Tuesday 30 September 2014

Christmas at House of Fraser

Earlier in the summer I had the pleasure of sneaking a peek at the Christmas goodies in store with House of Fraser.  It was a much smaller press event that some of the other stores I have attended, but believe me when I say great things come in small packages.

I was struck by the sheer decadence of the High Society Christmas range of decorations.

Shimmering pearls and rich jewel hues of delicate glass baubles will add an elegance to your tree this year.

I adore the peacock feather wreath and am coveting it for my front door.

If you prefer a more pared down look, check out the Scandi dining range, and deck your table out with a feast served on pretty folksy red and white heart and bird-decorated platters.

The Pretty Vintage collection struck my eye, and I think lots of girls will be adding an item or two from here to their wish list this year.  Gorgeous mercury glass votives and perfume bottles, delicate jewellery and lace lingerie, and sumptuous fur throws harking back to an era of glamour and decadence.

If you head down to House Of Fraser right now, you'll find an amazing sale on, especially in the home section, with up to 70% off.  Now is a great time to get ahead of the Christmas rush and stock up on some presents.  Here are a few of my favourites I spotted this weekend from the current sale.

Linea Martini Glasses, set of 4.  Half price reduced to £25.

Linea Cast Iron Cook Wear reduced by 60%.

Luxury Hotel Range Towels reduced by 70%.

I hate to say it, but Christmas is less than 3 months away, so you may as well take advantage of these great deals and beat the rush too.


I was invited to the House of Fraser Christmas preview event and received a goody bag.

Monday 29 September 2014

High Street Fashion and Bargain Prices

I'll let you into a little secret.

I've found an online store where you can find all your favourite brands at a fraction of the cost.

The Outlet by Vanity House brings you clothing from labels such as Boden; Coast; Hobbs; Monsoon; Whistles as well as a whole host of high street stores such as M&S; River Island; Topshop; Miss Selfridge; Oasis; Next and Zara.

Offering a range of clothes from size 8 to 28, as well as a menswear and children's section, they source direct from suppliers and buy either lines that have been over-produced or have been delayed getting to the shops due to distribution issues.  This means they can buy top fashion and sell on to you at hugely discounted prices.

I'll be honest, you may need to do a little 'rummaging' but browsing through the online store is easy and you're not going to get your hands dirty.  You can search by your favourite brand; by clothing item; and then by colour; size or check out their 'new in' ranges to get your hands on the bargains first.

Here's what I selected for under £60.

The mink crushed velvet dress is from Marks and Spencer and cost £27.99.  It's super-soft and a perfect fit, gently draped and ruched at the side it's very flattering to wear.  It's a great length too - why are so many dresses these days obscenely short?!  You could dress this cocktail number up with heels and some jewellery, or wear it on a night out with ankle boots and a leather jacket.

I've been watching way too much of The Good Wife and have developed an unhealthy jealousy of Kalinda's incredible collection of coloured leathers, so when I spotted this grey jacket from Oasis in the store for £29.99 it was screaming out to me.

The good news for all you animal lovers and veggies is that it's faux leather, meaning you can wear this with your conscience clear.  The jacket is lined in 100% cotton keeping it cool and comfortable to wear.  It has zips at the cuffs, front pockets and some nice stitching detail.

All items come to you de-labelled to prevent you from returning items to the original stores.  But I'm confident they're 100% genuine, and I'm certainly very happy with my first two items.  If for any reason you're unhappy with your purchase, you can follow the customer service instructions and return it within 14 days.

Delivery costs just £2.95 and they aim to have your order to you in between 2 and 4 days.

You don't need to be a member or sign up to get these discounts, just log on to the VH Outlet store and take a look. I'm going to be checking in regularly to keep and eye on what they get in.  They only have limited amount of each item, so once they are gone, they are gone!  Why not sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss out?

Disclosure: I was provided with my choice of clothing items for the purpose of this review.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Encouraging After School Chefs

So, we're well and truly back into the term-time madness.  No more are the endless summer days when we eat when we want, where we want, how we want.  It's time to try and get back into some sort of semblance of routine so that homework gets done, sleep gets had, swimming lessons get gotten too...

It's hard isn't it?  To try and settle back into a routine.  Kids are tired and grumpy after long days at school, they fall through the front door demanding food because they're hungry.  My daughter is now having school meals some days (thanks Mr Clegg) which means sometimes she doesn't want another cooked dinner at home, and I have the new quandary of trying to find her a healthy 'snack' tea which will fill her up right through to breakfast.

Getting her involved in preparing the meal I find cuts down on so much trauma. It allows her to unwind and spend some time with me. Actively doing another task, she's more likely to share what's happened during her day with me (rather than the monosyllabic answers I tend to get on the walk back). It gives her a break from school work rather than having to get stuck straight into homework. It stops the endless wails of "when's dinner, I'm staaaaaaarving?'.

But more importantly, being involved in cooking and preparing food is giving her life skills.  It's teaching her about ingredients, how to put them together, what cooking technique works best for what food, and it's preparing her for adulthood.

So here are my tips for nurturing little after school chefs:

1. Communicate.

Communication is the key.  Use every opportunity to talk about food, where it's come from, what it tastes like, what their favourites are and why.  Talk about food when you're at the shops - even from a very early age I'd chat to my daughter when she was in the pram, saying out loud each item as I put it in the basket.

Talk about how food is produced, how it grows, visit farms, see where eggs come from, how beans grow, what animals different meats come from.  An early understanding and appreciation of food will certainly pay off in the kitchen and at meal times.

If you have space, get your kids involved in growing some food.  It doesn't need to be a lot, even a window box of herbs is a good start.  Seeing the care and time that's needed to nurture something from seed to plate will help them appreciate the value of food.

Get them involved in planning the meal, talk about what they'd like to eat tonight.

Talk about what tastes they like and why.  It will help you to understand their palates and you can then introduce new foods with similar tastes or textures.

2. Help.

It's great to get kids involved helping at meal times.  Even very tiny children can help lay the cutlery on the table, mix and stir and help make basic recipes.  They can help with getting items out of the cupboard, fridge or freezer for you, and feel involved that way.

As your child gets older,  they will be able to do more and develop their independence.  The more they help you in the kitchen, the more they'll learn. I remember as a child, my jobs were always making the custard, the gravy and yorkshire pudding batter.

3. Experiment.

When it comes to food, sometimes kids can be wary of new things.  If I want to introduce a new addition to a meal, I'll try and first include it with other foods she's already familiar with, that way she's not overwhelmed with a plateful of strange food.  For example you might want to try sweet potato mash, so dish it with some more familiar peas.  Introducing a spicy salsa? Serve it with chicken dippers.

On the other hand, when Ruby is given free reign in the kitchen, her experimental side is more likely to come out.  She may dream up some weird and wonderful concoctions, but if she's been instrumental in making it she's much more likely to eat it.

Ruby loves to look through my recipe books, flicking the pages until she sees something that catches her eye. This is a great way to experiment with new meals, and you can work through the instructions step by step together.  It's also some sneaky, stealth reading practice!

This kind of experimenting is great for them to discover new tastes and learn their own personal likes and dislikes.

4. Fun.

If kids see cooking as a fun activity rather than a chore, they're much more likely to want to get involved.  I know it's hard, but try not to moan about having to cook the dinner AGAIN.  The negativity will rub off on them.

Most children love to cook.  Cracking eggs, whisking sauces and mixing salads is so much more interesting than slobbing out in front of the TV so let them get stuck in.

Let them help out with dishing up and serving the food too.  Ruby loves to present her food on the plate in different ways to how I would!

5. Skills.

Don't start with anything too complicated - your little chef  isn't going to be making perfect choux pastry straight away!  Starting with frozen food is a great introduction to cooking.  It will allow them to get great results, with not too much effort and build their confidence.  Reading and following instructions is a great skill to practice too.

It can be hard to resist the urge to be over-protective in the kitchen, after all it's full of inherent danger.  But with the right tuition and careful watching, you might be surprised at how much your child is capable of. Ruby loves to use the electric whisk, and will confidently hold the bowl with one hand and the beater in the other. I don't know why I didn't allow her to do it sooner.  She loves to stand on a chair at the stove stirring saucepans and even though it gives me grey hairs, she loves to chop up veg with a sharp knife.

These are all excellent skills to learn, and giving them that little bit of responsibility might just pleasantly surprise you.

Does your little one like to cook?  Do you have any tips you'd care to share?

This post is an entry for #Afterschoolchefs Linky Challenge, sponsored by Birds Eye. Learn more on the Birds Eye Facebook page.

Monday 22 September 2014

Win a family trip to Diggerland

Planning ahead for the half term holidays?  Or wanting to make the most of this unseasonably good weather?

Well I have a great competition for all of you with little ones.  How about tickets for 4 to attend Diggerland?

Diggerland prides itself on having something fun for all ages – and with 18 rides there really is something for everyone!

Experience the thrills of spinning around fast in a Giant Digger bucket on the Spindizzy ride, operating a Giant JCB 806 Digger, driving a REAL car, racing around in a Go-Kart, getting lifted 50ft in the air by the Skyshuttle, whirling around on the Dig-a-round and so much more!

In addition, Diggerland also boasts the DIGGERS DEN indoor play area, souvenir gift shop and the DIG INN restaurant.

With four Diggerland parks across the UK, (Devon, Durham, Kent and Yorkshire), and over 100 Diggers at each location, there's only one place you need to visit for the 'Ultimate Adventure Park Experience' and that's Diggerland!

Further information and to book can be found on the Diggerland website or by calling 0871 2277007.

To enter, simply compete the rafflecopter answering a simple question.  One winner will be chosen at random to win 4 tickets valid until the end of the season, 2nd November 2014.  Transport and other incidentals are not included.  

The prize will be dispatched and fulfilled by Diggerland.

Closing date is midnight 29 September 2014.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday 11 September 2014

Pro-tect your home and contents

*Touch wood* I've never been burgled, but I know loved ones who have and know the trauma it causes and the havoc it wreaks.  It's not just about having valuable items stolen.  Worse than that it's the invasion of your home; the loss of irreplaceable family items and mementos; the hassle of organising repairs to doors and windows; changing of locks; endless calls to your insurance company;  time spent giving statements and details to the police.

The new system from Pro-Tec offers a wireless, self-install system which can give you peace of mind while away from your home - whether that's for a holiday or just to nip to the shops.

With motion sensors and door contact fixings you can leave your home safe in the knowledge that you'll be looked after.

The whole system works via a hub, connected to your phone line.  It's unobtrusive, and sits happily next to my phone, it's little green eyes beaming at me.  When you go out, you activate it via a key fob, giving you time to leave the house and lock the door behind you. If there's a breach of security in your home once you're out, the professionally trained monitors will listen in via your phone line to establish what's going on.  They can then notify you (or any number of named key-holders) by phone to discuss what action to take.  If they hear criminal activity they'll immediately dial 999 on your behalf.

The system was quick and straightforward to set up - I got a few grumbles presenting this to my Other Half at 9 o clock in the evening before we were due to go away for the weekend.  But once he knuckled down and read the instructions properly he had it all up and working in less than an hour.

There are even super-strong sticky attachments for the motion sensors meaning you don't even need any DIY skills!

Because you install it yourself, and it can easily be removed with no damage, it's perfect for those in rented accommodation, or for students away in halls.

The helpline staff were really friendly and helpful too when I called to register my details, and I was very impressed with the service they gave.

But Pro-tect is more than just a burglar alarm.  This clever bit of kit allows you to chose the right package for your needs, or add on extra components.  Not only does it look after home security, but you can also connect it to your smoke alarms; carbon monoxide detectors; panic buttons and medical alerts.

So it's ideal for:

  • General home security
  • Students away from home
  • Rented accommodation
  • Elderly or disabled people wanting to retain independence
  • Those living in vulnerable situations

I have to say, we haven't had the opportunity to fully test it out (thank goodness we've not been broken into!) but having it in place gives me peace of mind.  I've even managed to remember to shut the dog away at night, away from the motion sensors so she doesn't accidentally set it off!

Our dog would bark if there was ever an intruder, but knowing this system is in place for times when we're all out or away on holiday, or the neighbours are out means I don't have to give my belongings a second thought.

I really like the fact that you can buy add ons.  We may invest in additional door contact pieces so we can secure all entry points.  You can buy an external dummy box for the front of the house, shock sensors for windows and additional motion sensors.

Prices start at £99.99 for a basic package and £9.95 a month for 24 hour monitoring.

Disclosure: We were sent a Home Protect Package for the purpose of this review.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

10 Tips for the perfect relaxing bath

As parents it's difficult to find ways to switch off and get some of that illusive 'me time'.  Going out involves military-style planning and baby-sitting organising, but taking half an hour to have the perfect bath is something we can all do at home (unless you're one of those people who ripped out their tub in favour of a fancy wet room, in which case, too bad!) A relaxing warm bath is the perfect antidote to today's hectic lifestyles and research shows it can radically improve your psychological wellbeing.

Here's my top tips, but I'd love to hear yours.

1. Get scrubbing

You've finally snatched some time to relax, the last thing you want is to be surrounded by mess and reminded of boring domestic responsibilities.  So, before you take your dip, make sure the bathroom is clean and tidy. No stray socks hanging out of the laundry bin, no kid's bath toys ready to poke you up the bum, the splodges of toothpaste scraped off the sink and the toilet seat is down. 

2. Do not disturb

Make sure your 20 minutes/half and hour or however long you've allowed yourself really is going to be that. Pick a time when the kids are in bed, out with friends or generally occupied and there's no chance they'll come barging in to use the loo or ask where their shoes are/can they have a snack etc etc.  Lock that door! Oh, and don't be tempted to take your phone in.  The lure of uninterrupted time to scan social media might be attractive, but will it be relaxing?

3. Be prepared

Have anything you need on hand and within easy reach.  A cup of tea?  Maybe a cheeky glass of wine and some snacks?  Make sure you don't have to haul yourself out of the tub and go dripping across the room to get them.  Lay out fresh and deliciously soft towels.  Your BEST towels, not the ones you reserve for rubbing down the dog or taking to the gym.  Only the finest will do.  My towels of choice are Christy towels. Also have a bathrobe or PJs ready to snuggle into once you're done.

4. Lighting

Nothing says relaxing like candlelight.  Choose a fragranced candle and not only will the aroma work subconsciously on your mood, but the soft subtle lighting will relax you too.  Of course, subdued lighting also means you won't be laying in the bath examining your wobbly bits too closely and mourning the body you had ten years ago.

5. Bubbles

Similarly with foaming bath products, a few bubbles will hide a multitude of sins, allowing you to sink back and relax rather than wondering whether you should drag a razor over your legs.  Choose your favourite bath foam and soak up the fragrance.

6. Let the music play

Try and leave the Abba Greatest Hits or your favourite Kings of Leon CD for blasting out in the car.  Here you want ambient background music, not something you'll be singing along too or busting out your air guitar. Classical music is perfect, or one of those relaxation CDs that are all whales and prancing unicorns.  If you don't have any there's plenty free online.  Try it, you might surprise yourself.

7. Temperature

Not only should you make sure your bathroom is at a comfortable temperature, but you should keep your bath water at the right heat too.  Too cold and you'll not want to hang about long, too warm and it can put pressure on your circulation.  Try leaving the shower hose gently running in the tub to keep the temperature comfortably warm.  

8. Underwater

Lie back and put your head back into the water so your ears are submerged.  Go back to the womb baby! Is there anything more comforting than that muffled, underwater sound where time seems to stop?

9. Breathing

I'm not one for meditation.  Try as I might I can't seem to stem the chatter in my head.  But being in the bath is about as close as I ever get.  Breathe deeply and slowly, paying attention to the rise and fall of your chest as it floats up to the surface, and back down again.  Shopping lists and meal planning can wait, it's all about the inhale and the exhale.

10. Slowly does it

When you're ready to get out, remember to do so slowly.  No sudden shocks to the system.  It's not terribly relaxing to get up too fast, go light-headed and pass out now is it?  And nothing breaks a trance like bashing your head.  So raise yourself slowly and take your time.  

How about you promise yourself 20 minutes sometime this week?  Would you do that?


I was sent a bathrobe and scented candle from Christie to enjoy my own relaxing bath.

Sunday 7 September 2014

Cool new kid's brand, introducing...

There's a brand new kid on the block in the children's market.  The Sticker Club launched this month and we're really impressed.

Subscription products are hot news, you can now have food; make-up; clothing and all sorts of things delivered regularly to your door after a one-off order, and we all know how lovely it is to receive a treat in the post.  They are a great way to try out new designers and with so many brands breaking into the subscription market, it seems only fair that your kids can get in on the action. 

The Sticker Club is the brainchild of two fathers with a background in the tech market.  With this new product they're going back to basics and allowing children screen-free time and the chance to stretch their imagination and tap into their creativity (although I'm guessing many of the stickers will end up adorning tablets and gaming devices!).

For just £1.99 a week, your child receives a personally addressed pack through the post containing no less than 9 sheets of high quality stickers, with a minimum of 40 stickers.  They use up-and-coming and established independent designers so you can be sure of some cool images.  They also promise you'll never receive the same design twice.

Every child loves stickers, and once you get past that age where they can't see where's appropriate to use them and where's not (I remember having to peel stickers off our dog's paw pads once when my daughter was younger), stickers are great fun!

Now Ruby's at the age where she can creatively use them to make artwork, decorate her scooter and her school books, I've fallen back in love with them again.

Priced at considerably lower than the weekly magazines I'm always badgered into buying, I think this is a great value for money product.  Wouldn't it make a great gift too?  Long after the tinsel's packed away, your gift will keep giving, delivering a weekly shot of happiness direct through the letterbox. They also mail worldwide for the same price, so if you have friends and relatives overseas, then this is perfect.

Check them out on Facebook and Twitter where they currently have a retweet competition running to win a 3 month subscription, or on their website where you can find out more.

Disclosure: I received a press sample pack.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Minimize lunchbox packaging - Zero Waste Week

Did you know it's Zero Waste Week?  I'm proud to be an ambassador for this movement, and to help by sharing tips and ideas on how we can all work towards reducing the amount of rubbish that ends up in landfill.

The theme for this year is 'one more thing'.  By now most of us are pretty savvy and recycle our rubbish at home, take our bottles to the bottle bank and probably use reusable bags in favour of plastic ones.  But there's always a little more each and every one of us can do.

Ambassadors will be sharing our individual pledges of the one more thing we've promised to do.  Will you sign up and pledge to do one more thing?  A small change in habit or behaviour can make a big difference.

My pledge is to try and reduce the amount of rubbish in the school lunchbox. To steer away from those individually pre-packed items and to try and go waste-free by not using wrappings, foil or disposable pots.

I took this photo of a week's worth of rubbish collected from my daughter's school lunchboxes.  Dinners principally made using the 'lunchbox' items the supermarkets flaunt at us - particularly at back-to-school time. From what Ruby tells me, most of her friends have similar kinds of items in every day.

I was shocked!  Look at it all.  Wow.

This doesn't include the daily fruit peelings, trimmings and cores etc because those go to compost.  It also doesn't include sandwich making stuff because I'm going to continue making sandwiches most days and because things like bread, cheese and ham etc are used by the whole family and not just for Ruby's lunchboxes.

So let's see how much waste we create if we avoid the individually packaged items.  Here's the equivalent waste from the following week when I ditched the pre-packed lunchbox foods.  Are you ready?

A big difference huh?  Amazing in fact.

So how did I do it?

Here's an example of the type of lunchbox I made being mindful of packaging.

I switched multi-bags of individual packs of crisps for one large bag which I put in a washable lidded pot.

I made yoghurt at home and served it in a washable lidded pot too.

I switched pepperami's for slices of chorizo.

I switched packaged cake, cereal bars and biscuits for homemade flapjack or cakes made in washable silicone cases.

I used leftovers more effectively from the previous night's dinners.

I used homegrown fruit and veg where possible - no packaging at all.

I switched Babybels and individual portion wrapped cheeses for one family pack of cheddar and included chunks of cheese in her lunchbox.

I never use clingfilm or foil to wrap food or sandwiches.  Providing you use a sectioned lunchbox or separate containers, there's just no need to.

Juice cartons were swapped for a reusable bottle of water or squash - I used homemade cordial so no waste at all.

OK, I'll admit, all this homemade stuff does ultimately have some waste, but an empty flour and sugar bag once a month or so is WAY better than before.

My top tips for zero waste lunchboxes:

Alternative containers:

Invest in a Bento style lunchbox and a few little pots or silicone cake cases.

Personally, I love the click-lock bento box by Munchkin and the Simesta lunch box is our current favourite because it includes a drinks bottle.  It's available in most supermarkets for between £4-5.

You can pick up small plastic lidded pots cheaply and they will last and last.

Alternative foods:

Don't be seduced by the supermarkets.  There's is absolutely no need for you to buy mini packs of cocktail sausages, nets of pre-packed cheeses and individually wrapped snack packs.

Use leftovers creatively.  Ruby loves it if we ever have a takeaway as she gets rice; popadoms; prawn crackers or naan bread in her box!  Cold rice with a handful of frozen peas or sweetcorn is a favourite, as are cold sausages or cold Yorkshire puddings with some leftover roast beef inside.  I also use batter leftover from yorkshire pudding etc to make fritters which are a great alternative to sandwiches.

Use what you have in your fridge or cupboard rather than buying items especially for lunchboxes, as they'll often have excessive packaging.  Things like crackers, breadsticks, popcorn, rice cakes and even cereal make a welcome addition to a lunchbox and don't have anyway near the packaging of specially produced lunchbox fillers.

Make your own jelly, mousse and yoghurt and serve in washable containers, this will create a fraction of the waste.

Why buy a plastic bag filled with mini boxes of raisins or dried fruit when you can make up your own portions from your baking goodies?

Make your own treats.  I bake a batch of simple buns or flapjack on a Sunday afternoon, when the oven is on for our roast.  It takes hardly any extra time and the cakes will keep in a tin for the whole week.  I'll make up a small batch, add raisins or cocoa powder to half so there's some variety and maybe make up a tiny dollop of icing to decorate the cakes each day as I go so she's got something different looking every day.

Alternative fun:

One of the biggest reasons we get suckered into buying that kind of stuff is probably because we think it makes their mealtimes more fun. Oh and peer pressure too because so-and-so always has them.  But there's lots of other ways to make your child's meal more appealing than a character-emblazoned plastic wrapper.

Use washable food picks like the ones from Eats Amazing, to add character and fun to the meal.

Use cookie cutters to make sandwiches, wraps and biscuits more appealing.

Add a small plastic toy to the box, that way they can have their favourite character, without the packaging waste.  I have a box of 'props' I use for lunchboxes.

Try themeing the lunchbox.  I often do this and Ruby loves it.  I've done country themes; Disney themes, sports themes, even a beach theme!

So, lets just look at the benefits of reducing the lunch box waste shall we?

I don't mean just the environmental benefits.  We all know the reasons why we should reduce the amount of rubbish we produce (and if you don't then you really need to head over to Zero Waste Week to take a read!)

No, I mean the other benefits to approaching lunchboxes this way...

  • Your child will have more variety.  Buying a multi pack usually means they are going to get the same thing for the next 5 days.
  • They are more likely to try new foods.  Bento style boxes with lots of different foods, presented well, encourages them to try different things.
  • They will be more independent.  No more having to ask the dinner ladies for help to open those pesky packets all the time.
  • They will spend more time eating because they're not wrestling with packets and lids.  This should mean that they'll actually eat more food rather than running out of time so less wasted food.
  • Using your leftovers creatively and baking your own means you should save money.
  • You'll undoubtedly be giving healthier options and you'll be fully aware of what's inside the food.
  • They will finish their food faster, giving them more time to play outside, run around and get fresh air - perfect!

So, have I convinced you to ditch the individually packed items?  Will you try and reduce lunchbox waste this term?  Maybe you already have and have tips to share?

Or perhaps you'll pledge something different for your One More Thing?  I'd love to hear.