Thursday, 27 February 2014

Why I love the first signs of Spring

Today was one of those wonderful days when you can almost smell the first hints of Spring in the air.

For those of you who also live in this wonderful part of the world known as north-east Scotland, I do realise that snow is not uncommon in March. And that today might actually have been Spring. Just be a sport and stick with me anyway.

Here are some of the things that I love most about the season that lies tantalisingly before us:

  • There's a glimmer of hope that, even when you've had a full shift at work, you'll still manage to catch some daylight at either end of it.

  • What seems to have been an eternally dull grey landscape suddenly bursts back into life with a riot of colour.

  • Family weekends are less about watching movies and huddling over electronic devices and more about the great outdoors and all of its associated adventures.

  • The desperate business of finding gloves, hats, buffs and boots for everyone before you leave the house is no longer necessary. Neither is the requirement to wear a coat that makes you resemble a cladded boiler with hands and feet.

  • Your winter glass of warming red is replaced by something altogether more sparkly and fun.  Pimms? Prosecco? G & T?

As with any situation, however, there are some minor drawbacks to the onslaught of Spring:

  • You realise that your windows haven't been cleaned properly since last September.  And that you now actually want to look out of them.

  • Your husband will become obsessed as to when the first cut of the lawn should take place.  And which of the other neighbours have beaten him to it.

  • And - scariest of all - alongside the welcome shedding of layers is the realisation that a major body maintenance review is required.

Fake tan anyone?

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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Recipe round-up for average cooks

Let's be straight from the start: This here blog ain't ever gonna be a food blog.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the consumption of food. Even more so if someone else has cooked it for me.  It's just the shopping, preparation, serving and clearing up afterwards that I don't like.

I blame my S2 home economics teacher.  "Clare tends to be rather slap dash in the kitchen," she opined on my end-of-year report. Perhaps I just gave up at that point.

In fairness, I think cooking can be fun when you have the time, the money for exotic ingredients and kitchen counters the size and cleanliness of Nigella's.  It's the daily grind of planning what you're going to eat, throwing it together, then watching your fellow diners pick at it grumpily for 40 minutes (child one) or wolf it down in 40 seconds (child two) that gets to me.

However, until I win the lottery and can afford to dine out every night, this is the reality of my situation.  And, like all good mummies, I do try.

So, for all of those average (or below average like me) cooks, here are some of my favourite "go to" dishes.  I'm a lover of recipes that are prefixed by the words quick/speedy/simple/easy, so most of these have a limited amount of  ingredients that should be effortless to source.  For any US readers who need to convert measures, there's a handy table here.


For starters, a snack lunch or when you finally get round to entertaining...

This bruschetta recipe came to my attention via the wonderful Complete Guide To Imperfect Homemaking blog by Kelly Oribine.  Kelly now has a new blog here but she's kindly left all her previous words of wisdom in cyberspace for us to access.  What I really like about Kelly is that she seems to understand  those of us who aren't natural cooks. Her posts include lots of extra little tips to make the process of entertaining less stressful (yippee).  I also love the fact that this is a pretty healthy take on bruschetta with plenty of extra veggies hidden in there.



(Apologies for the strong pasta theme folks. If I ever get around to writing another food-related post, I'll aim for a little more variety.)
A child-pleasing comfort dinner when you have a bit of time to spare...

My own mum's mac and cheese is super-easy and economical to make. Funnily enough, she doesn't have her own website to link up to so I've battered out the recipe right here:  Melt 25g butter and a rounded tablespoon of cornflour over a low heat for one minute.  Add just under half a pint of milk, salt and pepper and a spoon of mustard (I like to use Dijon). Bring to the boil for one minute.  Add 75g grated cheddar (take it off the boil for this part), stir and add to cooked macaroni.  Top with some more grated cheddar and sliced tomatoes. Dash around the house multi-tasking while it bakes in the oven for around half an hour at 200°C. I should probably also be responsible and suggest that you serve up this stodgy dish with some steamed veg.
A child-pleasing dinner that is just about palatable to adults when you have zero time to spare...

This second recipe is like a posh pasta and sauce but you'll feel ever so smug that you refrained from popping that jar of Dolmio open.  It takes minutes and is just perfect for those nights when everyone is "starving" and you're exhausted from a full day at work followed by the kids' swimming run. Vanity hint: This one always looks a little better if made with spaghetti and sprinkled with parmesan.



These two represent my little lad's favourite hot and cold puddings: 

Delia's cheat's Eton mess involves Greek yoghurt, chopped strawberries and meringues crumbled into a bowl.  If you can be bothered, she suggests making a sort of compote by blitzing half the fruit with some icing sugar in a mini blender, then swirling it through the mixture to create a marbled effect.  We sometimes cheat the cheat's recipe (that's how low I'm willing to stoop) by drizzling over some Easi-Yo fruit squirt instead.

One of my favourite recipes in our well-thumbed edition of Can't Cook Won't Cook Leaves Home (yip, people still gift me student cookbooks) is this shortcut sticky toffee pudding. In a nutshell, you need to butter an oven-proof dish, crumble in some Madeira cake and make a sauce by melting 50g of butter with 100g of brown sugar and 150ml of double cream.  Pour sauce over crumbled cake and whack in the oven at 190°C for 10 minutes.  Serve with whichever calorie-laden accompaniment you prefer: cream, ice cream or custard.

Purists might complain that it doesn't taste like the real thing but it is incredibly sweet, incredibly fattening and tastes rather nice.  What's not to like?



For an easy cake when you have a bit of time, I recommend this fail-safe lemon drizzle. And when you crave cake but have no time, try this easy chocolate microwave cake instead (I make mine using a square silicon baking tray).  I realise that Mary Berry wannabes will be cringing at the prospect of cake-making and microwaves. To this I respond as follows: It takes eight minutes - EIGHT MINUTES PEOPLE - to bake.  It's therefore a winner in my book.
Do you love or loathe cooking? What's your 'go-to' family-friendly recipe? Leave a comment and let me know.
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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Finding that extra hour in the day you never knew you had

As regular readers of this blog will know (hi mum, hi sis), I've been using my latest posts to have a bit of a grumble about the ΓΌber-juggle of working throughout half-term with a terrifyingly long to-do list.
Well, it's confession time.  Because despite being SOOOOOO busy and having SOOOOOO much to do, I managed to put aside at least one hour every day during the last fortnight for something new.
I've not joined a gym.  Neither have I extended my 25-minute plod round the local pavements that I optimistically refer to as "a run".  I've not even joined a club and met lots of fabulous new people.
My new activity over the past fortnight has not involved leaving the house.  It hasn't even involved leaving the sofa.  Have you guessed yet?
Winter Olympics fever.  Who knew?  Every evening at 7pm my little family and I have huddled into the TV room to watch the latest highlights from Sochi.  Exciting? Yes. Inspiring? Yes.  Compulsive? Yes. Yes. YES.
Winter Olympics: Our new addiction
With the reality of the closing ceremony looming, I was left feeling a little empty. It's amazing how quickly habits start to form. I was really going to miss our nightly family huddle and our own silly wee game of cheering on our bib colour of choice in the ski cross.
Then my mind started to wander a little further...  If I could find an hour each day, during an exceptionally busy fortnight, to enjoy a shared interest with my family, why couldn't I turn that habit into a long-term thing?
It needn't involve us leaving the house.  It needn't involve pots of money.  And it needn't involve the TV either.  But if we can continue to spend one hour each day having fun together then the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will have done us a HUGE favour.
In the whirl of life that is work, parenting, household management and everything else in between, no-one really has 'spare' time.  We have to make a conscious decision to set aside the time.  And to make that time really matter.
It would be all too easy to let our golden hour of family time dissolve into a fond memory but I, for one, am going to fight for it.
I may not be an Olympian, but I'm a mum on a mission. And that's almost just as powerful...Isn't it?
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Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Half-term: Holiday or headache?

Half term. So how was it for you? (If you're south of the border you may still be enduring the pleasure or pain of half-term. Good luck with that.)

Here at Average Towers half-term demanded juggling that was high-level even by our usual chaotic standards.  Through a complete lack of organisation and, to be honest, an almost complete lack of cash, our non-plan was that we'd take the childcare in turns.  Hubby had a delightful series of 12 hour shifts, while I clustered my work meetings into the remaining days that he was home.

As half-term approached, my workload grew along with my sense of panic. There was nothing for it: On the days that hubby was at work, I'd have to play shift worker too.  This little game involves getting up at the crack of dawn to power through a few bits and pieces before the small people demand breakfast.  And when they go to bed at night? You guessed it - back to the laptop I go.

To add an extra edge to the proceedings, by day three of the dawn 'til dusk routine I had pulled a muscle in my back. Quite how you can achieve this without any real physical exertion is a mystery. 

Stopping wasn't an option (it never really is when you're a parent), so on I slogged.  Let's dispel the myth of the glamorous life of the homeworker right now.  Imagine if you will a pyjama-clad figure  huddled over a desk with an ice pack tucked at the base of her spine, swilling tea and typing manically at 6.30am on a Saturday morning.  That's the reality.

My half-term survival station

But this post is not about me having a moan. Well, not entirely.  The fact is, after a bit of grumbling I decided to give myself a virtual kick up the bahookie (my back was still too sore to try it for real).
Here's the deal: I have a job I enjoy almost all of the time.  I work for and with some truly fun people. I am fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of my work from home.  I am even more fortunate in being able to mould the work I do around my husband's erratic shifts.  I may not have spent much time with hubby over half term but our children always had one of their parents around.
So I'm not going to moan (much).  And when I attempt to stack the dishwasher with dirty laundry? I'll tell myself that sleep is overrated anyway...

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Thursday, 13 February 2014

'Twas the night before Valentine's

'Twas the night before Valentine's
And in many a house
There were two anxious people
With no gift for their spouse

Sounds familiar? To be frank, at Average Towers we're long past the will we/won't we phase of celebrating Valentine's Day.

We've passed through the time-honoured phases of Valentine's Day celebrations that I'm certain most couples who've been together for more than a decade go through:

Pre-marriage: Slaves to commercialism. Lavish gifts all round.

Marriage, pre-kids: Still conforming to commercialism.  Overpriced meal out in restaurant. Possible theatre trip.

Early years with children: M&S 'posh' meal deal and a couple of dismal years of misunderstanding as to whether we are exchanging cards or not.

Now: Finally on the same page.  I'm 100% certain that I'm not getting anything. Neither is he.

I can almost sense people wringing their hands and shaking their heads as they read this.  Surely, I hear you cry, you will be giving one another the gift of some quality time together?

Actually no.  In fairness, I have taken the day off work.  Only because it is half-term and hubby is working a 12-hour shift.

Here's the thing. It's not that we're completely unromantic (honest). It's just that we don't choose to be romantic because it's expected. Call it a small act of rebellion in my average little life.

To my mind, it's far nicer to be gifted a bunch of flowers by my other half when he knows I've had a really tough day.

And, as we're having a frugal February, it makes sense to save our pennies for a little getaway that we're planning in Spring.

Of course, I don't deny for one minute that receiving flowers, jewellery or chocolates tomorrow will give ladies throughout the land a wonderful and well-deserved boost.  It's just that my own valentine and I have an understanding. It doesn't mean we don't care about one another.  Somewhere, in among all the petty day-to-day grumbles that pepper family life, I'm pretty sure we still do.

What's more, I've a funny feeling that tomorrow's going to be the day when he finally caves and agrees to paint the kitchen walls in my shade of choice.

Who said romance is dead?

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Sunday, 9 February 2014

Five things no-one ever tells you about parenthood

A couple of my friends have recently given birth. I have no intention of jumping on that particular bandwagon again, however the subject of new parenthood did cause me to hark back to that bewildering time in my own life.
Forget sleepless nights, weaning advice and potty training. Here are the things that I wish someone - anyone - had warned me about in advance...
1. From here on in, everything takes twice as long.  Forget grabbing your coat and nipping to the corner shop for a pint of milk.  This is now known as a military-style exercise. Prepare for the eventuality that, having spent 30 minutes grappling with small limbs and small clothes, you will realise, in the middle of the Co-op, that you have forgotten to change out of your own slippers.
2. Expect to be late for everything for the first six months (or in my case six years). This will not sit well with a) your boss b) elderly relatives and c) childless friends. Please refer to point 1 above.
3. Getting ready to go out is no longer an enjoyable part of the evening.  If you are fortunate enough to possess a) sufficient energy and b) willing babysitters, you may wish to actually leave the house in the evening without the company of small people.  The previously enjoyable process of choosing an outfit, applying make-up and (sigh) sipping an advance glass of chilled white is no longer an option.  Instead, you must master the art of the 30-second shower, the 10-second clothes change and the application of mascara in a moving taxi. Please refer to point 2 above.
4. Retail therapy is no longer part of your repertoire. Saturday afternoon clothes shopping, in particular, is out of the question. Make friends with your Next Directory and, indeed, any other trustworthy internet or mail order clothing company.  That's where you'll be shopping for the next decade.
Make friends with mail order
5. Your parents now have no interest in you, other than as chauffeuse for their grandchildren. If you receive a cursory "hello" and "goodbye" as you arrive and depart then you're doing well.
On the plus side, you are about to discover an amazingly versatile household staple in the form of baby wipes.  Ten years on and we're still finding uses for them in Average Towers. However did I survive without them?

What do you wish people had told you in advance about parenthood? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Friday, 7 February 2014

Learning to laugh at yourself

Throughout my teens, twenties and a fair amount of my thirties, I was excruciatingly self-conscious.
I don't know if it's old age or if I'm just finally growing up. But at last we have a breakthrough: I'm able to laugh at the embarrassing things I do as I muddle my way through my average life.
I've also stumbled upon another revelation: If you share your little faux pas with others, they laugh too. Not at you but with you.  And you tend to get over it a lot more quickly. If they are true kindred spirits, they join in by recounting their own cringe worthy red-faced moments.
What's that I'm hearing? It's my turn first? Oh well, if you must...
Read on and FEEL BETTER.
  • I once sat through a pre-school presentation with an assortment of children's hats and gloves in my hood.  My little 'uns had seen me do this with their own winter accessories when I was hanging up their coats at nursery. They'd clearly concluded that mummy's larger hood made a better receptacle for their many bits and pieces.  To make matters worse, I had chosen to be a 'keen bean' who sat in the front row.  So yes, that's right, almost everyone in the audience had a full view of me and my stuffed hood.
  • I have been known to drive off from work meetings with my folder and meeting notes on the roof of the car.  (Please tell me this doesn't only happen to me.)  On one particularly memorable occasion, I had to dart across a busy dual carriageway in stilettos and a shift dress, desperately trying to recover pages of important information while dodging articulated lorries and other fast moving vehicles.
  • I once managed to drive the car into our own garage door.  (Saved the best 'til last, didn't I?) The seat was adjusted to suit hubby (strapping lad) and not me (petite lady).  Keys in ignition, car starts to move, driveway's on a slope, can't reach pedal, too shocked to remember about handbrake. CRASH.  Our nine-year-old, something of a drama queen, revelled in telling everyone that mummy had not only crashed the car into her own property but had also (cue hushed tones and pause for effect) "said a bad word".
I could add to the authenticity of that last story by inserting a photograph of our (popped out but still dented) garage door. But even my ability to share doesn't quite stretch to that.  So instead I'll leave you with this parting thought:

Are you brave enough to share any embarrassing moments? Leave a comment - I dare you!

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Tuesday, 4 February 2014

What to do when you can't get motivated

Why is that some days you feel like you could take on the world and the next it's a struggle to get out of bed? Hormones? Energy levels? Weather? The prospect of an unpleasant list of chores ahead?
Perhaps it's a combination of all of the above.  But here's the thing: For most of us, nestling back down under the duvet isn't an option.
Assuming that you've managed to get up and dressed, how on earth do you motivate yourself if you are having one of those types of day?
I'm no stranger to the struggle to "get out the bit" as we say here in Scotland. And, like so many of you, when there's work, family life and other commitments to juggle, I almost always have a to-do list lurking, waiting to be tackled.
For this reason, I've eagerly absorbed every crumb of advice involving procrastination and the art of knuckling down to work. Forums, self-help books and, you guessed it, other blogs are thankfully full of suggestions. 

Here's my own consolidated set of techniques to help you on your way... As ever, I've included what I think is a decent mixture in the hope that there's something here for everyone.
Keep it short
Getting started is almost always the worst part so I've borne that in mind here.  If you can just get going and feel that you've achieved something, chances are that you might feel good enough to tackle the next task in hand.  It's therefore sometimes a good idea to start out with a job that you know you can complete quickly. As the queen of home management, flylady, says: "You can do anything for 15 minutes."
Keep it simple
On a similar note to the above suggestion, if you need a "quick fix" achievement, then you could do worse than to choose something easy as a starting point on your to-do list.  No matter that it doesn't take much brainpower or physical effort, you'll have done something (albeit something simple) when you were in the mood to do absolutely nothing.
Keep it mechanical
If even simple tasks seem like too big a mountain to climb, go for something that really is a "no brainer" - something repetitive and mechanical. That pile of paper that needs shredded, those socks that need paired, the envelopes that need stuffed. If that's all you feel up to - and it needs done anyway - go for it.
Keep it physical
If paperwork features in your 'to do' list but you simply can't concentrate, you may have to put it to one side temporarily.  (I appreciate that this isn't an option if you work in an open plan office!) If your schedule has the flexibility, go and do something active instead.  I'm a homeworker so I'll often go and disgruntledly hoover or mop a floor to try and power my way out of my bad mood.  These things usually need done in my house anyway, so at least I've gone some way towards tackling the chores.
Keep it incentivised
Promising small children a reward for completing a mundane task might be frowned upon but this time it's up to you! If you can't get yourself going, why not promise yourself something nice if you succeed in knuckling down for a certain amount of time?  It doesn't have to be anything major - even just a break for a cuppa, or a chat on the 'phone with a friend.
Keep it nasty
Bit of a wildcard here at the end! (Just wanted to check that you were still reading....)  Sometimes, when you are in a real grump anyway, it's worth considering doing the polar opposite to suggestions one and two. That's right:  Pick the big task you are most dreading and immerse yourself in it.  After all, if you are out of sorts you may as well be out of sorts properly!

Do you have any techniques for dealing with days when you simply "can't get out the bit?" If so, please comment below.

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Saturday, 1 February 2014

Is technology taking over your family's life?

This isn't the first article on the subject of technology and its influence on family life.  I'm pretty sure that it won't be the last either. It's an emotive subject, make no bones about it. Many parents have huge concerns about their children's growing use of games consoles, mobile phones and tablets. In the run-up to the festive season, the Facebook status updates that provoked the most debate were those that read: "My child wants the latest technological gadget for Christmas - should we go ahead and get him it?" Cue a barrage of comments spanning a variety of differing parental viewpoints.
I'm going to start out with my usual disclaimer: This article is not going to preach about how much or how little you should be letting your children use technology.  We have several devices in our household -   it's certainly not a technology free zone. Instead, I want to explore how the average family can find the right 'technology balance' for them...
Two recent situations prompted me to look hard at our own family's technology use:
During a recent short break at a well-known family friendly resort, I couldn't help but be saddened by the situation in the evenings.  The hotel  had a lovely spacious lounge area, which many families retired to after dinner.  Despite the fact that there was musical entertainment, most families took to the sofas with their iPads or game consoles for the kids. Often, both adults had their mobile phones out.  There was no conversation.  There was no engagement with other families.  And no-one really looked as though they were enjoying themselves that much.  Since family holidays represent precious time together, I found the scenario quite distressing.
Even closer to home, hubby and I were becoming guilty of letting our own family's technology use creep gradually upwards. We have an iPad that is used by all the family with separate folders for children's apps (educational and fun). My daughter, who is rapidly approaching double figures, has an iPod Touch (saved for with her own money and bought second-hand from eBay).  Somewhere along the lines, our original rules about the use of these had fallen by the wayside.  The kids were spending more and more time wrapped up in their favourite apps and we were spending less and less time playing board games, chatting or even watching movies together as a family. 
And so we decided it was time to re-introduce and reinforce the old rules.  Time spent on iPads and iPods would be limited - and permission would need to be asked first.  Both devices would be stored in communal areas, so that there was no skulking off to bedrooms on the pretext of doing something else.  My husband and I agreed that we would make a greater effort to stay away from our mobile phones while we were eating, talking or playing as a family.  We realised that we'd become a little like the parents we described above - taking out our phones at the end of a meal just to check the weather, then getting caught up in emails while the kids copied our anti-social example.
Keep iPads and iPods in communal areas
And that's why in the future I'll try not to criticise anyone else's approach to technology. Because it's such a difficult issue. And it is oh-so-easy to let your own standards slip.  And children, as they grow older, have changing needs. And - an important point - technology is not all evil. Many schools use educational apps and some homework is now done online. On visiting our local library today, I discovered that iPads are available for use there by the general public too.  Technology allows us to access and share some amazing information. To divorce our children from that completely would not be doing them a favour - technology is an important part of our world and will have a continuing influence on all of our lives.  (Consider this: The US Department of Labour reports that  65% of today’s grade school kids will end up at a job that has not yet been invented. Scary stuff, eh?)
So what happens when we get it wrong? When we agree to a game that we later feel is unsuitable? Or we want to cut back the time our children spend on these devices?
In our average household, we decided to pay attention to our gut feeling. If it makes you uncomfortable, chances are that it's not right for your family.  So cut the time back. Take the game away. Brace yourself and say the words: "I'm sorry, we were wrong to allow you to have that. We made a mistake.  This has to stop."
There will be tantrums, there will be tears. But if it doesn't feel right to you, chances are that it isn't right for your children either. 
How does your family handle technology? Let me know if you've found a balance that works for you.
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