Category Archives: Activities

Introducing… The Two Hatties


Hello! It’s been a while, I know, but I thought I’d stop by and introduce you to my new project – a collaboration with Super Cook and Superwoman, Hattie Rhodes.

All year, we’ll be coming up with and testing family recipes that are easy, delicious, cheap, faff-free, fad-free… and happen to be free of pesky refined sugar too.

We’re realists (and lazy ones at that). We’re not aiming for 100% sugar free. But the plan is to avoid doing any cooking, at home, with refined sugar this year. Sure there’ll be treats when we’re out, birthday parties, milkshakes on the odd occasions we splurge on a restaurant meal. But at home, we think we *might* be able to do without it.

We’ll be sharing our recipes, and the honest responses they get from the kids, friends and family, .

In the meantime, here’s something we wrote yesterday for the Huffington Post…

My five year old son is many things. He is fighter of monsters who is sometimes afraid of the dark. He is a hater of “girly things” who is heartbreakingly tender with his sister. He is a fearless knight on horseback who sometimes needs his mum. He is a playground jedi. He is an admiral of bath-time sea battles. He is 22kg.

My son – an ordinary five year old boy, in other words. Twenty two kilogrammes – the average weight for his age. But they are something else too, my boy and his weight. According to research published this month by Public Health England, 22kg is what the sugar consumed annually by the average 4-10-year-old weighs. That’s 5,500 cubes. In a year, an ordinary five-year-old boy consumes his own body weight in sugar.

You can barely leave the house without a lecture on the evils of sugar these days. They are being intoned from parliament, worried over on blogs, dramatised on TV, scribbled in medical journals. And its greatest dangers are posed to kids, for whom the lure of lurid sweets and fluorescent fizzy drinks is stickily and overpoweringly irresistible: tooth decay, type two diabetes, obesity, heart disease and, more immediately, sugar-rush hysteria and sugar-slump huffs.

But… is cutting sugar from a child’s diet even possible? And if possible, is it, well… a bit hellish? Flicking through the sugar-free blogs and books it all looks terribly alluring and delicious in a grown-up sort of way. It also, though, appears to be designed for 20-something singles with disposable incomes and desires towards a “hot yoga bod”.

Sadly, I gave up all pretence of either of those years ago and my children, thankfully, are oblivious to both. We’re more into superheroes than superfoods. More Lego Chima and Green Lantern than chia seeds and green smoothies. I don’t have the time or the money to source cacao nibs or bee pollen, and the children would rather walk over hot coals than consume a thimbleful of kale.

My beautiful kids don’t need to diet to sign up to food fads and I, well… I’m moving into a phase of my life that involves a lot more ‘comfortable’ jumpers and acceptance. But 5,500 cubes isn’t what I want for my boy, or my two-year -old daughter right now. And tooth decay, diabetes and obesity aren’t the future I want for them either.

So I went to see my friend, Hattie Rhodes, stepmother of a 13-year-old and a professional cook who not only possesses a fantastic name (of course) but has also been living sugar-free for half a decade. She said that going sugar-free doesn’t have to involve signing up a new religion.

You don’t need to buy a new lifestyle, yoga pants, ingredients sourced from the foothills of the Himalaya or even a trendy blender. You can just make some simple, easy tweaks to your usual food, with easily accessible, cheap and naturally sweet ingredients like fruit, nuts, coconuts and sweet potatoes…

So, tentatively, we have decided to make some changes this year. 2016 will be a year of testing new recipes together. Here and on our instagram () we will sharing both those and the honest reaction they get from friends and family of all ages. No food fads, no faffing, no obscure ingredients. The kids promise that you will find “no yucky green flecks”. We promise you will never hear the word “nourish” or “glow”.

Just delicious, accessible food that all generations can get stuck into preparing and eating together. That happens to be sugar free. Oh, and ideally involves only a single mixing bowl or oven dish so very little washing up (you’ve got to dream, haven’t you?)

This week – apples…

BREAKFAST BERRY AND APPLE CRUMBLE (with crunchy granola topping)

Because there’s no better way to sweeten the ‘sugar-free’ deal than letting your kids eat pudding for breakfast…

Fruity bit:
300g mixed berries of choice
1 apple, peeled and diced

Crunchy bit:
3 tbsp butter
a handful of flaked almonds
a handful of porridge oats
2 tbsp ground almonds
6 tbsp flour

1) preheat the oven to 180C. In a saucepan, place the berries with a few tbsp of water and let them simmer until the mixture is thick and gooey. Then add the apple and cook until soft. Stir in your butter and pour into a heatproof dish

2) melt the butter for the crunchy bit in a pan and once liquid, stir in the dry ingredients. Spoon over the fruity mixture and bake in the oven until warmed through and the topping is starting to get golden (this can be prepared in advance and kept in the fridge until ready to warm through and serve).

3) grab a spoon and dig in!


50g spelt flour
50g softened butter
30g birch sugar*
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
50g apple, chopped into small chunks
1/2 tsp cinnamon

1: preheat oven to 200C

2: beat the sweetener into the butter until combined. Add the remaining ingredients and let sit for 10 mins

3: pour batter into some silicon cupcake or muffin moulds (should make about 6 small portions)

4: bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 mins until lightly risen and golden. Cool on a wire rack and devour!

*We know it sounds poncy (and a little scary) but birch sugar, or xylitol, is actually available from most supermarkets and every high street Holland and Barrett so its the only slightly unusual ingredient we’ve allowed to sneak its way in. Its great stuff, in small amounts. It doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar levels and can be substituted 1:1 for normal sugar.


Ever. No really. Every member of the family will have seconds. And it’s all in one pot, so minimal washing up.

6 sausages
2 baking potatoes
2 cooking apples
4 cloves garlic
200 ml chicken stock

Pre-heat the oven to 200. Peel the spuds and chop them into bite sized chunks. In an oven proof dish, add a glug of olive oil and place on the hob. Add the potatoes, stirring occasionally, to brown them.

Remove from the hob, add the sausages, peeled whole garlic cloves and apples (chopped but not peeled). Shake to cover everything in olive oil. Season. Pour over the chicken stock, so that it half covers the contents. Then stick it all in the oven for around 50 minutes or till everything is a lovely, sticky, golden hue.



Free online activities for younger kids


Okay, so there is a lot of free content out on the internet that is available for both kids and adults, but much of it isn’t as ‘free’ as it might appear. Many apps are great fun for a few minutes worth of distraction but soon require in-app purchases in order to continue. Even some well-respected sites are full of advertising that can lead younger ones off in the wrong direction, unless they are being supervised. Good online activities should be fun, engaging and even promote education and you don’t have to pay for them, if you know where to look. Here’s some examples of the sort of thing kids will like and that parents can be confident in.

Marvellous Marvel

Much-loved by younger children, Marvel’s characters include Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. Fortunately, Marvel Kids produce age appropriate content for free on their website. This includes the sort of platform and ladder type games that younger children seem to pick up so instinctively and which can be played on a tablet or a PC. And if you don’t fancy your kids spending too much time in front of the screen, there are mazes, word searches and even sodokus that children can complete, helping to promote more educational activities whilst still inhabiting the make-believe world of super-heroes.

Jump to Jumpstart is a good resource for finding activities for kids according to their age. An American site, it lists some of these according to the US grade system, but parents can also easily navigate by looking for activities suited to four-year-olds, for example. As well as games, the site features holiday activities and worksheets. The worksheets range from simple colouring in type activities to science and maths ones. You can even find worksheets that encourage critical thinking and social studies, covering subjects like Polar exploration and ecology in depth.

Learning to Read

Younger children who are learning to read can find many opportunities to access stories and non-fiction online, but not all sites are specifically geared towards phonics learning. In many cases, those site that are genuine phonics resources only offer temporary access to their content during a free trial period. Fortunately, Starfall, a registered charity, offers free reading material that is phonics-based, mirroring the sort of reading done at school, and which can be accessed in a helpful way for a variety of reading skills. There is some content that parents need to pay for, primarily aimed at home educators, but there are plenty of online books kids can browse through and read without needing any expenditure at all. Another good site to head to for phonics material is which allows parents to download PDFs. It also has a handy instructional guide to help adults get the best results from the activities, when they are assisting children with their learning.

If Free our Kids made libraries…

They would probably look like this:


Actually, we do, and it does. As of Saturday, we have a little box attached to our front garden wall, with a perspex window and a clasp to one side, so passing strangers can stop, open it, browse the books inside and take them home for free if they fancy.

My father in law built it, after we were inspired by the Little Free Library movement. They were swamped by requests for libraries, so we decided to make our own.

We have so many books in this house. Lots, we’re over-sentimentally attached to and couldn’t part with. But others, especially kids books, we should really declutter. And we thought, too, that it would be kind of nice to teach Johnny that there’s a thrill attached to passing nice things on, as well as receiving mountains of lurid, superhero branded plastic.


So we did. We put the library up in the morning, chose some books that J doesn’t read anymore, dropped them into the library and then waited for our first customers. I’ll admit I had my doubts. On the urban thoroughfare on which we live, I could see it being used as a deposit box for fried chicken boxes and beer cans, or worse: a public urinal.

It didn’t take long to find out. Within two hours, our supply of books was gone and there were, as yet, no take-aways or tins. But the best was still to come.

On the front of our library, we’d invited people to take a book for free, but also to replace the stock with their own unwanted books if possible. And the next day,  a mystery pile of books appeared inside. Those were gone by the end of Sunday but on Monday, a new pile arrived. It’s been going on like that for a few days.

We don’t know who are mystery users are, and neither do we know our undercover donors. But there’s something really exciting about people giving anonymously like that, without any personal glory or recognition. Plus, four days in and all our donations have been of the literary rather than litter-y kind.

AND, my kids now watch the window for potential customers instead of the TV. So, everyone is winning.

Oh and, yes, the library is a former wine box. Champagne socialist, moi?


The ultimate parenting hack: let’s play housework

I think I may be a little late to this party. But it’s transformed my life to the extent that I can’t NOT write about it, even at the risk of it being yawnably obvious to you all.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the ultimate, free activity for kids: doing the housework.

In fact, it’s better than free. For the hideously lucky among you who actually employ a cleaner it may be money saving.

I’m going to file this in my ‘so simple it’s genius’ folder, alongside my ‘how to go birdwatching’ post and ‘how to have a simple birthday party’ post. Because basically what you do is this:

1)   Assemble your kit: dustpan and brush, big brush, window cleaning spray, sponge (Mr Muscle and cloth if you’re confident your infant prodigy will not spray himself in the eyes, necessitating a trip to A&E that would be even more loathsome than the original chore)

2)   Tell your child they have an IMMENSELY GROWN UP responsibility, but they have only ONE CHANCE to get this right and show how mature they are otherwise they will lose this FANTASTIC PRIVELEGE altogether

3)   Let them clean the house while you sit. Somewhere. Anywhere.

I don’t know why I didn’t attempt this sooner. I’m constantly reading blog posts in which parents extol the virtues of their little darlings being involved in household chores, detailing just how much Petunia adores laying the table and little Cinderella loves darning the household’s socks etc etc.

It never occurred to me that it was doable in my house, where there is literally nothing, not a square centimetre, to which I could attach the phrase ‘sparkling clean’; the kids’ don’t own vintage pinnies in which they could look simultaneously cute and contributive; and mess seems to mount counterattacks if you are ever foolish enough to challenge it and therefore generally is in the ascendant.

Also, more generally: if I feel murderous when presented with a mop, why would the kids feel any differently? AND YET THEY DO!

Because a couple of weeks ago, J asked me  – ASKED ME – if he could sweep the baby’s sticky, smeared lunch from under the high chair. It was like being hit across the head with a meteor. I mutely handed over the dustpan and brush and watched him sweep, meticulously, before walking over to the bin, tipping the contents in, and hanging up the brush.

Since then, I have offered to let him:

Sweep the kitchen floor: tick.

Clean the windows: tick

Do a bit of dusting: tick

Lay the table: tick

Ok, he doesn’t always make a perfect job of it, but hell, neither do I. It keeps him happily and relatively quietly occupied. I’m certain a little dose of gender-equality-medicine is good for him, since up to now he’s stubbornly referred to Mummy’s kitchen while the lawnmower remains Daddy’s. He likes a real task, seeming to find genuine satisfaction in something that’s not a game manufactured for children and I haven’t had to give him any other than my visible amazement, the odd digestive biscuit and a bit of positive reinforcement.

So until I get a Karcher Steam Cleaner, I am officially signing myself off from cleaning duties. (Does anyone have one of these contraptions? They look like so space age, like something from The Jetsons (tell me you remember The Jetsons?). I’m up for cleaning if all you have to do is wave a wand over the mess in a vague manner and -poof – it’s gone. Also, if I can look like a futuristic magician in the process.)

What other household jobs can four year olds be expected to do and enjoy, do you think?

[This is a collaborative post.]

The budget birthday party (or: how my home transformed into a tacky-tastic Octonaut tribute)


Somebody get me one of those t-shirts, the ones that say: “I had a fourth birthday party IN MY OWN HOME  and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” Or simply: “SURVIVOR” emblazoned over my chest. Because… we did it. And, whisper it, it wasn’t at all difficult. Or scary. Or ruinous.

Sure we were a bit tired after. And the house was a bit of a mess. But it took a couple of hours to clear everything away and after that, there was no sign of it. Nothing to suggest that, a short while ago, twenty four-year-olds had rampaged round the house, inhaling cake, mauling a giant cardboard robot and dancing in a hail of ripped up wrapping paper.

If anything it was a bit cleaner than before, since we’d been forced to have one of our extremely rare ‘proper spring cleans’, leaving me to think that maybe we should commit to having kids parties in the house at regular intervals simply from a health and hygiene perspective.


Here’s how it went down…

The night before, we kicked Johnny out to have a sleep over at his friend’s house. Then, two friends arrived on a promise of wine and food in exchange for help creating an Octonaut-themed paradise out of a few balloons, some old paper plates and tissue paper.

By midnight, and several bottles later, we had pushed the furniture to the edges, carried a lot of the clutter upstairs and created the following:

-       An extremely wonky chocolate cake, covered in blue icing, with a ‘coral reef’ covering of smarties and several plastic Octonauts dug out of the toy box and propped up on top. The wonkiness, we passed off as waves. It worked brilliantly, but only because four year olds don’t know that there aren’t waves at the bottom of the sea.

-       A ‘pin the patch on Kwazi’ game, composed of: a laminated print out of Kwazi’s face stuck to an art easel, several laminated eye patches with blue tac stuck to the back of them, and Tom’s handkerchief to tie round small heads and render them temporarily blind while an eyepatch was put in their hand and they tried to stick it in the right place on Kwazi’s face. This was a real winner. Less so for the hungover parents being spun around rather over-zealously by their offspring…


-       Octonaut ‘treasure’ (laminated printouts of various octonaut symbols), hidden round the garden as a treasure hunt for the kids (and then rehidden and rehidden as they handed them in… Got to make them run off that sugar…), found online for free, here, here, and here

-       An Octonaut birthday banner, found online as a free download, here

-       Octonaut posters and table decorations, found online as a free download, here

-       A kelp forest for the kids to walk through (read, ‘scrunched up, long strands of blue and green tissue paper tied to a piece of string across the sitting room)

-       Jelly fish hanging from the ceiling (read, ‘more blue and green tissue paper hanging from paper plates’)


-       Twenty gingerbread men and twenty little tubes of icing with which the kids could decorate them (bought from Iceland on the extremely cheap)

-       Jam sandwiches, hoola hoops, carrot sticks, cheese sandwiches, sweets (and tea for the adults) Because, really, why get them anything smarter when all they really want is sugar and the opportunity to run it off (see treasure hunt, above)

-       A pass the parcel with some stickers from the pound shop

-       Party bags (paper bags, yet another free downloadable octonaut symbol printed out onto white stickers and slapped on the front… inside: some Octonaut colouring sheets and puzzles – free to print out from here)

And, the piece de resistance, my afor-mentioned friend, Ellie, inside this cardboard robot, made by a friend of mine as a Halloween costume and borrowed for the occasion. We played ‘Simon says’ but using ‘Robot says’ instead. The kids loved it. There was a rugby scrum over who could hug the robot/maul the robot/push the robot over. I think we may have put Ellie off the idea of ever having babies.


In all it cost us £60, a lot of energy and a bit of a hangover (the side effect of bribing friends with wine the night before). We gained: 20 happy kids, one over-the-moon birthday boy and, unexpectedly, a slightly cleaner home full of totally wonderful happy memories. A win, I think.