Planning for Christmas 2 – Decorations

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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.

Planning for Christmas 1 – Christmas Dinner

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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 British Turkey website at 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.

Christmas Countdown

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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 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
Present wrapping 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

Pine cone foraging and ideas

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 in the past.

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Morning has broken

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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 /

Brexit biscuits

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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!


You need:

70g sugar

115g softened butter

5 oz stoneground wholemeal flour

1 egg

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.


PAX traditional fitted wardrobe hack – IKEA Hackers

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via PAX traditional fitted wardrobe hack – IKEA Hackers

We have just acquired a set of Pax at home and I was trying to think about idea for making them look more personalised. The IKEA Hackers website is an inspiration and I wanted to share the most impressive post here. Essentially the owner has built a plinth and cornice, added stick-on mirrors onto exiting panels, and installed lights. Detailed instructions are there if you want to try it yourself, and even if your carpentry skills are not great, it would be easy to get the stick-on mirrors cut to size, and choose some high quality knobs from a specialist supplier such as Willow and Stone (we chose the Beehive cupboard knobs to match our door handles, although the bolts supplied with them were a little long and will need packing at the back with a bit of extra wood, or you could buy some special bolts to fit at a building supplier).

Other ways of personalising or refreshing your IKEA furniture can include buying fitted covers, for example from Bemz, or you could buy stick-on decals for drawers, beds and cupboards from Mykea. Anything that helps people to be creative and stops things going to landfill has to be a good idea, right?