Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail (for me anyway!)

I'm sure that most of you have heard the above saying somewhere or another, possibly in the workplace or from a well-meaning university lecturer many moons ago...

Here's the rub: For me, this saying is completely fitting.  And not just in my working or
academic life either. I've mentioned before that I'm not a natural caterer or party host. Bitter experience has taught me that if I want my social gatherings to be a success, it pays to treat them a little like a work project, i.e with lots of advance planning.

And so I find myself worn out but happy just after 11pm on the 23rd of December, having thrown together my 'easy' pear and vodka trifle, parboiled and frozen my tats and blanched my carrots and parsnips in preparation for Christmas day.  This evening I have also fired off a number of emails to work clients, just to ensure that they have everything they expect from me prior to the holidays - as well as some ideas to help us all get off to a great start in January.

Parboiled tats ready for the freezer
I promise you now that this is not some sort of smug "aren't I so organised" boast.  It's taken me almost 40 years to be honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses.  Leaving things until the very last minute falls into the latter category and many social events or work projects that should have been enjoyable have ended up being terribly stressful instead.

So, because I know that my dear Mum is arriving for Christmas tomorrow afternoon and because I want to enjoy our afternoon and evening together with the children, I've tried my utmost to get ahead of the game today.  (Check out this link for ideas if you'd like to do the same.) There are still things left on my to do list - of course there are.  But with the main chores out of the way, I can look forward to the day ahead tomorrow instead of lying in bed tonight with what I believe is known as 'helicopter head'.

Now, if that isn't worth raising a glass to, what is? As we say in this part of the world, slainte!

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Thursday, 19 December 2013

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Have you ever told your child that it's wrong to copy? Yup, me too.  There's no denying that you should never pinch someone else's ideas and claim that they are your own.  It is, however, perfectly acceptable to benefit from others who have greater experience and skills and who are willing to share them (thank goodness for the internet and all those talented folk who contribute to the mass of information on it).

If your cooking and crafting skills are average (like mine), there really is no need to try to do everything yourself from scratch.  Shortcuts are perfectly acceptable.

With Christmas looming ever closer on the calendar, the number of things on the 'to do' list tend to increase one hundred fold.  However chilled out you are, few of us can escape the pressure of being seen to do it all.

Like most average women out there, I want my family to have a fabulous festive season.  I would like to hope that my children will grow up with fond memories of the holidays and of Christmas day itself.  It would be wonderful to think that I could help to create traditions that my children will continue with their own children.

But - and it's a huge but - creating the perfect Christmas does not come naturally to me.  So what is an average but keen girl to do? Answer: Cut corners and copy. Oh, and recognise your limitations. I can usually tell from a quick glance at a new recipe or craft idea whether it will result in stress or success. I've become an expert at weeding out the 'easy but effective' projects.

During the last few days, I can give you two recent examples of being a copycat, taking a few shortcuts, but still feeling great about the end results.

Example 1 is the festive wreath that currently adorns our door.  For the first time, I "made it myself", however the design wasn't entirely my own idea... Having ordered a fresh wreath from our wonderful local green grocer last year, I took a snap of how it looked at the time, kept the non-perishable parts in a box all year and recreated it myself this week with some laurel and holly that, fortunately, grow on our doorstep.

My first DIY holly wreath - sort of.

So did I cheat? Will, yes a little.  But I still feel better than if I'd bought a completely new fresh or artificial replacement.  Next year, I might even embellish my imitation design a little more.  I also feel that using my existing resources was less wasteful and kinder to the environment. Dare I say it, the whole process of tackling it at the kitchen table even made me feel a little more festive.

Example number two comes via a recipe for a twist on mincemeat pies sourced from the wonderful Mortage Free in Three blog.  Although my pies didn't quite look the part of those featured in the recipe, I'm determined to try them again soon as they really tasted rather good.  When my little lad, who loves his Christmas pies, asked "Did you make them all yourself?", I nodded proudly that I had. 

Cue his next question: "But did you make the mincemeat yourself?" Well no, I had to admit.

Not so few Christmases ago, this type of comment would have tipped me over the edge into a bad mood and a swamp of feelings of inadequacy.   This time, however, I was quite happy to "fess up".  Mums, I explained, need to have time to work and play too. They can't always do every little thing themselves. This was accepted by my little lad very easily.

And the moral of the story is? Sometimes, just sometimes, the main person to blame for piling on the pre-Christmas pressure is yourself...

Have a wonderfully average festive season.

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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

I'm not the type of person who normally...

One of the things I've been trying really hard to do recently is to be a little more open minded and a little less quick to say "no" to things without first giving them a try.

I'll be upfront right now and confess that, as Mrs Average, I haven't done anything that others might consider earth shattering or extreme (no Ironman challenges for me quite yet!). Instead, I've been trying to do little things that might be outwith my comfort zone like running a longer distance than usual (I completed my first 10K earlier this year); drive myself and the kids on city routes that I normally avoid (I'm a bit of a coward with unfamiliar journeys) and say "yes" to work projects that scare me a little. Even getting started on this blog was something that I had to push myself to do...

More humdrum examples over the past seven days include making my own bread, with our "new" bread maker (currently on loan from my in-laws who no longer use it - I'm normally a gadget phobic) and buying a sassy above-the-knee red dress for my Christmas parties rather than plumping for the more predictable, safe option. 

The great thing about this new brave me is that the more I take these small leaps of faith, the easier it becomes to take the next, even bigger steps.  This 'can do' mind set has left me feeling really positive about the new year ahead and all the things I hope to achieve. Remember, though,  if you're teetering on the brink of trying something new, don't feel you have to wait for the next calendar year - just jump right in and try it! 

And if you find yourself thinking "but I'm not the type of person who normally...", stop right there and turn that attitude on its head! You won't regret it.

A 'can do' mind set is all you need to get started

Monday, 2 December 2013

Dealing with the dull dark days of winter

Looking at the title of this post, it's hardly very appealing is it? Yet, I feel it's something that I must write about because so many of us - particularly 'round our way' - are affected by the shorter, darker, colder days of winter to a greater or lesser extent.

Those who suffer badly from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) come to dread the changing of the clocks and the reduction of daylight as the year draws to a close.  Unsurprisingly, it's a hot topic on many blogs and forums because it is so commonplace.

I'm not as unlucky as some who find the condition debilitating, however I have to confess that I often struggle on those challenging days when it never really seems to get light, it's bitter outside and the carefree days of summer feel as though they may never return.  Thankfully, there are lots of great tips for coping with our seasonal changes out there in cyberspace.  I can't take credit for coming up with these but I can share with you the little changes that, for me, can make a big difference. None of these involve expensive outlays just, perhaps, a small change in everyday habits and your mind set.

Get outside
Sounds obvious doesn't it? It's not that easy, though, when the weather is distinctly unappealing and you are already feeling the cold indoors, let alone outside.  If you can, grit your teeth, gird your loins, grab your coat/boots/scarf/gloves and go for it! I don't think I've ever felt worse after a walk, even though I've sometimes felt pretty grim prior to venturing out.  If possible, it's even better to go during the middle part of the day when you can maximise your exposure to any sunlight that might just be biding its time behind the grey clouds. Why not make the most of that lunch hour?

Let the outside in
No, I'm not suggesting that you throw your windows and patio doors open (I do live in the north-east of Scotland after all). What I do recommend, though, is that you pull back any blinds during daylight hours to let as much light in as possible. As a homeworker, I've tried doing this in my little office space and I really think it helps (particularly if you don't have the time or motivation to follow recommendation number one above).

Make arrangements
For me, there are usually a few ghastly days each winter when I really just want to hibernate.  This is when advance arrangements come in useful.  If you know that you'll be letting someone else down, whether it is a work meeting, or a quick cuppa with a friend, then you'll be more likely to galvanise yourself into action.  Even promising to take the kids to the library will get you out of your own four walls and into a different environment with some fresh - and hopefully friendly - faces.

Remind yourself it's not for ever
"This too will pass."  It's easy to say but sometimes not quite as easy to believe.  When you're finding it difficult to believe that Spring will return one day, find some practical ways to convince yourself.  Dig out the photo album from your last summer holiday or slather yourself in some sun cream or cocoa butter to bring back the memories of warmer, fun filled days.

Ditch the guilt
Don't be too hard on yourself if you fail to cram in quite as much activity as you do during other times of year.  Congratulate yourself on getting through the tough days and acknowledge that it's normal to have times when you really just want to curl up with a good book, a warm throw and a hot chocolate (even though there are a million other seemingly more productive things that you should be doing).  After all, tomorrow's a new - and hopefully brighter - day...

A walk in the middle of the day can work wonders

Related posts: Beating the January blues

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Saturday, 23 November 2013

Make do and munch

A recent change in circumstances has prompted me to look afresh at our weekly budgets - and particularly the amount of money we spend on food.

I've always considered myself to be pretty shopping savvy; I follow all the usual tips of making a list, not going to the supermarket when I'm ravenous and shopping around for the best offers.  That said, I've still felt recently that our weekly outgoings are gradually creeping up and - despite having a menu plan for the week - I am ashamed to admit that we are guilty of wasting food by failing to use it while fresh.

How could I reverse these discouraging trends? I decided to combine some advice from one of my favourite financial websites MoneySavingExpert, along with the ethos of a blog I've recently discovered by Elaine Colliar, Mortgage Free in Three.

Over the weekend, I now discipline myself to withdraw a stated amount of hard cash that I feel should cover our family's food supplies for the week.  By the time I get to Thursday (when, let's face it, we're all tired and feel we deserve a treat), I am resisting the temptation to trundle off to M&S for a 'Dine in for Two' special. Instead, I am trying to make do with what's already in my fridge and store cupboard.

Sounds a bit bleak and boring? The more I do it the easier it gets. Honest! And I have to confess to a certain degree of self-satisfaction when I resist the lure of the M&S special or takeaway option and stick to my own resources.  They say necessity is the mother of invention and the upside to my new regime is that I'm becoming a little more creative in the kitchen.   Last weekend when all the 'usual' breakfast options had been depleted - and it wasn't quite time for my weekly cash withdrawal - I discovered after a quick internet trawl and a rummage through the cupboards that I had the ingredients to make Nigella's American style pancakes instead.

Come to think of it, I could get used to these new family 'traditions'.  Every cloud and all that...

Emergency breakfast pancakes: A more than palatable standby

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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Celebrations, catch ups and cash flows

I've had a few blog free days as it's been busier than, well, average over the past week. The main event was hubby's 40th birthday, the celebrations for which have been spread out over more than one day (surprise surprise).  In among all the fun and frolics, I was determined to make his birthday cake myself but knew that I needed something fool proof, yet impressive, to fit my average cake making skills.  The resultant choice was Nigella's chocolate Guinness cake, which a neighbour had let me (and hubby) sample several weeks ago.  It seemed like quite a manly selection (!) and hubby, who does not like "overly chocolatey" cake (what's not to like?) had made positive noises about his sample slice. The result, pictured below, was a resounding success and I was quietly chuffed with my wee self (and it's not often that happens to me in the kitchen department).

Chocolate Guinness Cake: Manly and more-ish

Tonight some of hubby's friends are coming to our place for pizza and beer, while on Friday it's my turn to have the girls over.  As so frequently happens, we're doing more socialising within a fortnight than we've done for the past four months - everything seems to come together, particularly since both of our birthdays fall within the same month (right after the family double whammy of Halloween and Guy Fawkes' night).  While we both absolutely love entertaining, there's no denying that it comes at a cost and in the run-up to YOU KNOW WHAT, we do need to be careful with our pennies.  For this reason, I was delighted to come across this 31 Days of Simple Hospitality series on one of my favourite blogs, The Complete Guide to Imperfect Homemaking.

For those who love spending time with friends and family but are held back by cost concerns or other hosting insecurities this blog is definitely worth a read.

Time to start planning that next get together?

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Thursday, 7 November 2013

How to make your home office work for you: Three golden rules

I've recently been working mostly from home - and I also did so for around eight years when my children were very young. Thanks to all the lovely technology that we now have at our fingertips, many people find it feasible to handle at least part - and sometimes all - of their job from home.  It's not for everyone, however, and over the years I've discovered that the following principles of home office management are essential to making the arrangement work for me. None of it's rocket science - and my self-devised rules might not suit your circumstances - but I hope there is something in here that might just be of help...

1. Keep your workspace tidy. (I told you it wasn't rocket science!) Even if it is "your mess" and you're a natural hoarder, chances are that you'll be more productive if you can add a semblance of order to the chaos.  Personally, if I let my filing trays get beyond a certain point, just looking at them makes me feel defeated before I even start work. Hardly a productive beginning to the day...

2. Make your workspace your own.  This may sound obvious but in many cases (including my own), the home office is also a spare room, which means that it may double up as a guest bedroom, family gym, children's playroom, general dumping ground etc.  I'm not suggesting that you never invite anyone to stay or deprive your children of their play space; the reality of the situation is that most of us don't have endless extra rooms for all the activities our family members enjoy.  What I am suggesting is that you make your area of the room - desk, work station, craft bench, whatever - your own. Organise it to meet your needs - personalise it with your favourite photos or trinkets if that gets your creative juices flowing or keep it purely functional if that's the way you work best.  Enjoy beavering away to music? Invest in a portable radio or docking station. Once you've arranged things to suit, keep them that way. Which brings me to my next point...

3. Agree access arrangements. If home working is to work for you, then you need to actually put in the hours. For most of us, that means you have to be left in peace to get on with it.  Yes, it's lovely to know that you can share your tea break with your nearest and dearest but it's also best to let them know when you're in the midst of a big project and can't be interrupted. Set the ground rules from the outset and you'll avoid tears and resentment later on.

Happy home working!

Related posts: Would self employment suit you?

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Monday, 4 November 2013

Driving down the cost of the weekly shop - Lidl by Lidl

Yesterday the weather was just, well, pants so I had no other choice but to knuckle down and get some of the boring stuff out of the way - like the supermarket shop.

Many people I know do their grocery shop online as a means to save money and avoid impulse buys.  I've done so myself in the past but never seem to get my "big shop" quite right.  Now that I'm working from home again and have a little more flexibility in my schedule, I've been getting back out there, trying to spot the best offers and giving my fruit and bread a good old sniff and a squeeze (that latter part sounds a little like a Julia Donaldson story book, n'est-ce pas?).

I'm fortunate in that the thriving market town where we live not only has great independent shops but also a choice of larger stores.  Recently, I've been turning increasingly to Lidl and it's amazing how many other mums I've been bumping into there! Unsurprisingly, we're all looking for ways to cut our weekly outgoings and Lidl seems to gain universal praise for its fruit and veg and - erm - Prosecco.

It used to be the case that I could only get certain items from Lidl, then off I'd trot to supermarkets two and three to get the other elusive bits and pieces.  While this still happens to some extent, I think Lidl is continuing to up its game...

Today, our nine year old has a friend coming for tea post gymnastics.  They're bound to be a) very hungry and b) expecting something fun to eat.  (Even though it's Monday night, the unwritten rules of having friends for tea mean that I'm not allowed to trot out boring old leftovers.)  Pizza tends to be a general crowd pleaser and I always feel a little better about it if there is some kind of home made aspect to the whole production.  How happy was I then to find in Lidl both some new 'ready to roll and bake' pizza dough packs for the freezer, along with some cute little mozzarella balls? It may not have Nigella et al quaking in their boots but I think the nine year olds will be more than happy....

Home made pizza: The ultimate small people pleaser

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Brrrrrrr! Bring on the bargain base layer....

Cold. Dark. Wet. Miserable.  A not unjust description of the weather in the north-east of Scotland today. The other word that folk round here tend to use is "dreich". Even if you don't normally speak Doric, it really does sum up this type of day perfectly.   I felt a pang for all the organisers of bonfire nights and fireworks displays, though judging by the online buzz many of the local events still went off with a (fully supervised and therefore safe) bang!

I always feel as though it was an accident of birth that I was born in this part of the world as, although I love our scenery, I'm reaaaallllly not a happy bunny in the cold (just ask my long suffering husband). As such, from October to March, the layers come out in force.

This autumn, I was tipped off by one of my money savvy friends that Costco was selling base layers for children (top and matching leggings) for a bargain fiver.  Naturally, I hot footed it there to pick up a couple of sets for my own two.  Scrutinising the packaging for size guides, I then realised that the XL girls' set would most likely fit me. (Yup, I'm a shortie.)  What's more, it was half the price of the ladies' small set on the next shelf.

Today was the perfect day to dig out my purchase. So, it may be purple with pink polka dots rather than demure grey but a) it's designed to be worn underneath other clothes and b) purple is one of my fave colours!

For all those petite ladies out there suffering from poor circulation, plummeting temperatures and a limited clothing budget, it's definitely worth a try....

Keep warm!

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Friday, 1 November 2013

Celebrating Friday with fresh air (and chocolate cake)

Even when you're a part-time homeworker (as I am at present), you definitely still get that Friday feeling!

In our little corner of the world, it was one of those fantastic crisp, clear autumn days. After quickly shifting a couple of jobs on the laptop, I decided to bunk off from work and go out for a run. I didn't go very far - or very fast - but both mind and body felt better afterwards.  I have a lovely group of local ladies that I sometimes go running with in the evenings but this was a spur-of-the-moment outing. It was nice just to choose my own pace, listen to some great tunes and enjoy both the scenery and the weather.  I've recently treated myself to funky little lilac iPod Shuffle and I have to say I'm not missing the chafing associated with the whole armband/bulky mobile phone debacle that I used to sport...

Knuckled down to some more work and chores in the afternoon (does anyone else find that they  are actually more productive after some physical exertion?). In a rare fit of organisation yesterday, I had pre-prepared some chowder for dinner tonight, so the afternoon was mine for the taking.  With most of the to-do list ticked (another rarity), I was even able to surprise both the children and my husband with a chocolate cake for pudding.  This quickie recipe, which was flagged up on Mumsnet as being failsafe, is one that even average bakers like me can manage.  A few of my foodie chums are not too keen on microwave usage at the best of times.  If you fall into this camp, look away now.  Everyone else: go fetch!

Chocolate cake in a matter of minutes: What's not to love?

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