Monday, 22 April 2019

Easter celebrations

The rest of my eco-Lent flopped badly, I'm afraid.  Life has an annoying way of not stopping so that you can concentrate; in fact, it usually gets busier!  However, saving the environment was always going to take more than 40 days, so at least there is more incentive now to carry on.

But for all our failures, and our fears for the future, we still need hope; and for that, there is Easter.

And we did manage to do Easter!

Here's our decorated mantelpiece: crafts by the boys, banner by me, flowers from the Co-Op and foliage from the garden.


I made a Simnel cake (11 marzipan balls for the disciples, omitting Judas), and some 'empty tomb' bread rolls (a marshmallow inside melts in the oven, leaving an empty hole - ta-daa!)



On Good Friday we did one of the Cadbury/National Trust Easter egg hunts at Calke Abbey.  It focused on looking for signs of spring rather than following clues, which disappointed Toby ("an egg hunt ought to have proper answers!") but we found some beetles, admired the waterlilies, and saw a frog in the lake, which was properly exciting.  And yes, there was chocolate at the end.



Saturday was the local Messy Church.  Toby and Theo enjoyed colouring in a sign and hammering it on to a stake (several bent nails; fortunately no bent thumbs).  They also did a 'proper' Easter egg hunt, with, yes, more chocolate at the end.



On Easter Sunday we went to church in the morning, then to the park for a picnic, and came home for a proper Sunday roast.

I should tell you that Toby was very proud to have won his school eggmobile competition.  They had to build a vehicle which could carry an egg, and go the furthest when rolled down a ramp.  Of course this was right up his street.  His prize was - you guessed it - another chocolate egg.  He said, half-jokingly, that he'd like to fill it with ice cream and put mini eggs on top, and I said, "Actually, that's not a bad idea for dessert..." so we did it!


And to work off all that chocolate, ice cream and Simnel cake, we went for a good long walk on Easter Monday, on a ridge of hills called the Roaches.  It's been a beautiful weekend in all sorts of ways.



Monday, 25 March 2019

House: Water, Energy and Stuff

I wasn't really thinking about water this week until I heard a news report on the radio which suggested that people should reduce their water usage from 140 litres per day to 100 litres.  Well, I had no idea how much water I used per day, but as it happened, we had just received our water bill.  I did a quick calculation, looked at the figure, and thought, "That can't possibly be right!"  I checked my conversion, checked my arithmetic, and finally looked up 'average household water usage'.  Of course.  The 140-litre figure I had in my head was per person; we were pretty close to the average household figure, at around 350 litres per day.

Image credit: Pixabay


But... 350 litres?  Every day?  That's 35 buckets full!  Imagine if I had to carry all that from a well! 

I really was staggered to find out just how much water we get through.  This fascinating document  from the Energy Saving Trust goes into a lot more detail about what we use it for.  Didn't you always want to know how many people actually shower every day?  Or how often we boil the kettle?  (24 times a week, apparently.)

That short news report has made me a lot more aware of how much water I'm using.  I don't feel like I've done much to change that yet, but it's certainly something to think about.

So, on to the daily breakdown:

Day 11

Install a bamboo toilet seat.
 

Actually I did this last week, but it fits this week's topic, so I'm co-opting it!  Ideally, of course, we buy as little as possible (see tomorrow), but I think this is an example of buying a Good Thing.  The old seat was broken and disgusting.  It was well overdue for replacement.  This looks so much better, will hopefully last many years, and is made of bamboo, which is meant to be more sustainable than wood.

Day 12

Watch The Story of Stuff.  It's a pretty simple animation (sometimes simplistic), but it's a useful reminder of how geared up our society is to keep buying more and more stuff.  And so much of it goes through our lives and into the dump in an alarmingly short period of time.

Day 13

Clean with bicarbonate of soda and vinegar.


Plenty of websites will tell you that these two chemicals are amazing for cleaning ANYTHING.  From my chemist's viewpoint, they're a mild alkali and a mild acid, which is fine but not necessarily amazing. 

I'm ashamed to admit that our kettle never actually has been descaled, so I gave vinegar a go as a descaling agent.  It definitely helped a bit, but it didn't take all the scale off; maybe I'll give it another try.

I also read that you can scrub a kitchen sink with bicarb.  Presumably it's being a mild abrasive in this case, as much as anything else.  The sink looked better afterwards, but it seemed like I used quite a lot of bicarb, and it's not particularly cheap.  I'd be tempted to save the bicarb for baking, and use plain water and a scrubbing pad if I was trying to avoid cleaning products.

Day 14

Measure my shower.

About 8 litres of water

The magic numbers for showers appear to be: a flow rate of 8 litres per minute or less, and a shower length of 4 minutes or less.  I'm pleased to say that mine was bang on target in both respects.  That doesn't leave me much to improve on, but it was encouraging, anyway.  I also discovered that our local water supplier will send you free gadgets to reduce the shower flow or time your shower, so if I'd needed either of those I could have got them from Severn Trent.

Day 15

Help with Waste Week show and tell.




Look!  I got to draw a pie chart!  The boys' school was doing Waste Week this week.  Not only did I send some of our recycling off to them to use for junk modelling, I was also able to do slightly better for Theo's Show and Tell than last week (when I shoved a toy spider into his hand as he was walking out of the door).  I have no idea what he actually said about it, but at least it looked pretty.

Day 16

Look up green energy providers. 

We already have solar panels on our roof, so changing our energy supplier hadn't been a top priority for me.  A quick poke around, though, suggests that green energy tariffs are now comparable to the standard ones.  Our current fixed-rate deal runs out in a few months, so I'll have another look then and see if we can move towards renewable energy.  This is a fairly recent article listing the main suppliers.

This week seems to have been more about information than actual changes made.  In some ways that makes me feel like I'm not achieving much, but on the other hand I'm finding out a lot that I didn't know.  And I thought I was reasonably well-informed!  I'm appreciating the way that this Lent challenge is forcing me to keep thinking about environmental issues - and it's sparked some conversations, too.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Food: Reduce! Reduce!

This title reminds me of a story about the conductor of a choir.  While they were rehearsing a piece, the sopranos persisted in singing too loudly.  Finally he turned to them in despair and implored, "Please, ladies!  Reduce!"

For this first week of Lent I wasn't trying to reduce either my singing volume or my waistline.  Just my meat consumption and kitchen plastic waste.

Day 5


The Parents' Guide to Climate Revolution is big on the idea that, while it's all fine saving our own little bits of the planet, what we really need is changes in the big picture - the governments and companies that control how we make energy and what we do with it.  This means making some noise to push them in the right direction.  So I started the week with a little bit of lobbying.

I wrote to our local council to say that I was glad they use locally sourced meat and MSC fish for their school meals, and to encourage them to use their buying power to support better farming practices.   I also wrote to the supermarket I usually go to, to ask if they could stock a wider range of Fair Trade products.  They said they would look into it.

Day 6





Ordered a wooden dish brush, a loofah sponge, and coconut fibre scourers from Boobalou.  I usually use a cotton dish cloth, but we also have a dish sponge, a green scourer and a plastic dish brush living near our sink, so when they die they can be replaced by these non-plastic alternatives.


Day 7

Vegan Day.

I tried to keep the whole week fairly vegetarian (we sneaked in a bit of smoked mackerel one day), but I wanted to try a vegan day too.  Graham and I started the day with apple and chia seed bircher muesli (recipe here).  Effectively it's cold porridge; it was nice enough, but we agreed that the hot version is better at this time of year!


For lunch I had some leftover dhal and rice, and for dinner we had Quorn bbq sliders, adapted from this Budget Bytes recipe.  This is pretty easy, and I knew everyone liked it!  I mixed some cabbage and carrot with bottled French dressing to make a vegan coleslaw, too.  Dessert was canned peaches with vanilla soy yoghurt.

I have to say, having a fridge stocked with almond milk and soy yoghurt feels almost painfully trendy.  It's great that so many people are reducing their meat consumption, but it's an awkward balance sometimes between doing good and jumping on a middle-class bandwagon.  So many people in the world simply can't afford meat, and they don't get designer-label desserts to replace it with, either.  With that in mind...

Day 8

Donated to some ladies from my church who are going a step further than being vegan!  They're just eating beans and rice for five days, to raise money for Tearfund.  Find their JustGiving page here, if you'd like to find out more.

Day 9


On my list was watching the documentary Meat the Truth, but it hasn't quite happened yet.  Hopefully I'll fit that in next week.

Day 10


Remember that we started collecting all our plastic on day 4?  Today was the day that we tipped it all out to see where it came from and what we could do about it.  The boys and I divided it into categories and weighed it. 


Our total recyclable plastic was 560g, with most of that coming from plastic bottles (267g, plus another 94g of milk bottles).  We get through quite a lot of squash - if anyone's got any tips on how to train your kids to drink water, let me know!  I've completely failed on that.

Our total non-recyclable plastic was 257g - mostly plastic wrappers of various sorts.  Cereal bags, bread bags, vegetable and fruit wrappers.  I've cut down on a lot of vegetable packaging by getting a vegetable box for the last few months, but this is full of the kind of stuff that the boys don't like - cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts - so I still buy a few extra bits, including frozen veg.  It's difficult to see how to reduce this much, unless we stop eating cereal and bread!

It was quite alarming how much plastic we got rid of in one week.  Those plastic bags and bottles don't weigh very much, but we had over 800g of them!  Still, the boys are doing "Waste Week" at school, and are supposed to be making something out of old plastic bottles.  They dived into the pile with enthusiasm and much sellotape, and are gradually constructing a castle and a rocket.

In summary, reducing our meat consumption is a lot easier than reducing our plastic waste!  We've been cutting down on meat for a while so usually only have it once or twice a week anyway.  Perhaps if I adopt the same tactic for plastic, it will have the same effect.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Lent Guide to Climate Revolution

Is it me, or is Lent a very stealthy season of the year?  I always think I have weeks to work out what I'm going to do, and then it sneaks up on me and bam! there I am cooking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and wondering if I actually am going to give anything up, and if so, what, when, how and why.

This year, I felt like something to help the environment would be appropriate.  The Tenants of the King Bible study that I'd done back in the autumn had increased my conviction that this was important, but there were a lot of things that I knew I could do and hadn't quite got around to yet.

I'd seen a link to Living Lent, which suggested six challenges.  All of them sounded slightly unachievable.  I didn't want to commit to something that I didn't actually think I could do.

Then, right on Ash Wednesday, The Parents' Guide to Climate Revolution thumped onto my doormat.  A plan started to form.  With some of the ideas from this book, plus some of the things I'd been meaning to do for a while, I would find 40 ways to help make our family more environmentally friendly.  And, of course, blog about it.

The first step was to read the book.

Day 1 and 2

Get and read (quite a lot of) The Parents' Guide to Climate Revolution by Mary DeMocker.  This book definitely met my expectations.  The author clearly cares deeply about what kind of world her kids are inheriting, and has devoted her own and her family's life to making it a better one.  But she also manages to keep a sense of humour and fun, not to mention a fair dose of common sense.  The result is a mix of some obvious ways to make your family green (Plant Trees, Used is Cool) combined with ways to inspire your children (Bring On the Awe, Amplify Kids' Voices) and some things which you wouldn't think were related to climate at all (Bury Your Neighbor's Chicken, and my favourite: Chainsaw the Fence).  On this last one: yes, real saw; yes, real fence; and yes, we are not the only people in the world to make a hole in the fence so that our kids can share their trampoline!




Also Day 2

Make a cape for Theo's World Book Day costume out of an old T-shirt.  In the interests of full disclosure, I did go shopping for yellow material, but couldn't find any.  So Graham kindly let me cut up an old yellow T-shirt, and I got to score at least some brownie points for homemade upcycling.  It's dead easy; there are instructions here, for example.



Day 3

Sign and share a Greenpeace petition to encourage the UK government to pass a strong Environment Bill.  There are always loads of these petitions floating around, and whether the government pays much attention to them, I don't know.  But it takes about 20 seconds, and it might help.  Probably a direct letter helps more, but that's also on my list for another day.

Adjust the heating programme.  It's not super-warm out there any more, but it is generally milder, and I knew we probably didn't need the heating on quite so much.  Just hadn't done anything about it yet.  So this was a good prompt to do it, and save some gas.



Day 4

Start a plastic audit.  I've recruited the rest of the family for this one.  We're putting all of the plastic that we'd normally throw away in a separate bin this week.  Next weekend, we'll look through and see where most of our plastic waste comes from, and whether we can reduce it.


Wednesday, 13 February 2019

The next stage of parenting

And just like that, we are no longer the parents of any under-fives!


Yes, Theo has had his fifth birthday, and it feels like we are on to the next stage in our parenting careers.

We survived the nappy changes and the night time feeds.  We lugged the awkward heavy car seat to restaurants and churches and supermarket trolleys and doctors surgeries.  We squeezed tiny bendy arms and legs into equally tiny clothes - only to undress and re-dress them ten minutes later.  We introduced them to the delights of solid food.  And we sat them down on the grass somewhere, took a step back, and marvelled at how tiny and utterly dependent they were.



Then we found ourselves with toddlers, who needed constant watching and entertainment.  Suddenly a lot of equipment went everywhere - pushchair, high chair, travel cot.  Wipes, nappies, spare clothes, toys.  The inevitable dummy and the inseparable soft toy.  We visited every toddler group and soft play area within a ten mile radius, and we didn't have a single uninterrupted conversation with anyone.



Gradually, milestones popped up along the way.  The first walk without a pushchair.  The move from a cot to a bed.  The moment when we realised we had all slept through for several nights in a row.  They learned to put their own shoes on, to get dressed, to use the toilet, to brush their teeth.  We took them to preschool, birthday parties, cafes and playgrounds.


And then we bought school uniform and black Clarks shoes, and they looked terrifyingly small and amazingly grown up as they went into the classroom with all the other children, and our knowledge of their day was reduced to mystifying fragments: "We made magic potion and I went really fast!"  "I didn't like my potato so I put my hand up and Mrs Hatton said I could eat my biscuit."



So now, we are no longer parents of any under-fives.

I am enjoying this stage.

I like seeing them design cars and write poems and draw pictures and make friends.  I like it that they're still small enough to snuggle on our laps, and we still know where they are all the time.  And I like it that they're big enough to play together, and enjoy having a babysitter instead of clinging to us when we go out, and take their own plates into the kitchen after dinner.  And, after eight years, I no longer have to wipe anyone else's bottom!


I'm also finding small snippets of time which didn't exist even a year ago.  Such unthinkable things as ten minutes of piano practice, or a regular prayer time, are working their way back into my schedule.  Back in the baby stage, I'd assumed that my children would have to be at least teenagers, possibly even have left home, before I had any chance of resuming my own activities.  I'm glad to be proved wrong about that.

Talking of teenagers, I know we have that looming on the horizon.  Dealing with hormones, and letting them disappear for hours at a time, and trying to monitor internet use, and supplying enough food for enormous teenage appetites.  I know.  So that's why I'm enjoying this stage.  Because soon we'll be on to the next one.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Vanish that Veg! Carrots

Half a cabbage.  Most of a bag of carrots.  Several potatoes which are starting to sprout.

However carefully I buy my vegetables, I often find myself needing to use up one or two which have been sitting in the fridge for far too long.  I need recipes that convert a large quantity of one vegetable into the main part of a meal.  And I don't mean soup.  I mean something that my kids will eat some, if not all, of.  Something that won't be lurking accusingly in the fridge five days later.

I'm gradually building up a collection of these recipes.  These are dishes that I've made several times.  They're tasty, easy, and packed with vegetables.  So have a look in your fridge, read through the recipes, and let's vanish that veg together!

Carrots


Everyone in my family actually likes carrots, so they are much easier to use than, say, brussels sprouts (which Toby recently accused me of trying to sneak into every meal).  They can go sweet, savoury, or somewhere in between.  I've been making some of these recipes for at least 15 years, so they are tested to the max - in fact, I was quite surprised they haven't made it on to the blog before now.

Martha's Famous Carrot Cake



Let's face it, cake is what you really want to make with carrots!  This is not your stodgy dry nutty kind of carrot cake.  It's light and moist and covered in far more cream cheese icing than is good for you.  And it sells well at cafes, too!

8 oz carrots
8 oz plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
10 oz sugar
3 eggs
8 oz vegetable oil (by weight)

Grease and line a 12 x 8 inch brownie tin.  Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Grate the carrot or cut into chunks and blitz in a food processor.
If using a food processor, add the rest of the ingredients to the carrot and whizz until combined.  Otherwise, put the grated carrot in a large bowl with the other ingredients and mix with an electric mixer until well mixed.
Pour into the tin and bake 45-50 minutes until the cake feels firm.  Cool in the tin, then ice.

For the cream cheese icing, beat together 3 oz softened butter, 3 oz full-fat cream cheese, 10 oz icing sugar and 1-2 tsp lemon juice until fluffy and creamy.  Spread over cake.

Roasted carrot and chickpea salad

Here's something a little bit healthier!  You can mix it with some couscous or rice to make it more substantial, sit it on some spinach, or serve with some grilled chicken on the side.

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
1 tsp sesame seeds
2 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper
400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Dressing
1 tsp tahini
1 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp orange juice
1 small garlic clove, crushed
2 tbsp chopped parsley or coriander


Heat the oven to 180C / 350F.  Boil or microwave the carrots until they are almost tender.  Drain, then tip into a roasting dish and toss with the sesame seeds, oil, salt and pepper.  Roast for 20 minutes or so until they are slightly browned.  Stir in the chickpeas and give them 5 minutes in the oven just to warm.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the tahini, olive oil, orange juice and garlic together and season to taste.  When the carrots and chickpeas are ready, tip them into the bowl, sprinkle over the parsley or coriander, and toss it all together.  Eat warm or at room temperature.  Serves 2-4 depending what you have with it.

Spicy rice supper


I can't believe I haven't told you about this dish before - but if it is on the blog, I can't find it.  This is one of those wonderful recipes that you can make from almost nothing and it tastes fantastic.  It's spicy in the sense of being not spicy at all really, but it comes from a rather elderly cookbook that obviously considered a teaspoon of paprika to be rather daring.

Long grain rice, measured to 200 ml in a jug
400ml chicken stock, made with a stock cube and boiling water
2 tbsp oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 tsp chilli powder (mild or hot)
1 tsp paprika
1 large carrot, grated
a few handfuls of frozen prawns, defrosted
a few handfuls of frozen peas

If possible, cook the rice in advance and leave to cool.  But if not, that's fine too.  Put the rice in a medium saucepan and pour the stock over.  Put the lid on, bring to the boil, then turn down to the lowest heat possible and set a timer for 15 minutes.  Don't touch it till the timer rings; then just turn the heat off and leave the rice to sit until you need it.

In a large frying pan or wok, heat the oil and fry the onion until soft.  Add the chilli powder and paprika, give it a quick stir, then add the grated carrot and cook for a couple more minutes.  If you have raw prawns you can add them with the carrot and cook until pink.

Add the cooked rice, peas, and the prawns if they are ready-cooked.  Stir and fry for a few more minutes until everything is nice and hot.  Serve in large heaps.  This should feed 4 comfortably, but it's surprising how much of it you can get through!

Other suggestions

Carrot cornbread is good with chilli or stews.

I know I said no soup, but I have to mention our competition-winning, culture-crossing, carrot and orange soup.  I might have to give you the recipe for that another time, though.



Over to you

Any favourite carrot recipes?  Let me know!

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Catching up

I know some of you appreciate the family news I post on here, so here's a quick summary of what each of us has been up to over the last couple of months.


Toby


- went to his first Cubs meeting on a night when they were eating hot dogs and marshmallows, loved it, and was very proudly invested as a member just before Christmas.



- spends his spare time writing stories, designing vehicles, and playing Super Mario Bros.



- has a large collection of beer bottle caps (any donations welcome, as his primary provider was an ex-work-colleague of Graham's).



- plucked up courage to go on a zipwire at the playground, and discovered it was great fun.



- enjoyed Lego, lots of books, penguin pajamas and a remote control car for Christmas.



Theo


- likes playing on the bikes and in the home corner at school.



- is now right at home with phonics: "I can spell cat!  Cuh, Ah, Tuh."  He's also been telling us about digraphs, at which point Graham and I nod enthusiastically and give each other bemused looks over Theo's head.  All this was out of fashion when we were at school.

- was a very cheerful king in his nativity play.



- enjoyed a new scooter, a car racing track, a chef's hat and apron, and colouring pencils for Christmas.


- is constantly asking how many days it is till his 5th birthday (not long now...)


Graham



- started a full-time management role at a company where he's been working part time for a while.  There's a lot to do but he feels like it's going well.  (Apparently some customers have already commented on the improvements he's made!)

- spent a weekend in Scotland being support crew for a guy cycling in a mountain-bike endurance race.  18 hours driving and 2 nights in a camper van in freezing temperatures sounded like too much endurance for me!  (Read the story here)

- discovered the enormous Sutton Park in Sutton Coldfield, so we went for a visit and explored one small corner of it.



Martha




- enjoyed escaping from the kitchen over Christmas - we went to visit Graham's family and then my parents, so we did all of the driving and none of the catering this year!

- thought everyone was going to be trying to slim their waistlines and fatten their wallets in January, so has been surprised that the cafe is actually quite busy.  Bacon and eggs never seem to go out of fashion.


- spent the morning of her birthday taking sons to swimming lessons, playdates and soft play parties, but then got taken out for a delicious Italian meal in the evening (another of Graham's discoveries).


- has much longer hair than she has done for a while, but no good photos of it yet.