few or insignificant consumer complaints on durability or ease of use
  • 3 = Some consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 2 = Significant consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 1 = Consumer complaints raising safety risks
  • 0 = Alarming information showing lack of safety of product

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I hope this is helpful to you!

Anyone looking for information on baby bottles and feeding issues should check out this useful summary of tips from the Environmental Working Group. And here’s another sippy cup review from MightyNest, which sells many of these options.

I’d love feedback on this new rating system, which I hope to use with other products as well, and if you had a different experience with these cups, do tell.

Also, please do feel free to add your own ratings of sippy cups you’ve used with a brief explanation in the comments. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the options out there, and folks will be very interested in your experience and views, as this question comes up a lot!

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