“What's in this book could change the trajectory of children's health.” Those words were spoken by former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond, M.D., in 2007, shortly after the release of Raising Baby Green, the best-selling book written by Alan Greene, M.D., a pediatrician in Danville, CA, and one of the first (and most prominent) voices in the green-baby movement. So we asked the aptly named doctor to pick the top natural and eco-friendly ideas, breakthroughs, services, and products for everyday families. (You know who you are: You want to do right by your kids, but you're not ready to use a spruce as a loofah.)
1. Rated G (for green): Set in a swaying 3-D underwater world, the animated hit Bubble Guppies on Nick Jr. encourages kids to be active (the characters regularly ask viewers to “Get up and dance!” or “Go outside!”) and learn about bettering their world. The “Boy Meets Squirrel” episode may be the best programming I've seen about recycling and the environment.
3. Baby-bottle back track: In my universe, this was one of the most dramatic announcements of the past year: Last October a coalition of companies that produce bisphenol-A (BPA) asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to eliminate rules that allow the chemical to be used in baby bottles and sippy cups. Think about that: The manufacturers of BPA want the FDA to ban BPA. Just five years ago, BPA was found in most baby bottles; now it's almost impossible to find. This is great news, but there's more work to be done. Next stop: removing it from canned goods.
4. A really smart plug: Home appliances, televisions, lights left on overnight to keep monsters at bay: Families use a lot of energy. So I'm happy that smart plugs are becoming more common. Smart plugs go into regular home outlets and show you where your real energy costs are so you can adjust your usage accordingly. The Thinkeco modlet ($50; themodlet.com) is an easy plug-and-play option.
5. Cool your nest: The world's first learning thermostat is my favorite new gadget. In a typical home, the thermostat controls about 50 percent of the energy bill. Keeping it programmed just right could save your family hundreds of dollars—and lots of wasted energy. Enter Nest: a thermostat that learns your schedule (when you're asleep or away from home) and programs itself. You can even change the settings from your smartphone. Simple to use, with a sleek, modern design, Nest may do for heating and cooling what the iPod did for music. ($249; nest.com)
6. Save the planet in the checkout line: Reusable grocery bags are finally becoming mainstream. And they're worth it! Of the more than 10 million pieces of garbage picked up on ocean beaches on Coastal Cleanup Day 2009, more than 1.1 million were plastic bags (second only to cigarette butts). Families are big contributors: The average household accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store. Kicking the single-use-bag habit together can make a big impact. Check out ChicoBag's line of Vita shopping bags, as well as its Produce Stand line, which eliminates the need for single-use, disposable produce bags (chicobag.com). Envirosax (shown above, left and center) are an inexpensive, eye-catching option (envirosax.com).1.1 millionplastic bags wasted yearly in the U.S.A.
7. So long, Food Pyramid: The USDA's iconic triangular guide to family feeding recommendations is officially gone. And thank goodness! It's been replaced by a colorful plate that emphasizes making half of your child's meal fruits and vegetables. This new school of thought will produce healthier kids and a healthier planet. Get started at choose myplate.gov. The site is loaded with cool tools, including the Food-a-pedia, which offers nutritional information on 8,000 foods and allows you to compare foods side by side.
8. Kids in the kitchen: Thanks in part to Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, kids are spending more time in the kitchen. Two of my favorite kids' cookbooks are Mollie Katzen's Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers & Up (try the Chewy Energy Circles or the Polka Dot Rice) and Salad People and More Real Recipes. For an online resource, don't miss spatulatta.com; sisters Belle and Liv Gerasole have 350 step-by-step video recipes that teach kids how to cook. At age 8, Liv became the only single-digit winner on the planet of a James Beard Award. (She shared the award with Belle, who was 10.)
9. Healthy eats on aisle five: Want to know how natural that breakfast cereal is? Use the GoodGuide app (free). Scan any product with a bar code, and find out how green it is while shopping. The app offers health, environmental, and social-performance ratings for more than 130,000 food, personal care, and household products. Customize settings to prioritize the issues you're most concerned about.
10. All-natural homemade treats…but not what you think: Etsy is a great website to find—or sell—handmade or vintage items. It's a marketplace for small businesses (many of them momtrepreneurs working from home) aimed at changing commerce to make it more fair, sustainable, and fun. And there is a vibrant green community within Etsy: Find these vendors by using tags such as “recycled,” “upcycled,” “repurposed,” and, of course, “eco-friendly” and “organic.”
11. Dishwashers that save energy—and the family budget: One of the most buzzed-about trends at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show was smart appliances that tell you the least expensive times to cook or clean. Smart refrigerators monitor daily use and climatic conditions, and adjust the temperature accordingly to keep foods fresh. I'm particularly impressed by GE's Brillion series of appliances. To avoid those energy-zapping wash cycles, the Brillion washer (below), with the help of your home's smart meter, runs during low-cost hours. You can even monitor the appliances' energy usage from an iPhone app. (geappliances.com)
12. My new favorite holiday: Food Day (October 24; foodday.org) celebrates healthy food produced in a sustainable, humane way. Last year there were 2,300 events across 50 states, including an “eat-in” in Times Square with Mario Batali. For adults, it's about supporting “real food” policy. (Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree used Food Day 2011 to announce a bill that assists small and midsize farms.) For children, it's about their health and well-being. A typical child's diet commonly increases the waistline and blood pressure, and puts the arteries on the road to heart disease. Food Day is helping change that.2,300 Food Day events across 50 states!
13. When something's fishy: Developed by the good people at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch is a simple app (free; for the iPhone and Android) that lets you find restaurants and markets that sell sustainable seafood and sushi that's caught or farmed in ways that are good for the oceans. (It uses the GPS in your phone to find the closest options.) And it lets you share the locations with others and contribute your own finds. I keep it loaded on my iPhone.
14. Ready, set, game!: Video games used to give only our thumbs a workout. Now they're getting gamers up off the sofa and encouraging the movement our bodies were designed for. This trend started with Wii and Microsoft Kinect. Coming soon is Wii U (shown above), a new console with a controller that allows movement. It's due later this year.
15. Natural nursery: As parents, we can't control the whole environment, but we can upgrade the environment at home, especially what goes in, on, and near our little ones. I've recently discovered Babyganics (babyganics.com), a line of natural cleaning products, baby wipes, and other baby products. Its Foamin' Fun Shampoo & Body Wash will be a big hit at bathtime, I promise. For bathrooms and kitchens, try Mrs. Meyer's all-purpose cleaners and dish soaps, which trade traditional cleaning ingredients—ammonia, chlorine, parabens, and phosphates—for natural essential oils. (mrsmeyers.com)
16. Crowd-source your diet: The app I'm using most right now is The Eatery (free). Simply snap pictures of everything you eat, and upload them. Others rate the healthiness of your meals; you rate other people's. (In under one year, the app has surpassed 2 million food ratings.) The Eatery uses the data to track eating habits, and not just your own. For example, in New York City, people eat the worst in the Financial District; as they move uptown, their eating habits get better. I find myself making better choices.The Eatery app has become hugely popular: In one year, users have added 2 million food ratings.
17. The new “share” button: Websites dedicated to lending and swapping have become increasingly prevalent. Freecycle, Neigh Borrow, and Zilok make it easy to find whatever you need—from high chairs to pack 'n plays to tricycles—in your area. It's not only about saving money but about reducing waste as well.