Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Eco Kids Column: Quick and Easy Watermelon Piñata

By Wong Ee Lynn
The New Year has just begun, and that means a whole year’s worth of parties and celebrations lies ahead of us!
Piñatas are treat-filled papier-mâché or clay shells believed to originate from Europe, but are often associated with Mexico. They were made immensely popular by the USA, and have now become a common sight around the world, including in Malaysia, where children wait eagerly for their turn to strike at and break piñatas at parties.
Piñatas can be expensive to buy, and time-consuming to make.
Here is a quick and easy version of a homemade piñata that uses paper bags and other items found around the home, and wastes far less paper than the traditional cardboard and papier-mâché ones.

1.      A large, sturdy paper bag. You may need to make a few strategic slits in the bag to make it break more easily so that your party guests will not be kept slugging away at the indestructible piñata for hours, like ours had to.
2.      Crepe paper or coloured paper in different colours. We used red, white and green crepe paper left over from another art project, as we wanted to create a watermelon piñata.
3.      A scrap of black construction paper.
4.      Adhesive tape.
5.      Scissors.
6.      Instead of cheap, junky plastic piñata fillers, stuff it with things your guests can use. 

We filled ours with card games, stickers, erasers, pencils, small comic/picture books, sweets, boxes of raisins and packets of roasted seeds and nuts.    

Step 1: While the crepe paper is still folded, cut it into strips. We used a ruler to draw lines on ours to ensure that they are all of uniform width.

Step 2: Cut slits into each strip of folded crepe paper, but do not cut all the way through or you will end up with a pile of little squares that will take you weeks to stick onto your piñata. Make it look like the teeth of a comb – the long ‘spine’ still holds all the ‘teeth’ together.

Step 3: Unfold / unravel the crepe paper strips very, very slowly and carefully, as it will tear easily. Don’t worry, you will get better at it with each strip. Use adhesive tape to stick the strips of the crepe paper to the paper bag. Adhesive tape sticks to the surface of paper bags better than glue. Also, you will not have to wait for glue to dry. Start from the bottom of the bag, and stick each strip of crepe paper slightly overlapping the previous strip. Think of how roof tiles/shingles are laid – Each row slightly overlaps the row beneath it.

Step 4: We taped 3 rows of green paper to the lowest part of the bag to form the watermelon ‘outer skin’, one row of white paper as the ‘rind’, and covered the rest in red so that it would resemble a ripe, juicy, rectangular slice of watermelon. Cover the entire piñata in crepe paper strips, including the bottom. Fill up any gaps with smaller strips of crepe paper to hide the paper bag.

Step 5: Cut out a bunch of tear-shaped watermelon ‘seeds’ out of black construction paper. Use adhesive tape to stick these ‘seeds’ to the slice of watermelon in a semi-circle or curve, just as you see in watermelons in real life.

Step 6: Fill up the paper bag and seal the mouth of the paper bag. The handles of the paper bag can be tied around a long pole (if the piñata is to be held by one or two persons) or suspended from a string from the ceiling or a tree branch.
There are so many designs you can create with a cuboid paper bag. It doesn’t have to be a watermelon slice. You can make it your favourite colour and add your initials in a contrasting colour. You can make a rainbow piñata, a flag piñata, a stripy piñata, a patchwork quilt of scrap coloured paper, or an ombre piñata in your favourite colour starting with the lightest shade to the darkest. You could try covering your piñata in blue crepe paper ruffles and add fish and marine creatures cut out of bright-coloured construction paper, or cover it in black paper and add stars and planets and rockets. Or you might want to turn it into a big, silver cuboid robot.
If you wish to go the extra mile in not wasting paper and resources, you could collect a bunch of old catalogues and magazines and cut out the coloured portions and sort them into piles according to colour before pasting them on your piñata.  
If you are filling a piñata for adults or for a mixed family crowd, you could add eco-friendly gifts such as reusable shopping bags and cotton handkerchiefs and fun things such as brain teasers, mini puzzles, decks of cards, coins, snacks and leftover travel/event souvenirs such as key chains, stress balls and mobile phone pouches. Do NOT add anything liquid, such as small bottles of body wash, perfume or soap bubble solution, or pudding and jelly cups, as the bottles or cups may break when hit and the liquid will soak all the other piñata contents. If you are adding snacks and sweets, do not add soap, candles or anything strongly-scented, or your guests may end up with chips and sweets that smell and taste of soap. 

Remember to provide your guests with used envelopes or paper bags to store their piñata loot in. We forgot to provide our guests with bags and they carried their goodies home in their pockets and inside their shirts.
Use your imagination and find ways to throw a great party without generating too much waste!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Beginner's Guide To A Plant-Based Diet


By Wong Ee Lynn
(wongeelynn@yahoo.com / gl.mnselangor@yahoo.com)

Former California Governor and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger recently made waves in the news when he urged people to try to go meat-free once or twice a week for the sake of the environment. Recognising that many people would find it challenging to go fully vegetarian, he wisely pointed out that "People will buy in to stop eating meat one or two days a week - you have to start slowly. It's a very big challenge but it doesn't mean it shouldn't be done."

The factory farming industry has a very large carbon footprint. Producing 1kg of meat protein is calculated to take between 3 and 10kg of vegetable protein.

Emissions from farming, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past 50 years and may increase by another 30% by 2050, according to the United Nations.

Most of the emissions from meat farming come from belching livestock and nitrogen fertilisers.

People go vegetarian and vegan for many reasons -- religious, health, environmental and ethical -- and all these reasons are commendable. Whether you are a full-time vegan or vegetarian or someone trying to reduce his or her meat intake, all efforts to eat fewer animal products should be encouraged and applauded. No effort is too small or negligible. We may not volunteer for environmental organisations, clean up oceans, plant trees, or save endangered wildlife every day, BUT we do eat every day, and therefore even small changes to our diet will make a large difference over time.

Here are ways to gradually reduce your intake of meat and animal products and transition to a plant-based diet, tried and tested by the vegetarian subcommittee members of the Green Living Special Interest Group:

1. Identify good reasons for going vegetarian or reducing meat consumption. If  your goal is to impress somebody you like or just to reduce enough weight for a special occasion, you might not stick with the goal for long. To remind yourself of your reasons and goals, it may be helpful to visit websites such as Mercy for Animals (http://www.mercyforanimals.org/), Humane Society International (http://hsi.org/), and One Green Planet (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/) or watch documentaries such as Earthlings to educate, empower and motivate yourself. Be forewarned, though, that the graphic images in some of these documentaries can evoke strong emotions.

2. Start small. Meatless Monday is an easy, painless way to start. Increase it to two days a week, and then increase it until you can be a Weekday Vegetarian. When you are ready, transition into a full time vegetarian and finally, into a vegan.

3. Start by eating lower on the food chain. "First, four legs, then two legs, then no legs" is a good way to start. What it means is that you start by eliminating beef, mutton, pork and venison from your diet, and once you are able to do this, move on to eliminating poultry, and finally, eliminate seafood, fish, eggs and dairy from your diet.

4. Mark 'cheat days', for example, parties and holiday dinners, into your calendar so that you will not feel deprived if you are accustomed to enjoying meat. Make a conscious effort to go vegetarian on all the other days leading up to the 'cheat days'. Allowing yourself 'cheat days' makes the transition easier. Over time, you will find that your body no longer craves meat or animal products and you can go without 'cheat days'. Don't feel guilty about relapses or occasional cravings. You need to feel positive, confident and joyful about the decision you are making to eat less meat for the environment and animals, and guilt and negativity are unproductive. If you do relapse, just get back into the groove of meatless meals as soon as you can.

5. Keep healthy, satisfying vegetarian snacks and ready-to-eat meals at home and at work so that you will not be tempted to relapse. Many people believe that vegetarian foods are not filling or nutritious, because they tend to choose processed food filled with carbohydrates and sodium or sugar, or fruits and vegetables without a protein component to fill an empty belly. Have a variety of sweet and savoury snacks at hand, for example, nuts, hummus, high-fibre crackers, roast soybeans, air-dried noodles, vegetable soup stock, frozen vegetables, fresh and dried fruit, carrot and celery sticks, and peanut butter and other spreads. 

6. Prepare vegetarian food to bring to parties and gatherings so that you will have something meatless to eat. It is also a good way to introduce others to vegetarian food. Chances are, there will be at least one other vegetarian there. Don't be afraid to make the same dish for every gathering if it very popular the first time around.

7. Identify good sources of vegetarian protein, calcium and iron that do not involve supplements, powdered shakes, and mock meat. Reduce the consumption of processed foods and mock meat, as the latter is filled with sodium and empty calories. Hummus, chickpeas and edamame beans are rich in protein. Kale, alfalfa, spinach, broccoli, beetroot and kailan are rich in calcium and iron. Find something you like and don't be afraid to eat it often, as it is preferable to making something you hate and having to throw the leftovers out.

8. Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to get your minimum of five-a-day. Use sauces, dressings and other hacks to train yourself to like fruits and vegetables you would not usually eat. Grind or chop up vegetables to add to pasta sauce or soup. Blend beetroot or kale with chickpeas to make delicious and addictive hummus spreads. Add vegetables to smoothies and disguise their flavour with lots of fruits (e.g. carrots with oranges, beetroot with strawberries). I have also found that hardly anyone would turn down a colourful and vitamin-laden salad if you chop everything up finely and dress the salad with sesame dressing for an Oriental-style salad, or with salsa and corn chips for a Southwestern taco salad. 

9. Visit websites such as Happy Cow (www.happycow.net/) or download apps such as Kindmeal.my (http://www.kindmeal.my/) to make the search for vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants easier. Set yourself goals such as to try a new restaurant or a new food each week.

10. Visit websites such as Vegan Richa (www.veganricha.com/) and One Green Planet (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/) for easy vegetarian and vegan recipes. Don't be afraid to try new foods and recipes, and at the same time, don't be afraid to keep repeating a handful of recipes that you do like. Keep a few staples in your pantry and stock your refrigerator so that you do not run out of fresh produce and vegetarian ingredients.

11. If you are just starting out as a vegetarian and want to try a meatless meal, go for vegan versions of your favourite meals, e.g. lasagna, pizza or curry. This will increase the chances of you liking the vegan version, and there will always be a go-to dish you can rely on when faced with a menu full of things you are uncertain about.

12. Don't expect substitutes to taste like meat. They usually don't. Mushrooms will taste like mushrooms and chickpeas will taste like chickpeas. If you expect any different, you might develop the impression that a particular meatless dish tastes 'weird', 'fake' or 'inferior to meat'.

13. People often claim that vegetarian meals are unhealthy and expensive. They are not. Going vegetarian isn't unhealthy -- eating mock meat and processed food is. Vegetables and fruits aren't more expensive than meat, even if you are buying mostly organic -- but eating out in restaurants all the time or buying imported and processed foods (especially substitutes such as vegan cheese and almond milk) can be! Make wise choices according to your budget and nutritional needs.

14. Make your meals attractive so that you will look forward to eating them. A bento box filled with colourful sliced vegetables and neat sandwiches is easy and inexpensive to prepare and pack, and fun and convenient to eat.
15. Find other ways to green your meals. Buy local, seasonal and organic whenever possible. Choose products with the least plastic and packaging. Go for fresh or frozen instead of processed foods. Choose products with no vegetable oils that are linked to deforestation and environmental destruction.

16. Be a joyful vegetarian. Prepare and eat meals that make you feel good. Don't isolate your friends who are not vegetarian. Don't preach or brag about your choice to go vegetarian or shame others for what they choose to eat. Join friends for meals out and parties, but choose the vegetarian option or bring a dish you can eat, so that you will not feel left out. Most restaurants have at least a few vegetarian options, or are happy to customise a dish for you. Be positive and optimistic, for many others like you are also making a conscious effort to consume sustainably, responsibly and compassionately!