environment · food · food storage · lifestyle

Easy Kitchen Eco Swaps

I’ve written before about how we’ve been working to reduce plastic waste around the house through swapping the everyday products we buy for alternatives that are plastic-free and more eco-friendly – eco swaps, if you will! I thought it was time for another update, this time focusing on easy kitchen eco swaps. A lot of plastic waste that we generate comes from the kitchen, so it seems like a logical place to look for opportunities to make life more sustainable…

Easy Kitchen Eco Swaps

Milk Delivery

One of the best swaps we’ve made recently is moving towards a traditional milk delivery by a real, live milkman! When I was a kid we used to have a milkman, but I’ve not had one for years – then, in the autumn we had a knock on the door from a new local milk delivery service, and I thought we’d give it a go. It’s super convenient, and much more eco-friendly – the switch to reusable glass bottles means it completely does away with the need for plastic bottles. Plus, our milk service also has the option to deliver other local produce like eggs, jam and more.

Plastic saving: We used to get through about 6 – 8 pints of milk a week, usually in 2 – 3 bottles. I’d estimate that by switching to a milk delivery, we’ve saved 130 plastic bottles per year – or 2,600 bottles over 20 years… wow!

Refill Shop

When a refill shop opened up in our town, I was super excited, but it was kind of a new concept to me! What is a refill shop? Well, it pretty much does what it says on the tin: it’s a shop where you bring your own containers to buy products which are free of packaging. Every store is different, but often they offer dry foods such as rice and pasta, and liquids such as cooking oils, cleaning products and more. The idea is to make shopping more sustainable by cutting down on plastic packaging, and often by offering fresh local produce as well, to reduce food miles. In general they’re a great option for making your shop more eco-friendly (although I recommend checking out this article by Wired where they look at some of the potential pitfalls of refill shops, as well).

We’ve tried to move to using the refill shop as much as possible for the products that are available, and that has meant that we’ve completely cut out plastic packaging for some products that we use every week – particularly rice and granola. We now also get to mix the perfect granola every morning: combining plain granola and a sprinkling of dried tropical mix, which solves the problem that you get with bags of granola where all the good stuff ends up at the top of the bag, and the last few bowlfuls are rubbish.

Plastic saving: I’ll write about plastic savings on refill toiletries in another article, so focusing just on the rice and granola that we buy regularly, I would estimate that we save a minimum of 68 items of plastic packaging a year – that’s 1,360 items over 20 years.

Eco Friendly Dish Sponges & Scourers

Up to now, we have always used washing up sponges and dish brushes from the supermarket, but these are all plastic, so I started looking into sustainable alternatives. I’ve not bought a new dish brush yet, as our old one still has plenty of use in it, but we’ve swapped to using eco sponges and scourers. They’re great, and there’s plenty of different options out there, made from sustainable materials like plant cellulose, hemp, coconut fibres and more. The only thing to be aware of is that normal plastic-based dish sponges often include ingredients to kill bacteria, whereas sustainable scourers won’t be, so it’s important to keep them dry.

For hard-to-shift, dried-on food, I also found a coconut husk dish scraper which is great for cleaning pots and pans.

Plastic saving: We probably would get through around 6 sponges a year, so that’s 120 plastic sponges saved over 20 years.

Sustainable Washing Up Liquid

Linked to the above, I realised we were getting through a lot of washing up liquid bottles. I’ve tried a solid washing up bar – lemongrass dish soap by LoofCo – but while I loved the smell, and found it cut through grease surprisingly well, I still found liquid washing up soap easier to work with. So currently we’re using our local refill store to top up on washing up liquid, and reusing an old Fairy Liquid bottle to store it.

Plastic saving: I’d guess we save on about four bottles of washing up liquid per year, so that’s 80 bottles over 20 years.

More Eco Friendly Ideas

If you have any ideas for further kitchen eco swaps that I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments! I’m always interested to hear about new green products and sustainable alternatives.

And if you’ve enjoyed this article, why not check out my previous blog post on eco swaps to reduce plastic waste or this post on keeping the weaning process more eco-friendly?

baking · food · health · mental health

Baking For Mental Health

You may have heard of art therapy – but have you ever heard of culinary art therapy (or CAT)? Increasingly there’s a move to recognise that cooking and baking can be good for our wellbeing – and there is actual scientific evidence that baking is good for mental health. As you probably know if you read this blog regularly, I’m a big fan of baking (especially gluten-free baking!), so I wanted to explore this further in a blog post looking at why baking is good for our mental health, and sharing some top tips to help you get started with baking therapy…

Baking for Mental Health

Why is baking good for your mental health?

Firstly, let’s look at some of the reasons why baking is good for mental health…

Shifting your focus

Baking requires focus and concentration. You need to find the right ingredients, weigh them out, and run through the process of turning them into delicious baked goods. Baking is also often quite a physical process – activities such as kneading bread, or mixing together ingredients, get our bodies involved as well as our minds. It’s a great distraction that forces your mind away from focusing in on sources of stress and anxiety. It also gives you a sense of control and purpose, paying attention to the present and what’s going on around you. As such, it works as a form of mindfulness, which is a great way to manage anxiety and stress.

Taking Time For Yourself

Baking takes time – whether it’s fifteen minutes to whip up a quick batch of cookie dough, or four hours on a celebration cake. That’s time that you’re carving out of your day for yourself. Taking time for ourselves is an act of self-care that’s really important for wellbeing.

Get Creative

Baking is a form of creative self-expression. As such, it’s a way to release stress and an outlet for emotion. Baking can help us to express our feelings, and getting creative is a recognised way to manage mental wellbeing. Repetitive creative motions – like baking, knitting, or even DIY – actually help your brain release dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ chemical.

Engage your Senses

Baking engages all the senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Engaging those senses is pleasant and uplifting, and can also reawaken fond old memories and associations – such as baking as a child. And of course, we all enjoy biting into a lovely slice of cake at the end of the baking process (and maybe licking the spoon beforehand as well!).

Share the Love

One of the aspects of baking that can be so satisfying is the opportunity to share what you make with other people, friends and family. Making other people happy is itself tremendously rewarding – and who doesn’t feel happy when they’re presented with a slice of homemade cake, or a cookie? Gift-giving is an important part of human cultures across the globe, and interestingly studies have shown that it is actually often the person giving the gift – rather than the one receiving it – who reaps the greatest psychological benefit from gifting. It helps us to feel valuable and experience a positive self-concept, increasing self-esteem – so it’s not surprising that sharing our bakes is good for our mental health.

Baking for Mental Health: How To

So, you’re convinced about the benefits of baking for mental health. You’ve decided to give baking therapy a go, and you want to get on with it. But how do you actually make it work? Here are some key pointers to get you started.

Low Pressure Baking

Baking is not going to help reduce stress and anxiety if it becomes a high-pressure situation. For instance – baking a birthday cake, or agreeing to create dessert for a large dinner party, or host afternoon tea, places a lot of pressure on yourself. That creates more stress and anxiety. Instead, keep your baking low pressure by baking for yourself, in situations where it doesn’t really matter if the outcome is wonderful or if you burn the brownies.

Keep It Simple

Linked to the above, following incredibly long and complicated recipes is only going to work as good therapy if you’re already a very advanced baker. Try to start with simple recipes, and learn new techniques one at a time rather than trying to take them on all in one go. When I’m feeling in need of a bit of baking therapy, I generally try to go for straightforward recipes that yield yummy, satisfying results, like these gluten-free oatmeal raisin cookies, these mochaccino brownies, or this delicious rocky road recipe. Let’s be honest – if baking therapy is a thing, then chocolate therapy is most definitely real as well.

Maintain A Sense Of Humour

Bakes go wrong. This can be really frustrating. The other day, I was planning on making raspberry macarons at home. I’ve made macarons a bunch of times, but this time it went horribly wrong (I still don’t really know why!) and I had to throw out the entire batch and start again. And, if I’m honest, it put me in a godawful mood. All the fun went out of it – especially when the subsequent batch I made were still not really up to scratch, even though they tasted pretty good. It was the ultimate baking therapy failure: I ended up in a worse mood than I started in.

What did I do wrong? Not maintaining a sense of humour! Bakes go wrong. It shouldn’t be a big deal. Try not to let it stress you out, and try not to go into each bake with super-high expectations. Take a picture of the horrible mess you’ve created, text a friend or post on social media, and have a good laugh at yourself. You’ll live to bake again another day, and if you find yourself getting stressed out by your bake rather than enjoying it – just stop!

Bake Vicariously

Okay, so baking may be great for your mental health – but let’s be honest, it’s not always practical to crack out the mixing bowl. Whether you don’t have the energy, the time, or simply the drive to actually get baking, there is a Next Best Thing. You can bake vicariously with the aid of The Great British Bake Off (known in the US for some reason as The Great British Baking Show).

Don’t get me wrong, other baking shows are available. But I haven’t found any that have the charm of Bake Off. There’s something very lovely about the camaraderie of the show, and it’s a great form of escapism that will get you weirdly involved in the process of creating types of cake that you’ve never even heard of.

Baking Therapy: Your Experiences

Are you a keen baker? Have you found baking to be a great form of expression and therapy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

baby · fatigue · health · pain · parenting · top tips

How To: Looking After A Baby When You’re Sick/Fatigued

Looking after a baby is hard work at the best of times, but when you’re sick it can be overwhelming. Whether you’re parenting with chronic illness, a bad cold or tummy bug, or fatigue (either from illness or too many sleepless nights!), it helps to have a plan for how you’re going to manage. So, based on my experience as a mama with chronic illness, I’ve pulled together my top tips on looking after a baby when you’re sick or fatigued. Read on to find out more…

looking after a baby when you suffer from chronic illness or you're sick top tips the sickly mama

Looking After A Baby When You’re Sick

Ask For Help

Whether you’re suffering from a temporary issue – a cold, a tummy bug, a flare up of your condition – or ongoing consistent symptoms from a chronic illness, ask for help. It’s okay! Even the healthiest, heartiest parents need help sometimes. It won’t do you any good to try to do everything yourself. And people love babies, so chances are you’ll have more people willing to help you out than you may imagine… But you do have to ask.

When you do ask for help, try to be specific about what you need – for instance, help around the house, fetching groceries or popping to the pharmacy, or just holding the baby. Most people will want to help if you let them know how. If people have popped over to see the baby, get them to help you out – for instance, they could hold baby for an hour so you can nap!

Do The Absolute Minimum

Again, might sound obvious. But if you’re feeling really unwell, do the absolute minimum you need to do. Things like the washing up, hoovering, tidying, even having a shower… You don’t absolutely have to do them. You need to feed yourself and baby, change baby, and sleep. Everything else is optional! So don’t force yourself to do anything unnecessary, if you don’t have the energy for it.

This may include cancelling on some guests, especially in the early days with a new baby. If people are planning to visit and you don’t think they’ll be helpful – or perhaps you know they won’t – and you’ll end up running around after them trying to be a good host and look after baby and yourself… Cancel the visit. You need to prioritise the well-being of yourself and your baby, and that’s okay.

…Except When You’re Okay

On the days or times where you are feeling better, that’s the time to prepare for the bad days! This may seem more obvious if you have a chronic health condition where the symptoms come and go – but even if you don’t, there will be good days and bad days. You never know when you might catch a cold or flu, or have an upset stomach, and even babies who are normally good sleepers will go through bad patches. So make sure that you’re prepped for bad days.

What does being prepared look like? Here are some suggestions:

  • A stash of easy emergency meals in the freezer – things you can just pop in the oven/microwave and leave.
  • An upstairs and downstairs nappy change station with everything you need for changing, so you don’t have to carry baby too far for changes.
  • A small stockpile of key items for baby (nappies, wipes, formula etc.) that will last for at least a week, so you’re not going to run out and need to go to the shops urgently when you’re feeling sick and/or exhausted.
  • Similarly, try to ensure you have a good stock of spare clothes for your little one, so you’re not going to end up in a pickle if you can’t do laundry for a few days.
  • Talking to your partner, friends and family about how you will manage childcare on sick days, in advance. Have a back-up plan if you are just too poorly to look after the little one – and ideally have a back-up back-up plan just in case!

Practice self-care

Just scraping by will do for a few days here and there when you’re feeling especially dreadful, but it’s not sustainable for the long term. You need to take care of yourself and your mental and physical health.

So, once you’ve worked out what the absolute minimum is, have a think about the next step up – the minimum things you need in order to feel reasonably content. For instance, in my case, I absolutely hate not having a nice hot shower in the morning. Even if I feel rubbish, I know a shower always helps me feel better. So I really prioritised ensuring I got my morning shower every day, as far as reasonably possible. Little Man would be on the bathroom floor in his Moses basket when he was really small, or crawling around with a few toys and a baby sensory video once he was a bit bigger.

Work out your key self-care priorities – perhaps it’s having a shower, listening to music or watching a show, reading a book or getting outside for some fresh air once a day. And make sure you find time to do the things that help you feel okay, even if it’s at the expense of other day to day life admin.

Rest as much as possible

Before you have a baby, everyone tells you to “sleep when the baby sleeps” which in my experience is much easier said than done. If you can get some sleep when baby is napping or someone else comes to help out, then obviously that’s the best thing you can do. But even if you can’t sleep, you can try to rest up. Set up a comfortable spot in the house to have as your base for the day – an armchair, sofa, bed, whatever suits you – and collect as much stuff as possible that you’ll need for looking after baby to keep nearby. Not just obvious things like nappy change supplies, but also toys, books, whatever you’ve got to keep the little one entertained. Try to sit and chill as much as you can.

And when baby goes to bed for the night – go to bed too! It’s tempting to stay up and take some time for yourself, but you’re better off going to bed and getting as much sleep as you can before your next wake up call.

Let go of the mum/dad guilt

When you’re ill, you will not be winning any parenting awards, and that is fine. You need to keep baby safe, clean and fed. If they miss out on a few sensory play sessions, or they spend a bit more time watching YouTube videos to give you a break – it really will not matter in the long run. They need a parent who takes care of him/herself, and if you don’t do that then sooner or later you will crash and end up much worse than before.

No parent is perfect, whether they suffer from chronic illness or not, so just do your best to let go of the guilt about what you can’t do because of your illness, and focus instead on all the positive things you can do, however small, to help your baby feel loved and cared for.

Your tips for looking after baby when you’re sick

Do you have any experience of looking after a baby while ill? What are your tips for others? Let me know in the comments!

looking after baby when sick parenting with chronic illness the sickly mama blog newborn
baking · food · gluten free · recipes

Gluten-free Sugar Glazed Jam Tarts Recipe

These bite-size gluten free jam tarts are great for a picnic, and the sugar glaze helps to keep them light and sweet with the salty puff pastry and tangy jam! It is such an easy recipe to bake with little kids, who will love cutting the pastry and spooning out the jam (fair warning, you will have jam everywhere). Little Man is still a bit small to get very involved in baking, but he enjoyed watching me drizzle the sugar glaze and sticking his hands into a lemon tart… Oops.

Plus, it’s so nice if you have a gluten free family member who doesn’t usually get to enjoy pastry treats! There’s virtually no washing up, and it only requires four ingredients. So let’s get going!

Gluten-free Sugar-glazed Jam Tarts Recipe

Ingredients for your gluten free jam tarts:

Genuinely you only need four ingredients:

  • Gluten-free puff pastry (available in most supermarkets these days – I use Jus-Roll gluten free pastry which you can find everywhere!)
  • Jam or lemon curd (or both!)
  • Icing sugar
  • Water
gluten free sugar glazed jam tarts lemon curd sickly mama blog

How to make your tarts:

1. Use a biscuit cutter to cut circles out of the pastry and put them into the cake spots in a cupcake tin. This creates a nice shape for your tarts. Using a fork, prick holes in the base of each one – this will stop it puffing in the middle and spilling jam everywhere!

2. Put a small teaspoon of jam or lemon curd in the middle of each tart. Don’t get too generous, as the filling will bubble up when baking!

3. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 200 degrees C, for 12 – 15 minutes (until the pastry is nice and golden).

4. Carefully remove your tarts from the tin and place on a cooling rack. Mix two tablespoons of icing sugar with two teaspoons of water to form a runny white glaze, and drizzle it over the tarts once they’re cool.

5. Try not to let your baby son stick his mucky hands all over them…

baby grabbing gluten free sugar glazed jam tarts sickly mama blog
Just for fun · mermaiding · top tips

How To Use Props To Create Stunning Underwater Photography (Tips From A Professional Mermaid)

Drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid and underwater model, I’ve been writing a series of articles with my top tips for underwater photography. These blog posts are primarily aimed at people who are new to underwater modelling, but they’ll be useful to models, photographers and anyone else aiming to create the perfect underwater photograph! In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to use props underwater for the best effect…

how to use props underwater to create stunning underwater photographs modelling top tips the sickly mama mermaid

How To Use Props In Underwater Photography:

Using fabric in underwater photography:

Loose fabric is one of the best props you can use in underwater photography, because visibly floating fabric is a simple way of enhancing the weightless sensation of being underwater. There are some simple ways to enhance the effect when selecting your fabric:

  • Pick the right fabric. Lighter fabric will float the best (and the longest) in the water, and fabric which is slightly translucent will catch the light and look most effective in your photographs. Organza, chiffon, voile, tulle etc. are all good choices.
  • Consider the background you’ll be shooting against and select a fabric that will contrast, e.g. white fabric against a black background, orange fabric against a blue background and so on. Bright block colours are usually more effective underwater than darker or heavily patterned fabrics.
  • Ensure the fabric is big enough to have an effect – if you are using loose fabric then you want at least a couple of metres of it, if it’s part of a costume (sleeves, skirts, etc) then again, bigger is better.

Then you need to think about how you’re actually going to use the fabric in your pictures. Some top tips for working with fabric underwater include:

  • Move slowly and steadily through the water, to maximise your opportunity to get the shot.
  • If you’re using loose fabric, aim to keep it at chest height or above, as this will accentuate the weightless effect of the picture.
  • Think about how you’re shaping your hands as you hold onto the fabric – you don’t want beautiful flowing fabric clenched in tight little fists!
  • Aim to keep the fabric mostly behind or above you unless it’s partially translucent, as otherwise it will block you in the photo.
mermaid using fabric prop underwater the sickly mama mairead claydon blog

Using Small Props In Underwater Photography

Often small props can be a very simple way to create some extra interest in your underwater photography, or to give it a fun sense of surrealism. One of the most fun photographs of me underwater is of me dressed in a mermaid tail, reading a newspaper at the bottom of a water tank (see below, by Shamira Crivellaro). I love it because it’s such a surreal shot – the floaty hair makes it clear that the photo really was taken underwater, but the calm pose reading the paper with my glasses on is not what you expect from typical mermaid photography!

mermaid reading a newspaper underwater wearing glasses

Here’s a few top tips on getting the most from using small props underwater:

  • Make sure they’re waterproof! Okay, it sounds incredibly obvious but there’s nothing worse than having a key prop disintegrate in the middle of a shoot (and then finding yourself swimming around the tank trying to retrieve the pieces!). So make sure they’re waterproof before you start – that includes making sure they won’t leak colour, or have bits fall off, and that they sink/float as you’d expect.
  • A single prop is usually more effective than loads of them. Getting the perfect shot underwater is difficult enough without introducing too many variables! Make it something simple that’s easy to interact with.
  • Combining ‘everyday’ items with underwater photography is often very effective at achieving that surreal look. For instance, newspapers, tea cups, fans, mirrors etc.
mermaid holding a model ship underwater david ballard
Photograph by David Ballard

Using Large Props In Underwater Photography

Large props, such as furniture, can also look incredible in your underwater photography, but they bring their own challenges! Again, you need to make sure they’re waterproof, but what other considerations are there when working with large props?

  • The biggest consideration is buoyancy! If your furniture is trying to float away, it’s incredibly difficult to work with. I once did a shoot with a chair that was almost impossible, because it just was not heavy enough to stay sunk at the bottom of the pool, and we both kept drifting away together! (See the pic below… We made it work eventually!) You can always add weights to help something sink if needed.
  • Working with large items creates additional risk, particularly in terms of getting the props into/out of the water and the risk of costumes catching on the props during the shoot and restricting movement. Make sure you’ve properly risk assessed the shoot and considered how to manage these potential dangers.

The Underwater Photoshoot Series

This article is part of a series giving advice on underwater photoshoots both for photographers and underwater models, drawing on my experience as a professional mermaid. Why not check out my previous articles, including top tips for modelling underwater and this blog post helping you learn how to open your eyes underwater.