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 much higher, and they said that as Tess was now classed as 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 others 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 for treatments of any illness or 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!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

Single parenting is a bit like learning to ride a unicycle: trickier than riding a two-wheeler, but with practice it gets easier, and staying upright and moving forward can be very rewarding.

I've had plenty of time to practise, and I'm definitely not an expert, but sometime between today and the end of this month I'll have been a single parent for 12 years.  I can't remember the exact date, although I could check the journal I kept at the time if I wanted to, but a rough estimate is enough for me.

Considering I was only married for 7 years, this anniversary seems significant somehow. Not sure why, but just humour me.

In January 2003, when my single parenting experience began, my girls were just 3 and 6. Tall Daughter was so young she can't remember her dad living with us, and The Teenager only has vague recollections, although she remembers the separation quite clearly.

They're now 15 and 18, and as you'd expect a hell of a lot has happened in between times. We've had plenty of good and bad times along the way and there are loads of things I'd have done differently in retrospect, but we're still here and doing okay.  More than okay, actually, but y'know, touch wood and all that.

I've written about the pros and cons of single parenting before, but this time 'round I thought I'd ask some fellow lone parents for their thoughts.

I asked them all the same question:

What's the best and worst thing about being a single parent?

This is what they had to say.

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

The pros and cons of being a single parent

For me, the best thing is the sense of achievement from raising my girls on my own, and the worst thing is the loneliness.  I didn't expect to be on my own for so long, but I still am, so there we are.  It would be nice to  be a new relationship, especially as my ex-husband has moved on (and on, and on...) but it just hasn't happened for me.

So there you have it, 12 different opinions on the highs and lows of riding a unicycle. Thank you to everyone who offered their help with this blog post, I really do appreciate it.

If you've ever been a single parent, what would your best and worst be?

Image from Unsplash

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Decluttering the study: part 1

21 Benefits of Owning Less Stuff

I've started decluttering of the study, and it's a much bigger job than I thought it'd be.

I can't believe how much STUFF we have: it's everywhere!   I've just got back from taking 3 bin bags and two boxes to the tip, and 5 carrier bags of books, CDs and DVDs to the charity shop. There's also a pile of books waiting to be donated to a local primary school's library, and a few things to be sold on eBay. So much clutter and unwanted items from one small room. One room. It's embarrassing and unbelievable in equal quantities - and I haven't even touched the desk yet.

Decluttering the study

The study has become one of the those places where everything that doesn't have a proper home comes to die. It's just a bigger version of the kitchen drawer filled with random bits and pieces (doesn't everyone have one of those?).

I've tried to have a system: separating things into piles to throw, sell, donate or relocate. The relocate pile is for items that need to be returned to their rightful place. somewhere else in the house (usually the girls' bedrooms).

I've also moved some of the furniture around to try and get a better use of space, and as much as I love my leather tub chair it's a bit too big for this room, but as I can't find anywhere else to put it so it's staying put for now, just moved to a new position.

Decluttering the study
I'm also resisting the urge to start decluttering in other rooms before finishing the study. It's so tempting when I spot easy-to-declutter areas that could benefit from 10 minutes with an empty bin bag and a ruthless hand, but I keep telling myself I want to do each room properly and thoroughly, so those hot-spots are going to have to wait for now.

There's still a lot to do, and I hope to do a final update on the study by the end of the week, but in the meantime here's some articles I've found useful.

10 creative ways to declutter your home.  I like number 10.

5 reasons we have clutter.  "We keep the paperwork from 10 years ago – just in case we’re audited and the internet is broken."  
21 benefits of owning less stuff. "The more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you."

Have you started 2015 with a decision to declutter? How are you getting on with it?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Guest post: Spring Cleaning Tips

Today I'm sharing a guest post with you that fits very nicely with yesterday's post about decluttering. Spring cleaning is also high up on my To-Do List and once I get rid of all the clutter I'll be following these tips. 

How time flies – spring cleaning season is fast approaching once again! If those two words tend to fill you with dread, or you’re the type who embraces the ‘out with the old, in with the new’ spirit with gusto, read on for some top tips that will make the whole process smooth sailing – and maybe even enjoyable.

One room at a time
Choose one room or one part of a room and make that your goal. Don’t flit from one job to another, instead try to focus on completing one task before moving onto another. This will prevent unfinished jobs and that feeling of dissatisfaction or an overwhelming workload. Taking a step back and admiring a completed area or room will fill you with pride and fulfilment and spur you on to the next stage. 

Top to bottom, inside to out
Keep this phrase in mind when you set about your day. Work in a methodical way that takes you from the top down, and moving from inside to outside areas. This means you’re less likely to make a mess of areas you’ve already cleaned – which can be very annoying and disheartening.

Make temporary disposal and ‘items in transit’ areas
You’re guaranteed to be throwing a few things out or rearranging storage. Don’t waste time and energy making trips back and forth to bins so, setting up make shift areas of things you plan to chuck and make piles of items you’ll be moving into new rooms. This way you’ll reduce time spent transporting individual things around your house, instead making this a one or two trip job at the end of the day.

Invest in good equipment   
Just as many of us feel more inclined to go to the gym when we have a good set of work out gear, some nice brushes, cloths, gloves and other cleaning essentials will make a difference to your spring cleaning. They’ll hopefully be more efficient, but also more enjoyable and satisfying to use – well worth the investment.

Bucket of essentials
Grab a decent sized bucket and pick out the essentials that you’re likely to need from room to room, and carry them with you as you make your way around the house. This will include some basic cleaners, a sponge, gloves and dusters.

Commit to the cause
Put pen to paper and write a list of your spring cleaning goals and a strict itinerary. Don’t overwhelm yourself, but be honest about how much you can achieve in, say, an afternoon. It doesn’t need to be military standard, but some level of detail is a good idea. It’s advisable to make a plan and have some realistic deadlines just to keep you in check, but sticking it up somewhere prominent will also make you less likely to give up or procrastinate. There are some good pre-made checklists and plans online, like this one for the kitchen, so have a browse if you need a push in the right direction.

Perhaps you want to make some changes in the New Year; give your home a complete makeover, or even make a move into a brand new property like these new homes in Essex - here’s to a clean and organised 2015.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Decluttering my mind

Happy New Year to you, I hope you had an enjoyable Christmas break and you're ready to start the year with renewed vigour.

I'm all about making resolutions for the new year, and this year I'm making a commitment to declutter.  Not very exciting, I know, but something that's been on my mind for months.

It sounds deceptively simple, decluttering, and I've manage to convince myself that I'm pretty good at it. I tell myself that I'm not a hoarder and quite ruthless when it comes to getting rid of non-essentials. And it's true, I'm very good at taking occasional bags of unwanted items to the charity shop or local tip, but if I'm being honest I'm only scraping the surface. I need to ramp up my efforts by about 90% if it's going to have any long-term impact.

I'm starting with the study.  When we moved here 3 years ago I was excited to get a study and I wanted it to look right. I had visions of sitting at the desk amidst my books, photos and carefully selected items, tapping away at the keyboard and being inspired to work in such a great little room.

As it is, I have to step over shoes, bags and other detritus to get to the desk, then sit on an office chair with a wonky wheel before swiping the mountain of paperwork to one side so I can reach the keyboard. Not exactly what I had in mind.

It's also the first room anyone sees when the come to the house and where we hang coats and store shoes, but at the moment this is the sight visitors are greeted with.

I try to keep the door closed as much as possible, as it's cluttered with paperwork (paperwork is definitely my bĂȘte noire), books, unwanted DVDs, shoes that are no longer worn, old coats buried beneath newer coats, more paperwork.  Quite simply, it's an embarrassment. 

An it's not just the study, our whole house is cluttered.  This house is bigger than our old house and we have expanded to fill it.  Certain areas look very tidy and clear - especially areas shared with my extremely tidy brother - but look a bit closer and those storage cupboards are full to bursting with.....stuff.  

Of course, with the clutter comes confusion and chaos.  I feel disorganised, we can never find those important school letters or official forms, and we regularly have to sort through piles of stuff to find something that we know 'is in there somewhere'. As a result, my head feels cluttered, and knowing how much needs to be done fills me with dread.  

I mean, look at my desk. 

I'm not proud, and bearing in mind I've been working for a company with a 'tidy desk policy' for over a year, you'd think I'd have it sussed.  At work, my desk (and office) has been an oasis of calm organisation, yet I can't manage the same at home.  I wonder if it's okay to blame my daughters? No? Okay then...

So, my one and only resolution for the year is to declutter: my desk, the study, the rest of the house, and most of all, my head.  

Have you made any resolutions? Is anyone else decluttering this year?