22 December 2014

Ho Ho Ho




I love Christmas. I try to enjoy the run up to the Big Day. After all, shopping, wrapping, decorating, crafting and baking are fun things to do. Sadly, when I put them on my daily to do lists they blend in with the other stuff on there: 'make wreath' sits between 'clean windows' and 'take car for service', and 'make gingerbread' gets buried somewhere in the PTA mountain.

What I am doing is spending less and less time online. I value the friendships I have made, particularly with other bloggers, and I love to see what's going on in Facebookland, but it's a massive distraction from my family. I want to spend the next couple of weeks with my husband and children. I don't just want to be in the same room, I want to be present. This means no laptop and no phone.

I'll set aside some time to shop the sales (if there's anything left), but the rest of the holidays will be devoted to fun, food, friends and family.

Wishing all my readers and online friends a spectacular festive season and a peaceful and healthy 2015.


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3 November 2014

20+ Home Made Hamper Ideas





Last Christmas I made my 87 year old step-dad cry when I handed him his present. I'd made him a hamper of all his favourite food and drink. There was a bottle of wine, dark chocolates, shortbread, jams, chutneys, crackers and even cheese (kept in the fridge until the last minute). I wouldn't have been able to afford to buy a ready made hamper like this, but making my own was fun to do and super easy and affordable.

If you're making up a food hamper you won't notice the cost if you add one item a week to your shopping list. Look out for special offers, BOGOF's and sales too to reduce the cost even further.

If you like to make your own presents, as do a lot of my clever blogger friends (ANA Mum Diary, Being Mrs C, Bug Bird Bee, Cat's Yellow Days, The Crazy Kitchen and Me and My Shadow), how about a home made hamper? Start now and make syrups, flavoured oils, damson gin, sweet jams, spicy jamsjellies, chutneys, festive chutneys and preserves. Nearer the time you can add crackers, biscuits, fudge or mince pies to your hamper.

Helen at the Crazy Kitchen has made loads of flavoured alcoholic drinks. You may want to make batches of Malteser Vodka, Toffee Vodka, Cherry Vodka and Cranberry Vodka, and put them all in a hamper. I know a lot of my friends would LOVE this.

All you need to make up a hamper is a cardboard box or basket, some wrapping paper to cover it, and cellophane and ribbon to wrap it. For a Christmassy touch, add bells or baubles to the bow, or even Pinkoddy's salt dough stars. You can also line the box with scrunched or shredded tissue paper or bubble wrap - this stops the contents rattling around. Collect boxes of all shapes and sizes throughout the year. Here's a great tutorial on how to wrap a basket in cellophane.


Image credit

Another option is to buy a cake board (79p in Asda) and stick your goodies to the board with double sided tape, then wrap with cellophane and ribbon.

PTA's: a cake board and cellophane are a brilliant option for displaying raffle prizes. Put together hampers for men, women, children and babies from items donated for your Christmas or summer fayre. This year we noticed several people had donated Gruffalo items, so we made a Gruffalo hamper.



I make mini hampers for my children's teachers at the end of each school year. I fill a new mug with fancy tea bags, hot chocolate sachets, marshmallows, mini muffins, cookies and sweets, wrap it in tissue paper and cellophane, all finished off with a bright ribbon. These went down very well, one TA still mentions hers every time I bump into her.

You could go to an old fashioned sweet shop and fill a (sterilised) jar with sweets of all colours. If you're making similar gifts for several people you could split giant packs of pick and mix sweets. This way you also get to sample the sweets at the same time...

Make a lolly bouquet by sticking lollies on a polystyrene block, with tissue paper in between. Wrap the block with more tissue paper and cellophane and finish with a large bow.

To counter the Christmas excess, I know I'd appreciate a good old fruit hamper. Go nuts and add nuts and dates too - after all it is Christmas.

If, like Kids Chaos, you know someone who likes stationery, then make them a hamper. You could even fill a large pencil case with gorgeous bits and pieces and wrap it up with a pretty notebook. Likewise, if you know someone who is crafty you could fill a box with ribbons, buttons and other embellishments.

Pamper hampers are a great gift. You could easily and cheaply put together soap and talc with some slippers for an older relative, or a shower gel, shower puff, body scrub and body lotion kit for someone younger. Pick the items to suit the person. You can also buy a pashmina for pennies on Ebay, use this instead of tissue paper to add colour to your hamper - or make it part of the wrapping.

You could easily get a relaxation hamper together, including a lavender eye pillow, Rescue Remedy and camomile tea.

Nail varnish, remover, cotton wool and emery boards would make a great hamper for a friend. Include hand lotion and cotton gloves for the full manicure experience.

A lot of girls would love a make up bag full of hair accessories. My boys would be over the moon with a party bag style hamper, full of little bits and bobs (balloons, cars, balls, etc.).

Bakers would adore a pudding bowl full of muffin cases, cookie cutters, wooden spoons and sprinkles.

You could make someone a car cleaning kit, wrapping up a sponge, chamois leather and car shampoo in a brightly coloured bucket. If someone gave me this I would cry, but some people may appreciate it.

Gardeners would love a hamper full of seeds, twine, seed markers and some new gloves, perhaps wrapped on a kneeling pad.

Sports fanatics can be easily catered for. What about a football supporters pack, including a scarf, hand warmers and a travel mug?

Bloggers, I should add that hampers are an excellent way to recycle your goody bag stash. The recipient will not know where you got their gifts from (unless they're marked as a sample - do check) and you can appear super generous.



If you know someone who likes owls you can find a whole section devoted to them at one of my favourite online shops, the Dot Com Gift Shop. This is my entry to their blogger competition. I have not been compensated for this blog post, I'm doing it for the love... and the chance to win an iPad Mini...

Other fabulous hamper ideas:
12 Movie Night Gift Hamper Ideas by Me and My Shadow
Christmas Eve Surprise Box by Imagination Tree
Alternatives to the Traditional Christmas Hamper by Domestic Goddesque
10 Hamper Gift Ideas by Red Ted Art
Themed Hampers and Gift Ideas by Kids Chaos

I could go on all day, the possibilities are endless. Personalised hampers show the recipient that you have put a lot of thought and care into their gift. You never know, they may cry with happiness on Christmas Day.

Edited to link up with the fabulous Thinly Spread Festive Friday



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21 October 2014

Giveaway - Anyone for Mini Tennis?

*** This giveaway is now closed  ***

Congratulations to the winner, Clare A



My boys are sports mad. Their first love is football, but they enjoy being active and will give anything a go. They watch all the sport on television (given half a chance). Their favourite lesson at school is PE, so when they were asked to try LTA Mini Tennis they jumped at the chance.

What is mini-tennis?

Mini Tennis is the perfect introduction to the world of tennis for children between 3 and 10 years old. The tailored approach enables children to develop vital tennis skills and techniques at an early stage, and with all the fun and energy of the real thing. There are four stages of Mini Tennis; Tots, Red, Orange and Green, each with their own court size and type of ball.

LTA Mini Tennis Tots is for children aged 3 to 5 years old and enables them to learn the basics through a series of fun activities, based on the fundamental areas of balance, co-ordination, agility, movement and racket and ball skills. Tots play with sponge balls and 17 or 19 inch rackets.

LTA Mini Tennis Red is for players aged 8 and under and is played on small courts with mini tennis rackets and red soft balls. Within a modified space and with safer equipment, it’s just like the real game, and gives players opportunities to have long rallies and play different types of shots.

LTA Mini Tennis Orange is a progression from Mini Tennis Red, and is for players aged 8 and 9. The courts are bigger and wider than red courts, but still smaller than a full size court, and allow players to develop a rounded game whilst learning a range of techniques and tactics.

LTA Mini Tennis Green is a progression from Mini Tennis Orange, and is for players aged 9 and 10. The court is full size but played with green balls that are 25% slower than a yellow ball. It’s the next stage before moving on to full compression yellow balls on a full sized court and helps players develop and improve all aspects of their game.

Along the way, players can also earn their stripes with the LTA Mini Tennis Rally Awards. There are different levels at each stage of Mini Tennis and each level covers four different skills: Rally, Serve, Come to the Net and Score and Compete. Coaches and parents can take advantage of personalised promotional materials, awards, merchandise, equipment and clothing via the Mini Tennis Shop and www.mytennistoolkit.com.

In addition, Mini Red and Mini Orange are both great tools to adapt tennis to suit a range of disabilities.

***

So what did Presley and Cash make of their first tennis lesson?

They loved it. We were made to feel very welcome. There were eight children in the session, some had been going for a while and others were new. They started with a warm up and then moved on to learning the four stages of backhand, before playing games using a net.

The boys were able play the games well and remembered the four stages of backhand - and put them into play. They were engaged for the entire hour and thoroughly enjoyed elarning new skills.

***



The Giveaway

The Prize

· 1 x B ball Felt – Pack of 24
· 2 x Babolat Ball fighter 23” rackets
· 2 x kids t-shirts


a Rafflecopter giveaway


Terms and Conditions

The prize consists of  1 B ball Felt – Pack of 24, 2 Babolat Ball fighter 23” rackets and 2 kids t-shirts. The prize will be sent out by the promotor, LTA. There is no cash alternative. This giveaway is open to UK residents, aged 18 and over, who correctly complete the Rafflecopter form.
This giveaway starts 11.00am 21 Octover 2014 and closes 11.00am 28 October 2014. The winner will be picked at random from all correct entries within three days of the end of the giveaway, using Rafflecopter. If the winner does not respond within 7 days of being notified, the prize will be re-drawn.


Disclosure
We have not been compensated for this post. We were just happy to try mini tennis, the first session is free. 

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24 September 2014

Recipe: Slimming World Rice Pudding




Sometimes you just need a big bowl of the warm creamy comfort food that is rice pudding.

When you're trying to eat healthily and lose weight, you would think that rice pudding would be off the menu. Think again. If you make it yourself, from scratch, you can make it without sugar or even milk.

There is one rice pudding recipe doing the rounds at Slimming World where you cook pudding rice in diet cream soda to make a rice pudding. This used to be free on Slimming World, but it is now considered a "tweak".

There are lots of tweaks in Slimming World. People tweak the plan by combining free foods to make other foods. Eventually Slimming World catch on and allocate syn values to these foods (you can have between 5 and 15 Syns per day). Fair enough. You're only kidding yourself if you think you can lose weight if you eat your own body weight in - for instance - cooked lasagne sheets (free), coated in spray oil (also free) and baked in the oven. They're kind of like Doritos, but they're not a filling healthy meal. Tweaks are essentially free foods, but you're not eating them as intended, so they are given a Syn value. Pudding rice is a free food, but rice pudding (made with milk or diet drinks) is not.

I've made the cream soda rice pudding and it's okay. One day I realised I didn't have enough cream soda to make it, so I improvised and came up with a new method that is just as delicious and - most importantly - SYN FREE*.

*The small print. My recipe could be considered a tweak (although after a Google search I can't find an official statement by Slimming World about it), UNLESS you make it part of a food-optimised meal, i.e. one third of the meal is Super-Free. I'm yawning just typing this. In a nutshell - I think - if you have a plenty of veg on your plate for your dinner you can have this as a pudding if you serve it with fruit. Whatever. You don't really care about all that, you just want me to tell you how to make my rice pudding.


Sandy's Recipe for Slimming World Rice Pudding

Serves 4
Takes 20-30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 6oz Pudding Rice (usually found in the baking aisle of the supermarket)
  • 1 litre cold water
  • Artificial Sweetener (to taste)
  • Flavourings (we'll come to that later)

Method

  1. Put the rice, water and sweetener in a large saucepan and stir
  2. Bring to the boil
  3. Cook for 20-25 minutes
  4. Stir occasionally, gradually reducing the heat down to a gentle simmer 
  5. The rice pudding is ready when almost all of the liquid is absorbed by the rice
  6. You can serve it warm or cold

Flavourings

This is where you can be a little creative.

I sometimes add a few drops of custard, banana or buttery caramel flavouring to my rice pudding. I love Lakeland Natural Flavours (usually £3.99, but currently on offer - buy one, get one half price). I was just getting the link for you when I saw two new flavours: mulled wine and Christmas pudding. Oh my.

Lakeland Natural Flavours also work well mixed into that other Slimming World favourite, Quark.

If you like cinnamon in your rice pudding, add cinnamon. I can't think of anything more revolting, but it's your rice pudding.


I also like to stir through a teaspoon  - who am I kidding? -  a tablespoon of jam (2 Syns). Just like school dinners in the 1970's.

My other favourite is to add a heaped teaspoon of Options Belgian Chocolate powder to the cooked rice pudding while it's still in the pan (2 Syns-ish, that makes it approximately 1/2 a Syn per bowl).



Syn Free (probably) Slimming World Rice Pudding.

You're welcome.




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10 September 2014

Anti Social Media


Enjoy this blast from the past while you're reading. All will become clear...




Over the summer holidays I unplugged. This post about turning off electronic devices and spending summer outdoors struck a chord with a lot of people. It was picked up by Child Psychiatry UK and was also Netmums' Blog of the Week.

We did have a good summer. The boys enjoyed soccer camp. We had days out at Gullivers, the Milton Keynes beach, Pirate Golf, soft play, local parks and friends' houses. We had a jolly week in Hunstanton and spent a very long, very full, weekend at my in laws. We saw my mum too. We celebrated birthdays. We got new shoes. Okay, that last bit wasn't fun, but you get the idea. We were busy. We got plenty of fresh air. I took my book into the garden, not my phone. I only did a tiny bit of work in the evenings.

Now the boys are back at school - Year 2, oh my - I have time to get back to my online life. I'm finding it difficult to come back. That first tweet, that first Facebook update, that first Instagram felt difficult. Does anyone else feel slightly uncomfortable after a social media break? Joining back in is a little daunting.

When I was young, the end of the summer holidays was signified by the arrival of the fair on our village park. My brother and I would watch from our bedroom window as the the waltzer and the dodgems arrived on the backs of brightly painted trucks. We'd shout down to Mum with minute by minute updates. We'd go back to school on the Wednesday and the fair opened that night. We'd go for a look round then, to see what was there. We would usually go properly on the Thursday night, holding a handful of 10 pence pieces. I can smell the onions cooking, see the red, blue, orange, green and yellow flashing light bulbs, feel the force of the rickety rides and hear 'Feels Like I'm in Love' by Kelly Marie, like it's yesterday. We'd come home with our friends, holding a half-dead goldfish, a battered bag of candy floss and a half-eaten toffee apple.

Now the end of summer is marked by a back to school blaze of photographs of children in their too big school jumpers, stood outside front doors. Pinterest is full of autumn crafts, Halloween nonsense, bonfire toffee recipes and Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. And don't get me started on the Ice Bucket Challenge. It's all a bit too look at me in your face for me (apart from the back to school photographs, I love those).

Last year September to December flew by as I fitted in preparing for my family Christmas, with PTA duties and my freelance work. It's a busy time, but I want to enjoy the run up to Christmas this year. I want to have time to decorate the house, make cards, decorations, wreaths and gingerbread houses without feeling like I'm up against it all the time, like it's a chore, a job to get ticked off the endless to do list. Something has to give, and I now know what it is. My online life.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called What is the Point of Social Media? Revisiting it today I realise that I still feel that way. I'm not that active online, although I can spend hours quietly nosing around blogs and bloggers, news websites and Pinterest. I often feel like this is wasted time, when I could be more productive. Perhaps it's time to keep the laptop closed more often and for longer?

Is is just me? Am I just being anti-social?

Do you have the balance right? I'd love to know how you do it.



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28 July 2014

Unplugged




I remember my summer holidays in the 1970's. The days were long and sunny. We called for our friends and had adventures in the woods. We found monster caterpillars. We made camps in the garden, we played Mummies and Daddies (there were a few kisses, but it was very innocent).

We rode our bikes around the village. We went to the park. We swung as high as we dared and jumped off onto the dirt. We all clung to the bright orange seesaw, trying to bump everyone else off. Our hands smelled of the metal of the climbing frame. We sat under the trees and collected beech nuts. We played in the grass cuttings.

We went to The Dump, but avoided the old mattresses so we didn't get fleas. We made dens in the hedgerows. We descended on our mums in rotation, and scrounged ice pops and iced Ribena. We came home for lunch and tea. No one wore a watch. No one had a mobile phone.

How I would love my children to experience that kind of summer. To have that much freedom.

The closest my boys get to having adventures is when they find a corner of our secure garden and start digging in the mud. I sometimes let them walk to the post box together. They are out of my sight for twenty long seconds.

Play dates are arranged. The wide school catchment area means that we usually drive to friends' houses. We also arrange to meet in the local park and take a picnic. We walk there and I love letting the boys run across the field to get to the pirate ship. I follow behind, watching them like a hawk.

In these fearful times, where everyone is a potential child snatcher, I just can't let go. I can't give them the freedom they need to learn to play, to look out for one another and be responsible. They are still only six and five. Maybe in a couple of years I will feel more confident and give the the chance to blossom.

Until then I need to give them the best, most fun summer holiday experience I can. This means keeping the laptop closed. I'm switching off for the summer, at least during the day. I don't want my children to remember their summer holidays as mum sitting at the laptop and them glued to electronic devices (as much as they love Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and the gang).

I want us to go out and get hot playing football, cricket, badminton and golf. I want us to walk, run and cycle. I want us to eat picnics, hide in the long grass and find banks to roll down.

If I ignore you on social media, it's not personal. It's not you, it's me. I want to live life unplugged this summer.



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Reasons to Love Living in Milton Keynes #12 - Gulliver's Land Theme Park

Review


There's a theme park in Milton Keynes, practically on our door step.

Gulliver's Land is almost Lilliputian, compared with it's bigger, noisier, well-known, busier cousins. It may be small, but it is perfectly formed. Still, there are over 70 rides and attractions. That's enough to keep me and my children occupied all day and we got to do everything we wanted.

The park is officially opened at 10.30, with a ribbon cutting ceremony, but you are let in the entrance before then. There is a carousel to get you warmed up, and a cafe with fairly decent coffee too.



Rides

Once inside everyone headed for the new ride, the Twist and Joust. I think there were logistical issues getting people on and off the ride as the queue moved very slowly. I guess there would be teething problems when a new ride opens. This put us off a little and we didn't try the Twist and Joust this time.



There were plenty of other big rides - with tiny queues -  to keep my 5 and 6 year old thrill-seekers happy. They LOVE the log flume and the Python roller coaster. Me, not so much. If it was up to me I'd stick with the gentler rides, like the wonderful, gentle Jungle River ride and the tea cups. I may have closed my eyes and screamed on the big rides, but I am proud that I didn't swear.

We have a new fridge magnet. It's a photograph of my children enjoying the log flume, and me screaming my head off. No, you're not seeing it.

This is more my style, being chauffeur driven in the Vintage Cars.



It is difficult when you go to a theme park with two young children. There are only a few rides (like the Tug Boat) where you can take them both on with you. Mostly there is space for one adult and one child and nowhere to leave other children. On some of the rides (like the one pictured below), six year old Presley was tall enough to ride alone, with me accompanying five year old Cash in the chariot behind him.




I'd recommend taking one adult per child under 140cm tall. Luckily we were joined today by my friend and her son. We were able to take it in turns to go on everything, with one adult left to hold the bags and watch the children.

The signs indicating who could and who could not go on a ride were excellent and perfectly clear. The staff measured each child and were clearly enforcing the rules. They were vigilant and safety-conscious. This gives you confidence, even though some of the staff looked quite young. Having said that, I am 44. A lot of people look very young to me.

Attractions

As well as the rides for all ages, there are other attractions that the children all enjoyed today. There is a massive ball pond for smaller children, a very good rope climbing frame, as well as traditional adventure playground equipment.

We had fun in the maze.



The small soft play area kept the children occupied while my friend and I sat on a comfy sofa drinking coffee.



Eating

There are many places to eat at Gulliver's. In the food court there is a good choice of food from around the world, including a fresh tasting tuna salad (not sure where in the world it was supposed to be from...). There is also a pizza and pasta restaurant.

Slushies, cold drinks, coffee, crepes and ice creams are sold all around the park and the prices are reasonable.

Presley enjoyed his £2.50 hot dog.



There are plenty of picnic tables and a grassy area at the far end of the park where we spread out our picnic blankets. There are bins galore and Gulliver's have addressed the problem of the wasps that were quite a nuisance when we visited last summer. They have hung fake wasp nests in the trees and we didn't see a wasp all day.


Facilities

The park is pretty well maintained, although the boys were disappointed that three of the four mechanical diggers were out of order. Some areas could do with a lick of paint, but it would seem that there is an ongoing upgrade happening.

The toilets were clean and they were evenly spaced throughout the park.


Want to go to Gulliver's?

There are Gulliver's Land theme parks in Matlock Bath and Warrington, as well as in Milton Keynes. Also in Milton Keynes is a Dinosaur and Farm Park, a Splash Zone, a campsite and a new Nerf Zone. We went to a birthday party in the Nerf Zone last week and all the children there LOVED IT.

For up to date prices and all information check out the Gulliver's website.

You can find also Gulliver's on Twitter and Facebook




Disclosure: I was given free entry for myself and my two children in exchange for this review. I have not been told what to write.




Other reasons to love living in Milton Keynes:

MK International Festival
MK Dons Football Club
The sausage and cider festival
The Stables at Wavendon
Milton Keynes Museum
The wildlife
The well-planned new city
Furzton Lake
The Concrete Cows
The 'Beach'
The green open spaces



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24 July 2014

Reasons to Love Living in Milton Keynes #11



The IF is a ten day festival of family events, music, comedy, cabaret and food and drink.

I've manged to get to just three events out of hundreds (if you also include the Fringe).


Hurry to Middleton Hall (outside John Lewis) where you'll find this amazing space-age space.

It's a luminarium. Inside you're cocooned; immersed in light, colour and sound.




It's a warm and calming experience. We went as a family and could have stayed for hours. The boys loved it. They had a map each and led us around the 'rooms' where we sat, layed or rolled around.






I also went to Kaffe Matthews: The Lock Shift Songs where you lie on a sonic bed and listen to and feel a journey along the Grand Union Canal from London to Milton Keynes. This was another awesome sensory experience.

A few of my friends from Rock Choir sang on the recording. Again, I could have stayed longer. The bed was extremely comfortable and I really didn't mind sharing with a stranger...



Finally, on Monday, Andy and I went to see Adrian Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds perform a set in the Stables Spiegeltent at Willen Lake.

The Bad Shepherds play punk songs on folk instruments and they are amazing live. While the banter between the songs was amusing, this trio are seriously good musicians. I was blown away by their versions of 'Down in the Tube Station', 'The Sound of the Suburbs' and 'Once in a Lifetime', among others. I had a lump in my throat listening to 'Ace of Spades', as Ade introduced it by saying that it was Rik's favourite song.

The IF runs until 27th July.

Other reasons to love living in Milton Keynes:

MK Dons Football Club
The sausage and cider festival
The Stables at Wavendon
Milton Keynes Museum
The wildlife
The well-planned new city
Furzton Lake
The Concrete Cows
The 'Beach'
The green open spaces



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Review: The Summer Menu at Pizza Express




Andy and I went to a Pizza Express on our first date. When I was asked if we'd like to review the new Pizza Express Summer menu, I jumped at the chance.


The first thing I tried was the Hugo, a cocktail of Prosecco, elderflower, mint and lemon. It was seriously good. You must try it.


Andy and I both ordered the Bruschetta Con Funghi to start. It was good, bready, creamy and very tasty. I would have preferred the red onion not to be raw, and would have liked more mushrooms, but the kick of chilli was spot on.


I had the Pizza Da Morire ("Gorgonzola D.O.P, crispy pancetta, leeks, artichoke, mozzarella, rosemary, chilli oil."). It was perfect. Super-thin base, perfectly cooked and a wonderful balance of flavours.


Andy had the Summer Special, Pizza Pollo Forza ("A fiery pizza; chicken marinated in smoky chilli powder, garlic and dried chilli flakes with chargrilled red & yellow peppers, roquito peppers, mozzarella and tomato, finished with Gran Moravia cheese, parsley and chilli oil"). He also loved his pizza, especially the sweet, fiery roquito peppers. 


The boys had their usual, dough balls and American pizzas. They also enjoyed the children's activity menu and crayons.

Sadly, we were all too full to order dessert. Heartbreaking, I know.

Overall we had a good experience at Pizza Express. It's always a reliable restaurant. We haven't had a bad meal there. The staff are friendly, the place is clean and the food is, well, it's pizza. Who doesn't like pizza?

One little quibble... I was surprised that there was no Summer Special menu on our table. I had to ask for the Hugo. It was not on the regular menu. The waitress said she hadn't heard of it, but she was new. She went to ask and returned with my drink. Happy days.

We went to the Pizza Express in Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre. Our meal and drinks were free of charge, in exchange for this review.



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17 July 2014

If You Could Give New Parents One Piece of Advice...


...what would it be?



My words of wisdom:

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN TO TIDY UP AFTER THEMSELVES

Seriously.

I don't care what you feed them, or how you feed them.

I don't care what time they go to bed, or whose bed they sleep in.

I don't care if you work inside the home, outside the home, or not at all.

I pass no judgement on your parenting.

BUT...

If I could offer new parents one piece of advice that will make their lives easier, and more pleasant in the long run, it would be to teach their children to tidy up after themselves.

Nobody told me that I should do this. They had plenty to say about birth, breastfeeding and sleeping, plenty to set me up to feel a failure as a new mother, but nothing that would improve my life.

I have failed at parenting. My house is tip. It is full-to-bursting. We can never find anything. The boys seem unable to play properly. Clothes are taken off and thrown on the floor. If I ask them to tidy, toys are kicked under the sofa. I despair.

So, new parents, save yourselves while there's still time.

Teach them to tidy.

I'M BEGGING YOU.

You'll thank me one day.

You're welcome.


Over to you. If you could give new parents once piece of advice, what would it be?




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14 July 2014

Book Review: The Last Day by Emily Organ




I was thrilled to hear that another of my friends had written and published a book. That is genuinely thrilled, not sarcastically thrilled.

I've written two chapters towards my novel, and that's all. Seeing friends get off their backsides - or rather stay on their backsides - and get writing makes me happy and inspires me too.

I met Emily Organ many years ago, through blogging. Her blog posts are always thoughtful, amusing and well-written.  As she is one of my favourite writers, I couldn't wait to read her first novel.

The Last Day is about a man called George. He has known the date of his death (12 September 1985) since he was a boy. As the novel progresses though this day, secrets are revealed.  We learn more about George, and the people in his life, as the plot twists and turns throughout the day.

The characters are all well-rounded and strong.  It took me a while to warm to George, but by the end I really cared what happened to him.

What I particularly loved was the sense of time and place Emily evokes. The 80's cultural references are spot on. Her descriptions of the town setting are strong and you can feel the impact of the environment on the characters.

The pace of the novel is excellent. You're kept guessing right up to the end. I couldn't put it down.

If you like Kate Atkinson's novels, I think you'll like The Last Day.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Day. Such a relief to enjoy the book when you know the author...


You can find The Last Day on Emily Organ's author page on Amazon.


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20 June 2014

Running Kit: Must-haves and Nice-to-haves




I recently wrote about how I started running. For those of you who are thinking of taking up running, or who have just started running, here are a few things you need, and a few things you want.

MUST-HAVES

Running Shoes
It is vital that you wear the right shoes when you're running, to avoid injury. Any decent running shop will do a gait analysis and recommend specific shoes for you. This will either be on a treadmill or they will watch you jogging around the shop. If you're not happy on a treadmill, tell them. Try on all the shoes they bring out for you, run around the shop in them. If they don't feel as comfortable as slippers they are the wrong shoes for you.  You will probably need a half size bigger than your normal shoes. Decent running shoes are expensive, but they are worth it. My running shoes are by Saucony. They were £80 and they have been excellent, right from the first step. I ran 16 miles in them this week. I love them.

Socks
Buy proper running socks when you buy your running shoes. Try them on together. Running socks are padded and designed to fit beautifully. The last thing you want is a blister. With my combination of shoes and socks I haven't had a single blister in over 150 miles of running. 

A Sports Bra
You need to minimise bounce when you're running to avoid damaging your breasts, and to stop jokes about giving yourself two black eyes. I like Shock Absorber bras, they are brilliant for (my) large breasts. They have to be tight, but comfortable. I use also mine to store my inhaler, phone, a tissue and my door key. I'm sure they're not designed for all that,but it works for me.

Getting them on can be tricky sometimes. Here is a photograph of me with a fat lip. I was putting on a sports bra and managed to punch myself in the face. Oops.




NICE-TO-HAVES

Specialist Clothing
Yes, yes, I know clothes are a 'must-have'. No one wants to see a naked runner. You can start running in leggings or jogging bottoms and a t-shirt, but once you start sweating cotton is too heavy. This is the time to invest in some Lycra. Material that wicks the sweat from your body will keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I wear vests in the summer, with cropped tights, and long-sleeved tops in the winter, with full-length tights. Supermarkets all carry their own sports ranges. I like Karrimor from Sports Direct. Look out for their frequent 90% off sales.

Jackets
A light-weight jacket is a must for running in the rain. When it's cold you'll need an extra layer to start with, but make sure it'll be comfortable tied around your waist

Baseball Cap
I wear a baseball cap if there's any chance of rain, as it keeps my specs dry. It is also useful to keep the sun off your head, and it keeps my hair out of my face.

GPS Running Watch 
You will probably want to start recording your runs, to see how you're pacing yourself and to keep track of all those personal records. I have a Garmin Forerunner 10. It's the entry level Garmin and I bought it in an Amazon flash sale for £60. I'm very pleased with it. I love looking at my stats on my laptop when I get home from a run. You can see your pace go down as you go uphill and follow your route on the map.

Run Planner
If I'm planning a new route I like to know the distance I'll be running. I use the G-Map Pedomter. It's free and super simple to use. I used it to plan my first 10k.

Heart Rate Monitor
My husband uses his heart rate monitor all the time. For him it is the best indicator of his efforts. I used mine a few times, to make sure I wasn't killing myself. I wasn't. 

Water
Unless it's super hot, or you're running over 10k, you don't really need to carry water. There are plenty of lightweight running water bottles. I have a small one from High5 that is easy to carry.

Gym Membership
I joined a gym last December when the footpaths were too icy for safe running. The treadmill is great for pacing yourself, but I find it pretty boring. If I go to the gym I usually go on the treadmill, cross trainer, bike and rower, and use the weights. This way I am working other parts of my body. The gym was a life-saver when I had a painful knee and couldn't run for a couple of weeks. I was able to keep my fitness levels up. Choose a gym that is near to your home or work, otherwise you won't go. I'm lucky that my local leisure centre has a small cheap gym. It's five minutes from my house and rarely busy.

Arm band
I have an arm band that holds my iPhone.


Have I missed anything?



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20 May 2014

The Small Things About a Big Weight Loss




I've lost a lot of weight, seven stone is a lot of weight by anyone's standards.

It has come off gradually, over eighteen or so months.

Losing a lot of weight has made a massive difference to my life. I can buy clothes anywhere on the high street (goodbye forever, Evans) and I have boundless energy, but I've also noticed other changes, smaller changes.

I'm no longer the biggest person in the room.

I can sit on swings at the park without fear they will collapse beneath me.

I can accompany my boys on the dodgems, and join them in the soft play (I didn't say that all changes were for the better...).

I've had to tighten my watch strap by five notches.

I can sit on the rickety chair without worrying that it will break.

I had to buy a cheap ring from Claire's Accessories to keep my wedding and engagement rings on. The ring I bought is size S. It's not tight either.

I'm not embarrassed going into McDonalds. Well, I am, I'm embarrassed that I let my children have Happy Meals as a treat. I'm not embarrassed about going in there as a fat person.

I can park anywhere, confident that I can get in or out of my car.

I no longer have to turn sideways to get through gaps.

My laptop now fits on my lap.

I run up the stairs to my hairdresser and don't have to pause near the top to get my breath back before I open the door and go in.

My skin is clear.

My entire wardrobe is a rainbow of colour, it used to be 95% black.

I hardly ever have a headache.

People who haven't seen me for a while walk straight past me.

I can get into child's pose for the first since I started doing yoga thirteen years ago.

I no longer get indigestion or heartburn.

My children can get their arms round me for a hug.



Actually, on reflection, these are big things.






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12 May 2014

How I Started Running




How do you start running?

Well, you just have to run.

I've always watched the London Marathon and thought that I'd love to be able to run. Being inactive and overweight pretty much my whole life meant that this was not a serious consideration. I'd call runners 'freaks' as I drove past them, one hand on the steering wheel, the other in a family bag of Maltesers.

In 2012 I had Cognitive Hypnotherapy and joined Slimming World. By September 2013 I'd lost around three stone, but was in a yo yo/plateau holding pattern. I was more active, choosing to walk short distances instead of taking the car, but hadn't taken that next big step: to exercise.

I mentioned to a school mum friend that I'd like to see if I could run. She suggested that I walk around the football field near the school and when I got to the short end I could try running - very gently - along that end. That was all, then I could walk back to the car.

I was nervous, in fact I was terrified. I had NEVER run anywhere ever.

I walked along the long edge of the football field. I turned the corner at the end of the field and started a gentle ambling jog. By the time I was half way along, I was out of breath This was hard work. I wondered if I'd make it to the end. I kept going. At three quarters of the way along I was struggling. I felt my whole body wobbling as I panted. The arms of my rain jacket rubbed rhythmically against my sides as my elbows pumped. Still I kept going. Somehow I made it to the next corner before I started walking again. Puffing and walking.

I had 'run' 100 metres.

I walked back to the car, triumphant.

What a buzz.

If I could do it once, I could do it again.

A couple of days later I went out for a walk with another school mum friend. She had a running app on her phone. I was going to try to run for 60 seconds, then walk for a few minutes, then run again. She was my personal trainer that day, encouraging me, cheering me on, keeping time. I managed almost 4 minutes of running that day.

I downloaded this Couch to 5k app onto my phone. This changed my life.

I followed the app religiously. After I dropped the boys at school, three mornings per week, I set off walking around the football field. I kept up with all the running segments. The sense of achievement from ticking off another run was huge. I went out rain or shine. I was hooked.

I sneaked a peak at later weeks on Couch to 5k. I thought I'd never EVER manage to run continuously for 3 minutes, or 5 minutes, or 8 minutes. The thought of running for 20 minutes seemed unattainable, but as the weeks went by I managed all of these. I soon left the football field behind and ran alone, or with a friend, around one of the smaller lakes nearby.

This is how I started running.

In December 2013 I ran my first 5k.

In April 2014 I ran my first 10k.

Maybe one day I'll run the London Marathon after all.



Blah blah never start an exercise programme without checking with your GP first blah blah




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6 May 2014

Ten Things I Thought I'd Never Say




  1. I just ran 10k
  2. I love running
  3. I can't wait to run again
  4. I can't sit still for long
  5. I feel fit and strong
  6. I love going to the gym
  7. I enjoy getting hot and sweaty
  8. I love the buzz I get from being active
  9. I am full of energy
  10. I tried on those size 12 trousers, and they did up
I hardly recognise myself these days...




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13 April 2014

Reasons to Love Living in Milton Keynes #10

MK Dons Football Club


Yesterday we took the boys to their first live football match, at our local club in Milton Keynes, MK Dons.

Presley, 6, and Cash, 5, have suddenly got into football. They play on a Saturday (and in the garden and at school and any chance they get) and watch as many matches as they can on television and collect football cards. Presley pours over league tables, reads the sport pages in the paper and reads the live text commentary on the BBC Sport website. Our junior Statto can tell you pretty much every scoreline in every match this season, and not just in the Premier League.

The boys follow many football clubs for many reasons. One of the teams we follow is our local team, MK Dons. From controversial beginnings, MK Dons are doing well in SkyBet League One (the equivalent of the old Division 3, if you're as old as me).

We were prompted to visit yesterday by an advert in the local paper about a free family day at the club. We also bought tickets for the match that day, for a bargain £20 for all four of us. Under 12's were free, as they will be with 2014/15 season tickets. I found the website difficult to navigate and ended up buying the wrong tickets. Luckily I phoned the box office and the woman on the phone sorted everything out for me there and then. Two days later the correct tickets arrived. She couldn't have been more helpful.

We also paid £7 to park, as we hadn't been before and wanted to get close to the stadium. The match day programme was £3 (which Presley held throughout the game to see the team listings). We also bought t-shirts for the boys at £5 each. Unfortunately the shop had sold out of replica home shirts in the boys' sizes, which is a shame as the shop were offering to add a free name and number on the back, to collect after the match.

We also paid for the boys to go on rides and bouncy castles, and we had burgers, so we probably had an afternoon out for £50, but what an afternoon. There were many stalls at the family fun day, in aid of both local and national charities and organisations. The boys played Fruit Ninja on a big screen, met Mickey Mouse and Gully Mouse from Gullivers, visited the many stalls giving away lollies, entered tombolas and ate chocolate brownies. There was also free live music. This kept us busy and entertained for a couple of hours.



Walking through the very modern turnstiles into the very modern stadium, I was impressed by how smart it looked. MK Dons is a small club, but thanks to the vision (and cash) of Chairman, Pete Winkleman, it is impressive and professional. The area around the club has been regenerated and is now in the middle of a large retail park, MK1. I have agreed with Andy that the next time he takes the boys to the match while I go shopping...

There is a 'ring of steel' art installation around the stadium to celebrate 40 years of Milton Keynes. n 2012 every school child in Milton Keynes was photographed by the club and their images, tens of thousands of them, form a circle around the interior of the oval stadium. We didn't see Presley and Cash, but I suspect there is a way to find out where they are.

The seats are spacious and comfortable, although the seat numbers aren't that easy to see. We were in the family corner and felt welcomed at every turn. I couldn't get over how family-friendly it was. I didn't hear a single swear word all day. The coffee was okay and the toilets were clean.

As it was the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster there was a minute's silence before the match. 8,877 people stood in respectful silence between the blows of the referee's whistle. This was incredibly moving and completely quiet. I held my son's hand and felt the tears falling down my cheeks.

At half time was the thing I had been looking forward to, the mascot race. Hello Donny and Mooie...



The boys loved the match, and the atmosphere was sporting and good-natured. Unfortunately the result didn't go our way and Crawley won 2:0.

As we left we were handed a free World Cup wall chart (with information about the MK Dons 2014/15 season on the back), another lovely touch. Stewards outside directed the traffic and ensured that we got out of the car park  and on our way home easily.

The women's FA Cup final is being held at Stadium MK on 1st June. The cup was on display yesterday too. 'Citing.

We had a wonderful day at a wonderful local club. COME ON YOU DONS!



Other reasons to love living in Milton Keynes:

The sausage and cider festival
The Stables at Wavendon
Milton Keynes Museum
The wildlife
The well-planned new city
Furzton Lake
The Concrete Cows
The 'Beach'
The green open spaces



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11 April 2014

What is Kalixa Pay?

This is a sponsored post.

I am regularly contacted by agencies asking me to write about their clients. Every now and then the product or service that I have been asked to write about actually sounds pretty good.

Friends, have you heard about Kalixa Pay?

Kalixa Pay is a prepaid Mastercard. You simply transfer money to your card weekly, or monthly, and once you've spent it, that's it. There's no overdraft, no interest and no late payment fees, no stress.

What a great idea to help you budget. I attempted a Frugal February earlier this year. I tried to only spend money on essentials, but found that tight a budget too difficult to stick to. I would have been better budgeting to spend a little something. With Kalixa Pay I could do just that.

I can see me loading my card with an allowance for clothes, shoes, make up and so on, at the beginning of the month. Then I'd use it instead of my usual bottomless credit card, the one with the ridiculous credit limit, and spend away. It's like taking cash out at the beginning of the month and only spending that, but with the flexibility and security of using a Mastercard.

The account includes an online portal called eWallet. You can keep an eye on where your money is going – and perhaps more importantly, how much is left. You a free email or text message every time you use your card (for purchases over £5) detailing what you have spent and your updated account balance, ensuring you always keep on track of your spending.

Another benefit of Kalixa Pay that I can see is that you can use it on holiday abroad. Unlike other travel money cards you will not be charged any foreign exchange fees, transaction charges or commission on any purchases you make while abroad. Once your trip is over, unlike other prepaid travel money cards, if there is money left on your card you won’t be charged for spending and you do not have to worry about the exchange rates involved in converting your money back to Pounds Sterling again. You can simply continue using your card to withdraw cash and make purchases on your card at over 36 million sales points. No fees, no hassle.

What a great alternative to converting a load of cash into currency. I was tidying a drawer the other day and found a wad of Euros. I think I decided after out last holiday to France that we would be going back. I didn't want to pay commission changing it back, so I hung onto it. We haven't needed it, and - to be completely honest - I had completely forgotten about it. What a shameful admission.

The Kalixa Pay prepaid MasterCard, including the eWallet service, is available for a one-off payment of £6.95.






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8 April 2014

So, I recorded two songs at Abbey Road Studios

No, you shut up.

I really did.

Look, here I am in Studio 1:


I'm wearing cans and everything.



I'm lucky to be a member of the Milton Keynes Rock Choir. Last year I sang at the O2. This year our choir leader, Lottie, arranged for us to record two songs at Abbey Road Studios.

We recorded True Colours by Cyndi Lauper and You're the Voice by John Farnham. You can listen to our recordings on Soundcloud. I think we sound pretty good.




The walls of Abbey Road Studios are covered with photographs of the artists who have recorded there. We were able to see and touch pianos and mixing desks used by artists including The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Gary Barlow.

Our engineer has worked with Adele and he used the same mixing desk when they recorded Skyfall in Studio 1.

I don't think I've ever seen a happier bunch of people getting on a double decker bus to go back to Milton Keynes.






Of course I used the zebra crossing...



It would have been rude not to.




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8 March 2014

My Digital Postcard From Tanzania for #IWD2014


The three bloggers (A Residence, Mammasaurus and Mummy Barrow) behind the phenomenon that is Team Honk are currently in Tanzania with Comic Relief. They are looking at the lasting change made by the charity, seeing where and how our donations are making a massive difference to lives. They are focusing on female entrepreneurs building business that benefit both their families and the wider community.

T from Mummy Barrow sent me this postcard about a woman she met called Lucy.

T writes:
"Through mentoring and training the Gatsby Trust gave Lucy the confidence to develop her business and to network after moving from the countryside to the city, She is an inspirational creative who brought out so many beautiful, imaginative handcrafted items to show us. More than that she is a teacher and looks forward expanding her business by training other women who want to start up craft and textile businesses."

What has really struck me, from following Team Honk in Tanzania, is how these women are just like us. They work from home, for themselves, starting their businesses from scratch, eventually supporting their families. They just need a bit of support, from charities like Comic Relief, to build their businesses. Then they share their knowledge with others. Just like us.


If you would like to contribute to this empowering charity, here's how:

DONATE
You can help create #lastingchange by sponsoring #teamhonkrelay for Sport Relief

GET INVOLVED
Join up for your local Sport Relief event here.

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