Monday, 13 October 2014

Organic foods - are they worth the premium?

This post has been brewing in my head for a while. I'm probably going to upset someone by posting it but I always try to be honest on this blog. It's about organic food.

I used to buy organic. I still do occasionally but only when it fits into my pocket. The simple truth is I can't afford it these days and so I've had to be pragmatic.Occasionally, organic is the same price or cheaper than non-organic products so it's a no-brainer.

My pragmatism has altered over time into a faint cynicism. The aims of the organic movement are laudable but the fact is, getting certified organic is expensive for small independent producers. I'm guessing there are a lot who follow organic principles but can't sell it as such.

This came about because Waitrose asked me to provide some recipes for their Organic Month in September and sent me a giftcard to go shopping for organic products. Unfortunately, my shopping trip was a bit of a disaster. But that is not relevant to the thrust of my post. And I do want to say that I LOVE Waitrose - I shop there a lot, although mostly for particular things I can't get elsewhere and top up shops.

What shocked me most was the variation in price - some things, like yogurt, were only a little more but milk was double the price for the same size bottle. Ostensibly, they are very similar products. Why?

The organic food industry is huge and we are sold the benefits of it. Meat production has better welfare standards.Everyone goes on about fewer pesticides. I used to be convinced that carrots tasted better, but what I bought was grown locally and delivered fresh to me by the grower. I fully accept now that it might not be the fact it was organic that made them taste better.

The health benefits are to me, not clear. I'm a big fan of Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame (I heard him speak recently, he was great) and he's written a whole post on organic food and the FSA's findings that there are no measurable health benefits which you can find here. This echoes = and has informed - my own feelings on the subject.

One of the items I did buy on my shopping trip was an organic lamb joint as it was on special offer. When I cooked it, its texture was lovely but in terms of the taste, we didn't feel it tasted any better, but then it had been a few weeks since we last had roast lamb. Maybe that's the thing - the premium tricks us into thinking because it cost more, it tasted better.

If you are going to buy organic, I would recommend saving it for key ingredients like meat, poultry and eggs as they are a more ethical choice. Some things will never be organic - think seafood, think fish that is not farmed, think foraged items - so there is no point in looking for them. No-one will ever be able to eat 100% organically unless they restrict their diet. Waitrose has one of the most extensive ranges of organic items in a UK supermarket. A quick search of their online shop suggests they have over 800 items (including cat food?!) but that is still a drop in the ocean; supermarkets stock thousands of products.

The conclusion I have come to is this - organic food is a lifestyle choice and it makes money, a lot of money. If you want to buy organic, and you can afford it, by all means go for it. But if you can't afford it, then you will be fine and nothing bad will happen. It's more important to be able to feed your family.

(This post was inspired by an approach by Waitrose, who have a big range of organic products. They sent me a giftcard to buy organic ingredients. They also sent me a box of some organic products.)

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Choosing secondary schools - the start of the journey

So Monkey is now in Year 5 (and Missy in Year 4) and we started the job of visiting secondary school open evenings in the area. Some people have expressed surprise at this but I am not alone.

The window of opportunity is narrow - applications open in September as the open evenings start, then close at the end of October. We've only just been to the last open evening although there are some next week. Had we been starting in Year 6, that would give us two weeks to make a final decision. If you want to arrange revisits, half term is last week of October so you only have a week to go back. A friend of mine is in this position - they only looked at a couple last year and is feeling the pressure a bit this year, no firm decision made and hurriedly trying to look at all the options and come to a conclusion.

Perhaps if you live in a town with only one choice of school, there might be no need to rush and you can do it all in Year 6. What I can't get over is the fact that although a school can look great from the outside, visiting it can be a completely different proposition and what if you don't like it when you do finally look? I know from when we looked at primary schools, the school I thought I'd love, I didn't. And one I thought I wouldn't, I loved. And that's what we chose. Our instincts proved right.

Where we live, there's an embarrassment of choice. In the district, we have 6 secondaries, all rated good or outstanding by Ofsted (I'll come back to Ofsted later). One is too far away, and two are faith schools, with one offering no chance of a place unless we had been regularly attending church since LAST year - yes, at the start of Year 4 - and could prove it. In the neighbouring town, there are 4 more, one outstanding, the rest good or heading that way. Three other neighbouring smaller areas have a school each and there are four others I could consider if I felt I needed to but are probably too far away. Oh my - that's seventeen! That's even before, as some are considering, private schools (which are not for us), or schools further afield - like a private school that became a free school last September.

Obviously, we have to consider if we have a chance of getting places, which is why the field is much narrower than all seventeen. There are so many faith schools here - I can rule out five immediately on that basis because we wouldn't meet the criteria and three more where we would have a chance but may not want to. Take away the ones we think are too far and we got down to five - two in the local town, two in the next and one other, all less a 5 mile journey from home.

The difficulty compared to primary is that dammit, the child has an opinion this time! The worry is that they will just try to choose the one that their friends go to. I understand that, I really do, but I know from talking to parents of older children, that although they don't realise this, they will probably have a totally different set of friends at 16 as they will at 11.

So, off we trekked to five open evenings. I've tried to keep Monkey on track and asked him to think about what he wants a school to be what the school would be like on a normal day, not when they are offering food in nearly every room. We went to one school where he ate sweets (lots), paella, shortbread, three different types of cheese, bockwurst, pain au chocolat (apparently seven bits, just to be sure), pretzel, stollen (two bits), croissant, orange squash, shortbread and lasagne. After tea!

I've tried to go with an open mind and have got better at planning our trips after our first when we unexpectedly arrived late due to traffic forcing a detour, listened to the speeches then only had about an hour to see round a large school (impossible, don't try it - allow at least 2-3 hours to see everything, especially if you want to hear the speeches). I'm very much into the "feel" of a place. This article, by a teacher, confirms I'm right to consider that. It's also why I don't just look at the schools at the top of the league tables or rated outstanding. Why? Although results tables are a guide, basing our choice next year solely on the results that will be published soon from summer 2014 doesn't seem right when Monkey will not be taking GCSEs until the summer of 2021, some seven years later. Schools can change a lot, for good or bad, in that time. And Ofsted? Well, I have my own views but it's hard to compare apples with apples when some were inspected recently and others not inspected for five years - again, a lot can happen in that time. It is just a snapshot of what the inspectors found on those two days. They are a guide but I won't let it put me off until I've seen it with my own eyes.

Getting a general feel for a place can be hard to do when there's a lot of people there at open evenings (and trust me, there can be LOADS; one was so popular, it created traffic jams) but we've been talking to the teachers, pupils and observing how the two appear to get on. We've also caught up with a few former pupils from the children's primary school when we've seen them to see how they're enjoying it.

The first school we went to see is our favourite. And you know what? We went to see an "outstanding" school last that I thought I'd like and I didn't like it that much, just like last time. Nor did the husband and neither did Missy, who has come to all but one. However, Monkey decided, having agreed with us, that the last might be his favourite after all! I think it was because there were an awful lot of people visiting who he knew. A lot of his friends are likely to choose there because of where they live. It's our nearest school but we are outside the priority area (for which read catchment) so our chances aren't as good.

We are planning a trip back to the first school (which we saw a month ago) to remind him what it was like, see it in the daytime and see the parts we missed on open evening. I'm certainly glad we are not doing this next year. Our second favourite looks like being a currently unfashionable school but was lovely, friendly and welcoming to visit. Monkey has also been there in the daytime on a school trip. We only went to the open evening because of this and were pleasantly surprised.

I think I'm coming to two conclusions - the first is to go to see schools, even if on paper they don't seem like the best choice and the second is to start at least a year early. If you're not happy after open evening season, you have time to cast the net wider before crunch time. Most schools are happy to show you around on a normal day. I'd ask why not if they don't.

And I've just thought of a third conclusion - you can definitely get open evening fatigue! I'm very glad they're all over but I least I have an idea of what's coming next year. I was going to say "know" but a lot can happen in that time.

PS If you are looking at grammar schools, you might want to start even earlier; some schools have open days in the summer term because of the need to take tests etc. At least check the school's website (and the local authority) for details so you don't miss out.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Meal Planning Monday - the I am really rubbish edition!

I cannot believe it's 3 weeks since I posted a plan. I swear I had posted since but obviously not. September was stupidly busy. I'd like to say October is calmer but it's not. Next week, I have something every night until Friday. This weekend, I was away in Birmingham with work, I went to London the week before that and a few days before that, we went to Devon and back!

Trying to make up a plan that fits around everything is nightmarish. Monkey is taking part in a school football tournament after school for 3 weeks; he's done one already and so we have two more Mondays to do. Missy has rejoined choir, which is on at the same time! Luckily, someone is taking him to the tournament for me tomorrow so I will pick up Missy later and go watch them play their last matches. On Tuesday, I've started going to a gym class after school but straight after that, we're going to a secondary school open evening. Wednesday, the children have swiming and I have a meeting later (and it's Bake Off final - argh!) and on Thursday, we are going to one final, FINAL secondary school open evening. Phew.

Meals are therefore a mixture of things that cook very quickly, things I can leave (like in a slow cooker) or things I know the kids will eat quickly plus I'm on an economy drive so it's nothing fancy, I can assure you. And we have nothing planned for next weekend - total, total bliss!

Monday - Chinese chicken and sweetcorn soup
Tuesday - Slow cooker chilli with tortillas and guacamole
Wednesday - Sandwiches
Thursday - Cauliflower cheese
Friday - Slow cooker barbeque chicken wings and drumsticks with roasted veg and "stuff"
Saturday - Slow cooker sweet and sour pork, rice and prawn crackers
Sunday - Slow cooker gammon in cola

Hmm. That slow cooker is going to get a hammering!

Don't forget that the lovely Mrs M host Meal Planning Monday on At Home with Mrs M,

Now, unless the world falls in, I PROMISE I will definitely post again next week. Ha.
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