Thursday, 30 July 2015

Exploding garden

One of the big changes for us in moving from London to Suffolk was acquiring a real garden rather than a back yard.

Managing the garden however has been a real challenge. Mostly the garden is winning.
Although summer seems to have disappeared, our garden continues to run rampant.

I remember back at the end of March when I was dismayed by the volume of weeds, and actually tried wielding a trowel and some garden gloves. This may have had some connection with the imminent arrival of Andy-the-gardener to prune the assorted climbing roses, vines and wisteria making a break for the roof, and my embarrassment at the state of the rest of the garden.

The bed at the back of the house started off like this:

Flower bed before: I'm sure some of these are genuine plants

Here's what it looked like after a couple of hours' weeding. Note the flattering camera angle, as I try to ignore the part near the steps, where I rang out of time, effort and energy in the face of ground elder.

Flower bed afterwards: visible earth!

(By the way, in case you were wondering, we were told by the previous owners that the weird little arch is a dog kennel. The strange window that seems to have been eaten up by the flower bed is actually the window for one of the rooms in the basement).

Anyway, fast forward four months, and the plants have fought back.

Think "rustic charm" rather than "unkempt"...

At least the bees are happy. And I can promise myself that if the rain would only hold off a bit, I'd go back outside and hoick out more of the undergrowth.

Unfortunately googling "round blue thistle like flowers that bees like"
did not reveal the name of this plant.

Monday, 27 July 2015

What happens when you blog during the school holidays...

At least they didn't find the poster paints

I feel I may have sadly maligned my children in yesterday's blog post, by saying that they are mainly interested in immense amounts of plastic tat, screen time, sweets and expense.

Turns out that while I am otherwise occupied on the computer, they are also interested in building blocks, bingo, Jenga, jigsaw puzzles, Plax, paper aeroplanes, magnetic letters, making dens, dismantling sofas, drawing, coins, catapults, tea sets, playdoh and Moshi Monsters.

Ideally simultaneously and spread all over the one room in the house which is supposedly toy-free.

Think we're going to need the 10-minute timers for some tidying today.

Anyone else willing to admit that their house has descended into chaos within days of starting the school holidays? Anyone??

Postscript: Turns out that my son is quite proud of his Mount Moshi Tower, so it won't be going anywhere soon. Sigh.

The tower defender

Sunday, 26 July 2015

5 favourite free things to survive the summer holidays

With six weeks of summer holidays stretching ahead of us, I'm keen on anything that will help us all survive without spending every waking hour in front of the TV.

These are my top five COMPLETELY FREE activities which hit the balance between stuff I like (conscience-salving, educational, eco-friendly, active and zero cost) and stuff my children like (immense amounts of plastic tat, screen time, sweets and expense).

Read on for details of free wrist band timers, record breakers posters, tennis sessions, craft boxes and a Roald Dahl interactive adventure game.


Fab Disney themed activities and timer wistband for free - what's not to like?

Send off for this one right now, because it's great:

As part of Change4Life's valiant efforts to get families to eat more healthily and exercise more, they're giving out free Disney Pixar-themed activity packs with wristband timers.
You can choose between Frozen, Monsters Inc and Toy Story, although it looks like they've now run out of Big Hero 6 packs. 
The packs contain a wristband that beeps after 10 minutes, instructions, lots of cards with suggestions for 10 minute activities and stickers to put on a poster for each 'Shake Up' you complete. You can also log progress online.

My children loved getting a colourful package in the post, adore the Disney branding and have been virtually inseperable from the wristbands which look like funky digital watches.

Somehow including Disney references in activities like musical statues or "what's the time, Mr Wolf?" has made them much more attractive, and they've been competing to complete the Shake Ups and add extra stickers.


Reading challenge posters, packed with Record Breaker facts
your children will find fascinating. And repeat. Many times.
More info here and in your local library.

I know library visits sound really worthy, but my children are normally up for a trip to our local library even if only to look at the latest copy of the Beano and ogle the DVDs. 

This year's summer Record Breakers reading challenge provides an extra incentive. They're easily pleased with rewards like stickers and book marks after answering questions about library books they've read, and the accompanying poster has many fascinating facts about Guinness World Records.

My daughter got a medal and a £5 book mark handed out by the local authority after completing last year's Mythical Maze reading challenge, which made her particularly keen to participate again, and encouraged her brother to sign up for the first time.


International tennis stardowm awaits, obviously.

Find a free tennis coaching session near you here:

I've signed both children up to do a free tennis coaching session as part of the Great British Tennis Weekend on Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 August, courtesy of the Lawn Tennis Association.

There are lessons for different age groups from three-year-olds to 10-year-olds, but free play is also available if you can't face coaching.

A single half hour of a group tennis session may not set them on a direct track to Wimbledon, but it will definitely get us all out of the house. Rackets and balls are provided, so aside from any transport costs, it's a completely free activity. Bonus.


This is just an example box, can't claim the floorboards are mine...
Toucan Box is a subscription service that posts out craft boxes to children from 3 to 8 years old.

Currently, they're offering a free "petite" box to new customers, which would normally cost £3.95 for the box plus 98p postage. Just make sure you cancel with a week of dispatch, unless you want to continue paying for new boxes each fortnight.

The website claims the boxes contain all the materials for an "exciting activity" plus colourful instructions. The boxes are also meant to be small enough to fit through your letterbox, so you won't have to traipse to the sorting office if you're out at the library or playing tennis...

One box is completely free, but when signing up yesterday I forked out an entire pound to order a second box and avoid potential warfare. 

To get the code for a free box, you can click through from TopCashBack here and might even get £1.51 in cash back, although I'm a bit hazy on whether you will only get the cash back if you stick around and pay for further boxes. Seemed worth a try.

(And if you haven't already signed up for TopCashBack, which I highly recommend, then here is a completely blantant referral link that will earn me £5 if you use it to join their free service and rack up £10 in cashback:
The normal link with no referral if you'd prefer is this: )

If you don't want to go via TopCashBack, you can also click through from MoneySavingExpert here:


Take part in an interative Roald Dahl game

If you have similar difficulty unsticking your children from the nearest TV, computer, tablet or smartphone, at least this free Roald Dahl game from Persil is worth a try.

The interactive story with Quentin Blake illustrations sends your children rushing off to participate in a Messy Adventure, with different plots based on familiar Dahl books.
I'm bracing myself for buckets of mud. 

Fortunately, given my lack of iPad and extremely elderly mobile, you can also access the game from a normal common or garden computer.

Disclaimer: no one has sponsored me anything at all to write this post, I just wanted to share some sanity-saving ideas. But if you did want to click on the referral link for TopCashBack, that would be lovely.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Counting my blessings

Not so much the grass growing under my feet,
as the wisteria growing over the window.

There's nothing like someone you haven't seen in decades saying they've been stalking you online to put you off your stride with blogging.

To be fair, the conversation at a university reunion was very cheerful and only referred to my Sunday Times article about Live Below the Line.

I have no idea whether my self-confessed stalker breathlessly followed every detail of the June store cupboard challenge, or read a single word of this blog, so I don't think there's any need for a restraining order quite yet.

But it did make me pause for reflection.

The whole reunion was pretty cheerful. Despite different combinations of jobs, marriages, children and divorces, most people seemed content. Perhaps if you're drowning in a deep pit of despair you wouldn't show up, so the people that did come along were happy to reminisce and catch up on the intervening years.

A couple of people told me I hadn't changed at all. Aside from wondering when they last got their eyes tested, I really hope that isn't true. University was a time of glorious utter irresponsibility with many happy memories, but was also an emotional roller coaster for me. I would hope that now I am a slightly kinder, nicer person (I can always dream).

Unlike some of my contemporaries, I may not have a jet-setting job or spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small African nation on school fees. However, I'm more settled in myself, and happier with my lot. I'm not pretending my life is perfect, but thinking about my family, my friends, my home and my health helped put everyday anxieties in perspective.

Anyone else find it helpful every so often to count their blessings, rather than counting every cost?

Friday, 10 July 2015

From cakes to Quorn after my latest Mirror online article

Lovely illustration. Shame mine are the less glamorous ones further down...

Part of the reason I bought replacement flour, demerara sugar and golden syrup during my June store cupboard challenge was because I was writing an article for the Mirror Online about cakes.

So if you'd like to read my suggestions for quick and easy budget best-sellers when cornered about the cake stall for whichever fundraising school / church / Brownie summer fete is coming up next, you can find the article here: caketastic.

Nothing to scare the horses though - I wrote about fairy cakes, chocolate cornflakes cakes and flapjack, as they are all fast, cheap and you can get the children involved if you can face that degree of chaos in your kitchen.

The entertaining part came shortly after the article went live on the Mirror Money website. I got a call from a PR, saying that if I wrote about budget food, would I like some samples of the product she represented plus some recipes for inspiration?

Sounded like a good idea for me, and the extra space created by the store cupboard challenge was certainly very useful when this enormous delivery of Quorn showed up:

A whole mountain of Quorn

So now I have a full freezer again.

And we've had a go at Quorn burgers, served as pretty trad cheeseburgers with wholemeal buns, cheddar, lettuce and lashings of ketchup, and I used some chicken pieces in a coconut noodle laksa soup.

Chilli con Quorn and Quorn fajitas are next on the list, and I'll let you know how it goes.

Any suggestions for tasty meals with Quorn? Do you ever use it as a less expensive alternative to meat? I'd love to know and have a lot of cooking with Quorn to look forward to!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Storecupboard challenge results: clearer cupboards & 40% lower food bills

During June, I decided to cut our shopping bills by eating the contents of our cupboards, fridge and freezer.

This store cupboard challenge provided an incentive to try and use assorted ingredients that had been sitting around for months, if not years. 
I finally faced up to strange ingredients bought for specific recipes and abandoned, like artichoke hearts and soba noodles. 
I experimented with the odds and ends left from an Approved Food order, such as unexpectedly large cous cous and Pizza Express Light Dressing. 
I tackled long forgotten leftovers, like the remains of a bag of frozen mixed berries and the last remnants of brown lentils. 
I even experimented with some budget ingredients bought with the best intentions and then ignored for lack of inspiration, from red lentils and pearl barley to tins of pilchards, pineapple and grapefruit.

Although I did replace some stuff when it ran out, especially cereal, jam and ketchup to avoid family mutiny, with other ingredients I switched to using a different kind of oil, or another kind of pasta, rather than replacing the original version automatically.

So after a whole month dedicated to trying to clear some space, here are the before and after shots from my kitchen:

Main food cupboard before...

Main food cupboard a month later.
Tins decimated, fewer carbs and condiments, still a lot of baking stuff
Big fridge before
Big fridge afterwards, with a "going on holiday" empty feeling
Freezer before
Freezer afterwards: there really is more space
Small fridge before
Small fridge afterwards: fewer bottles, less chutney, more elderflower cordial and cauliflower
Top of green cupboard before
Top of green cupboard afterwards: Fewer jars and eggs, less fruit, different cereal.
Still shedloads of oats though
Mantelpiece before
Mantelpiece after tackling giant cous cous, raisins, sugar and noodles.
The spaghetti is my next target...
Dry stores before
Dry stores afterwards: Original shelf contents all gone, bar the last of some red wine,
and we did make a dent in the 12.5kg sack of potatoes I forgot to photograph at the start. 
Hidden snack stash before
Hidden snack stash afterwards: down to a single box of oats
Mug cupboard before
Mug cupboard afterwards: little difference,
but some of the  tea bags at the back have been used up

Final Results

Week 1 spending summary
Cash spent on food: £52.24
Vouchers spent on food: £6

Week 2 spending summary
Cash spent on food: £6.65
Vouchers spent on food: £30

Week 3 spending summary
Cash spent on food: £70.21
Vouchers spent on food: £3

Week 4 spending summary
Cash spent on food: £41.14
Vouchers spent on food: £0

Final total after a month
Cash spent on food: £173.24
Vouchers spent on food: £39
Total value: £212.24, of which £20.48 has yet to be eaten (just under 10%)

Before I started the store cupboard challenge, our foods bills were running at £67 a week for a family of four.

During the challenge, I ended up spending just over £40 a week - down a hefty 40%. 
Having £39 in vouchers to use definitely helped, but I do normally try and take advantage of money-off voucher anyway, so my normal food spending would include a certain amount.

As far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty good result. I didn't pare everything down to the bone but stuck to relatively normal meals for us, without stinting on fresh fruit and veg.

However, I made more effort to plans meals and minimise food waste, which definitely helped cut costs. I also continued taking advantage of yellow-stickered bargains, so long as they would actually get eaten rather than clogging up the freezer.

I did restock some store cupboard items during the challenge, like cereal, jam, coffee, ketchup, pesto, sugar, syrup, stork and flour, but there are still a bunch of staples I'm looking forward to replacing, like olive oil, balsamic vinegar, stock cubes and soy sauce. No doubt my food bills will go up again this month, but I'll continue to monitor our food spending.

It was an interesting exercise, and there are still shelves I intend to tackle. I didn't make any of my own bread for example, so the part-used bags of flour remain.

The best part is that I no longer feel guilty staring at abandoned ingredients, and now have space to stock up on stuff we actually eat regularly.

Can you see any advantage of a store cupboard challenge, eating the contents of your cupboards, fridge and freezer? 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Week 4 eating from the store cupboards: meals

This was my fourth and final week of the store cupboard challenge, with a bonus nine days taking it to the end of June. 

After last week's extravagance I managed not to go overboard on food shopping, and we finally got the sunshine suitable for a barbecue when some friends came to stay for the weekend.

The last days had a strange holiday feeling, as I focused on using up odds and ends, trying to create space in the fridge, freezer and cupboards. 

Here's what we actually ate:


Breakfast: Porridge with banana
Lunch: Sandwich thin with leftover roast pork, mango chutney and tomato, plus tinned grapefruit and orange
No packed lunch, due to team lunch in cafeteria
Children’s Dinner: Macaroni cheese and bacon, made with leftover cheese sauce
Dinner: Jacket potatoes with leftover coleslaw and baked beans for me, and with leftover broccoli and cauliflower cheese for my husband.

A day of eating up leftovers in a myriad of different forms.


Breakfast: Forgot
Lunch: New batch of leftover stalks and leaves soup, then sandwich thin with soft cheese, salami and tomato
My Husband's Packed Lunch: Sausage sandwich.
Children’s Dinner: Cheese roll / sandwich with cucumber and cherry tomatoes
Dinner: Puff pastry pork and apple pie, with leftover mashed potato, cabbage and broccoli

I made a pie that combined leftover roast pork, apple sauce and gravy with the last of the pack of puff pastry, and can smugly say that it was really delicious. Glad I got the pie dish and funnel from the charity shop! Highly recommended.


Breakfast: Porridge with banana
Lunch: Roasted vegetables with brown lentils
My Husband's Packed Lunch: Leftover shepherd’s pie
Children’s Dinner: Sausage rolls with cherry tomatoes and celery for my son while my daughter was out
Dinner: Pasta puttanesca(ish) with the last of the chorizo added

I finally faced up to the remains of a packet of brown lentils, which had lingered in the cupboard for more years than I care to remember. They were fine with some roasted veg and the Pizza Express Light Dressing bought from Approved Food ages ago, but I won't be rushing to replace the lentils any time soon. My daughter was invited round for tea after school, and my son ate his sausage rolls so fast there wasn't time for a photo! 
The pasta started off as a way to use up tinned tomatoes and the last of some chorizo, but after a quick Google and the addition of peppers, tinned anchovies, capers and chilli flakes it became distinctly more interesting.


Breakfast: Porridge with raisins
Lunch: Leftover roast pork, soft cheese and mango chutney sandwich thin with carrot sticks
My Husband's Packed Lunch: Leftover broccoli and cauliflower cheese, banana cake
Children’s dinner: Fishfingers and oven chips with carrots and sugar snap peas
Dinner: Green thai chicken curry with spring greens and brown rice

As you can see, I was quite keen on the roast pork sandwich and started eating it before remembering to take a photo... The children's fishfingers and chips involved using up the end of one bag of oven chips topped up with some home fries bought on offer and unlikely to be repeated. I really liked the green thai chicken curry, using some of the big whole chicken frozen at the start, but the spring greens I used instead of pak choi were a bit overwhelming.


Breakfast: Fried egg sandwich followed by porridge with grated apple
Lunch: Baked potato with baked beans and salad, with leftover stalks and leaves soup
My Husband's Packed Lunch: A couple of sausage rolls, banana cake
Dinner: Movie night baguette pizzas and pepperoni pizza with salad, plus leftover green thai chicken curry and brown rice for me.

Somehow my husband couldn't face leftover thai curry and brown rice for his packed lunch, so I had it instead of pizza during the family DVD viewing.


Breakfast: Porridge with banana for me, pancakes with nectarine and banana for everyone else
Lunch: Pilchard, tomato and cucumber sandwich thin for me at school fete, pitta breads with salad and taramasalata for everyone else. 
Barbecue for 8: Frankfurters and pork and apple sausages; home-made beefburgers in buns; green salad; cous cous salad using Approved Food giant cous cous with red onion, grated carrot, tomatoes, cumin, pine nuts and peas.  Pear and almond puff pastry tart with ice cream and toffee sauce.

With friends coming to stay, I decided to do pancakes on Saturday, rather than attempt a massive batch on Sunday morning. I headed off to help at the school fete with a hasty packed lunch involving an unphotographed tin of pilchards, some salad and a sandwich thin, and enjoyed the chance to indulge my inner librarian setting up the book stall. 
Everyone else got to eat a very easy lunch of pitta bread and taramasalata, and then we finally had enough sunshine for a barbecue that evening. I made some burgers plus sausages and frankfurters for any burger refuseniks. 
After 27 days I also plucked up the courage to use the giant cous cous from Approved Foods, as the base for a salad, and it tasted fine. The pear and almond tart was fun to make and received with great enthusiasm, especially when served with large quantities of ice cream and toffee sauce.


Breakfast: Croissants for all. Bacon and sausage sandwiches for the Dads.
Lunch for 8: Ham from cooking a gammon joint, baked potatoes, grated cheese, waldorf salad, falafels, pitta bread and remaining taramasalata, tomatoes, cucumber, carrot sticks and lettuce. Strawberries.
Children’s Dinner: Bread and cheese, strawberries, yogurt
Dinner:  Cheese with leftover stalks and leaves soup for my husband, falafel salad pitta for me.

We cracked open a yellow-stickered can of Jus Rol "bake your own" croissants. The tin was fun, but the croissants were less sucessful. Maybe not one to repeat. Luckily we had some normal ones as well.
I didn't get round to taking many photos with weekend visitors, but at lunch time the gammon went down well with waldorf salad. I tried making seasame seed coated falafels, which took ages, but the end result didn't really justify the faff. I finished off the leftover falafel in a pitta that evening.


Breakfast: Porridge with banana
Lunch: Chicken laksa noodle soup
No packed lunch, due to team lunch in cafeteria
Children’s Dinner: Crispy triangles (aka quesadillas), with lettuce and cucumber. Strawberry and banana smoothie, raisin cookies
Dinner: Butternut squash, green olive and peppers tagine with cous cous and tzatziki

It took until right at the end of the challenge, but I broached the soba noodles that had been hanging around for years, in a strange Asian fusion effort at chicken laksa noodle soup, coupled with more of the enormous chicken, some tinned coconut milk, a sachet of laksa spice paste bought in Chinatown, and some leftover chinese leaf. The spices definitely livened up my lunch time. In the evening we ate a butternut squash tagine adapted from "Economy Gastronomy", in that I used a lot less squash, and substituted raisins for dates rather than invest in further dried fruit.


Breakfast: Porridge with raspberries
Lunch: Fish cakes made from leftover pilchards, leftover baked potato and spring onions, plus stir-fried spring greens
My Husband's Packed Lunch: Sausages in finger rolls, leftover pear and almond tart with toffee sauce 
Children’s dinner: Chicken burgers in buns, using up the last of the enormous chicken, with cucumber, raw sugar snap peas and lettuce. New Zealand biscuits.
Dinner: Bacon and cheese quiche with green salad and home-made coleslaw

On the last day of my June store cupboard challenge I was on a mission to use up whatever I could - from defrosted raspberries on my porridge, to making New Zealand biscuits to chip away at the mountain of cheap oats. 
I think it's safe to say that without the store cupboard challenge I would not have used the remaining pilchards, the last spring onions and the leftover half of a jacket potato to make fishcakes, nor would I have served them on wilted spring greens. They were fine. 
Rather more successful were the chicken burgers for the children, using the very last tiny pieces of the enormous chicken, and the remnants of the cooking bacon turned into quiche.

Familiar snacks throughout the week
Fresh and tinned fruit, with the addition of value range natural yogurt in my case. My husband always takes in fruit with his packed lunch, even though I don’t mention it on specific days.
Banana cake
New Zealand biscuits (oat and coconut)
Bread or crumpets and jam
Yogurt and fromage frais tubes

Treat for the children after swimming lessons: Fruit Shoots, freebie yogurt coated cereal bars and hot cross bun each