Monday night is a rush- here’s my chilli recipe

Monday’s need to be carried off with military precision. Ned now goes swimming with a friend’s family after school on Monday, so we don’t have to pick him up from after school club but I have a 75 minute window to get home from work, cook and eat dinner and then leave to take Fifi and the boy to their respective drumming and piano lessons.

I’m pathologically against the idea of a jar of pesto over some hastily cooked pasta, or chucking chips and fish fingers in the oven, so I’ve been devising a range of quick to cook meals for Mondays (occasionally we go for jacket spud in the slow cooker but this generally meets with howls of disapproval, so it’s a worst case dinner) that can not only be cooked in under an hour but cooked and eaten in under an hour too.

First on my list is the patented Alex & Harry Lancaster university chilli from 1995. Or rather a modern variant on it.

There are two ways to cook this, both start with a 500g packet of mince (lamb or beef, we’re easy). The first method is the more straight forward in that it uses all 500g of mince. The second sees the mince split 60/40, with 40% used in chilli and the rest kept for another night to go into a spag bol or cottage/shepherds pie (there is a difference: cottage= beef, shepherds=lamb!). The reason for the unequal split comes down to the chilli having more additional ingredients in the sauce; kidney beans, black-eyed beans and maybe if you’re in the mood for it, some sweetcorn.

The key to this recipe is to make sure you don’t turn the hob up too high. It’s always a temptation when you’re in a hurry but you’ll end up with dry meat that’s hard and won’t absorb the sauce. If you let it brown gently, and then let the final chilli simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, you should have a luxuriant sauce that’s still taken you under half an hour to cook.

On a Monday I always tend to cheat with the rice and use the microwavable sachets that take 2 minutes to cook. I’m generally a bit rubbish at cooking rice anyway, and I’ve been meaning to get myself a rice cooker for ages.

If you do choose to use all 500g of mince, there will be a fairly high chance that you’ll have some leftover chilli- we tend to and that’s with 5 of us scoffing it. Chilli is one of those dishes that defies logic and actually tastes better once it’s been frozen, defrosted and cooked again, so never despair when you’ve got leftovers.

This is a meal that tends to sort the kids out prior to music but does leave them with an orange sauce-moustache if I’m not careful!

Where does encouragement stop and pushy parenting begin?

We’re at dilemma point with Ned (who is 8 in January) over his guitar playing. Like most of our children, practice is seen as a chore to him. In the past we’ve dropped the boy’s guitar, and Fifi’s guitar because they didn’t practice enough (the boy doesn’t practice his drumming as much as he should but is still heading towards grade 3 with speed, and Fifi is just about doing enough piano practice to justify continued lessons). The problem is, Ned doesn’t play anything else, so it’s not as if he is doing something badly while doing something else better.

We’ve talked about it with his teacher, who is great, and is also MY guitar teacher (I got a guitar for my 40th and am slowly but surely learning to play it), and he says Ned would regret stopping because he’s learnt a lot but there is no point in him continuing if he’s not going to put some effort in. As Ned and I have consecutive lessons on a Saturday morning, I thought this would mean that we could practice together. Well, I spent most of last nights masterclass by Arsenal (I don’t get to write that very often any more) learning how to play Wish You Were Here:

with Ned sat next to me, resolutely failing to practice Chasing Cars from the Grade 1 Rockschool book. He didn’t even do five minutes and while I wasn’t quite into Bryan Adams “played it til my fingers bled, was the summer of ’69” territory, my fingers were sore by the end of it.

And so we reach the conundrum. Ned will regret giving up and it will take forever to get him onto a waiting list and back into lessons if he changes his mind (and almost certainly not the lesson next to mine) but, and it’s a big but, the lessons, even his 20 minute a week lesson, aren’t cheap, especially if there isn’t any practice going on. At the moment I sort of feel like he’s trapped in that vicious circle of not practising as he’s not developed the finger tip callouses that practice gives you that means your fingers don’t constantly hurt but can’t break out of it. He knows all the major chords, can do some power chords, and is even getting better with his pinkie movement but there is only so much 20 minutes a week can do for you.

I’m the biggest lover of music in our house but I’m also the most unmusical when it comes to innate talent. It’s going to be such a shame if I end up being one of the best musical instrument players just because I’ve put the time in.

We’re still not sure whether to push Ned to keep it up or just let him give it in. I’m secretly hoping I can convince him to practice in the next week or two as we need to make a decision to give a half terms notice by 25th October…

And lo! the sentence is almost over

This school summer holiday has been a bit different to others. It’s the first summer holiday that the both of us have had full time jobs. It’s a good job I use maths daily in my job and was able to deduct two from six – two weeks family holidays away from home, taken from six weeks off school leaves four weeks where we have to cover the kids.

We managed to cover the school holidays but it did involve using a spreadsheet with more formulae that you would have necessarily expected. I realise that for many this isn’t an unusual occurrence but when you’ve got three kids and haven’t had both parents in full time employment for the better part of a decade, it takes some organisation and some getting used to. We’ve managed to avoid kids clubs which aren’t inherently expensive if you’ve got A child but when you have three tend to be very much so, mostly by relying on my wonderful in-laws and swapping kids with friends for the odd day either I or my wife have had off.

But we’ve now reached the stage where the kids are pretty much sick of the sight of each other and can’t spend ten minutes (dinner time, a car ride somewhere) together without bickering or fighting. We can’t wait to pack them off to school again next week, even though the autumn term is the hardest to deal with from so many perspectives. Hard? Well the primary school runs all the curriculum meetings about and hour and a half into my working day, and I work 2 miles from the office. The wife does the school drop off but works miles away in Tring, so an extra hour off her working day for a meeting means she doesn’t get into work until late morning. On top of that the kids obviously have to settle back into the routine of school, new teachers, and re-establish friendships that haven’t been maintained over the summer. It’s a hell-term but something we’re actually looking forward to it!

Review: Nozstock 2019

We loved the 2019 Nozstock the Hidden Valley music festival. We loved it so much, we’ve put our money were our mouth is (because bloggers tend to find free stuff “brilliant” all the time, don’t they?) and booked our tickets for next year. In fact we booked our tickets as soon as we got back (my wife did it while I unpacked the car).

Let’s take a step back though and talk about the Nozstock Festival. In it’s 21st year, Nozstock continues to be an environmentally conscious boutique festival, set in the rolling Herefordshire countryside on a cattle farm (it used to be a dairy farm but the current generation of farmers weren’t particularly in favour of the early starts).

This years Nozstock festival was a sell out, as was the previous year but even as a sell out, the sprawling site fits the 5,000 or so attendees comfortably, with plenty of space to swing a cat, or more pertinently some of those balls on a bit of string with streamers attached like some of the hipsters seem to like.

Everywhere seems to have a festival now, and the quality of course can be enormously variable. That’s one of the things I like about Nozstock; it’s kept it’s modest size and been happy continuing thus. It’s well organised, doesn’t overstretch either the organisers nor the facilities, and just works.

This years line up had more than a hint of reggae, folk and country about it during the daylight hours, reverting to some banging DJ sets and other more rambunctious acts after dark. My personal highlight was David Rodigan, some middle aged chap in a bright yellow suit I’d never heard of. Fortunately my wife filled me in on who he was (back in the day he was the Kiss FM DJ who introduced Jungle to an unsuspecting mainstream audience). He was absolutely fantastic and one of the key reasons festivals like Nozstock are so vital.

What do I mean by this? Well lets time travel back to 2008, before all this Spotify and Google Play Music stuff was popular. I had 500+ CDs in a rack next to the hi-fi. I usually played about 10 of them and ignored the rest. Even now, I have my playlists and favourite albums on Spotify and that’s pretty much all I listen to. Festivals are a brilliant way of stepping outside your own personal bubble and experiencing something new. Live music really is hard to beat.

Fifi’s personal highlight was the DJ set by Rudimental and if you’ve never seen a 10 year old pogo for over 90 minutes, let me tell you she managed it and was awesome.

Attending a festival as a family is a little different to attending a festival and this is another area that Nozstock shines. The site is sprawling but easily accessible, there are loads of free kids activities, and the food is both nice (not a given) and really reasonably priced. We were pitched in the family camping area, and since it’s policed (they don’t let people in without i) a family and ii) a colour coded family wristband), it was full of families.

There are some parts of the site that cater to EDM enthusiasts, be it jungle, trance or more rave influenced stuff and it was great fun to drop into these areas with the kids and experience an experience that is unlike any other- if you ever do the same, just make sure your kids have ear defenders and you might actually want a pair of foam ear plugs yourself! (And a word to the wise, if you decide to see the Sleaford Mods, which you should, they’re ace, remember they’re about as sweary as it’s possible to get live.)

Nozstock 2020 tickets are already up for sale, and the early bird discounts are too good to ignore, which is why we didn’t, put our money where our mouths were and purchased some tickets, guaranteeing a blooming great weekend of live music and entertainment next year!

I think any relevance I had died a while back

I have a 7 year old who patiently explains to me that if something is sick, it’s actually good, while my 10 year old bolts from the room if anyone actually mentions sick or does a throaty cough.

I’m not sure what, if anything, this means but I know it means I’m getting left behind by the modern age. It’s bad enough half the time when I get a blank response from quoting a TV show or movie at work I realise the person I’m quoting it at wasn’t born when the show was first broadcast.

Getting old is inevitable though, getting irrelevant shouldn’t be so I guess I need to up my game a bit!

The internet content filtering dilema

Don’t try anything on my WiFi network

I think the general consensus among parents I talk to is that their kids should be spoken to and rationally convinced that they shouldn’t look at naughty stuff on the internet. It’s the modern, involved, right on option to take. The problem is, any kid is only a couple of clicks away hot anal action or instructions on how to make homemade explosives either by accident or intent. And lets face it, we don’t want our kids either looking at that sort of stuff or conflating the two to come up with hot anal explosions do we?

There are a couple of options available to parents: all internet access is done in the communal living space and fully supervised. Who’s got time for that? Or you can use some sort of filter. Some routers now have basic filtering settings to weed out problem sites. There are also subscription services like Disney’s Circle that do device by device filtering. I’ve tried a few of these and they’re…. okay. If you’re a bit more technically minded you can even switch your DNS servers to OpenDNS and put site/category specific filters in, though this isn’t for the faint hearted.

The best solution I came up with in the end was a new Synology router, the RT2600AC Wi-Fi AC 2600.

Synology made their name in network storage but their router carries the user friendly interface across and it comes with some great apps, including the rather useful Safe Access. This allows you to assign devices to individuals, give the individual time limits, a curfew and filter the content to remove anything you don’t want them to see. The best part is you can customise the block screen that comes up when someone searches for something they shouldn’t…

How To Make Your Household Broadband Family Proof

It’s a fact of modern life that your children probably already spend a large amount of time online. With the internet, every member of the household now has a device to browse the online, stream Netflix or play games. It’s also a fact of modern life that the headlines are full of reminders of the dangers of the internet – from cyberbullying and identity theft, to internet addiction and predators.

This can be worrying for parents, as they want to endeavour to keep their children safe online but can feel overwhelmed by the amount of web trends and apps that they are using. And for every fun game, app or social network that becomes popular, there can be negative impacts of the internet too.

How do you keep your family safe? We have some ideas that you should consider taking onboard to keep your family secure on the internet.

Secure your Wi-Fi network

Your broadband network allows your kids to access the internet from any room in your house. This can make it that little bit harder to keep an eye on them and see what they are up to. As well as this, if the network is not secure there is the danger of intruders either using your bandwidth or compromising your security and infecting your household computers with malware.

In order to combat this, you should know all about what speeds and bandwidth that your broadband provider gives you, so you can keep an eye on your usage and speeds. You should also ensure that your Wi-Fi is highly secure using a strong password on your router and enabling encryption to restrict access to it.

Teach your kids safe social networking etiquette

When your kids become old enough to use social media, it’s worth teaching them how to keep safe while using it. It goes without saying that you should be keeping an eye on their friend list, but there are other things to consider too. For instance, you should teach family members to restrict their personal information on the internet; never use their full names or addresses on their profiles.

You should also teach them not to talk about identifiable details on social media, such as holiday plans or weekend activities, and try avoiding checking-in to public places.

Ensure a safe gaming environment for your kids

You probably have a kid or two that likes gaming online. This can be a great hobby, but it also comes with its own dangers. Live online games allow people to interact with other people all over the world, and this can expose them to a variety of security dangers such as bullying and harassment.

To protect against this, ensure that your gamer children don’t reveal their identities while playing games, and you should always check out who they are playing with – if possible, you should make sure that they only play with friends and family members that they know in real life. Often, a lot of games and consoles offer parental controls, so you can restrict certain features, so always check if these options are available.

Securing your house

Even adding virus protections, parental controls and passwords to every device in the house, it can still be hard to secure the internet completely. You should have an open and trustful relationship with your children when it comes to the internet, so that if anything does happen that they can come and tell you of any issues. Being forewarned will help keep them safe while online.

If you’d like to educate your family a little more on broadband, including speeds and what they mean for your family, then Hoppy has created an informative video which you can watch below!

A useful instructional for the parents of boys

I don’t often publish instructionals and this one is even more out there as it’s from the BBC’s comedy show The Daily Mash (itself spun out of the satirical website of the same name).

However given the press recently on all sorts of shenanigans on the internet from kids not believing that Madeleine McCann was actually a real person, to what’s known as “redpilling“, it’s probably more relevant now than ever that we keep an eye on what our kids are up to online. Let’s face it, you don’t want to get down the line and long for the nostalgic days when all you had to worry about was your kid googling for “boobies” on the internet. Whether it’s right wing/racist/fascist stuff on YouTube, or endless conspiracy theories that younger people find hard to differentiate from the truth from poppycock, the important thing is to talk to your kids about it.

Which brings us on to the whole “incel” subculture in the video. I was terrible with girls at school but that was due to shyness, I didn’t feel the need to construct an entire narrative or reality around the way human interaction works to justify my crapness, I just knew I was shy. The whole incel movement, “involuntarily celibate” boys who go to rather extreme lengths to convince themselves that the world is ganging up on them reminds me rather of an old episode of Red Dwarf where Rimmer does the “worm do” joke from the 1,001 chat up lines book he has, and Lister tries to point out to him that women aren’t an unknown different species who have to be tricked into liking you.

That’s what I like about Rachel Parrish’s monologue above; although she rightly ridicules the whole movement, she doesn’t dismiss it and actually ends up with some (tongue in cheek) pointers to potential incels to stop them going down that crazy path.

Owning my fears with AXA PPP healthcare

And so my journey to owning my fear of an early death is drawing to an end and also entering a new and exciting chapter. My six months of blog posts and support calls from Becky at AXA PPP healthcare are drawing to an end but the process of empowering myself to continue the journey is ongoing.

When I started my journey back in January I was more interested in tips, tricks and shortcuts to getting my health back on track; I was hoping AXA PPP healthcare and Becky would be able to give me the professional equivalent of those “one weird tip the experts don’t want you to know” adverts you see out there, but as I began to buy in to the process, I realised it was as much a change of attitude as it was in the record-able metrics of what I wanted to achieve: setting myself up to fail by designating a weight loss target as the goal wasn’t a great idea because it ignored the reason for it, and the reason (wanting to be there for my kids) was more important and required a change in thinking, not just in eating.

I’m going to sound like one of those old hippies but in this instance the journey was definitely more important than the destination. And I say this with some authority, as the man who once reviewed a Slendertone in a not entirely serious manner much to the irritation of everyone who found it on the front page of Google for several years.

Once I entered the mindset of owning my fear of a premature death, I was liberated in that I could face the elephant in the room and do more than a desultory attempt to address it because lets not forget, a fear pushed to the back of your mind and not properly acknowledged won’t be dealt with properly and will demotivate you all the way as you try to change things.

There are four key things in the Own your fears campaign that worked really well for me:

  1. Admitting to myself that I had a fear and it needed facing in the first place;
  2. Embracing the positivity that the admission created and using it to drive change;
  3. Having practical help in terms of support and guidance from Becky; and
  4. Having someone to be accountable to.

Going forwards, now that my series of coaching calls has finished, I can still manage one and two, three is okay as I’ve got the practical help sitting in my G Drive, but point four was always going to be the issue- just who do I find to hold myself accountable to?

In the end the answer was obvious and staring me in the face for the whole time. After all the reason I decided to own my fear in the first instance was for my children, and the two older children are of an age that they can hold me accountable but also encourage me. I may have had one two many enjoying the football on a sunny Friday afternoon recently- when I got back home, my two eldest told me off. The younger made me drink two pints of water and the elder did an impromptu quiz (what’s the weight of Saturn? Is diamond harder than titanium? You know, sensible questions) to ascertain how naughty I’d been. He even wrote down my results and rated me. That’s the kind of being held to account I need, although he’d have done better had he removed my dinner plate from me before I decided to have a quick nap.

The best thing about owning my fear is I feel light. Weight wise I haven’t lost as much as I hoped to but that’s not really what I’m talking about. It’s about the metaphorical weight that’s been taken off my shoulders.

Taking that first step is hard though, but with AXA PPP healthcare there to help, you don’t have to do it on your own. Go on, what are you waiting for? This could be the start of something special!

Running just as fast as we can, Owning my Fears with AXA PPP healthcare

Last Sunday was the St Albans Half Marathon. I didn’t run the half marathon. I didn’t run in the 10K either but I did run with my kids in the 1.5 mile fun run, and that ladies and gentlemen is entirely down to AXA PPP healthcare helping me in owning my fear of decrepitude and channelling it into something positive!

Vangelis is blaring out; I’m running in slow motion, aiming for the 4(+6) minute mile and frankly I might as well be Roger Bannister. All five of us ran the fun run but the two older kids went off at blistering pace, and wifey followed to make sure they didn’t get lost in the throng at the end. That left we running with Ned, who is six. Ned is a natural at pretty much everything but his one weakness with running is not pacing himself. Fortunately, running with me he had no choice but to run a bit slower. Even so, we passed a lot of parents, kids, teenagers and sole runners, which was heartening.

I had a plan though, and it wasn’t entirely down to my fitness or Neds aged either. As we came into the home straight, with crowds down both sides of the course, I turned to Ned and said, “Do you think you can sprint as fast as you can to the finish?” and of course he could. He might as well be modelled on Dash from the Incredibles because when he started really running, I had to put everything into it to keep up with him. We must have overtaken 40 or 50 people on that stretch, me crying “Run Forrest Run!”, Ned weaving in and out of people and as we approached the finish line, being cheered on by the crowd, we held hands and crossed the line together!

I’ll tell you this, it might have been hard work getting even this far, but it felt damn satisfying to cross the finish line of a 14 minute run at full pelt, holding my six year olds hand.

My fear of dying prematurely and leaving my wife and kids on their own was crushing and it was holding me back in so many ways but I’ve owned it. Now you can too, you can submit your fears here on the AXA Own Your Fears website and start your journey too. Did you know that 60% fear dying early and leaving their children? I wasn’t alone and the chances are you aren’t either.

Just remember, pretending that everything is all right doesn’t make it so, and that anxiety will be sitting there at the back of your mind nagging away at you.

Aside from the culmination of the the fun run, this past month has seen me double down and concentrate on not stuffing up. For me apathy to change and general can’t be bothered-ness has always been a problem but having a target to aim for has helped tremendously.

Talking to Becky, my support from AXA PPP healthcare has given me some great tips for keeping going, focusing on the lifestyle I want to achieve, rather than just specific targets, like losing X kilos, or being able to run 10K. I’m never going to be the sort of bloke who appears in a shaving advert but I could easily be one of the people to appear in a popular lifestyle product advert if I put a bit more work in and that’s what its about in a daft way. It’s much easier to buy into a lifestyle than a set of dry specific targets and that piece of advice has really helped me a lot.