Fat? Yes! Studies tell us we are far more likely to be overweight or obese than our parents were 30 years ago, and not so much because we are less active (according to one recent study, on average we actually get more exercise than our parents did)—but due to the extra 500 calories a day (350 calories for kids) we consume on average compared to previous generations. A lot of those excess cals come in the form of sweetened beverages. Trading them in for low- or no-cal drinks you make at home is a great way to improve your family’s health, shed a few pounds pretty easily, save some serious green, and reduce your impact on our planet.
Tasty, Low-Cost Quenchers
Cutting back on sodas and other ready-to-drink beverages doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a refreshing beverage. There are many possibilities:
Water. It’s hard to get more basic than this. But please don’t buy bottled water—it’s hard on the environment, and it costs hundreds of times more than the stuff that runs out of your kitchen tap. Many brands are just bottled municipal tap water (sometimes not even filtered). Instead, buy in a good stainless steel bottle to fill for on-the-go convenience; keep a glass jug full of it in the fridge (many people prefer it very cold), and serve it at meals and with snacks to your kids. If your water doesn’t taste good, or you are worried about contaminants, invest in a water filter.
Flavored water. OK, maybe you or your kids think water is kind of boring. If so, don’t worry. It’s pretty simple to give water a little zip without adding much in the way of calories. A squeeze of lemon or lime is a an instant lift. If you don’t have any other use for the whole fruit—such as simmering the peels on the stovetop when you need to freshen the air in your house—try using bottled or dehydrated juice to save time and waste. One of my favorite products is called True Lime: It’s individual packets of dehydrated lime juice (the company also makes True Lemon and True Orange). My local supermarket stocks it, and you can buy it in bulk. Two packets in a tall glass of water give it the perfect zing.
Adding about a tablespoon of your favorite fruit juice per cup of water will add a mild flavor but not a lot of calories. So will about ¾ teaspoon of frozen fruit juice concentrate. Some frozen concentrates are actually soft enough to scoop out and use right out of the freezer (keep the unused portion frozen till you need it, so it stays flavorful). Or you can thaw the entire container and refreeze it in ice cube trays for easy access later on (pop the cubes into a freezer bag to keep them fresh).
If you plan ahead, you can make any number of tasty and refreshing flavored waters by putting fresh (or frozen) fruits, veggies, and herbs into a large glass jar (I have some half-gallon canning jars that are just right) and letting them steep in the fridge for at least 4 hours (or overnight). After they’ve steeped you strain out the solids. Bruise fresh herbs and slice/dice/mash the fruits and veggies to increase the flavor transfer.
Here are some great combos to get you started:
• half a cucumber, 1 inch fresh ginger root, ½ cup fresh mint
• half a cucumber, 1 lemon (including peel), 1 small orange (including peel)
• half a pink grapefruit (including peel), ½ cup fresh mint
• 1 cup cantaloupe or water melon
• ½ cup frozen fruit
If you like, you can add a little stevia (did you know you can grow this flavorful plant yourself? It is a tender perennial and quite easy to take care of) to make your flavored water taste sweeter. I prefer not to use artificial sugar substitutes, but they would be an option, too.
Iced tea. Unsweetened tea (you can use any black, green, or herbal tea) is a great thirst quencher, and provides a nice kick of antioxidants too. I make mine by putting 5 decaf black tea bags in a half-gallon glass jar and filling it with cold water. Sometimes I include a handful of fresh herbs (mint or lemon balm are good choices) for variety. Place the mixture in the sun for a few hours, and as the water warms up, the flavors will slowly infuse through it. When the taste is to your liking, remove the tea bags (or strain out loose leaves) and refrigerate.
Iced coffee. My mother was a huge fan of unsweetened iced coffee, something that wasn’t at all common in our area when I was growing up. I remember her ordering it in a diner once, and the waitress looked puzzled. Mom explained that she just wanted plain coffee out of the pot, with ice added. With raised eyebrows the waitress summoned the cook to the window, and they held a whispered conference, with the cook peering out over her shoulder at my mom with an odd expression on his face. A minute later the waitress appeared carrying a cup and saucer, the cup full of coffee…with two lonely ice cubes wasting away in it. My mother, trying so hard not to laugh out loud she couldn’t speak, drank the lukewarm coffee without comment. But seriously, really cold coffee is a very refreshing beverage. Try it in a tall glass, with a little cream or milk, if you like.
Sparkling water. For me, the very best cold drink when I’m really thirsty is sparkling water, aka seltzer, aka soda water. You can buy it plain or flavored, but it is very simple to make your own at home, which will cost you less in the long run and give you control over what goes into it. Plus, you are not using scads of plastic bottles or water that’s been shipped from who knows where. To make your own seltzer you will need a device called a carbonator. I use the SodaStream, which will turn about 110 liters of plain cold water into the best-tasting seltzer you’ve ever had—and for considerably less money per glass than even store-brand seltzer. The process uses no electricity: You just fill the special bottle with cold water, screw it onto the machine, and pump the button a few times to squirt gas from a refillable canister into the water—and voila! Seltzer. Some carbonators use individual carbon dioxide cartridges, but gauging from the prices I’ve checked, they won’t save you any money (compared to store-brand seltzer) and you will be stuck with the empty cartridges to recycle.
You can add any type of flavor you like to your seltzer—but only AFTER you carbonate the water, or you’ll have a huge mess as the various compounds react and form massive quantities of bubbles that are forced out of the pressure-overflow opening. My personal favorite when I come in from working outdoors on a hot afternoon is about 1 part pink grapefruit juice to 5 parts cold seltzer. Whew! I can feel the cold, juicy tingles just thinking about it!
Try these ideas, and let me know what your favorite natural, low-cal summertime thirst quenchers are!
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.