Thursday, 27 February 2014

Weekly Round-up

It's been a crazy couple of weeks so this week's post is a quick round-up of what's been going on in my world recently. We've had a two week break from normal proceedings due to half term and then an extra week off from school so ongoing building work can be completed. But at least the weather has (kind of) improved. In between dodging showers, trying to fit in the odd bit of freelance work and keeping the kids entertained, here's what else been happening chez Bristol Bargainista.

1. Having a nose around Old Trafford

Got a Man U supporter in your household? Then I wholeheartedly recommend an official tour of Old Trafford. They might not be doing so well right now, but steadfast, loyal fans will love the opportunity to get close to the hallowed grounds of the 'Theatre of Dreams'. We bought our eldest son a ticket for his 10th birthday and decided to make a family day out of it. I have to say, I did actually enjoy it; our two boys LOVED it. You're escorted by a friendly, informative guide and you get to see the pitch, the stands, the press room, VIP areas, players lounges and - the highlight for our two - the changing rooms, complete with players shirts. You can also take a look at the museum and trophy room, stacked with memorabilia young footy fans will be fascinated by. 

A family ticket for the tour and museum costs a relatively reasonable £54, a justifiable expense for a special birthday and the opportunity to park your bum on the very same seats as the likes of Becks and Giggs (a highlight for me!)You can find out more here.

2. Discovering new free museums

We tagged an extra day on to our visit to Old Trafford to visit family and took the boys to Manchester's excellent Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), located in the centre of town in the Castlefield area. It's free to visit and there's loads to do for all ages, including a hands-on science area where kids can get to grips with basic scientific principles through fun experiments and activities. Over the road is a more traditional exhibition hall stuffed with the aeroplanes, fighter jets, vintage cars and other retro vehicles including a Sinclair C5. There's also a steam hall filled with pistons, trains and engines. For those of you who live in Bristol it's like At-Bristol. But bigger(perhaps better), and free. 

Find out more about MOSI here

3. Loving Twitter competitions

Before I discovered Twitter I had won precisely two things in my life - a Swatch Watch when I was about 10 and a Philadelphia Cheese cookbook. While the watch was pretty cool at the time, and I have actually used the cookbook quite a lot (who knew you could do so much with cream cheese?) I have entered quite a few competitions over the years and never won a thing. Then, within a few weeks, and thanks to Twitter, I have won a posh afternoon tea for two and a gorgeous necklace. Free nice stuff is just so lovely! Here's a pic of the gorgeous initial necklace I won courtesy of blogger Anneli Willis of What I Bought Today.

4. Enjoying the great outdoors in Devon

I picked up an unbelievably cheap deal on Secret Escapes a few weeks back so we made the most of our extended half-term holiday with a long weekend at the Woodford Bridge Country Club in Holsworthy, Devon. I'll be blogging in more detail about our trip soon, but if you're not familiar with Secret Escapes it's well worth a look. While most offers have couples rather than families in mind, there are frequent deals for family-friendly breaks, both in the UK and abroad. You might find a cottage in the Cotswolds, for example, or a holiday apartment in Cornwall, or if you're travelling without little ones in tow there are some amazing deals on luxury country houses and stylish city hotels. I stayed at the Apex Hotel on Fleet Street a couple of years back through Secret Escapes, enjoying a taste of 5-star luxury for the fraction of the normal room rate. Our trip to Woodford Bridge, where we stayed in a very nice self-catering apartment, cost just £68 for four for two nights. 

You need to register with Secret Escapes to access the full website - take a look here.

5. Continuing on the health kick

By making cakes with sugar substitute Xylitol, a 100% natural sugar substitute made from birch wood. It can be used in exactly the same way as sugar but has 40% less calories than sugar and is low GI. It's not prohibitively expensive and is available from Holland & Barrett. I've also converted the whole family to chia seeds and am liberally sprinkling them on all sorts of things, from pancakes to yoghurt. The kids are (surprisingly) happy to eat them and they deliver a good dose of Omega 3 and fibre.

6. Swapping heavy winter boots for something a little more spring like

I feel like I've been wearing my Gap biker boots forever. While they were an amazing buy - I bought them in the sale last year and they've seen me through two harsh winters - they've seen better days and I'm just a bit bored of them. I was in the market for a 'transitional' shoe to see me through the last dregs of winter and into Spring when I stumbled on these beauties from New Look. Made from what feels like good quality suede, they feel and look a lot more expensive than they are. And I'm enjoying stepping away from black into something that feels just a bit more spring like and not the sort of thing I'd usually wear. These boots are currently in the sale for just £30 - bargain.

You can buy these boots online here.


Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Two Simple, Low Sugar Soups

There's something about working from home that renders me ravenous come 1pm each day but as I'm trying to follow a low sugar diet at the moment, mid-morning sweet treats are out. To make up for the absence of elevenses, lunch has been elevated to a focal point in my day and a cheese sandwich simply won't cut it. Thanks also to an ongoing attempt to resist turning the heating on until at least 4pm, lunchtime usually finds me shivering at my desk, swathed in a dressing gown over my clothes and in desperate need of something warming to fill my tummy. Something like soup...

Soup is hardly a revolutionary concept but it ticks the boxes in some many ways - it's cheap, warming and nice and light on the old carb front, helping to avoid the mid-afternoon slump to which I always succumb if I've been overdoing it on the wheat. But now that I'm cutting down on sugar and scanning food packaging more carefully I've been shocked by the amount of added sugar lurking in most shop-bought soups. It really is scary. Take, for example, Tesco's Tomato and Basil soup. Sound's healthy, doesn't it, until you realise it packs 12g of sugar in just half a carton. Many manufactured soups also include excessive amounts of salt, too. 

So I've been trying out some soup recipes at home which are cheap, healthy, contain no added sugar and are pretty nifty to rustle up. The pea soup in particular takes around 20 minutes to make from scratch, so it's really not a labour-intensive, time-consuming process at all. Here are my two favourites...

Pea, Pancetta & Mint Soup
I discovered this beauty in one of my children's cookbooks, DK's Star Cooks, a compendium of celebrity chef recipes which kids can make themselves. This soup is a recipe by Jean-Christophe Novelli and takes just 5 minutes prep time and 10 minutes' cooking time. It's absolutely delicious and packed with goodness.

Serves 4


15g butter
1 small onion
6 slices of pancetta or dry cured smoky bacon, chopped
450g frozen peas
1 garlic clove
800ml chicken stock
Handful of fresh mint
Salt and pepper to season

Heat the butter in a large pan and gently fry the onion till soft. In another frying pan quickly fry the pancetta until crisp and then add to the big pan with the peas and garlic. Cook for a few moments. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. Cook for around 10 minutes or until the peas are soft. Add some mint and seasoning. Whizz in a blender until smooth.

Roast Butternut Squash Soup

I have this recipe on a torn and tattered scrap of paper that I ripped out from a magazine years ago, made a lot in the past and then forgot about. I rediscovered it recently and remembered just how easy and delicious it is. It's a bit more time consuming but so worth the effort. It's a rich, warming soup, with the added creaminess of a dollop of creme fraiche. It also freezes well.

Serves 8


1 large butternut squash, cut into 1 inch chunks
25g butter, melted
1 large onion, chopped
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 garlic cloves, mashed
1 tsp salt flakes
1.2 litres chicken stock
200ml creme fraiche

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Place the squash in a glass or ceramic baking dish and add the melted butter, onion, paprika, garlic and salt. Mix together with your hands, cover the dish with foil and bake in the oven for around 1 hour or until the squash is tender. 

When the squash is cooked, puree it down in a blender alongside some of the chicken stock, working in batches. Once all of the squash mix has been pureed, add to a large pan with the rest of the stock and heat over a medium heat, bringing to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for around 10 minutes. Stir in the creme fraiche and season.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Join The Great British Budget Challenge

Finally coming out of the post-Christmas fug of over-spending and feeling ready to get your finances in better shape during 2014? I certainly am, not least because I have just booked a summer holiday, wiping out around £2000 from our savings pot, plus we are about to embark on some home improvement work which will deplete the funds even further. It's certainly a ideal time for me to get our household budget whipped into shape - and pronto - which is why I'll be taking part in The Great British Budget challenge, which runs throughout February.

The idea behind the initiative is simple: to help people of all ages and of all incomes squeeze every last penny out of their precious earnings, helping them to take control of their finances and save money towards those goals - big or small - that we all have. I'll be aiming to cut down on my credit card debt while also putting some money aside to pay off that aforementioned holiday balance. I'm already doing well on bringing down our food shopping bills by buying basics at Lidl, but my eyes still water when those utility bills drop through the letterbox. And as impending middle age has started to make me feel acutely aware of my rather non-existent pension pot, I'm hoping that the campaign will help me gain some additional budgeting know-how and free up a few pounds to put into a long-term savings plan.

Once you've signed up to the campaign you'll receive daily budgeting tips, campaign updates and stories from fellow budgeters via email. Couldn't be easier. It's a well-known fact that budgeting can be a bit of a bore, but the Great British Budget Challenge aims to inject a bit of fun into proceedings and keep you motivated, helping even the most hard-core splurger become a dedicated saver by the time the month's up. There's also the chance to win £50 in high street vouchers by taking part in the daily Twitter photo challenge.

Why not get involved too? Find out more and join in by visiting The Great British Budget Challenge here.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Cutting Down on Sugar the Budget-Friendly Way

Inspired by a friend who has pretty much wiped out sugar from her diet, I've decided to make 2014 the year I finally try and crack my sugar habit. While not the worst offender when it comes to the sweet stuff, I probably consume more sugar than I should, and have a niggling suspicion that although I consider myself healthy, if you added up my sugar consumption in any given day it would be way more than I think I'm eating. Furthermore, having been ill from some weird, viral-type illness that wiped me out for the best part of three months last year, I've been looking for ways to feel a little better and more energised for some time now. Armed with some basic insider know-how from my knowledgeable friend, I've started the year off making small, but significant steps to reducing my sugar intake and so far, so good.

Sugar-free food heroes
No doubt you'll have read the flurry of newspaper articles or watched TV documentaries about how excessive sugar consumption is responsible for a whole host of health conditions and will contribute to a crisis that could see 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children becoming obese by 2050. Scary stuff. However, initial forays to my local health food shop made me uncomfortably aware of just how much more expensive some sugar-free alternatives can be so I've had to adapt expectations to meet with my personal budget. 

The key thing to remember is that the sugar you are looking to cut out is refined sugar. There are some natural sugars you can eat. But refined sugar equals empty calories that have no nutritional benefit at all. Unfortunately it is these types of sugars that are most commonly used in mass-produced foods. Other baddies that fall into the 'do not eat' category include corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, fructose and all artificial sweeteners.

Unfortunately swapping to natural alternatives will cost you more. A commonly available healthy sugar substitute - Xylitol(which you can buy at most bigger supermarkets these days)- will set you back around £2.70 for a 225g bag. Other sugar alternatives which you'll find in specialist health food shops or online (but perhaps not at your local supermarket) include Jaggery, Valdivia and Rapadura. All cost significantly more than standard sugars, but if you'll be cooking with less sugar anyway, the cost should balance out in the end.

Given the expense involved in buying these healthier products I'm taking a more realistic approach to cutting down on sugar, and even by making quite small changes I'm noticing significant improvements to mine and the kids' health. We've swapped lunchbox cereal bars for Nakd bars which, although more costly, count towards one of their five-a-day and are cold-pressed with no added sugar or syrup. I've stopped adding sugar to my coffee and my taste-buds are finally starting to adjust to the change. It's more time consuming but I'm making more in the way of after-school snacks rather than filling the house with shop-bought biscuits and cakes. I'm making low-sugar treats like banana bread and blueberry muffins which get most of their sweetness from the fruit - I like Mary Berry's recipe which has just 3oz of sugar in a recipe that makes 12 muffins, or try Paul Hollywood's version with even less sugar here. Shop-bought soups have been replaced by easy home-made versions - I'll be sharing two particular favourites which are easy and cheap to make on the blog soon.

I'm not quite ready to completely eliminate sugar yet but I figure that by making as much stuff myself I'm going some way to cutting out unnecessary sugars and it's good to see exactly what's going into your food as you make it. We've said goodbye to fruit juice in our house and for our Sunday morning pancake breakfast ritual we've swapped sugar and maple syrup for Agave nectar, a low GI natural sweetener that is delicious and which is readily available at the supermarket, including low-cost shops such as Lidl. Jam is out, nut butter is in - almond butter is one of my favourites and I have it on crackers or Ryvita as a healthy mid-morning snack.

What's proving much more tricky in my quest to lower our sugar intake is analysing food labels as I do my weekly shop, and trying to pick the lowest sugar option wherever possible. This can be a dispiriting experience as even the most benign looking foods - things like soups, breads and table sauces - can be packed with added sugar. The NHS guidelines say that anything more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g is high, while anything of 5g of total sugars or less per 100g is low. Then you have to bear in mind the various guises sugar may hiding behind in the labelling - a good rule of thumb to remember is that anything ending in 'ose' is a sugar. It's a labourious job drilling down into the small print but when you actually stop and really look at how much sugar is added to manufactured foods, it really is quite a wake-up call.

My next step in the process is to take my friend's advice and start experimenting with sugar-free recipes. She makes her own Nutella by mixing raw cocoa with coconut oil and agave, for example, and recommends making cake icing by mixing cream cheese or quark with agave and raw cocoa. Other sweet treats she recommends for those moments when cravings get the better of you include raw truffles, using a mix of ground almonds, raw cacao, agave and dessicated coconut. I'm going to spend some time looking through her recommended recipe websites for inspiration to seek out some low-cost, healthy ideas for cakes and other treats. The website Natural Sweet Recipes looks particularly inspiring.

I'll be updating you on my quest to go sugar-free on a budget with recipes or tips I come across along the way, but in the meantime I recommend checking out the good sense, easy to understand advice from David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat, which makes a good starting point, plus checking out his website here.

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