Thursday, 29 January 2015

Feed your family for under £50

Is it possible to feed your family for under £50 per week, while still providing healthy, home-cooked food?  

I appreciate that I'm in a very lucky position, with my average weekly grocery spend for my family of two adults, a three-year-old and a five-year-old averaging between £70 and £90 per week.  I'd like to reduce that bill a bit.

I'm pretty convinced that I could reduce my spend by buying more pre-prepared food - odd though that sounds.  I know, for example, that I can buy a cake at the supermarket for less money than it costs me to make; that I can buy a frozen pizza for less than it costs me to get mozzarella, ham and pineapple to make my own; that I can get three individual portions of frozen lasagne for less than the minced beef to make my own.  This troubles me.  It troubles me because I like cooking, and I think knowing how to cook is important.  It troubles me because, apart from the obvious economies of scale, how are they making this lasagne so cheaply?  It also troubles me because I know that these pre-prepared and frozen meals contain much more fat, salt, sugar and other preservatives (and other ingredients that I don't even recognise!) than I would put in my home-made versions.  While cutting down on my weekly spending, I don't want to be resorting to ready meals.  I still want to put food on the table that I've made from scratch.  I want to know what's gone into the food.

So, here's my challenge.  I'm going to attempt a Feed for Fifty in February.  If you want to join me that would be great, and please link into this post and comment with a link to your blog below so that I can visit you and see how you're getting on.

Here are some of the things that you can try:

  • more porridge for breakfast.  A box of cereal can be anything up to £3 to last for a week.  A bag of oats costs about 60p and will provide breakfast for at least a week.
  • School dinners - All of Key Stage One (infants) in England are entitled to free school meals, and if you are a low-income family then this entitlement continues.  If you can, take advantage of it - schools are now required to offer balanced meals.  C started off on these free school dinners, but after a few weeks decided that he'd prefer packed lunches...
  • Packed lunches - C has a packed lunch every day, as does Hubby most days.  Bug takes on to pre-school on her two days per week.  For adult packed lunches you could try investing in a thermos cup or bowl, and making a big batch of soup on a Sunday night to be warmed up and put in the flask every day with a home-made bread roll.  A warm and filling lunch for probably about 50p.  Rather than buying guacamole or houmous you can make your own with chickpeas or avocado for about half the price of a tub from the shop.  Equally home-made sausage rolls, home-prepared cous-cous, pasta salad or rice salad are all much more economical than buying prepared ones from the supermarket or deli.  A tray of home-made flapjack or mini buns is probably cheaper than a pack of chocolate biscuits or cakes.
  • Meat deals - you can get different meat deals from different places, for example at Morrisons they do a 3 for £10 deal on different meats, but you can also get great "meat packs" from traditional butchers.  Find out what the deal is where you shop, and plan your menu around the offer.  If you plan carefully, you can probably get six dinners from £10 spent on meat.
  • Make the meat go further - buy a larger joint and use the meat for two meals, and probably some cold meat for lunches too.  Mince and casserole meat can also be made to go further by bulking out the recipes for casseroles, shepherds pie, cottage pie, bolognaise, chilli etc with vegetables and lentils.  A few added mushrooms, sweetcorn, peppers, peas, carrots and lentils make the meat go a lot further.  If you make a large batch, you can also freeze half to eat on another occasion when you might have less cooking time.
  • Menu planning - use the previous two points to plan your menu, making sure that you maximise every item, use things you have in the store-cupboard and freezer and waste as little as possible.
  • Choose where you shop - I would love to shop in markets, farmers' markets, traditional butchers and grocers etc. but because I live in a rural spot, I would have to drive to the town and pay for parking to do this, so unless I'm in town for another purpose, I tend to do supermarket shopping.  I also understand that if supermarket shopping, you can save a lot of money by "taking the Aldi challenge" i.e. shopping at Aldi first, then going to your normal supermarket to pick up the things that you can't get at Aldi.  I don't do this for two reasons: First, shopping with the kids is a nightmare, I certainly wouldn't put myself through it in two supermarkets, and on the days when I'm kid-free I have a lot of jobs to get done, and don't want to waste my time with two supermarkets; Second, I'm afraid that I'm a supermarket snob and I like going to supermarkets where they apologise for the wait (even when there wasn't one) and ask if I'm okay packing my bags.  I don't like going to supermarkets where people throw the produce on the floor and the cashier practically throws the food at you.  Just me.  It's one of my snobberies and I think I'll mostly be sticking to my local supermarket, while using local butchers and markets when I can.
  • Cut down on alcohol - A couple of things really push the price of my shopping up to £90 and beyond sometimes.  On weeks when I'm buying items like batteries, razorblades, laundry detergent... then the bill is higher.  And on weeks when a bottle of wine and a couple of real ales or local ciders are in the trolley.  I tend to buy wine that's on offer, spending about £5 on a £10 bottle of wine, or we buy three or four beers or ciders at around £2 per bottle.  It soon puts the price up.  I'm cheating a bit, as Hubby bought a couple of cases of wine at Christmas time and we've still plenty of that to work through, but I'm going to try to avoid getting beers and ciders this month.
So that's how I'm going to attempt my Feed for Fifty in February.  Join me for a weekly round-up on Grocery Day (Tuesdays in my house) to see how I'm getting on.

p.s. I'm going to add an exemption right from the beginning.  It's Bug's birthday in three weeks time.  We're going to have a meal out, with a cake on her actual birthday, and then she's having a birthday tea at home with a few friends the next day, so I'm budgeting a bit extra for that and without any guilt at all.  She's only going to be four once!

p.p.s. I've linked this to Thrifty Thursday over on Living Well Spending Less.  Check it out and see all the other Thrifty posts!

Friday, 23 January 2015

The last couple of weeks - From Stay-at-Home-Mum to Work-at-home-Mum Diary of a Transition

I really feel as though I've been making progress in the transition to working-from-home this past couple of weeks.

The Business

I've sold a handful of items!  Yippee!  Whoop Whoop!  A couple of sales have come through friends and friends of friends through the Sunbow Designs Facebook page.  I've had a couple through Etsy, which is a global site.  And I've had a few through my shop on Folksy - a British site.  It's great to see that all three markets are working for me.

I've also kept up with the making side of things.  I'm aiming to make forty items this month, and am currently at over thirty, including sandwich wraps and snack packs, finishing a couple of wooden animals and making some brooches.  The snack packs and sandwich wraps are on Etsy and Folksy, but the brooches are too small to make the P&P worthwhile, so are for my first Craft Fair stall....

...which I've provisionally booked!!  (Must follow up on that and make sure it's firmly booked!)  It's going to be at the Ludlow Assembly Rooms on Sunday 1st March and I'm very excited and nervous.  Not sure whether Hubby might be on-call that weekend, so have asked Mum to come and stay to look after the kiddies just in case (better follow that up too!).  Will have to spend some time in the next few weeks making sure that I have enough stock to fill a stall, and that the stall is "dressed" appropriately.

I've written a few articles on i-writer, and a few blog posts, though not as many as I intended, and I've bought the most up-to-date Writers and Artists Yearbook so that I can start sending in queries and proposals for articles to magazines, which I aim to do next week.


Following Christmas, it's clear that Bug is still not completely ready to give up her afternoon nap.  After a few days without one, her behaviour becomes very random, and she starts waking earlier and earlier in the morning, a sure sign of overtiredness.  So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when she isn't at pre-school we get into the double bed together and nap for at least an hour.  Despite needing the nap, she's reluctant to miss out on anything so won't stay in her bed for one.  A snuggle with mummy for an hour though... that she won't miss.  So I've put aside any hope of getting much done at all on those three days.

Thursdays after school C has started swimming lessons.  He's finding the pool a bit shiver-tastic, but he does enjoy it, and is already making progress and increasing in confidence.  Watching what he's doing every Thursday has also inspired little sister, and she was trying more and more things in the pool today.

I have to confess, that as my rate of work has stepped up, the rate of housework has slipped, and so has the organisation.  Last night I realised that I didn't have enough bread to make C's packed lunch!  However, I also realised that I need to be clearer in what I want everybody else to do to step up and do a bit more of this stuff too.  Before the summer we had quite a good regime where the children did a job around the house each day, usually in the morning before pre-school.  That stopped with the house-move and C starting school, but it's time to reinstate I think.  Before school is possible, but they've got into the routine of playing at that time, so I think maybe I'll have to discuss it with them to find the best time to do their jobs, so that they actually get done with minimal angst.  I'll blog further on this, and what jobs I get them doing, at some point in the next couple of weeks.

Just for me

I've managed to stay on the running wagon for a few months now.  I've occasionally got on in the past and fallen off when it gets cold or I get a cold, but so far this time I've stuck to the plan.  I don't run far, and I've just been building up slowly with a mixture of walking and running.  Yesterday was the first time that I have run the entire way for thirty minutes, which I think is about 5km.  I need to measure that now, and keep doing it, and gradually increase.  I hope to enter a 10km in April or May, though the idea of actually running in front of people instead of in country lanes in the dark is a bit scary!  I've also been swimming at least once a week, a regular 46 length stint.  I'm feeling better for it, and I think looking better too.

Papier Mache Projects

When it comes to craft projects, papier mache is often overlooked in favour of something... well.... less MESSY.

What a mistake!

Papier mache is sooo much fun, costs next to nothing and is incredibly versatile.  Here are just a few project ideas to get your creative fingers itching:

1 - monsters from
2 - bowls from
3 - igloo from
4 - animals from

using balloons - 
5 - masks from
6 - penny boxes from 

using plastic bottles - 
7 - aeroplane from
8 - space rocket from

9 - island or scenery for small world play - from here on
10 - alphabet letters from
11 - food for role play from
12 - wall decorations from

Okay, so now that I've compiled this blog post I am absolutely desperate to try a few more of these projects! Watch this space to see some results in the near future!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

What is democracy?

Switch on the news and you'll probably hear the word "democracy".  In 2011 what was referred to as the "Arab Spring" involved many countries which had previously been run autocratically, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen rise up and try to overthrow the regime.  There were hopes that these regimes would be replaced by a democratic system, but in many cases, one tyranny was replaced by another, and the fallout and bloodshed continues today.
What is this democracy that people fight so hard for, and are prepared to die for?  What freedoms do we go to war to preserve and promote?

The word Democracy comes from the Greek language, meaning "rule of the people".  It's a form of government based on the following:

  • people are free to choose and change their government in fair elections;
  • eligible people can take part in political life, stand for election, criticise and protest;
  • all citizens have basic human rights that are protected;
  • there is a rule of law, applying equally to all citizens, and those accused of breaking the laws are entitled to a fair trial;
There are two key types of democracy.  First is direct democracy, where the people can have their say on issues directly, for example through referendums and votes.  As technology improves, it's becoming increasingly possible to exercise this type of democracy, with the will of the people being measured through online polls.  The second type, seen more often in the government of countries, is a representative government.  The people elect a representative to speak for them on issues.
The House of Commons -
Democracy contrasts with forms of government where the power is held by a small group of individuals, for example in an absolute monarchy or an oligarchy, though in truth these boundaries are often blurred.  It's more accurate, as Karl Popper suggests, to say that democracy is distinct from a dictatorship, or tyranny, because in democracy the people can control or reject their leaders without need for a revolution.

Do we really have democracy in Britain today?

Our political system is a whole lot more democratic than many around the world today, where people may have very limited rights, and opposition to the government is fiercely crushed.  We have an independent judiciary, upholding the rule of law and entitling everybody to fair trial.
The High Court in London -
However, are our politicians really representative?  Do they consider the needs and wishes of their constituents when they vote in the House of Commons?  Or do we actually have an elected dictatorship?  Our "representatives" are elected every five years, and in between those elections they are free to do as they wish, without regard or recourse to the wishes of the electorate on any issue.  Despite the case that in many cases, a Member of Parliament is elected with fewer than half the votes (and poor turnout means that their vote may be a tiny proportion of the population) and that our electoral system means that the elections are unfair in the first place.  For more on this see my previous post Does your vote count?  A prime example would be the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Despite overwhelming public feeling against the invasion, Tony Blair backed the US' foreign policy and Britain participated in the invasion.  While Labour were still reelected after this, it was with much reduced support, and Tony Blair stepped down as Leader in 2007.  It seems very unlikely that we would have been involved in Iraq if we had a more representative government.

What do you think?  Do you feel Britain is still an example of democracy in action?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Family things to do in Winter

For many, winter weather means its time to hunker down at home, resorting to TV and computer games to keep the children occupied.  Winter weather doesn't mean that you don't have options though.  Here are a few ideas of fun things that you can do together as a family, whatever the weather, and whatever the ages of your children.

Indoor Activities

  • Crafts - whether you all sit together at the table and get out the glue and scissors for a collage, or if you have an intricate family crafting project like decorating a bedroom or making scenery for the model railway.
  • Board Games - we love Guess Who and Snakes and Ladders, and are just getting into Scrabble and Ludo.
  • Films - snuggle up together with some popcorn and a family movie for a couple of hours.
  • Books - reading books together (we're currently reading Peter Pan), or even making, writing and illustrating your own story book or comic strip.
  • Computer Games - we don't have any computer games apart from the CBeebies App on the i-pad, but I know that there's plenty of family fun to be had on some XBox or Wii games.  The key is to play together.
  • Music Making - not something that many families seem to get up to these days, but many adults can play a musical instrument.  A sing-song around the piano, a jam with the guitars and a home-made shaker - make music together and have a great time!

Outdoor Activities
Take warm and waterproof clothing, wellies and a flask of hot chocolate and enjoy winter in the outdoors.  We should all get out in the fresh air as often as possible in the winter to top up our Vitamin D levels, and run off a bit of energy.
  • play outdoors in the woods - it doesn't matter much what the weather is doing as long as you're wrapped up in appropriate clothing.  Get out in the woods and enjoy a game of hide-and-seek in the outdoors.
  • play in the snow, building snowmen or sledging - in our country (UK) we don't see snow all that predictably, so when it comes along get out there and make the most of it.  Find the fun in the white stuff.
  • visit a beach - a bracing walk on a wintery beach will certainly blow the cobwebs away.  If your hands get cold, find the chip shop and warm up with a cone of chips.
  • Fly a kite - you need a bit of wind, but watch out for gales!!
  • Go on a bike ride - again, not so much fun in strong winds, but bracing on a sunny and clear day.
If you don't finish at home, then aim to finish at a warm cafe for hot chocolate and cake!

Activities out and about
These activities all have a cost attached to them, some more than others.
  • Swimming - find a family fun session at the local pool.
  • 10 pin bowling - for small children they put sides up on the lane so that they're pretty much guaranteed to hit something, and they provide a ramp to roll the ball down so that they don't even have to master the roll.
  • go and watch a Rugby or Football match - it doesn't have to be a Premier League side, your local side will be fun too.  Stand with the crowd, try to work out the rules and cheer on your home side.  Finish up with some warm food and a drink in the clubhouse.
  • visit an attraction - cathedral, museum, National Trust property, safari park.  While many attractions are closed or operate limited hours during the winter, there are many that are open or operate lower entrance fees.  West Midlands Safari Park, for example, is open on the weekends for safaris at reduced cost, but the funfair bit (which costs extra anyway) is closed.
  • Go to the cinema - choose a family film and make an afternoon visit to the cinema with popcorn and fun.

Friday, 9 January 2015

10 things to do with those Christmas cards

Yep.  That pile of Christmas cards that you took down earlier this week.  What are you going to do with them?


Yeah, so you could just put them in the card/paper recycling.  But isn't there something better to do with them?  Here's my pick of the best:

1) Cut out nice bits of the images from the Christmas cards (fancy patterned scissors give a nice edge) to make gift tags ready for next year.  Smaller parts of images can also be used to stick on to card blanks to make your own Christmas cards next year.
2) Use the blank bits on cards (the inside front for example, on cards you aren't using for #1) for scrap paper for notes, shopping lists etc.

3) Cut them into triangles.  Next year you can simply stick these to a piece of festive coloured string to make Christmas bunting.
Simple christmas decorations kids can make

4) Use them for cutting practice for small children.  If you don't have any 3-5 year olds yourself, then simply tear the back off your cards, and donate a stack of fronts to your local pre-school or school.  Little children just learning to use scissors will relish the challenge of cutting around pictures, or just randomly cutting.

5) Small origami trinket boxes.  Follow this link for how to make a small origami box.  Cut the front of the card into a square, trying to centre on an interesting or focal part of the picture.  Cut a square about half a centimetre smaller from the back, to form the bottom of the box.  These can be used for gifts, or for hanging sweets from the tree next year.

6) Cut out a series of images and stick them in a collage on to some construction paper.  You can embellish with glitter or stickers or whatever you like.  Cover on both sides with contact paper (sticky-backed plastic) to make A4 Christmas place-mats.

7) Cut rectangles from your cards, incorporating the key image.  Punch a hole at the top and tie some ribbon.  You could give these bookmarks to a school or library at the beginning of December to hand out.

8) If you make items in jars for Christmas (cookie recipes, body scrubs, preserves etc), then cut out pictures from your Christmas cards in circles to stick to the top of your jar lid.

9)  And all the rest!  I just found this amazing board on Pinterest which is full of outstanding Christmas card upcycling ideas.  If you don't find something you love on here then... well... just look would you?    ----   Christmas card putz houses    Putz houses, also called “glitter houses,” are little houses that make up a Christmas village. Popular from the 1920s on, they can be made from cardboard, card stock, and even old Christmas cards.

10) Go on then.  If none of these ideas is appealing to you, then you can just put them in the card/paper recycling or in one of the Christmas card recycling schemes being run at M&S, WHSmith and TKMaxx for the Woodland Trust.
Photograph of Christmas cards hanging in a tree

Christmas Holidays - From Stay-at-Home-Mum to Work-at-home-mum - diary of a transition

Christmas Holidays

I made no attempt to spend too much time working during the Christmas holidays - figuring that trying to do so would only mean I'd be disappointed in myself.  This was a good decision.

C had just finished his very first term at school and was absolutely exhausted - combined with the excitement of a five year old of Christmas of course!  Bug too was pretty worn out, and also very, very excited about Christmas.  So we spent the first few days of the holidays just relaxing.  We watched a bit of TV, we played with Lego, we went for long walks in the woods and played at the adventure playground, we made a gingerbread house, and we snuggled up on the sofa - bliss.  

On Christmas Day they woke up, opened their present from Santa (a puppet theatre and various puppets), looked in their stockings and we exchanged presents.  

We followed this with a walk in the Wyre Forest on Christmas morning on our way to my Sister-in-Law for Christmas Dinner.  
Gruffalo Birthday Party Picnic

We stayed there for a couple of days, incorporating a visit to see Dick Whittington at the Regents Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent which was hilarious, and some snowman building on Boxing Day.  

Sunday was at home, with another long dog walk and some time to play with new toys (and get some laundry done).  

Monday morning Hubby was back to work, and the children, dog and I travelled down to see my family in Devon.  More walks in the woods, present exchanging, swimming with the cousins, playing on the beach etc.

Back on New Year's Eve, with my mum in convoy.  She stayed a few days, and we did a bit of shopping and pottering about, including a visit to Hereford and to Worcester.

Sunday was another restful day, and a long dog walk.  Monday, the last day of the holiday, I took them for a long-promised treat to the Play Planet in Hereford.

This week they are back to school.  We've all finally succumbed to the germs that Bug has been coughing at us all holiday.  I'm back to work.  So far this week I've sold two items (I'm still getting excited about this.  Looking forward to when I sell so many that it's no longer a novelty!).  I've bought some more fabric to make some more sandwich wraps and snack packs, and ordered some wooden items to paint and embellish ready for my first craft fair, which will be the 1st March.  I've blogged once so far this week, and completed one i-writer article.

I feel quite hopeful that I'm getting there with the balance.  I feel as though I'm on the cusp of making some actual money from doing things I enjoy doing, and with the flexibility to be there for my family when they need me.  Roll on a successful 2015.  Happy New Year!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Introducing birdwatching to children

Are you a birdwatcher?  Whether you are a back-door birdwatcher admiring the birds on your garden feeder, or enjoy nothing better than getting up before the sun, heading down to your nearest estuary reserve and watching the geese and lapwings greeting the sunrise, while sipping from a flask of cocoa in a hide; bird-watching is a relaxing hobby that brings you closer to nature.  Wouldn't you like to share that hobby with your child or grandchild?  It can be a bit nerve-wracking though.  Can you imagine the disgruntled faces turning around from their binoculars and scopes as the birds fly off in a hurry from the sound of a stampeding and screeching toddler in the hide?  It's not a pretty thought.  So how do we introduce this wonderful hobby to children?
First, get them interested in birds.  A little knowledge goes a long way in getting a child interested in something.  Try some of the following:

  • make bird feeders with them.  A quick internet search will reveal loads of ideas using recycled milk bottles etc.  
  • Feed the birds.  Make bird-cakes using fat, seeds, grated cheese, meal worms, bread crumbs and any other tit-bits that you can find.
  • Teach them the names of some common birds.  You can do this by looking out of the window and naming some of the birds, but you could also try making a set of bird picture cards (two of each) and playing memory pairs or snap.  As you pair each card you can name it, and your tot will soon be able to tell the difference between a robin, a heron, a golden eagle, a blackbird and a chaffinch.
  • Get crafty and make bird nest boxes or model birds.
  • For any bird-watching activity provide them with a simple picture spotting sheet (to tick off any birds they see) or simple bird ID book (the RSPB do some excellent children's ones) and a pair of children's binoculars so they can actually see what you're peering at.
Now teach them how to be quiet.  It's all very well telling children that they need to be quiet or they will scare the wildlife away, but many children don't actually know how to stop their feet sounding like herds of elephants.  Play whispering games - whisper a command (hop 3 times, turn around and touch the ground, come and get a sweet) and see how the child starts to be quieter so that they can hear the whisper; whisper messages to one another etc.  Play tiptoe games - they have to sneak up on you and pinch the keys from under your chair without you hearing them.  Talk about fairy feet and fairy voices.  A bit of practice pays dividends.

The first few times you go on a bird-watching expedition, keep it close to home.  Set up a hide in the garden (a small tent covered in camouflage fabric, or a bean teepee), and make yourselves comfortable with binoculars, a snack and a flask.  Keep it short - aim to tick off 8 different species, or to stay out for fifteen minutes or so the first time.  Next you could aim for a less popular hide, for example at a local woodland - where your child will be unlikely to disturb anybody except you and the birds.  Make sure that each visit is a success, with a couple of birds identified and praise for quietness.  If they enjoy these, and seem to have got the hang of being quiet for the required time, you can progress to the RSPB reserve (with the promise of cake from the cafe at the end!).  

Congratulations!  You have a new bird-watching partner!