Saturday, 24 October 2015

Perpetual birthday and anniversary calendar printable

I freely admit that I'm next to useless with birthdays (and even moreso with anniversaries), so I need to have a really simple page to view calendar so that I can have it up somewhere prominent, like the fridge.

We used to have a really nice perpetual calendar, filled with people's birthdays, anniversaries and other special dates, but like most of our belongings, we said goodbye to it when we had a massive clear out of almost everything we owned. I took the time to write all the dates out onto my computer, but of course, never open that up to look at unless I have a feeling something is looming and want to check in advance (or in the case of my uncle's birthday last weekend, a little too late) (I really need to get a belated card in the post!)

So I figured that it was time to reintroduce the perpetual calendar and created this pretty one which I thought I'd share with you today. Feel free to print off for yourselves, and perhaps you'd like to print off more for friends and family - maybe you could even help them out by filling in your own birthdays?

Friday, 23 October 2015

Pan de dátil y nuez

I threw a dinner party last weekend, okay, I know, it sounds an extravagant thing to do when we're without work, but really it was our rather belated house-warming and way of thanking friends of ours for helping out when we moved up to the North.

We love cheese in our house, so when I visit the supermarket, the first place I head for is the reduced section to hunt out some cheap wedges of dairy goodness. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I've not yet sourced a decent cheesemonger here in Wigan, so we have to make do with some pretty standard stuff, but that's not too much of a problem when we have no money anyway. The last time I spent anything more than a couple of quid on a piece of cheese was two months ago, in the Netherlands, and that was a €15 hunk of vintage Gouda to bring home with us to the UK. We had money back then.

Still, since I'm on a budget, my bargain cheeseboard for the dinner consisted of whatever I could find in the bargain bin at the supermarket. In this case, it was a Stilton for 94 pence and about 1/4 of a whole wheel of Brie for £1.04. I added a chunk of our everyday vintage cheddar (I choose whatever's on special offer at the supermarket when I'm online shopping) and I don't think anyone noticed that the whole thing was done on a budget. This was probably helped by a few quartered figs (59 pence for a packet of four and the remainder being full of tasty goodness for the fruit bowl), a few randomly scattered groups of grapes (again picked up in the bargain basement), homemade chutney (from apples foraged by my lovely husband and daughter) and the pièce de résistance: a pan de dátil y nuez, a Spanish date and nut wheel that goes amazingly with cheese. If you have not ever tried this, or its cousin pan de higo (made with figs), then you are missing out on one of the simplest joys of life.

I didn't exactly choose to make the date wheel over the fig, it just happened that I had a massive bag of dates that I'd bought ages ago and needed using. Unfortunately I didn't have the nuts, so this was on my shopping list for Aldi, where I could buy just the amount I needed in the loose nut bins they have there.

So here's the remainder of the date and almond wheel. We probably only ate about half of it on Saturday, but I've been scoffing the rest since then with the aforementioned huge piece of Brie. The Brie was finally finished off after I took these photos.

This, like many of the things I make these days, is a simple recipe with few ingredients. This has just four: fruit, nuts, cinnamon and honey. Co-incidentally, did you know that honey NEVER goes off? Anyway, here's the quantities and instructions to make your own:

  • 1 cup almonds, whole, no need to blanch. This weighed just off 170g. If using walnuts, 1 cup is likely to weight about 120g.
  • 3 1/2 cups of dried dates or figs (I realised that we also had some figs in the cupboard, but these were partially rehydrated figs, so would have been too moist). I checked and this weighed 450g, but don't get too het up on exact measurements, this 'recipe' is pretty forgiving.
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon

You will also need a food processor. I've not tried it without, but I expect it would be pretty difficult to get the right texture without. Please let me know though if you've successfully managed to create this without one!

  1. The first thing I did was to very lightly roast the almonds by tipping them straight onto a baking tray and putting them in a preheated oven at 180c for about 5 minutes. Then try not to eat them all, as they smell rather delicious. Okay, a few won't hurt.
  2. Pop these into the food processor and pulse it to roughly chop the almonds - not too small as you want to get some good chunks in the final 'cake'.
  3. Remove the almonds from the food processor and pop the dates (or figs) in, along with the honey and cinnamon. Pulse again until the mixture starts to get broken down (I chopped the dates a little before putting them into the processor to give them a helping hand). Again keep it chunkyish.
  4. Tip the date mixture in with the chopped almonds that you previously set aside and get your hands in there to mix it up really well.
  5. All you need to do now is to form it into a wheel and weight it. I think I used an 8" cake tin, which I lined with cling film as well as a circle of parchment. After putting the mixture in, I placed another parchment circle on top and wrapped the overlaying clingfilm on top to seal it. I used the bottom of a slightly smaller cake tin to cover the top, then put a food tin ontop of this so that I could put some books on to weigh it down overnight. The next day I put it into the fridge which helped to firm it up even more.

Serve alongside your cheeseboard with something figgy and plenty of soft cheese (although it goes great with hard cheese too!).

How to tackle unwanted behaviour in preschoolers - techniques and tools

Here's the second part in my plan to tackle the unwanted behaviour in our daughter. It starts with the things that I've learnt from various sources over the last few years about how to deal with kids' behaviour. I hope that by making this list it will reinforce my own behaviour and act as a reminder of how to be a good mum! The second half of today's post is what we're actually going to do about it, a kind of action plan.

1. Always use positive language, not negative. For example "shall we try and be as quiet as possible, like a fairy" rather than "stop that incessantly loud noise". Sure, the theory (positive reinforcement) is that we want to be highlighting the good behaviour and then we can reward it with praise or whatever, but the reason this really works is that when you have a stubborn child, and you tell them not to do it, they sure as hell will carry on until you manage to distract them with something else.

2. Don't shout. Oh my god this is impossible. Unless you're Mary Poppins, and then you wouldn't need to read this. A case of social learning theory perhaps? Child sees you shouting: eventually you get what you want. Child learns this behaviour and then mimics it, expecting the same outcome.

3. Every child is different. As a parent, there are some things that we find hard to accept. The fact that our child might not respond in exactly the same way as another is one of those things. A few years ago, in our NCT group, we were the only couple of eight that hadn't bought our child a Jumperoo. Everyone said how amazing it was to entertain their children for enough time to actually do something, like putting some laundry on, or having a shower (in sight of the baby of course). So we bought one. It didn't work. Similarly, the naughty step has never really seemed like the perfect solution. Some days it works great, other times it's jut a game and she can happily sit there for her three minutes and immediately repeat the behaviour, happily landing herself on the step again.

4. Everything's more difficult when you're tired. This goes for both of you. Personally, I cannot function properly when I'm tired, and I'm far more likely to snap when I've not had a decent night's sleep. As I suspected of yesterday morning's palava, the behaviour of dear daughter may well have been down to not falling asleep until 11pm the previous evening, possibly caused by lack of activity during the day, so plenty of exercise and fresh air all around next time.

5. Everything's more difficult when you're hungry. Luckily I never allow myself to get 'hangry', but both husband and daughter get the hunger-anger when their bellies are empty, so for everyone's sake, make sure you're all getting well fed and that there are plenty of snacks around when needed.

6. Do what feels right. This kinda goes back to number three, in the sense that all children are going to respond to things in a different way, despite what some behavioural professionals might say. If it doesn't feel right, then don't do it. Sometimes I am happy to close the door on screaming, but other times I cannot leave a clearly traumatised child who sounds like they're on the edge of a panic attack. Only you will know what feels right or wrong at the time. Your instincts have got you this far in life, don't doubt them now.

7. Distraction - it comes so easily to some, but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget a simple trick of distraction can often be enough to break a battle of wills. When we are struggling to get dressed, I will sometimes try a different part of the morning routine, like "shall we go and do our teeth instead?". It's not guaranteed to work, nothing is. She may well go and do her teeth but be back to square one with getting dressed. And I swear sometimes my daughter is actually better at it than us, when she's mid-argument about something or other and will, all of a sudden, see the other parent and shout "aaargh, it's the Gruffalo".

8. Make a game of it. Similar to the above, but one of the only things that actually got us to nursery yesterday was when there happened to be three schnauzers being walked just behind us. So I said "quick, the dogs are chasing us!" (okay, so perhaps if she hadn't already gotten over her fear of dogs, this would have been a little harsh, but luckily she kinda likes dogs now. I think). The way back home was looking like it was going to be just as bad as the way there. But I quickly decided on a game, so it went really smoothly once I said let's do a treasure hunt and then asked her to find leaves, stones, conkers, sycamore seeds, twigs, etc.

9. Don't hold a grudge - It's easier for some parents to turn the other cheek, let things wash over them and move on, but for others, a morning of terrible behaviour is enough to put them into a grey mood for the rest of the day. Whilst it's important for our kids to learn how their behaviour can affect other people, it's also important to teach forgiveness, and crucially, for us to remember that their behaviour is caused by their developmental processes, which we too need to learn from.

10. Chill out man. This is a pretty new one to me. I can't remember when I first read about it, but it makes so much sense. As your child's cortisone levels increase, they are not going to be able to control their behaviour. Wow, that is pretty straightforward. So, instead of punishing bad behaviour, give a hug and have some time out together. This is not rewarding bad behaviour as long as a hug is not seen as a reward. So keep up the daily hugs and find a nice place to be chilled.

Great. I have all the tools I need, but I still need a plan to put into action. So here's my plan for tackling the unwanted behaviour once and for all and helping our kind, happy and pleasant little girl get rid of the tweenager tantrums that have been driving us to insanity over the last god-knows-how-long. The basis for this has been taken from a behaviour management handbook for schools.

Create a display to show the desired behaviour

In our case, the struggles we are having at the moment are: not getting dressed (especially socks and shoes); not brushing hair; not eating vegetables; and not going to sleep. So I've created a poster showing all these things and a few more.

Talk through the display

Go through what's being shown and make sure that there are pictures, not just words, which are not going to be understood by your three year old. When we showed the poster to Button, she immediately could say what almost all of the tasks meant by the clip art pictures next to them. I vow to talk through it often to reinforce the outcomes that we're looking for. We are going to put stars against the things that she will receive stickers for on her reward chart, which will then go towards social, tangible and activity-based rewards (e.g. phoning grandma, a balloon model, TV time). The University of Southern California has a good list of rewards in their Parents Toolkit for Children, which also gives an insight into extortion, bribery and trained non-compliance.

Check the understanding

It's all very well having the display and chatting about it, but do they understand what it is that is expected of them, and what the rewards are for the behaviour? As I said, we have a separate reward chart, as there's things on the routing that we don't need to reward, such as play time and eating breakfast, as she's finally getting really good at that now (but there was a time when even this would have been on there, as she's never been a big eater).

Explain the rationale

Why do I need to brush my hair? Because it will get very knotty if you don't and then we will have to cut it all off! Just like many of us need to understand the rationale behind why we are expected to perform a particular task in our jobs for example (chance would be a fine thing right now!), children too need to understand what the outcome of failing to achieve a task. In the case of getting dressed, we thought that the threat of not being able to go to the park and see her cousin would be enough of an incentive to put some clothes on. Apparently not, but at least she understood this and was able to eventually get ready, albeit late enough to cause me to have to run to get there on time. Yup, that's right ON TIME. I have to admit that I really do hate being late. Perhaps childrearing is so much easier if you just accept the fact that you will ALWAYS be late?

Model the behaviour

Is it really fair to ask your child to get themselves dressed if you change into your pyjamas at any allowable time of day? I think that one of our major problems at the moment is our lack of routine. I am one of those people though that cannot get anything done until I am dressed, so it's always one of the first things I do in the morning, even if I don't intend to leave the house. Similarly if you expect your child to tidy up after themselves, it will be a lot easier to enforce if your home is kept in a decent state. Note to self: stop sitting at the computer and tidy the darn house.

Be consistent

It's back to child behaviour 101. We're going to be rewarding the good behaviour with star stickers, so we need to be consistent with these and ensure that they're given as an instant reward at the time of the behaviour.

So, now that we have our toolkit and action plan, we'll be putting it into practice. I'll revisit in a week or two and let you know how I'm getting on! Wish me luck.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

How to tackle unwanted behaviour in preschoolers - a pre-amble

So I really must start by saying that I apparently know nothing about this subject, as my preschooler is currently bringing us to the edge of a breakdown on an almost daily basis. Today was the point where, in addition to the reward chart that we have been trying (again) to help the behaviour change process, I decided that it was time for a little research on the subject.

Hell, what was I thinking?! This is what I do! Part of my profession as a sustainable travel planner was about behaviour change: I even presented a seminar earlier this year about how to change people's behaviour. But when it's your own child? Now that's the difficult bit. It's so hard to be objective, and to stand back and see what's actually going on.

Like most children, ours knows how to wrap us around her little finger. Let's take yesterday for example: after refusing to get dressed at all (I'd decided that I was not going to resort to any sort of negative behaviour on my own part), I simply explained that as soon as she got dressed, she could have her star on the reward chart for said behaviour. She knows that if she gets a whole week's worth of stars in a row, the boxed up play kitchen will be built and available for her to play with. In addition, she is not allowed any television until after she gets dressed.

"Mummy, can you play with me?"
"Yes, certainly, as soon as you are dressed".

"Mummy, can you help me do this?"
"Yes, certainly, as soon as you are dressed".

[insert a gazillion other requests from darling child].

So here's the thing, despite not getting any of these things, she was polite each and every time she asked. But I couldn't say yes, could I, because child behaviour theory 101 teaches you that she'd then know that she can get away with it in future. Sure, not getting dressed isn't the end of the world when you don't have to go anywhere, and many would just say 'let the little things slide'. But this is happening every day, which means we would never get anything done. Or she would live her whole life in her pyjamas. Okay, so that happens in real life. But I want my daughter to accept that sometimes, just sometimes that's not okay. I just imagine her rocking up to a job interview in rainbow PJs.

Yesterday then, was a PJ day. And somehow finished the day off with TV. Oh yes, that was because she told us that she wasn't feeling well. And we felt sorry for her. Even though at no point during the day had she said that she was feeling unwell, nor could she say exactly what was wrong. We gave her the benefit of the doubt. I told you, she has us wrapped around her little fingers. She didn't fall asleep until around 11pm.

Back to this morning, eventually, at 10am, we are finally ready to go to nursery. I decide that probably her reason for not going to sleep yesterday was my lack of giving her any active play time (on account of her not getting dressed of course) and so she would go by scooter to nursery, instead of pushchair. "I'm tired". Of course you're bloody tired, you didn't go to sleep until 11pm! I explained that it was walking or scooting, but if she wanted to just stand on the scooter, I was happy to pull her along. As neither myself nor hubbie is in work at the moment, we always try and go to nursery together, but today meant that a few minutes into the walk, I told him to go home. I figured it would make life easier if she was getting less attention for the terrible behaviour and perhaps she would just get on with it. It kinda worked, and it should have reminded me that I know these theories, I just need to put them into practice.

Okay, so I have a little background in behavioural theories, but that's all it is right, theory? Putting the theory into practice is something that I can do with sustainable travel, but with child behaviour? Now that is a whole different ball game. So I called upon my memory, my memory of all the things that I have read or heard about what to do and what not to do with your child and wrote them out. Let's see if I can't piece something together that will work.

Check back tomorrow for my plan of action!

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Homemade fabric bread basket - basic tutorial

As Christmas is just around the corner, I figured it was time to check how up to date the Amazon wishlists were. This makes life so much easier for us when family ask what we'd like. 

The idea of these commercial gift registries are a little contentious, even within my own family. My brother would rather go off-list, which is fine, but we really like to have a clue what on earth he would appreciate. I've tried to be spontaneous, believe me, I have, but I'm just not cut out to buy gifts of my own choosing for someone with such different interests and tastes to my own. In fact I even struggle to buy for my own husband, and I therefore assume everyone is the same as me, because I'm pretty normal. So it's not that we're presumptuous, we'd just rather that if someone's going to spend their hard earned money on us, that it's something we'll actually get plenty of use out of.

As I scrolled through my own list, I'd forgotten that dear husband had thoughtfully added lots to my list that he thought I'd like. Oh, so perhaps other people are capable of choosing suitable gifts. One of the items was this gorgeous fabric bread bag from Stelton.

Buy Stelton Bread Bag  at Amazon

Me being me though, decided that £20 was far too dear for a bread bag and that I could probably make one myself. So I did.

Luckily I had some natural linen left over from a purse project as well as some bright linen I'd bought from IKEA a while back. I'd originally planned to make a round-bottomed bag, as with the Steltons, but decided on an easier square bottom style. In hindsight, I think the round bottom would look better, so I'll probably give that a go another time, but for now, I'll leave you with some instructions for a super-easy DIY fabric bread bag.

You will need: 

Heavy fabric in coordinating colours 
Scissors/Roller Cutter & Mat
Sewing machine 

I started with two pieces of fabric that were approximately 27cm x 62cm. This gave me a bag with a diameter of about 20cm (8"), plenty big enough for 8-10 bread rolls, or half a standard 800 sliced loaf. The first thing I did was to sew the short ends together (with right sides together) for each of the pieces, so that you have two separate tubes.

Then, with the tubes still inside out, sew across the bottom of each tube. You will then start to have the makings of a couple of basket shapes, so all you need to do now is to sew a couple of lines perpendicular to the bottom line and you will have the inside and outside of your reversible bread basket. You can now cut the corners off to reduce the bulk inside the basket.

The next bit is the most complicated part, but it's still really straight forward: Take one of the bag shapes and turn inside out (or vice versa if you still have them both inside out), then take the bag that is the right side out and put it inside the bag that is wrong side out. Are you still following? So you should now have both bags together and can only see the wrong sides of the fabric on both the outside and inside.

With the top edges together, sew around the top of the bag, but leave a gap of a few inches (or should that be 8 centimetres?!). You can then turn the bags the right way around and finally sew a topstitch which will also seal the final bit of the top edge. Capiche?

Roll the edge down to give the bag a little more structure and show off the lovely coordinating fabric that you have chosen for your basket, then fill with bread products and sit back and admire your hard work.

Of course, you don't actually have to use it for bread. Fabric storage baskets are really popular at the moment and you can make them in whatever size suits your needs. They can be used to store toys, odds and ends in the kitchen, craft area, or even bathroom, and if it gets dirty, just pop it in the washing machine.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Sugar cookies

Having a three and a half year old is tiring. However, having a big list of activities and preparing a few for the week makes for a much easier life. Okay, so it doesn't always work out. You know, that life thing just gets in the way sometimes. So I'd been planning to make these sugar cookies since last week. Last time we made them, we were still living with mum and dad, but they are so unbelievably easy that they should really replace buying any sort of biscuits. Because they go so great with tea. And coffee. And milk. And strawberries. And ice cream. And pasta. Okay, maybe not pasta. Unless you're in the Netherlands where pasta is what they call sweet spread - i.e. chocolate spread. And then it definitely goes with these.

Before cookie making, today's schedule included a walk in the woods as we wanted to go foraging for a bit of wood to make a curtain pole. As we walked across a field, a flash of blue caught our eye.

What a beautiful little door. When we opened it up, it even had Arrietty's diary inside it. Who knew the Borrowers lived in Wigan?! Alana thought that it was where the dummy fairy lived though, so hopefully that might prompt her to actually leave her dummies out tonight for the fairy.

We managed to find a couple of pieces of hazel in some scrub land, so we'll have a curtain pole for the lounge as well as a new hand-made pole for Alana's bedroom.

When we got home, it was pretty much straight on to the cookie making mission. As we'd been using all the cutters for play dough recently, the cookie dough was renamed play dough: this was most welcome, as it meant that it didn't get eaten as usually happens when baking!

Sugar Cookies Recipe

Okay, so I tend to mix my measures, depending on what's easiest. In this case, I think that it's easiest to weigh butter (or use the markers on the side of the packet) and measure volume for the rest.

These cookies are fantastic for icing and they hold up really well for hanging too: you do know Christmas is only just over two months away? ;)

170g butter
3/4 cup caster sugar (granulated still works fine though)
1/4 tsp salt (add another 1/4 tsp if using unsalted butter)
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 egg
2 cups plain flour

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy (basically give it a good beating until it's not so yellow in colour).

Add the vanilla and egg along with a little flour to bind it.

Gradually add the rest of the flour and the salt and stir to combine. I tend to use my hands to bring the last of it together. When all the flour is mixed in, wrap it in cling film and refrigerate for at least an hour. You can leave it for a week or two if you need to, so great to have on hand for spontaneous cookie making!

When the dough has firmed up, roll out the dough (I tend to do about 1/4 to 1/3 at a time if space is short) and get cutting. I like to roll the cookies pretty thinly, but anything up to about 5-6mm works well (about the thickness of two pound coins).

Place the cookies onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment and bake for around 6-12 minutes at 160 centigrade. The time taken will depend on the size and thickness of the biscuits, so keep checking. You want them to be just golden at the edges.

Place the cookies on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely. Enjoy with a well-earned cuppa.

Or if you're really patient, you can ice them. I'll probably get around to another post about that some time, but at the moment, I'm a little busy eating cookies.

A break from the job hunting

Week 20 of being unemployed. Okay, so that's perhaps a little stretch of the truth, but that's how long since we've had an income. We left our jobs at the end of May to cycle tour, but it didn't go quite as expected (ever tried taking an extremely active toddler on a really long car journey? Now swap that car for a bike trailer and make the journey a matter of weeks). So we ended up catching a train from Germany back into the Netherlands and then a ferry from Rotterdam to Hull. Yes, it's true what they say: it's grim up north. We had sailed from a heatwave on the continent to a miserable grey town back in the UK. But it was different.

Immediately, everyone was so friendly. We arranged to stay with some friends in Southport, so jumped on another train and almost immediately, I'd forgotten about the trip. It wasn't that I wanted to forget how difficult things had been, because there were some good times. There were some great times, and there were some amazing times, but we were home now, so it was time to start job hunting.

We eventually found ourselves a little home. A two-semi in the north of Wigan; close enough to Manchester that I would be able to commute, but far enough that it would be cheap. We loved it; there was so much going on that we were were busy all the time. When were weren't applying for work, there were festivals, new people to meet and we had a Bookcycle just around the corner - a charity that offers free books in return for donations that are then used to plant trees and support projects around the world.

But the jobs still didn't materialise, and the money that we had saved so hard to keep us going had run out. The credit cards were mounting up and the bank of mum and dad had taken rather a large withdrawl. So we bit the bullet and signed on for JSA. We've still not heard whether we're actually going to be entitled to anything, as we not only voluntarily left our jobs, but we also own a flat. We are trying to sell it, but the last two offers have fallen through, costing us more and more money each time. At least we now have a friend living there and looking after it, happy to leave as soon as someone does buy it.

I've applied for seven jobs in five days. So now I've decided that I need to have a break from thinking about my past 15 years of work history and education, and just do something that makes me happy. Ranting. Not that anyone's likely to be interested in that. But getting it off my chest sure does make me feel better.