Friday, 27 May 2011

A glimpse into Gwyneth Paltrow's kitchen

Earlier this month, Gwyneth Paltrow came out with a cookbook, Notes from my Kitchen Table and I was asked if I would be interested in reviewing the book. Whilst celebrity associated things are definitely not usual on Mummy Zen, I was keen to check out the book for a few reasons. Gwyneth is known for following a healthy diet, we've all probably heard about her macrobiotic diet specifically. Her daughter Apple is a vegetarian (as am I) so I figured there would be some good vegetarian recipes in her book. Thirdly, I love to cook and try new recipes. Finally, the book is written with families in mind, so with food that appeals to children and adults alike and the book also includes some tips on involving children in cooking.

The US version of the book has the title, My Father's Daughter which certainly reflects the personal tone in which the content has been presented. There are photos, stories and anecdotes amongst the recipes that bring a real sense of family, memories and special times, many of which concern Gwyneth and her father.

I've tried out a selection of the recipes, all vegetarian but I can assure you the non-veggie recipes prevail. In fact, there is only one vegetarian option in the 'main course' section of the book. Here's what I cooked, with some feedback on the end results:

Veggie burgers: I'm always looking for a reliable veggie burger recipe as too often they disappoint in one way or another.  I was keen to try this easy combination of rice and beans binded together with a few other ingredients. They were quick to make, healthy and my 2-year old son enjoyed them. My husband and I found them lacking in flavour and had to rely on the condiments we served with them to make them tastier. I will however make them again, just with some added spice next time to liven them up a bit.

Tortilla soup: This was fun and new to try. It was quite tasty and we liked the texture of avocado and fried tortilla strips with the flavours of the soup. However, there wasn't much substance to the soup and it was very watery in consistency. We ate two bowlfuls each as one was not very filling but maybe it's intended as a starter and not as a main meal. My 2-year old didn't get to try this one so I can't comment on the suitability of the soup for a child's palette.

Vegetarian chilli: This was the best of all the recipes I've tried so far from the book. I've always been happy with my own version of veggie chilli but now I think this one will replace my own as I really enjoyed the puy lentils and combination of black and kidney beans together. My son devoured his bowlful - we all loved it.

Spiced apple crumb muffins: I splurged on some spelt flour and good quality maple syrup to make these macrobiotic muffins. They were simple to put together and we had them for breakfast one day. My husband thought they were trying too hard to be healthy whilst appealing to sweet tastes and he found them too sweet. I thought they went well with a black cup of coffee and my son thought they were yummy. Gwyneth describes them as 'super-healthy' but with their sugary topping I'm not sure that's very accurate. They make a macrobiotic diet sound easy to follow!

In conclusion, I like the ideas in the book and the personal way in which they are presented. There's an eclectic range of types of dishes and there are definitely more recipes I want to try out, like the macaroni cheese made with mascarpone, the white bean soup and the oatmeal raisin cookies.  Gwyneth has some good suggestions for vegetable side dishes that children will likely enjoy too. When it's back in season, I'm keen to try out her kale crisps, which Gwyneth reports her children eat like they are potato crisps.
"This is the food that I cook for my family and friends, over and over again, the food that never fails me".
I think that summarises the feel of this book. Gywneth doesn't pretend to be a professional chef imparting her culinary wisdom, but rather she shares her family favourites with us. It's much like using trusted recipes from your own family or friends.

Have you bought or seen the book? If not, are you likely to have a browse through it next time you're at a bookshop?


Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Ten top tips to cut your food bill

This is a guest post provided by Alison Pinto, a mother of two who set up an online family meal planning site Menus4Mums.

With food costs rising by 20%, are you wondering how to make ends meet at the supermarket checkout? Try following these ten tips to help get your grocery costs down but keep the quality high.

1: Plan your meals. Start by writing a list of all the meals your family likes. Then, each week,think about whether there will be any days when people will be away, when there will be guests,or when you’ll need a quick meal. Look online at supermarket offers and build meals around these ingredients. Plan a suitable meal for each day, ensuring that you have a good balance of protein (eg meats, fish, pulses), carbohydrates (eg potatoes, rice, pasta), and vegetables. Think about using up leftovers (what about turning Sunday roast chicken into a delicious risotto on Monday?). See what needs using up in your freezer or fridge. And try to include an interesting variety of tastes and textures.

2: Cook one main meal for the whole family. You can take out portions for small children before adding salt and strong spices, and you’ll be getting them used to eating the same as the rest of the family. You’ll also be saving on gas/electricity, not to mention your precious time.

3: Batch cook. This saves both time and money, so must be good! So next time you are making Spaghetti Bolognese, make at least twice the amount and freeze what you don’t need immediately (labeled, of course!). That way, you can take advantage of the frequent supermarket offers on multiple packs of mince, plus save on fuel costs. And another day you’ll hardly need to cook!

4: Write a shopping list. Now you know what you’ll be cooking next week, it’s easy to write down the ingredients you’ll need. Check the outer reaches of your store cupboard and freezer for items you already have – no point buying them twice! Don’t be too frugal when drawing up your list. If it’s unrealistic, chances are you’ll ignore it when you get to the shops and just pile treats into your trolley.

5: Never shop on an empty stomach. If you do, you just know you’ll end up at the checkout with a trolley brimming with cake, crisps, and chocolate - and a huge grocery bill to boot! Instead, if you are feeling peckish before hitting the shops, have a banana or a quick snack. It could save you a lot of money.

6: Don’t use a basket for small shops. If you pop in the supermarket mid-week to top up on fruit or milk yet come out with a £30 bill each time, try not using a basket. Chances are you’ll just buy what you went in for!

7: Buy Seasonally. If we want strawberries all year round, we can have them, but they will cost more out of season- both environmentally and in our wallets. Not only that, but they don’t taste as nice! Out of season, try buying frozen fruit and vegetables which will have been frozen within hours of being harvested and before losing much of their nutritional value.

8: Beware of BOGOF and Buy 2, Get 1 Free deals. They’re great if you will use double the amount, but you might find it is still cheaper to buy an own brand product. Be particularly wary of deals on perishable foods – just because you can buy two bags of pears for the price of one doesn’t mean to say that you will want to eat them all! Finally, many of the deals are offered on foods which are high in salt, sugar and fat, so beware.

9: Taste test lower range products. We don’t mean suddenly going from premium brands to the most basic products. But if you give some of the middle range brands a try, the chances are you won’t notice a difference. Look at the health data on the packaging too – some lower range foods are actually healthier than the premium varieties.

10: Give the supermarket a miss sometimes. Try buying your meat at your local butcher – you’re likely to be impressed by the quality. Plus if you can buy exactly the quantity you want, saving money and waste. Seasonal fruit and veg is often cheaper at your local market or farmer’s market, and you could turn it into a trip out with the family. What about taking the family to your local Pick-Your-Own farm in the summer? Or check out your local farm shop for quality, local,seasonal produce.

Which of these tips do you already follow? Which do you think are the most effective for you and which might you try out?


Menus4Mums is a UK online family meal planning service for busy parents. Members get a new meal plan each week for dinners the whole family will enjoy, with recipe cards and a super-handy shopping list broken down into supermarket aisles. The meals take advantage of supermarket special offers to keep grocery bills down. Visit for more information and to download a FREE one week sample menu plan.


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Friday, 20 May 2011

Small cleaning jobs that make a big difference

Sometimes you have someone coming over at short notice and your home isn't as sparkling clean as you'd like it to be. There's probably not time to do the thorough clean you feel needed but I think there are a few quick cleaning jobs you can do that make a noticeable difference.

It's about identifying those areas that are instantly visible to someone entering your home or a particular room. They don't look in every corner but there are certain parts of the room that are in their line of vision or to which their eyes are drawn. If you focus on those and ensure they are clean, the rest doesn't matter so much.

Here are my suggestions for 5 small cleaning jobs that make a big difference:

  1. Clean your mirrors: a simple water and vinegar solution will do the job, banishing smears and spots and leaving clear shining glass. You either use a mirror to look at yourself in, in a bathroom usually or sometimes they are used as a feature in a living room or hall so either way they generally get noticed.

  2. Clear cluttered surfaces: this might be tabletops, work surfaces, mantlepieces, wherever you tend to dump papers, post and miscellaneous items. It doesn't take long to gather everything up, file away or discard. If you don't have time, you can simply contain everything into a box or tray to address later after your visitor has left.

  3. Scrub taps: I use a gentle limescale remover to rid my bathroom and kitchen taps of the water stains and dullness. It's fast work to get them sparkling clean and they detract from the sink itself.

  4. Clean floors: we have hardwood floors and it doesn't seem to matter how often I sweep or mop them, bits of dust, fluff or whatever gather quickly. If your floors are already pretty clean, you can just do a bit of spot sweeping or mopping. If you have carpets, you can whizz the hoover over them to get them looking good (again, this can just be in certain areas if you are too rushed to hoover multiple carpets).

  5. Clean your kitchen hob/stove: maybe it's just me but I always feel like a dirty hob really stands out. The kitchen can be a place where you stand and chat while making a drink or snack for your visitors so the hob/stove has a high chance of being looked at. Splashes and spillages are fairly frequent in our home but it doesn't take long at all to remove those.

What would you add to this list? Are there some must-clean areas for you when you have someone coming over at short notice - jobs that are quick to execute but make a significant difference to the look of your home?


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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

How to tackle the overwhelming

If any regular readers have noticed my blog posts decreased from 2-3 per week to generally just one, it's because I'm pregnant with baby number two! Everything has been more of an effort lately and only now that I'm into the second trimester am I starting to have a bit more energy again. As many of you will understand, those first three months were just about making it through the day, keeping my two-year old happy and scraping together some dinner for my husband in the evenings.

Lots of things were neglected, much to my dismay but now I feel like I'm getting back on track a bit.  One particular thing I wasn't keeping up with was cleaning our flat as diligently as normal. I was aware of various cleaning jobs that needed doing but I just couldn't summon up the energy to do them and it soon felt an overwhelming task lay ahead of me to get on top of it.

The only way I felt like I could deal with it all was to start small. A lot of the cleaning that needed doing involved only 10 minutes (if that) working on a small but niggling area. If I did some of that in a morning when I was feeling somewhat refreshed after a night's sleep, it just got done and felt like a weight off my shoulders. A few small jobs could be easily accomplished in a day and made me feel much better for having got them out of the way, being in a cleaner environment and making everything feel more manageable again.

When you think about other possibly overwhelming situations, like hosting a dinner party for a large group, even putting on a child's birthday party or being faced with a long list of things 'to do asap' at work, the same logic can be applied. Think small, look at what you can do in a few minutes that will clear your list and immediately make it feel less daunting. Try to break down what seems like a big undertaking into several smaller tasks.

So, for a dinner party spend 10 minutes sitting down planning what you're going to cook and what ingredients you need to buy. That alone will help make you feel more organised. Similarly with a children's birthday party, consider how you want to divide up the time with activities, eating, games and then you can tackle each individual part separately. In a work scenario, there are often things to do that won't take you any time but you procrastinate because they seem tedious or are not enjoyable. When you make yourself do them, they are quickly over, leaving you to work on more involved projects.

It's easy to get yourself into a state where you feel overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. By simply taking small steps and doing a little at a time you can achieve more than you might imagine and get back to feeling in control of the situation.

When have you felt overwhelmed by certain circumstances and what was your approach in dealing with it?


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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

A lesson from a broken glass

Sometimes children can remind us of valuable life lessons or bring us back to reality and make us realise what really matters. Their innocence and unjaded view of the world is refreshing, when as adults we are quick to judge and easily lose sight of the important things.

A couple of weeks ago, my son accidentally broke one of our only two crystal glasses. We were given this pair of crystal glasses as a wedding gift from a family friend and we use them a lot. They're a great shape and size and we are not the type of people to save 'special' things for special occasions so they get used every week for anything from a glass of juice to a gin and tonic.

My husband had brought me a glass of juice in one of them and having drunk it, I'd put it on the table in front of me. Somehow unnoticed by myself and my husband (all three of us were together in the same room), my son picked up my empty glass and took it into the kitchen. I think he was being helpful and tidying up! He tried to put it up on the kitchen counter but there was a teapot in the way so it fell to the floor and we heard a shattering of glass and rushed in there.

Luckily the glass had only broken into a few pieces and most importantly, our son was unharmed by the breakage. We got it cleared up and reassured our worried son that it was just an accident and nothing to get upset about (he was shocked more than anything, as that's the first breakage he's been involved in!).

For a few moments, I felt a pang of disappointment that we had lost one of our two favourite glasses. I soon realised how silly this thought was, especially as I consider myself not someone to get attached to objects. It's just a glass and certainly doesn't warrant having any emotional ties to it. I was almost ashamed of myself for having had the thought! Now I think my son accidentally breaking the glass had a good outcome in reminding me of the insignificance of material goods.

Can you think of any similar situations you've experienced where something your child has done has inadvertently brought to your attention a particular value or life lesson that you had perhaps let lapse?


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Friday, 6 May 2011

'Big bed' follow-up

We've been away for a few days visiting family, which is why there had been no new posts this week....

Last month I wrote about my preparations for moving my son from his cot to a big bed. It's been just over two weeks since he made the move. That's included four nights away in a different big bed in a different location so I thought it was a good time to update you on how the transition has gone so far.

The first night he spent in his big bed went like a dream. He settled down fine, slept well and woke up calling for us, as he used to in his cot. So, he didn't once get out of the bed himself. The next night was similar but in the morning we were awoken by a door opening and the pitter patter of little feet approaching our bed. It was nice to be woken that way rather than the usual yelling of "mummy, mummy" that continues until I can drag myself out of bed to go and get him up!

The third night, he got out of bed after we'd put him in it for sleep. He opened his bedroom door and peeked out but didn't come out into the hall. I went swiftly to him and firmly told him to get back into bed. That happened twice but then he settled down.

The same happened the next night and later that same night we had a major two-hour period of disturbance. Our son woke crying loudly and every time we thought we had him quietened back down to go back to sleep, it would start again. He seemed quite upset but wasn't able to tell us what was wrong. It's not like him at all and even if he seems to have had a bad dream, we can usually get him settled down again quite quickly. The only thing he said was that he wanted to sleep in mummy and daddy's bed. This is a child who is unable to sleep in our bed - if ever we bring him in, he assumes it's playtime and starts jumping around so it was a funny thing for him to say. I couldn't help but worry if it might be 'big bed' related anxiety....

Fortunately, that was a one-off! Since then he has slept really well. He doesn't get out of bed after we put him in and he seems to enjoy sleeping in a big bed and having space for all his soft toys around him too. When we went to stay with family earlier this week, his 'big bed' was a single, rather than the double he has at home but he seemed perfectly happy with it. It took a while to get him settled down for sleep the first night but once he was asleep, he slept soundly until the morning and was fine for the subsequent nights.

Returning home last night and being back in his own big bed seemed to have the same comforting feeling that it has for us - nothing like being back in your own bed when you've been away!

In summary, so far, so good. I'm not naive enough to think it'll remain this constant. I'm sure as our son gets older, even more independent and inquisitive that there will challenges along the way but for the beginning of his time in a big bed, I'm happy with how it's gone.

Do you have any stories to share about your children either moving into a big bed or difficulties that arose at a later date?


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