I thought I lived a sustainable life until I started my Zero Waste journey, and this blog, in 2016 but God was I clueless. I didn’t even realise single-use coffee cups weren’t recyclable or compostable and I had been heavily involved in an ‘environmental’ political party for 4 years at that stage! So needless to say there’s been quite a bit of adjusting over the past few years, both for me and my family.
Adjusting to change is always easier for the changer than the change, which in my case are my husband and my two kids, aged 13 and 11. My husband has adopted most aspects of sustainable living and he gets why it’s so important but wouldn’t be as strict about avoiding plastic and new goods as I am.
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My kids love the idea of helping the environment and protecting animals as long as it doesn’t mean buying less toys, or eating less chocolate, crisps or junk food. It’s not like they got tonnes of this stuff in the first place but we have reduced our consumption of everything quite dramatically, so understandably they can be a bit miffed at the change at times.
My 13 year old daughter teases me about how annoying it is to have a mum that ‘hates plastic’. She’s half-joking but I know she’d love nothing more than to spend an afternoon wandering around the mecca of consumerism that is Dundrum Shopping centre buying ‘stuff’ with me. This jibe hits at the heart a little but she’s coming around to the idea of charity shopping with a big sweet treat in an independently owned cafe at the end as an alternative.
When I was younger I didn’t really worry about societal norms and their impact on me. If I didn’t like a particular aspect of it I just avoided it and did my own thing. When I had kids I realised just how much influence society has on your child, particularly after the toddler years.
When your child is little you can choose to only provide organic clothing and well-balanced organic meals, manage their TV / screen viewing habits, and provide them with toxin-free educational toys. Then your child goes to school and doesn’t understand why they don’t get to watch the shows their friends do or eat in McDonalds every Friday.
As a parent you have a choice, you either give a hard ‘NO’ and continue on your merry way or you compromise so your child has some relate-able experiences to share with their peers. We decided to restrict choice to sustainable items for most of the time while allowing some junk food, new plastic toys and fast fashion items at pre-agreed times. I don’t know if this is the right way to do it but who does? I just figure if I lay down the law hard I’ll end up junk-food obsessed teenagers that spend every penny on imported, toxic, disposable crap.
If you think our way of parenting sustainably is of interest to you here’s how we’ve tackled some aspects of it.
Breakfast – I’m starting on a negative note here because my kids’ breakfasts are the most unsustainable (and unhealthy) meals in my kids’ diets; its Multi Grain Hoops from Aldi. I made the mistake of buying these when the kids were little and it’s been near impossible to wean them off it. I tried making granola to replace it but the time involved to make enough for a family was unsustainable so I knocked that on the head. When the busy gardening season slows down I’m going to put time into making porridge and pancakes ahead of time and see if I can tempt them away from these plastic-wrapped, palm-oil containing, artificial devil hoops.
Lunches – My kids are very fussy eaters with very limited food tastes so lunch is just sandwiches (unwrapped), homemade vegan muffins, fruit and crackers and a bottle of tap water. Unfortunately the crackers come wrapped in plastic and contain palm-oil – supposedly sustainable, but undesirable all the same. The sandwiches are made with frozen bread, which keeps the filling chilled and defrosts by lunchtime. My kids use plastic lunchboxes that I bought before we moved to zero waste. If they need replacing I’ll do so with stainless steel lunchboxes by Made or Slice of Green, two brands I’ve bought and liked. I’ve seen great interest in bamboo lunchboxes, which look very pretty. I’ve decided not to buy these because they aren’t very durable, are made from an material grown far away from these shores, and unknown to many, are lined or bound with plastic.
Their drink bottles are stainless steel with replaceable plastic caps. I bought one at the Eden Project in Cornwall, and another one by One Green Bottle from Keep it Green. We also love Kleen Kanteen, particularly the sports cap, which is strawless.
Dinners – The easiest way to eat sustainably is to cook from scratch with 100% locally grown plant-based organic food, or as close to that as you can get. Processed food is generally overly-package, imported and made with palm oil. We cook dinners from scratch, i.e. base ingredients like fruit, veg, dairy, meat and grains, 97% of the time.
The other 3% is made up of birthday celebrations etc and processed vegetarian food. We’ve such a long list of food dislikes in our house (19 in total) that it just isn’t possible to cook many vegetarian meals from scratch so we compromise we buy ‘meatless’ sausages and pastries etc from the Linda McCartney range to help us cut down on our meat intake. This range of frozen food comes in plastic-free cardboard containers (most frozen food boxes are lined or impregnated with plastic) but it does contain palm oil, albeit sustainably sourced. We also eat some Quorn items, although as with all meat-free ranges the taste profile is hit and miss. Currently we like their hot and spicy burgers. I’m hoping that as the kids mature the list of food dislikes will reduce and we’ll be able to improve on our three vegetarian but for now that’s our best and it’ll just have to do.
Processed / Junk Food – Both of my kids have birthdays in winter so in the summer we do Sisters’ Day and Brothers’ Day. On these days and their birthdays my kids are allowed to pick the day’s menu, and guess what? It aint salad that they pick! This usually satisfies their yearning for processed junk for a while.
If we do visit a fast food joint I bring our own reusable cutlery, cups and straws, plus a jar of ketchup so we can avoid the single-use sauce sachets. Often I won’t buy drinks, primarily because they’re just such bad value, so we drink from our own reusable water bottles instead. If I do get soda I’ll ask to have it put into our own reusable cups. Of all the fast food outlets we visited Zambrero seems to one of the best social goals, to end world hunger by donating a meal to children in need for every meal bought in their restaurants. Wherever we eat we take all compostable packaging home with us to put in our brown bin unless the venue provides compostable bins.
Food waste – This is unavoidable with kids but I find it lessens as they age. When they were younger I used to put a plastic sheet under the chair to catch dropped food, which I would represented at the next meal time. I would also keep leftovers from snacks and re-present them at the next meal to encourage my kids to only ask for snacks when they were hungry enough to eat all of it. We also limit snacking so that they’re hungry enough for dinner. Knowing how close to mealtimes you can give snacks is a bit of trial and error and it changes as they grow but eventually it settles down into a fairly regular predictable pattern. We also give small food portions at meal times with the invitation to take ‘seconds’ if they’re still hungry. This means that leftover food stays ‘clean’ and can be re-heated on other days or made into soup or used in salads.
Sweets & Treats – My kids are limited to one treat a day, which some might think too much, but it works for us. I try to bake when I’m not to busy to give them a ‘healthier’ option, otherwise they both have a treat jar that gets topped up at Hallowe’en, Christmas and Easter with gifts from neighbours, Santa and family respectively. If it runs low during the year the kids have to buy treats from their own pocket-money. This is my way of helping them to value what they eat and not to consume it mindlessly. I try to steer them towards less harmful options by supplementing their stash with organic chocolate or vegan jellies whenever I find them but they’re near on impossible for me to get regularly enough to switch to them exclusively. If you’re interested I have listed places that I’ve sourced package-free sweets from on my Map of Eco Businesses
When we’re out and about and due a treat I try to buy cakes in cafes with proper plates and cutlery and always ask for no disposables when ordering. Treats on the go includes buns from a bakery in our own reusable cotton bags, ice cream in cones – never tubs, making sure to ask for no plastic spoon when ordering, or a fizzy drink (soda) in aluminium cans – never plastic bottles.
General Food Tip – Having learnt the hard way I think it’s much easier not to start giving kids processed food like rice cakes, crackers and breakfast cereal than wean them off them. I’ve noticed that my kids are opening up new things as time goes on so hopefully I’ll be able to stop buying stuff like this in the near future.
When the kids were younger I used to buy a lot of toys on sale, thinking I was so clever. Looking at all the clutter now makes me regret that choice so much. I also regret all the VOC’s those new toys brought into our home.
Rehoming Toys – I used to be able to re-home unused toys through freecycle pages or charity shops without my kids noticing when they were toddlers but now they’re older it’s impossible, resulting in way too many toys in our home. I know I could insist on clearing stuff out but my kids are very attached to their stuff and it’d break their hearts. I’m also beginning to realise that childhood has phases and that although I’m not able to syphon off un-used toys easily at the moment it’s only a matter of time before my kids move on from toys completely and then I’ll be able to rehome them to children who’ll appreciate them. I’ve learnt my lesson!
Toy Shopping – When the kids were younger we used to ‘visit’ toys in toy shops for a free play. Again we thought we were being clever but in reality the more you spend in these stores the more you end up being tempted and the more you buy. Now we don’t shop for recreational reasons at all and will only visit toy shops if someone has decided they want a specific toy, and has the money to pay for it, or it’s their birthday. My husband I stick to the same rule we don’t engage in any recreational shopping ourselves either, something my own mother cannot comprehend!
Christmas – Santa still buys new toys, albeit a reasonably small amount, because it’s currently impossible for him to source specific things second-hand. My husband and I supplement Santa’s gifts with a treasure box of second-hand items I source in charity shops over the previous months. This pre-loved treasure box has become a huge hit with our kids and frequently their favourite Christmas gift has come from it. Birthday presents from us to our kids are generally second-hand too, unless they want a specific toy that’s only available new.
Gifts – I found it impossible to wean family members off buying my kids physical gifts and to be honest it’s made me dread Christmas now. I’ve tried to suggest relatives give money or experiences instead but they want to see my kids to get a physical gift from them. Sometimes I can turn this into something useful like pyjamas but getting 100% natural fibre ones is becoming increasingly difficult. The other way to avoid mass-produced plastic tat is to do the shopping yourself and I’ve written up a blog post on sustainable ethical toys to that end. None of the items in that blog post suit my kids’ ages or interests so I source pre-loved items on cex.ie (video games), adverts.ie and in charity shops. This puts a huge amount of work on me and I can’t always find a second-hand option but it’s the best option available to me at the moment. I have to admit to not always telling relatives that the gift I’ve sourced was second-hand. What they don’t know and all that …….. My kids are happy enough to receive second-hand toys, especially as they get to pocket any savings made by doing so.
In this era of abundance my kids frequently get money from their 4 grandparents throughout the year. I siphon some of this off into their savings accounts but it means they always have money to spend on stuff. I used to encourage them to buy in charity shops instead of toys shops but your kids have to disciplined enough not to buy breakable crap for you not to end up with more waste. I got around this by buying small toys for them as I see them in charity shops. If they like what I’ve bought they can reimburse me for the cost of them. If they don’t want I’ll just redonate the item back to the charity shop. It might sound mean to get your kids to buy toys from your but money burns a hole in my kids’ pockets and so rather than say no to spending outright I try to limit the damage their spending does by directing it down less harmful routes.
Recently I’ve had some success getting my kids to spend their money on experiences over physical toys. It seems that as they grow the draw of physical toys wanes, which is the time to sweep in with tickets to a show, convention, exhibition or afternoon tea with a parent. Hopefully this trend continues.
Parties – On the invite to my son’s last birthday part we put a note saying ‘Santa was very generous this Christmas so if you wanted give a small cash gift of €5 instead of a physical present that would be wonderful. If you’d prefer to give a physical gift that’s cool too’. We got a few physical presents and some vouchers but most people gave a cash gift of €5 or more, which was great. I put some of the money into my son’s savings account and allowed him to spend the vouchers on a new toy. We’ve found this a great way to cut down on the amount of plastic tat from parties. I’ve a blog post on Eco Birthday Parties for kids in the pipeline, where I’ll expand on this idea.
And when my kids go to other kids’ parties I don’t bother with physical gifts and give cash instead.
99% of my kids clothes are from charity shops, with a few hand-me down from friends and relatives. My daughter has started to get interested in clothing and would love nothing more than to head down to H&M with me buy a load of badly made, fast-fashion items complete with glitter and plastic sequins. She knows that’s not going to happen and is happy enough to go charity shopping with me instead but I feel kinda bad that she’s missing out on an experience that most of her friends get regularly. Then again, maybe I’m saving her from a lifetime of habitual shopping to fill a void!
If you would prefer to buy new clothes then check out my blog post on sustainable ethical kids clothing brands.
To learn how I avoid waste when it comes to school stuff check out my previous post on sustainable ethical school supplies
Outside the house I’m always looking for things to do with the kids that don’t generate a lot of waste, don’t exploit animals and aren’t consumption focused – it’s harder than you’d think. We used to visit the zoos, aquariums and farm attractions but we’ve grown increasingly uneasy about the ethics of most of these places and now will only visit places run by charities that care for injured animals that can’t be released back into the wild.
I think this post with 99 fantastic places to go with kids has some great ideas in it, as does this list of steam train journeys for kids. A lot of the suggestions wouldn’t interest my kids as they aren’t into sport or outdoor activities so here’s a list of some things we’ve enjoyed as a family.
- Kite Festival – just avoid the plastic kite making workshop
- Cool Planet Experience – great interactive way to learn about climate change
- Token – retro video game arcade in Dublin 8 (see photo above). Since I published the post I’ve learned that due to poor parenting by some customers Token have decided to be an over 18s venue only, unless you book out the whole venue. Way to go bad parents, ruining it for the rest of us!
- Natural History Museum – free impressive museum with stuffed animals. Morbid but interesting.
- Archaeology Museum – fabulous displays of bones close to the centre of town
- Decorative Arts Museum – fabulous displays of planes, boats (marine museum), costumes in a great setting with lots of places to run around.
- Outdoor Movies in Public Parks
- Dublin Bay Biosphere
- Dublin City Farm in Clontarf, Dublin 5
- Maker Festival run by Dublin City Council in Merrion Sq annually as part of the Festival of Curiosity – great for creative kids
- City Spectacular Festival by Dublin City Council in Merrion Sq annually – fabulous street performers and lots of activities for kids
- Steam Train Journeys with the Railway Preservation Society
Other informal activities that we enjoy
- flying kites in a park
- bird watching
- picking fruit at a ‘pick your own’ farm
- cloud gazing
- paddling / swimming in the sea
- visiting botanic gardens
- going foraging for food (google forage tours and your county)
- visiting the library
- seeking out street art
- feeding wild ducks peas and lettuce
- watching butterflies
- spotting bees
- going to the cinema
- going to pantomimes
- going out to dinner
- decorating cupcakes or cookies
And finally two ideas I’m going to do this summer
My kids are now of an age when they refuse to read any educational books that I might suggest. If your children are more compliant then perhaps you could introduce them to some of the following books recommended by a UK-based environmentalist, teacher and mum Rachel Carson, and some posters in FB groups I’m in.
- What does it mean to be Green?
- Someone Swallowed Stanley
- Marley’s Tangled Tale
- Duffy’s Lucky Escape
- The Journey Home
- Rubbish Monster Thing
- A Forest
- The Lorax
- A Secret Place
- Surprising Sharks
- My Green Day
- The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone
- Carbon Monster
- Footpath Flowers
- The Tree
- The Giving Tree
- The Tatrum that Saved the World
- T-Veg (a pro-plant eating book)
- Tyrannosaurus Drip (a pro-plant eating book)
- Herb, the vegetarian Dragon (a pro-plant eating book)
You’ll find another excellent list of books to inspire kids to protect the planet on the Australian blogger’s website The Rouge Ginger, and another list of 25 books to teach kids about caring for the environment from the Huffington Post.
I’ve linked most of these books to pages on the website Goodread for handiness but please consider borrowing them from your library or buying them second-hand from websites Better World Books or Oxfam
A bit dark but necessary none the less, there is a list of books to help kids come to terms with the climate crisis recommended on the Guardian website.
If your kid is really into magazines check out Eco Kids Planet. It’s a really nicely produced magazine that doesn’t come with all that plastic nonsense stuff on the front of it.
Our kids loooooveee movies, particularly animated ones so this is a great way to impart the message of sustainability without preaching. Our favourite movies with a sustainable slant to them include
- The Lorax
- Wall E
- Happy Feet
- Over the Hedge
- Big Foot Family (quite anti-oil)
- Missing Link
- Tomorrowland (they’re too young for this just yet)
- Avatar (and this one!)
For additional titles check out this very comprehensive list of environmental movies, which you can sort by age.
Shampoo wise we use refills of Faith in Nature. I tried shampoo bars but they didn’t work for us.
Our toothpaste is the Tesco own-brand toothpaste for 55cent. I buy this because homemade recipes didn’t work for us, we don’t like brands that contain coconut oil or bicarbonate of soda and this brand came out better than Colgate in tests.
If you’re in search of other toiletries check out my blog post on natural toxin-free skincare, i’s mostly geared towards adults but given the low-toxin nature of the brands a lot of the products are suitable for babies and children too. Alternatively you’ll find a range of children specific products on offer by etailers listed on my blog post on Maternity and Baby Gear.
Another staple of parenting life is bubble bath, which unfortunately is really only possible with products that contain SLS, which research has shown to be damaging to marine life. You can buy a package free bubble bath bar from Lush but it does contain SLS. A less damaging alternative are bath bombs but most shop-bought versions have nasty chemicals so I found a recipe for non-toxic homemade bath bombs from brit.co (see photo above) and if you’re sensitive to citric acid you can use this alternative recipe from Red Ted Art
Not quite toiletries but essential when you’ve kids are plasters. The run of the mill ones in stores are plastic but if you want something biodegradable You’ve two options. Firstly there is the Australian brand of organic bamboo plasters, Patch or the European made brand of organic cotton ones by Organii. A few zero waste stores and Holland and Barrett sell plasters by Patch and UK based Ethical Superstore sell Organii.
Some of you may baulk at the idea of letting your children wear make-up or nail varnish but I’m not here to judge. Whatever works for you family is fine by me. My 11-year-old daughter isn’t interested in make-up yet but if she does want some I’ll be buying her some from My list of toxin-free make up brands. Here are two brands specifically for children.
The Irish brand Make up for Kate offers brightly coloured non-toxic, paraben free, products with some organic ingredients and with no artificial colours. Unfortunately most of the packaging appears to be plastic.
My daughter used to be interested in nail varnish but not any more. If she was I’d be plumbing for this 4 ingredient nail varnish by piggy paint, which is free from endocrine-disrupting chemicals, like TPHP. You set the nailvarnish with a hairdryer and, once dry, is said to last just as long as regular nailvarnish. You can buy online from the website above, or McCartan’s Pharmacy, Sutton Cross, Dublin 13 or from jiminy.ie online or at one of the markets that they visit regularly.
Nailmatic is a kid friendly water based nail paint made in France and free of phthalates, formaldeyhyde, toluene, fragrance and nano-particles. It also just washes off with water so best for very small kids that don’t want to wear it for very long. We bought some in a charity shop and sure enough it does wash off with water. I would avoid the ones with glitter, after all who wants to washing bits of plastic down the drain! You can buy it in Mira Mira in D2.
Kids get a lot of free stuff from lollypops to stickers to balloons and they love it. Even if they’re not mad about the object they love the fact it’s free. I started off by bribing (yes i’m not above doing this) my kids not to take the freebie by promising them some chocolate buttons instead. It works most of the time. Now they’re older they’re starting to saw no themselves. I was so proud of my daughter for turning down a free polyester (plastic) backpack from school saying ‘No thanks. My mum’s a zero waster and doesn’t like plastic’
I’m a big fan of consequences as a parenting method. We don’t call them rewards or punishments because their function is to remind us of the better choices not to punish or reward us when we get things wrong or right. Interestingly giving stuff as rewards or removing stuff as punishment has been shown to make kids more materialistic, so focus on experiences or privileges instead. Research has also shown that materialism is reduced in kids that keep a gratitude journal.
One last thing ….
Before I sign off I just want to talk about the root of a lot of issues with kids and sustainability; advertising. To be honest my kids desire for lots and lots of stuff would completely disappear if ads did too. When they were younger and only watched ad-free Cbeebies there wasn’t a problem. When they outgrew this station and started to watch Nickleodeon or Pop or similar channels they were bombarded with ads. This was something I was completely unprepared for. It’s hard enough for adults to resist buying stuff that promoted on TV and online, what hope have kids go? We limit our kids screen time and that’s helped but it’s impossible to eradicate the issue without banning screens completely, and that’s just not something we’re willing to do. If you’re a family that are more power to you.
So having decided not to eliminate screens complete our approach is to talk about ads critically as they appear on screen. For example when an ad for a useless or polluting toy comes up I might ponder aloud as to whether it’s any good, saying it doesn’t look that exciting and would probably break easily. Similarly if an ad for cleaning products comes up – which proliferate kids TV for some reason – I question why people are willingly filling their homes with chemicals. It’s much harder to do this when kids move onto tablets because it’s a private activity – although we do check search histories – so if you want your kids to be ad savvy start the conversation when they’re at the age of watching them on TV.
Anyway, hope some of that information is useful to you and helps you navigate sustainable parenting in this age of mass consumerism.
Have a great week.