Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Being an efficient family

Running a family home, and family life, can seem like a herculean task at times.

With all the comings and goings, school, work, clubs, social lives, washing, cleaning, house maintenance, gardening, bill paying, car servicing, trips to the dentist and the hairdresser, all I can say is that I'm glad we no longer have any pets.

How anyone runs their life without a spreadsheet I will never know.

Families, and certainly friends of mine, can turn their noses up at having a system of dealing with all of that stuff, having a routine and protocol for almost everything, but modern life almost wills you to run your life that way.

My argument is that being organised means allows more time not to be.

I like nothing more than sitting on my backside, doing nothing, and having nothing to do.  Likewise I think it's healthy to not always have a plan, and to allow spontaneity, and that's why our best laid plans are always firmly unfixed.

Routines become habits, and as long as they get done, and get done by a certain time, it means you can stay on top of spending time together as a unit and doing as you please for at least some of your life.

As part of the E.ON Energy Saving Guide on Facebook they asked me to have a look at my own family life, and to share our experience and ideas for how we operate as a unit.  

The guide focuses on three separate areas of family life: saving energy in the home, how to become a more efficient family and tips for running an efficient kitchen.  

And here are some of my tips for being an efficient family


The biggest part of family life, or the most essential part of ensuring you can run a happy home, is knowing what each other are doing.  Effective communication is the only way to operate, and as well as helping to get a grip on things, it also helps to minimise disputes, or arguments.  How many times have you heard "Well, you never told me that!" lead to an, errrr, disagreement. 

Be open to all forms of communication, but have regular times and places for information to change hands.

Talking is the best mechanism for communication, we talk a lot as a family, but aren't always together.  It's the 'I must remember to tell them that' type of information that is always the most dangerous, or the most likely to slip through the net.  We don't have a weekly meeting yet more so we have places that we can put information like that.  With email, instant messaging and text there are loads of means of communicating with other family members.  Some are better than others, for example, I prefer emails, but my future wife goes days and weeks without checking hers.  So we only really email each other essential - need to know info - but stuff that is not in need of immediate attention, things like holiday confirmations, contact details for people we need to get in touch with at some point.  We text info a lot, but written notes are by far the most effective for us to remember things.  A note left on our kitchen island always gets quick attention as it looks out of place, and as it's a physical thing it is not as easy to forget, like one text buried under another.   You can dispose of it once it's done too.  Plus you can always put a nice doodle on a written note, and even my cold-hearted-self enjoys getting a note that says nothing more than I love you, or will be thinking of you today, or good luck with that.

Synchronise diaries.

You may laugh, but parents of any child will know that they quickly get more engagements, dates for the diary and social functions that would keep a full-time personal assistant occupied on their own.  But added to that all the others in your home, and what they are up to, life can become very chaotic if we don't where each of are, plan to and need to be each day.  When are you going to be late home from work, when does a child need taking to the dentist, when is that delivery coming?  We don't actually synchronise diaries electronically, despite my eagerness, but we do at least check with each other 'how their week looks'.  It often leads to identifying potential problems, clashes, and at times opportunities to combine things and reduce the number of trips we need to make.  For example I'll take Max to the dentist this week as I have to pick up my order from the such and such.  Has anyone every written a finer none specific example than that?

Make lists of this you need and need to do.

The back of our pantry door performs two absolutely essential jobs, make that three if we include keeping us out of there.  We have two wipe boards on it.  One of them we use to keep a list of things we've run out of, or 'need'.  I got sick of remembering, then forgetting, stuff that we needed.  Likewise it drives me a little mad if we order stuff that we don't need because we think we haven't got any.  The almost error free system works brilliantly.  If it gets put on the list, it gets ordered, bought or added to the next shopping trip we make (generally).



The second board, which is actually a magna-doodle in our case, takes care of what we're eating each day.  We plan our dinners, but I almost always forget, and having it written down on this board takes the stress of thinking about it away.  I tend to look at in the morning, decide if I have enough time to cook what's on the list, and if not I know what I can interchange it with as the other meals are there on the list, and therefore 'in stock' to cook.

Avoid the supermarket.

We live 10 miles and therefore 20 minutes from any supermarket, which by my crude reckoning means that any trip to the supermarket is going to take the best part of an hour.  An online grocery shop takes no where near that time, and plus it spares you the journey as well as the conveyor belt of hell that is waiting to pay.  I've been doing online grocery shopping for years, and have experienced the improvement in the service that each supermarket has offered during that time.  It isn't without occasional disappointment or mishap, but no more than an item not being available if you physically drove to the supermarket.  Plus I find I buy more efficiently, and there's no shame in sitting with a calculator at your computer working out what is the best deal, not that I have much of a problem doing that in stores.  So I'm saving cash as well as time, plus we can amend shopping lists as things are remembered, or added to our pantry door wipeboard!

Plan your week ahead.

It would perhaps be natural for most to think about each week during the weekend before, but we find the weekends so hectic we actually start planning next week during the middle of the previous one.  It suits us at the moment, to plan on a Wednesday, its the day that we don't have anything regularly interfering with our diary like meetings or after school clubs.  After dinner together we all put in requests for dinners next week, as well as talking about anything we have planned or need to do.  Often only takes a few moments and isn't very tiresome or feel like hard work.  Plus if we miss the opportunity to plan for next week there's little stress as we've still got loads of time to think about next week as we don't leave it until the last minute.

Take the stress out don't add to it.

The tips I've shared really work for us, but I know they won't work for everyone.  Sometimes people perceived being organised as hard-work, and can get stressed if they feel they aren't organised, or keeping diaries and systems up to date.  We aren't all about the systems here, and like I've mentioned in some of the tips, if I've written down something we need, it means I can now forget about it.  I don't stress about not having put everything we need on our pantry list.  It took a little time for some of these processes to bed in and become habitual, and I guess it depends what sort of person you are, but if trying these tips adds stress rather than takes it away then perhaps they are better ignoring.



This is a collaboration post with E.ON

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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Review and Tips for Visiting Chester Zoo


I could just start and end this review by saying, or typing:

Chester Zoo is awesome!

There.

Done.

But I suppose I should really quantify that statement.

It’s been a while since we’ve visited a zoo, which is why we were keen to take up an offer from Chester Zoo to visit them.

We’ve visited zoos in this country, as well as some around the world, and it’s fair to say the standard we’ve come across had been vast and unpredictable, some being brilliant, and some leaving you wondering if you should have even visited, and are they not on the wrong side of cruel.

Simply put, Chester Zoo is fantastic, and probably the best we’ve ever visited.

I did get told off by my young explorer sidekick for him having to wait over nine years to visit!



From the minute you arrive the place is very well organised, we left home a little later than we’d planned to, and therefore expected the worst as we’d be arriving at the peak time of day.

But while there were a lot of people, they seem to be so organised that driving in and parking was a breeze, as was getting into the actual zoo.  No one seemed to be queuing for very long, all very relaxed.

The zoo is stunning from the off, and you are immediately struck by the vast elephant enclosure.

And I would say that is something consistent with the enclosures at Chester Zoo, they all seem to a layman to be generous in size and sympathetically laid and decked out for the animals that live in them.

Watching one of the elephants take water from the waterfall was an instant highlight.



There are an absolute truck load of animals.  I’m struggling to think of animals that they don’t have.

They have some we’d never even heard of before.



We had a very relaxing walk around the zoo.  And while it was relaxingly paced, never feeling rushed, or having to wait very long to get a good spot to watch animals from, it was a very, very long one.

We were all knackered after our visit.

That said there are lots of places to grab a quick coffee and a break for five minutes before you head off again.

We love facts, and there’s so many at Chester Zoo we struggled to take them in.  There’s lots of information about each species, but there’s also a lot about the individual history of each animal, giving you an insight into their history and a real sense of their personalities.



There’s some fun stuff too.


So all in all Chester Zoo is a fabulous day out, especially for children able to handle a three or four hour walk themselves.  For smaller ones, there is the monorail to get around, and I guess that is probably the only thing people seemed to be having to queue for.

I’m sure we’ll return in the future, hopefully remembering the tips we’ve come up with from our visit.

TIPS FOR VISITING CHESTER ZOO


Take comfy footwear.

It’s a long walk around Chester Zoo, and you may want to sacrifice ‘pretty’ footwear for the most comfortable walking boots you own.  

Keep left.

Like all the best places in the world, it’s our advice to keep on the left-hand side.  You will have to turn right occasionally to ensure you miss nothing at the zoo, but always turning left we see you automatically seeing the vast majority of the stuff, and seemingly finding a relatively quiet route.

Download the Chester Zoo App before you go.

The phone signal at Chester Zoo was fine, but probably not the best to download a hefty app once there.  I wish we’d have done that before we got there.  The Chester Zoo app itself is very useful and easy to use, it includes loads of helpful information, interactive fun stuff as well as a park map.

Allow plenty of time to get round.

Like I’ve mentioned with your feet, Chester Zoo is a long day out.  Not because there are queues everywhere, far from it, but because there is so much to see and do.  The enclosure seem very generous to the animals at Chester, and as a result – quite rightly – means that us visitors have to allow a decent amount of time to get round.


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Wednesday, 7 May 2014

We don't waste food in this house


Not that you’d know it at certain times, but we have rules in our home.

Amongst my favourites, are my forever instilled ‘one or none’ rule.  Max absolutely loves that one.  It’s the rule where I’m really giving him no alternative other than to be grateful for what he has, rather than ask for more.

Another rule I’m very rigid on is a around waste, and simply not having any when it comes to cooking our food.

I’ve probably asked my son three hundred and seven squillion times: “Do we waste food in this house?” without ever needing an answer.

It drives me mad irritates more than a little to see food go to waste.  Think it may come from a hazy memory of my old parents banging on at me to eat all my dinner  throughout my childhood.

I won’t be alone in once being threatened with my dinner being sent to the world’s starving if I didn’t work on my grateful.

And they were damn right too.

There are plenty of motives to eat without waste, to be healthy, to be grateful for what we have, and cost amongst them.  The principle of working with, or looking for, no more than you need is one I like to think we've adopted here.

And I’ve also been working with E.ON on a campaign helping people to focus on just that.

We could all do with a little help with ideas for around the home, picking up tips from others as to the best ways to keep a handle on costs but still run a happy home that doesn’t really want for any of the important stuff.

For the latest part of the E.ON campaign they have created an Energy Saving Guide on Facebook that includes tips from a variety of bloggers.

It focuses on three areas of family life: saving energy in the home, how to become a more efficient family and tips for running an efficient kitchen.  And I’ve added my ideas amongst them, sharing a little about how we run our family ship that hopefully others will find useful.

My boy, Max, has even got in on the act, sharing his advice as to the best way as to avoiding wasting food.



That’s a top tip for him, and it really does work a treat.   Which incidentally is what he gets for following it!

And here are a few of My Own Kitchen Tips


Like all things with kids it’s a balance of wanting them to try new foods and eat healthily without creating any waste.  I’ve learnt from experience that cooking a new food for a child can often end in complete disaster and waste, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, and I’ve stumbled upon a technique that works for us.


When introducing new foods to your children, do so in small quantities, or let them take some to try from your plate to accompany a tried and tested meal.


I’ve found doing found this reduces waste, and I then know if I cook a full portion for my boy next time, he doesn’t really have an excuse not to eat it.  It also adds a sharing and fun element.  Max is always a little keener to try things if he thinks they are mine, so something that starts its life on my plate is always going to be a little more desirable than something on his own.

Eat fresh food, but get your portions right and consider frozen vegetables and dried fruit as supplements.


Eating healthily is important here, and as a result we get through a good amount of vegetables, fruit and salad.  But fresh food quickly goes off, so avoiding waste can be difficult.  Family life changes constantly, and what you’ve planned for dinner can quickly change for any number of reasons too, and avoiding food waste can be difficult.  For that reason we err on the side of caution when ordering fresh food, but keep frozen versions and alternatives in stock.  Meaning if we are a little shy on fresh broccoli, we’ll add some frozen green beans or cauliflower to our cooking.  We adopt the same principle with healthy snacks, having fresh apples and oranges for example, but also having raisins on standby if we run out.

Have your dinner for your lunch.


Likewise if we have a little leftover, we cook it and then have it for lunches in the days afterwards.  We plan lunches that we can freeze, or with long expiry dates like tinned soup, meaning eating re-heated fresh food just bumps their consumption further down the diary and there’s less to order on next week's food shop.

Look at alternatives, especially to expensive items like meat.


One of the changes we’ve made fairly recently is using turkey mince as an alternative to beef or lamb.  It’s healthy if you cook it right and drain the fat away, and I don’t know how sophisticated your taste palette is, but mine is not such that it is noticing much difference in our lasagnes.

Use a steamer stack.


My discovery of steam as a means of cooking has been a revelation.  I was from the school of boiling or roasting the crap out of everything.  But since someone bought us a steamer a few years ago, it’s my go-to cooking technique.  It’s healthy, easier and on our electric induction hob the most efficient cooking technique.  It also has the added benefit of still having boiling water in the bottom of the steamer stack, which we often use if we are mashing potatoes or a swede.  Any spare capacity can also be used to cook stuff for the day after, as reheating stuff can be a lot quicker, convenient and ultimately cheaper.

Share your Energy Saving Tips and Win!!!!!!!


Hopefully you’ll find some of those tips useful, and I’d be absolutely delighted to read some of your ideas and so would E.ON.  Keep your eyes peeled for a competition asking for top tips.  With the best or most popular ones submitted receiving some Amazon vouchers.



This is a collaboration post with E.ON
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