Saving the earth isn't always second nature. But there are simple things you can do to have an eco-friendly family--without losing your cool.

baby in recycling bin
Credit: Getty Images

Starting Out

Once upon a time, not too long ago, I shopped, cooked, and cleaned for myself. And I don't just mean myself, as in there was no one else in my family. I mean myself as if there was no one else in the world. I drove my car two blocks to buy overpriced coffee in a Styrofoam cup wrapped in a cardboard cozy. Cleaning my apartment meant spraying the entire place with disinfectant that I wiped up with a roll of paper towels while drinking bottled water and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. And recycling? Does nursing a raging hangover with day-old Chinese food count?

Then I got pregnant.

From the moment two pink lines appeared on a stick, I was catapulted from a bottled water-drinking chain-smoker to an organic-obsessed, "holistic"-Googling activist for my expanding belly and its tenant. I had never been so motivated to do so much for someone else. After kids came—two beautiful, energetic, hilarious, exhausting boys—I woke up every day with only one mission in mind: "I will create a pristine environment in which my children can play, learn, and grow." But despite having written Eco-Friendly Families (a book with ideas on how to save the environment), despite my best intentions, despite my enthusiasm and expertise, I felt like a big fat failure.

The solution, I thought, was to do more. I dug in, expecting more from myself and my family. And that led to the breaking point. One evening, instead of reminding my boys to conserve water when they brush their teeth, I stormed into the bathroom and shouted, "Turn off the damn water already! Don't you care about the polar bears!?"

I had gone from eco-menace to eco-maniac. Was this what going green had become? Blaming my toddler and preschooler for melting ice caps? Scaring my kids into turning off the water while they brush their teeth might get them to do it out of fear, but it won't inspire them to adopt this lifestyle. And, ultimately, that's the idea—to want to do this. If we view sustainable living as an enjoyable lifestyle, we will be more likely to stick to the program and help our planet.

The night I blamed my children for global warming, I went to bed realizing that I was making everyone, including myself, crazy. The key, it turns out, is not to do more. It is, simply, to do less, better. With that mantra still ringing in my ears the next morning, I set my sights on a kinder, gentler green mission. Instead of trying to carry the weight of the entire green movement on my shoulders, I would focus on making a handful of meaningful changes with the help of my children. And you can too.

1. Pre-cyle

While most of us know the value of recycling and participate in a curbside program, my family also embraces pre-cycling; meaning we actually consider the container before we buy it. My children love to point out overpackaged products, like plastic-wrapped cheese sticks and individual baggies of carrot sticks. I mean, have we really lost the ability to break down a big bag of carrots and then fill a smaller, reusable container that fits inside a lunch box? By limiting what comes into the house, we have limited what we have to put out on the curb.

Pre-cycling also made us aware of how much "stuff" we were mindlessly bringing into our home. I decided to make a concentrated to reuse what we already have on hand. We morphed things like cardboard egg cartons into 12 individual spiders, two long caterpillars, a craft organizer, and a seashell display case. Using what we have on hand has helped our pockets and the planet.

Be a Green Role Model
Credit: moodboard Photography/Veer

2. Bring Your Own Bag

To help my boys feel like they were making a difference, I gave them an important task, which addresses another major environmental issue: plastic bags. While I had happily invested in reusable bags, I kept leaving them behind when we went to the store! So I asked my kids to become my pint-size "No-Paper, No-Plastic Police," reminding me to pack the bags before we run errands. My "bag police" got so into their role that they wanted to get their friends on board. The next time we were invited to a birthday party, we wrapped the present in a canvas bag we decorated.

pouring water into glass
Credit: Robyn Lehr

3. Conserve Water

Many suggestions for conserving water, like running your dishwasher only when it's full, are geared toward adults. But there is an easy way to teach kids that every drop counts.

Take drinking glasses, for example. While I'm thankful my kids like to drink water, I can't stand the dozens of half-full glasses that end up inside the sink because everyone forgot whose was whose. With the average faucet flowing at about 3 to 5 gallons per minute, we were wasting 10 to 12 gallons of water a day with all this unnecessary washing.

To put an end to the pileup in the sink and better keep track of everyone's glass, we decorated plain wooden clothespins with each child's name and attach it to the rim of the glass they receive in the morning. At the end of the day, the kids turn in their glasses and clothespins so they can pin a fresh cup in the morning. Now we wash less and the kids play a part in saving water every day.

organic radishes
Credit: Kevin Miyazaki

4. Eat Better

A well-balanced diet used to mean not spilling my coffee. I have since come to understand that the food I feed my family is critical to emotional and physical well-being. Still, the choices can be overwhelming. Organic? Local? Gluten-sugar-fat-dairy-taste-free? After some dizzying deliberations, I decided to improve one thing at a time versus tackling our entire diet.

We spent one morning at a local farmers' market, where the kids chose a variety of fresh fruits, then headed home to compare apples and oranges (literally). I blindfolded the kids and set out a bowl with sliced fruit and a bowl of the single-serve fruit gummy snacks they love so much. After a taste test, the in-season fruit won hands down with my food critics and we began packing fresh fruit to have on the go.

The next week, my "Market Masters" set out to find new fruits and veggies and begged to play the same taste-test game.

Child turning off light switch
Credit: Ocean Photography/ Veer

5. Turn Off the Lights

Remembering to flip off the light switch when you leave a room is a skill that must be taught. Assign your child the role of "switch supervisor" and have him intermittently walk through the house, turning off any lights that aren't being used. Since lighting accounts for about 15 percent of a home's overall energy bill, your switch supervisor is making a valuable contribution to the earth and your household's bottom line. He can also alert an adult if electrical appliances, like hair dryers and cell phones, are not removed from the outlets when they aren't being used or are fully charged.

For extra incentive, allow the switch supervisor to fine energy-wasters and collect penalty pennies for their misuse of power. The accumulated funds can be put toward an eco-friendly purchase, such as programmable light timers or energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use about 75 percent less electricity than traditional bulbs.

There is more to do when it comes to helping the earth. There always will be. But for now, I can focus on creating a strong foundation for my kids and surrender any lofty aspirations. I trust our simple changes are enough to make a difference.

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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