Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Silent Killer: World Meningitis Day 2013

When I was in high school there was a meningitis outbreak.  As teenagers we thought this was great craic as we got a week off school and had to take pills that made our pee go funny colours.  Being the selfish teenagers we were very few of us spared a few thoughts for the three girls who were struggling in hospital while the rest of us enjoyed the time off.  Thankfully they recovered and there were no further outbreaks and meningitis was put out of my mind until Ella was born nine years ago.

With precious first born syndrome in full swing with her, any time there was a slight fever, the M word was at the back of my mind. It's still there with the other two these days, albeit not in such an alarmist manner.  Today is World Meningitis Day. It's a good day to remind ourselves of the symptoms and what to be aware of and look out for.

There is a free 24 hour helpline if you are ever in doubt, it's totally worth making use of.  1800 41 33 44 stick it in your phone and don't be afraid to use it.  You can't be too careful with this illness and time is of the essence.  The service is there, use it.

To learn more about meningitis and it's symptoms, treatment and implications check out the Meningitis: Keep Watching website.

This video is another somber reminder of how important it is to keep watch on our babies.







Meningitis: Keep Watching Ireland’ is a new campaign launched by Meningitis Research Foundation Ireland with support from Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics Limited, encouraging parents to remain vigilant for the signs and symptoms of the disease.
Monday, April 22, 2013

Money Monday: 10 Ways to Reduce Your Household Spending

BudgetToday - in an effort to get me blogging more often and offer some help in these tough times - starts a new feature called Money Monday! 

I haven't talked much about budgeting here, but it's something I've learned much about in recent years.  The Celtic Tiger bit this family in the ass as much as it did anyone else.  Mostly it was our own fault but a few years ago we realised we were in trouble and got a plan together to pay off our debt. It has been hard. We got rid of one car and my husband cycled to work. We haven't taken a holiday since 2007 and we axed health insurance. We cut all non-essential spending and got a big lesson in day to day frugal living.

We essentially pay rent twice, once to our landlord and once to our debt. The good news is there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  We will have our debt paid off in the latter half of this year and I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on some of the changes that made substantial differences to our savings! Hopefully there might be some ideas you can apply to your own situation. If you're lucky enough not to be feeling the pinch, perhaps it's a good idea to look at your finances anyways.  When we pay off our debt there will be a huge portion of disposable income again but we plan on putting most of it away. They say you should have a six month emergency fund (as in six months worth of salaries) available at any given time, so our next step will be to build that up.  Then of course there's the pipe dream of building our own house some day. Time will tell!

So here you go, ten things that helped us cut spending, from the small to the large. Some will be obvious, some not so much.  I plan on continuing this with a series of posts on frugal meals, menus and ideas. Hope it helps!

1. Evaluate your Insurance Policies
Check all your insurance policies. Are you getting the best rates? Shopping around on insurance can save bundles. I've found No Nonsense to be the best for car insurance for us and AA will generally beat anyone on home/contents insurance.  

Make sure that you are not over insured. This can greatly increase your premiums. Has your car decreased in value? Then update your policy to reflect this. Remember they will only pay out the market value at the time of an accident, so it's not worth paying extra for something you won't get.  The same goes for contents.  It's worth making a list of what you own and it's replacement cost. We found we were over-insuring by almost thirty thousand euro.

Look into increasing your excesses.  Do you have an emergency fund or money set aside and available?  If so, it's worth considering an excess increase.  This can drastically reduce your premiums.  If you have a thousand euro available at any given time, increase your excess to that amount and watch the savings come in on your premiums.

Do you need all your insurance policies? We cancelled our health insurance, which I realise is not an option for everyone, but given my husband's recent treatment with the highest VHI company cover, (he wasn't treated any different than public patients, no private room, priority or anyting) and it was not worth forking out the money for the rest of us (his company pays for his) as thankfully, we are relatively healthy to begin with.

2. Check your bank fees
It's no secret in this country that the banks are racketeers when it comes to fees, but there's generally room to get around these.  For instance Bank of Ireland won't charge fees if you have a certain amount of online transactions in a quarter.  They are tricky though, their quarters don't align with the calendar months and they don't advertise their dates, so find out from your branch.  Look at switching accounts.  Banks are losing customers left right and centre so most of them are offering competitive switching packages. 

Look into credit unions!  Credit Unions are amazing, I love them. There are no fees, they still care about customer service, they still have tellers, they open on Saturdays and late one night a week and they are much more generous with loans.  Most of them offer budget accounts and free financial advise as well.  If they did credit cards and mortgages like they do in America, the banks would seriously lose out.

'meal planning' photo (c) 2009, Liz - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/3. Plan Your Meals
This is a huge one.  I cannot even begin to tell you how much I save when I do this dilligently. I cut my grocery budget from almost 200 euro a week down to about seventy if I'm good. That's a family of five with one in nappies.  Every Sunday I sit down and plan out meals  for the week.  I look in my freezer, fridge and pantry and see what I already have that I can use and plan at least three meals around that.  Then I check the sales at all my grocery stores for the week and plan meals around that.  I write up a specific shopping list and STICK TO IT!  With the exception of a mid-week egg and milk run I try not to deviate from the list and my grocery budget remains low.  Initially this would take me about two hours a week, but these days I can knock it out in twenty minutes.  I will probably write a much more specific post on this later this week and lay out how I do it and some tips and tricks.

4. Check your Beauty Regime
Let's be honest, lots of us got used to regular Celtic Tiger facials, manicures and pedicures. Perhaps we can't live without our premium cosmetics? Maybe we need a professional colour every six weeks?  I'd urge you to really reconsider these options.  I used to use Clarins and in a concession I switched to Liz Earle but after things got really hard I switched to plain old coconut oil. I use it as cleanser and moisturizer and my skin has never looked better. Cost? 6 euro per quarter. I kid you not.  I have also cut out professional colour and generally only get a hair cut once a year or so. The salon is out, I do my own manicures and pedicures and any other treatments I might need.  I have also experimented with making my own products at home with great results.  It's really a matter of prioritising here, you can still look good on a budget. What's more important? Your hair now or your finances down the line?  It's much easier to gradually cut back than to have to go cold turkey if something unexpected happens down the line.

5. Consider your travel expenses.
Try and cut travel expenses as much as possible.  Do you need two cars?  Can you cut down daily commuting? Compare the cost of the school bus with the cost of petrol and wear and tear. You might be surprised to find the bus works out much cheaper in the long run.  Schedule errands to go around times you will already be in town.  If you have to drop a kid to practice, schedule your grocery trips around this so you're not running out more than once.  Make sure your tyres are properly inflated, don't carry any excess weight in the car, keep windows closed etc to make sure you get the best mileage you can. Carpool whenever you can.

6. Cut down your reading costs
'Bookworms' photo (c) 2009, Thomas Mueller - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/ I'm an avid reader and was spending a fortune on books, so this category made a big difference to us.  Do you read the newspaper daily?  How much is this costing?  Consider getting a digital subscription or the Guardian app (a one off fee for unlimited news.)  Consider getting a Kindle.  You will still be able to buy books but at a substantial discount, plus you'll have them with you all the time and the environmental impact is much less.  You can also subscribe to magazines and newspapers on the Kindle for a very good price.  Consider using the library as well. It's free and often has a great selection of movies and music as well.  If you can't find the books you need you can always get them ordered in or borrow from other libraries.  We are lucky to have a great system here.  Another option for bookworms is Book Mooch.  You can put your books up and when people request them you get points to use to get other books.  It's a great system and has lots of worldwide fans.

7. Monitor your Utility Spends
Have you shopped around for the best plans?  Sites like Bonkers.ie and Uchoose.ie can help with this.  Do you really need a landline? Most people use their mobile for most everything these days and with most providers offering competitive packages to suit various individual needs. If you make international calls, check options like Rebtel and Skype. Look into the various tv/internet packages as well, as these can work out a lot cheaper than having a landline connection.  It's also worth keeping an eye on your electricity usage.  Many libraries will lend out a monitor for two weeks so you can see where you are wasting energy.  Personally we found fans on the oven or in the bathrooms to absolutely eat electricity and so avoid them as much as possible.  Try and hang out clothes instead of using the dryer when possible, teach the kids to turn off lights and appliances when not in use.

8. Shop smart
We've all heard the adage never shop when hungry, this is true. I will add a few to that. Shop when you're in a hurry! You're less likely to be distracted and buy unnecessary items or ones not on your list.  Don't take kids with you if at all possible.  Not only will the public at large be eternally grateful, but you will be less likely to be tempted by small people's choices.  Shop at the discount stores first.  Yes, this means Aldi and Lidl.  Did you know that may of their products are the same branded products you buy at the mainstream supermarkets?  For instance, the flour at Aldi is made by Odlums.  It's 1.29 for 2kg.  The EXACT SAME flour branded at Tesco will set you back 2.79.  No brainer methinks.  The same is true of many of their products and when you do 90% of your shop at Aldi or Lidl I dare you to spend over 100e, when a similar trolley at Tesco would easily be double that.  Look at the various shop websites each week and check the weekly deals.  Sometimes this means going to more than one shop but the money saved can be substantial.

9. Buy bulk when possible
Keep an eye out for products you buy on a regular basis.  If they are on sale it's worth stocking up.  Also keep an eye out for bigger packaging, sometimes you can save money by buying bigger packages.  Note I said sometimes... other times the shop knows you will make such an assumption and actually up charge for bigger packages.  Those little snacky cheeses are notorious for this.  Always check the per unit price and if it's not listed, whip out your phone and divide the total price by the number of units.  Check out the discount shops like Dealz and Cash and Carries that are popping up all over the place.  They are generally great for household products and bulk sizing.  I was able to get the huge box of Pampers for 12e back in Offaly which actually worked out cheaper than Aldi and Lidl alternatives.

'cooking' photo (c) 2006, mararie - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/10. Cook from scratch
This may seem like a no brainer, but for many people it can also seem like a non-option  Two income families are often very busy and finding the time to cook can be hard indeed.  I would suggest looking into options like once-a-month-cooking and freezer cooking.  Also look at packing lunches versus eating out.  That coffee habit? Invest in a coffee grinder (about 10 euro) buy some beans and grind your own each morning for a cup of brew that will be better than any cafe. 

What tips can you guys add?  Is there a change you've made that has made a big difference to your spending?  I'd love to hear them!






Sunday, April 14, 2013

Chicken and Black Bean Burritos

This is a delicious and super easy Tex Mex meal that can be whipped up in no time. Serve with salsa, sour cream and shredded lettuce for a delicious healthy meal!

Ingredients-
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 cups shredded cooked chicken
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tsp chilli powder
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 2-3 tbsp salsa
- 1 can black beans, drained
- 1 large handful coriander (cilantro) chopped
- 2 cups shredded cheese
- 8 flour tortillas
- butter for frying

Melt a tablespoon if butter in a small skillet. Add onion and sauté until softened. Add in chicken and spiced and stir in garlic until fragrant. Remove from heat and stir in salsa, beans and coriander. Season to taste. Depending on your taste you may want to add a teaspoon of sugar to counteract the salsa.

Split the mixture onto the 8 tortillas. Top with 1/8 of the cheese and fold into a little envelope.

Fry in butter until browned and pop in oven to keep warm while you do the rest.

Serve with salsa, guacamole, sour cream and some shredded lettuce. Enjoy!


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Vanilla Puff Pancake

This is one of the kids favourite weekend breakfasts. It's absolutely a cinch to make and such a treat.  It's got a big protein punch too.

To increase the portions just add another 1/4 cup milk and flour plus an additional egg and tablespoon of sugar per person, the recipe below serves four and a baby, although everyone usually wants seconds! :)




Ingredients:
  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • Powdered suggar to serve
Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

Get a large casserole dish and place the butter in it. Pop into the oven while you prepare the batter.

Mix the flour and eggs (don't ask, just do, it seems to make sense that the milk would be a better option, but that makes lumps) when the eggs and flour form a thick paste whisk in the rest of the ingredients and vanilla seeds.  Whisk until well combined and no lumps remain. 

Allow to stand as long as you like but at least 5-10 minutes.

When oven is pre-heated and butter melted, take out dish and swirl the butter to coat the entire dish.  Pour in the batter and pop back into the oven.

Cook for 15-25 minutes or until it's beautifully risen and golden and the middle is cooked.

Once done remove and quickly dust with powdered sugar and serve at once.  It will fall once it's out, but it will still be delicious!

A savoury version of this recipe can be easily made omitting the sugar and vanilla and adding some mustard as in yorkshire puddings or heating sausages in the butter first to make toad in the hole.  It's extremely versatile and fruit can be added as well to great affect.  I often add apples and the sugar to the butter and let them begin to caramelise with a pinch of cinnamon before adding the batter and the result is sublime!  A real winner! :)



Friday, April 5, 2013

Sweet Baby Carrot Cake

I love heady textured carrot cake as much as any other person but sometimes the occasion calls for something more feminine and elegant. Enter the sweet baby carrot cake!

This cake (a Paula Deen recipe I believe, copied it down from a magazine years ago) is originally made with jars of baby food carrot purée but I just puréed half a pound of boiled carrots. Baked in layers with a lusciously light cream cheese frosting the cake turns out delicate and moist and stays tasty for days. Perfect for a baby shower or just having the girls round for coffee. People who don't normally like carrot cake (aka my kids) adore this cake.

It's very simple too I just dump everything in the food processor that I puréed the carrots in, easy peasy and no mess!

Ingredients:

For the cake-
  • 2 cups plain flour

  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1.5 cups vegetable oil
  • 8 oz puréed boiled carrots
  • 4 large free range eggs
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Cream cheese frosting (follows)
  • Pecans to garnish, if desired.

Preheat oven to 170C/325F.

Butter and flour three 9 inch round cake pans.

Beat together or food process all ingredients.

Divide evenly between the three pans.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool for five minutes or so in pans and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Do not frost until fully cooled.

Frost liberally the top of the first cake and place the second layer on top. Repeat with the third layer.  Put an extremely thin layer over the sides and top of the cake, paper thin, this is known as the crumb coat and will prevent crumbs from getting in your frosting.  Allow this to set for 30 minutes or so, popping in the fridge to speed up the process if you would like.

Once the crumb coat is set frost top and sides liberally with an offset spatula and decorate as desired.

For the Frosting-
  • 8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 oz / 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1lb of icing/powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
Beat cream cheese and butter together and slowly add powdered sugar.  Add vanilla and beat until smooth and creamy and there's no trace of graininess from the sugar.





Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cheater's Pizza

Excuse my absence of late, we have moved to the fabulous County Tipperary and I haven't had much internet access!

So this week the kids were bugging me for pizza and it was 5pm and I knew I didn't have time to make dough properly and have it risen and rolled out etc in time to feed them. However, I had some no-knead wholewheat dough in the fridge and had a brain wave!

Normally to use the no-knead dough as pizza you have to roll it out, pre-heat your oven to the highest setting and somehow manage to get a topped pizza into the oven without the use of a pizza peel, which I cannot find anywhere in Ireland, so my pizzas generally turn into calzones on the way to the oven. But this time I tried something different.  I fired up my grill pan to a high heat and rolled out some dough very thin and threw it on the pan.  It grilled up quickly and then we let the kids top them (don't ask me about the corn, I know it's insanely wrong, corn on pizza, it's something they have picked up in Ireland!) and threw them under the grill/broiler in the oven to melt the cheese.  Ridiculously quick and easy and none of the usual pizza hassle.  So easy we did it again the following night!


Ingredients:

  • 1 quantity of no-knead dough *
  • Pizza Sauce **
  • Mozzarella
  • Toppings of your choice

Pre-heat grill pan until it is smoking. Pre-heat oven grill/broiler.

Sprinkle your dough with flour and coat your hands in flour. Tear off a fist size ball of dough and roll out as thin as possible on a floured surface.

Throw on grill pan and grill for 2-3 minutes until grill marks are prominent then flip and repeat. It should get quite crisp.

Top the pizza base with sauce, cheese and toppings of your choice. Pop under grill/broiler until the cheese is bubbling and browning.

Enjoy!

* If you have not heard me wax evangelical about no-knead dough, check out this post. If I had to give up all my cookery books save for one, this would be the one I would keep.  The bread takes next to no effort, is cheap and so delicious!  There is now a UK version of the book for those who prefer to work with weight measurements, but I prefer the book with the US cup measuring system, less thinking or time involved!  The dough I use on a daily basis and used for this recipe is their light wholewheat bread.

The recipe is as follows:

3 cups luke warm water
1.5 tbsp dry yeast
1.5 tbsp kosher/sea salt
1 cup whole wheat flour
5.5 cups white flour

Mix the water with the yeast and salt and gradually stir in the flours. Stir until all combined, don't knead or over mix.  Leave to rise, lightly covered for two hours or so until it flattens again.  At this point either use the dough or pop it in the fridge and pull off as needed.  One pound pieces make lovely boules and loaves.  I rip off small fistfuls and make the kids rolls for lunches. You can use it to make pizza, pitta, naan, cinnamon rolls... the list is endless. The book has so many different dough recipes from granary to rye to broiche. I cannot recommend it enough!





** I just mix some passata with garlic powder, a pinch of sugar and Italian seasoning when I'm in a hurry!