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Mother Knows Best

April 28, 2016

My mum came to stay last week and it was lovely on so many levels. Being a single mum is hard and going back to work at the same time makes life pretty tough. When one is busy ‘getting on with it’ one forgets how the smallest things can make the biggest difference. Even having another pair of hands to empty the dishwasher was amazing. Having someone wipe the table after breakfast, what luxury! (We do that about every three days around here, I remarked wryly as I saw her swoop on the table, cloth in hand). Coming home to a glass of wine and grown up conversation; being able to discuss what on earth Marcella is up to, going to work without the mindnumbingly endless administration involved in organising childcare. It felt like a holiday! The kids positively blossom with more attention and even the weather was glorious! Finally some sunshine; I think she was wondering why we had decided to settle in the Rainiest Place on Earth, following her last two visits.

She also insisted I try the recipe I got with my FlavourFirst veg box; bacon-wrapped stuffed filet of pork with roast rhubarb, yum! Not that I eschew cooking proper grown up food but it can be disheartening 20160424_180423.jpgwhen your only audience is two ungrateful children with their faddy appetites and tendency to say ‘yuck’ when presented with anything but fishfingers. I exaggerate of course, I’m lucky they like most things but generally the plainer the better. Sigh.

Another fab thing was Mum’s fitness tracker on her phone. Now, I’ve been reading about these on Martin Lewis’s website, as he’s a big fan, so I was keen to see how many steps we were doing per day. Turns out our new route to school racks up 2000 steps, plus another 1800 – 2000 on the return journey (depending on whether you take the shortcut). Which is almost halfway to your daily 10 000 steps and it’s

oooh, fancy

oooh, fancy

not even 9am! Sold! After a smidge of research I decided on a Jawbone24

because it also tracks your sleep and I’d like to know if I’m getting more or less than I think I am. It also monitors the quality of your sleep and how many times, if any, you wake up during the night. Awesome. Hopefully I can work out whether there is any way of waking up feeling refreshed. Apparently I was able to do that once upon a time.


Couch to 5k

April 8, 2016

Have you done the Couch to 5k running programme yet? I can’t recommend it enough. There are now a myriad of apps but I first found the podcasts via the NHS website. It takes you from being a non-runner in Week 1, to running 5k (about half an hour) by Week 9. It is genius! It starts gently with alternating one minute of running with a 90 second recovery walk and each segment increases gradually over the weeks. You always start and finish with a 5 minute brisk walk and you are accompanied by music and the lovely Laura, who will not only remind you when to walk and run, but give you lots of helpful tips and a bit of encouragement along the way.

I started it when Oscar was about 9 months old. I know that because I ran a 10k when he was a year and I was still breastfeeding. Probably the slowest 10k in the world but I impressed even myself. Since then I have dipped in and out of running and I always go back to the programme after a break, not necessarily to Week 1 but around about Week 5 or 6 to assess my fitness and get back on track. And the great thing about running is that you build up core fitness. Which means that even if you have a break of a week or two, a month or even 3 months, you don’t start again from the beginning. You’re a lot fitter than you think!

So. Having been banned from exercise for a while, I’m keen to get back to running. Especially now the weather is that glorious northern speciality of sunny and brisk. Belfast is so green that you could run from park to park with minimal roadwork, constantly surrounded by mountains, blue skies and birdsong. Fab.

Another motivator is Alfie and his weight. What better way to get a bit of Number One Son time than running together? We have therefore embarked on the Couch to 5k, starting at the very beginning. We began on holiday in Donegal and ran on the beach the first couple of times; water, rockpools, dunes and a dead sheep. Then we ran from cousin Jill’s house in Omagh – all country lanes, (living) sheep and a beautiful church. Yesterday we ran in Botanic park; rose garden, hyacinth flower beds, tourists, students and an ice cream van


Sheep (living)

(which we ran past Very Fast). We’re about to complete Week 2 and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

Alfie, on the other hand, spends a lot of the time complaining loudly and professing to hate me, running, and the world at large. He’s finding it tough which proves how unfit he is and how his weight really is holding him back. However, in true Alfie fashion he doesn’t stop, or give in, or give up. We get through the half hour and he does, despite himself, feel good afterwards. I’m determined to get him through this and harbour dreams where he becomes some athletic god and thanks his old mum for pushing him through the running programme and kickstarting his sporting career.

But I’ll settle for him not being last in his Sports Day events this year. Which, as it happens, is exactly the week after we complete the Couch to 5k running programme. Fingers crossed!peppa sports day


The Paediatric Dietitian

April 7, 2016

We had a visit from Andrea McDougall a couple of weeks ago, a clinical specialist and Paediatric Dietitian. We were referred to her by Dr Christie because I was becoming increasingly concerned about Alfie’s weight gain. He’s always been a big boy and tall for his age, but in the last six months he has been putting on the pounds at an alarming rate. In fact he’s put on about 8 kilos in 6 months, which sounds incredible but is horribly true. Despite increasing his exercise – and though he loves his screen time he does, like most 6 year olds, live a fairly active life – he was still getting bigger. His appetite is healthy, he eats most things and is not motivated by sweets, chocolate or fizzy drinks. Like most people we limit these but in fact, even presented with the odd can of cola, he would only drink a bit of it. Unlike Oscar who would gladly mainline sugar in any form, Alfie likes the idea of treats, but after a few bites gives up. As evidence I offer up our Easter treats; witness some crumbs of chocolate and 1 dinosaur egg left from Oscar’s haul, whilst Alfie still hasn’t touched half his booty and has in fact forgotten about it entirely. Oscar on the other hand, keeps a hawkeye on the chocolate and sweet levels and knows down to the last tic tac what is left, gladly nagging for a treat before breakfast and carrying on all day.

huskyAnd despite being a properly middle-aged, middle-class mum with a fair bit of brainage I couldn’t work out what was going on. Alfie loves meat, sure. He would eat anything his Dad put on the BBQ and forgo sweets and pudding for more meat. Unfortunately he would also forgo the veggies but even then he’s pretty unfussy and will – albeit reluctantly – eat a good variety of veg.   Plus he’s an absolute fruit monster and has been all his life. So I was very keen to hear what Andrea had to say.

She came to our house and spent a good hour and a half chatting about Alfie and our eating habits. We kept a food diary for four days beforehand and used this to discuss his diet.   Here is what we found out;

  • School meals make up the bulk of his daily calorie intake and therefore dinner should be adjusted accordingly. Far from being nutritionally calculated and portion controlled, school dinners are the main source of fat and sugar intake! How naïve am I?
  • According to weight, Alfie should drink 1.8 litres of water per day. Yes, there is mathematical equation to work out how much you should be drinking! (Check out this Hydration Calculator Hydration Calculator
  • The main focus is to stop the weight gain. Weight loss can come later. For now we just need to put some habits in place to limit consumption. Drinking a glass of water before every meal, for example. Go easy on the sugary fruit. Encourage more veg in any way possible.


    Our Rainbow Plate.  Kids wouldn’t go near the beetroot and prefer their corn on the cob, but we keep persevering.

  • Portion control is easy – just look at the palm of your hand. Although she also sent through some interesting and informative sheets regarding portion control by age, Andrea showed us that the size of a portion is equivalent to the size of your palm. So if that heap of mashed potato resembles your head more than your hand, you are over the limit!
  • We are doing the right things. She commended us on all our efforts and said Alfie has the healthiest diet of any kid she’s seen in long while. Interestingly the focus is less on exercise (big kids do more exercise than their counterparts simply by carrying all that extra weight around) and more on calorie consumption.

Since her visit she has emailed us for an update, sent through several sheets of information and will schedule a follow up visit in 6 – 8 weeks. It feels good to have someone backing us up, even if there are no magic wands to wave.

The Rehearsal Diet

March 22, 2016

The blog has been quiet for a while as I’ve gone into rehearsals full time. This has required an astronomical amount of organising, especially in terms of childcare, as rehearsals tend to be a short but intense burst of work, often finishing around the kids bedtime, meaning not only school pick up has to be taken care of, but dinner and bedtime too. It has caused endless headaches and the set up of what I call the Childcare Matrix but more of that another time (I also go on tour in April, the sleepless nights that has caused…)

It is safe to say the Rehearsal Diet (also known as the On Set diet) is a flexible feast, consisting mainly of variations on snacking. Some days the snacking is super healthy; oatcakes, nuts and raisins, fruit. Other days it looks more like the biscuit isle at Asda; caramel bites, iced fingers, flapjacks (oats! They almost make it into the healthy section), chocolate (long discussions ensue with the director over the changes made to Crème Eggs, for example) and the rather amazingly priced Twirls at Mace; 4 for a pound!

Hot drinks are plentiful – because rehearsals almost always taken place in the cold (if you are rehearsing in a warm place at the moment you are almost certainly at drama school, in a top end production or in a warm country. Good for you). Some days endless cups of coffee hit the spot, on more considered days herbal and fruit teas take over.

Lunch is almost always brought in from home. Leftovers, hastily thrown together salads, a sandwich (protein is key, as it fills you up). Who can afford to buy lunch every day? We may be working but we’re not daft. The time we have lunch can of course vary wildly. Which is why snacking is so vital. As you get closer to the show, rehearsals become more intense and stopping to eat more inconvenient. Keeping hydrated and more, importantly, your voice lubricated, is very important so we all drink water constantly all day.

When production week finally arrives meals have to be carefully planned. Nothing too heavy and not too close to the show – nerves take over meaning I find it impossible to eat. However, I do need plenty of energy to get through the show so salad or veg and a bit of protein are ideal. Not too much sugar as this can cause a mid-show slump, but mini flapjacks are a good option for an energy hit. Ditto oatcakes which fill a gap without being too heavy.

GOF show pic

This is NOT a rehearsal.  It’s the Real Thing! Photo credit:  Chris Tweed

I am always ravenous after a show. Not immediately, when I’m apt to neck a glass of wine to start the process of coming back to earth. But soon after I could easily to do a three course meal. I don’t of course, it’s practically the middle of the night, but some carbs go down well. If I don’t eat I feel horrible the next morning. Because then I have to get up and do it all again. Hurrah!

Currently appearing in Gordon Osram’s Funeral.  You can read a review here (thanks to Belfast Times).



February 15, 2016

I love sleep, who doesn’t?  As I get olderI notice more and more what  a difference it makes in my life.  A good night’s sleep is like gold; sets me up for a productive day, restores my sense of humour and enables me to deal with the kids in a more present,  less distracted, way. I also eat more healthily, drink more water and am able to resist late night snacking – mainly because of the earlier bedtime of course.   Sleep!  How I love thee!

They say you need a good 8 hours sleep a night but ‘they’ clearly have not had children.  I haven’t slept a full night through since I was pregnant with Oscar. He’s four now and still wakes every night and comes into my bed.  In fairness, some nights I barely notice, I’m so used to it by now (and so tired).  I could make an effort to take him back to his bed and get him back to sleep but frankly, that requires a level of wakefulness I’m not prepared to consider at midnight/4am. Equally,  getting a lie in with a four year old in the house is virtually impossible so the early nights are essential.

Alfie is at that wonderful stage when a late night equals a late morning – mostly.  I say wonderful, it’s not so much fun when you have to go to school in the morning. At the moment he’s having great difficulties getting to sleep and it seems he’s not the only one, if my straw poll of school mums is anything to go by.  Despite being tired out he tosses and turns, is up and down and sometimes not asleep until 10 or 11pm, usually in my bed by this point. This has been going on since we got back from skiing and despite my best efforts does not seem to be improving.  Bizarrely, he no longer coughs at night – or at all in fact – and you would think this would allow for better sleep but…

We like a bit of whale music of a night – an easy sell to a budding wildlife presenter – and we have a sleep playlist on Spotify which worked wonders when we first put it together. Similarly meditation – I love Mediation Oasis and they have a nice kids sleep meditation – but this only works now and then. The wonderful Cbeebies Radio podcasts send Oscar to sleep in minutes, especially Old Jack’s Boat, but have the opposite effect on Alfie. I’ve tried lying next to him, as I often to with Oscar, but with mixed results.  Therein lies the rub; some things work, sometimes.  A quick flick at netmums sees similar threads in various forums; just search my six year old can’t sleep, and shows similar thinking; yes we’ve often used lavender oil, often have a bath, yes he’s probably overtired, no we can’t fit more activities/exercise into most of our days and he loathes hot milk.  Of course we still do bedtime stories and he’s a great reader, so I sometimes give him reading time by himself (his brother is almost always out for the count by 7.30pm, silver linings and all that).

Like me, he’s great company when he’s had a good night’s sleep.  But the late nights are taking their toll and we’ve had morning meltdowns all the way to school on occasion.  Thankfully it’s half term now.  Not much planned but a mix of lazy days and activities like Castle Espie and W5.  And Dad is home on Saturday, albeit a flying visit, but it might make all the difference. I sincerely hope so because as of next week I’m in full time rehearsals and will be a full time working single mum. Eek!




February 6, 2016

What’s the first thing you do when embarking on a new project?  Buy books of course!  I’m possibly slightly addicted to The Book People who are very naughty and keep sending me little mini-catalogues through the post and tempting me with Very Necessary titles.  Hmmm.  In any case, this is what I purchased;

Smart Food for Smart Kids by Patrick Holford. I like him, he’s the one all about Optimum Nutrition etc and this book promises to improve your child’s moods, sleep patters, general wellbeing, sugar cravings etc.  The recipes look great although I’m not sure I can get my children to actually eat any of them. It also contains a rather brilliant meal plan but I’m daunted by the amount of cooking involved.  I also feel like I should follow the plan to the letter and then make notes about any changes I see my children, as the book suggests. But then that’s also rather daunting. Hmm.

How to Unplug Your Child Absolutely necessary in our house, already an addicts den of screen time, or ‘watching’ as we refer to it. The more I tighten the rules around watching the more time we spend talking about it.  A source of constant conflict, I understand it’s practically the only topic of conversation between parents and teenagers too.  We’ve started early then.  At first glance the book seems all about alternative activities, which is not what we really need, as I’m perfectly capable of thinking of those myself.  But I’d better read it before I give a full review.

I Quit Sugar: Simplicious I’m sort of fascinated by Sarah Wilson. I got her first book too. My main impression is that you can use dates instead of sugar in most things, but they have to be medjool dates. Anything that mentions chia seeds makes me reach for the wine but I aspire to making some of the dishes in this book.  One day.

What Every Parent Needs to Know Actually this is a winner; it’s about the National Curriculum and how you can support your child with their learning, by telling you what they are learning in school. When you’ve got a school like our where communication is pretty non existent, this feels very comforting.  Also I got my friend L to look over it, and she’s a primary school teacher. She gave it the thumbs up.

The Gut Makeover Diet This is the book I threw in the basket last minute so I could qualify for a free delivery. It’s only a fiver and generally I hate anything with ‘diet’ in the title, but…  I had a quick browse and I like what it says already.  It’s making the connection between digestion and mood and, despite a rather harsh 4-week detox-type diet, leads you towards a more mediterranean way of eating for life.  Having suffered both depression and IBS I believe that our physical wellbeing has a profound effect on our mental health and our relationship with food is vital.  Prozac sorted me out in the end, in one fell swoop as it were, but it would take me years to learn how to look after myself with healthy eating habits.

Weekly Planner Pad  Obviously I spend January scouring the shelves for the perfect calendar or planner for the family.  As a lifelong admin I know that keeping information in more than one place, such as in my diary, on my phone, on the wall calendar, is WRONG.  But I’ve yet to come across a system that works for everyone.  This planning pad promised to solve all those problems and even help me with the dreaded Meal Planning!  I’ve yet to use it though…

That Dale Pinnock looks nice doesn’t he? That’s a book recommended to me by my friend S and fits with my interest in food as medicine.  More on this another time.




Week 3; in which exercise is banned (sort of).

February 5, 2016

So exercise is not totally banned, due to my bad back, but Michelle advises that I should avoid all impact work, running, weight training, almost all gym type activities and even yoga and pilates!  I can stick to walking, the cross trainer and a bit of aqua jogging for the next 3 months.  That’s put somewhat of a spanner in the fitness plans of course.  The day I had planned to start running again was of course the day I woke with my bad back (honest guv, it was) and I actually enjoy running, once I get back in the groove so to speak.  I mean aqua jogging? Have you ever tried that?  Or seen it done?  It’s possibly the most graceless kind of exercise possible, with the exception of Aqua Fit classes which are hysterically funny (but not necessarily useful).  More on this later.

Walking fits in with the general plan to get the family fitter of course, and our vague ambition to explore all the National Trust has to offer here in Northern Ireland.  If only the bloody weather would co-operate…

And I haven’t even mentioned “Week 4; when I went back to work and chaos ensued”, nor “Week 5, in which the back is back”.



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