Blog Toast Tuesday: 30 August 2016

My favourite blogs of the week

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Ouch, my brain hurts.

So as to avoid divorce proceedings, I promised my husband I would leave off blog writing for the bank holiday weekend. This blog has been going for just over a month now and it has changed our lifestyle a bit, due my burgeoning obsession with it. I needed to take some time off and give my full attention to the family for a few days. But getting back to writing after a short break is hurting my brain. Is it really that easy to get rusty?

Good thing I can fall back on #blogtoast Tuesday, my weekly feature in which I review a few blogs I’ve enjoyed over the past week. I get to write about what other people are writing without thinking of anything original. So here are three of my favourite blogs this week.

Katie at The Squirmy Popple

It’s probably because in her day job she’s an expert at writing stuff for the web, but everything about her blog makes me want to keep reading it. The look of her site is attractive, but simple and clean. Her writing voice is funny, clear and honest. She knows just what she’s doing, and she does it in a way that isn’t intimidating (really fancy-looking blogs about amazing Pinterest-worthy lifestyles make me stare at my toy-strewn lounge in despair). I relate to her – and not just because my snooping on her About page revealed she’s another American expat in the UK, just like me. A few recent highlights on her blog:

Claudia at Dr Mummykins

She is a qualified doctor and blogs about children’s health issues that all parents are likely to encounter. Her posts are short and easy to understand – no medical jargon. She offers useful tips on how to deal with common health related problems, such as when your toddler refuses to take medicine. All of this is delivered with a fair dose of humour as well. I loved her post on how to spot whether your child has shoved something up his nose. Mine shoved a pea up there once and required general anaesthetic to get it out. She also debunks lots of health-related myths, such as that you always need to lower a fever.

Cécile at The Frenchie Mummy

I feel as though I hardly need to feature her because she is popping up everywhere, and everyone loves what she’s doing. Her writing is interspersed with French words and phrases, and I love that I can hear a French accent in my head as I’m reading. She writes authentically about a range of topics, from the funny (Help! I am dying!), to the heartrending (How I miserably failed at being a strong mum yesterday), to the ones that have you nodding along because you’ve experienced the same thing (Am I still a cool cat?). She will not be a petit poisson in the blogging world for long.

Please do join me in toasting the best blogs by tweeting your favourite this week with the hashtag: #blogtoast (and if you @themumreviews I will retweet you – it’s win/win!) – or let me know just what you think of me in the comments!

Blog Toast Tuesday: 23 August 2016

This is my second week of my feature, #blogtoast Tuesday, where I – in my modest way – toast other blogs I’ve discovered/enjoyed reading over the past week. For further description of the feature, take a look at the first post in the series. Herewith, my favourite blogs this week:

Claire at Life, Love and Dirty Dishes – Parenting from the front line

She has a gift for picking out these everyday parenting gripes which are not earth-shattering but nevertheless f*cking annoying. The post that got me interested in her blog was “Doing it in Public”. Not (thankfully…or is that regrettably?) about what you think. Rather about the rather unpleasant business of changing baby’s nappy in a public baby change, and the ridiculous ways that unthinking shop builders make it difficult for us. It made me giggle. I also read with interest and glee her post about dealing with nits. I luckily haven’t had to deal with this yet, but my son did insist on checking out the sodding Topsy and Tim book about it which I had to read 100 times. It’s nice to have a more realistic perspective!

Beth at themotherhub – working, mothering, thinking, living

She writes with such skill about feminism and real-life parenting. I was once a woman who shied away from calling myself a feminist, but since I’ve become a mum, I’ve begun to feel passionate about it. I have a blog post in draft about why I’m a feminist but I’m still trying to articulate it. Beth does an amazing job addressing a range of feminist issues in a way that should engage even people who say they aren’t feminists. My recent faves are Rape culture, parenting and lessons for my children and Body Image: Built for use, not decoration. She also has great, funny posts about the hard work of parenting in general, such as How to ‘enjoy’ a family ‘holiday’.

Sarah at Mum & Mor – Ramblings of a British mother living in Denmark 

I discovered this blog quite recently when I saw her comment on Twitter that her recent post about gaming didn’t have the greatest stats. I felt for her because (a) I love gaming (although it’s currently an abandoned love) and (b) Being a new blogger I understand stat obsession. But having a look at her blog, she has some really fabulous writing there. Her tone is forthright and honest; she doesn’t make any apologies for who she is. I related to her very emotional post, Dear Mum and Dad, What would you think of me?. And I also loved her post about how she’s cutting costs for her wedding. In this day and age, more people need to know that they have options for their wedding that don’t involve getting into debt! She covers a great range of topics and is well worth a look.

Please do join me in toasting the best blogs by tweeting your favourite this week with the hashtag: #blogtoast (and if you @themumreviews I will retweet you – it’s win/win!) – or let me know just what you think of me in the comments!

Tandoori Chicken and Coconut Lentils

Try this instead of a take-away. Great for kids too!

After a decade in England, I feel like Indian cuisine is a staple in my home. Since we don’t have our local delivery any more, I’ve taken to making my own favourite dishes, getting closer and closer to a curry house flavour. Luckily, my kids were very young when they were first introduced to tandoori and dahl (lentils), one of my preferred mild dishes too, so making it at home is very familiar and comforting to us all.

I usually make this when it’s a good day to grill. The chicken can be done in the oven (200C/450F for 20 minutes), but it tastes amazing if it’s been fired up. If you’re super organised, you can put together the chicken and yogurt to marinate all day or overnight, but giving it a good thirty minutes is still fine. I let the chicken tenderise in the yogurt for at least as long as it takes to finish the lentils and rice, so it’s nice and hot of the grill for serving. The lentils will just get better the longer they simmer, and you can top it up with a bit of water all day long.

Tandoori chicken on the grill.jpg

Now, it’s worth noting that in the UK, you’re more likely to find Tandoori Masala pre-mixed, but it can be achieved in the States, or you could make your own mix. Local Indian groceries are always well stocked with spices, ghee, rice and lentils at fabulous prices. They usually even have the coconut milk priced more competitively, and certainly bulk buying rice and lentils is an economic no-brainer. I found a brilliant little shop right here in my own Seattle suburb, so try a visit to the little guy and you may be pleasantly surprised at their selection and prices. Most pre-mix Tandoori will be mostly E-numbers to achieve that Tandoori orange, so feel free to simply mix dry spices (see below) for the same, additive-free, flavour.

You’ll need:

Chicken

  • 3 large boneless chicken breasts (or on the bone if you have more time to grill)
  • 3-4 TB Greek yogurt
  • 1 heaped TB Tandoori Masala or a dry mix of turmeric, coriander, ginger, paprika, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, salt and chili powder (a good shake of each into a small bowl usually does the trick and allows you to add more of the flavours you enjoy most)

Tandoori chicken ingredients

Dahl

  • 1 cup chopped white onion (frozen is fine) / 1 medium onion
  • 5 cups/800g red lentils/masoor dahl
  • 1 cup shredded or julienned carrot (approx. 1 medium carrot)
  • 1 heaped tsp minced/grated garlic (I buy large jars of minced garlic)
  • 1 heaped tsp minced/grated ginger (this really is best freshly grated)
  • 1 heaped TB Tandoori Masala or mix as above
  • 2 TB ghee (clarified butter) or 1 TB vegetable oil
  • 1 cube dry chicken stock or 1 tsp concentrated stock
  • 400 ml tin of unsweetened, first-pressed coconut milk (don’t bother with low fat versions, you want the cream)
  • 1 tsp brown or muscovado sugar
  • 2-4 cups water

Dahl ingredients

Rice

  • 2 cups/400g jasmine rice
  • 4 cups chicken stock (1 cube dry stock in 4 cups water)
  • 1 cup frozen peas (optional)

First things first, you can slice the chicken into large cubes, or buy chicken tenders to save time, but be sure the pieces won’t fall through the grill (if you’re using a bbq).

Mix the yogurt and dry spice together well in a large mixing bowl before adding the raw chicken. Give it a good mix to really coat the chicken, and then cover the bowl with cling film/plastic wrap and find a space in the fridge.

The longer the chicken has a chance to canoodle with the yogurt, the better. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look bright orange, you don’t need that much ‘stuff’ in your dinner.

Once your chicken is set aside, give your lentils a really good rinse. This is not a step to be missed, because the lentils will be ‘dusty’, and they will produce a bubbly foam when boiling if you don’t. (I usually use a small strainer inside a larger bowl to submerge the lentils and shake ‘em up under water 4 or 5 times, until the water I’m draining is clear.)

Next step, start your onions in the ghee or oil over a med-high heat. I suggest using a wide based pot or pan so you get more browning and less stewing. (I wouldn’t suggest trying to use normal butter if you can’t find ghee, it’s just going to burn.)

As the onions just begin to sizzle, add the garlic, ginger and dry spices and stir it pretty continuously to avoid the dry spices burning.

Add the lentils, carrots and dry or concentrated chicken stock and coat everything with the onion/spice mixture before adding about 1.5 cup of water and reducing the heat to med-low.

Coconut milkOpen the tin of coconut milk and, if you’re lucky, the cream will be separated from the water. Put a small whole on one side and larger whole on the other to drain just the water, holding your spoon in the way to keep back the cream. If it hasn’t separated, it’s no biggy, just add the whole can. If it has, keep the near solid cream for adding at the end.

The reason I try to keep the cream until the end, it doesn’t need to reduce with the rest of the water, and adds a smoothness to the dahl. Let me stress, though, that this isn’t a necessary step, just a texture enhancer.

Once you’ve added the coconut water, reduce and cover for about ten minutes.

Now is the perfect time to start your rice. I just make a standard pot of rice, but use chicken stock instead of water. This adds flavour, salt and fat in one step, instead of using butter, salt and water. I’ve also been known to add about a cup of frozen peas to rice from the beginning, as well as a pinch of cardamom powder, but these are optional. I try to use veg anywhere I can, and even the smallest bit of flavour cooked into the rice is very kid-friendly.

Stir your dahl occasionally to be sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom, adding a bit of water to keep it from getting too dry if needed. Once the lentils and carrots are nice and soft, taste test to add any salt and a teaspoon or so of the brown sugar. Allow the mixture to bubble a bit longer and then add the coconut cream if you’ve held it back. Mix in thoroughly and then turn the heat to the lowest heat, just to maintain the warmth. The dahl will stay liquid as long as the lid is kept on while you grill the chicken, but the moisture will escape and dry it out if you leave it uncovered for long.

Dahl in the pan.jpgTurn off your rice when it’s tender, but leave it covered until time to serve.

On a high grill flame, place the chicken pieces nicely spread apart onto a greased grill (I usually use a bit of veg oil on a paper towel/kitchen roll and wipe the grill before I turn it on). Keep the lid closed for about 5-7 minutes and then turn the chicken over and repeat. The less you move the pieces, the better you’ll be at getting crispy bits and a bit of yogurt char. Yum.

Depending on the size of the pieces, 10-15 minutes should be plenty, with one roll over in the middle and keeping the lid closed. Be careful not to overcook the chicken in pursuit of char, it’s better to have moist chicken. If in doubt, always cut open your biggest piece first to check it’s cooked through.

My kids can’t get enough of the coconut dahl served over rice, and I cut up a piece of the chicken into tiny pieces mixed in if they’re interested. I don’t worry if they aren’t up for the chicken, though, because lentils have protein and are super healthy. And filling! Our whole family love this meal, and it all makes for great leftovers. I love to nibble the cold chicken bites (if any are left) the next day, and a scoop of rice and dahl in the microwave makes for a two minute lunch/dinner!

Tandoori chicken and coconut lentils

Mummy in a Tutu

What we’re reading: A horrible boy and a slightly annoying elephant

A round-up review of our current children’s library books

I am a complete bookworm (in my “spare time” I work in publishing), and my favourite part of the day is reading to my children and definitely not when I drink wine after bedtime. However, there are so many children’s books out there that it’s hard to know which to buy, or even to decide which to grab at the library. So I decided to start sharing short reviews of all the library books we check out, in case you, dear reader, may find it useful. And also because I just want to.

This crop is what I’m reading to my 4-year-old now. Other times I might include the ones I read to the 1-year-old, but tonight I can’t because the books are in his room and I will NOT risk waking him up.

The Slightly Annoying Elephant (David Walliams)

I was really excited when we checked this out as I’m a big fan of David Walliams. I’d heard good things about his longer books for older children but I wasn’t sure if he did any for younger children. We came across this one entirely by accident. The story stars an unrealistically polite little boy who receives an unwanted “slightly annoying elephant” as a houseguest. I think the elephant is more “extremely rude” than “slightly annoying”. It’s sort of a modern elephant version of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. But unlike the girl in the Tiger book, this poor boy is just home alone, wondering when his mother will return from the shops.

The verdict: Besides the fact that someone is probably going to call social services on the boy’s mum, it’s a pretty funny book. The “punchline” at the end of the book – which I won’t give away so that you have something to live for – doesn’t really hit the mark for me, but my son seemed to enjoy it.

Topsy and Tim go for Gold (Jean and Gareth Adamson)

I have to admit to being a fan of Topsy and Tim books. They keep it simple but it’s not all flowers and rainbows. And they address matter of fact things in a matter of fact way. I rather love the classic Topsy and Tim have Itchy Heads which taught me things I never knew about head lice. This one teaches the reader about what to expect on a sports day, with the usual moral about how it’s the taking part, not the winning, that’s important.

The verdict: I recommend it. Especially if your child is feeling apprehensive about a forthcoming sports day, as it will show them what to expect.

Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World

I really rather like this one. It almost seems like it’s more for the parents than for the kids. Edwardo does standard things that children do which are somewhat naughty, and various people tell him he’s absolutely horrible for doing them. Under the lens of such criticism, he gets more and more horrible. But when people start giving him more positive feedback, he starts to clean up his act. It’s a reminder about how if you put someone down enough, they will start to believe it, but if you build them up, they will try to live up to the praise.

The verdict: My son seemed sort of confused by this book, like he didn’t really understand the point. I would say that’s because it seems to be more for the parents. But worth getting for your own sake.

Not Now, Bernard (David McKee)

This is officially a family favourite now as we’ve checked it out several times. It tells the story of a boy who tries to tell his parents that a monster is about to eat him. The monster eventually does eat him and then takes Bernard’s place in the house, eating his dinner and sleeping in his bed, but his parents never notice.

The verdict: My son thinks this story is hilarious, probably because he relates to it (Not Now, Honey, Mummy has a new Twitter follower). And I like it because it reminds me not to ignore my kids. Also, it’s nice and short so I can get back to my smartphone. Definitely recommended.

Jack and Nancy (Quentin Blake)

I have to admit that I had previously thought Quentin Blake was only an illustrator and not a children’s writer in his own right. It appears that he’s actually written quite a few books of his own. This story is about a brother and sister who long for adventure and eventually get it when they are blown out to sea whilst holding onto a large umbrella, Mary Poppins-style. They end up chillin’ on a desert island until some sailors rescue them and bring them home. I personally have trouble suspending my disbelief that the umbrella landed them on a tiny island instead of the middle of the ocean.

The verdict: My son has asked to read this several times over so he must like it. If I’m honest, I find the story to be a bit dull. But, of course, the illustrations are fantastic.

Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure (Thomas & Friends)

This is a long one (32pp split into 4 chapters) so it’s not for those short of attention span (or patience). My son loves Thomas and seems to enjoy the story, and the writing isn’t as cringeworthy as most children’s books that are based on a film. From what I remember when I paid attention (rather than daydreaming about something else while reading on autopilot), it’s about Thomas finding some lost treasure. Then some other dude tries to steal it but it all turns out all right in the end. And Thomas crashes a lot. I bet he’s still on time more often than Southern Trains though.

The verdict: I’d say the book is not a bad choice if your little one is a big Thomas fan, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to pick it up.

 

 

Blog Toast Tuesday: 16 August 2016

I was rather excited and flattered the other day when another blog featured me! I thought it was such a lovely idea that I am going to copy her (because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). I’m going to make up my own hashtag for it (why not, right?), and anyone who wants to copy me is perfectly welcome to.

So from now on, every Tuesday I’ll be featuring 3 blogs that I’ve enjoyed over the past week. I’m calling it #blogtoast. Because I’m toasting your efforts, get it? And I like wine.

cars&cooking – From the kitchen to the racetrack and back again

This is the lovely blog that featured me and gave me the idea. The blog does what it says on the tin – shares a great variety of recipes and some very good writing about motor racing. It’s not the typical “mum blog”, but she is a mum, and I think it’s great that she just focuses on what she loves. The recipes she shares are all the sorts of things I (with my limited cooking skills) would like to try, and they sound child-friendly too. First on my list is the Chicken with lemon and caper butter. I had a good chuckle about getting rid of my aggression by pounding the chicken flat.

Siena Says – Lifestyle, Family, Writing and Chocolate

I discovered this one just today whilst participating in this week’s Big Pink Link. Siena says she tried to make her blog like a magazine she would like to read, and she’s certainly made it like a magazine would like to read. She’s got a beautiful layout and a nice spread of topics, with her main menu headings being lifestyle, parenting and opinion. Her conversational writing style makes you want to be her mate and she throws in humour and brutal honesty in equal measure. One of my favourite bits of her linked post, ‘7 Things Primary School Mums Should Know‘ was the point that ‘all school administration staff are trained at the “Had an accident/Life Insurance/PPI Claim School of Texting”‘. That’s already been happening to me with my son’s preschool!

notaneffingfairytale – Because life is no fairytale. Let’s laugh at it together

This was also on the Big Pink Link but I had seen it before. I knew it would be just my sort of thing as soon as I saw her Twitter avatar featuring a drunken Snow White. To me that said ‘escapism’ and ‘drinking’, which are two of my favourite things. Her writing is absolutely hysterical because she is not afraid to ‘go there’. Her linked post was ‘The (embarrassingly) long list of men I would leave my husband for‘ in which it’s not all about looks but she comes up with a rather interesting way to silence David Beckham. I also deeply enjoyed (and related to) ‘Toilets I Have Fallen Down Around The World and Other Travel Injuries‘. It’s not a blog you should read if you’re easily shocked or prim and proper, but if that’s the case you probably shouldn’t be reading my blog either.

What are some of your favourite blogs that you’ve discovered this week? Drop me a comment or stick it up on Twitter, mentioning @themumreviews and #blogtoast, and I’ll RT.

Mummascribbles

My breastfeeding struggle – for those who are struggling too

Tips for new mums who are finding breastfeeding difficult, from my own experience

Apparently, in the USA, August is National Breastfeeding Month. I’ve read some really interesting posts about feeding and I thought I would share my own story along with a few thoughts I have that might help someone just starting out on their baby feeding journey and who is perhaps finding it difficult.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I was a bit complacent about breastfeeding. I’d read all the literature saying that “breast is best” and that it’s easier than formula feeding, and it was never really a decision for me. I just planned to breastfeed and assumed it was as simple as that.

But then real life sent me for a loop. At 10 days overdue, there was evidence of meconium in my waters, and so they induced labour. I laboured for 20 hours but ended up with an emergency caesarean. At first, I was put on the ward with my new baby, and I couldn’t get him to latch despite lots of help from the nurses there. Then, suddenly, they whisked him away to special care. It turns out he had pneumonia, probably from breathing in some of the meconium-stained waters. So he ended up in a different ward from me, in a plastic box with extra oxygen and antibiotics.

I was then encouraged to pump some milk to be fed to my son through a feeding tube put in his nostril. However, milk doesn’t come in as quickly after a caesarean, and the breast pump did nothing. One of the nurses suggested that we try hand expressing colostrum into a syringe. At 3am she helped me painfully and painstakingly squeeze my nipple (that’s right, another woman was squeezing my nipple – no dignity for new mums) until a tiny bit of “yellow gold” leaked out into the syringe. I was then expected to do my post-caesarean shuffle all the way to the other ward to deliver the infection-fighting stuff to my little one. I did this every couple of hours for 3 nights that seemed like an eternity.

Later, when he was well enough to be moved into a room with me, I spent countless hours trying to get him to latch without success. He failed to gain any weight, and they suggested top-up feeds in order to get some food into him. They also suggested I try nipple shields, to make my rather flat nipples stick out more so that baby couldn’t get some purchase on them. The combination of these two tools were the magic bullet for us – he gained weight, got better, and we were able to go home. At home, we carried on with breastfeeding using nipple shields and kept up the formula top-ups. My health visitor told me that our breastfeeding was doomed because my breasts wouldn’t get enough stimulation using the shields and the top-ups would affect my supply.

But she was wrong! At 3 months old, my son figured out how to nurse without the nipple shields. We then carried on with the mixed feeding and ended up breastfeeding until he was 18 months old, albeit not exclusively.

Because of this ultimate success in building a breastfeeding relationship with my first son, I was overconfident again when it came to my second. When I brought him home from hospital, he was too sleepy to feed. I initiated formula top-ups, but then the midwife that came to visit me told me that if I used top-ups I would never be able to establish breastfeeding with him. She recommended I stick with exclusive breastfeeding and, unfortunately, I listened to her. By the time another midwife came to visit a couple of days later, my son had lost weight and was becoming dangerously dehydrated. We ended up back in special care with my son in a plastic box and me chained to a breast pump, just like with my first!

We were sent home after a few days doing top-up feeds, but I was finding his latch so painful that I was sobbing every time we tried to breastfeed. I was so disappointed in myself for not being able to do it after I’d ultimately managed it with my first. I decided to move to exclusive bottle-feeding, to use mostly formula and to keep expressing breastmilk until my supply ran out (as I was assured by many it soon would). However, somehow the act of taking the pressure off myself changed things, and when I decided to try breastfeeding again a few days later, he latched. And we were away. Our breastfeeding relationship lasted until he was 16 months.

So as you can see, it was a struggle for me, and I really feel for every single mum out there trying to feed her baby. No matter what you do, it feels like someone else thinks you’re doing it wrong. So here are a few tips for new mums trying to feed their babies, gleaned from my personal experience. They might not resonate with everyone, but if they help even one mum not feel overwhelmed with guilt for her feeding situation, it has been worth sharing:

  • While there is scientific evidence to say that breastmilk is best for babies, the best thing for babies is to be fed! Get food into your baby any way you can. Breastfeeding, expressing & bottle feeding, using nipple shields, formula feeding, whatever. It’s your body and your baby and don’t let anyone guilt you.
  • Many lactation counsellors, midwives, nurses and health visitors will give you great advice, but some might not. Their advice is not the end all and be all. Go with your gut. If you don’t agree with some advice you receive, don’t follow it blindly (like I did with my second son).
  • There is a lot of advice out there that says that things like nipple shields, exclusively expressing & bottle feeding, and top-up feeds mean that your breastmilk supply will drop and you will ultimately have to stop. I’m living proof that this isn’t necessarily true! If any of these tools help you carry on breastfeeding, even if it’s only once a day from just one boob, then that is just fantastic.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ve had some wonderful advice from NCT lactation consultants, and there are loads of breastfeeding support groups out there where you can meet mums going through similar things. Ask your local children’s centre or health visitor for details. Sometimes a sympathetic ear can be the thing that keeps you going. 
  • Let go of the mum guilt. Us mums are guilt machines. But you are doing your best. I know because you’re here on the internet looking for help.
  • Formula has everything your baby needs. If ultimately you are unable to establish breastfeeding, or for whatever reason you stop sooner than you had hoped to, your baby is going to be just fine. You haven’t “failed”. You have been on your own unique feeding journey and moved on from breastfeeding at the time that was right for you. If you encounter any haters, tune them out
  • Finally, one last thing I wish someone had prepared me for: breastfeeding can be as difficult to stop as it is to start. If, like me, you end up breastfeeding for quite a while, ending breastfeeding starts to feel like a huge step. What if baby won’t sleep anymore without nursing first? When is the right time to stop? Just the act of reducing breastfeeds can send your hormones haywire. I was incredibly emotional both times I stopped, crying constantly for no apparent reason. Don’t be afraid to go back to a lactation consultant at this time to get support as you wind down the feeding.

So there’s my little contribution. I hope someone might find it useful. Remember, they’re your boobs, it’s your baby, and you’re the boss!

I would love to hear your feeding stories in the comments. What was best and worst? What helped you?

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

Quick & sneaky nutrition for kids – Smoothies

An easy way to get more good stuff into picky eaters

Every parent will have those days when they aren’t 100% sure their toddler has or will ingest the daily recommended doses of healthy food. It’s especially likely during those, “I only eat cheerios” phases, and all the wisdom in the world that kids eat what they need isn’t reassuring. Being an essentially lazy mummy, however concerned with nutrition I may be, I’ve found my go-to solution, rain or shine.

Behold, the smoothie.smoothie

My kids think it’s the most amazing treat, and I make a lot of different versions based on what I have available, so it’s never boring!

I always keep full fat yogurt – vanilla or strawberry are favourites – in the fridge, and tend to keep frozen berries on hand as well. My daughter loves bananas, but sometimes only eats half, so I often keep the bottom half to throw in a smoothie later.

It’s also useful to note that I buy pressed juices (fibre/no sugar!) and water them down by at least half when I give my kids juice. So I’ve usually got apple, mango or berry blends in the fridge already too. These days, they’re selling amazing smoothies that are all fruit (e.g. Naked Fruit in the USA or Innocent in the UK), and are still delicious watered down for kids.

But if you’re keen to make sure the kiddos are getting a protein, vitamin, fibre dose all-in-one, this smoothie is the way to go.

Blend together until sippy cup or straw-friendly:

  • 1 (or 1.5) banana
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons of full fat yogurt, vanilla or flavour of choice
  • Handful or two of frozen or fresh berries (blueberries are super foods!)
  • Approximately 1-1.5 cup pressed juice of choice (apple and mango are great choices, but grape, or other non acidic juices work well)
  • Approximately 1 cup of milk
  • Honey to taste if berries are tart – local honey can help allergies!

MinBlenderd you, any fruit on hand is smoothie fodder. In season, I’ll use peaches, mango or melon, which my kids find weird to eat in pieces, but love to drink.

Some people say add spinach or kale, or other veg, but I would recommend only adding a tiny bit of spinach if you’re really keen. Kale is too bitter and they’ll reject the whole thing. I added a bit of leftover sweet potato once, but it was a bit thick. Make it your own, though – if your kids like it, all the better!

One thing’s for sure, I rely on this morning, noon and night, not the same day, but you see what I’m saying. If we’re going to a party and I know my kids will be too distracted to eat: smoothie. If they’ve been grumpy about breakfast and we’re almost out the door for several hours: smoothie. It takes five minutes to make and is portable. And if you tend to forget to eat yourself, like me, there’s enough for you too.

Mummy in a Tutu
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Don’t pretend to be a duck: Lessons from a lovely day at Hever Castle

Tips for a stress-free day out with the kids.

I think we’ve already established that I’m not the outdoorsy type. It’s not that I don’t like going outside, it’s just that I’m lazy and everything is easier indoors.

I am the sort of parent who believes in toddler gates. Lots of them. And playpens too. Anything that keeps my little ones in an enclosed area in which I can watch them without having to move (or spilling my drink). I therefore get just a little bit stressed about taking my kids to wide open spaces where I have to chase them around and apply jackets, or sunscreen, or hats (that will be immediately tossed away and lost) or perhaps a change of clothes because they’ve fallen into a moat or something.

So I thought I would share with you some lessons I learnt on a recent trip to Hever Castle, which might help anyone who’s planning a trip there to have a stress-free time – or at least give you a chance to laugh at me.

1. Plan your journey

As usual I just assumed my sat nav would get me to the Castle’s car park and did no further research despite having an excellent internet connection in my house. I’m pretty sure my sat nav is out to kill me. Every time I saw a lovely brown sign pointing the way to the Castle, my sat nav entreated me to go in the opposite direction. Luckily, I ignored it and managed to not end up crashing into a field of sheep. However, apparently Hever has more than one car park. I had planned on meeting my friend ‘in the car park’, and we ended up on opposite ends of the property. No big tragedy, but could have been avoided if I was paying attention.

2. The Tower Maze is awesome but watch the exits

Our first point of call was the adventure playground, containing standard playground equipment along with a truly awesome giant wooden multi-level maze with slides coming down out of it. Having entered at the top of the playground, my friend and I blithely assumed that there were no further exits to the playground area and that we could send our older children to run free on the Tower Maze without them disappearing into the unknown.

But then we didn’t see or hear them for a while. So I walked round to the back of the maze and [camera pans to my face with a look of horror] there was another exit out of the playground. Going right out to who-knows-where. Cue me walking frantically around the maze looking for the children, calling their names in my ‘definitely not panicking’ voice. Thankfully, I found them hiding in a hidey hole in the maze having a whale of a time and not the least bit lost.

3. They have really nice toilets

Like, really nice. With those Dyson hand dryers that you stick your hands into instead of under and that actually dry your hands. Whenever toilets have their own dedicated outbuildings, I don’t expect them to be nice. But they were. With proper baby changers and everything. And it’s a good thing too. Because we went to ALL the different toilets while we were there. At least 5 times. I’m not convinced that my son even used the toilets each of those times. Maybe he was just admiring the hand dryers.

4. Don’t pretend to be a duck

Hever is a beautiful place to have a picnic. We set up under the shade of a big old tree on a slope of well-groomed grass that looked out towards the castle. For 10–15 glorious minutes, all of the children sat on the actual picnic mat and ate their picnics. This is something that has never happened to me before. Usually they are just running about while I chase them with a sandwich.

ducks at hever castle
You can see the ducks here, trying to sneak up on an innocent child, looking shifty.

And what was it that broke the spell? It was me, pretending to be a duck. There were lots of ducks around, and a couple of them were getting a bit close and looking a bit shifty like they wanted to make off with some of our carbohydrate-rich food.

I shouted at them to go away. They ignored me. I threw a small stick in their direction, hoping to scare them off. They tried to eat the stick.

Finally, I got up off the picnic mat and chased them away, waving my arms in the air while yelling, ‘Quack, quack, quack’, as if somehow speaking their language would finally get through to them and make them realise they were on my turf.

The good news is, my strategy worked. The ducks flew away and didn’t return. However, our children thought that my duck impersonation was the funniest thing since a Minion first said ‘banana’. Their peaceful sitting-and-eating turned into them running away across the field while shouting QUACK at each other. As there were no toddler gates, I got stressed that one of them would fall into the moat.

5. Bring a change of clothes or a swim kit.

Hever Castle gardens
My attempt at an artsy photo of the gardens.

Hever Castle has this awesome thing called a Water Maze. It is a series of stepping stones leading into a central tower and back out again. If you try to go the wrong way, great jets of water fly out of the ground. I’m pretty sure the idea is that if the water sprays, you realise it’s a dead end in the maze and try going a different direction. But try telling that to a 4-year-old who would rather just stand in the spray of water for as long as possible. This would indeed be jolly good fun for all if you had brought swimming costumes and towels, or at least a change of clothes. Do you think we had brought these things? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention.

The verdict

Hever Castle is absolutely beautiful. I haven’t even mentioned the actual castle bit yet.

That is because they do a really great deal where you can pay for just the gardens and not the castle. We didn’t think we’d be able to enjoy the castle bit with the kids so saved ourselves the money. But I did go inside the castle once pre-kids and remember it being very interesting indeed.

I don’t think one could get tired of walking through the gardens, and I know they put on a lot of different activities for children and adults throughout the year. When my kids are older, I look forward to renting a pedalo or rowing boat on the lake.

All-in-all, it’s a lovely place for the kids to play, for the adults to enjoy the scenery, to buy an ice cream … and to visit the toilet.

The Lake at Hever Castle
This is a pretty fountain by the lake.
The Pramshed

Spag-Bol with hidden veg in 27 minutes

A classic recipe with extra veg and secret tricks for speediness

The Mum Reviews says:

The email with my mate’s recipe here came in literally as I was sitting down to eat a spag bol made by mixing browned mince with a shop-bought jar of sauce. It was pretty good and tasty, tbh, but I can’t wait to try this recipe, which sounds just as fast and (almost) as easy. I love that it has spinach in it for extra hidden veg.

Ok, so I timed myself for this one, because I know there are days when even a 30-minute meal seems like too long. But this one is totally worth it, and should feed a family of 4 for two days! I use frozen veg where possible, so 30 minutes is plenty of time because you don’t need to spend time chopping. If you prefer to use fresh veg, you could also speed things up by using a food processor to chop the veg.

I find a lot of spaghetti sauces too sweet and have too much tomato, so this is a really light alternative with a lot of flavour.

 TOP TIP: If you use angel hair pasta (this is like thinner spaghetti, called spaghettini or capellini in the UK), you can use a much smaller pot and less water, which is much quicker to boil. You can break the pasta in half and add in two or three handfuls to the water, there’s plenty of room, and it only takes 3-5 minutes to finish! I usually use half a box at a time.

You’ll need:

  • 500g/1lb mince/ground beef OR (for a richer flavour) ground sausage/sausage meat
  • 1 cube beef or chicken stock as per beef or sausage, or 1 tsp concentrated stock (without the water!)
  • 1 cup/130g chopped white onion, or about 1 medium onion (Frozen is quickest)
  • 2 tsp green/basil pesto
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried mixed Italian spices (that’s rosemary, thyme & basil if you want to mix your own)
  • 2 tsp minced garlic OR one clove (buy it in a jar, tube or dried to save time)
  • One medium carrot OR 1/2c./60g pre-shredded carrot
  • 2 tins chopped tomato (in the US that’s petite diced or crushed)
  • 1/2 cup / 60g frozen chopped spinach (or 1 small bag fresh baby spinach)
  • 1 tsp tomato paste (optional)
  • fresh basil (optional)
  • salt and pepper
  • 225g dry pasta

The Method

I usually get the frozen onions into the pan while it heats up to high temperature, then fill the little pot with water for the pasta and turn that on high to start boiling. If you live in the UK, you will obvs boil your water in the kettle before putting it in the pan.

In a wide pan or pot, brown together the meat, stock, onion, oregano, spices, garlic and pesto. You don’t need to add extra oil as this will come from the pesto. Mix the ingredients together but then only stir occasionally to deeply brown.

Spag Bol cookingTo the browned meat, add the tins of tomato, 1 tin of water, carrot, spinach and tomato paste. Allow the sauce to reduce at a med/low temperature, the lid slightly askew to stop splatters but still allow the reduction.

At this point, the water should have come to the boil and you may have added your pasta. While the sauce reduces by about a third, stir and drain your pasta; the thin stuff only takes 3-5 minutes, so don’t let it get over done. Rinse and drain the pasta while the sauce bubbles off a bit more water, and now you may want to roughly chop a bit of fresh basil.

Be sure to taste test your sauce and add salt, pepper and a handful of roughly chopped basil, to taste.

Reduce heat and allow to simmer until the sauce is your desired consistency. We usually use gluten free pasta, so the taste of the pasta is improved if I add it to the sauce whilst it’s still a bit watery.

Once you’ve drained your chosen pasta (my kids just love angel hair and it’s easy to cut into tiny bits for little ones!), I always find it’s best to toss the pasta into the sauce before serving, but either way, it’s delicious! They never even notice all the veg!

TOP TIP: For younger children, allow the sauce to simmer longer to soften the carrots, and try crushed tomato to avoid ‘bits’. I’ve also been known to add a pinch of caster sugar to reduce the acidity of the tomato for youngsters who like it sweet.

Reasons my mum is crying

A child’s musing on those moments when mum loses her sh*t.

I’m sure pretty much everyone knows and loves the famous blog, ‘Reasons my son is crying‘. It pokes fun of the very many things a typical young child might have a bit of a tantrum over. An example from my own 4-year-old today:

4yo (observing as I begin to apply sunscreen to  his 1yo brother): The sunscreen says “kids” on it.

Me: That’s right. Good reading.

4yo: But my brother’s a toddler. Not a kid.

Me (continuing with sunscreen application): Not all kids are toddlers. But all toddlers are kids.

4yo (high-pitched; distressed): NOOOOOOO! My brother needs TODDLER SUNSCREEN! I’m the kid. The kids sunscreen is only for meeeeee!

So, yeah, that happens. And it’s pretty funny when viewed in hindsight. But what about when you’re right there in the moment? Sometimes, don’t you just feel like lying down on the floor, going stiff as a board and refusing to move, a la toddler? Or just having a good old cry? Well, I do. And it got me thinking of what my sons must think of me, when I’ve lost it and cried in front of them. Some examples from my own experiences:

Newborn baby be all like:

My mum keeps shoving her boobs in my face. They are all hard and huge. And she is DOING IT WRONG. I am not having any of that milk until she ups her game a bit.

Wait? Now she’s crying? WTF, I’m the one who’s starving here!

Six month old be all like:

Mum has been IGNORING me all day. She keeps going into the kitchen and turning on some machine that’s really noisy. Now, she puts me in this highchair and starts waving a spoon full of orange mush at me. I don’t think so! I’m going to wave my hands wildly and knock the spoon of mush down her shirt.

She’s crying again. She tried to poison me and SHE’S the one who’s crying!

Nine month old be all like:

I’m tired of this sleeping at nighttime stuff. It is so last month. I’m going to just rest for short 45 minute intervals and then wake up and scream for mum. She loves giving me cuddles in the middle of the night.

3 hours later…

I just had to scream for TEN WHOLE MINUTES before Mum came to cuddle me this time. She’s biting her lower lip and begging me to go to sleep, tears streaming down her face. I don’t know what her problem is. I thought we were having fun, seeing each other all night.

18-month-old be all like:

I’m finished eating and no longer require this plate in front of me, still half-full of food. I shall toss it across the room in the manner of a medieval king.

Hey, why is mum shouting just because there are some baked beans in her hair? I put baked beans in my hair all the time!

2-year-old be all like:

These playgroups are kind of cool. Hey, wait a minute! Some kid is trying to play with the same plastic kitchen as me! I’m going to hit him repeatedly with this small metal pan until he goes away. What? Now mum is trying to drag me away from this usurper. I will go stiff as a board so she can’t move me until I’m ready to go. Uh oh, woman is tearing up again. Maybe if I scream a little louder in this public place she will learn to respect my boundaries.

4-year-old be all like:

It’s getting late and I’m actually quite tired. I’m going to give Mummy a big cuddle and tell her that I love her before I go to sleep. Wait…is she crying again?

Is it just me or have you experienced these sorts of moments? What are the reasons your kids’ mum is crying?

The Diary of an 'Ordinary' Mum