Back to school time! If you want to download the book version of this blog, so you can wander around with it on your phone or whatever, Amazon are now offering it FREE from lunchtime on 14th November 2016 for 48 hours, and after that for the usual price of £1.99/$2.99 USD.
You can read it on a Kindle, iPad, iPhone or PC just by downloading the Kindle App, which is free. If you do download the book, it would be great if you could leave a review on the Amazon site. Every review helps to build the Austerity community.
We’re currently in talks regarding a student version of the book, so if you would like to know more about this, or have any topics you would like to see covered, please get in touch.
For Christmas stockings, you can do a lot worse than raid the pound shop from about October onwards, allowing the same number of presents per child to avoid arguments. Babies’ stocking fillers can be bought from school fetes or jumble sales and cleaned up in the washing machine or dishwasher (I filled a first Christmas stocking for £2 once this way). In terms of main presents for children, it’s difficult to deal with the marketisation of childhood and retain your sanity in the festive season, but it might help to chant these phrases in your head like a mantra when the going gets tough.
- Toys are not evidence of parental affection.
- Toys are not a substitute for parental time.
- There’s no sense in having so many toys to play with you can’t choose what to do.
- The more toys they have, the more we have to tidy away.
- Most children play with 20% of their toys 80% of the time.
- It’s just too expensive and that’s that.
For adults, it’s sensible to set a ceiling of £5 or £10 so the present buying doesn’t get competitive or out of hand. It’s better to have a single, thoughtfully chosen gift that makes you smile when you think about it, than a clutch of things that have been given to you for the sake of it, and which you will forget shortly afterwards.
Make or reuse gift bags, which can be fiercely expensive if bought new. For wrapping paper, use brown paper sponged with gold, bronze and silver paint, or stamped with a gold Christmas motif of some kind. Finish off with gold ribbon. Or leave the brown paper plain and use country-style tartan ribbon instead. Iron previously used tissue paper on a very low heat with the steam turned off, and use it with simple paper or raffia ribbons. This can also be a good way of packaging gifts attractively whilst keeping down your carbon footprint and costs. Finally, make your own gift tags out of coloured card cut to look like a parcel label, tied with paper ribbon, raffia or string. Or cut out motifs from old Christmas cards and stick onto plain white card for a different effect.
Home made presents
Think about producing some of the following as presents with enhanced personal involvement.
- Jams and jellies, including from foraged food as in previous posts.
- Truffles and nut crunch in cellophane bags with Christmas ribbon.
- Shortbread biscuits
- Boiled fruit cake baked in a circle and put in a festive tin.
- Home made gift vouchers for babysitting, dog grooming, car valeting, beauty treatments, cooking, or whatever you are good at.
- Christmas greens such as ivies and holly, tied decoratively with raffia.
- Create stationery kits for young children by sticking on colourful scrapbook or gift wrap paper onto the front of a basic notebook, and then adding pencils, ruler, rubbers, sharpeners and so on in matching colour, presenting in a cellophane bag with a toning ribbon.
- Canvas shopping bags (available for a euro in most of Europe) with iron on names and pictures, for children to use to store their library books, so they don’t get lost.
- For cards, buy packets of 50 plain cream cards and envelopes, and make your own stamped design. Write the greeting inside in fountain pen, very elegantly. It may not be cheaper than cards from the pound shop, but it will be more thoughtful.
It’s pretty straightforward to decorate your house so it looks welcoming and festive without going mad in the artificial environment of the Christmas displays in department stores. Try these suggestions for cheap and cheerful displays.
- Popcorn chains – Follow an air-popped popcorn recipe and thread pieces onto a long red thread. These can be draped over Christmas trees or hung in windows.
- Gingerbread ornaments – Make up a batch of gingerbread dough and cut out using Christmas cutters, making a hole at the top before baking ready for a ribbon to be threaded through later on. You can also ice them with coloured writing icing once they are cooled.
- Paper chains – Cut strips of coloured paper so they are about 15-20cm long. Make a loop of the first one, and glue closed with Pritt stick. Thread a second strip through this, and close the loop with Pritt stick once again. Carry on until the chain is long enough to hang across a room. Several of them can be used for a more elaborate effect. Children often enjoy helping to make these.
- Cinammon sticks – Tie bundles of cinnamon sticks together with ribbon and use to adorn Christmas trees, by securing with craft wire.
- Snow – Using the cheapest cotton wool you can lay your hands on, stretch in the window to create the effect of snow. This also works for cobwebs around Halloween time.
- Snowflakes – This is another good project for children. Cut white or silver paper into squares about 15cmx15cm, and then fold into quarters. Cut an arc around the edge so you get a circle, and then snip out little pieces around the edge and on the folds so that when you open it out you get a snowflake pattern. These look good on the Christmas tree.
- Wreaths – Make a loop of chicken wire, and then tie evergreens and clusters of berries from the garden onto it, until the wire is obscured. You can also use florist’s wire or a hot glue gun to secure things like apples, nuts, oven dried slices of orange, and cinnamon sticks. Spray with hairspray to preserve the wreath (which will need keeping away from fire afterwards). Then add a wide tartan ribbon at the top to make a hanging loop.
It’s quite possible to spend so much on Christmas that you are still paying for it at Easter or even by the summer. This seems a bit pointless, as it’s quite possible to rein things in so that the meaning of Christmas is there without the financial hangover afterwards. Ideally you should have been putting away 1/12 of your spare income each month with the festive season in mind. We’ll start with planning for a good but economical Christmas dinner.
Turkey – Fresh is nice, and makes it easier to avoid food poisoning as it doesn’t need defrosting, but if funds are tight, choose a frozen bird but plan ahead carefully and allow it to defrost properly (See the Food Standards Agency website at http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthydiet/seasonsandcelebrations/winter/saferchristmaseating/ for a clever online tool to help you calculate the time required, but you should be allowing as long as 120-144 hours to defrost a 12 pound turkey in the fridge, for example, or 36-48 hours in a cool room or garage, and 24 hours at room temperature. If you are really struggling financially, turkey joints provide a tasty alternative, as do large chickens. If you are having a cheaper turkey, add flavour by putting an onion into the cavity, as well as strips of bacon over the breast, before covering with a double layer of foil and cooking.
Vegetables – Again, if you can’t afford fresh, or haven’t got a lot of time to prepare on the day, then go for frozen, as they have all of the vitamins and fibre and the family will hardly notice.
Stuffing – Try putting the following into a blender to make your own stuffing: a few pieces of stale bread, a handful of sage leaves out of the garden, a sliced onion, some salt and pepper, an egg, a little milk if it seems quite dry. Blend on high for a minute until it is all mixed up, and then take out and place in a loaf tin, use to stuff your bird, or roll into little balls and bake on a baking sheet covered with parchment.
Sausage and bacon rolls – The frozen ones are fairly indistinguishable from fresh once cooked, and can be bought from mid-Autumn onwards when there is a special offer.
Christmas pudding – The cheaper ones are surprisingly good, and I have it on good authority that some restaurants have been known to buy these from leading supermarkets and serve them as their own. Serve with cream for minimum effort, or Sweet white sauce (see recipe elsewhere on blog) or custard.
Cranberry sauce – Again, the cheaper brands are often perfectly acceptable. A dollop of red wine or port and a bit of orange zest will bring them to life.
|Deadline||Adult 1||Adult 2|
|Wrap presents for children’s teachers and take to school||Last day of term|
|Organise family visits.||15/11|
|Book hair and beauty appointments||15/11|
|Inform relatives of presents children would like, and ask parents of other children the same||15/11|
|Order Christmas tree (by 1st December for 10% discount) from company such as http://www.thechristmastreefarm.co.uk for delivery on 22nd or 23rd December.||30/11|
|Buy Christmas cards||1/12|
|Buy Christmas stamps from Post Office||1/12|
|Buy gift wrap and ribbons, brown parcel paper, sellotape||1/12|
|Create address labels for Christmas cards||1/12|
|Invite people for New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.||1/12|
|Make sure dates for children’s Christmas events are in the diary (usually last week of term)||1/12|
|Organise leave or early departure from work to attend children’s carol concerts and/or Christingle services.||1/12|
|Plan for bad weather with extra de-icer sprays and screen wash.||1/12|
|Clear out kitchen cupboards to make space for Christmas supplies.||4/12|
|Secure online grocery delivery slot for 23rd December and/or 31st December. NB: This must usually be done first thing on 4th December and 10th December, the day the slots are released three weeks ahead.||4/12|
|Help children write their Christmas cards.||7/12|
|Plan menus and order groceries for later delivery||7/12|
|Order turkey from the butchers for collection on Christmas Eve.||13/12|
|Post UK Christmas cards by 17th December (see Post Office schedules for overseas and second class posting deadlines)||17/12|
|Present shopping (see spreadsheet)||17/12|
|Write Christmas cards||17/12|
|Bring down decorations from loft.||23/12|
|Check groceries delivered don’t have short use by dates.||23/12|
|Decorate Christmas tree.||23/12|
|Collect turkey from butcher||24/12|
It’s a great time of year to pick up pine cones when you are out for a walk, so I am going to write about ways to use them for practical and wholesome purposes, including as Christmas presents. This week, I am using some pine cones eagerly collected in a Suffolk forest by my youngest to make ecologically friendly firelighters. I’ll keep one lot for us, and give another lot to a friend who had us over for a lovely tea last weekend (she doesn’t know yet!) Like us, they enjoy a log fire as they sit around with a glass of red wine trying to persuade themselves they like autumn and winter really, despite the damp and the dark mornings and the perpetual feeling of being slightly over- or underdressed.
First of all, put your oven onto 200C/ Gas mark 7, to heat up while you do the fiddling about part. Then put paper cases into a bun tin. When you have done that, get some tea lights and remove the metal surround, and put one tea light into each paper case, rather like this (I’ve almost got to the half way mark). I have used very cheap paper cases I got from www.approvedfood.com. You are going to ditch them at the end, so the cheaper the better. In terms of the tealights, obviously beeswax is the most smug in terms of its eco credentials, but rather than fuss about with pellets and trimming my own wicks, I am going for the cheap paraffin based stuff here, being austerity minded and all that. You can get 10 of them for £1 in many pound shops, or buy in bulk next time you are trailing around IKEA with one of the infamous blue bags.
Heat up the bun tray in the oven until the wax has melted. Keep a close eye on the proceedings so you don’t risk burning down your house. This part of the operation should take about five minutes. I then added a couple of drops of aromatherapy oil to each one, but this is an optional step. (Be cautious if you do perfume the wax, as you don’t want a conflagration. Burning down your house would rather ruin Christmas). You then need to move the wick gently to the side of the paper case, as gently as a brain surgeon, as in the third picture.
Insert a pine cone into each paper case. It’s important to try to get one roughly the same width as the case itself, otherwise the wax will look very odd, and make sure the wick stays over to one side, so you have something to light later. (Children can help with this if they are supervised. Even if a bit of wax splashes on them, they won’t lose a hand, let’s face it). When the wax has set, take them out of their paper cases, give the bottoms a quick wipe if you have added aromatherapy oil, and leave to cool.
Finally, package them up in cellophane bags with some attractive ribbon, suited to the season or the decor of the room they are likely to be used in. Here I have recycled the ribbon from a present I was given last year, but another option would be to buy a bag of ribbon offcuts from one of the many online ribbon merchants. I have used www.ribbons.co.uk in the past.
The ‘habit of schooling’ our society has developed over the last 150 years means that we send nearly all our children to school for 190 days a year. This brings with it a degree of domestic mayhem every morning, and this post is designed to help you conquer this disorder. In terms of time management, allow yourself about at the very least 30-60 minutes in total for all the jobs listed below, depending on family size, age of children, and how well everyone is trained to assist. So just to reiterate, if you work outside the home, you will need to plan for at least an hour in total of bustling activity to get everybody up, dressed and out, on condition that school bags, uniforms, briefcases and packed lunches have been prepared the night before. Therefore for most people, if they get up around 7-7.30am, that will fit in with most day to day commitments during the week, whilst allowing time for a well planned start to the day. Therefore that may be something to aim for in the first instance, while you are getting used to an organised regime. (I’d be interested to know how long you spend getting out the house in the mornings – look in the Polls category on the right hand side of the screen to vote on how much time you spend on this).
- Make sure family members open their bedroom windows when they get up, and throw back the bedclothes to air. (10 seconds)
- Once you are washed and dressed, go straight downstairs to set the table very simply and make breakfast (porridge and toast is best if you are on a budget, along with juice or milk for the children and tea/coffee for adults). This job could also be done the night before. Bread rolls and spreadable butter are probably the laziest option if you really aren’t a morning person. (5-10 minutes plus eating time)
- After breakfast, clear the dishes (use a tray to speed this process up, and also at the same time send someone around the house to collect waif and stray mugs and so on from the previous evening ), stack dishes ready for loading into dishwasher, wipe table and sweep under table if necessary. (5-10 minutes)
- Next load or unload dishwasher as necessary, or do washing up and put away most or all dishes (if you are going to be out at work all day and only coming back just before supper, you might want to recycle some of the clean dishes immediately so you can leave the table set ready for the next meal, as they do in hotels and restaurants). (5-10 minutes)
- Wipe kitchen sink or kitchen worktop as necessary. (1 minute)
- Next empty kitchen bin if necessary, and put in new bin bag, wipe bin if it needs it. (3-5 minutes depending on the state of bin, but probably not every day)
- Make children’s beds (preferably with their help). (5-10 minutes if it’s just duvets)
- Make own bed and hang up errant clothes. (5-10 minutes)
- Clean and tidy bathroom as necessary (eg hang up towels, check there is enough toilet roll and soap). (2 minutes)
- Close bedroom windows, finally remember to lock up everything if you are going out – OK, I know I’m sounding like a mother of four now. (5 minutes)
Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One of the most underrated cooking ingredients I know is the humble cocoa nib. These are a by-product of the chocolate industry, basically the outer shell of the cocoa bean. They give you quite a lot of the benefit of chocolate without the associated fats and sugars. Full of antioxidants and fibre, you can buy them in large packets from health food stores such as Holland and Barrett, and add them to smoothies, baking mixtures, or even eat them raw from the packet. Just as chocolate does, cocoa nibs act to improve mood, and for this reason I thought it was about time I developed something using them as an ingredient to take our mind off the national nervous breakdown we are currently experiencing here in the UK.
I therefore present <drum roll> the Brexit biscuit!
115g softened butter
5 oz stoneground wholemeal flour
70g golden caster sugar
70g soft brown sugar
175g cocoa nibs
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/4 teaspoon salt
First turn the oven to 190C or Gas Mark 5 to pre-heat. Beat the butter and both kinds of sugar until creamy and fluffy. Break the egg into the bowl and mix it in along with the vanilla essence. Next, add the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda and ix it all up again. Then add the cocoa nibs and stir them through until they are evenly distributed throughout your biscuit mixture. Finally take teaspoons of the mix, roll them into a ball in your hands, flatten then a little and then place them onto a greased baking tray. You will need to cook them for about 10 minutes until they have started to go brown. When you take them out of the oven, leave them to cool for a few minutes on the baking tray before removing them, so they don’t fall apart. Then move them onto a cooling rack.
Youngest child recommends them with a glass of milk, I prefer them with a nice cup of filter coffee. Crunchy loveliness.