Changing Me, Changing You – Aha!

Another New Year. Another year I vow to write something every single night, like I used to, even if it’s just boring drivel about our day. Another year I monumentally fail to stick to it, right from the off. I’m not very good at making or keeping New Year’s Resolutions. Or any kind of resolution, for that matter – in my life Pre-Kids I had shelf upon shelf of shiny, colourful self-help books that, even if I actually found time to read them, would go back on the shelf, un-actioned. But I guess deep down there still lingers the desire to make my life even better, happier, more efficient and more productive.

The Book of YOU

The Book of YOU

So you can imagine how eager I was to grab the chance to review a brand-new self-help book: The Book of YOU. It’s a small, beautiful-looking paperback filled with 365 short ‘micro-actions’ and some unobtrusive photos. The idea is that you complete one of the actions every day (so micro-action = daily challenge, if you like) to “achieve a happier, healthier, more fulfilled life”. Each challenge is a sentence or 2 under one of the 4 areas Food, Mind, Move and Love that you can complete very quickly. Although you might think from the cover that it’s been written by Jamie Oliver, there are 6 expert contributors as well as the young team of 5 behind the book.

So. Let’s cut to the chase. How did I get on?

essential bedtime reading for grumpy old trouts

essential bedtime reading for grumpy old trouts

Well, I was never going to be one for reading just one action a day and trying it out in a disciplined fashion, was I? Instead, I had a bit of a browse each morning when I woke up: after slamming off the alarm clock I’d reach for the book and find an action that felt good (or easy…).

Action 6 was all about reflecting on my personal commandments and writing them down. Oof, I can barely see just now, never mind grip a pen and make sensible scribbles. Turn that page. Next!

7. Take Care of Yourself… “Today schedule an appointment with a doctor, dentist, accountant or neglected friend. You’ll feel more relaxed immediately and it only takes a phone call.” Go on, then – I’ll make that dental appointment for a possible filling. Well, after I have a coffee first. And walk the kids to school. And sit down and have a big old fret about it. And wait on the engaged phoneline for long enough to get very anxious indeed. But I have to admit that after the appointment, I did feel good (perhaps because I didn’t need any treatment at all?). In fact, I felt so good that I scheduled the whole of the next day to fighting with little bits of paper and get my tax return done. That was so traumatic that I’m still giddy with relief that it’s been submitted before the deadline. Ha!

Onward to 8. Enjoy the Weather. Oh, this could be pushing against an open door – I’m a confessed cloud-spotter. “All weather is beautiful in its own right. Today take a few minutes and enjoy the weather outside…”. This was the day after the floods cut off nearby villages, stopped many people in my village getting home that night, and all around us houses and fields were under water. And it was still raining. Beautiful? Really? Crikey, this was going to be a challenge and a half! So I took a little stroll to the burn near our house and felt incredibly relieved that although it had burst its banks and was gushing over the footbridge, the gravel beds beside it were doing their job and stopping the floodwater reaching the houses. On the way back I nodded at neighbours doing the same, in a silent, grim recognition that whilst the weather might not actually be beautiful, the forethought of the estate developer certainly was…

Throughout the past few weeks I’ve been carrying on similarly: I ignore some actions; do others repeatedly; do 2 on one day and nothing for 3. I basically dip in and out of the book whenever I sit down for a coffee if I’ve not read it first thing in the morning.

It’s early days yet (I’m only 20 days in!) and I can’t say that my life has changed noticeably – maybe there’s an action later on how to stop pesky night-time palpitations and a dodgy memory?! – but I do enjoy completing the micro-actions. I don’t think that the haphazard approach I’m taking will have a long-term benefit because none of the positive actions I’m taking will be done repetitively enough to turn into habits and therefore become truly life-changing. But completion and success feels good, I’m not hurting anyone, it’s entertaining and it’s keeping me out of trouble.

If this kind of daily challenge is your favoured motivator, then you can get the book from lots of booksellers. I’ve linked to Amazon at the top of this post where it’s currently retailing for just under £7 (RRP £8.99). It’s published by Penguin under ISBN 978-1-405-92413-9. You can also sign up for an App that sends you a daily challenge, but personally I’d find failing to achieve it every single day a new source of anxiety. And the New Me of 2016 is no longer an Anxiety Monkey, seeking out new and improved worries…

Footnote: I should also say that Mumsnet gave me the book to review honestly. I didn’t receive payment.

Taking the Minxes for a Pub Lunch

Today I sweetened the hellish ordeal that is school shoe shopping for 3 girls by taking them all the way to Arbroath and going to Wetherspoons for lunch.

It wasn’t just for the treat – I may have looked like a harassed, dumpy, middle aged mum to casual eyes, but underneath I was an eagle-eyed, inquisitive, secret reviewer of The Corn Exchange‘s child-friendliness for the Soil Association. As I explained when I reviewed our lunch out at McDonalds last week, the Soil Association are using an army of parent volunteers to help them in their Out To Lunch mission to assess and improve big food chains’ approach to feeding and serving children.

So how did our visit go? Well, we loitered outside in the sunshine for a while, reading the displayed menu in detail and bickering over whether it was ok for one girl to have a lemon San Pellegrino if the others were having orange… Give me strength! I must have banged my head letting them drink fizzy pop at all. But better to get the squabbles over and done with in private before walking past the big “Families Welcome” sign.

I settled the minxes at a big empty table before ordering immediately. Children weren’t welcome at the bar itself, so I had to leave them at the table and hope for good behaviour  (“You’re in charge of her; you’re in charge of her; you’re in charge of the table; you’re in overall charge; I’m right over there at the bar and I can see and hear everything!“).

There was no children’s menu, so I had a lot of questions about which meals might be appropriate for the younger girls and whether the adult food portion sizes could be varied. The staff member taking my order (the Duty Manager) apologised for there being no children’s menus out and said that the portion sizes couldn’t be varied. Oh. However, she made some appropriate alternative suggestions for Midi and Mini’s orders.

I delivered the kids’ Ultimate Treat Fizzy Drinks then decided to chance their good behaviour lasting long enough for me to swing past the toilets to check on a few other things:

  • There are no babychanging facilities signposted. I watched a woman with a baby try the disabled toilet (locked), then the ladies toilet (clean, airy but no changing area), then search for a staff member to fetch the radar key for the disabled toilet. I hope that full nappy held on long enough…
  • The high-chairs are the brilliant sit-beside-the-table ones, so the baby is sitting with the whole family rather than being a little outcast satellite self-contained table.
  • Lots of the restaurant’s tables are in booths or in cosy nooks, giving good privacy for breastfeeding.

Well, I was only gone 5 mins maximum, but when I came back the food had already been served. My heart sank, anticipating microwaved, rubbery rubbish. But it actually looked, smelled and tasted good. Maxi and Midi had obviously been charmed by the waitress while I was away. They said she’d been careful to make sure they all had the correct meals, had explained the cutlery (Midi and Mini were given a teaspoon alongside standard cutlery; there was no child’s cutlery when I asked) and had been very friendly:

Maxi: “She didn’t seem like she was rushing away. When she asked us a question, she actually waited until we’d replied and really listened. Not like you, Mum”.

Maxi and I had lasagne; Midi and Mini had the children’s cheesy pasta (macaroni and cheese with some broccoli stalks and peas stirred through); we had a couple of additional sides because we’re all garlic freaks and are greedy.

So, 5 mins to plate all that means it’s obviously pre-prepared food. I guess it makes sense: the menu stresses the calorific value of every single dish and all its variations, so to do that you’d have to have very precise portions and ingredients. In fact, online there’s an extremely detailed nutritional analysis of every meal. That’s fine if you care about numbers, though not all calories are equal… Looking round at the very busy Tuesday lunch-time crowd, about half were families, and lots were engaged in that thrice-daily struggle of getting food into little Johnny / Janie and to hell with whether it’s the low-cal option or not – is it good food and does it taste nice? To be fair, the food was tasty enough for that to be no problem at all for my 3 at least – they enjoyed their meals very much:

Midi: “You could taste the actual cheese in the macaroni cheese!” (As opposed to…? I was too afraid to ask)

Midi again: “The broccoli and peas were like our veg, which is really good” (Was that distant praise for my cooking?! Surely not)

Mini: “It’s so yummy! Much nicer than your macaroni” (No. No praise for my cooking at all, there).

Talking of the broccoli and peas, I loved that the children’s food came with 2 green veg and a fruit bag as standard; chips, garlic bread and fizzy drinks* were extras. Normally it’s the other way round – I usually have to ask for extra / any vegetables – so that makes me feel that someone’s thinking about the nutritional content of the food served. It would have been even better if the fruit had been a wee bowl of fresh fruit instead of processed, bagged Del Monte apple slices and grapes, but that’s just me nit-picking. Would the person preparing the (good) adult side salads have the capacity to chop extra fruit, too?

*Well, I say that fizzy drinks are extras. But now that I’m home and can actually look at the children’s menu, I can see that I could have had fizzy pop or a healthy drink included as part of the meal. What a shame – if I’d known, I’d have asked for the free bottle of water as well as ordering the Evil Fizzy Pop for the kids anyway.

Mini's lunch today has been brought to you by the colour yellow

Mini’s lunch today has been brought to you by the colour yellow

OK, ok, the fizzy pop: when I ordered it, I assumed I’d get 4 cans or maybe 4 tall glasses to pour it into (and then spend the rest of the meal mopping up the repeatedly knocked over contents). But instead the Duty Manager filled 4 huge brandy-style glasses with ice, added a big chunk of freshly-cut fruit into each, popped in a straw, and added the pop. The minxes eyes were as big as the glasses. As I watched their chubby wee fingers grip the round glasses and stubby stems, it slowly became obvious that these fishbowl glasses were a stroke of genius: easy to grip, near impossible to knock over, sophisticated-looking and stable enough to cope with the inevitable, frenzied ‘poking the fruit with the straw’. Fantastic! I’m a convert. Maybe I’ll buy my future grandchildren a set of brandy glasses instead of sippy cups…

So would I eat there again? Yes. Yes, I would. It cost twice as much as the McDonalds lunch but the improvement in comparable food quality meant it was better value for money. And it filled us up for longer. I think Wetherspoons have tasty, decent fast-food for kids at a reasonable price nailed. They just need to make more child-friendly amenities available to move them from good to great.

This doesn’t look like lemonade. Are you sure we’re in the right pub, Kyle? Photo: artwork available from HistoricalFindings on Amazon

Eating at McDonalds

We visited McDonalds in Dundee for lunch today to review its child-friendliness for the Soil Association, as part of its Out To Lunch campaign. They’re spending the summer, along with an army of parent volunteers, assessing whether big chain restaurants:

  • Provide fresh, good quality food you can trust
  • Make it easy for you to choose healthy food
  • Welcome children and accommodate parents’ needs

I had mixed feelings being assigned McDonalds, having been thoroughly scunnered of Happy Meals after eating there 3 times over Easter, but was game to give it a try again because it was next door to the cinema that I took the minxes to today, as a Mid Summer Holidays bribe treat.

Walking through the door, I found some floor-to-ceiling touch-screen order screens. Wow! So I can avoid that excruciating wait for 3 minxes to decide on their order after changing their minds a thousand times once we’ve finally reached the cash desk / server? The screens were easy to navigate, and even Mini Minx could understand what she could and couldn’t include in her Happy Meal. Maxi got in a flap trying to remember all the options open to her, and had to check the big menu (that didn’t actually include every option) at the front above the sole till operator. And I felt you had to already know what healthy options (side salad, carrot sticks, fruit bag) were available in order to be able to find them.

Anyway, we ordered and paid for the food no problem, and I despatched the minxes off to find a table while I loitered in the main lobby waiting on my order like most of Dundee, blocking people who wanted to place their order with (shock-horror) a real, live person. I think the delay from entering the door to getting your food was comparable to the queueing system they had before. But we parents waiting on having our food delivered actually spoke to each other (“Are those screens new? What’s the point of them? Is it faster? Load of rubbish. New, new, new. Don’t like it”). Which is more than we did with McDonald’s staff – I made a point of asking some servers and cleaners questions, but if I hadn’t, the minxes and I could have easily swanned in and out without speaking to any of the staff. That’s such a shame, because every staff member at McDonalds that I spoke to today (or ever, actually) has been polite, friendly and helpful.

The food was pretty much what you expect of McDonalds – all the fun is in the unwrapping of parcels than in savouring and eating the food itself. So I distracted myself looking around the restaurant. There was a long table filled with tablets that played computer games. Yes, they had tenuous links to food (“Help Granny Smith get her apples back from thieves”), but what were they for? Entertaining kids while their parents loitered at the serving desk? Or distracting them while they shovelled bland calories down their faces without really noticing what they were eating? I asked a member of staff what the Magic Tables were, signposted at each end of the restaurant. He said that when the projectors above them originally worked, he thought they projected fish ponds onto the table-tops that responded to people moving their hands over it. It sounded fun! And it also sounded like another way for families to get through an entire meal without noticing what they were eating or talking to each other.

After the minxes’ initial excitement at being allowed to eat and drink whatever they wanted had subsided (“Mummy, can I really have a fruit shoot?” “We’re not on Netmums, so aye – fill your boots, wee Daughter”), I asked them how their visit could have been better.

“There were no colouring-in sheets”, said Maxi, “But the crayon drawer was overflowing. What’s the point of that?” (Maybe they’d be tasty deep-fried treats…?)

“They should have Magic Tables on every table!” Midi reckoned. I disagree; I prefer the minxes to look at their food, think about what they’re eating and notice how their bodies are responding to that food. Then they can stop when they have Happy Tummies (ie are full) rather than when the feeling of being fit to burst finally surfaces into their consciousness.

I asked how their food could have been better.

“It was too plain,” said Maxi. “It would have been loads better if they’d used herbs and spices to give it richer flavours. There was too much emphasis on meat, cheese and carbs”. I pointed out that she could have chosen anything off the menu, even non-Happy Meal items. Indeed, I’d encouraged her to look. So was her criticism fair? “Yes, because the portion sizes for everything apart from Happy Meals are too big for me, and you don’t let me waste food”. True.

Midi noted that there were only 3 fish-fingers in her Happy Meal portion and that she’d wanted 5. “And there weren’t enough carrot sticks”, added my hungry 7 year old.

Mini didn’t offer an opinion on either question, being too impressed with her cheap plastic Minion toy to concentrate on what I was asking. Though I noticed that she’d left half her plain cheeseburger.

Will I go back? As things stand just now, no. McDonalds is hard to beat in terms of obtaining hot, cheap, fast food. But I feel that the subliminal message a restaurant that’s designed to appeal to children is sending is totally wrong: look at all the whizz-bang electronic things you can play with your entire visit that’ll distract you from your surrounding fellow humans and from what you’re actually throwing down your face. We won’t let your kin, strong flavours, challenging textures or even thinking get in the way of you lulling yourself into mindless sheep-sleep.

I’d rather go hungry and keep my wits about me.

Order number 24? Three Happy Meals and a coffee? Who’s Order 24? Credit: