College Savings

If you are happy to trust financial information without second-guessing, then you will not enjoy this post.   Personally, I can’t trust anything without significant evaluation.

I recently tried to plan a way of investing in my nephews future, but I do not assume that they will all go to college.  So I want an option that does not require college enrollment to access the money.  Basically, no plan takes away the money because the kid doesn’t go to college.  However, there are fees or penalties for withdrawing money for other purposes.

Surprisingly, Roth IRA’s are listed as an option for savings.  Money used for education can be withdrawn without the typical penalties if the money is withdrawn before the minimum age.  But the child has to be old enough to have a job to enroll in this plan.   I like the fact that this plan encourages the kids to keep the money in the IRA account if they don’t use the money for college; so that the money grows even more over time.

With each savings option, there are concerns over fees, impact on financial aid for the kids, and tax issues.  I found this comparison table very helpful for making my decision.  According to this financially savey engineer, it may be more profitable to rely on tax credits instead of tax savings.  Also, not all 529 plans are good plans, some have better investment options than others. Tips to know about 529 plans:

  • You can change the investment options for the plan once per year
  • You can chance the beneficiary for the plan once per year
  • Check the list of qualified expenses the plan $ can be used for
  • When you withdraw money from the plan, if it’s paid directly to the student instead of the institution, there may be a penalty to the student on their Financial Aid Application for the following year
  • Read the fineprint for any plan before enrolling

I’m not knowledgeable enough to help you decide, but here are a few resources:

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Cleaning Stainless Steel

Many people who don’t have stainless steel think that it never gets stained.  Many people who do have stainless steel, do not realize that it requires special cleaning.

General cleaning should include warm water and a soft cloth.  You do not want to scratch the stainless steel.  You can purchase special polishers to improve the finish of the stainless steel if it gets scratched, but I don’t know how well these work.

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After 20 minutes cleaning

To remove rust stains, I cleaned the stainless steel with vinegar and a lot of rubbing.  I used the scratchy side of an old sponge which scratched the surface of my garbage can, but it’s a garbage can and I don’t mind so much.  The above photo shows the worst section partially cleaned, and this photo here shows how clean it got from about 20 minutes of rubbing. I could work on it some more, but I won’t.  My bf can if it’s important to him when he gets home.  This should work great on sinks, but  be careful with stainless steel appliances that you don’t want to damage the finish.

I got the suggestion from Apartment Therapy, but now thinking back to girl scouts as a kid, we soaked pennies in vinegar to clean the rust off them.  Smelly but effective.  And it’s great to avoid using harsh chemicals that can have a major impact on the environment.

Clever Ideas

I love these types of things.  The idea for this post is stolen directly from a blog Musings that I read, and she has some more tips there.  And what better for the planet then to reduce and reuse a few things.  I’m always amazed to flip through a sales catalog and wonder, who would buy (and store in their kitchen) a quesadilla maker, smoothie maker, and all those other things that I can make with something I already own.

Pinterest has a collection of Clever Ideas.

The magazine Real Simple is also great for such ideas.

Helpful Cleaning Tips

I don’t know how many people are aware of these cleaning tips:

  • Baking Soda – Good for whitening and for deodorizing, I scrubbed my white coat and white shirts clean with baking soda and water.  Here is an after picture of the results.
  • Bleach – Use to kill mold on household surfaces.77189_10203210727094721_1015293305_n
  • Hydrogen Peroxide – Removes blood stains (best if the stain does not dry, and do not wash an dry), be careful because it is a bleach.  Also used as an antibacterial/disinfectant, I have used to clean cuts.  Other uses
  • Borax or granular soap – clean tea stains out of mugs, or rub on dirty shirt collars to clean, then soak in the rinse water
  • Vinegar – Low level acid and antibacterial.  Use for killing germs and smells.  Good for cleaning Stainless Steel (my test) which tolerates few cleaners.
  • Toothpaste – Good for cleaning these 24 items, which makes you wonder if it’s too abrasive for teeth.  I posted about this a while back.
  • Armpit Stains – The yellowing is caused by the
    Cleaning Product Organizer

    Cleaning Product Organizer (Photo credit: Hey Paul Studios)

    aluminum in deodorant, not from sweat.  Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda mixed, rub into fabric, and let sit for 30 minutes works pretty well, just test out on colored fabrics first in a inconspicuous corner.  I have not yet tried this recommendation from Jillee: one part Dawn dishwashing liquid mixed with two parts hydrogen peroxide.  She has many other tips on her site also.

  • Apple Cider Vinegar – I use it on my hair to make it a little shinier and less frizzy, I use it on my skin to clear up any potential fungus, and use it to catch fruit flies
  • Sugar and Yeast – to make a mosquito trap, I haven’t tried this one for myself… yet.

Guides to Healthier Cleaning

Organic Food, What and Where

Food is a part of everyone’s life, every day.  Where we can make better choices in the food we eat, we can improve the environment, treatment of animals, and social conditions as well.  Read more about choosing organic.

Here in the US, organic foods are regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) and generally limit the types of pesticides used to grow food, limit growth hormones used on animals, and exclude genetically modified foods.  The “organic” label does not regulate all environmental and social aspects of food, such as living conditions of animals grown for consumption.   The US does not regulate the use of the term “Natural” and therefor these products may contain artificial ingredients.  It’s also difficult to determine meat products produced using cruelty free  methods.  Advertising terms may not be regulated and may give the wrong impression, more detailed info here.

Cage Free:  The terms “cage free” and “free range” are used on many egg packaging.  According to Wikipedia, the US does not regulate these terms.  A common practice is to house chickens in small cages where they do not get exposure to the outdoors.  Some chickens are raised in tightly packed coups or barns, with little extra room to “range free.”  This applies to egg laying chickens and chickens grown for meat consumption.

The major concern in beef production is what type of diet the cows are fed, see more info on factory farmed food.  A common practice is to feed the cows grains for faster production, but grain is not good for their digestive system.  Grass Fed is not regulated and is compulsory by the farmer.  This website for New Hope 360 gives a good review of labels and definitions.

The Food Alliance and Protected Harvest is starting to certify food grown using sustainable practices that address the environmental impacts of agriculture.  As this is a producer based initiative, there are not a wide variety of products certified.

Certification and labeling using the term “Fair Trade” or “Ethical Trade” is regulated by multiple groups, so there can be multiple labels using the term Fair Trade that may vary in their requirements.

Here are some suggestions for finding food sources of improved quality and practices:

Purchase from local farms:

  • Search the Animal Welfare website for certified farms
  • Shop local farmers markets. http://www.localharvest.org/
  • Get more from your Farmers Market
  • Research the products you frequently purchase.  If something in the store is advertised as “All Natural” or “Organic” or whichever luring label you’re attracted to, research the practices of that brand.
  • Read the labels to determine which product was produced nearby.
  • Some restaurants are using local sources.  In my area this include: Flatbread Pizza, Chipotle (national chain), The Fireplace Grill
  • Visit local farms: http://www.pickyourown.org/
  • Some communities have a cooperative (co-op) relationship with where you contribute a set $ each week or month, then the produce from that farm is distributed among the participants.  This system helps the farms by providing a reliable income.
  • Search for local foods grown near you: http://www.eatwellguide.org/i.php?pd=Home
  • Cook meals with ingredients in season (where you live).  Info on another page coming soon.
  • Perform a Google search for information in your local area.  It turns out that the Boston area has some indoor farmers markets this winter. http://www.mass.gov/agr/massgrown/docs/winter_farmers_markets_2010-2011.pdf

Purchase Quality

  • Elevation Burger offers Organic, Grass Fed, Free-Range Beef and is opening new stores around the US.

More intense research

Info for Appropriate Food Sources

Teaching your Children

7 Strategies http://planetgreen.discovery.com/food-health/7-strategies-for-teaching-your-kids-what-real-food-is.html

Movie “What’s on your Plate?

Quick Ideas for a Healthier Lifestyle

As I mentioned in my last post, I did not learn healthy habits in my childhood.  But I have seen the poor health of many of my relatives, especially the women in my family who are each over 200 lbs.  So I’m trying to keep control of my health and adopt healthy habits.  I love the quick steps to a healthy lifestyle and thought you all might enjoy them also.

A blogger I read suggested starting the day with a BIG glass of water.  One, our bodies are a bit dehydrated from a night without refreshment.  Two, this may help flush out our system before filling it with food and sugar.  Last, by starting the day with this healthy step, it helps remind me throughout the day to make healthy choices.

Work is a tough place for me to avoid bad habits.  I try to keep chewing gum, fruit, nuts, carrots handy to keep my mouth busy when I’m craving the readily available junk food.  Also, these snacks are great when you are a little hungry before lunch, if I wait to eat then by lunchtime my superhunger level often leads to poor meal choices.  I’m careful about snacking, keeping in mind the calories spent on snacks must be taken from my daily allotment, so go lighter on the meals.  Here is an interesting article about the causes of snacking.

I also keep a bag of little chocolate pieces (nothing too addictive that I eat the whole bag) to have 2 or 3 after lunch to satisfy my pleasure senses.  If I have a little every day, I avoid buying a big Snickers bar.

I try to take the stairs when possible (really fun while living on the 6th floor), I spend 30 minutes during a nice day to walk at lunch instead of sitting on the computer, walk to the grocery store, and I count all of these minutes in my calorie tracking app.

Keep track of portions, read the side of the package and even if you don’t know how much 25 grams might be, you can deduce the portion size based on how many portions per container.  Using a calorie counting system (like My Fitness App on the iPhone) helps me keep this in focus.

At home, the less pleasing the food in the house, the less I will eat.  So I avoid purchasing the unhealthy or addictive foods.  (e.g. I get reduced fat crackers, yes they aren’t as tasty and therefore I can put them away after having a few).

Keep in mind our bodies have a natural cycle, we load up on calories in the fall to store for the barren winters (would evolution please catch up already to modern lifestyles of grocery stores stocked with foods from around the globe?).  So I give myself some allowance in the fall and around the holidays to enjoy some of my favorite treats.  Then in the winter and spring I kick my healthy habits into gear and complete the natural cycle of loosing those extra pounds.  When my chubby jeans are getting tight, that’s when I really have to watch my choices.

Also keep in mind, if you are trying to reduce your overall weight, it takes many, many months for our bodies to adjust to the new weight, once we have met our goal, we have to maintain the program until our bodies get used to the new weight level and stop trying to bounce back.

Finally, know your triggers.  Understanding if you are a stress eater, happy eater, angry, social, vampire, avoider, fearful, or liquidator (see descriptions here) can help you set up ways to avoid your bad habits.

An interview about a new book about the Myths of Diet and Exercise from my local NPR station.

Making Tamales – Happy Cinco de Mayo

FYI:  Even if you take shortcuts, this process will take several hours.  My advice, make tamale pie instead (recipe at the end of this post).

okay, so Cinco de Mayo is a little victory celebrated in one state in Mexico and an overly hyped Alcoholiday in the US.  But that’s no excuse not to enjoy some tasty Mexican/Latin food.  Tamales (ground corn mix wrapped around your favorite meat and vegetable filling) are one of my favorites.  My favorite recipe is a chicken, vegetable, and chili pepper sauce.  Here is a good video showing many of the steps I describe below.

Recipe for 35 Tamales:

Corn Husks – Soak in water (submerge with a bowl or something heavy) for 1 hour while you prep other ingredients.

5 Chicken Thighs (more flavor), 3 garlic cloves, 1/8 red onion – Boil in water 30 minutes until fully cooked and able to shred w/ a fork.  Save water, shred chick or cut into small pieces.

While chicken is cooking, 1 lg or 2 med potatoes, 1 lg Poblano Pepper (not hot), 1/2  yellow or red onion, and 1 lg zucchini – cut 1/4 in sticks about 1 in. long.  Soak veggies in water until ready to use.

5 dried Chili California and 3 dried Chili Pasilla (probably get a specialty store or grocery that caters to the Latin community) – cook in hot water, do not boil for long, until soft but not falling apart.  When soft, remove from water, cut open to remove seeds, remove stem, add to food processor with a little of the chili water (1/4).  Add 1 cup of strained chicken broth after chicken is cooked.

2 or 3 small Roma tomatoes – Boil a few minutes.  Add to food processor with chilies.  Add 1 tsp of ground pepper, 1 tsp cumin.  Process until no big pieces of chili peppers.

Now fry shredded chicken with 2 tlb olive oil, when gets a little crispy add 1/2 chili sauce.  Let cool.

4 cups Masa Harina Flour, 2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 cup olive oil or 4 oz unsalted butter and 1/2 cup lard (lard goes bad quickly but gives authentic flavor), 1 tsp salt, optional 1.5 cups pureed fresh corn, 4 cups chicken broth (add hot water if short), 4 tlb sugar.  Mix all ingredients, then add 1/2 chili sauce mixture.

Now rinse corn husks, pulling apart each one, stack larger ones for use and use a few small pieces to make tie strips.

Now to assemble.  Drain water from vegetables and sprinkle with 2 tsp salt each for potato and zucchini.  Lay one large husk on a flat surface, not too thick.  Using a spatula, cover the surface about 1.5 in long and 3 in. wide.  Fill with a little bit of chicken, 2 pieces of potato,  2 pieces of zucchini, few slices of poblano pepper and onion.  Roll up like a cigar, fold the uncoated end up, and tie with husk strip.  If making different types (pork, beef, or veggie) you can tie with two strips of special tie to distinguish the difference.

You can freeze uncooked (if no lard) or you can cook right away and then freeze.  To cook tamales, set up a steamer like a pasta pot with a removable strainer.  Stack Tamales upright so open end faces up, steam 1 hour minimum until masa dough easily peels away from husk.  Remove husk to eat.

Extra filling ingredients can be made into Tamale Pie:

I mixed the leftover filling ingredients and filled a 6×9 baking dish.  For the topping, I mixed 1.5 cups masa flour, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp chili powder, can also add cumin, 2.5 cups water, 2 tlb softened butter.  Mix well and pour over top of veggies.  Bake 375 degrees for 35-45 minutes.

Hidden Chemicals all Around Us, and Hidden Health Effects

On Point had a good discussion this week about hidden toxins and carcinogenic chemicals in everyday products we use.  The Silent Spring Institute published results from a study looking at the frequency of potentially harmful chemicals hidden in soap, deodorant, cleanings products, even products labeled as “Green”.  Surprisingly companies can sell many products before proving they are safe, or proving their claim of health benefits.

I have previously written about the challenges with trusting “Green” or “Natural” products because these terms are not regulated, so manufacturers can add them to any product.  I also have a page collecting the things we naturally trust but shouldn’t.  There is little regulation on the ingredients of beauty products, so don’t believe the FDA is checking these products for safety.

Some studies show a higher rate of breast cancer in the more affluent communities (due to environmental impacts of dry cleaning, lawn service, pesticides, fancy beauty products).  We all should be aware of these health effects.  So why do we spend so much money on researching cures for cancers but we do not eliminate the risks around us (little cost to implement)?  Because we are unaware of the risks.  Sure, these products are very convenient, but if we know the risk we might take the time to purchase better products and maybe even make our own cleaners.  So how do we do that:

I Love NOLA – Planning a visit to New Orleans, LA

I did a lot of research before visiting NOLA for a long weekend.  It all started with trying to find a deal on my plane ticket with less than three weeks until departure.  You can read about that challenge and the lessons learned on my other post.

The Cathedral at Jackson Sq.

New Orleans sign right near Cafe Du Monde

Next was the search for a decent hotel.  Many of the reviews I read on Yelp and other sites suggested that most reasonably priced hotels were outdated and had thin walls which was problematic in this party city.  I was worried that lots of partiers would still be around the weekend after Mardi Gras.  It turns out most hotel sites did not have accurate information on hotel availability.  Hotels.com and Hotwire did not show any decent hotel available in my price range.  But when I searched www.NewOrleans.com, they had rooms available at some decent hotels, and I finally decided on the Country Inn and Suites on Magazine Street in the Central Business District (CBD).  The hotel was clean, no reports on BedBugReports.com, was in a quite neighborhood, even during a weekday, had a tasty breakfast with little changes each day and make your own waffles, fresh cookies, and friendly staff.  The walls weren’t too thin and the hotel seems recently updated (maybe after the hurricane?).   I did not use the NewOleans website for any other services, but they also show tour and other visitor information.

Then I spent hours researching where to do, restaurants to visit, what to see, where to hear good music, etc.  I marked everything on a map and made a list, both of which I accidentally left at home.  Luckily, my seat neighbor on the flight into NOLA went to college there in the 60’s and rattled off a list of restaurant recommendations and most of the info I marked on the map stuck in my head (I always remember things better when I write them down).  So all was not lost.  I did remember my public transit map from the RTA website.  You can take the E2 bus from the airport terminal to downtown CBD for $2.00.  It’s about 40 minutes and you get to see the real people of NOLA.  Shuttle rides might be 20-30 minutes, at least $20, and not an authentic experience.

Cool view of the Cathedral

  Visitor Resources:

More to come on New Orleans after Mardi Gras and Visiting NOLA

Soft, Almost Chewy, Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Cookies are not my favorite treat, until they are fresh out of the oven.  I can’t resist them right off the pan.  But I generally find most homemade cookies less than tasty, and here’s a few tips to make them better.

First, I don’t care for most home baked items because of the butter flavor.  Having grown up with margarine, I can tell when someone uses real butter with a strong butter flavor.  My solution: In the following cookie recipe I used half margarine and half butter flavored shortening.  The shortening also improves the softness of the final product.

Second, I like soft cookies.  My cookie eating experience diminishes when cooled cookies crack and crumbled with each bite.  The combined trick here is that I replaced half of the butter with shortening.  Butter has more water that evaporates during cooking, leaving a flat, dry cookie behind.  Also, I found this recipe that includes vanilla pudding for adding softness.  Then you just have to make sure and not overcook them.  Every oven is different, I reduced the cook time and then checked them every two minutes to calibrate the cook time for my oven.  If necessary, you could remove a few to let them cool and return the pan to the oven, doing that a few times to have samples of varying cook times to compare.  If you cook them long enough to brown, they come out a little crispy.

I also used my new baking sheets, recommended by America’s Test Kitchen, but you have to subscribe to get the info.  They test out products, ingredient comparison, and the perfect recipes for modern chefs.

Last I added a little health boost by replacing 1/2 cup of the flour with wheat germ.  You can’t even notice the wheat germ.  Next time I will replace a little more.

The verdict:  No need to try another recipe, ever.  Want the recipe?  Here is the original recipe, and below is my modified version:

Ultimate Soft Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Ingredients

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 cup butter (or margarine), softened
  • 1 cup shortening, butter flavored
  • 1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 (3.4 ounce) packages instant vanilla pudding mix
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 cups semisweet chocolate chips
  • 2 cups chopped walnuts (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Sift together the flour and baking soda, set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar. Beat in the instant pudding mix until blended. Stir in the eggs and vanilla. Blend in the flour mixture. Finally, stir in the chocolate chips and nuts. Drop cookies by rounded spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
  3. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven. Edges should be golden brown.