Sunday 31 January 2010

Splat Cooking Bunny Hutch - Mini Gingerbread House Kit

8-year-old Sophie and 4-year-old Juliette both adore cooking and luckily so do I, so we often while away a wet Sunday afternoon turning the kitchen into a flour-covered disaster area ! I was therefore really excited when asked to test one of the gingerbread kits from Splat cooking. We often make a Hansel-and-Gretel-style gingerbread house at Christmas-time but I love the fact that Splat offer a wide range of kits that can be used at other times of year. We got the Easter-themed bunny hutch.

As they say on the website, "Available to order from January 2010. This is a DIY Gingerbread House Kit which makes a really cute little bunny Hutch which measures approx 10cm high x 11cm long x 8 cm wide, with two different options for the hutch, either a Swiss Chalet style hutch or a proper rabbit hutch type hutch." The "small print" (it's not small, you can't miss it ! ) that you need to notice is : "Please note this kit does NOT contain ready-made gingerbread, just the recipe and template which you have to cut out, also it does NOT contain the green food colouring or the black foodwriter pen to mark the Bunny's eyes and whiskers, it's up to you if you would like to add these on, they can be purchased from local shops and supermarkets." If you look around the rest of the Splat Cooking website, you'll find loads of other things you'll want to add and some of the prices are very reasonable - I noticed lots of cute cookie cutters for less than 50p each so I highly recommend a thorough look around the shop before placing an order.

When you unpack the kit, this is what you get :

Gingerbread House template - ready for you to cut out
Gingerbread recipe
Silver Cardboard Disc
100g Royal Icing Mix
2 x Icing Easter Eggs
2 x Icing Characters, eg, rabbit, chick, nest with eggs, etc
5 x Chocolate Mini Eggs
1 x Packet of flower shapes
100g White Sugarpaste
1 x Small Packet of White Hologram Glitter
Disposable Piping Bag
Pieces of Cellowrap and Ribbon to finish your house off professionally

I felt I could have done without the cellophane and ribbon, which ended up being thrown away, going against my eco-friendly minimum-waste values, but it is environmentally-friendly biodegradable cellowrap, in keeping with the company's green ethics and focus on recycling. It does give you the possibility of wrapping the finished kit in a pretty package to give to a granny or auntie as a special homemade gift. But let's face it, if the kids are doing most of the work, you won't get a "professional" look however hard you try or however much cellophane you use ! I found this also slightly went against the very kid-friendly cooking instructions, which I loved. First instruction : "wash your hands" ! A bit further down, "Break the egg into a small bowl. Remove all the bits of shell" ! It's great for kids to feel that their "mistakes" are quite normal and par for the course and increases their confidence no end. Sophie was very proud of the fact that she only got two bits of shell in the bowl !

The gingerbread recipe is easy to follow and made a mild, not overly "hot" gingerbread that both the girls liked. Definitely an improvement on the last lot of ginger biscuits that we made following my dear old nan's recipe and that neither of them liked "because it set their mouths on fire" ! I didn't have all of the ingredients listed ... or rather, I did, but the brown sugar had gone into huge lumps and the golden syrup had set rock hard ! So we replaced half of the golden syrup by runny honey and used a sieve to crush and get rid of lumps from the brown sugar. But it all came out fine ! The girls loved the "making do" mentality of it not having to be perfect and got stuck in, mixing and kneading with their fingers.

As the cooking instructions suggested we would, we had enough cookie dough to make the required pieces for the hutch and also about 20 ginger cookies, so the girls got out their animal cookie cutters and had a blast. The only bad thing was the extra washing up this generated ! At this point, with the last batch of cookies in the oven, baby brother Pierre woke up and wanted feeding so we had to put the bunny hutch to one side until the next day.

Next day, as soon as Sunday lunch was eaten and tidied away, both girls immediately asked if we could decorate the hutch. They absolutely loved all the edible decorations, funky edible glitter and mini eggs, as well as the sugar paste, which I split in two so they could make one rabbit each. I gave them three silver balls each, from my kitchen cupboards, to make eyes and noses on the rabbits and I think it would be good for these to be included in the kits.

The royal icing was a bit of a pain ! It was incredibly gooey and stuck like glue to the paper piping bag and my fingers, but didn't always want to stick to the gingerbread ! The quantity of icing was too much for the size of the piping bag so it all splurged everywhere when I squeezed the top ! Also, the girls were too impatient to wait for the recommended hour for the icing to dry on the main hutch structure before adding all the decorations so I was a bit worried the whole thing was going to fall apart !

But as you can see from the finished result, it didn't - they did a great job !

I must admit that it works out quite expensive for what it is, especially as you have to add in the cost of the ingredients for the gingerbread, but the girls did really enjoy making it and we got two half days of entertainment out of it. When I asked them what they thought I should write for the review, Juliette said "it's really pretty" and Sophie said "it's great fun to make and it looks very yummy". They said I should definitely give it 5/5 but as the mummy, counting in the value-for-money aspect, I've been mean and deducted one point! For a special occasion (Easter, Christmas, ...) or to keep the kids occupied during the holidays, it's a great kid-friendly project.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £11.50

for more information and to buy online :

Thursday 28 January 2010

Breast Vest breastfeeding vest top

Well it's been a while since I've talked about breastfeeding in a review but here we are, six months on, and Pierre is still on the boob-juice, even if he has also progressed on to his first fruit and vegetable purees. The early days, back in the summer, posed absolutely no problem on the clothes front - little strappy vest tops that you can just pull down are great for breastfeeding on the move. But now it's way more complicated. Not only is it too cold to flash your flesh and lift up your top for a feed, in this colder weather you end up wearing more layers so trying to get through layers of jumpers, Tshirts and nursing bras at feed-time is a real pain. To make it easier (and warmer !), I end up permanently wearing button-up cardigans and zip-up hoodies so that I can feed relatively easily and quickly as well as staying covered up so I don't freeze to death.

Well, this new breastfeeding garment, named The Breast Vest, is one of those things that has so obviously been made by "someone who knows". I'd bet money on the fact that this has been designed by a breastfeeding mum. (Just checked on the website, I'm right ! ) It may look strange to non-breastfeeders and is admittedly not much more fashionable than the Borat-style lime green man-kini, but it is so practical.

It's basically a vest top that only goes up as far as your bra. You can do exactly the same thing by wearing a dirt-cheap vest top under your jumper and pulling it down so it sits under your boobs during a feed ! (If you do this with your favourite tops, you'll totally wreck them, hence the dirt-cheap option.) I have done this myself, but the material inevitably cuts in and chafes a bit and you end up with a cleavage worthy of Pamela Anderson crossed with a Wonderbra ad which may go down well with the menfolk but isn't very easy for poor Pierre to latch on to ! The Breast Vest is actually designed for the job so you really gain in comfort.

It also means that you can wear what you like, knowing that you won't have to fight through extra layers of clothes at feed-time. If you have a button/zip-up top half, it's a piece of cake - you're straight through to the bra and can feed or express your milk (if you've gone back to work by now) quickly and discreetly. You don't get the roll of fabric in baby's way either, that you inevitably get with hitched up Tshirts, so if you love skin-to-skin contact, you'll be in your element. Alternatively, you can wear it as an extra layer under your normal clothes so that when you hitch them up out of the way for a feed, your bottom half stays covered and you don't flash your flesh in public !

As I mentioned earlier, it's great for keeping your tummy area warm during feeds but - and I'm sure all new mums will agree with me on this one ! - it's also a fabulous way of hiding any unsightly bulges when you sit down for a feed if you haven't shifted all your pregnancy weight yet (and let's face it, if you're not an A-list celeb, you probably haven't !). It could also be a good thing to wear in the early weeks of pregnancy when your boobs are likely to be very tender and wearing clingy tops is uncomfortable. It's also a great solution to those annoying tops - even the maternity ones - that always ride up too high and expose your baby bulge during the later months of pregnancy.

Admittedly, you won't really get much use out of it after you've stopped breastfeeding, but maybe you could buy yourself some nipple tassels and resurrect it as a burlesque dancer's outfit (for hubby's eyes only) !!

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £15

for more information :

Available in six colours: black, white, cream, grey, royal blue and hot pink, breastvest comes in XS, S, M, L and XL sizes.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Kingsmill Oatilicious

You can't beat the smell and the taste of freshly baked bread, and, since buying a bread-maker a couple of years ago, I hardly ever buy bread from the shops any more. Especially here in France, where the baguette you bought in the morning will be so hard it could be classed as a lethal weapon by evening ! However, sometimes, you just need shop-bought finely sliced bread to get what you want ... a bacon sandwich with homemade bread just somehow doesn't hit the spot !

Well, if you like the taste and health benefits of wholegrain bread but you (or more likely your children) don't like the "bitty" texture, Kingsmill's newest addition could be just the answer because it combines the nutritional advantages of wholegrain oats and wheat flour with a totally smooth texture comparable to white bread. Big smiles all round - Mum's happy because of the extra roughage and the kids won't be turning their nose up at their packed lunches any more !

Unlike lots of brown or wholewheat breads I've tried in the past, this bread isn't all hard and scratchy when you eat it, and it doesn't have the stale look and feel that some brown loaves have. It actually reminds me vaguely of the bread we used to have when I was a kid called Mighty White (although I seem to remember that did have "bits" in it). Oatilicious is classed as "healthier white" bread so it's a good compromise that should keep everyone in the family happy.

The added oats offer a whole host of health benefits. The Kingsmill website explains that "oats contain fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidents and phytonutrients, but oats are probably best known as a source of soluble fibre". Even more impressive is the fact that "oats are a good source of beta glucans, a soluble fibre that can actually help to lower cholesterol levels". Not sure that would work if I use it to make that bacon sandwich I was talking about though !!

If one of your New Year's Resolutions this year was to start eating more healthily or to try to get in shape, trading in your usual white loaf for the equally soft and great-tastings new Kingsmill bread could be one easy way to get on track. Go on, get your oats - you know you want to !!

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £1.39

Sensilube Intimate Moisturising Gel

Since going back to work just before Christmas, I haven't had much time to get online so I've barely been on Twitter at all for the past few weeks. However, I did manage to have a quick "tweeting" session the other day and couldn't help laughing to myself at a few shocked Mummy Bloggers who were slightly offended by a press release they'd been sent. I was intrigued but worked out that they'd received the same press release as me for a new product from Durex called Sensilube.

Although it's not a product I'm particularly interested in, I didn't find anything shocking or offensive about the press release or the product itself. As this is a Family Reviews website, I guess making babies is part and parcel of that so I'd better get reviewing ! It can't be any less glamorous than some of my other reviews anyway (Femfresh, Tena, washable breastpads and headlice treatments spring to mind !).

The PR people know they'll have a tough job promoting this one ! They say "It's designed to relieve vaginal dryness. I know the topic seems a little up-front and somewhat embarrassing to some people but it is a condition that we are trying to normalise to be as routine as moisturising your legs or applying make-up." A noble sentiment but I can't see girlies discussing it or asking each other to try out their different products in the toilets on a night out somehow !

On to the product itself, if you're a coconut cream-flavoured massage oil, glow-in-the-dark condom or self-warming lubricant kinda-girl, it probably isn't for you. (Mum and Dad, if you're reading this ... I don't even know what they are, I just found out about them while researching this review, honest !! Even if I have got three kids !!). The key word here is discretion. The website says that it "has been designed with a unique texture that unlike other gel lubricants closely resembles your body’s natural moisture. Sensilube is also aligned with your body’s natural pH, and immediately adapts to your body’s natural temperature when applied." It's also said to be totally colourless, odourless, gynaecologically tested, dermatologically tested, suitable for women of all ages and safe to use with condoms". I had a little snigger (another one !) reading that last point because the product is being targetted at pregnant women, who presumably wouldn't want to use it with condoms ! ... but the website mentions that 44% of menopausal women suffer from intimate dryness too, so it's probably a good thing.

I'm slightly confused about the press release promoting a "new product from Durex" and the website telling us "millions of women have been relying on Sensilube for more than 15 years" but Durex is such a well-known and trusted company that the product is presumably of a very high quality and totally safe, however long it's been available. If you want to find out for yourselves, you can request a free sample on their website ... then cross your fingers that it doesn't come in an envelope with a huge Durex logo all over it so that the postman gives you a cheeky wink when he delivers the mail !!

Another thing to be careful about - the product comes in a little plastic squeezy bottle that looks exactly like Mike's contact lens drops bottle. Could be highly embarrassing if you accidentally pull out the wrong bottle when you take your contact lenses out in public !!

RRP : £5.89 for 40ml

Monday 25 January 2010

24 Hours London - Marsha Moore

I've been to London loads of times and have even guided groups of camera-clicking foreign language students and French schoolkids around the main tourist sites several times, so I wasn't really expecting to learn anything particularly new or different in this London guide. Well, how wrong could I be ? Marsha Moore uncovers little known gems way off the tourist track that even most of the locals probably don't know about.

Who would have imagined the existence of the London Necropolis Railway or the Cafe in the Crypt at St Martin in the Fields Church ? Who would have thought of visiting the Victorian Pet Cemetery in Hyde Park or the Old Operating Theatre Museum ? Who would have dreamed of having a caviar hair mask or a gold-leaf waxing ? Other amazing discoveries that only those with inside knowledge could possibly know about are an Oxfam store that specialises in second-hand designer labels and the number of the bus route that will give you a great view of the main monuments at a fraction of the cost of the tourist tourbuses (number eleven, in case you were wondering !).

The gimmick that has turned into the major selling-point of this guide is its structure, with the excursions divided into hour-by-hour slots throughout the day, as opposed to the usual classification by geographical location or theme. Despite its compact size, it's packed full of interesting and often surprising ideas for things to do in London, although, since each idea is condensed into one short paragraph, you'll have to go to the websites indicated to look up all the important information like opening times and admission prices yourself. I was also slightly disappointed to begin with at the total lack of photographs ,but to include them would have more than doubled the number of pages, due to the sheer number of ideas presented.

I love the one-page, at-a-view lists of themed activities, such as "24 hours with the family", "24 hours of romance" or "24 hours of luxury", which provide a quick way of finding activities suited to your needs without trawling through the whole book. Sitting down and reading through the descriptions is half the fun though, and even armchair-travellers who have no intention of ever setting foot inside the city will still spend a few enjoyable hours being virtual tourists.

Tourism and travel aside, the book is also full of fascinating nuggets of information. Before looking through the guide, I never knew, for example, that the expression "in the clink" came from the Clink Prison.

However well you know the city, sit down with a highlighter pen and I guarantee you'll be marking things to see and do that have tickled your fancy. Just don't expect to manage to fit them all in one 24-hour period though because you'll end up with a long list !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £9.99

Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: Prospera Publishing; 1st edition (4 Nov 2009)
ISBN-10: 0956122299
ISBN-13: 978-0956122292

for more information :

Sunday 24 January 2010

Sleepy Wrap

I'm a huge fan of babywearing and have used a baby carrier with all of my babies. It's so much easier for public transport or busy shops when pushchairs and prams would get in the way. It frees up your hands so that you can carry shopping bags, hold elder kids' hands to cross the road and get on with running errands. If it's cold, it keeps baby - and you - warm by sharing body heat. A babycarrier takes up much less space in the luggage when you're travelling. Baby is up out of the way of ground level car exhaust fumes and as he's at your face level, you can talk to him non stop and take advantage of all those gorgeous baby smiles that you'd miss if he was in a pram or pushchair. Hearing your heartbeat and feeling your movement will remind him of being in the womb and keep him calmer and happier. You can breastfeed on the move and totally discreetly. The list of advantages is endless.

When I bought my baby carrier back when Sophie was a baby (almost nine years ago), I opted for a structured, semi-rigid baby carrier because basically, that's all that existed back then. For anyone coming to babycarrying now, the choice is huge - and totally confusing because there are almost too many different types to choose from. Slings, pouches, mei-tais, wraps, ring slings, soft structured carriers ... stop already, where to begin ?!

I actually really liked the idea of a wraparound sling because it seemed to be getting back to basics and using traditional methods that have existed for centuries. How's that for some serious roadtesting ? Like other traditional methods, such as using cloth nappies, breastfeeding and even swaddling, many people seem to be agreeing now that our grandmothers had it right all along. I was totally stressed out about messing up the knots and having baby fall out though (in which case it would be totally my fault) so I stuck with my rigid carrier. Then a friend, who had recently become a babywearing consultant, told me that that wasn't the best option - mum and baby get back ache, it pulls apart babies legs too wide and puts pressure in the wrong places so it could cause hip problems and - now that I had a boy baby - I really should be worried about crushing his extra bits ! So I rose to the challenge and decided to try out a sleepywrap.

When it arrives, it's just a very long strip of material and my first thought was that it was going to be really difficult to master. I studied the little instruction booklet and decided to try the basic tying method - there are several different ways to tie the wrap depending on baby's age and how you want to position him/her. Following the instructions, I found the logo that marks the centre of the material, placed it at belly-button position, took it around my back, crossed over on my back and over each shoulder, both ends back down throgh the front part, wrapped around my tummy, and tied in a simple knot. Depending on the length of the ends, you can take it back around your back and tie it there, or come back round the front again and tie it at the front. My mum laughed and said I looked like a mummy but I was impressed at how easy it was. I also love the way that it really is one-size-fits-all and can be used by anyone, whatever shape or size - mum and dad can use the same one, you won't have to change sizes as your post-pregnancy shape changes or as baby gets bigger so it's great value.

The instructions with photos are really easy to follow but once the wrap was tied, I couldn't work out where to slot baby in ! It would be really useful to have one extra photo to show how to position baby. But youtube to the rescue - there are hundreds of videos on there showing you exactly how to tie it and use it so if you need extra guidance or reassurance, that's the place to go. Once you know how, it's also really easy. I grab both sides at boob level, pull them to the sides to the "wrong" sides of my boobs and the leg holes magically appear !

The first few times you use the wrap, you'll probably tie it either slightly too loose or slightly too tight but after a few tries, you'll get a feel for exactly how tight you want it. What amazed me is that, once baby is in the wrap, you can't feel it at all. With my old baby carrier, even if it wasn't painful, I could feel the weight tugging on my shoulders and I eventually always ended up with slight backache. Well, it's really weird but with the wrap, you can't feel any pressure points anywhere so it's so much more comfortable.

The disadvantage is that you need a little help to get it on. After just a few tries, I can now tie it myself in seconds, without even looking at the instructions, but I do need a little help to pass it over my shoulders (being careful not to trip over the ends that are pooling around my feet !) and above all, to safely slot baby inside. I know the people on youtube manage to do it all by themselves with one hand tied behind their back but I don't feel confident enough to do that yet. The other problem is, the ends drag on the floor when you're tying it so if it's rainy or muddy, it would be almost impossible to put on outside. If we're heading out in the car, I tie the wrap on without baby so that it's ready when we arrive and it stays on all day until we get back home, even when I'm not carrying baby, so that I don't have to keep retying it. Make sure you don't have a thick sweatshirt or coat on underneath or you'll be stuck wearing it for ages !

The advantages far outweigh these problems though. I absolutely love the fact that baby's feet and legs are up and covered by the wrap. With my old style baby carrier, baby's legs hang down and dangle around the fronts of your thighs. As baby gets bigger, this poses a problem when you're trying to climb upstairs or sit down - you have to open your legs wide (very unladylike !!) and lean forward so baby's legs are dangling between yours, back ache guaranteed. With the sleepywrap, I could sit down totally normally and his legs weren't in the way at all - we ate at McDonalds with him still in the wrap and - sorry if this is too much information ! - I could even go to the toilet without taking him out of the wrap. So more spending hours walking around the shops with my legs crossed like before !

Pierre (like the girls before him) always managed to nod off in the baby carrier but he'd be micro-napping, constantly waking up every few minutes and falling back to sleep. With the wrap, because he's all snuggled up, nice and warm and slightly in the dark if you pull the front bit up over his head (really handy if it's raining, windy or particularly cold - I never liked the fact that baby's arms and legs are exposed with the old baby carrier), Pierre will sleep for ages in a deep sleep then pop his head up, looking all sleepy and refreshed and crack a huge grin. So he definitely loves it ! And happy baby = happy mum !

star rating : 4.5/5 (5/5 once on !)

RRP : $39.95 for a classic sleepy wrap, $59.95 for an organic wrap (which I tested)

for more information :

They ship worldwide and, despite coming from America, it arrived really quickly. You also have the option of paying by paypal which is great.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Thomas & Friends new series on Milkshake

The lovely Sara from the Thomas & Friends Press Office (which sounds like a brilliant place to work !) kindly sent us through a DVD so we could watch a sneak peek of the first three episodes of the new Thomas and Friends series, which is due to air on Milkshake from 25th January 2010 (in other words this Monday).

I must be well old because I still say "Thomas the Tank Engine" and the girls both go "that's not right, it's Thomas and friends" ! That's not the only change either, since the early days. I was amazed to see Thomas is celebrating his 65th birthday this year so it must have been time for him to be a bit modernised ! Thomas and Friends has gone high tech and this series is the first one to have been made totally with computer-generated imagery and a voice cast, rather than the live-action models and single narrator of the "olden days" ! It's brought it right up to date and made it much more appealing to the new generation of viewers who are used to all sorts of technological wizardry being the norm ... although, having said that, the girls also discovered Bod recently and were transfixed by that too, so the oldies are goodies too ! It's great for all the different trains to talk with different voices now, although I do miss Ringo Starr's Scouse accent doing all the narrating !

Each episode lasts for fifteen minutes, which I initially thought would be a bit long, but the girls both sat down and watched through all three episodes without getting bored. They started off saying it would be good for little brother Pierre when he's older, because it's a programme for boys, but they still found the stories interesting and they deal with universal issues like teasing so it's girl-friendly too ! I smiled to myself at the story of James and his pink undercoat, wondering if that was a reaction to the whole "pink stinks!" debate that kicked off a while ago !

It's great to see characters talking with real language, not the made-up baby-words that seem to be a compulsory part of many modern kids' TV shows, and the values and morals are as positive and wholesome as you would expect from a classic kids' show.

If you've got a mini trainspotter-in-the-making, or if you're just intrigued to see how they've given Thomas a computer-aided makeover, tune in to Milkshake at 8.25am on Monday for the start of series 13.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Johnson's Baby

Sometimes, a brand is so well known and has been accepted by the public for so many generations that it's name becomes synonymous with the product they manufacture - for example, Hoover for vacuum cleaners or Coke for cola based drinks. Similarly, some brands immediately spring to mind at the mere mention of a type of product and for me - and I am surely not alone - Johnson's is the name that I immediately associate with baby oil or tears-free baby shampoo.

They probably have been slightly tweaked and modernised from time to time but the bottles look exactly the way I remember them from when I was small ! They probably even looked pretty much the same when my parents were kids or even possibly my grandparents as the packaging mentions "The original Johnson's Baby softness trusted by mums for over 100 years". It has certainly stood the test of time and continues to be a market leader, even with all the modern natural/organic/luxury/budget ranges that have been introduced over the years. A friend of mine with a young son asked me if it didn't annoy me that the bottles were pink and wouldn't it be better if they had a more unisex colour ? I must admit, the thought hadn't even crossed my mind but I had two girls before Pierre so maybe I'm immune to all things pink and girly !

The products are so well known that I hardly need to tell you what they're like ! The soft cream really is soft and sinks into baby's skin leaving it lovely and smooth and soft with no greasiness at all. It's gentle enough to be used all over the entire body - I even use it on Pierre's face when his skin looks dry - and it comes in such a big tube that I have absolutely no qualms about borrowing it for myself as well ! The smell is so reminiscent of babies, it's the olfactory version of snuggling up in a big soft towel that's been lovingly warmed on the radiator while you have a bath - perfect for destressing and feeling snuggly at the end of a long day.

I have to admit that until I had both bottles at hand to scrutinise, I could never see any difference between the baby cream and the baby lotion. I use them interchangeably for moisturising baby's (and my own ! ) skin and I just assumed that the only difference was that the cream had a very slightly thicker texture. However, after carefully reading the labels, I noticed that the lotion says : "Apply directly on to skin to perfectly moisturise or apply on cotton wool to effectively remove oily substances that water alone cannot".

I've just had one of those lightbulb-above-the-head moments ! I've always disliked baby oil because it leaves such a greasy residue, even if it does work really well for treating severely dehydrated skin and for removing cradle cap. Next time I use it, I'll be sure to try removing the oily residue with the baby lotion as suggested.

Speaking of baby oil, it's always difficult to squirt out a small amount without making a big mess so I was very impressed with Johnson's baby oil gel. The product can be used in exactly the same way as normal baby oil and has the same properties but it's not so runny and is much easier to handle. A marked improvement when you have a wriggly - not to mention slippery, if you've been using baby oil - baby to keep hold of !

I'm sure I'm preaching to the converted but if you've never tried Johnson's Baby Soft products, I highly recommend them. It sounds like an advertising slogan but if they've been around for over 100 years, generations of mothers surely can't be wrong !

star rating : 5/5

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Bottlegreen Fruit Cordials and Sparkling Drinks

Over Christmas and New Year, 8-year-old Sophie was swanning around, feeling very grown-up while drinking Bottle Green Party in a grown-up glass, which you'll already know if you've read my review here. Despite the Party drink being aimed specifically at teenagers, I really liked it too so I was keen to try out the other Bottle Green drinks on offer.

First of all, I decided to try the other sparkling juice drinks, which come in a choice of white grape or red grape. I liked both but Sophie only liked the white one, claiming that the red one looked and smelt like her Papy (French grandad)'s wine ! They both reminded me of the Shloer drinks I had previously sampled and enjoyed - they have the same light, crisp, refreshing, naturally fruity flavour, but seem to me less syrupy and overly sweet than Shloer. Despite the names that suggest that the drinks only contain grape juice, the drinks are actually subtly blended combinations of fruity flavours. The red grape juice drink contains " a hint of sweet juicy strawberry to counterbalance a tart cherry undertone" and the white grape version incorporates "subtle notes of delicate elderflower and ripe melon". I could never have told you that if I hadn't looked on the website though, so I obviously need to sign up for some winetasting lessons !

That's not as flippant as it sounds actually, as Bottle Green non-alcoholic grape-based drinks do have a lot in common with wine. The website explains, "For those who prefer a lighter option to alcoholic drinks, bottlegreen grape juice drinks have been expertly blended using traditional winemaking skills passed down through the bottlegreen generations to create drinks bubbling with vibrant fresh flavours that compliment a wide range of food dishes…..a perfect non-alcoholic offering for dinner and drinks parties alike." So Sophie wasn't wasn't too far wrong either !

Moving on to the cordials, I was really impressed by the delicious and unusual flavours. I was very wary of the elderflower variety to begin with, having no idea what elderflower would taste like and actually being pleasantly surprised. The flavour is subtle and exotic and after much deliberating, I decided it reminded me vaguely of lychees. Sophie wasn't keen, which was good news for me because I didn't have to share it ! It's a lovely thirst-quenching drink for the summer and is much more refined and natural-tasting than many of the nasty dilutable "fruity" drinks on the market - this is definitely "posh squash" for the grown-ups ! Unlike most cordials on the market, bottlegreen cordials contain no artificial colours, flavours or sweeteners which explains why they taste so much more natural and not overly-sweet.

The elderflower cordial was the one that most impressed me because it is so unusual and totally different to anything else I've ever tasted. The range of cordials has something to suit everybody's taste though, from the quintessentially English flavours of a traditional orchard (Cox's Apple & Plum, Russet Apple & Blackberry and Williams Pear & Elderflower) to more exotic flavours (Ginger & Lemongrass, Pomegranate & Elderflower, Orange & Mango). The only one that I wasn't keen on was Spiced Berry, but that's just down to personal taste - it's supposed to be drunk diluted with hot water for a warming winter drink for festive occasions reminiscent of mulled wine, and it is. If you like mulled wine, you'll love it so don't let me put you off !

What I love about Bottle Green cordials is how versatile they are. Even if I don't fancy drinking the Spiced Berry cordial, the website suggests other ways of using it - "bottlegreen Spiced Berry cordial can used to make a host of winter desserts such as Chocolate Roulade with Spiced Berry Compote and Cointreau Cream, or Poached Pears with Spiced Berry Sauce". If you don't fancy getting your chef's hat on, you can play around with the different cordials as ingredients in cocktails (with or without alcohol), or with sparkling water, still water, hot water, champagne, the list of possibilities is endless. You could add a splash to liven up jams, jellies or fruit tarts or, if you're feeling adventurous, use them to make sorbets. (This might be a good time to mention that you can also buy ready-made Bottle Green sorbets at Waitrose too !)

If you normally turn your nose up at the dilutable drinks aisle in the supermarket, go and have a look. They're really high quality, are made with totally natural ingredients, offer some very new and different flavours and, although they may seem more expensive than the usual brands, actually work out at very good value because you only need 1 part cordial to 12 parts water so a bottle goes a long way. If Haagen Dazs is the ice cream for grown ups, Bottle Green is definitely the equivalent for fruit cordial !

star rating : 5/5

RRP £2.89 (depending on the variety and the stockist)

for more information :

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Chunky Wooden Safari Puzzle

A few months ago, I reviewed a website called Kidsrooms (click on the link to see that review), which specialises - as the name would suggest - in everything you could possibly need to kit out a child's bedroom, from baby's nursery right through to stroppy teenager stage. One of the things that caught my eye was the fabulous range of retro wooden toys and I was lucky enough to receive one of their wooden puzzles to test.

The puzzle is suitable for children aged 12 months and older, so at 6 months, Pierre is a bit on the young side. He did enjoy picking up the pieces and, you've guessed it, putting them in his mouth, but he had no interest in the puzzle itself, unsurprisingly. Never fear, 4-year-old Juliette stepped into the role of chief puzzle tester so willingly that I didn't even have to ask her !

The wooden board has a safari background, and has seven different animal-shaped indents (giraffe, hippo, zebra, crocodile, elephant, lion, and camel). Each indent is coloured and patterned to match the animal piece that fits it, unlike many wooden puzzles which just have a blank hole underneath - this helps small children, who often easily identify the right shape but then find it difficult to slot it into the indent the right way round, to use the picture underneath as a model. That leads to less frustration and they'll play happily for longer.

The shapes are lovely and chunky, about an inch in thickness, and have absolutely no rough edges that catch on clothes or risk causing splinters - great news for little fingers and mouths. After she'd eventually got bored of doing the puzzle, Juliette had fun using the animal shapes in pretend play with her dolls, because they're thick enough to stand up and be moved about without falling over. The website suggests they could also be used as templates to draw around, which is a brilliant idea and definitely one I'll use on a rainy afternoon. If you bring out the paints and glitter and sparkly glue pens, I'm sure you could keep the kids entertained for a couple of hours decorating the drawings afterwards.

At £13, it's not the cheapest wooden puzzle available but, as is often the case, you do get what you pay for. Plus, if you consider that you're getting three toys for the price of one (puzzle, wooden animals playset and drawing templates), it works out at pretty good value for money.

I'm obviously not the only one to be impressed. The puzzle was Silver winner of the Play Matters Awards, and Bronze winner of the 2008 Practical Preschool Awards. If you're worried about green credentials, it's also reassuring to know that it's made from replenishable rubberwood, and I would think wooden toys have to be a lot kinder to the environment than plastic alternatives.

The best thing about it, in my opinion, is that there isn't a battery or electronic device in sight, it's powered purely by your child's imagination.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £13

for more information :

Monday 18 January 2010

Blue Lights and Long Nights - Les Pringle

First of all, I absolutely love the cover photo, which is from the author's personal collection and really sets the mood. As the blurb on the front of the book says, Blue Lights and Long Nights is "the heart-warming true story of life as an ambulance driver in 1970s Britain". Through a serious of touching and often light-hearted anecdotes, the author shares with us his memories of his time as an ambulanceman. As you can imagine, there is often an element of tragedy or suffering in the tales he tells, but - as is often the case with people dealing with death and medical emergencies on a daily basis - the ambulance station is rife with childish pranks, gallows humour and lighthearted but often antagonistic banter. The silly antics provide a pressure valve for the ambulancemen dealing with often horrific scenes and make very entertaining reading.

Certain aspects closely tether the narrative to its 1970s setting - for example, the victims of car accidents who didn't yet have the legal requirement of wearing seatbelts and the very low-tech ancestors of the current electronic defibrilators and other basic medical equipment that the ambulances were equipped with. But most of the stories could be equally believable in a modern day setting and it's interesting to see how little has really changed.

Les wistfully recalls some of his sadder moments, such as when he questions whether the ambulancemen really helped those they set out to assist, but the sadness never lasts long. And with Spot the Reindeer (don't ask !!) popping up at inopportune moments, even when the Grim Reaper calls, spirits never stay low for long.

We are used to seeing ambulancemen on TV, notably in TV dramas like Casualty, and the scrapes they often get into, but it was fascinating to get a real-life perspective on these kinds of stories through reading Les's memoirs. Coming straight from the horse's mouth, we know it's true to life - if the TV script-writers had invented it, we'd say they had gone to far and it wasn't believable ! Truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes !

My lasting impression was one of tenderness and respect for the ambulancemen of the 1970s, who - like their modern day counterparts - had to face up to harsh conditions and horrific accidents, often with little training and rudimentary equipment. The anecdotes frequently show the best and the worst of human nature, as well as offering a view of the whole spectrum of living conditions, from the slums and squats inhabited by alcoholic druggies to the impressive abodes of highly-respected judges. It's a fascinating and enlightening book that really shows what the everyday heroes of the ambulance service put up with (and make their colleagues put up with !) on a day-to-day basis.

star rating : 5/5

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Bantam Press (13 Feb 2009)
ISBN-10: 0593062523
ISBN-13: 978-0593062524

Sunday 17 January 2010

LeCardo - a new wordgame for all the family

It always amazes me that people can still come up with new ideas for board games or word games after all these years but there are still ideas out there to be had, if you've got the imagination ! The proof is that I've had two new wordgames to trial recently, Wordinoes - which is like a wordy version of dominoes - and now this new game Lecardo. The basic idea behind the two games is quite similar - you have to use word association and lots of imagination to win - but Lecardo offers a points-scoring system so will probably go down well if you're competitive.

The game initially reminded me slightly of a variation of Scrabble without a board and using words instead of letters. The rules are very simple and need very little explaining before you can start playing. You shuffle the pack of cards, deal seven cards to each player and the player with the highest value card lays the first card. As with all good games, you can adapt the rules to best fit your situation so when we played, we let the youngest player start (as this is obviously the easiest move of the whole game !)

Play then continues with each player laying as many cards as possible to make compound words, adding to the word on the left or right, above or below the cards already on the table. Despite reading the rules, we played it wrong the first time - thinking along the lines of scrabble, I thought all the words in a line had to match so base could go with ball and then bat to make baseball bat, but you couldn't put base then ball then gown because baseball gown doesn't exist. But, as the examples on the website show, base - ball - gown is quite acceptable because base goes with ball and ball goes with gown, and it only has to match with the word directly next to the card you lay. This obviously makes the game easier than the version we were initially playing !

Even though, I would say 8 is slightly young to be able to play properly - and above all, without getting irritated by losing all the time ! In fact, despite the new-design pack of cards stating "ages 8 to adult", the pack shown on the website does say 10 to adult, which is probably more accurate. But, as I said above, you can adapt the rules to suit the ages (and temperaments !) of the people playing so if you had very young children playing, you could even modify it to play a version of old maid, for example, using and matching just the cards in your hands and trying to get rid of your cards by making pairs, without ever laying them out on the table and worrying about scores.

What I really love is that it is such a compact game. A pack of cards fits easily into a handbag or pocket and takes up pretty much zero space in luggage - which is a huge bonus if you've got several children and a car that is always fit to bursting whenever you go off on holiday ! It also means you'll have less to fit in the toy cupboards at home and the mum in me says it's great to find a game that is so quick and easy to tidy away.

The website suggests that you could also use Lecardo to improve your child’s word recognition and grasp of language, as well as assisting them to read, spell and use a wider vocabulary. I would add into that helping them to learn how to use a dictionary because they could look up strange compound words they'd never heard of in a dictionary, to help them when they are stuck.
Once the kids have gone to bed, you can make things more complicated, going for maximum points and trying to make clever squares with multiple compounds. If you like wordgames, you'll definitely be hooked !

star rating : 4.5/5
RRP : £5.99

Thursday 14 January 2010

Neutrogena Deep Moisture Body Lotion

Having been seriously impressed by the protective and healing properties of the Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Classic Hand Cream, I was keen to try out their most recently launched product - the Deep Moisture Sensitive Body Lotion.

The bottle isn't particularly eye-catching, matching the other products in the Norwegian Formula range with its plain white bottle and blue lid. It comes in a handy pump action bottle which distributes just the right amount and prevents messy spills or drips. But let's face it, what really counts is what's on the inside.

The claims on the website are impressive. It's "clinically proven to penetrate up to ten layers into the skin for 24 hour moisturisation". The range is "perfect for everyday use, ensuring skin moisturisation is at the correct level and keeping skin looking and feeling soft, beautiful and radiant all day long". I'm always a bit dubious about impressive claims by manufacturers though, so I thought I'd test each one out myself and see if it lived up to their results. Firstly, "87% of women reported long-lasting moisturisation" - well, I haven't been using it for long but my skin does feel more supple and moisturised, even at the end of the day if I've applied it in the morning, so I'll have to say yes. Next, "96% of women experienced immediate moisturisation" - definitely yes, but I think that's the case for any moisturiser, especially if your skin is (like mine) pretty dehydrated to begin with. And finally, "92% reported absolutely no greasy after-feel. This means that you can moisturise and get dressed straight away – good for when you’re getting ready in a hurry!" Well, I must admit, that was what I was most impressed with. Despite a very slight greasy residue on my fingers, I was able to start typing without feeling the need to run off and wash my hands and my skin felt cool but instantly dry after I'd rubbed in the lotion. So yes, in this case, you most certainly can believe the hype.

As this is the sensitive variety, it's totally hypoallergenic and therefore fragrance free, which is something I dislike, but it would be absolutely perfect if you have very reactive or sensitive skin - or if you're male and want soft, moisturised skin without smelling all girlie ! The bottle also says that the lotion is suitable for the whole family, so I would find the lack of fragrance reassuring for use on young children. I think I will actually donate this bottle to 8-year-old Sophie, who has occasional flare-ups of eczema and finds that many of the medicated creams sting.

As they say on the website : "No matter what your skin type, there's a Deep Moisture to suit you. In the range there is the Dry Skin Lotion or Dry and Sensitive Skin Lotion which is fragrance free, both have easy to use pump applicators. There is also a nourishing rich and creamy Comfort Balm for body and face with a velvety texture." I've been really impressed with both of the Neutrogena Norwegian Formula products I've tested, and would highly recommend both of them.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £5.09

Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream

The snow is back and people everywhere are grumbling about the cold and the ice. Well, call me a big kid but I actually love it (for the first few days, anyway). I get out there with the kids building snowmen and pulling them along on makeshift sledges and throwing snowballs around. But I must admit, the biting cold plays havoc with your skin. The skin on my face is red and tingly but worst of all, the skin on my thumb has cracked. It's a minute cut and if you didn't know, you wouldn't even notice it and I'm always telling the girls that whining and crying doesn't make it hurt any less so it's a waste of energy ... but it does really hurt !

Well, the Neutrogena products with their "Norwegian Formula" labels jumped out at me. It's cold and snowy in Norway, right ? So generations of Norwegian ladies must have come up with the ideal products for keeping their skin soft and supple and moisturised in colder weather than this, right ? Well, looking around on their website, it's not quite as glamorous as that ! Forget Norwegian ladies with glowing healthy skin and think stinky Norwegian fisherman up to their elbows in fish guts ! "NEUTROGENA Norwegian Formula® was discovered at sea when, despite the harsh weather conditions, Norwegian fishermen reported soft, supple hands. When NEUTROGENA® investigated, they discovered the oils in the fish had intensively moisturising properties. A synthetic version of the fish oil was created, and to this day remains an integral ingredient in the NEUTROGENA Norwegian Formula® range." Oh well, if it works ! - and at least it's synthetic fish oil so it doesn't smell horrible !

Before I even tested it, I knew it would be good stuff because it's been dragged out and put on the counter at my local chemist's, so it's obviously what they're advising for people with sore or chapped skin. I smothered my hands, especially my poorly thumb (have I got your sympathy vote yet ?!), in the Norwegian Formula Concentrated Hand Cream. The label says it offers "instant relief of dry, chapped hands - just a dab needed". That's just as well because the tube seems quite small, containing 50ml which is less than a lot of other hand creams. It is concentrated though so presumably a little goes a long way. And it is cheaper than a lot of other hand creams too.

I was initially surprised at the texture. It comes out as an almost clear gel or jelly type substance, not the cream I was expecting. It reminded me a little of a less greasy and less sticky form of Vaseline. When you rub it in to your skin, it does transform into a typical white cream though. One of my tests when reviewing hand cream is, can I continue typing my review straight away or do I feel the need to go and wash my hands first ? Well, this did leave a greasy residue on my fingers so I did want to go and clean my fingers before coming back to the keyboard. I used soap and water and this removed the greasy residue but not the product that had been absorbed by my skin, which felt softer and plumper and looked healthier (no more white, slightly scaly patches on the backs of my hands - just soft, supple skin). And above all, my skin had stopped feeling tight and - yay ! - my thumb had stopped hurting ! So it certainly lives up to its "instant relief" claim.

I would almost define this as a health product more than a beauty product. Despite its compact size, the label says it contains enough for 200 applications, so it's perfect for keeping handy in your handbag, coat pocket or desk drawer, to apply whenever needed like lip balm. It's also ideal for both men and women, coming in scented and unscented varieties. If you are bothered by my mention above of a slight greasy residue on your fingers, there is also a Fast Absorbing version, advertised as "intensively moisturising hands, while leaving no stickiness or residue". If you're more interested in beauty products rather than remedies for chapped skin, you might be more tempted by the Anti-Ageing Hand Cream ("a modern classic with Active Soy to reduce brown spots and SPF 15 to protect against the sun, perfect to counteract the tell-tale signs of ageing") or the Hand & Nail Cream ("contains Pro-Vitamin B5 for complete hand and nail care"). Personally, I'll stick with the Original version but use it first thing in the morning and last thing at night, when I can wash my hands, and then dab it on problem areas (did I mention my sore thumb yet ?!) as needed.

At least until the cold spell is over, and I've stopped playing silly buggers in the snow with the kids, it will definitely be permanently living in my coat pocket with my lip balm. Here in Dunkirk, the yearly carnival was created by the local fishermen who went off cod-fishing in the waters off Iceland and wanted one last big party before they went in case they failed to return. Well, now I've tried out the Norwegian Formula Hand Cream, I've got on more thing to be grateful about when thinking of those fishermen !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £3.49 - but currently on offer in Boots for £2.33 if you're quick !

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Patak's Oven Bake Biryani

Indian cuisine seems to have undergone a bit of an image change over the past few years. When I was a student, the phrase "Anyone fancy a curry ?" would have us all grabbing our coats and heading off to the nearest curryhouse or picking up the phone to order a takeaway. These days, wherever you look on TV, you can see chefs making curries from scratch, grinding the whole spices with a morter and pestle and heating them in a dry frying pan to release the flavours, then concocting complicated combinations of ingredients to get a truly authentic Indian dish. Gone are the days when "chips with curry sauce" from the local chippie or adding a couple of teaspoons of musty orange powder from a tub labelled "medium curry powder" to a bog-standard chicken casserole could be counted as making a curry. Well, that's great ... but sometimes we just don't have the time to start from scratch, even if we know exactly what to do to knock up some first-rate grub. As a working mum with three kids, I often don't have the time or the energy to cook from scratch in the evenings - but I also don't want to feed junk to the family.

Cook-in sauces offer a great compromise. You still add fresh ingredients (usually meat and vegetables) so you are eating healthily but you don't have to worry about seasoning and exotic ingredients. The even better thing about these new Oven Bake Biryani sauces is that it's a one-dish meal. The uncooked rice is added to the sauce so you don't have to waste time and make more washing up by cooking a side dish separately.

The instructions couldn't be easier. Preheat the oven, fry some chicken in a pan, put it in an ovenproof dish, pour over the sauce, add 150g uncooked rice and a little water, pop on a lid and stick it in the oven for 35 minutes. Put your feet up for half an hour (or, more likely, get the kids bathtime out of the way, unload the dishwasher, reboot the laundry and wash up the frying pan you've just used !) and you have a complete, tasty, wholesome meal awaiting you. Ta-da !

If you want to make this into a real credit-crunching meal, it's a great way of using up leftovers. I replaced the chicken breasts with left-over roast chicken plus all the leftover cooked potatoes and veggies from Sunday dinner, adding in some fried mushrooms to make it go a bit further (and keep Juliette happy because she loves mushrooms!). The jar says you could use it with prawns, mixed vegetables, lamb or beef so you could basically use it to resurrect leftovers whatever you've eaten the day before !

I don't actually possess an oven proof dish with a lid, let alone the tight-fitting lid they advise on the jar, so I just put a sheet of foil over the top and squished it around the edges. As long as it gets a bit of steam building up to help cook the rice, it'll be fine. If you can, pull it out of the oven for a quick stir a couple of times (but if you really are bathing baby, don't panic - it'll survive without you !) You might want to add a little extra water too towards the end, if it's drying out too much, but biryani is supposed to be drier than curries that have the rice separate so don't panic if the sauce is all soaked up. As they say on the website, "Unlike your usual saucy curry, a Biryani is a dry, spiced rice dish with meat or veggies, and is a classic Indian restaurant favourite. Our new range of Biryani sauces allow you to create this the traditional way - in your oven, and honestly it couldn't be easier. Our Medium & Aromatic Biryani sauce combines authentic spices with ginger, coriander, paprika & lemon - so all you need is some chicken, some rice... and an oven."

However hot you like your curry, you can adapt this to suit your tastes. It comes in three varieties - Mild & Fruity, Medium & Aromatic or Hot & Spicy. And you can always take the spiciness up or down a notch with a bit of extra chilli powder or cream. We tried the medium & aromatic sauce and, although it smelt really fiery while cooking, it was - as the name suggests (and unlike numerous other supposedly mild sauces we've tried in the past !) - quite tame.

The best thing is, especially if you're using leftovers so you don't even have to cook the meat, it's a quick dish that you can prepare in advance with a minimal amount of effort (and washing up !).

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £1.59

Jilliane Hoffman - Pretty Little Things

What could be worse than having your teenage daughter running away from home ? Well, apart from the usual blaming yourself and/or your partner for driving them away and watching your marriage slowly fall apart, how about if you work for the Crimes Against Children unit of the Florida police and know first hand some of the horrors that teenagers are faced with out in the big bad world ? Add to that a sadistic serial killer who seems to be targetting teenage runaways and things couldn't get any worse. Or could they ? As this serial killer seems to be targetting you personally and taunting you, leading you to believe he's got your daughter ... maybe ... but is she alive or dead ? And will you manage to track her down ?

Such is the personal hell endured by Special Agent Bobby Dees, known as Shep by his colleagues, who gave him the nickname The Shepherd because he is so good at rounding up the lost little lambs that are the teenage runaways of Miami. He's so good at his job that he manages to bring them all home - except the one that really matters, his own daughter.

The serial killer is particularly evil and twisted, but, if I'm totally honest, didn't really stand out from a long line of similar serial killers that I've encountered (in books, luckily !) recently. He is very manipulative and cunning, sending paintings of his victims to the press and leaving clues in each one to lead the investigators to the next victim's location. To add a bit more excitement to this warped treasure hunt, he also adds mismatching details - clothes, jewellery, tattoos - of different victims so that the investigators can also identify other runaways who must have either been killed by him in the past or are currently in his "collection" of future victims just waiting to be murdered.

The plotline featuring internet chatroom trolling shows how easy it is for people to take on false identities online, with both paedophiles/killers but also the policemen chasing them pretending to be inoffensive teenagers out for a chat and a good time. (This part should be made compulsory reading for all teenagers with an online life - but only this part, the rest of the book is too graphic and violent and would give them nightmares !) In this novel, nobody is who they seem to be. Every time you think you have worked out who the killer is, you find out you're wrong again, so you can really empathise with Bobby Dees and his team working the case. Even the ambiguous chapter openings starting with "he" lead you time and time again to jump to the wrong conclusions, only to realise once more that the author is toying with you.

As I mentioned before, although I really enjoyed reading this book and raced through it within a few days because I constantly wanted to find out what would happen next, I couldn't help thinking it resembled a lot of other similar titles I've read (and enjoyed) recently. Its one big advantage though is that the author really knows her stuff, having worked as an Assistant State Attorney with special assignments to the Domestic Violence and Legal Extraditon Units. That just makes the whole story even more chilling though because it is presumably pretty close to the reality !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £12.99

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd (4 Feb 2010)
ISBN-10: 0007311583
ISBN-13: 978-0007311583

Monday 11 January 2010

Plum Organic Superfoods for Babies - First Weaning Starter Pack

Pierre is now six months old so it's the perfect time for him to start trying out new foods. Over Christmas, he got a selection of Plum organic baby food goodies in his stocking (yes, really !) and has been sampling various weird and wonderful recipes ever since. As he's only just trying out his tastebuds for the first time, he has been testing the First Weaning Bundle starter pack, which contains everything you need to make the first tasting sessions a doddle. How's that for a great timesaver ? No need to spend ages painstakingly reading labels in the supermarket and trying to work out which fruits and vegetables to begin with. The products in this pack are all designed for babies aged 4 months and over (although government guidelines and most health professionals advise exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, if possible).

The Starter Pack contains:
1 x Four grain super porridge
2 x Squash and sweet potato pouch
1 x Blueberry, banana and vanilla pouch
1 x Plum, pomegranate and guava pouch
1 x Mango and banana
1 x Spinach, parsnip and basil
1 x Sweetcorn and carrot

The choice of certain ingredients may seem a bit wacky - I'd never have dreamed of using basil in baby's first purees ! - but as you can see, the recipes went down well with Pierre. I started off with the fruity ones - first up, plum, guava and pomegranate. On the first day, Pierre tasted a couple of spoonfuls then shuddered and made funny faces so I stopped, but on day two, he polished off the rest and still wanted more ! He loved all the recipes, even when I switched over to vegetables. There is no way he ever would have tasted some of the more exotic ingredients, like pomegranate, blueberries, guava or squash, if I'd been making my own baby food, because they're not products that we use in our house, so if you're feeling at all guilty about using commercially-manufactured baby food, don't ! Especially as the Plum Baby mentality is so healthy and wholesome.

As they say on their website : "Our mission is to feed babies well, to nourish them, to make every spoonful matter. To be pioneering in our choice of only the very best ingredients and how we use them. We want to create real food for babies - not just baby food. All our recipes tick the taste, nutrition and quality boxes. And if the convenience of them helps you spend a little more quality time with your baby, that is a huge tick in the box!" That is certainly true - I remember seeing a new mum who will remain nameless, determined to give nothing but the best to her baby, spending hours in the kitchen boiling and mashing veggies, while baby sat sobbing to herself in her playpen all morning ! I wanted to say, give her a jar of baby food from the supermarket and go and play with her instead of being chained to the food processor !

Plum Baby was created in 2006, by a mum of three who is passionate about two things in life - children and good food - and who wanted to combine quality and convenience for mums and dads. Mission accomplished ! "The Plum Way" pledges guarantee that you get nothing but the best for your little bundle of mischief (umm I mean joy !) : 1. Above and beyond organic, 2. Responsibly sourced, flavoursome, nutritionally-rich ingredients, 3. No additives or unnecessary fillers, 4. Creating food as parents first and foremost.

I really love the handy pouches, which I find a lot more practical than the usual tubs or jars. Firstly, they take up a lot less room in the cupboard. Secondly, if you're travelling, you don't have to worry about glass jars getting broken in transit. Pierre has been eating the food at room temperature but if you do want to heat them, the shape makes them much easier to warm up in a mug or jug of hot water because you can just squish them to fit whatever recipient you have. They can't be microwaved however. For the early days of weaning, when baby is likely to turn his nose up at whatever you're offering after a few spoonfuls, they're really handy and mess-free. You just squish out a small amount straight from the pouch on to the spoon and pop the rest back in the fridge until next time. They're really handy for feeds on the go too, as the pouch is easier to hold on to one-handed than a jar or tub, if you haven't got a table to hand.

The girls love the fruit purees in tubs too and eat them as dessert. If you make your own smoothies, you can add some to the mix to get the added benefits of tropical fruit or berries rich in antioxidants, even when they're out of season. 4-year-old Juliette even happily polished off the ends of the pouches when Pierre had eaten his fill !

The only thing he wasn't keen on was the porridge, but that's to be expected because of the different texture. I gave him a few spoonfuls made with milk (a great way of using up the leftover breastmilk in the freezer !) but he shuddered and spat it out after two or three spoonfuls. I'll come back to it at a later date when he's experimented a bit more with lumpier food. You can also add it to the fruit purees, which I'm sure would go down more easily too.

I was intrigued to notice on the boxes that all Plum recipes contain quinoa, which they call their "magic grain". The website explains : "We use quinoa in all our recipes. We believe it's the perfect food for your baby - much better nutritionally than rice. It's naturally gluten-free making it easy for babies to digest. It's a fantastic source of protein and a valuable source of minerals and healthy fatty acids. It's also a natural source of Vitamin E and Vitamin B1." Sounds good to me - and another perk that Pierre wouldn't have had if I'd made my own baby food. Definitely zero-guilt at using shop-bought baby food if it's as tasty and nutritious as Plum obviously is.

I'll leave the final word to Pierre himself. As he can't talk yet, it'll have to be these before and after shots that show him going from decidedly unsure to "Yum, give me some more of that Mum" !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : all products can be bought separately but the First Weaning Bundle is £10 online

Sunday 10 January 2010

Tixylix Toddler Syrup for Dry, Tickly Coughs

I don't like self-medication, especially for the kids, but there are two exceptions - I always have a bottle of Calpol and a bottle of cough mixture in the cupboard, just in case. In fact, they are the only two items I've added to the Baby Aid compact first aid kit which is always thrown in the bag whenever we go off to visit the grandparents.

I always believed the cough medicines prescribed by the doctor must be more effective than the ones you can buy over the counter, but having looked at the labels, they seem to contain pretty much the same ingredients. Tixylix is the brand I remember from when I was a kid, so I thought I'd stick with tradition and give it a go.

It's been in the cupboard for a couple of months so when Juliette got a nasty tickly cough that had her coughing all night, I ran off to grab it and see if it would help. One spoonful later, she was tucked back up in bed and seemed to cough less for the rest of the night. The problem with reviewing cough mixture is you never really know how well it works because you don't know how it would have evolved without medication. Who's to say the cough wouldn't have disappeared by itself ? But it does get a big thumbs up for tasting nice - it smells of blackcurrant and Juliette said it tasted "yummy" and with kids that age, that's half the battle. There was no whingeing or pulling faces and the next morning, when she started coughing again, she was the one to ask if she could have some more.

It is suitable for children aged 3 months to 5 years, so it's great for me because Pierre (6 months) and Juliette (5 next month) can use the same bottle. Despite the sweet, blackcurrant flavour, it contains no sugar, which is great news for teeth because most cough medicine is given at night time and often after teeth have been brushed. It is naturally flavoured with vanilla and blackcurrant and is also colour-free.

Tixylix comes in a child-proof bottle with a measuring spoon in the box. The dosage is one 5ml spoonful for children under one, or two 5ml spoonfuls for 1-5 year olds, so you can actually use the same spoon as for Calpol - good news if you can't find the Tixylix spoon in the middle of the night ! You should allow 3-4 hours between doses and it can be taken 3-4 times a day, as required. Juliette took some first thing in the morning and last thing at night and a few days later, it had disappeared.

If you remember a few years ago when baby cough medicines (including Tixylix) were effectively banned, following a health scare, you'll be reassured to know that new guidelines have been put in place. The actual products weren't dangerous in themselves - Tixylix has been around since I was a kid and probably long before ! - but parents were using dangerously large amounts of cough syrup on young children. In March 2009, cough mixtures had to change again, as certain ingredients are no longer allowed in children's cough medicines. If you're worried about these issues, the Tixylix website explains it all, but if you follow the doses indicated on the bottle, there's really no danger at all.

The Tixylix website is actually a mine of information. Not only does it give you lots of information on the whole range of Tixylix products available, it has a handy "Quick Symptom Check" where you can even listen to different coughs to decide which product you need. There are also some fun activities available, including games to play online or activity books to print out (great for little ones feeling yucky and tucked up under a blanket on the settee), stories and rhymes for parents and kids to enjoy together and a brilliant tool for adding accessories like baseball caps and sunglasses to a photo of your baby that you can then send to your friends !

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £2.99 for 100ml

Saturday 9 January 2010

Silver Cross Rufus Rabbit Pull-Along Toy

If you haven't already read it, I suggest you start by looking at my review of the Silver Cross 'Little Growers Guide to Numbers’ Soft Book, as this pull-along toy comes from the same range. Silver Cross, better known for its extensive range of prams and pushchairs, has recently created a gorgeous range of squishy baby and toddler toys, including this 'Home Grown' collection, based around the theme of a vegetable garden. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that there is a little turnip to put in the wheelbarrow that is identical in shape and colours to the big turnip-shaped soft book. So if you like the colour coordinated look, you could even make sure your baby's toys match too !

The pull-along toy is very well-made and well-thought out. Pierre, 6 months, likes the rattle, bell and squeaker hidden inside the vegetables, but the main tester of this toy has been 4-year-old Juliette, who absolutely loves it ! (It's recommended for 9 months plus, but as long as you keep an eye on baby, there's no reason why he can't play with the squisjy shapes before then.) The three vegetables (carrot, cauliflower and turnip) are made of two halves velcroed together so you can pull them apart and stick them back together again. If you get inside the mind of a small child (this was Juliette's idea, not mine !), you can therefore stick the "wrong" pieces together and make strange looking mismatched vegetables. This kept her amused for several minutes and I was impressed at the quality of the velcro, which is firmly stitched in and doesn't look like it will end up pulling off, as is often the case on cheaper toys.

The wheels are made of wood and are reminiscent of the old-fashioned children's toys I remember from my childhood. No cheap plastic here ! The back wheels are attached by velcro, which seemed like a bad idea to me, because they may end up getting lost or thrown across the room - but Juliette liked pulling the wheels off and sticking them back together again. She must have a promising future ahead as a hybrid vegetable grower or a mechanic ! The front wheel is a wooden ball so there is absolutely no chance of baby getting his fingers pinched in wheels and axels.

Continuing this safety and child-friendly theme, I was very impressed that the pull-along cord comes in two lengths velcroed together. Not only this allows your little one to have fun pulling it apart and sticking it together again (an activity that, judging by Juliette, is much more entertaining than I ever would have imagined !), it also means that you can keep the cord very short to begin with to avoid any risk of strangulation.

I was slightly disappointed that the Rufus rabbit toy is permanently attached to the wheelbarrow, especially as it's pretty much the only element that is. If you can take out the vegetables and even the wheels, why not the rabbit too ? That would open up a whole world of imaginative play, walking him to the vegetable patch or the market, for example. You can however fully rotate his head, so Juliette had fun twisting it around to make him talk and look in different directions. He's very cute and squishy and appealing to small children.

It may have no electronic noises, microchips or digital technology, but it does offer hours of fun for small children, who will love pulling it along once they can walk, but also pulling apart, putting back together and loading into the wheelbarrow the different vegetable shapes, as well as using the squeaker, rattle and bell. It's a welcome return to old-fashioned toys that get children thinking for themselves to create entertainment, not just pushing a button and letting it all happen for them. Batteries not included and not even needed, just a huge dose of imagination !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £20

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