Festive Food Treats with Tesco.

The (uneaten!) portions of our lovely gift of spending Finest food hamper from  .

A couple of weeks ago I got the most fantastic (and unexpected!) hamper of gifts through the post from Tesco Food. Since budget really don’t leave much money for foodie treats, I think it is safe to say we were all pretty thrilled. The kids did a quick audit to make sure Max and I didn’t snaffle anything without them knowing, and I cheerfully tucked into the chocolate liqueur drink, which arrived at an extremely opportune moment ;)

Such things as Salted Caramel Truffles, extremely posh chocolates and Pig in Blanket crisps were particularly fabulous as Max and I fought our way through one of the toughest work Xmas seasons in a good few years. We really loved having something to just cheekily nibble on without budget guilt. A long time ago a relative used to send us a hamper each year; more recently suppliers did but austerity has stopped all that so this was a splendid treat!

Last week I visited the Peterborough Serpentine Green branch to partake of their #TescoChristmasTasting event. Armed with Maddy for assistance and my new camera on my new phone, off we trotted to see what festive nosh is all about. We are an alarmingly bad family for Xmas food. Running a toy shop means we are all always too tired to think about it all and tend to flop and eat ordinary food. We had bacon and eggs for Xmas lunch a couple of years ago!

This year, it might well be different.

Teeny weenie all butter mince pies. Small enough to not feel guilty about. Unless you eat 4.

From the opening gambit of impossibly yummy all butter mini mince pies (3 is not enough!)

I honestly didn't realise they sold so much yummy stuff

To ready decorated cakes that could pretty much pass as wedding cakes too.

So I was told tonight this chap is the most passionate baker in the whole of Tesco. About his bread, of course.

Bakers (the top Tesco baker in the country, no less!) who seem to live and breathe the products they make. This chap got seriously passionate about making Panettone, which they are creating fresh every day for the princely sum of £2 a loaf. (It’s worth it, trust me).

As for their bread selection… there must have been 20 varieties of them all sitting there for us to try. It was gorgeous and they are so proud of what they make.

Honestly, suddenly I have an urge to do a huge Xmas food shop. We never do that. In fact, 2 years ago we had bacon and eggs for Xmas lunch!

The sweeties and puddings are all very delicious, whether made in store and sold fresh or prepackaged (there was the MOST divine salted caramel sauce for pancakes and croissants on offer) but Maddy and I fell most in love with the savouries.

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Gorgeous olives… oh how I love olives. I could probably eat nothing but for the rest of my life.15863614909_787c113a9f_z

The Mexicana cheese was incredible; seriously spicy and totally delicious. And don’t start me on the Dolcelatte. Max and I met working on a deli-counter… did you know that?16048858932_a729df4cae_z

Marvellous meats. Really, really marvellous meats.

I think we’ve all had our grumbles with Tesco over the years; I know I have. I think it is important to remember that these places (and having worked as a manager on a deli counter I have some understanding) is that whatever a corporation is going through, they are made to work by people. People who care and are passionate about their jobs and who have lives to live and a living to make. What really shone through at this tasting evening was how much they cared. They had worked so hard and were really nervous about how we would feel and if we would like it. All the departments had knowledgeable staff on hand, many of them greeting well known customers by name as they circulated. They knew about their foods and the fresh food service they were providing and they wanted us to enjoy what they could do with it. They smiled, they joked and they showed off some great festive treats and an even greater in store community spirit.

Well done Peterborough Tesco. You nailed it. And you know what, I’ve scraped together a little spare money to pop by next week and pick up a few tasty treats too. You got me ;)

Clever Gifting for 3 Year olds with Older Siblings.

How creepy is the leering pumpkin

As another Christmas threatens to roll down on the family with the weight of a dumper truck, I do my normal helpless gaze around of the beleaguered mother; first I have to think of new and original gifts for 5 children and then I have to find somewhere to put them.

When a little boy happens to have 4 older sisters, all of who received politically correct gifts that didn’t pander to ridiculous gender stereotyping for the sake of it, there is precious little left to purchase. And with the previously mentioned sisters having been bought good quality, lasting toys and all being hoarders by nature, most toy niches have been filled anyway.

Which leaves me with a problem. He is SO excited and last year he simply loved opening things. This year all the big girls know presents are mostly minimal and ‘need’ things but I do want him to have the magic.

So what to do?

I’ve come up with a plan, a three point plan that solves most of my problems.

  • a) buy things that are disposable
  • b) buy things that go with sets you already have a place for anyway
  • c) buy a main present that will then hold a number of tiny ‘unwrap constantly for 4 hours’ type of cheap items.

1. This month we reviewed the Mega Bloks Thomas 123 Learning Train which he absolutely loved. Not only is it a favourite character of his but he adores construction bricks and had a wonderful time playing with the train and loading it with bricks.

Reviewing the   set

It’s compatible with the other leading brand and had the added fun of stickers for hedges and luggage blocks which made him very happy. Since that has automatically gone in with the box of this we already own, it hasn’t added to bulk of toys particularly and he’s desperate for a Percy too so that will be in his gift pile this year.The train is really detailed and robust and nice to use and the blocks are nice to handle and clip together well.

We were also sent the First Builders blocks to try. He loved making scenery and towers to bash with these but they are designed for the 1-2 age and we can happily pass those on to the gym soon (see, I get to feel good then ;) )

How creepy is the leering pumpkin

 

2. For disposable I’m going for some Playdoh. He adores vehicles and the bin lorry in particular so that is easily bought, Playdoh won’t last forever and then the main item can go in the sandpit for next year.

playdoh bin lorry

3. Another disposable thing that would make him happy is a mass of cheap colouring books, magic painting sets and chunky pencils. They will soon be used up, they are cheap and I won’t have to look at them for long, plus they will keep him lovely and quiet for ages.

4. Being a lucky boy who has parents with a toy shop, Bene doesn’t go short. He’s already got lots of BigJigs Rail items and a few new engines tucked into the basket won’t cause us too much trouble.

BJT449

5. His main present this year will be a wooden toy garage. (He’s getting lucky here as a customer returned one with a bashed box so we put it aside for him!) It will take up some space, admittedly, but it means I can buy a whole clutch of single cars, wrap each one separately for him to open and they can all be stored on the garage when it isn’t being used, or in the box of cars we already have.

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6. Dressing up. As previously mentioned, Bene is all about the bin lorry. He makes his own one with our paper bin, two small chairs and a big chair and sits in the ‘front’ with socks on his hands for gloves and a teacup (he observes very closely it seems) which is adorably cute. So this year a home made outfit of tiny high vis jacket, bobble hat, plastic flask and gloves will make his week I expect and will go in his clothes drawer when not in use.

My only current problem is stocking fillers. I’m stumped. Any ideas?

 

 

Dancer.

After the show.

Last night was the annual talent show at our dance school. This year was lovely because 3 of the 4 girls were in it (and the 4th decided she really missed being in it so is going back to rejoin in the new year). Fran is now one of the ‘big girls’ there;  it is really quite strange to see her being pulled in to star in a dance at the last minute to cover for a drop out and performing it perfectly after one rehearsal. It’s peculiar to be used enough to watching her perform to not get terrible nerves on her behalf.

She danced in the talent show to a Braveheart song; I didn’t video it and I wish I had because it was gorgeous, if not quite as dramatic as the year before. And she is finally really learning to perform to her audience and put some drama into it all, telling a story with her choreography. It’s good to see. She was fairly beaten though (and by an audience vote not a judge, which I completely approved of) and I was really proud of her for her response to that.

“I was under rehearsed and half way through I forgot what I was doing and winged it. You shouldn’t win on a dance you have to start improvising on stage.”

I think that tells me a few things.

One is she learned a lesson.

Two is that she’s bloody good at improvising!

Three is that you can do a lot worse than raise a child who is honest about herself and generous of heart.

Using depth of field on a non close up.

Rehearsing.

She’s almost at the point now where she will have to decide whether she wants to try making dancing her career path. It’s going to be interesting to see what she does with it.

Dancer

Josie and Amelie also took part in the show as part of an acro dance that all 3 were in. It’s hard to pick out Amelie and Fran in a big group now (especially as I forgot my glasses!) but Josie was half the size of the rest and did the most phenomenal amount of gym in it. I was really proud of her as she was not confident it was going to be okay. Amelie did a great job of partnering her and keeping her in the right place.

I’ll get Fran to send me a photo of them all in costume.

Beautiful Josie

Do love her with pretty hair.

After the show.

 

 

Reviewing the #ZentasticXmas Asus Zenfone 5LTE.

At  thinking of you all & baby Tilda this week as you do the mummy thing and make Christmas happen. Xxx

The opportunity to do a phone review isn’t one that wafts past me very often; I said yes without really thinking about it and it was only then that it occurred to me, with a sinking feeling, that this meant I was going to have to try and find my way round an android phone.

My history with the android system isn’t a happy one. Despite a background in mobile phone sales, I left before all the new systems came out and after a brief and uninspiring flirt with Blackberry, I became an Apple user. And there I’ve stayed. Every time I’ve picked up an android tablet I’ve found myself completely stymied by the interface and as for the cheap and cheerful phones the girls have, I have no idea. I can’t make them work.

Still, I’m always up for a challenge and no-one can say I’m not open minded, so I opened the box of my new Asus Zenfone 5 LTE optimistically, plugged it in and switched it on.

Today I have been mostly getting very excited about exploring the first ever android phone I can actually work out how to use

Unboxing: snazzy Asus Zenfone 5LTE

And started to use it.

There is considerable significance in that sentence. It is literally the first time I have picked up an android device and not wanted to hurl at a wall inside of 5 minutes. I could use it. The interface was slick and manageable and intuitive and I felt very at home with it in my hand immediately. For the first time I found myself able to confidently navigate, move icons and apps around, finds my way to the settings I wanted and start to customise my phone. I was quickly at a point where I could install an app and start using it; aside from the fact that some of those apps themselves were subtly different to the iPhone version, I felt pretty quickly back in my comfort zone.

And that was just the start.

The thing is, when you move systems, what you want is something familiar enough that you know where to start and while the Zenfone isn’t, in any way, trying to be like an iPhone, but what I experienced for the first time was an Android phone that seemed programmed with a new user in mind. In fact, the very fact that it has a simple setting, which cuts out the noise and drama of a complex phone and trims it down to the essentials bears this out. Someone has really thought out how it feels to pick this phone up and want to get started.

Excuse the photo of toast. I'm having fun

All other phones are now toast.

If you know me online, you know that Instagram is my natural home. I don’t have the time or attention span for a DSLR camera so I use my phone for nearly everything; it powers my entire online social media presence. I find my current phone camera flat and uninspiring but since it is the only convenient option, it has to do.

I knew the Asus had been sent to me with the camera as the main selling point so I was itching to try it.

WELL!

Bye, bye iPhone.

This is the most incredible camera. It is fabulous 8 megapixel PixelMaster camera on the back and a 2 magapixel front facing one and is packed full of features that just lift it up beyond anything else I’ve ever used. What Asus have achieved is a camera that takes pictures better than I could achieve with a DSLR and will totally change the shots that go into our archives and on to my blog. In terms of how I photograph crafts, it’s rocked my world.

Oh. Em. Gee.

Exploring the depth of field setting.

I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the depth of field option which combines several photos taken in short succession using the 5 focus element of the camera, combining different focus depths into one. If, like me, you often need to fuzz out the clutter behind, it is perfect. It takes a little while to get the hang of focusing it to bring the part you want into sharpest focus, but it is worth the effort because the photos look close to professional with it. While it is designed for close up photos, it has remarkable success on ordinary ones too, if you can get your subject to stay still.

Using depth of field on a non close up.

Using depth of field on a non close up.

 

With Christmas coming up, my challenge was to explore the low level settings; there a two, one aimed at general indoor photography and another for outdoors with a long exposure. Since you can also alter white balance, exposure, ISO value and more, making it extraordinarily flexible. There are undoubtedly more settings than I’ll ever use but having a variety of instantly accessible presets makes it highly accessible as a camera. In low light it is breathtakingly beautiful whether snapping the children or setting up creative shots.

Christmas lights

Depth of field on Christmas decorations in low light.

I have never taken a photo that decent in my life before.

Close up Christmas

Look at the detail! That is the pattern of the fabric on the leaves showing.

There is so much already built into this phone that the time I’ve had so far has barely scratched the surface; I feel as if I’ve been given 24 hours to explore Morocco (please, if anyone feels the need to offer me that, I’m available) but what I have explored has been a joy. I’ve tried out Google Play for the first time and found that the organisation of it and the screen size combine to make it feel a lot of fun to explore. I love that I can download a film and watch it on a good sized screen and that the download is quick and doesn’t impact the rest of the phone as it happens. I’ve so far only found one app (a brand new game) that I wanted that wasn’t available and I’m really enjoying the use of my google account to login in to apps like The Guardian. The switch across has been seamless and something of an eye-opener to a confirmed Apple addict.

Absolutely love the combination of low level light setting & the editing options

Exploring the edit functions.

Which leads me to the size. Having recently chosen a 5S over a 6 or bigger, I’m firmly in the ‘I prefer my phone small’ camp. I don’t like my hand to feel stretched and I often work one handed with a toddler in my arm, so I was dubious about this. My instant impression was how much I loved the clarity of the screen and having also recently found my 40 year old eyes struggling a bit with a small screen, I was quite sold on that. And it is incredibly light, with a lovely shape in the hand too, so that the larger size is much less of a problem than I imagined. Everything looks wonderful on it and everything is clear and easy to see, touch and use. I make less typos and the predictive text (which is a bit rampant straight out of the box) can be turned up and down so it helps more or less.

I really love therefore of field setting. The camera on this phone is a whole new world. I can fuzz out the mess!

Both are good for me. Which to choose?

And so there is my dilemma. On camera alone, I can move systems and phones today. I love the size of the screen and everything it gives me and how much easier it makes things for me. But unlike the vast majority of smartphone users, I haven’t yet quite moved on to wanting a big phone for everyday use. I’m a back pocket phone girl, who rarely wears a coat and doesn’t carry and handbag and big is just a tiny bit too much of an annoyance. When I’m out I want a camera and a phone, as conveniently as possible.

Except… except… I really love this phone. And I suspect it will very soon be the one I find out and about with me. It won.

Disclosure: we were sent a Zenfone 5lte for the purposes of this review.

Editorial: Child Benefit Building Blocks.

Over the last few years we have been incredibly grateful for the benefit system, which caught us firmly when life made it almost impossible for us to function and rescued us through a recession and a time of family tragedy that made trying to rebuild a business ravaged by credit crunch and huge corporations something we were completely unable to focus on properly.

We were very lucky to have it there when we needed it. The following infographic may help struggling families who don’t know what help can be available.

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Dealing with the government benefit system can be tricky. Their processes seem filled with red tape, terms and conditions and what can feel like impenetrable doublespeak. They all seem to be designed for the soul reason of confusing and irritating you but crucially, can put people off applying for fear of making an error in claiming that will have to be paid back later.

Sometimes these can processes can be tolerable, but when it comes to living costs and making sure you have enough to take care of your children, it is important not to struggle or give up, especially if it can result in your family receiving less money than you’re entitled to.

To help make sure parents are getting all the help they need, the Money Advice Service have put together a complete list of all 12 allowances new parents could be eligible to claim.

Take a look at the list below and make sure you’re not doing without.

Child Benefit Building Blocks

In association with Child Benefit Building Blocks - An infographic by the team at Money Advice Service.