Friday, 28 June 2013

Cooking with kids - plus a couple of my own recipes

Michela prepping a cake tin
I recently received a copy of BBC Good Food magazine alongside a press release mentioning a Cooking with Kids survey. My daughter and I love to make drop scones (aka Scotch pancakes) on Sundays and bake cakes. She likes to grease the tin with my silicone brush because it's like painting, albeit with oil.

Cakes were the first 'dishes' I learnt to make too. I think I was around 10 when I decided to bake my own cakes - my mother, who is a very good cook - didn't have a magic touch with cakes, although she excelled with Mont Blanc and rice puddings.

My grandmothers were both excellent - one actually ran a restaurant on the ground floor of our house, so I grew up in a restaurant kitchen. She made this great dessert by wrapping a pear in pastry, like a pear in a basket and baking it for us as a treat (my brother and cousin too). I helped to make ravioli and was waitress/dishwasher at weddings for pocket money. Running a restaurant and bar is hard work, so we kids passed on it - the restaurant is still going though, my parents and uncle/aunt are renting it out.

I capitalised on my 'knowledge' and love for food a few years back by developing recipes for baby and family meals for Made for Mums. Here are my recipe for Easy, Spanish-style Paella and Italian-style rice pudding. There are several more on the website, these were all tried and tested.

BBC Good Food - the survey
Back to the survey, this included 1,349 parents and children and revealed that the combination of an abundance of TV cookery shows and a more relaxed attitude to household roles means that children are cooking from the age of 6, compared to an average of 10 years old for their parents’ generation.

This is spot on, although Michela started earlier by assisting me with cupcakes for school and local fetes. I also went to her preschool when she was 3 to make gnocchi with the kids and they all loved it. The survey acknowledges this, six is the average age so I'm sure there are other younger kids out there holding the pastry brush.

Kids love activities and cooking is a winner because there is something yummy to eat at the end of the process. The survey was commissioned in support of BBC Good Food’s ‘Get Kids cooking weekend’, which coincided with Father's Day. This is another sign of the times, my partner does most of the cooking at home, he is a Masterchef fan and likes to watch countless cookery shows. Acquaintances find it strange as I'm Italian and he is British, but he can cook Chinese, Indian and British classics pretty well. He also cooks pasta al dente.

The survey's key findings were:
  • Only 40% of adults say their skills were better than their children’s skills at the same age.
  • The average age parents with children under 16 learned to cook is 10. The average age their children are learning is 6.
  • Today’s children are learning earlier than their parents on 10 skills polled, from cooking an omelette and chopping an onion to making a white sauce.
  • According to parents, the top reasons for the previous generation learning later were: parents being less relaxed about kids in the kitchen, (27%); cooking having a lower profile than today, (25%) and it previously being regarded as a girl’s task (16%).
  • According to parents, the top reasons kids enjoy cooking at a young age is that 50% of parents view cooking as an essential life skill, 47% of children are inspired by television cookery shows and 41% of respondents see it as good family bonding time.
BBC Good Food's editor Gillian Carter commented: “It is easy to forget that for years home cooking was the preserve of the adult woman of the household, and often children were shooed out of the kitchen. Today cooking, inspired in part by television, is seen as an opportunity to spend time together doing something fun and practical. 50% of parents view it as an essential life skill and the great thing is Dads are just as involved as mums. We want to capitalise on this enthusiasm with our children’s cooking campaign.”

Back to BBC Good Food magazine, I thought it was full of sensible, realistic recipes that I want to make. Many cookbooks are just eye candy - the list of ingredients is long and scary; the processes are long and complicated... Parents are short of time, we can't spend a whole day 'nurturing' a piece of meat. However, freshly made food is important for us, we only resort to ready-made food on occasions. We shop from various sources to get the best ingredients - supermarkets, markets, farm shops, ethnic shops, organic shops....

I was pleased to see the magazine has retained its identity and is not following food fads. I freelanced at BBC Good Food years ago, when it was across the road (sort of) from the television centre and I thought they had an impressive test kitchen. The new kitchen looks great too!

Saturday, 22 June 2013

How to make money online and my own career guides

I am watching a streamed talk from Britmums Live 2013 and it made me think that blogging is not just about making some pin money or getting products to review. Blogging is a strong business tool and that's how I made money from it.

Blogging has been a businesscard (SEO blog), a way to get commissioned to write features (this blog, The 1930s house and the Ecothrifter blogs) and share my interests in cyberspace.

So here are my recent best efforts to gain 'authority' in the competitive cyberworld... Enjoy!

Friday, 21 June 2013

Protect your skin from the sun and help cancer research

Nivea Sun Moisturising Sun Lotion, around £5. Nivea has been partnering with Cancer Research UK since 2012. Over three years it will contribute over £2M to research by donating part of the profit from products with SPF15+

Today is the first day of summer. I know we had a lousy spring here in the UK and the last thing we thought of grabbing when at the chemist is a bottle of sun lotion. I think the unseasonable weather led to higher sales of cold remedies and hot soups. 

We use Nivea as a family and receiving a sample in the post reminded me that even if the sun is not shining every day, your skin can still be affected. We often forget applying sun lotion before our daughter goes to school because most days start with a grey sky - but the sun has been shining as my daughter is tanned. I have a tan too as I have been cycling to work and gardening. We are both lucky we don't burn - I have an Italian olive skin, my daughter is fairer but has also taken from my English partner so she gets freckly but doesn't burn. Still we should apply sun protection and we usually do, it's just this lousy weather with random sunny intervals that has lulled us in a false sense of security.

The weather and the fact we don't burn easily is no excuse for being slack in the sun protection department. In our 'defence' our daughter wears trousers and no open shoes without socks, but her arms and face are still unprotected. We were so careful when she was a baby and horrified when we saw little ones being exposed to the baking sun, but have lapsed a bit since she started her second year at school. Anyhow, here are Nivea and Cancer Research UK's useful tips for a safe summer... 

Enjoy the sun safely - when it comes out, that is!


  • Mix it up: When the sun is strong, it’s important to use a combination of shade, clothing and at least factor 15 sunscreen with a high star rating to protect yourself – and that’s whether you’re in the UK or abroad.
  • Spend time in the shade: Everyone loves to enjoy a bit of sun during the summer but if it’s strong it’s important to spend some time in the shade as well. Use the shadow rule – if your shadow is shorter than you are, then the sun is strong. In the UK this is most likely to be in the summer between 11am and 3pm. Make sure you take some breaks in the shade, such as eating your lunch inside, sitting under a parasol or resting in your home or hotel room. If you’re on holiday, you could also visit an indoor museum or gallery to cool off and have a rest from the strong sunshine
  • Don’t get caught out at home: The sun can be just as strong in the UK as abroad so it’s not just when you’re on holiday abroad that you need to think about protecting your skin in the sun. And you don’t need to be sunbathing to get sunburn. Plenty of people get sunburn when out and about playing sport, shopping or gardening
  • Bring a bottle: Keep a handy-sized bottle of sunscreen in your handbag (Cancer Research UK recommend at least SPF15+) so that you’ll always have some to hand for parts of the body you can’t cover up with clothes. That way you won’t get caught out on days when you’re out and about and the sun is strong. Make sure you reapply regularly and use a generous amount
  • Use clothing: Wearing a t-shirt and a hat when the sun is strong is really important. There are some really great outfits that not only help keep you protected but keep you cool and look great too. A wide-brimmed hat and kaftan or long-sleeved top or maxi dress will not only keep you covered up but are also the height of summer style!
  • Protect your kids: Young skin is particularly delicate and easily sunburnt. Make sure your children are wearing t-shirts and wide-brimmed hats when out in strong sun and cover any exposed areas with sunscreen.  It’s a good idea to encourage them to alternate their time in the sunshine with breaks in the shade for a game or a cool drink, particularly between 11am and 3pm (in the UK summer) when the sun is usually strongest. If you’re using a buggy, attaching a parasol is a useful way of keeping your children cool and protected from the sunshine

For more sun safety information from Cancer Research UK, visit 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Don't ever believe bosses who put you down

A fictional take on corporate life that is pure comedy genius

This week I rented Horrible Bosses and it's pure comedy genius with real-life situations despite the extreme storyline. It set me thinking about my 19 years + career spanning charity work, market research, merchant banking, book publishing, journalism and digital marketing. I worked for huge UK companies, many were multi-nationals and staffed with people from all over the world. I was mostly a contractor - I'm not a professional commitment-phobe, I soon realised I could earn more money as a freelancer/short-term contract person than as an employee, plus I enjoyed the variety and got an in-depth perspective of the industry as a whole. But let's not go off a tangent. Back to Horrible Bosses, yes, it's a bit over the top but it is based on elements of reality because, let's face it, there are people in senior positions who are a bit like that. 

There are bosses who will make your working life hell, bosses who have no genuine interest in the welfare of the company and push personal agendas, and bosses who harass employees in a number of ways (including sexual harassment).

They xxxx you up, your mum and dad (Larkin)
This film also made me think about the way I am, how despite being Italian I have had a British stiff upper lip from a young age. I have met inspirational people but also some party poopers (or shall I say career poopers) who thought they were doing me a favour by taking me down a peg or two. 

My parents complained I read too many books. I love my parents and understand they were worried about me getting 'dangerous' ideas in my head and ruin my eyesight. They were right on both counts. I did get ambitious ideas, a wanderlust and my eyesight, after many years of reading in poorly-lit rooms, is not great. 

I didn't have the 'demotivating teacher' experience, but many have: you know, a teacher who said you were never going to amount to much... I had a bit of that with my dad who was a very contradictory person, one moment I was going to conquer the world, the next I would never achieve anything in life. Then I had an Italian boyfriend who wanted me to have a low-key career or stay at home. This explains why I like British men a lot more. Last but not least the publishing professional who told me I would never make it in journalism because my first language is not English. I'm glad I didn't listen to this person's advice.

Bosses who make work life hell
Right, let's get into the juicy bit now! In 19 years, I met some 'problem' bosses but also had narrow escapes - in one case a superior was really nice and supportive to me but I was shocked to find out that this person was harassing a team member. This employee complained and was promoted to a post in another department - shock horror, a positive outcome here!

Personally, I don't like conflict and I have always avoided kicking a fuss. I have met unsavoury people but being on a short-term contract means you have a choice: you can grit your teeth + bear it or walk. If somebody really upset me (and it happened often in a pressurised environment like the media industry) I would ask myself, is it worth my while sticking around? If the answer was no, I would never work for them again. When they called again I'd say I was booked up. 

However, there is one instance (not bad for 19 years +) I keep thinking of and fuming about. Situation: I start a job with a very nice boss, the nice boss leaves in a matter of days, the deputy gets promoted and starts shouting at people to get the work done, but I stay as my new boss's bark is worse than the bite. This person resigns after a matter of weeks and they bring in a junior from another department who goes power crazy and starts hassling me. I am thinking of getting a mortgage so I take the crap and try to please this person. This boss is as nice as pie in front of the team but horrible in private meetings. My previous boss failed to file a performance assessment and this person uses the process to make my life hell. I am told off for using too many commas - my role there is to edit copy, commission writers, write an industry column, scan artwork, design pages in a software I had to teach myself on the job as it's not industry standard... Commas? This person even buys me a ponctuation book. Really!

Legal rights?

My boss tells me about a dream where I looked really great in an orange suit (weird), keeps hinting at the fact I'm slimmer, then wants to put me on performance review. Now I wish I knew what I know now - when your boss dislikes you for any reason, they can only get rid of you legally if you misbehave (misconduct) or if you don't perform. Assessment can be challenged as a personality clash can invalidate a performance assessment if the assessor is not presenting a balanced view (like not mentioning any good things about you). I have found an article to back this up here. We have lawyers in my partner's family and they reckon that to claim constructive dismissal you need deep pockets, though!

As I'm punctual like a Swiss clock, tidy and respectful, plus I haven't pilfered anything - at one company an employee was caught red-handed selling a company's laptop to a pawnshop, so it happens - there is only incapability. So out comes the red pen - unfortunately for this boss I am an experienced journalist, not a first-job graduate who can be easily crushed. To be exact I'm more experienced than my boss whom I suspect by now has insecurity issues. So basically I cannot take this hassle and I resign. My boss is livid to find out I'm going to work at the BBC or IPC (forgot which) the very next day my notice expires. Basically I go back to my old clients and life goes on. I pay a price because I have to postpone my mortgage application till I get another long-term contract but I get there eventually and buy my first house. I'm no stalker but I discreetly follow this person's career to see if there is any poetic justice in this world and there is, eventually. 

Horrible bosses don't care that when employees leave, they take knowledge away 
I have edited abstracts about knowledge management, which is about retaining staff. On a practical level, even if zero training is offered, an employee would have experience of processes, know how to get past the unhelpful 'I can't help you with that' attitude a colleague might put up and hear interesting things on the grapevine. For instance, if you hear that a colleague has a great lead but no time to follow it, you offer to do so and the company might get a new client, valuable exposure or get wind of something a competitor is doing. In the media industry there are several 'secret projects' going on relating to new magazine launches, and if an employee hears from a colleague that his/her mate is on a new secret project about XYZ, this is valuable competitor insight. 

Employees and contractors who work on confidential projects sign confidentiality clauses but somebody is obviously blabbing because things leak out. I'm no blabber, I have kept strict confidentiality agreements when working for clients. My hunch is that it's usually a disgruntled employee. A contractor wouldn't do that, if found out, they would never work again.

Racism in the workplace
Last but not least a word on racism. This is still happening despite laws and regulations - it can be subtle, like giving a nickname behind somebody's back or even asking insulting questions at interviews. A typical one for a foreigner is: "Do you dream in English or in your original language?" 

I have experienced some of that. I'm an easy target, after all I'm a 'foreigner stealing British jobs'. I think the worst experience I have ever had is when working for a charity. I set up an office, volunteered for months and when a paid job turned up, they offered it to an external applicant who was British. I raised a considerable amount of money for this charity. The person chosen was lovely and we got on well, but I felt robbed. I have seen dodgy behaviour in other charities I have volunteered for (ie an ethnic minority volunteer being ridiculed in front of everybody by a manager), this hasn't put me off serving a good cause but it's shameful considering that this is the voluntary sector. It's hard to be harassed when you are paid, but when you work for free it's adding insult to injury.