Monday, 25 February 2013

Meal Planning Monday - the short week into March edition!

Meal Planning Monday

Yes, this is another short week. This is because I am working/playing this weekend and heading to Derbyshire for a work event that doubles as a social. Husband is working too so the children are going to their grandparents on Saturday and staying there until I pick them up on Sunday afternoon. I'm leaving here Friday lunchtime so Friday has been designed for the slow cooker so that they can pick up tea when they are ready.

The rest of the week has been chosen to fulfill Monkey's desire to have "pie", a leftover dish from last week, something I chose because I fancied it and a dish to use up some meat in the freezer. Sounds thrilling, eh?

The devil, of course, is in the detail and here that detail is.

Monday - Thai pork and peanut curry
Tuesday - Cauliflower cheese and jacket potatoes
Wednesday - Minced beef pie
Thursday - Minty pea and potato soup
Friday - Sausages in onion gravy from the slow cooker for everyone else
Saturday - kept free
Sunday - kept free

After last week's summery feel, that looks pretty wintery again! Cannot wait to have cauliflower cheese myself. Once you've drooled over this menu, (what do you mean you haven't?) hop over to Mrs M's for more MPM mayhem.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Big fun with little trains - halfterm fun at the NRM

For the start of the half term, we took a little holiday. We went to Yorkshire to revisit two museums we have visited before. As we were going on consecutive days, we took the opportunity to stay over in Yorkshire - actually in Bradford, the location of our second museum.

On Saturday, however, we returned to a place we have been to several times, the National Railway Museum in York. This time, we had been invited back to their "Big fun for little trains" event they are running over half term.

As usual, entry is free with some activities attracting a small charge - although fewer activities than usual seemed to cost. The children now know the place well and have favourite things we have to go and visit - the pinball game in the Flying Scotsman section, the viewing platform to see the "real trains" arriving at and leaving York station, the bullet train. Everything has to fit around those things and this time there was certainly a lot to see and do - a garden railway display, a miniature diesel ride and a model tramway too. There was also a Chuggington play area and a StackTrack challenge but Monkey now believes he is too old for Chuggington, although it doesn't stop him playing with the diecast models when he feels like it!

Monkey's favourite activities was the Scalextric racing (although he now wants a 6 car track for his birthday!), and the Lego workshop where children build a 4 wheeled Lego vehicle to try and make it go down a slope. He loves Lego so he was in his element. Missy found all the pink Lego bricks and joined in. Strangely, he wouldn't for some reason go near the Meccano workshop - I think he views it as too difficult for him still. But the unexpected hit with him was the pedal train - he pulled a face like it was all too babyish for him, until he suddenly joined the queue, grabbed the next available vehicle and pedalled round madly with a broad grin on his face for a few minutes. He's definitely still a little boy at heart.

We certainly picked a lovely day to go, with the sun shining and the temperature rising to a surprisingly pleasant level. This made the outdoor activities surprisingly pleasant for the time of year - we took a ride on both miniature and full sized steam trains and the children had a quick go in the park, although again, Monkey is just reaching that stage where he is a little too big for the play area.

As usual, we ran out of time and energy to do all the activities on offer so if you are after a day out and your children love trains (Monkey still wants to be a train driver when he grows up), this would be perfect. Most people are fascinated by trains anyway and little ones in particular are enthralled. Even if you've been recently, there's always something new to see as they move the stock around a lot, and you always find something that's a bit different. We never manage to cram it all in so you definitely will fill a whole day and if you like to take your time, maybe two.

Big fun with little trains event runs until Sunday 24 February. The NRM invited us to try out this event  and gave us vouchers to try some of the chargeable events for free and free parking. They also kindly provided lunch. 

Monday, 18 February 2013

Meal Planning Monday - the fairly late but feeling almost summery edition!

Meal Planning Monday Yes, yes, yes. I'm late with this. I actually worked out WHAT meals we were going to eat this week but didn't work the when. This was because we were away and when I arrived home, I had to make sure I'd done my online food shop.

So, having not picked up the food until this afternoon, I've just gone through what we're having and asked the kids when we were going to have each thing. This week seems to have a summery feel to it in places and the weather since the weekend seems to reflect that - it might not be the warmest but it's dry and sunny.

Monday - pizza (which we've just had!)
Tuesday - Homemade fish finger sarnie
Wednesday - Bean burgers with lime yogurt and salsa
Thursday - Summer vegetable curry
Friday  - Lemony prawn and pea risotto
Saturday - Baked chicken masala with almond pilaf
Sunday - Chilli beef shepherd's pie

So that is us. Over at Mrs M's place, you might find some much less cobbled together plans. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Clandestine Cake Club: the book!

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I am a member of the Clandestine Cake Club. My local branch in South Lancashire meets regularly and whilst I don't make every session (less so now that husband works weekday evenings), I try to get to as many sessions as I can.

If you don't know what Clandestine Cake Club is, they are events all over the UK (and the world) that people sign up to and people bake cakes (big ones, not brownies, muffins and cupcakes) to a theme to bring along. The venue is kept secret until the last minute - the clandestine bit - and then you turn up, eat cake and chat with lovely cakey people, over coffee, tea or sometimes something stronger, depending on the venue.

What Clandestine Cake Club does for me is push me out of my baking comfort zone. For years, I continued to make my favourites that I know how to make. Having to bake to a theme has meant I have had to hunt for recipes or design my own and make something different. It's given me more confidence to try something different and it's improved my baking. It's been different and fun at the same time. Oh, and I've got to try some fantastic cakes made by some very talented bakers - and taken some of it home for the family!

There must have been thousands of cakes made for all the different cake club meetings. Now there is a cookbook featuring 120 of the best recipes that members have baked for meetings, written by Lynn Hill, the founder of the Clandestine Cake Club movement. I was kindly sent a copy to review, in advance of its publication today.

The best thing about the book is that I recognised so many names of bloggers I read and tweet with regularly who had all contributed fabulous recipes. Heck, I've even met some of them! Very exciting to know that I know proper published authors in real life. My second favourite thing was the "Cake Wrecks" section with advice on how to rescue your cake disasters - and everyone has them from time to time. The cakes are grouped into eight chapters and there is nothing standard or boring about any of the recipes. They all look fabulous, and range from the incredibly simple to the very involved.

Of course, the best way to try out any cookbook is to try a recipe so that is exactly what we did. Well, actually, Missy Woo did as she'd asked to bake with me. Despite there being an extensive chapter on chocolatey cakes, she chose one of her other favourite flavours and went for Lemony Lemonade Cake. Yes, that's right - lemonade. I think the picture of the cake with sweets stuck on top in the book was the clincher. It had nothing to do with the fact that she'd figured out that she'd get the rest of the sweets from the packet. Oh, no.

It was an easy cake to make and the recipe was easy to follow, although my icing came out thicker than it looked in the book. Ours was a soft spreading consistency whilst the book clearly shows the final result to be more of a pouring consistency. But it was lovely and despite some turf wars from the children over who had the pieces with the sweets and how many they'd each had, we enjoyed every single mouthful and it was gone in 24 hours. Good job I wasn't making it for a meeting!

I would definitely recommend this book if you enjoy baking cakes. Whether you're a Clandestine Cake Clubber or not, the recipes will add a new dimension to your baking and encourage you to try some things that are just that little bit different, and still taste yummy.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Meal Planning Monday - the not cooking very much edition!

Meal Planning Monday
I know quite a few areas are off this week but we have another week of school before half term. But it's a busy one - Valentine's disco at school, Monkey is going to a friend's for tea (again!) and we're going away at the weekend. As a result, there isn't a great deal of cooking to be done and so you won't find any culinary wonders. We're having sausages because there were some in the freezer, I got a pizza reduced from the supermarket to have on Shrove Tuesday so pancakes can be made,  and Missy Woo chose the soup (because she thought that Monkey would like it), then it's no cooking for the weekend.

So, here is the official plan.

Monday - Sausages with onion gravy (incidentally, the most read post on this blog!)
Tuesday - Pizza (not homemade) followed by pancakes!
Wednesday - out for tea
Thursday - Creamy chicken and sweetcorn soup
Friday - away
Saturday - away
Sunday - away

Don't get over-excited now! Normalish service will be back next week, even though that is half term. Hopefully, the other meal plans over at Mrs M's will be more interesting than this one.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The tortoise and the hare

Parenting can be a funny thing sometimes. So much can be attributed to upbringing and genes but it's easy to forget that children are out there developing their own personalities.

Take this week, and that termly ordeal of Parents Evening at school. I'm not going to bore you with a report of their achievements but suffice to say, they're doing well, work hard and the teachers love them. What was revealing was where each teacher identifies areas for improvement. And therein lay the difference.

Monkey can be a bit slapdash. He throws himself with abandon into tasks - sometimes a little too much abandon. He's apt to rush a bit and have a little bit TOO much confidence. His teacher noted he needs to take a bit more time to think, and plan. Unsurprisingly, his weakness is his writing but he's strong on maths - writing takes time and effort, whereas maths can be done in shorter bursts.

And Missy Woo, she has the opposite problem. We know her writing and reading is good, but she's apt to be slow at times. So slow in fact, that the teacher says she produces much less than her peers. Some of this is a lack of confidence. However, she's a bit of a day dreamer, something that we notice regularly at home - just how long can one child take to change into ballet costume?! I think also she doesn't like to be put under pressure - she looks at a blank page and her brain freezes yet can be full of ideas. So her aim is going to be to work faster and smarter and feel more confident.

Husband summarised it thus - "Basically, if we could combine the two of them, we'd have the perfect pupil". And he's right. Two siblings, just over a year apart in age. Similar abilities. Two totally different approaches at opposite ends of the scale. It's that old cliché - the tortoise and the hare. But that's OK because having two hares would be exhausting, and two tortoises frustrating. They balance each other out - he livens her up, she tempers his explosive nature.

And one thing is for sure - watching them grow and develop their own personalities is utterly fascinating (and delightful), even if parenting totally opposite personalities can be very challenging.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Making school mornings easier

In the post the other day, I got a nice package from Warburtons, enough to raise a smile on a grey February day.

A nice set of breakfast products. The purpose was to raise the profile of a new handbook that they are putting together with tips for making the morning rush easier. This comes alongside new findings tha show that mothers have to juggle twice as many tasks in the morning as executives in their first hour of work and that 27 % of mothers find mornings more stressful than parents' evening or a visit from the in-laws. In my case, I'd say so but that's because neither of those things particularly bother me. Mornings in our house aren't too bad; they've definitely got better as the children have got older. And yes, I get help - husband takes the children to school about half of the time. 

They've asked me if I could share my tips for making the mornings before school easier. Here are mine. 

1. Work out a comfortable leaving time and try to stick to it. This should be at least five minutes earlier than your "Oh my God we really have to leave" time, if not ten. Knowing that time in your head will help focus your mind, and that of older children. Set an alarm to go off just ahead, so that everyone knows it's time to get ready. 

2. Get as much done the night before as possible. Really, I cannot stress this enough as it helps to keep the to do list down in the morning. Here's what we do:
  • On Sunday night, I make sure that the children have uniform out and every night, they put what they are wearing, including underwear, on a chair in their room. (And I check it!) 
  • After Sunday bedtime, I get out toast money for both. Actually, I do this every day (well, most) for Monkey as he buys his - I just have to send it in weekly for Missy Woo. 
  • Any money that needs to go to school is by the door, partly because I don't take them every day. The children have school lunches so I make sure I send in money in bigger chunks so I don't have to do it every week. 
  • If you have packed lunches, get as much ready beforehand - get all the things that don't need to be kept in the refrigerator in their lunchboxes, make their sandwiches and place in a freezer bag and put in the fridge next to anything else that has to be kept cold so you can just grab and pop into the lunchboxes in the morning. 
  • Keep a list of things they need for school on different days so you can check what they need.
  • Place bags and other equipment needed for school by the door. If it's cold, check that hats, gloves and scarfs are with their coats. If it's not, caps and suncream. 
  • If you are going straight to work, choose your outfit the night before too. (I pack my gym bag ready for gym days!)
  • Check the children's bags for notes from school before they go to bed in case they are asking for extra things to be sent in. 
  • And of course, make sure homework is done in the evening.

3. Limit screen time in the morning. The TV or game console goes off the second it slows them down. We have banned it but that tends to improve things. Definitely do not let them watch and eat - try and get them to eat at a table away from a television. In reality, mine only watch telly once they are dressed and have come out of their rooms and before they have breakfast. I can live with that.

4. Keep things to hand. The children have a set of toothbrushes and toothpaste in the downstairs toilet so they don't disappear upstairs for minutes on end, plus we can keep an eye on how long they are brushing for.

5. If you are struggling to get the children to co-operate, set up a reward chart for the tasks they need to do in the morning. The more co-operative they are, the faster they earn treats.

6. Don't fight food battles in the morning. Research some years ago shows that the most important thing for performance in school is that children eat breakfast; any breakfast. If your child wants something that you perceive as unhealthy and won't eat anything else, let them have it (provided it's easy to prepare!). Hell, we've had cake for breakfast on the odd occasion before now! So shoot me.

What are your tips for easier mornings?

Monday, 4 February 2013

Meal Planning Monday - the February trying to keep it healthy edition!

Meal Planning MondayYay, it's really February now. The nights are getting lighter. It's slightly warmer (although I've just noticed snow is forecast for later, joy). And I'm still trying to be healthy. If you picked up this month's Good Food (which is actually the March edition, go figure), you'd be forgiven for thinking that people only eat interesting healthy food in January, because a lot of the recipes are quite fattening, starting with the recipe that is 1,100 calories per adult portion. Stuff that - that's for Christmas!

So I've had to hunt around to pad out my plan for the week.

What's going on this week? Well, parents evening is on Wednesday and so sandwiches are the order of the day then. Apart from that, not masses is going on other than the usual routine. Husband is working his weekend off, but in advance of taking two weekends off for half term, which is the third week of February.

This is what I have planned for us foodwise this week.

Monday -  Southwestern black bean casserole
Tuesday - Slow cooker turkey stroganoff
Wednesday - Sandwiches
Thursday - Spiced parsnip and cauliflower soup
Friday - Pork taco mix probably done as fajitas
Saturday - Smoked salmon spaghetti
Sunday - Chorizo and pepper lasagne

How do you like my menu? What's on yours this week? Toddle on over to Mrs M's place if you want more Meal Planning Monday action. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

Food hygiene ratings - do you know how safe your food is?

I got involved in some interesting Twitter discussions yesterday after I tweeted this:

It would appear that lots of people don't know about the food hygiene rating system whilst others use it obsessively.

What the hygiene rating is the result of an inspection of all food outlets by environmental health officers at your local council. They confirm a star rating based on 3 factors - how the food is prepared, cooked and stored, the condition of the building such as layout, cleanliness, ventilation and finally, how the business manages all this to ensure that food is safe. (In Scotland, the scheme is slightly different and establishments get a pass or an improvement required rating instead of stars.)

Environmental health officers always did do this, but in the past, you only heard about them if they closed a place down. Now, though, you can find the rating they have given each outlet by visiting the Food Standards Agency ratings website or by downloading their smartphone app.

I've used it for a while, not generally to check my regular haunts but for new ones - when looking on sites like Just Eat, I realised that I had no idea about some of these places and checking their ratings was a real eye-opener. Several places - rated highly by customers - had shockingly low ratings. My own lower limit is 3 stars, which is considered generally satisfactory. Choosing those takeaways with higher ratings has generally worked out OK for us.

Then I discovered the local chippy (which is also a Chinese) was only rated 1 star. I know this because they put the sign on the door - the council hands out stickers or signs which are currently optional to display, although you can ask staff if one is not displayed what their rating is. Since then, I've restricted myself to buying chips there, as I figure there is not a lot wrong they can do with chips, being as they are cooked in hot oil. I think the sticker might have affected their business as it's since disappeared.

I found out about our favourite Indian (we don't go often but we were there last on Christmas Eve) through a story on the local newspaper website about the new ratings for the local area. Premises can be inspected at any time of the year (and may not be inspected every year) but they must do press releases at this time of year. As it turns out, this restaurant was inspected just before Christmas so I guess the new rating didn't get onto the system until recently as I'm sure it was better than that before.

On discussing this on Twitter, I discovered some like me who stick with a limit of 3 stars, whereas another said her husband (who is a chef) will only use 5 star rated establishments as that is the rating of where he works! It can be quite hard to achieve 5 stars. I mean, even Ruth Watson the hotel inspector, lost her 5 star rating and got 1 star instead, apparently over concerns about the cooking method of some dishes. Overall food handling hygiene may not be bad so it's not an exact science.

As many other people didn't seem to know about this scheme at all. At least one found out that one of their favourite places was only 1 star and another recounted to me that she had only learned about a scheme after her favourite got zero stars (Eek!) and was then closed down. Having one star doesn't seem quite so bad after all!

Would you let a scheme like this affect your decision where to eat? Do you pay any attention to these ratings, either online or displayed in a food outlet? What would you do if you found out that your local favourite - be it takeaway or restaurant - had a very poor rating? Would you boycott it or continue using it?

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