Summer Picnics (with Less Plastic)

DSC_2648Words (or at least my words) cannot begin to express the rapturous joy with which we emerge from the bitter desolations of the subarctic winter and enter, with bare arms and faces pointed to the bright and finally warm sun, the glories of spring.

And what do we do in these precious days of warmth, me and little crew, but pack our bags in the morning with sunscreen, half a gallon or so of tick spray (a homemade concoction that includes citronella and geranium bourbon essential oils, hats, towels, extra clothes, water bottles, and enough food to count as lunch. Apples, bananas, pb&js, little pieces of salami, cashews, some type of chips if we have them on hand, etc.   And we go out for as much or the morning as remains after I have packed all of our sundry things, and we have a picnic for lunch. Once we manage to leave the house and set forth, I feel like a combination of the 1994 movie version of Marianne Dashwood going out for a walk on a soon-to-be-stormy day and Fraulein Maria going out with the children in their curtain clothes, with baskets and guitar. See that look on her face? This is basically us:

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Anyway, whatever your days look like this summer, whether frolicking through the Alps or tumbling down rainy English slopes or perhaps just hiking on whatever paths might be free and not subject to the oppressive taxation of the State, I hope they involve some form of eating food outside.

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I’ve been trying to use as little plastic as possible for these excursions and for life in general otherwise, and I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve been using to pack food that don’t involve ziplock bags.  I have neither time nor inclination to expound here all the various evils of plastic,* but suffice to say: it’s ugly** and it’s bad for us and every other living organism on the planet. So we pack up our little snack lunches in various cloth bags, metal tins, etc. Here’s what we use:

My top 4 Reusable Things for Picnics (and Snacks in General):

  1. Water bottles. We use these Kleen Kanteen ones for the kids, with these (somewhat leakproof) green lids. The kids each have one and only one, so we keep good track of them and they go everywhere with us. I have a stainless mug that I carry hot tea in on cold days and cold tea in on hot days.
  2. Cotton zippered pouches. The pouches made for snacks are expensive! And lined with plastic! But mostly, they’re expensive. So after wanting to buy snack pouches to replace small ziplock bags for about 2 years now I finally bought these little canvas bags. (They come in various sizes– one version we bought is smaller, and has 2 separate zippered pouches, and the larger size has a little loop that is nice for little hands to hold on to.) These are not waterproof, so you know, they’re not for yogurt or spaghetti and things like that, but we weren’t really using ziplock bags for those things too much anyway.  They are great for grapes or pretzels or nuts and dried fruit, etc.*** Depending on the size, these cost $2-3 per pouch and come in sets of 4-6.
  3. Stainless steel containers of various sizes (similar to these) for stuff that might leak, and anything else, sandwiches (though we also put sandwiches in the cotton bags), leftovers for John to take to work, etc. We own four: 2 small circular ones, the large one shown in these pictures, and another one that’s about the size of a sandwich. (Here are some similar ones, with silicone lids.) They’re a small bit pricey– we’ve collected these four over the course of about a year, one at a time when they’ve gone on sale at Wegmans. I’m sure they’ll get lost at some point, but as with our stainless water bottles we make a point to keep track of them precisely because they cost a bit more, and it has never felt like a burden to do so.
  4. Cloth napkins. Buy fancy linen ones or find any old kind at the thrift store, or use cotton handkerchiefs. For wiping faces and hands and wrapping up a bundle of sandwiches, etc.

Before we had the pouches and the stainless steel containers I would wrap up our sandwiches and various things in cloth napkins or put them in some of our glass pyrex jars with lids. We generally pack finger foods so we don’t need utensils. I’m all about the cost effective fruit, so we mainly stick to apples and bananas.  Little ball jars with lids would make a good and inexpensive snack container. We usually don’t take a cooler, but if we’re bringing meat or cheese or something and it’s particularly hot out we might.

(We also used, and still sometimes use, ziplock bags of various sizes, but I wash all of them, even the small ones and reuse them. Because, see below).

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Anyway, I hope I haven’t been too preachy! Hoping, for us and for all two of you (hi mom and dad! I love you guys!), that this will be a spring and summer of picnics, mountain wandering, and Ivanhoe reading. And maybe a tiny bit less plastic.

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*i.e., the harm they do to animals, the harm they do to people, the fact that MOST OF IT NEVER GETS RECYCLED, or the fact that even if it DOES it takes an enormous amount of energy and creates an enormous amount of pollution to do so, and even when recycled, the fact remains that it’s still plastic, it still exists, and all that will happen to it is possibly be used for a period of time by people and then ultimately break or be broken down in some form, over some time period, into invisible molecules of plastic. Also, please consider the human beings who work in plastic factories. Can you imagine spending most of your waking hours in a ziplock bag factory, breathing in the fumes of melted plastic? Living next door to such a factory? Is it morally acceptable for us to use these things while other people are breathing in those fumes all day, every day? Just so that we can continue to bustle about in our frantic lives at faster and faster paces, tossing food into ziplock bags?

**If you’re not convinced by the envorinomental/human health arguments about plastic, please consider the aesthetic elements of it. We are affected and shaped by the things that surround us, at least to some extent, and if we learn from earliest infancy**** that food comes primarily out of plastic pouches or tucked in plastic bags, what does it teach us about the purpose and quality of food, about nourishment, both to body and soul, and about how we interact with the world around us? The latter part of that question, I fear, is becoming answered increasingly with choices of convenience and cheapness, reflecting that at heart, we care neither for the consequences upstream of our ziplock bags (what about the people who work in the factories who produce them; or downstream, after the plastic has served its fleeting purpose and we have thrown it into the trash, and our ziplock bags and baby food pouches and squeezable yogurts and coffee cups come to visit us and our children and our children’s children in the form of microscopically small particles of plastic in our water and all of our food.)

*** And yes, most of these foods come packaged in plastic. I know. I try to buy as much as I can from bulk bins, but many things are sadly more expensive to buy that way….. Perhaps more soon about my paltry attempts to make good choices on a tight budget in the grocery store.

**** This is going to sound really aggressive, but y’all it is possible to feed babies otherwise than out of plastic pouches. I fed two just fine with zero of them. Plastic is not healthy for us, and just because companies put baby food into it doesn’t mean that it’s safe and healthy for your baby to eat it. Even if the food inside the pouch is organic, it is now organic food with plenty of leeched plastic in it.  If plastic food pouches are your deal and it’s how you survive, then keep on with it, sister. I have used and still use plenty of plastic other areas. But astonishingly, miraculously, human babies have managed to be fed throughout, and even to survive, their infancy without such contrivances for millennia. But then, people also have managed to survive without cars, coffee, bathtubs, electricity, seltzer water, libraries, etc.., and I use those things plus others quite liberally. And most of the food I buy comes in plastic, even though I make every effort not to.

So anyway. here’s to muddling through, doing what we can do do whatever we’re doing. And here’s to picnics and summer, whatever the food might be packaged in. (Just this very day– this is a few days after I wrote this post originally, because of course I felt the need to edit it extensively– I took Margaret out to a park and she had a little snack bag of freeze dried strawberries from Aldi, so in essence no different than pouches, and if I calculated the price per pound of it it would cost more than gold. So much for all of my preaching about plastic and frugality.)

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5 Ways to be Awesome at Buying Used Children’s Clothes (Or Your Own)

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DSC_2562Guys, I’m just going to be really honest. I’m way more persnickety about children’s clothes than is befitting of someone in our income bracket. I like for my children to be dressed, at all possible, in wool, linen, and organic cotton items of navy, white, black, gray, and red, that are handmade in France. However, I also have approximately a $0 budget for clothes for myself and the children, and while I occasionally exceed that budget by a bit, I can say that I have bought fewer than 5 brand new items for each of my children since they’ve been born (they’re 2.5 and 4.5 right now), other than some socks and, as Will has gotten older and shoes are harder to find, a couple of pairs of shoes. Everything else has been hand-me downs, or thrift/consignment finds, with a few things bought used on eBay or ThredUp. I’m not saying that to brag at all, because it would be quite possible to spend a ton of money only buying secondhand things, but just that it IS possible to dress children decently without buying a ton of new things.

Probably, if you’re reading this post at all, you already are interested in buying secondhand clothes. Other than the quite obvious reason that you can save enormous amounts of money (even if you are buying the cheapest new clothes available– sometimes I look at the prices of kids’ clothes at Target and I CANNOT BELIEVE HOW MUCH THEY COST!!!!!!!!), there’s also the insane human and environmental impact of the clothing industry. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but everyone has seen this movie, right? Every time we buy some new clothing item, that’s a ton of pesticides poured on the cotton it’s made from that lead to health problems for the cotton farmers, toxic dyes that pour into rivers and streams, not just poisoning any little river creatures, but also the human beings who have to drink that water, and heavens to betsy if anyone is purchasing new clothes made out of fleece or polyester!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It shouldn’t be legal to sell that shit. Please, please, please, if you want to buy everything else brand new, at least do not buy new clothes made out of fleece or any other synthetic material. Buying used will literally save you thousands of dollars if you do it well, and it’s a just and humane way to shop if you can’t afford to buy all your children’s clothes from places like this.

Ahem. Now that no one except my parents are still reading, if I’m that lucky, I’ll continue.

(And, also just before I dig in, I will say that for some people it makes sense to buy more things new than used– one friend of mine has 3 children, all girls, so if she buys good quality, new items, she knows they will get used by all three girls. Since we have a boy and a girl, it’s harder to justify buying new. So I’m not saying that everyone needs to do exactly what I do. This is just what works for us, for this season. I think it’ll get a bit trickier as the kids get older, too. But for now, it works.)

(Below, Petit Bateau rain coat I found at our consignment store. It was $20, but it’s a size 6-7, which means we can roll up the sleeves for Will this year, and then he can use it for the next year or two, before Margaret then uses it for another year or two. So I think we’ll get at least 4 years out of it. Maybe 5.)

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So, for anyone who’s interested, here’s how we do it:

1. Beg and Borrow. Well, we mostly haven’t had to beg, but we’ve been offered bags upon bags of hand-me-downs from friends and cousins. (If people hadn’t offered, I would have asked. I have absurd hopes and dreams for how I want my children dressed, and zero pride.) Only keep what you like/need (see #2) and pass on the next to another friend, or (if the person who gave the clothes to you doesn’t need them back) take the rest to a children’s consignment store if there’s one in your area and use the cash or store credit to buy something that you like or need a bit more. (Or give the cash back to the friend who gave you the clothes! It’s hard to keep track, but I try to give $ back when I can!)

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2. Only keep/buy what you REALLY need and like. The fewer clothes you believe that you need, the fewer clothes you can own, and therefore, the fewer you will buy, and the more money you will save. Voila. Just because it’s a good brand or a jaunty little red canvas raincoat that was made in France and only costs $15 at the consignment store, doesn’t mean you have to buy it.  Same thing with hand-me-downs. You don’t have to keep them all just because someone gave them to you! Each of my kids gets 1 dresser drawer for clothes, for pjs, underwear, socks, shirts, pants, etc. Outerwear goes elsewhere, but everything else: one drawer. So we have room for 4-6 shirts, 4-6 pairs of pants, etc. I could (and probably will) write a whole other post about a minimalist wardrobe for kids, but I will just say that I prefer to buy basic colors– blue, gray, white, black, red. If you read any book published in the 1950s or earlier, you’ll see children dressed mostly in those colors. I do have some pink and flowery things for Margaret, but mostly I want my kids to look like characters in Robert McClosky books (like this less known but EXCELLENT one).  The other reason for this is that when I stick to buying basic colors, I can pass them down from Will to Margaret. Red pants, black pants, yellow raincoat, breton striped shirt, wool sweater: they work for both genders. Bright green Ninja Turtles raincoat/bike helmet, rain books, tennis shoes, t-shirt, not so much. Ditto with anything hot pink and princess-y. (If we ever have a third). Although maybe what you REALLY like is different: brighter colors, etc. You do you. But know what you like (or your kid likes) the best, and let go of the rest. Kids don’t need that many clothes. (Especially if you make them take their shirts off when they eat messy food, if they’re younger than 3 or so).

(Below, organic cotton dress, $3.95.)

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3. Know the good brands/buy natural fibers. Boden, Hanna Andersson, Crewcuts, Petit Bateau, Garnet Hill. I also like Circo and Gap, Etc (see #3a.).  Know them, but don’t buy them new.  (Also: cotton, linen, wool, silk. They hold up better, look better, feel better. Check the materials before you buy.) So for example: I used to babysit for a family who got a catalogue for Serena and Lily, and I would drool over everything as I turned page after beautiful page during the babe’s nap. Haven’t thought of that brand in years, but today I checked to see if the consignment store had any crib sheets (because we just switched Margaret into the crib, and the only sheets we have have seen 2 years of wear from an older brother, so I thought it might be nice if she could have a sheet of her own, you know, and right there in the bin of crib sheets was a Serena and Lily sheet! For $3! So I bought it. Photo below. I never in 5 million years have considered buying it new (I just looked them up and they’re $38), but because I vaguely knew that brand, and knew that it should be excellent quality, I grabbed that sheet and didn’t need to look at the rest). Anyway, if you are, like me, an insufferable snob about quality, know which brands hold up and look good. Keep your eyes open for those things and skip the rest. Even if it means you leave empty handed sometimes. Also, if you really must buy fleece, buy it secondhand, but really, fleece and everything else made out of plastic belongs in whatever subterranean depository our government has for nuclear waste. It is that bad, and it shouldn’t be legal to sell. (We have some secondhand fleece jackets, etc., one of which is a vintage red coat with a pointy hat that I love, but really, just please, please never buy anything new made out of fleece. It needs simply to go out of production.)

3a. Ok, this is related to #3, but very important! Nice brands are all well and good, but if you’re always worrying about something getting spilled or feeling more nervous about the clothes than you really should, maybe reevaluate a bit? I bought Margaret a white linen dress at the consignment store when she was under 1, and it was so, so, so darling, but I couldn’t bear to have her wear it because food! And crawling in the dirt! etc! Also, I was trying to look up pictures of my kids dressed all adorably in their second-hand ensembles for this post, but in pretty much all of our pictures someone is wearing a costume or a bike helmet or is half buried in the sandbox or has ice cream dripping down her arms, etc. Which is as it should be. We never quite attain the Robert Mccluskey simplicity or Breton charm of my ideals. And we’ve had enough bloody noses, stomach bugs, and strawberry/blueberry/raspberry juice stains to know that white frilly clothes are not our friend.

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4. Know where to shop. We have 2 different kids’ consignment stores in Ithaca, one which only sells up to 3T, but the other, Mama Goose, sells all ages, plus maternity, shoes, toys, books, coats, etc. (Mama Goose is an exceptional store, and the only reason I’ve been able to buy so many pretentious clothing items at such good prices! I don’t know what I would do if I lived somewhere else!) I shop less often at the Salvation Army here, but I’ve found a few good things there! There’s also eBay, ThredUp (use this link for $10 off!) and Poshmark. I haven’t bought anything from the latter of those, and maybe 3-4 things total from each of the former. With ThredUp you can search by brand or type of clothing you’re looking for, with filters for size, color, etc. I bought some really cute Crewcut shorts and a Makie sweatshirt for Margaret from ThredUp two summers ago (the shorts in size 2T so she wore them when she was 1 and 2). Last year I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t buy something from the summer Boden catalogue for her, and instead I looked on eBay for used Boden things, and I found a pair of the cutest ever strawberry print shorts for maybe $6. Which is, admittedly, expensive for used shorts. And, per #5 (see below), I bought their size 3-4, so they were too big for last summer, but hopefully they will be the every day shorts for this year, once it warms up, which, of course, will be about 5,000,000 years from now. (Per #2, I’d rather have one pair of shorts for her that I LOVE than 8 pairs that are only so-so.)

5. Buy a few sizes up (but not too many sizes up). If you buy a size 6 raincoat, your almost 5 year old can wear it for 2 years, see? (And I actually promise you that your child will survive. We’ve done that also for winter coats, and it works quite well.) Or if you find a cute, 3T swimsuit last summer that consists of matching swim shirt and shorts, and fits your then 2 year old as long as you take a little tuck in the shorts, she can wear the same suit last summer and then this coming summer. I’ve found that some brands fit on the small side. So my 4 year old wears a Breton striped shirt (Boden) that says it’s a 6-7. The sleeves are a little long, so we roll them up. Today I found a little size 6-7 striped t shirt for Will. I’ll either have him wear it this summer or wait a year. So you can buy early and have a child wear something an extra year, or buy early and save it, if it’s a really good find, for when they’re old enough to wear it. As long as you’re not stockpiling too many clothes, this saves a lot of money in the long run. (See below– size 4-5 denim skirt WITH TINY POLKA DOTS! Couldn’t resist. So we’re tucking it away until next year.)

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Now I know that the only person left reading is my mom (which is fitting, because she is the one who taught me the joys of the thrift store) but I will just say that most of these principles apply for buying second-hand clothes for yourself. Except for buying sizes ahead of where you currently are, one can hope. Buy less, buy good, buy simple. And do your mending.

(And I’d love to know where other people shop for kids’ clothes! Anyone else buy used? Make their kids wear coats 2 or 3 sizes too big? Any favorite secondhand finds?)

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