Friday, 28 September 2012

Autumnal


au·tum·nal/ôˈtəmnəl/

Adjective: Of, characteristic of, or occurring in autumn.


The garden is starting to wind down now, the colours more muted and delicate. Cobwebs, faded roses and unidentified funghi. Autumn is here.




Autumn is the time for fruit crumbles (with custard), roast dinners and warming homemade soups. It's also the best time for long walks in the countryside with Tessie and then coming home to a big mug of hot chocolate. 

Our winter boots are being taken out of storage, along with the scarves and gloves. Bring on the colder weather, we're ready.

What do you enjoy most about the autumn?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Why the car is the new kitchen table


Now that my girls are a bit older it's getting trickier to get them together for our family chats. We used to always do that over the kitchen table - and still do whenever we can - but now that they have their own interests, boyfriends or friends coming for tea, homework classes, etc. it's not always easy for us to eat together as a family every day. That's one of the reasons we recently started doing our Family Tuesdays, where we do something together - just the three of us. That's when we get to talk properly, as a family.

Getting them to talk to me about personal stuff, or asking tricky questions (i.e. questions that may not get a positive initial reaction from me) seems to happen more often in the car.

I've had some very interesting conversations with my daughters in the car such as this one which made me laugh. In fact Tall Daughter is particularly good at talking in the car, she'll tell me a lot more while I'm driving than she will when we're sitting at the dinner table.

I've often wondered why that should be the case and assumed it was because there's little or no eye contact and we're physically facing away from each other. It somehow makes it more comfortable for her to reveal something, or perhaps ask a difficult question when she's not actually face to face with me.

The Teenager is also good at picking her moments, choosing car journeys to ask me things like "Can I invite 24 friends to my birthday party?" or "How old would I have to be before you'd let me go to a music festival?".  See, it's the non-confrontational body language that makes her more comfortable asking that sort of thing when we're driving.

So I was pleased to read some research that confirms I am in fact a genius my assumption is right and families do communicate more in the car.

The Secret Lives of Cars reveals why families talk more during car journeys and how we can use the time to share important information. It's an interesting subject, and one that many parents will find very revealing.

Of course, I also understand how to use car conversations to my advantage. They're the ideal time to ask questions they might otherwise try to wriggle out of.  If we're in the car, just one on one, it's private and there's no escape! Unless they want to dive, commando stylee out of the car door, but so far that hasn't happened. Phew!

Keeping your children talking to you, especially when they're teenagers, is always going to be hard so I don't mind where they choose do it it. Kitchen table or in the car, as long as they're still talking to me that's all that matters.

This post is sponsored by Allianz Your Cover Insurance

Sunday, 23 September 2012

My cottage pie recipe ~ well ok, Sophie Grigson's


I was asked by Heinz recently if I'd like to receive a sample of their secret ingredient for recipes. With all due respect to them, their ingredient - tomato ketchup - isn't very much of a secret because I've been using it in recipes for years. I use it in spag bol and tuna pasta and ever since I saw Sophie Grigson on the telly using it in her recipe for cottage pie I've been doing the same. Well, if it's good enough for her then who am I to argue?

And here is her recipe, which I use every time I make cottage pie. It's always delicious and my girls love it.

Sophie Grigson's Cottage Pie



Serves 4-6
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
olive oil
1-2 cloves of garlic
675g good quality minced beef
400g can chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons of tomato ketchup
2 teaspoons (or a good slosh!) Worcestershire sauce
half tsp dried thyme
half tsp ground cumin
salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the mash: approx. 700g Maris Piper or other floury potatoes; 65g butter; 200-300ml milk, salt and pepper.

Cook the onion and carrot in a large, wide frying pan over a medium heat until tender and lightly coloured. Add the garlic and stir for a few seconds, the increase the heat to high and add half the mince. Fry briskly breaking up any lumps and turning meat over to brown evenly. Scoop out onto a plate.

Add the remaining mince to the pan and fry in the same way. Then return first batch to pan along with the chopped tomatoes and all the remaining ingredients. Add 300ml of water.

Bring to the boil and half cover. Simmer gently, stirring from time to time for about an hour adding more hot water if needed. By this time the meat should be tender and most of the liquid should have evaporated away to leave a delicious meaty mush. Taste and adjust seasoning (and add more ketchup or Worcestershire sauce if needed).

Make the mash with Maris Pipers if you can, they give a really smooth consistent mash. I'm not going to insult you by telling you how to boil potatoes, but when they're soft (but not mushy) drain them in the pan and add the milk and butter. Add salt and pepper, then mash like mad.

To assemble the cottage pie, spoon the mince into your dish and dot the mashed potato over the top. Smooth down with a fork, being careful not to push the mince out over the sides of the dish. Dot with small pieces of butter and bake in the oven until it starts going brown on top. Serve with fresh veg.




Friday, 21 September 2012

AXA PPP healthcare - parent support online


When I first found out I was pregnant with my first baby I just couldn't read enough about pregnancy, birth, childcare and everything other piece of baby-related information!  I remember reading 'What to expect when you're expecting' from cover to cover and devouring every other piece of information I could get my hands on.

At the time, the internet was still quite new so it wasn't as easy to get real information from a likeminded person.

Nowadays, the internet is a mixed blessing in that respect because although there's plenty of information available sometimes it's hard to know where to find it. And not only that but everyone's an expert!

Most people have friends and family they can ask and blogging is fantastic for asking for advice, but sometimes - especially when you're a new mum -  it's hard to admit that you might be struggling, so an online forum can be an ideal way to get feedback on a wide range of issues such as pregnancy, breastfeeding  or potty training.

With that in mind, AXA PPP healthcare are launching a new pregnancy and childcare forum where you can ask those questions and get honest answers from other parents. In addition, their own medical experts will be on hand to answer your questions.

It's all part of AXA PPP healthcare's new Pregnancy and Caring for your Children Centre which is a one-stop shop for all your questions and concerns about everything from pre-conception onwards.

My daughters are teenagers now, but when they were babies I enjoyed co-sleeping with them - something that still seems to be hotly debated - and I've posted a question about it on the forum. It's easy enough to post your own question and get involved in the discussions.

To kickstart the new forum, AXA PPP healthcare will also be holding a live chat on Pregnancy and Caring for Your Children  on Monday 24 September from 1-3pm, and their nurses and midwives will be on hand to answer questions live on anything related to pregnancy or children’s health.

You can chat live on the day, or if you prefer you can simply leave a comment here on my blog and AXA PPP healthcare will gather the questions and answer them during the live chat. Apart from the forum and the live chat there is also the opportunity to Ask the Expert where you can email your question and have it answered by an appropriate expert.

Don't forget - if you have a burning question, either leave a comment or join in with the live chat!

This is a sponsored post

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Sponsored video: toys, iPads and an ingenius game involving a can

I come from a generation where an Apple was something you ate, a Blackberry was something you put in a crumble and a Mac was something you wore to keep the rain off.

Children's games were much simpler then and when I was little we used to do something called Playing Out. Even though we lived in a street of terraced houses with no playing fields or playgrounds within walking distance, playing out was still something we did and our favourite game to play in groups was called Kick the Can.

It was a simple enough game where we....erm, kicked a can. There were no rules as such, just a can and a group of kids with too much energy. It kept us occupied for hours. Happy days.



These days children are a little bit more high-tech and I know from my experience of using iPads in the classroom that children have a natural ability with technology. Children as young as 4 are using iPads at school now, and they're not scared of it in the way adults sometimes are. Children will happily navigate their way around various games and apps with only enjoyment in mind.

Now Mattel Apptivity has introduced an innovative way for children to play.  Their Apptivity toys interact with a free downloadable app when placed on the surface of an iPad, which I'm assured won't be damaged by the toys. Choose from Batman, WWE, Fruit Ninja and Hot Wheels and if you're a fan of Angry Birds there's an interactive King Pig character!

I wonder if Mattel would be interested in my idea of an interactive game of Kick-the-Can? Just a thought.


This post is sponsored by Mattel

Sunday, 16 September 2012

How to get teenagers to help around the house (yes, really)

I've tried everything to get my two daughters to help me out around the house. Everything. I've encouraged, praised, shouted, cajoled, offered extra pocket money, withheld pocket money....you name it I've tried it. It's caused horrible arguments between us, and I've been really upset at their lack of help.

But finally, I think I've cracked it. No, seriously I have. I may even patent the idea, although it's hardly original to be honest.

For the past 3 months - I've waited 3 months to boast about this, just to prove it's  not a flash in the pan - I haven't had to ask either of them to help me. In fact they have been falling over themselves to help out with chores. The secret? A task list, just like this one.



That's right, an A4 sheet of paper with columns for the date and what they did, with a title saying "If it's not on the list, you didn't do it." It was a last resort for me, after month of nagging, getting angry and having unnecessary and upsetting arguments with both of them.

Wow! I didn't realise my girls were so competitive! They have a named sheet each which are sellotaped to cupboard door in the kitchen and they're forever comparing lists so see who's in the lead. They're both trying to outdo each other and each month they count up the number of jobs they've each done. So far the Teenager, who has always been the most reluctant to do anything, has been 'winning' although Tall Daughter has been trying her best to catch up. But actually the real winner is me. Result!

So there you have it. The simplest of ideas with brilliant results. You're welcome.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Guest post ~ My Metaphorical and Actual Black Dog


Today I'm featuring a guest post from fellow blogger and greyhound owner Susan McKeon who writes the Diary of a Canine Convert. We both have black dogs, metaphorical and actual, and when I read this post on on her blog about her experience of depression it echoed my own so closely I asked Susan if I could share it. I'm delighted that she said yes. 

~~~~~oooOOOooo~~~~~

This is a post that I've been umming and ahhing about writing for a while now and hopefully the title may give you an indication why this has been the case.

For most people who know me - both in a personal and business capacity - they probably wouldn't think that many things get me down in life.  I tend to focus on the task ahead and 'crack on' and it has to be said, I'm a pretty hard taskmaster (more so on myself than others).  I'm definitely goal orientated, which has meant that generally when I set my mind on something - and to quote NASA - failure isn't an option.

Life, however, sometimes has a way of pulling the rug from under your feet when you least expect it, as I've discovered over the years.  I've always been a bit of a perfectionist (actually, who am I kidding, not so much of the 'bit') and set myself pretty high goals, which in turn can add a certain amount of pressure to everyday life and impact on health, as I have found out over the last few decades.

1 in 4 people in the UK are likely to experience a mental health problem in the course of a year and of these depression and anxiety are the most common.  Despite the fact that mental health problems such as depression are relatively common place they still remain a taboo subject.  Often they are simply swept away under the carpet, ignored like the elephant in the room or worse still, seen as an admission of weakness.


Winston Churchill famously likened his depression to a black dog and this is what my post title alludes to. I have had several bouts of clinical depression over the last two decades.  These aren't cases of  'being down in the dumps' or 'feeling blue'; these are mind numbing, self-esteem and confidence robbing periods, where 'normal service' cannot be resumed and my decision making capabilities seem to evaporate into thin air.

When work colleagues have learned of my depression (I'm pretty open about it), I tend to get one of two reactions: one being - "I'd never have thought you would suffer from depression, you just don't seem the type"  or two - embarrassed silences and people hastily changing the topic of conversation.  Depression doesn't discriminate - age, gender, race, 'class' or social standing are no barriers.

Depression is personal and is not the same for everyone.  I can only describe my depression as a perpetual fog that surrounds me and deadens the world I inhabit. No sunlight makes it through this fog and without help, it won't lift. Over the years this has meant extended time off work (each time progressively less, but nonetheless not just a few days off work) and both medication and counselling to help ease the symptoms.

These periods have lessened over the years, as I've become better at spotting the signs, preventing and managing the causes, however at times I still find myself on the precipice of the abyss -  some days leaning more towards it and others leaning away.

During my last period of depression, back in 2009, the black dog that had been following me suddenly became real and surprisingly a turning point. There is plenty of scientific evidence of the benefits of owning a pet and no matter how bad I felt, the hounds needed walking. They gave me a reason to get up and get out of the house and were a constant source of non-judgemental companionship.

Magic, aka Jasper, at the greyhound charity kennels

I also found that helping out at the kennels of the local greyhound charity I volunteered at, was very therapeutic.  It was at these kennels that I fell in love with a real black dog who to me was the pooch equivalent of Prozac. Magic, as he was then known, was a 5 year old handsome, if not a little snaggle-toothed, black greyhound. He'd finished his last race about a fortnight before coming into kennels and there was something about him that drew me to him instantly.  Within minutes I was smitten and knew that, subject to Mina & Stevie's approval, Magic had found his forever home.

Thankfully both Mina and Stevie approved of Magic and he came home with us in May of that year, just after a week's holiday with hubby and the two hounds in Cornwall.  Magic became Jasper - so named after the character in the Twilight novels who had the ability to calm and influence emotions - and has been a calming (and at times very cheeky) character ever since.

Jasper

During the last three years since Jasper joined me, the tide also seems to be turning with more (high profile as well as 'ordinary') people being open about experiencing depression.  There are some great support organisations too.  I received a great deal of help from Mind, found the Black Dog campaign from SANE to be inspirational and am an avid follow of the Blurt Foundation on Twitter - @BlurtAlerts

I no longer see my depression, or mental illness, as a failure on my part and I take steps to keep my mental health in the best shape I can.  This does not mean I'm immune to the odd relapse (a bit like physical health and not going to the gym) but the 'latent muscle memory' is there, providing me with coping mechanisms and the tools to get back on track.

Writing this blog post is cathartic and sharing conversations with like-minded friends has proven to be a godsend along with letting go of my 110% perfectionist streak (for some things - not all - but for a good number of things).

In my experience once you open up and let people know that (a) you have experienced depression and (b) it's nothing to be ashamed of, it's amazing what comes back.  So many people I speak to have experienced their own black dog and most people are extremely supportive and understanding.

So, if you have ever experienced depression, anxiety or any other mental illness, please don't feel you're alone.  Depression doesn't need to be an invisible illness and the chances are if it hasn't touched you, it will have touched someone you love or care for.


References:  Mental Health Foundation: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-statistics/
SANE, Black Dog Campaign: http://www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/black_dog/bd_faq/
The Blurt Foundation: http://blurtitout.org/
Mind:  http://www.mind.org.uk/

Sunday, 9 September 2012

My week in pictures

It's been a busy week! This week I've been...


Painting

Tall Daughter has some Ikea storage boxes in her bedroom that she wanted to get rid of, but I thought she could use the storage for small items  and the rest of the rubbish  stuff cluttering her room.  We primed the boxes with white undercoat and then used the odds and sods of emulsion we had lying around.



Sewing

I have a sewing machine but have only ever mastered straight lines. I had wanted to add some colour to the hall since we moved in, everything was white which felt a bit cold in the north-facing hallway. So I added some curtains with a dash of colour.


























Gardening

Yep, my new found hobby has kept me busy this week, and I've been buying some of my favourite plants for the garden.  I bought 3 hebes recently which have all been planted now, along with a lot of border clearing and then standing back and admiring my work.

But get this - a plant which is new to me. Cosmos Chocca Mocca is not only very pretty but it smells of chocolate. That's chocolate folks.....a plant that smells of chocolate. And isn't it a beauty?



And of course, in between all that it was the start of the new school term which meant I went back to work. 

What sort of week have you had?

Friday, 7 September 2012

Our best ever children's parties (on a tight budget)

My daughters are already planning their birthday activities which both fall in November - they were born exactly 3 years and one day apart. This year the Teenager will be 16, and Tall Daughter will be 13.

I know, great planning right? Well, in a way yes because when they were little they would share a birthday party. Those times have passed now that they're older but that's another story.

When the girls were little we organised some really fun (and often expensive) birthday parties for them. When they were 5 and 2 we hired the local church hall for the afternoon, and because we invited lots of our friends as well as the children's we paid for outside catering. We also booked a children's entertainer, JJ the Clown. He was fantastic and worth every penny - the children loved him and he kept everything and everyone under control. I'm sure if he wanted to change career he would be a terrific lion tamer. And of course all of the 25 children were given party bags that I'd agonised over for weeks beforehand.

That party was a great success but it was very expensive!

My girlies with Mickey and Minnie Mouse
The next year we decided to do something different and booked a weekend trip to Disneyland Paris for their birthdays. They had a great time and we pushed the boat out and paid for a Disney character birthday breakfast for the girls. Again, an expensive birthday but we have very happy memories and fantastic photos from that trip.

By the following year my husband had left, I was a single parent and I'd also been made redundant. Not my best year!

Since then, the girls' birthday parties have been much simpler and the other day when a friend was talking about the expense of her daughter's impending party I realised the best ones I organised were also the least expensive.

Designing their own t-shirts

The T-shirt party

I bought some cheap, basic t-shirts from Asda and a set of fabric pens. After the sandwiches and cakes had been scoffed and they were all full of sugar, I gave each child a t-shirt and they spent some time designing with the pens. Tip: to make sure the ink didn't bleed through to the back of the shirt, I put a piece of plastic or cardboard in between. When they were finished I quickly ironed them to set the design and the children took their t-shirt, a balloon and a piece of birthday cake home with them - no party bags required!


'Girls are the best'....of course they are!

This party was without doubt our most successful. It's the one my daughters enjoyed the most and their friends have remembered the best.  Simple to do and it was fun, creative and just a little bit different.

The Cinema party

Instead of taking a big group of children to the cinema I brought the cinema to us. My girls sent party invitations to their friends with a homemade 'cinema ticket' enclosed. On the day of the party, I set up a Tuck Shop on a long table (a decorated wallpapering table actually, ideal size!). On the table I set out a 'pic&mix' with bowls of different sweets to choose from and small paper bags to put them in.

There was also cones of popcorn (big, inexpensive bags of popcorn decanted into paper cones at home) and a couple of dozen small bottles of different flavoured pop. To do it even cheaper I could have bought big bottles and given drinks out in cups, but I liked the novelty idea of the small bottles and by popping a straw into the top it also made it less likely to spill on my carpet.

The living room was set up for the film with the curtains drawn and plenty of cushions on the floor. They happily watched a new-release DVD that I'd hired, with an interval halfway to top up their snacks and drinks.

All you need for a decent children's party is party food (cakes, sandwiches, crisps, pop), music, simple games and a fun activity. Keeping it simple will keep your costs down and I can promise you that children will not hold it against you if don't give them a party bag! They're expensive and unnecessary. And resist the temptation to keep adding things (expensive presents for pass the parcel; too much food, etc.) the children will enjoy it more if you are organised and less stressed. Good luck!


Monday, 3 September 2012

The end of summer



One of the benefits of writing a blog is that you notice patterns in what you do, how you feel and how things turn out.

And that's how I know, from looking back at previous years' posts, that I tend to feel a bit low at this time of year.

I don't know what it is about September - the end of the summer, the impending short days and dark nights, or the personal frustrations that are highlighted at the start of the school year - but it tends to  send me into a downward spiral of depression, and I can already feel the darkness in my mood.

I know I need to do something about it. We need to keep busy, so I'm actively planning ahead so we have things to look forward to in the next few weeks. I'm working hard to stay positive and keep myself occupied to avoid the slump in mood, followed by the difficult job of trying to claw my way out again.

It seems like a mammoth task right now.


Sunday, 2 September 2012

The gardening bug

I think I might have fallen in love with gardening.

I know I'm a bit late to the gardening party, but I've spent the summer pottering around in my new(ish) garden trying to figure out what the plants are, which of them are staying and trying to figure out what I should be doing. But most of all I've been loving it.

Last week, for instance, I decided I need to sort out the area to the back of the garage which was a bit of a mess. It's a good spot for a utility area so I tidied up, recycled a small greenhouse rack into shelving and set up a potting bench.  This garden didn't have a washing line , so I also bought a small rotary washing line and set it up near the new utility area.


I bought the bench from Homebase for £30. To be honest it's not the best quality but it will do for now. My brother put it up for me and I used two coats of Wilkinson's 'Willow' timber stain to brighten it up a bit.

Then it was a matter of identifying some of the plants. I took to twitter and Facebook to ask about these two and had the answers within minutes:


This is such a pretty shrub, quite tall (maybe 5' tall?) with these very delicate drops of pink/green flowers and leaves. This one is definitely staying!


This is a low, compact and very thorny shrub which had beautiful small red flowers in the Spring. Then I  noticed these small fruits and thought they looked like quince and it turns out that's exactly what they are. Gorgeous, another stayer.

And today I've been planting. A white azalea near to the potting bench in a gap in the border left by a tree that fell down in the storms last winter. I also bought some allium bulbs from a local independent garden centre. After looking at allium bulbs online and baulking at the prices (£10 for 3?) I bought 6 today for 45p each. 3 of them are Allium Christophii and the others are Allium Aflatuense - or farty plants as Tall Daughter called them!


I've enjoyed these six weeks off work, it's given me some much needed quality time with my garden children. Alas, it's back to work tomorrow....

Back to school with Tesco

We're been involved with Tesco's Back to School range for the past two years so were delighted to hear we'd be receiving another uniform bundle this year too.

A real indication of how much we like their uniform is that The Teenager asked if we would be getting their uniform this year because she really liked it, and she's incredibly fussy!

From my point of view it fits the main three criteria for choosing school uniforms: the quality is very good, the fit is good and it's great value for money.  And as most children outgrow their uniform so quickly I don't want to be spending a fortune on clothes that won't last very long.


We love the skirts and the easy-iron shirts, the Teenager is very impressed with her very stylish rain coat  and Tall Daughter likes her new shoes. The knee-length socks have been put into the girls' joint sock storage container their bedrooms - otherwise known as the Black Hole of School Socks - where they'll mysteriously disappear and I'll have to buy more within two weeks of the new term. Ho hum.

If you're quick you can exchange your Tesco club card vouchers for double points on uniform purchases until 4th September, plus this year Tesco have introduced a very handy uniform embroidery service which is easy to get your children's school involved with.

And finally, a plea from someone who works in a primary school......please please please label your children's clothes!! The number of children who come to school in unlabelled uniform is  just not funny. Teaching staff really don't recognise each individual child's items of clothing ("My Johnny has a big stain on the front of his jumper...you must have seen it?") and it would save huge amounts of parents' and teachers' time if everything was labelled. And I mean everything....bags, coats, pumps, shirts...oh you get the idea. End of rant. As you were.


In case you hadn't noticed, this is a sponsored post.