Our Net Zero Home

There were a lot of factors that came into play when we decided to build a net zero home. Location was one, as was affordability. I was also concerned about size– with only three of us, I didn’t want anything over a thousand square feet. We wanted access to the outside, no matter how small, and underlying all of our options was the idea of keeping the environment in mind.

As we went through the checklist, the thing that met the most of our needs was a new net zero home in the suburbs. Yes, sprawl is bad. But when you homeschool and your husband travels for work anyway, being central is quickly vetoed once you factor in the cost of being central. Having gone through the stress of renovating homes twice before and being intimately familiar with condo boards and their limitations (pet approval!) and fees, we decided to build.

What is Net Zero

A net zero home or building is one in which all of its energy needs are met by renewable energy generated onsite (Wikipedia). There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but generally you want to start with a super energy-efficient building. Our house has LED lightbulbs, energy efficient appliances, triple pane windows, and a ton of insulation. It has a ventilation system because it is so air-tight, which also improves indoor air quality. There’s a heat pump with an electric furnace and even an electric water heater. There is no natural gas in our house at all. Instead, everything is designed run off of the solar panels that cover the roof of our home and garage.

Features

Solar panels are not only the coolest part of our net zero home they’re also the only clue that our house is maybe not as normal as it looks. They cover the roof of our house and garage and come with the added bonus that they will (allegedly) prolong the life of our shingles. They don’t need any maintenance other than a visual check that we can do from the road, and the panels themselves have a 25 year warranty, the other components have varying warranties depending on the part. Living in Edmonton we get our fair share of snow, but a study by NAIT has shown that the loses due to snow cover are minimal and therefore the best thing to do is to just let the snow melt on its own (NAIT).

Our heating and cooling system is a heat pump and backup electric furnace. They are incredibly energy efficient which is important because while renewable energy is so important, the biggest aid to the energy crisis will be using less of it. If you’ve ever been in an older home you might be struck by how frustratingly sparse and ill-situated electrical sockets are in comparison to newer homes. This is because so much of our lives depend on electronics– I think I charged my phone two or three times today alone! (Yes, I have a problem but also– my phone is old. Leave me be.) The less energy we use, the better, which is why it’s a much better investment to insulate, caulk, and update windows in an older home than slapping solar panels on the roof and calling it a done job.

We also chose a number of environmentally conscious upgrades in our home. Cork flooring is not only warm underfoot and gentle on bad knees, it’s also extremely sustainable (HGTV). I am clumsier than a heroine in a chick flick and I have yet to break a glass by dropping it on the floor. (I have however, broke one or two by dropping them in the sink which should tell you everything you need to know about how amazing cork flooring is and simultaneously how terrible I am around breakables.) We elected for maple countertops in the kitchen which was a request our homebuilder had never received before. And if you haven’t read my testament to the life-changing magic of a bidet attachment, go forth my child, go read it now.

Perhaps my favourite feature of our house is the energy monitoring app. It tells us how much energy we are producing or pulling off the grid (more on that in a moment) at that very point in time, and how much we’ve used throughout the day. I can see when I ran the dryer, when I charged our car, when I turned on the oven, even how many times the heat kicked on throughout the night causing me to feel guilty and lower the thermostat another degree… then freeze in three sweaters and turn it back up. I honestly think an app like this becoming available to all homeowners and apartment dwellers alike would go far to bringing awareness to our energy usage and help us change our habits. The institution of marriage might crumble though. Or… it might save it?

Yes, to answer the thought you’ve been holding since the last paragraph, we are connected to the energy grid. This is because our solar panels do absolutely nothing at nighttime. Sure, we could get a battery, which might be good to have as a back up, but because we live in Edmonton where our energy needs are so different in the summer versus the winter it makes the most sense to be connected to the grid. This way, when we’re overproducing (which is still happening in October because I am ridiculous about not using electricity) the energy we aren’t using is sent to the grid, adding renewable energy for everyone. At night or on severely cloudy days or in winter when our panels just aren’t cutting it because we’re charging our car or I’m baking and drying all of our clothes on high all willy nilly like that, we can pull off of the grid rather than being stuck without electricity. Over the course of the year, the overproduction will balance out the underproduction and we’ll end up net zero. This also has the benefit of being a lot less scary to convince someone to go solar because there’s a backup plan in place.

Why Net Zero?

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change made news when they announced that we as humans need to go completely net zero with our emissions by 2050 in order to limit warming to 1.5C (IPCC). We need real action by governments in order to achieve this, which is why the most important thing we can do is reach out to our leaders and vote. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our part as well. By choosing to build a net zero home over a traditional home (or even better, by retrofitting your existing home if you can afford) you’re taking your own steps towards helping us all meet this important milestone.

But Tiffany, you might say, that’s all fine and dandy but I simply don’t have the money to put where my ideals are. I get it. Building a new home is never the most environmentally friendly option, ever. So I get that affordability comes into play. But if you have the money and are just debating on whether or not you should save a buck (which again, I get), hear me out.

One of the first things that struck me about the net zero home we visited before building was how cozy it was, even in the dead of Edmonton winter. I checked the thermostat a number of times to see if they had the heat kicked way up (they didn’t), and compared to my older home which I had always thought was particularly cozy, it blew it out of the water. Because it’s so air tight, because of the way the heating system works, there aren’t cold spots. It’s just straight up cozy. And who doesn’t want to be cozy?

Not only is warmth a factor, but throughout the summer we were kept comfortably cool. And a bonus to the insulation is how quiet our home is. I mean, there’s a construction crew digging a basement next door today and it took me longer than I care to admit that they were beside us and not down the street. Also, as someone who is constantly needing to open the windows, our ventilation system keeps our house from ever feeling or smelling kept up. I still open them up once in a while, especially after a good rain, but it isn’t another chore on my list.

Yes, a net zero home is an investment but it’s an investment in a carbon-neutral future. The more people buy into these technologies, the more affordable they become and the more comfortable people become with buying into them. Think about it– what’s the first thing you do when a friend gets something new? You ask them about it and chances are, you earmark it as a future purchase for yourself. A carbon neutral future isn’t just a goal, it’s a requirement, so the sooner that people see that this is a real possibility, the sooner they will demand governments to act accordingly. And we need that to happen now.

The future

In 2018, California passed a mandate that all new homes must have solar panels. VOX did a great piece on the pros and cons of this mandate, which you can read here. Living in Alberta, a gas and coal, meat and potatoes province and not well, California, I can’t help but think solar here has such a positive impact on promoting positive attitudes towards climate action. My neighbour confessed to me that he wishes they would have gone ahead and done net zero as well, and I get it. It felt like we were taking a risk at the time. But now that we’re living it I would do it ten times over. Of course in a perfect world we’d all be living in sky rises, but the world is far from perfect. This was what checked the boxes for us.

Will net zero homes become the norm? If urban sprawl continues, I certainly hope so! But I also hope it becomes just one part of a comprehensive plan against climate change. Our neighbourhood has a mix of housing densities, walking trails and green space, and when it’s completed it will also have commercial properties and services within walking distance; all tenets of good urban planning.

But if you’re building a new home and you’re still not convinced, let me ask you a question: how long do you expect your home to last? Chances are, you see it as an investment, something that, even if you don’t plan on living there that long, will last sixty years or hopefully more. So why then would you build your home with yesterday’s technology? Just a thought.

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Loss And Life Lessons

In less than two weeks, we’ve had to say goodbye to both of our pets. My kid awes me in a lot of ways, but his coping mechanisms are a thing of beauty.⁣

I don’t know where he gets them from. I think part of it is just that he’s so intelligent and logical and his brain works so quickly that he can process grief while the rest of us just sit blinking.⁣

My mom thinks we taught him. I’m not sure, but one thing I do know is that I’m not afraid of big emotions. I know it can be a struggle for a lot of people, but when my kid cries or screams or tantrums or gives me attitude, I don’t take it personally. I have big emotions too, so I just talk it out with him and then give him his space (or vice versa if he’s irate.) I try not to react emotionally to his emotions and when I do (because I’m human too) my husband is thankfully there to bring us back to Earth. ⁣

One of the best lessons I’ve learned as a parent is that it’s not about me. My kid’s sadness is not a failure on my part, it means he’s a functioning, feeling human. His misbehaviour does not mean I’m a bad mom, it means he’s a kiddo growing up in a complex world. My job isn’t to shield him, wrap him up in bubble wrap, it’s to help him learn to say “yeah, this is fucking hard, but it will get better.”⁣

And yes, this goes for boys and girls. Real men cry. Real men have feelings. I think there’s a real bias, even if we don’t think we have it, to seeing boys and men cry. Let your boys cry. Let your girls cry. And when they’ve had it out, get them outta there with your medicine of choice. Y’all know I’m a fan of ice cream and cookies. Do what works for you.⁣

It takes practice. It’s work. It’s taking everything in me to not book a trip to Disney or go buy a new pet because *I* want to feel better too. But ultimately, this is life and I know my kiddo will be better off in the long run having experienced it fully. Life isn’t just the good parts, it’s the hard stuff too.⁣

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Our Super Cool Bidet Attachment

toilet with bidet attachment

If you watched my Instagram stories last week, you saw that we have a new low-waste addition to our bathroom: a bidet attachment. I have been wanting one for years but my husband was understandably skeptical. Is it going to mess with our plumbing? Is it going to be a pain in the ass (HA!) to install (and use)? I’m still using toilet paper, damnit!

So despite eyeing bidets every time I did a midnight online shopping scroll, I never took the leap to buy one. I read a lot of great things about bidets, but they still seem to be a “weird” thing in North America. Even Bea Johnson– the zero waste Queen, says in her book, Zero Waste Home, that they just use paper-wrapped toilet paper rather than a bidet. And pro tip: if you’re out with couple friends complaining about everyone’s quirks and you whine that your husband thinks bidets are weird, you will garner zero sympathy and bring the conversation to a screeching halt. Not that I know from experience or anything.

When my husband told me he got me a present, I was so excited to find out that it was a bidet attachment. (A Luxe Bidet Neo 185 to be exact.) I’m not kidding, friends, I think I jumped. This is ten years of marriage. This is pioneer-wannabe, hippy sensibilities. This is OMG I’m going to save SO MANY TREES.

I fucking love trees.

Now I know you’re curious so I’ll do my best to spread some information.

Will a bidet attachment wreck my plumping?

As long as you follow the instructions carefully while installing, I honestly can’t see this being a problem. Now, both my husband and I come from handy families. We’ve renovated not one, but two older homes. To say we’ve picked up a thing or two throughout the years would be an understatement. Don’t mess with plumbing if you have no idea what you’re doing. Don’t install a bidet attachment if you rent (at least not without your landlord’s permission). Even I, a handy, somewhat knowledgable person, forgot to empty the toilet tank. Thank god for nosy kids who read the instructions and are bossy enough to tell adults when they’re in the wrong.

Is it difficult to install?

I installed the bidet attachment in under twenty minutes. Five minutes were spent looking for a flathead screwdriver to remove the toilet seat. And ten minutes were spent saying shit like “Put the wrench down.” “Don’t lose those pieces!” “Stop licking the dog!” because my kid and dog and cat are always twenty inches away from my face at all times. So a capable adult without small creatures at their feet could probably install this in 5 minutes and minimum fuss as long as their existing plumbing is flexible pipe.

Is it a pain in the ass?

No! Install and operation are super simple but I do recommend using it on the lowest setting, at least until you know what kind of power washing this thing is capable of. You can dry off with a small bit of toilet paper or keep some washcloths near the toilet.

Is a bidet really more environmentally friendly?

Yes. You’re using water, sure. But considering the amount of water and carbon that goes into making toilet paper and then the cost (both financial and environmental) of carting toilet paper to the store and then to your home, you’re much better off with a bidet.

Will my friends be afraid to come over?

Okay but like, they don’t have to use it! It’s not like it’s going to go rogue and automatically start spraying people’s asses. We have ours installed in our master bathroom and our kid keeps sneaking into our room to use it because it’s “super cool.” Even my husband has come around to it. If anything people will wrinkle their noses but then curiosity will get the best of them and hey, maybe they’ll install their own. Or maybe they’ll find less weird friends. It’s a toss up, really. If you’re this far down the low-waste and zero-waste road that you’re installing a bidet attachment, chances are you’re used to being a weirdo. Who cares what people think?

Tweet that reads “So what’s new with you?” My brain: Just say nothing. Nothing is new. N O T H I N G. Nothing. Me: Well, we just installed a bidet attachment and it is amazing. Like honestly I thought it would be weird but I really just can’t believe we waited this lon

So that’s it. Our bidet saga. Would you ever get a bidet? Do you already have one? Any questions? Let me know in the comments below!

toilet with bidet attachment
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Planning Our Homeschool Year (2019-2020)

Trello homeschool planning layout

It’s August, which for many homeschoolers means that it’s time to start planning next year’s homeschool year. Or you know *cough* you’ve all already started your school year completely or never took a break and all I’m saying is, I just moved and life has been crazy.

We have never actually taken a summer break before, and tbh, my kiddo is sitting beside me reading Beast Academy for fun while I write this. So call our “break” whatever you will. Gifted kiddos are exhausting.

I chose to do something very different this year, something that I haven’t done before. (You can read about what we did last year here.) I outsourced for English and Social Studies. If you know me, you know books are kinda my jam, so relinquishing that control to someone else is terrifying but much needed for my own sanity. I am really hoping I don’t regret it. But honestly, I don’t think I will.

We chose Oak Meadow for English, Social Studies, and Science. I say “we” because yes, even though I’m the one teaching it I make my husband peruse everything because if I fuck up my kid, I’m taking him down with me, damnit. You can read about the myriad of reasons we chose Oak Meadow here. I’ll be sure to write about whether we hate it or love it but honestly, I feel like I’m going to love it.

We’re going to be trying grade 6. We came to this decision very scientifically: I read through their graded curriculum and stopped when I found one that had a few things we haven’t covered yet while looking like it would be somewhat interesting to my kid. I am really trying to go for mastery, which is almost cruel to do to a profoundly gifted kid, but this is effectively a four grade skip and I’m trying to buy myself a bit of time before I have to go pounding on office doors at a University (again). If I end up buying the seventh grade curriculum come January because he whizzed through 6 or was bored to death, so be it. We get funding this year, bitches.

For math, we’re going to be sticking with our hands-down absolute favourite, Art of Problem Solving. (Did I mention my kid is sitting here reading their Beast Academy for fun. Yeah.) I felt a bit swamped last year trying to get through Prealgebra with my kiddo, but considering it took a back seat to his physical science online course and we hopped around between it and Number Theory and Kahn Academy, I think we got through a considerable chunk and will be moving on from it in no time.

I’m still trying to decide what to do about needing a homeschool board this year. In Ontario, homeschool is basically “see yah later, you’re on your own.” In Alberta, they’re a bit more hands-on, which I’m actually looking forward to. That is, if I can figure it out. I have until late September to do so and still receive funding (I’m so excited to have a bit of extra money to put towards homeschool, gah!) so I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon. Hopefully.

One thing that I am looking forward to is living in a city again! We have already gotten year-long passes to the TELUS World of Science, and the field trip opportunities are endless. My son has signed up for a chess camp and tennis lessons, and we’ll see what else catches his fancy because honestly, there is so much to choose from here. My kid has always been a sponge that thrives from new experiences (but like, aren’t they all?) so I’m really excited to be able to tap into that. Hopefully it will mean lots of learning with little effort.

Another change I’ve made is that I’m going to be trying Trello for our planning and recording. I’ve never really kept track of my son’s learning other than throwing some choice projects into a file folder. Which maybe isn’t the most responsible way to go about it? But like he’s 6! I explored a few different methods and I really fell in love with School Nest’s Trello board. If you visit Megan’s “PLAN” story on Instagram she walks through how she set hers up. It’s beautiful and inspiring. (Give her a follow while you’re there too, her homeschool is just plain beautiful.) I will still have a paper planner too, because, I’m codependent on paper, but I love knowing I have our year all set up in one convenient place including links to online content.

Have you started planning your homeschool year? Are you finished? What do you have planned?

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Why We Chose Oak Meadow Homeschool

I started looking at Oak Meadow for homeschool curriculum way back when we first started homeschooling. I liked that it was a secular, child-led program but it didn’t feel like a good fit for us at the time. A few months ago I came back to it, and for a number of reasons it felt like the right time to give it a try.

If you saw my Instagram stories last week, you saw that we received our books. I still have not looked through them but it’s on my to-do list so it should get done sometime in the next month. But in the meantime I thought I would share the thought process of why we chose Oak Meadow for our homeschool this year. I’ll be sure to update about whether they’ve been a good fit or not once we start back with our school year.

It’s secular

Finding secular homeschool materials is not for the faint of heart. If you thought Oak Meadow was Waldorf, you’re not alone. So did I. While it is influenced by Waldorf education they’ve eliminated a lot of the things that I personally found problematic, like not allowing young children to read. (Seriously, I once read a Waldorf book that suggested taking print away from young children like it’s hot coals.) But it still appeals to the part of me that wants to like Waldorf, so I’m pretty excited about utilizing the strengths while losing some of the dead weight.

It’s good for “sensitive” kiddos

One thing that I kept reading over and over was that kids sometimes find the curriculum boring and babyish. Well, that just sounds like an absolute treat for someone who needs curriculum for a radically accelerated kiddo. My kiddo is sensitive, and I mean, he’s 6, so we have a difficult time finding books that are challenging and interesting but are also appropriate. We’ve enjoyed a lot of the books that are a part of their curriculum, so hopefully it will be a good match.

It’s written to the child

Because it follows child development, once you get into the middle school curriculums the guides begin addressing the child. Now, my child may be chronologically a bit young for that, but he is definitely at the point where he wants autonomy and I thought this would be a great way for him to get it. One thing he loved about his CTY course last year was that he was able to do it independently, so I think this will give him a good sense of independence and a feeling of control over his own education. Plus, I think it’s good for kids to learn responsibility while they are young so that it doesn’t feel so daunting when they’re older. (And while they still have mom and dad to help them out.)

It has a lot of hands-on activities

Just eyeing the craft kits gave me heart eyes. I know not everyone is an arts and crafts person, but I totally am. And again, because I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone with a young kid who is working ahead, the more hands-on the better!

It doesn’t take up a lot of time (supposedly)

I’m one of those people who go straight for the 1 star reviews. Gimme the worst and if I can deal with that, I’ll probably check something out. I read a lot of complaints that people felt they needed to do a lot of supplementing to make Oak Meadow fill their days. Maybe these reviews were from parents of high-achieving gifted kids working at their grade level. But even so, I feel good about that. Again, see the whole “my kid is 6.” We need time for LEGO and hikes and Taylor Swift dance parties. I personally don’t want a curriculum that’s going to take all day! I want to cover the basics, and then allow my kid to run wild with the things that sparked his interest (and from what I’ve read, Oak Meadow gives a lot of ideas of ways to run with interests).

A few other notes:

I’ve heard that shipping to Canada can be pretty pricey from Oak Meadow as it’s based in the States, which is usually the case with curriculum. They had a wonderful Canada Day deal with $1 shipping so if you have the luxury of time, I would definitely suggest signing up for their emails and jumping on a good deal. We were currently between houses at the time, and they very kindly delayed sending out our package a week for me, which I appreciated so much! Shipping was relatively quick considering it was at the border for about four days. I do however, wish I had asked for no plastic air packs. I appreciate the care they put into our package though!

So will Oak Meadow work for us? Only time will tell. I only know what I’ve read, but from looking at the samples on their website it looks very promising for where we are right now.

Three coil-bound curriculum books from Oak Meadow.

Have you tried Oak Meadow homeschool before? What did you like/dislike about it?

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Inside Our Nature Backpack

It’s no secret that I think it’s important to take kids outside as much as possible, but I also know what a struggle it can be! Sometimes it’s us, and sometimes it’s them, but it’s always nice to have a little incentive once you’re out there to make the most of it which is why I’m such a big fan of having a nature backpack that you can just grab and go.

Nature backpacks have become more and more popular, possibly because for more and more families, getting outside and into the woods is becoming more of a chore. More of us are city dwellers and the suburbs ran out of abandoned lots long ago. So when we do finally get out of the house and into the woods, the last thing we want to hear are complaints of “I’m bored!” Enter the nature backpack.

I put together my son’s nature backpack a few years ago, and I love it.  It’s light and child-sized, but the straps can be lengthened enough for me to wear it if he gives up on life. It has just enough to keep my kid interested without being too heavy and it has essentials that work for us.

As always, know your kid! Maybe you have an artistic kiddo in which case I’d suggest pencil crayons or watercolour paint. Ours didn’t get used enough to justify lugging them around every time. Maybe you prefer a book that focuses more on birds, or plants. Or maybe you don’t even need a book because you’re a walking encyclopedia yourself! Maybe it’s hot where you live, so a water bottle is a must have. Ours usually wait in the car. Over time, you’ll be able to tweak what you bring to make it work for you. I’m a big fan of less is more. Too heavy and bringing it will be a chore!

So without further ado, here’s what works for us:

The contents of our nature backpack laid out on the floor.

1. Nature guidebook

Unless you’re already acquainted with the plants and animals around you (in which case, kudos!) I definitely recommend having a guidebook on hand so that you can answer your kiddo’s questions. Sure, the internet is great, but it’s big! I can waste a lot of time refining my search results. Having a book on hand is much faster and easier. I grabbed ours at the checkout of our local Canadian Tire.

2. Notebook

Even if your kiddo isn’t artistic, I still recommend a small notebook of some sort, just in case. Ours came with our Foldscope, but more on that later.

3. Binoculars

Not only are binoculars great for birdwatching and examining landscapes that we can’t check out close up, they are also fun! Just make sure your child remembers not to walk while looking through them. Not that I know from experience myself or anything.

4. Compass

Another fun gadget. It keeps kiddos occupied while teaching them direction better than never-eat-shredded-wheat ever could.

5. Foldscope

This is a real microscope that you assemble yourself (a lesson in itself!) that is totally, one hundred percent, kid-proof in my experience. Sure, you can always take samples and bring them home, but isn’t it more fun to learn on the go? What’s more, it’s extremely affordable. Get a Foldscope of your own here. (And no, this isn’t an ad, I just really love them!)

Foldscope laid out with its variety of accessories like stickers, slides, and a tin case.

The objects in our nature backpack are not going to be for everyone. If you’re just starting out, use what you have on hand! Fold up some sheets of paper, throw in some pencil crayons and a magnifying glass, and call it a day! Then, reevaluate as you use it more and more. As I mentioned above, at one point ours had art supplies. Another time, I repurposed old play-doh pots for storing items. The only limit is your imagination!

Apologies to all the people who went to the woods this morning looking for peace and quiet but instead found me there with my kid. @lifeattiffanys

Do you have a nature backpack at your house? What’s inside?

Inside our nature backpack.

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Living Low Waste

a low waste pantry featuring refillable glass jars

There is an overwhelming urge when hearing about people like Bea Johnson who live beautifully minimalistic, zero waste lives to throw everything away and start fresh with earth friendly, low waste alternatives. They tend to make it look easy, because it is, once you’ve been doing it for as long as they have.

I have been working at reducing my waste for a few years now. There are so many zero waste hacks out there, and I’ve tried enough of them to know what does and doesn’t work for me. But one thing I didn’t do, and from what I have read neither did they, was throw everything away and buy a bunch of zero waste “must-haves.” Zero waste doesn’t happen overnight, and in fact, unless you live off grid and grow your own food and make your own clothes, you probably will never be completely zero waste. Not even if you have a pantry full of refilled jars.

I much prefer the term low waste, or low impact. I’m a perfectionist, and I find zero waste way too daunting of a title for me personally. And I am far, far from zero waste. But I do try. And for a busy family living in a climate that doesn’t exactly have papaya trees growing in the backyard year round (or like, at all) I think we do okay.

So in honour of plastic-free July, I wanted to share a bit about what low-waste living looks like for my family.

I also wanted to write this before I move to Edmonton where I’ll inevitably have more choices and resources. Right now, I do the majority of my shopping at the same places everyone does: the local grocery store, Bulk Barn, and of course sites like Amazon. I try to go the farmers market, I try to shop local, but it doesn’t always happen. I’m a busy, homeschooling mom and my husband works out of province. It’s easiest to run on autopilot. So trust me when I say you don’t have to make a lot of changes if reducing your waste is your goal.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably heard the basics. Reusable cloth instead of napkins, paper towels, and disposable cleaning products (I’m looking at you, Swiffer.) Tap water over bottled. Maybe you’ve reused a pasta sauce jar or two. Weekend trips walking around malls have been replaced by a hike in the woods. These are all fabulous ways to start.

It sounds ridiculous, but the gateway product for me was vinegar. Vinegar as a window cleaner. As an all purpose cleaner. As a fabric softener. Salad dressing. I mean, seriously, what can’t vinegar do? Buying a large container in bulk replaced a multitude of tiny bottles with their caps and nozzles and hoses. Yes, it’s still plastic, but it’s much less. I’ve even since attempted making it, but that’s another post for another day.

When my son was born, my husband and I got crazy about making our own foods. Because we were doing baby led weaning, we wanted to control the salt and sugar content of what we were eating as a family, which meant saying goodbye to a lot of our pre-packaged favourites. Not only was it healthier, but it saved us money and saved us a lot of garbage!

Then came joining a CSA, or Community Shared Agriculture. Basically, you invest in a local farm and you share in their success, taking home a basket of fresh produce every week during the growing season. Returning to the produce section of the grocery store in the winter was always a shock. Why is this cucumber wrapped in plastic? Why do I need a produce bag for a single piece of ginger? I just started piling produce into my cart sans bags, and I haven’t looked back.

When Bulk Barn introduced their reusable program, our household waste plummeted. Weeks, yes, weeks started to go by before I would put out a grocery bag-sized amount of trash. I was skeptical at first. Am I really going to make another stop? Am I going to remember my jars? But it became addictive. There are two Bulk Barns in my city making it a ridiculously convenient place to stop. Every week I bring in my clean, empty jars and after getting them tarred, I refill them with everything from flour and sugar to pasta and pretzels. They don’t have everything, but it’s made a huge difference with barely any effort.

All of that being said, I want to keep this honest. I want this to be attainable for you if it’s something that is important to you. So I want to offer up a few buts.

We don’t use baking soda to brush our teeth– we use the fluoride stuff the dentists recommend. I wear contacts. I have tried expensive vitamins that come in glass jars but honestly, I like my $10 multivitamin in plastic better. We treat ourselves to the occasional bag of chips or bag of cheddar bunnies, and I could not survive without Annie’s Mac and Cheese. I’m trying to love shampoo bars. Really, I am.

I bought plastic multi-blade razors for our recent trip to Iceland, and I have yet to go back to my safety razor since we’ve been back. I don’t mandate that my child can’t have plastic things or stuff that comes in plastic. He knows why I make the choices I do, but if he wants a prize from the dentist, so be it. If he wants strawberries in a plastic clamshell, I am not going to say no to a child asking for fruit. Hell, sometimes I want those strawberries in a plastic clamshell. The winters are long and the produce is terrible.

And no matter how diligent you are, waste happens. You’ll get a straw in your drink. You’ll crave a packaged food favourite. You won’t have time to make an extra stop and will end up buying your dry goods all wrapped in plastic that week. Your kid will be too polite to say no to the plastic water bottles they hand out on your flight and you’ll end up with two and they’ll sit on your counter weeks later (true story). It happens. You’ll be discouraged. But what if I reminded you that those beautiful glass jars were filled by bulk bins lined in plastic? That even cardboard goods get shrink wrapped in plastic wrap on their pallets? It’s simply not possible to be “zero waste.”

(I love The Zero Waste Chef’s post about environmental guilt. Read it! I’ll wait.)

There are a lot of other ways that you can make a difference. You can write letters to companies, businesses, and government officials. You can pick up a few pieces of trash while your kid plays at the park. You can ride your bike and consolidate your errands. There’s no one way that works for everyone. Reducing what I send to the landfill has been the biggest, most encouraging thing for me personally because it’s so tangible.

I remember the days of lugging my extra-large garbage can to the curb every week– plus compost and recycling. Anything is an improvement over that. But the one thing that absolutely doesn’t work is making yourself miserable and then quitting all together. Do what you can, when you can. It will differ from week to week.

I like the way my pantry looks with its gleaming glass jars. Having white-space in my fridge doesn’t make me panic. In fact, it’s so nice not having that guilt-session at the end of every week where I throw out a bunch of uneaten produce because I bought a package of ten instead of the two that I needed. I don’t have to dig through a bunch of old shampoo bottles and hair care products to find a comb. And honestly, it’s freeing.

I don’t think anyone should do anything just because they “should.” But I also know what a difference small, simple changes have made. If you’re interested but thinking, “I could never do that,” I dare you to make one small change. Let me know how it goes.

Are you trying to reduce your waste? What’s working for you? What’s not? Let me know below if you’d like to hear more about our low waste journey!

Pinnable image of a low waste pantry reading "Living Low Waste: Thoughts on what I've done (so far!) and why.

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Travelling To Iceland With Kids

Last month we took the family vacation of a lifetime: we spent 6 days in Iceland!  It was the most expensive vacation we’ve ever taken (and we’ve done 10 days in Europe), but it was also my favourite. If you like to explore and get outside when you travel, you need to visit Iceland. I love travelling as a family, but I know travelling somewhere new with a kid in tow can add an extra layer of worry so I put together 10 tips for visiting Iceland with kids.

1. Know where you’re sleeping, and have an idea of where you’re eating.

What makes a trip with kids go downhill real quick? Hungry, tired kids and parents. I know my vacation style is not for everyone: I like a fully researched itinerary so I don’t waste a moment. But even if you’re much more relaxed, I suggest booking your accommodations in advance and having a list of restaurants and food stops that you’d like to try on hand. We were there during midnight sun (it did not get dark!) and let me tell you, there was more than one night that we lost track of time and were scrambling to find a place to eat. It was nice to know we had a bed to crash into when we finally quit at midnight! Even if it’s just a cooler stocked with sandwiches, it’s important to remember that Iceland is a small, mostly rural country. It’s not New York City with a hotel at every corner, especially if you’re venturing outside of Reykjavík. Which you totally should do, just be prepared.

2. Check the ages of tours.

There are a lot of really interesting, one of a kind tours in Iceland and I highly recommend doing at least one. But because of the nature of a lot of these tours, whether it’s climbing down into a volcano or walking over a glacier, there are age restrictions that need to be adhered to because of safety reasons. I know that age restrictions can be a bit of a bummer, but trust me when I say these age restrictions are there for a very good reason and are not arbitrary at all in my opinion. Make sure that if you do have something special in mind that you check the age limits ahead of time to avoid heartbreak and plan accordingly.

3. Embrace babywearing.

If your child is a preschooler or younger, I highly recommend babywearing while in Iceland. I am a huge advocate for travelling without a stroller– in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever travelled with one, but this especially extends to Iceland if you plan on venturing outside of the Reykjavík area. Most of the areas you will be visiting will be dirt or stone trails, and very few landmarks that we visited were accessible (which is important to know if anyone in your party requires a wheelchair). If you plan on doing any hiking trails along the way, I’d even suggest a hiking backpack for those older kiddos who aren’t usually carried but can’t make a six or seven kilometre hike. This isn’t to say that you can’t bring a stroller, we saw at least one stroller go off-roading, but I definitely think you’ll be limited if you’re a family that likes to explore.

Gerduberg basalt columns in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

4. Rent a car.

In my totally expert opinion having done Iceland a total of one whole times, the only way to see Iceland is to rent a car. The only other option would be to rent a camper van. This is because it is such a beautiful country, with such an unbelievably varied landscape, that I really believe driving is the best way to experience it. But if you’re travelling with kids, I especially recommend renting for a few reasons: flexibility and privacy. If your kid is hungry, if they need to go to the bathroom, if they need to nap, if they are just overstimulated from the excitement of the day and you want to head to the hotel early; being in charge of your own itinerary and having your own personal space to retreat to between stops is going to be a lifesaver.

5. Dress to get wet, get dirty, and stay warm.

By the end of our road trip we had dirt under our nails, in our ears, and up our noses. My kid was rolling in dirt, splashing through streams, and playing with rocks. I wouldn’t have had it any other way! I brought full-waterproof shells and waterproof hiking boots for the whole family and even though we had beautiful, sunny weather, it was totally necessary. Iceland is an expensive family vacation, make sure that you get to enjoy it to the fullest by bringing appropriate clothing. Say it with me: sweatpants and play clothes. Leave the adorable, insta-worthy clothes at home!

6. Watch your kid.

I am a very hands-off parent. My kiddo is bright, mature, and he’s been hiking and travelling since he was an infant. But in Iceland we were a lot more helicopter-y than normal. A lot of the tourist spots we visited were not as developed as we’re used to seeing on our travels or at home. Guard rails were few– oftentimes there was a thin rope marking the path or nothing at all. This made for a beautiful experience but as a parent, one small trip and your kiddo is going over a waterfall. This is not to frighten you, but it’s the truth. Hold your kid’s hand, put smaller ones in a carrier, and make older ones stay within eyesight and earshot or agree to certain meetup points. There have been a few tourist deaths in Iceland in recent years so please, make sure you’re reading the posted warnings and staying safe as a family. You know your kiddo best, but remember that on vacation even adult’s brains go on a little break sometimes. It doesn’t hurt to be extra vigilant.

7. Bring a nature kit!

This is one of my hiking hacks for at home, but Iceland was a great place for it as well! We didn’t bring our entire nature backpack but if you plan on doing a lot of hiking I definitely recommend bringing what you have room for. We brought binoculars and a compass, and they were great for keeping our kiddo occupied on longer walks. We had the same rule that we have at home though– no walking and looking!

8. Know your limits as a family.

This goes for any vacation but especially in Iceland. Does your kid need a strict bedtime or will they crash when they get tired enough? Can your kid nap on a loud tour bus or on a hike, or forfeit it all together? How much can you realistically fit in one day without killing each other? I am the weakest link when it comes to sleep in my family, but on vacation I can muster through a week of little sleep. We tend to pack our days as full as possible, and plan to be out and exploring for all but eight or nine hours a day. I know for a fact that this would make a lot of families absolutely miserable which is why I recommend really examining what you need to enjoy your trip. It’s always better to plan less and add something extra in than planning too much and feeling like you missed out!

9. Consider the sun.

Iceland’s subarctic location means that they experience extremes in daylight throughout the year. In the winter, the sun barely peaks over the horizon, leaving few daylight hours for exploring but giving an amazing chance for seeing the aurora or stargazing. In the summer on the other hand, the sun stays shining bright enough to tour all through the night if you really wanted to. It’s great if you want to go, go, go; but not so great if you want to see the stars. These extremes can be difficult for adults to adapt to, let alone children who are used to sleeping and waking with the sun and hold little concern for their parents’ sleep requirements. If your family needs sleep, I’d think twice about visiting in summer. If your family needs lots of stimulation and wants to see it all, I wouldn’t recommend the dead of winter.

10. Learn about Icelandic culture together.

Iceland has such a unique culture that I really think it’s worth learning about as a family. Because the country was relatively isolated for so long, their language, customs, and even their animals are incredibly unique! Did you know that Icelanders can read old texts like the Sagas, because their language is has changed so little throughout the years? Or that if they bring their horses abroad for competition, they aren’t allowed to bring them back for fear of causing an epidemic since they are exposed to so few diseases on the island? We started our trip with a City Walk tour around Reykjavík and it was a fantastic introduction for the whole family. I’m a firm believer that travelling is an important educational experience, so if you’re fortunate enough to travel, try to learn as much as you can.

Are you planning a trip to Iceland? What else would you like to know? Let me know below!

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Laura Dern on Big Little Lies is a mood and I’m here for it

I was about 5 minutes into the new season of Big Little Lies when I had to pause and rewind. Did she just say what I think she said?

Bear in mind my world is not the world of Monterey, California. Niagara Falls, Ontario is more working class, less CEOs and hedge funds. People move here for the cheap real estate (in comparison to Toronto), not our schools. Parents are more likely to turn down their child’s acceptance to the gifted program than to seek one out.

So when Laura Dern’s Renata Klein walked up to her daughter’s teacher on the first day of school and laid down the line, I knew exactly what the writers were doing. I knew they were setting the tone, reminding us that Renata is one of those moms, the ones who think their child moves heaven and earth and are going to be on your back every second of the day making sure you’re giving them your undivided attention.

And it was a thing of beauty.

Because here’s the thing. I’ve been in the gifted world long enough to know that an IQ of 152 is no laughing matter. It’s not “good in school” it’s radically different from the general population. It’s having a full on anxiety attack because of climate change. It’s being labelled “quirky” because your looks and physical abilities don’t match your intellect. These kids need parents and teacher who understand them and their needs.

Now, I’m not advocating for parents to walk up to a busy, overwhelmed teacher on the first day of school and start barking orders. But in comparison to my own advocacy style of “please, thank you, if it’s not too much trouble” and then sitting quietly and listening to blatant fallacies and downright discrimination and being walked all over, I think that every parent can learn a lesson from Renata’s cut the shit and get to the point confidence. Because if more of us start advocating for our children’s needs, the more we could change the education system for the better of all kids.

Not all gifted children are born to the Renata Klein’s of the world. They don’t all have parents who understand their needs, they don’t all have parents who have the time and resources to stay on top of their teachers, and they’re not all attending top schools in fancy neighbourhoods. Many are attending schools that are struggling with limited resources and cut funding thanks to idiotic politicians who have never stepped foot in a classroom in their life (*cough*Ford*cough*). And the unfortunate truth is that many of the parents who can find other means to have their children’s needs met will pursue them, whether it’s private school, homeschool, or extracurriculars and tutors. And it’s not fair to the kids who are left behind.

But if those of us with the time and resources used our time and resources to put on our big girl pants and stand up for the needs of our children, with the confidence and no-bullshit persona of a female CEO who has learned to navigate the world of businessmen, think of what we could accomplish! Of course there is a time and place, of course there is a way to go about it while being respectful; but I know that the first thing most parents do when receiving a diagnosis for their child is to read everything they can about it which means that we are qualified to be our children’s advocates. Even if we don’t feel like we are. (Hello, imposter syndrome.)

Honestly, I have tried advocating. I tried getting involved with my local gifted community and sitting on my local school board. But I am so, so, so much more comfortable behind a keyboard. I am too emotional of a person for politics. I am not lying when I say that I left every meeting and cried on my way home. So while the rest of the world probably rolled their eyes and said, “what a bitch” I sat and said “what a thing of fucking beauty,” and even if it was never meant to be a thing of inspiration, Laura Dern inspired me.

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Our 2018-2019 Homeschool Year In Review

I’ve never done a homeschool year in review post before because I always have it in my head that I’m a newbie who has no idea what I’m doing. There are so many parents out there with multiple kids and years of experience and to be honest, our homeschool style is not for everyone. But at the same time, because of our unique situation I sometimes feel it’s even more important to share since there are so few resources for those who are homeschooling radically accelerated children.

Our homeschool style is what I would be consider to be eclectic, so cough, we don’t really have one. We use curriculum for science and math because those are my son’s strongest subjects and my weakest. Because of my son’s age, we largely unschool for language arts and social studies– learning as we go along and using books, museums, and other resources to create an experience-rich environment. His science and math is so heavy in academics that I think it allows us a good balance. We also like to dabble in other subjects as well, though not as formally.

Our requirements for curriculum are that they are secular, challenging, and age-appropriate. I do a lot of research before purchasing a new resource, but it’s still not always perfect. I especially struggle finding purely secular sources. I know a lot of secular homeschool families who use Christian resources, but that’s not for us.

My son turned 6 during this school year, so if he was in public school he would be in grade 1. We chose homeschooling because junior kindergarten was not a great fit for him, with the hope that we could enrol him in a private school or a public charter school for gifted children at an accelerated grade once he was 6. But he is just too far ahead academically that we chose to continue homeschooling so that we can continue to meet his unique academic, social, and emotional needs.

So without further ado, here is what our 2018-2019 homeschool year looked like:

Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth Physical Science

Science is always our biggest struggle because it is by far my son’s favourite subject and my weakest. This is why we chose to swallow the large price tag of a CTY course. I also wanted to have some sort of piece of paper that I can point to and say without a doubt my kid is at this grade level (hello, imposter syndrome), which I now have in the form of a transcript.

My son loved the online course. He found the content engaging and especially loved the simulations. He also enjoyed the independence factor of sitting down to the computer each day and knowing exactly what he needed to do without any help from me.

CTY’s courses are not cheap, and from what I’ve heard their courseware is the same as other less expensive options but for us the biggest pro was age. Because they work with talented youth, they are understanding of students working above grade level. Just speaking with the amazing educators and administrators through email was such an amazing experience as a parent because they get it. 

Art of Problem Solving Prealgebra

Art of Problem Solving is definitely the math curriculum for high achieving math kids whose parents want them to learn to think in complex ways. My son loved Beast Academy 3, but when I purchased Beast Academy 4 I realized that his math skills were needing something more. He enjoys reading through the guidebooks, so we’ll most likely purchase 5 and 6 without the workbooks for fun, but for “school” we’ve been working through AOPS Prealgebra with the odd unit from AOPS Introduction to Number Theory intermixed since that’s my son’s favourite kind of math. I am not a math person, but luckily the explanations are thorough enough that if my son does have a problem, I can still help him find the solution.

Coding

My son loves to code and I have to admit, I think it’s going to be a necessary skill for our kids when they’re adults. There are luckily some great coding books and toys that we love. My son’s birthday and Christmas money usually go towards purchasing himself something he can code so we have LEGO WeDo (we’re in Canada so we purchased from Spectrum Nasco), a Kano, and a BB8 Sphero. Phew. They all get quite a lot of use, though, and the possibilities are almost endless. He also loves the Coding Games books by DK. He’s dabbled in both Scratch and Python and honestly, I much prefer him building video games than just playing them!

Minimus Latin

While a grammar curriculum just wasn’t sticking for us this year, I did want my kiddo to have some language-based program. With the abundance of latin terms in Harry Potter and in science, my kid was pretty willing to give latin a try.

Minimus Latin is a comic book style resource that’s appropriate for young kiddos, but I have read a few complaints that it’s not a stand-alone curriculum. I do keep a pronunciation guide in the front of our notebook and we have watched a few of the Great Courses that introduce Latin through our library’s Hoopla app but for the most part my kiddo has been able to put the pieces together with little issue. For me the important thing is that he is getting language practice; we can always refine it in the future. And honestly, his grammar is better than a lot of adults that I know, so I’m not too worried about it just yet.

Field Trips

I think a huge part of schooling is getting out of the house and having experiences, whether it’s just a trip to the library or a huge family vacation. Right now we live about an hour and a half from Toronto (although it’s often more like two hours or more with traffic these days) so large museums are a big trip for us. We did however have an Ontario Science Centre pass which was a fabulous purchase! We also love the Royal Ontario Museum and finally visited the adorable Willoughby Museum on the Niagara river. We also spent six days in Iceland which was the trip of a lifetime!

Other stuff

This year we didn’t do a strict scheduling of our school days. I did try to plan initially but our life was just too chaotic to make it stick. My daily requirements have always been a little science, a little math, lots of books, lots of fresh air, and a bit of music. It seems to work well for us and I feel like my kiddo is happiest when he’s having all of those different needs met. We read so many fantastic novels and picture books. Silly stories were written. Fantastically fancy poetry tea times were savoured. We took hikes and had play dates and rode our bikes all around town. My kiddo was in swimming lessons and took karate, and also did a number of programs at our local library.

This year was a great introduction into a slightly more structured homeschool day with real curriculum and coursework, though I’m so glad we took our time with it and still allowed for some flexibility. It was fabulous watching my kiddo’s skills develop– things like handwriting even though I eventually said screw it to the handwriting books. Of course, I’ll probably go back to them now that I wrote that.

I learned that my son thrives when he can teach himself, and while he still wants me near, he likes his independence. I also learned that his growth happens in spurts just the same as always; one day I’ll be banging my head against the table trying to explain a topic and the next morning he’ll have mastered it better than me. That’s just the way it goes. I’ve learned to plan loose, flexible plans, like sticky note activities inside the text book so that it’s there waiting for me when we get there and not lost to my abandoned planner. I’m also learning a lot about myself, and becoming more comfortable with this path that we are on.

I guess with this year behind me that only means it’s time to start thinking about what next year might bring!

What worked for you in your homeschool this year? What didn’t?

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