Monday, 31 August 2015

Santa Maria Fajita challenge - yummy !

We love eating different foods at home and I do have a roster of meals that I make to encourage everyone to try new tastes and a range of ingredients and fresh vegetables. One of the favourite meals is our take on Mexican food and I have to admit that I buy a lot of Santa Maria products that make it really easy to prepare a quick and tasty meal for everyone. I keep sachets of the fajita and taco mixes and always have tortillas which can also double up as wraps.

When I make fajitas I use quorn and fresh vegetables. usually mushrooms and peppers. I also often sneak in a spoon of marmite to jazz up the taste a bit - it works really well. We also like all the paraphernalia that goes with fajitas like jalapeƱos and delicious dips. It's a real treat to try food from different places.

It seems we're not alone in enjoying a variety of flavours as Brits are now eating dinner from up to six different countries during the week. According to research commissioned by Santa Maria:

  • Two thirds of Brits said they find worldly cuisine more flavoursome than traditional British dishes
  • More than three quarters of Brits felt they are more adventurous in their food choices than their parents ever were
  • 40% of those polled said foreign dishes like stir fry, curries and fajitas were actually easier to get right than traditional meals
  • Spaghetti, lasagne and chilli con carne rank 1-3 of the nation’s favourite food imports 

Disclosure: The lovely folks at Santa Maria sent us yummy products to make fajitas with.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Bank holiday fun for all the family

Big boy went to stay with Nani-mummy - dressed as Iron Man (of course).

Baby boy played football with Daddy's brother 

Me and Hubbie went to watch bands at our favourite festival 'Edge of the Sea' in Brighton.

Hope you're enjoying the long weekend too :)

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Without rain there would be no muddy puddles

It's the last full week of the summer holidays and I had plans for days out this week. Then the weather decided to scupper me by deciding to rain. No, not rain, it has been pretty torrential actually.

Not being the kind of family that is put off by such paltry problems we haven't let this stop us from a) going out or b) having fun.

Baby boy had such fun at the park running in and out of this big puddle - he even left the swings and slides early to make time to splash around. 

Big Boy wore wellies this morning for our visit to town and was absolutely delighted when we had this exchange:
Me: "Aren't you going to jump in the puddles ?"
Big Boy: "Really Mummy ?"
Me: "Well yes, what's the point of wellies if you aren't going to get them wet ?"
Big Boy: "Yay !!"

So while I hope we do get some sun before the term begins again we're making the most of what we have.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Full steam ahead on the Watercress line

The beautiful steam train

You may have noticed that I've been blogging less frequently since the summer holidays began. I've mostly been spending time with the boys and taking them out on trips and to the park. I don't feel guilty about it because Baby Boy has really grown in confidence and Big Boy is really growing into the role of big brother. 

My boys on the railway bridge

We rode on Cheltenham

We've wanted to take the boys on the Watercress Line for a while now and a few months back I ordered some Tesco Days Out vouchers which can be used to pay for the tickets. We finally got round to going today and it was an early start for all of us. Not least as I got up to pack a picnic lunch for everyone. My boys are always hungry so I can't risk leaving home without plenty to eat. 

Pretty platform flowers
4 footed friends welcome

We decided to pick up the train at Alton and just about made it for the first train at 10.50. They were running a steam and a diesel service today so we decided the earlier we started the more journey we would get to make. A ticket gives you unlimited travel all day and we really did make the most of it as we rode the steam train twice and then the diesel too with a break for lunch at Alresford in the middle. There is a lovely cafe at most of the stops and old posters for products like Capstan cigarettes and Rinso soap. 

Watching the fireman
Checking out the fire buckets

The staff are very knowledgable and answer all the passengers' questions very patiently. It was amazing to ride through the countryside in an old style carriage - which Big Boy remarked looked like the one from Harry Potter and we were told they used one from this line for filming. All of the boys loved riding the trains - yes even Hubbie - and it was worth going to. I'd recommend a day out on the Watercress Line and I'm hoping we can book to go on a dining car next time. 

Toot toot
Tired Daddy

This post is being shared as part of the #countrykids linky hosted by the lovely Fiona of Coombe Mill. 

 Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Home grown pudding anyone ?

How do you like them apples ?

It's Bake Off night which means my annual Kitchenaid craving is in full force and I'm thinking about what to bake pretty much all the time. In my waking moments I'm concocting grand plans for cakes, biscuits and muffins and in my sleeping moments... well I'm pretty much doing the same.

At the weekend I gave all the boys the important job of harvesting the first apples from our trees in the garden. When we moved to this house we were told that the trees grew cooking apples and sure enough the following autumn we had a glut of apples and it was crumbles, cakes and all manner of apple based cuisine for months. We only get apples every two years and with this being an apple year I was very excited when they started to appear.

A small sample of our first harvest of the year

Last year I discovered that we also have quince growing in our garden so I made quince jelly. We also have blackberries, but some overzealous pruning left us with a paltry amount of them last year. This year I've been a bit more judicious and as a result the ratio of apples to blackberries is far more promising.

So, having collated and photographed the fruit I remembered I had some shortcrust pastry in the freezer and my mind began whirring with ideas. In the end I went for a very simple apple and blackberry pie with a pastry topping.

I made this ! 

It's clear my food photography is not quite up to scratch which is why I'm not a food blogger, but it did taste delicious :)

Then we ate this :)

I did also make some simple marmalade straws for Big Boy who is obsessed with Paddington at the moment. He's never shown any interest in marmalade but he did like these. I managed to even keep some for him to enjoy our daily showing of the Paddington movie tomorrow afternoon :)

Movie snack marmalade straws anyone ? 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A full day of family fun at the farm

Meeting the farm cat

Last week we took the boys to stay with Granny and Grandpa. We are so lucky they live near the New Forest so we take a 'staycation' every year where we use their home as a base and go on trips with the children during the day and have the option to go out in the evening with babysitting on hand. It's lovely :)

So this year we had two boys to entertain and one who hasn't done all the exciting things that are there so we had big plans. One of the days we decided to visit a farm that is just the other side of the New Forest and it turned out to be a lovely sunny day in what was an otherwise patchy week for weather. Of course our boys love farms with Big Boy being a fan of tractors and Baby Boy with his love of animals. Hubbie was delighted it took only 20 minutes from Granny's house and Grandma joined us for a day with her favourite boys. I packed a picnic for us all and spare 'farm shoes.' Something for everyone.

greedy goats

First up was the animal feeding and Baby Boy and Grandma helped feed baby goats. Up until now we've only had experience of feeding Rocky the goat at Coombe Mill. At Longdown Farm it's a very different proposition. While you queue you are handed bottles of milk (which Baby Boy thought were a snack for him !) and then you are led into the barn where you sit on hay bales. The goats are then unleashed and they charge forwards heading for the bottles. It's hilarious.

The animal handling was next and Big Boy decided he wasn't too keen on this as it was 'too smelly,' so he went off for a play with the digging equipment that they also have for children to play at driving. Baby Boy loved handling baby guinea pigs, chicks and brushing the goats. I really do think he's going to work with animals when he's older.

face painting

No day out with Big Boy is complete without face painting and while we were in the soft play barn he decided he wanted his face painted as Spiderman - of course. There was also a pre-school play barn for Baby Boy which was great as there were enough of us to enable the boys to play in different places. At one point me and Big Boy went off to play on the trampolines as it was very quiet in the play barn and we had a great time.

I can highly recommend Longdown Activity Farm if you are staying near the New Forest. They do a reasonably priced family ticket (£30) and kindly allowed us to count Granny as a child for the purposes of the ticket. They also have pony rides (£3.50) a picnic area and tractor rides. We spent all day there and would go back to try all the things we didn't get to do. Next week I'll tell you all about our trip to the Isle of Wight.

a rare photo of me and the boys

This post is being shared with the #countrykids linky hosted by the lovely Fiona of Coombe Mill - our favourite family farm to holiday at. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

I think my cat is a criminal mastermind

Since Baby Boy came to live with us we've been talking to him constantly to encourage him to speak.  It's a tactic I used with Big Boy - I used to copy all the sounds he made until he did the same to me and started using actual words. Of course now he is articulate enough to use sarcasm and I wish I'd been a little more circumspect in my approach.

Baby Boy finds it so funny when I do this and he tries to catch me out with more and more sounds then an elaborate pattern of speech that eventually beats me. It is hilarious fun and I don't even notice I'm doing it any more. We were staying with the in-laws when I heard Baby Boy chuntering away upstairs and without thinking I repeated the gabble not realising that Father-in-law was standing behind me in the kitchen giving me a very odd look.

An unlikely partnership

Well, however strange it may seem there is method to my madness and it appears to be working. Baby Boy has gone from grunting, shouting, pointing at things (and a combination of all three) to making recognisable sounds. Some of them are pretty distinct like:

  • Standing at the top of the stairs waving at Hubbie as he leaves for work and saying "Bye bye Daddy." 
  • Whenever Big Boy annoys / pushes / hits him he shouts, "Mummy !!"
  • He is known in Waitrose now for waving and saying, "Baa Baa" to everyone - that is bye bye to anyone else.
  • When we go to our favourite park he calls out "Wack wack" at the ducks, geese and pigeons and his current favourite book is the Ladybird book of Ducks and Swans.

Talkng to the 'wack wacks'

  • Our holiday at Coombe Mill Family Farm gave him a whole new range of animal noises to practise including "Baaaaa" and "Oof Oof" which is now what we call sheep and dogs.
  • The best is that he's gone from chasing the cat screaming at high pitch to actually calling him by name. Ok it's almost his name, he calls out "Neeya" which is pretty close.

What we noticed while staying with Granny and Grandpa was that Baby Boy was calling out "Neeya" to their current feline resident Missy. So it's pretty clear that rather than realising that Neo is his name he thinks that's what he is.

So, he has Big Boy giving him biscuits on demand and Baby Boy renaming all cats after him.

Neo's plan for world domination is taking shape.

He looks like butter wouldn't melt doesn't he ? 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Ladybird spotting while walking in the rain

I'm training for the Shine Walk for Cancer Research UK which takes place in late September. I realised that I'm already a bit behind with the training and while I've done similar events before I don't want to be complacent about it.  It was pretty damp weather today, but I managed to persuade  Hubbie to join me for a walk with the aim of stopping in some charity shops to look for second hands games for the Nintendo DS that I gave our older son a few months ago. He is a big fan and his favourite Mario kart game has stopped working so I've been trying to find replacements to keep him happy before his birthday in a month's time.

So anyway the plan was to walk to the shops and have a look for games and also to clock some mileage for my fundraising walk. There are plenty of second hand games for other games consoles, but apparently no one gives way the ones we wanted. We found that there are no second hand DS games in the local shops, so I was browsing at other things. I was amazed and delighted to spot these beauties in a box on the floor.

I've wanted to get classic ladybird books for my boys for years now. I used to have an extensive collection of them, that I had painstakingly collected from jumble sales and school fairs with my pocket money. I even asked for a small bookshelf to keep them all on in my room. I passed them onto my younger siblings in the hope that they would also enjoy them, but they seemed to just disappear when I left home. I suspect my younger siblings had something to do with this, but unfortunately I can't prove it.

So this afternoon I spotted a box of these books under a table in the Oxfam book and music store and it was like a treasure trove. I could easily have bought all of them, but I tempered my enthusiasm and spotted a couple more in the next few shops we went to as well. I am delighted to have some science books, classic stories and even some books that Baby Boy will enjoy. He was really pleased with the book about ducks and swans and Big Boy made a beeline for the one about the police force. I'm so looking forward to having a nostalgic journey through these. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

When love doesn't save the day what happens ?

Believe me when I say the above not with cynicism, but with a heavy heart. You already know that I am a big fan of love - I am soppy and embarrassing, with Hubbie, my family, friends and my children. Despite my vow not to, I slobber all over my sons when I drop them off anywhere, much to their embarrassment. Yes, even the almost 2 year old ! 

You can't have missed the news about the closure of the charity Kids Company and the subsequent fallout in the media. On the one hand there are accusations that the charity was not financially viable and on the other the claim that it is the speculation in the media that led to donations drying up. I have over 20 years experience of the charity sector starting out as a volunteer with Terrence Higgins Trust in 1994, working with children's charities, overseas agencies and as a fundraising director in latter years. I have seen a lot of what goes well and plenty of what goes wrong with charities. I've never known a charity to close like this. The Diana Memorial Fund closed a few years ago following a court case they took against the Franklin Mint in the US. The fund lost resulting in a large payout of legal fees that made dent in their finances. There were many charities that relied on funding from them who faced closure and it was a salutary lesson to the sector to diversify funding and not to rely on one major source of income.

We haven't heard the full story about what happened at Kids Company yet and may never truly know. It's terribly sad for all the young people who were helped by the charity and for all the staff who were committed to the work they loved doing. Now, I'm not an expert, but I've learned a lot in the last 20 years and some of what I know might help explain what seems inexplicable here.

Work your way out of a job:

First up charities exist to meet a need that is not already being served. Barnardos, Save the Children and Kids Company all came about to provide care for children who would otherwise be left uncared for and neglected. Medical charities are often started to support people who are confounded about how to cope with life changing circumstances. The Anthony Nolan Trust was founded by parents who were alone and in need of help when their son Anthony was ill and needed a bone marrow transplant. For years they have provided this support to others and now also campaign to encourage more people to become bone marrow donors. My point is that a charity is started to fill a gap and at some point surely the aim must be to negate the need to exist at all ? After all what says success like not being needed any more ? Isn't it more of a win for a charity to say 'we have eradicated this disease' than to say 'we have helped more people with this disease this year than last'. Ok that is probably utopian, but it has been my observation that as charities grow their aim is to diversify and increase revenue to deliver more and more services rather than to work towards their own end. After all when you have offices and staff salaries to pay for why would you want to wind down the organisation ? Well, maybe because you have succeeded in making the service you provide a mainstream one that is available or because the need for the service has gone. That might seem idealistic, but isn't the headline aim of any charity working with vulnerable children and young people who have been neglected or abused to stop the abuse happening in the first place ?

Charisma at the top:

I've worked for my fair share of visionary charity founders. They are inspiring, driven and charismatic. Rarely are they also managers or business minded. When you have a mantra like, "love will cure all" why deal with boring details like salaries and tax returns ? It's so easy to praise the 'front line' services and castigate agencies for having managers and back office staff. Well how do you think those front line staff are CRB checked, insured and paid ? Or have the equipment they need to do their work ? That the offices you work in are paid for and the paper in the photocopier is bought and the broadband is connected and working. Someone has to fundraise to pay for all of that, someone else has to have legal knowledge to ensure that young people, children, older people and anyone else is safe and protected. It's not glamorous, but it is essential. If you've ever had an operation did you get a call from your consultant to book you in or did someone in an admin department advise you of the date you would be seen ? Back office is necessary to enable front line to function. The face of the organisation rarely takes any interest in the functions that make their charity tick.

Love is all you need:

When a founder/chief executive says something like, "love is what these children need," I agree, of course they do. They also need a safe place and trusted people to support them. Love doesn't pay for accommodation and it isn't ensuring they are safe from harm. An abuser will say they love the person they hurt. A parent who has neglected their children will insist they love them while also destroying their childhood. Love will definitely make a big difference, but so can care, nutrition and a safe place to stay - all of which can cost money. Which brings us to...

Show me the money:

Believe me when I say it's not easy to ask for money. I wish it was a case of just saying, "this is really important work, you know that, please fund it." It isn't. When I am fundraising by doing something daft like dancing for 6 hours or walking all night it's friends and family who I'm asking to give money to a good cause. It's asking them to support what I'm doing in the name of a good cause. When I'm fundraising for a charity that I work for it's often trusts and companies who I am applying to. They are being asked by other competing charities whose causes are just as compelling, so how do they decide ? Well they often have very clear criteria of what they will fund - that makes sense. Others will refuse to fund existing work or salaries or capital projects. All of which means that once work is established it's very difficult to fund it to continue. Some charities respond by repackaging what they are doing so it looks new and shiny. Others chase the money and change what they do in order to keep going. It's not a great situation either way. What it does mean is that everyone is fighting for the same pot of money.

Friends in high places:

When the head of a charity is always in the media portraying their own take on the charity instead of the reality it is very difficult for the work of the charity to continue. That same founder / Chief Executive figure will most likely refuse to listen to the people who do pay salaries and fundraise because they have the bigger vision and don't want to get bogged down with the boring stuff like the bottom line. If that same person then says they will go and get a handout from their 'friendly donor' it's neither transparent nor ethical, but you're not allowed to challenge the person at the top. When that friendly donor is high profile and decides to withdraw support what happens ? Well, I have had to negotiate with a corporate donor who wanted their money back because they had no idea what had been done with it. No one wants to have to do that, but if you aren't being open and honest with donors that will happen. Worst case scenario you will have to pay it back. Even worse case scenario you will have no money and have to close. Leaving the benefactors and staff with nowhere to go.

It's not all work, work, work:

Most people I've worked with in charity have a deep commitment to the cause. They also have a love of what they do because - let's face it - they aren't in the best paid jobs. The backbone of the charity sector is the work of volunteers. They deliver services, collect donations, fundraise, organise events, bake cakes, answer phones and without them it would just not be possible to function. No one wants to stop delivering services they believe in or to leave children and young people or older people or animals without any care or support. I say this as someone who has spent time overseas with children in orphanages and refugee camps - it made it glaringly obvious why the cause was so important. I have also worked to fundraise for organisations that provide support to care leavers and young people at risk of crime. It's not an easy cause, but it's one that needs the money as otherwise no one else is doing it.

There isn't room for everyone:

Not every charity will make it and the phrase 'too big to fail' cannot be truer here. Some are such leviathans that it's seen as irresponsible to let them go bust, but why are they so big in the first place ? It's not like any one charity is genuinely unique any more. There are many cancer charities. Myriad medical charities. So many children's charities. The minute differences are negligible. More importantly they're often delivering work we don't realise is charitable. Were you aware that air ambulance is a charity that has to fundraise ? An emergency service provided by charity. Most services for prisoners are delivered by charities as are support services for looked after children. Aren't these public provisions ? Well maybe they should be, but with little regulation and new charities being created every day the money just won't go round. If a charity is able to use public funds like a personal piggy bank and then to not even account for the money how is that fair ? 

This is a blog post I never intended to write, but with so much comment and inference about the current news story I just wanted to add my two pen'orth. Fundamentally there are too many charities. There's not enough money for everyone. If you're fortunate enough to be funded well you owe it to those you work with to be responsible and make that money work the best way. This doesn't mean going back to keep asking for more to fill gaps, but being honest about where it's spent and why. If you can't and that results in funders deciding not to keep funding your cause you can't then lash out at everyone with guilt inducing accusations of service users let down.

Not being sustainable and claiming that love will feed, clothe, counsel and heal wounded children is irresponsible. More importantly it's devastating for the young people who will lose out at a result of this. Right now the last thing they are feeling is loved.  

Monday, 3 August 2015

If I was the hungry caterpillar I'd be stocking up on these.

I am a big fan of fruit. We buy lots of it and the boys all eat so many grapes and apples that I often have to restock half way through the week as we run out of them so fast. I prefer soft fruits like strawberries, cherries, apricots and nectarines and the exotic ones like mangoes, pineapple and passion fruit. The problem with this, however, is that my preferred fruits aren't as portable as an apple or even a banana.

If you've ever had a soft fruit related disaster you will be familiar with the search for a purse that results in a sticky - if fragrant - hand emerging from the soggy depths of a handbag where the carnage has occurred. If I want to enjoy fruit I either have to buy it while I'm out or carry plastic boxes to keep it from getting bashed around.

The alternative to this is to have dried fruit and I've tried a few different brands. Nothing But is a genuinely dried fruit snack that contains no chemicals at all. If you check the ingredients of most dried fruits you will notice that they have been processed in some way, but this brand is just the fruit with all the water taken out. It's a bit drier as a result, but full of intense flavour and maintains the bright colours of the fruit. Some dried products have an oily texture and a funny smell, Nothing But snacks smell like fruit and taste like it too. Sounds obvious, but it really does make a difference.

The varieties include savoury options (pea and sweetcorn is one and mange tout and red pepper is another) but the ones I tried were strawberry and banana, pineapple and grape and finally apple and fig. They are handbag sized snack bags and I give them to my kids too when we are on the move as it's lighter to carry a bag of these than half a dozen apples which I usually have to do. The varieties are also more interesting too, so I get the boys to eat fruit like figs which they might not otherwise want to try.

It's a handy snack to have when I'm on the move all day and don't have time to stop and eat anything. Instead of reaching for a flapjack or a pastry I can have some yummy fruit without guilt. Each pack is one of your five a day and makes a nice alternative to a biscuit or bag of crisps if you like to snack. I think these would make a nice addition to porridge - if you have time - or even to pop onto a cake if you're into the new 'naked cakes' craze. The main thing I have to do is hide them so that none of my boys pinch them - in our house these are officially 'Mummy snacks.'

Disclosure: The lovely folks at Nothing But Snacks sent us some samples to write an honest review.