The one place in the home most in need of regular cleaning is the kitchen. Since the kitchen is also where we keep and prepare our food, and where some of the most expensive appliances we own reside, it pays to clean gently and with the right nontoxic products. Here we look at the chore of kitchen cleaning through green-colored glasses.

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Actress Kirstie Alley once shared on a TV talk show (was it Oprah?) that when she was just starting out, she made money cleaning houses. She was good at it. Word of mouth garnered her many clients. Her secret weapon? A bottle of cheap vodka.

Pour a little vodka on a damp sponge and wipe down cabinets, countertops, the refrigerator, and the sink and faucet. Bonus: Vodka sterilizes the sponge. A dilution of vodka in water makes a gentle, economical cleaning agent that is good to spray on glass and chrome. Wipe down for a sparkling shine!

Vodka is a valuable green cleaning agent so pure that you can actually drink it (cheers!). You wouldn't want to risk drinking any store-bought "green" cleaning solution no matter how nontoxic or pure it claims to be on the label. Plus, vodka is cheaper. At Ralphs supermarket, Four Freedoms Vodka is $9.99 for 1.75 liters (59 ounces), or about 17 cents per ounce. The Seventh Generation all-purpose cleaner, "a clean you can trust," is $5.49 for 23 ounces, or about 24 cents per ounce. And when you dilute the vodka with water, you stretch your dollar even more.

For stovetops, a 50-50 solution of vinegar and water makes a gentle, nontoxic cleaner recommended by such manufacturers as Frigidaire. And lest you think cleaning with vinegar will make the kitchen smell like you are dyeing Easter eggs, the odor dissipates quickly.

Speaking of odors, baking soda has embraced its reputation as a stink fighter. It says right on the box that it's not just for baking. If neglected greens in the crisper drawer or a particularly pungent imported cheese has left your refrigerator smelling like a gym shoe, baking soda will absorb the stench in three days or less. Just pour a cup of baking soda into a bowl and place it in the fridge close to where the odor originated—or put the whole box in there with the top removed.

The grease-dissolving power of baking soda lends itself well to oven cleaning. Conventional oven cleaners contain many chemicals that can irritate your lungs and burn your skin and eyes. No wonder the instructions say you should basically spray them and run away! The green way to clean your oven is with a paste made from one-half cup of baking soda and three tablespoons of water.

First, take out the oven racks. Then combine the baking soda and water in a bowl, and spread it onto all the dirty oven surfaces, whether glass or metal (don't apply to heating elements). Let the paste work its wonders for 15-20 minutes, then wipe it away with wet paper towels. If this did not do the trick, read about Arm & Hammer's heavy-duty method here.

Triumph of the machines! Today's dishwashers use less than 5 gallons of water for a full load. Given the flow of the average kitchen faucet, which is 2.2 gallons per minute, you would only have two minutes to wash those same dishes by hand without using more water.

   —Hand-washing dishes vs. dishwashers, MSN

If you grow your own herbs on the kitchen windowsill, not only are they tasty and convenient but tiny flies like to lay their eggs under them. Yet you can't zap them with poison because when you pluck herbs and throw them into a dish, you definitely don't want insecticide riding along!

You can find dubious tips online for spraying herbs with green solutions or trapping the flies with honey or dishes of vinegar, but our tip is so much simpler. Cover the soil with a layer of pebbles. Home and garden centers sell river pebbles by the carton. Full coverage keeps flies from returning. You may encounter one more hatching from the eggs that were laid before the pebbles were applied, but after that the pests will move on to less rocky pastures.

Another wonderous rock in the kitchen is charcoal. No, we aren't talking about grilling up some delicious barbecue. Charcoal is a topnotch odor killer. A little goes a long way. Has a bag of potatoes rotted down to mush in the back of the pantry? Did a child forget to cap the wintergreen mints, and now the smell permeates the cabinets? Put a handful of charcoal briquettes in an open box or bowl wherever you want to kill an odor, and it will be gone overnight.

The Kitchen Is the Heart of the Home

We have tackled the kitchen with safe, green cleaning tips and techniques. You probably have most of these items already, which saves money. The next time you walk down the cleaning aisle at the market, remember that you don't need to buy any laboratory formulas or overpriced agents to clean the heart of your home.

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