Monday, 26 January 2015

Easy breakfast smoothie recipes

I don't know about you but I find January a really difficult month. It's the darkest, longest, coldest month of the year and a bit of an anti-climax after Christmas.  It's also a good time for making new year resolutions, and one of those for us has been to eat more healthily. After over-indulging in December we started the year feeling bloated, sluggish and generally meh.

So, one of the best things I've bought recently is our smoothie maker.  It's one of those where you make the smoothie in the plastic cup that you drink it from, so cuts down on the washing up which is always a good thing, and it means we can knock up a breakfast smoothie in a matter of minutes.

It's an easy way to get a couple of portions of our essential 5-a-day, and we use a variety of fruits and vegetables. Buying lots of fruit can be costly, but we've found that by keeping frozen or freeze dried fruits in the freezer (read more information here) we have a steady supply of berries which can be expensive if bought separately, and it makes the drinks nice and cold without using ice.

We didn't follow any recipes at first, and basically just chucked in a load of different fruits so it's been a bit of trial and error, but here's our favourites so far.

Berry smoothie
1 banana
cup of Frozen or freeze dried berries
half a cup of low-fat natural yoghurt
cup of skimmed milk
a squeeze of honey

We use a small cup to measure, although you can just adjust the ingredients according to taste. Break banana into pieces, put everything in and blend until smooth. It couldn't be easier.

Raspberry and pomegranate smoothie
100g raspberries
1 banana
125g low-fat natural yoghurt
300ml pomegranate juice

Put everything into the smoothie maker/blender and blitz until smooth. Drink, enjoy and feel virtuous!

You can find plenty of other recipes here.

After just a few weeks of drinking smoothies every morning we're already feeling the benefits - more energy, clearer skin and just feeling generally better.

Have you made any resolutions to be healthier? How are you getting on?

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Is pet insurance really worth it?

Tess the greyhound

If you own a dog one of things you have to think about is whether or not to take out pet insurance.

When we adopted Tess back in 2009 I decided to pay for pet insurance to cover any vets' bills for illness, accident and so on.  On her 10th birthday last year (because dog's have birthdays too!) I got a letter from the insurance company to say that - after steadily increasing in price each year - the premium was increasing by 100%. jumping from £24 to £49 a month.

I made a phone call to ask why the increase was so massive, and they said that as Tess was now an older dog the new premium reflected the likelihood of higher and more frequent vet bills from then on.  I suppose that makes sense, an older dog is going to need more medical attention, but I wondered if it was worth keeping her insured. I mean, it's an expensive do and you may never need to use it.

I spoke to a few fellow dog owners and some had their dogs insured and other didn't.  The ones who didn't have it thought it was worth taking their chances, and were going to cover any unexpected bills on either on their credit card or were saving a small amount each month in a separate bank account to cover the costs.  I considered doing that, but thought I might be tempted to 'dip in' to that pot of money if I was a bit short one month.  So I decided to shop around and asked for dog insurance recommendations on Twitter.

I got a couple of quotes - although some companies don't even bother to quote for dogs over the age of 8 - and luckily I found one who not only insure older dogs but the premiums were £25: it's still a lot of money, but much more palatable than the previously quoted £49.

A word of warning though, and I only found this out last week, if you change your insurance it's unlikely to pay cover the cost of treatments for any illness/condition that pre-dates the new insurance cover.   The annoying thing is that the insurance company might not tell you about that little loophole - sure it'll be in the small print, etc. but don't assume that you're covered.

So in our case any costs relating to Tessie's arthritis isn't covered by our new insurance because she's had it for years.

As it's turned out, we've practically lived at the vets' for the past few weeks as Tess has been very poorly, and as of yesterday the costs were standing at £947.00 and as she's still receiving treatments that sum will continue to rise. Yikes. The good news (if you can call it that) is that it's for a condition Tess hasn't previously had, so the insurance will cover it. In our case, it was definitely worth sticking with the insurance option.

If you have a dog, do you have insurance? If not, how to plan to cover the vet's bills?

Written in collaboration with Argos Pet Insurance.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Film reviews: Birdman, Taken 3, American Sniper, 20 Feet from Stardom

I treated myself to an Unlimited cinema ticket this month, so I've been to the cinema more times than usual. Here are my reviews of the films I've watched so far.


If there's a more original film out at the moment, I haven't seen it. Birdman is unlike any film I've seen before and I mean that in a good way. 

You're never quite sure where you are with it, as it slips between dream-like sequences (flying over and through the streets of New York) and claustrophic, intense scenes in the back-stage world of the theatre.

The previously underrated Michael Keaton is perfectly cast as Riggan Thompson, a faded Hollywood star of superhero films, who invests everything in a Broadway play.  Edward Norton is great as the cock-sure method actor who only shows doubts about his real life, and brings a bit of menace to the film. I don't know why but I always find him a bit scary.

The stunning cinematography and beautiful musical score are a sensory treat, and the ensemble cast including Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts, are all excellent.  

I'm not sure I fully understood what was going on sometimes to be honest, but I liked that it was so different from the normal Hollywood film, and I was still thinking about it days afterwards.

Nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Film, Best Actor (Michael Keaton) and Best Director.  

Taken 3

Everything you would expect is in the third installment of the Taken franchise. There are car chases, there are shoot-outs, there's Liam Neeson escaping from impossible situations and threatening to kill people in that low gravelly voice. It's all there, so if that's what you like then grab your popcorn and watch it.

It isn't as good as the first Taken film, but isn't as bad as Taken 2, which was diabolically bad.  Some of the dialogue is awful, the acting pretty corny at the beginning of the film, and the plot has more holes in it than a string vest, but if you enjoyed the first two Taken films, you'll enjoy this one.

After watching it I half-jokingly said on Twitter that if they make a fourth film it should be called Taken the Mickey because, try as I might, I just couldn't suspend my disbelief when 62-year-old Liam Neeson - bless him - was being chased through the streets of LA, running, climbing and jumping over walls. 

It's a successful formula and it sticks to it, but please, Liam, for the love of God, no more.

American Sniper

I made a snap decision to watch this at the cinema based purely on the fact it's directed by Clint Eastwood.  I've enjoyed many of the films he's directed in the past, so I reckoned I'd like this one and I did.  

I wasn't familiar with the story of the real-life Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) whose autobiography the film is based on.  He is credited with being the most deadly sniper in the US forces, with at least 160 confirmed 'kills' during his four tours of Iraq, earning the nickname 'Legend'. 

Watching it purely as a action-packed war film I found it engrossing, nail-biting stuff which considering I don't usually enjoy war films was a surprise. There were a couple of times when the gung-ho patriotism and the simplistic reference for America's presence in Iraq jarred slightly, but I thought the human story of how the brutality of war and its psychological aftermath impacted on Kyle's family life and those of his brothers in arms quite moving.  

However, my enjoyment of the film leaves me feeling conflicted. In the days following, I read review after review criticising how it heightens prejudice towards the Middle East, and fails to address the political background to the US presence in Iraq, amongst other things. Kyle's success as a sniper also meant he became a poster boy for the gun lobby in America, and achieved something of a celebrity status when he returned home.

I'm left wondering why other films such as Platoon, The Hurt Locker, Full Metal Jacket, The Deerhunter, and Black Hawk Down didn't come in for the same kind of politically-based criticism, and I don't have any answers. 

Nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Film and Best Director.

20 Feet from Stardom

20 feet from stardom
This Oscar-nominated documentary is a fascinating look into the difference between being a successful 'background singer' and a fully fledged star, and both the frustrations and plaudits that come with it.

For some, like Darlene Love, they successfully made that short walk from the back to the foreground to become stars in their own right; but there were others like Merry Clayton who tried and failed to achieve the same success.

Lisa Fischer,  a powerhouse singer who features through the film, is considered by her peers to be 'the empress' of background singers.  Her vocal range and versatility means she's in demand from the likes The Rolling Stones, Sting and Tina Turner, but she seems to eschew stardom in favour of a more mellow life.  "I don't want to have to deal with being recognised in the street" she says, and appears to mean it.

20 Feet from Stardom has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and I really hope it wins. I watched it on Netflix and loved it. In fact I enjoyed it so much I watched it twice. 

Have you watched any of the films? What did you think? And which films do you recommend?

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Apple and walnut muffins

Apple and walnut muffins

What do you do if you fancy doing a bit of baking and have some walnuts and a couple of Bramley apples going spare?  You make apple and walnut muffins, and surely the apple goes towards your 5-a-day?

Makes 12
350g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped into small cubes
200g self-raising flour
110g light brown muscovado sugar
110g caster sugar
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
100g chopped walnuts
225ml sunflower oil
3 medium eggs

Heat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Line a 12-hole muffin tin.

Put the chopped apple into a pan with a splash of water and simmer for 5 minutes on a low heat until just starting to soften.  Leave to cool.

Put the flour, sugars, baking powder, spices and nuts into a large bowl and give a quick stir around to mix everything.  Make a well in the middle. 

Beat together the eggs and the oil and pour into the dry ingredients along with the cooked apple. Mix together to combine.

Divide the mixture between the muffin cases leaving some room for the mixture to expand. Bake for 25-30 minutes until risen, golden and delicious.  Cool on a wire rack.

Enjoy with a nice cup of tea.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Weekend wafflings

Wow, it's the weekend again. They come around very quickly when you're not working don't they? I'm 'between jobs' as they say.  I'm due to start a new job soon, but in the meantime I keep forgetting what day it is, and the To Do List I wrote only has a few things crossed off. Must try harder.

I'm going to spending this weekend watching films - I treated myself to an 'unlimited cinema' ticket, and have been to see Taken 3 and Birdman so far (reviews to follow).  I love going to the cinema and I've got a list of films I want to see: Wild, American Sniper, Selma, The Theory of Everything - there are loads of new films out at the moment (well it is Oscar season after all) so I'm going to get my money's worth.  This might also explain the state of my To Do List.

The photo at the top was taken by my brother who's in the merchant navy.  He used to work as a pro-photographer and he takes some amazing photos on his travels.

What do you  have planned for the weekend? Hope it's a good one, if you need a bit of weekend reading here's a few articles I found interesting this week.

Some of these are incredible. 22 photos of parents and their children at the same age.

An educational song with dancing genitals. Gotta love the Swedes.

Heard about the dog that takes the bus to the park?

This puppy is very ticklish. And cute.

Fifty years of David Bowie's style in one gif. Love this.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

January is the cruellest month, and why we need something to look forward to.

Happiness is pretty simple

We all need something to look forward to don't we? Especially during January which has got to be the cruellest month.

Last year we didn't get a proper holiday. It was all my mistake, I left it quite late to book something and couldn't find anything suitable and within budget.  It was the first time in years that we hadn't had our usual seaside break, and by the end of last year I began to feel the effects of not having one. Getting away from it all even for one week is a real boost to the system, so this year I thought I'd get in there quick and book something for the summer so yesterday I actually booked our summer holiday, go me!

I booked a week in a log cabin with a hot tub, on a holiday park in Devon.  We usually go to Wales, so I'm looking forward to the change and the girls are excited about the activities on offer for teenagers, not to mention the hot-tub. We're also taking the Teenager's lovely boyfriend, which is a first for us. Cannot wait.

And because I'm on a roll, I'm also planning a weekend in London for Tall Daughter and me. I'd like to visit the V&A (never been), do a bit of shopping and take in a show.  Billy Elliot has been suggested, but we're open to ideas.

I haven't stopped there either. Because last year was such a non-event with regards to travelling, I'm also planning to visit a few different places in the UK this year. Places I've never been to, which is shocking really given we live in such a beautiful country.  I'm embarrassed to say I've never been to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Brighton or Bath (how can that be?) and there are plenty of other places I've always 'meant to' visit.

We also have tentative plans to visit friends in Belfast this year which I'm really looking forward to as I've had a longstanding love affair with Ireland over the years. It's such a great place, and I love the people, the culture, the scenery.

Beautiful Northumberland has also been on my travel wish-list for a while, and even more so after friends visited last year and raved about how stunning it is. I've always wanted to visit Lindisfarne and Holy Island, and have been looking at some last minute cottages in that area. I'm hoping to book something for February or March, and the website I've been looking at makes it very easy to choose the right location with an interactive map. I've got a couple of cosy cottages on my short list and just need to confirm dates. Exciting.

What are you looking forward to this year?

p.s. Are you doing dry January?  I'm not, I tried it a couple of years ago and HATED it, so I'm having a damp January instead. It involves drinking moderate amounts of wine at weekends only, and it suits me so much better, after all why deprive yourself of a treat during the longest, coldest, darkest month of the year? Cheers!

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Guest post: Keep romance alive this Valentine's Day

Being a mum can be really stressful - hands full of nappies and baby sick in your hair makes it really difficult to feel sexy. As a result, often parents find themselves ignoring Valentine’s Day and simply carrying on with their daily duties.

So, here are some tips to keep your romance with your partner well and truly alive this Valentine’s Day.

Cuddle time
So many of us forget to simply sit down and cuddle one another whether it is on the couch, in bed or at the kitchen sink. Cuddles and feeling close to someone is really important, so try to make some time during your day to fit in some cuddles.

Candlelight dinner
Try to organise a night where you can both sit down to eat some dinner together. Place a candle in the middle of the table and dim the lights – this can create a romantic mood which is guaranteed to keep the romance alive.

Do things together
Many couples try to do something together without their children – you can do this whilst your children are at school or whilst your family or friends are babysitting. What you do is completely up to you, this could involve going for a walk, going for dinner or simply cuddling up on the sofa.

Try to surprise each other with small gifts or a handwritten note to let your partner know how much you appreciate and love them. Flowers are also a great way to do this, offer a wide range of flowers to choose from. This doesn’t have to be a big surprise – just something small that shows them how you feel.

A night away
Many couples find having just one night away a month really brings the romance back into their relationships – you can do this quite cheaply too.

Bubble bath
A bubble bath really does cure everything – have a bubble bath and get your partner to come and talk to you. You can have a glass of wine, relax and talk about your day with no children running around; this is incredibly simple but really romantic.

Love notes
Leaving your partner a love note on the fridge before they go to work is one of the simplest ways you can tell them you love them, it is also free!

With these ideas in mind, you really can keep your romance alive this Valentine’s Day – being a mum doesn’t have to mean you can’t be a woman. So, pamper yourself and spend some time with your loved one!