The never-ending laundry

Laundry is ever-present in my life: the sorting, washing, drying, putting away, and planning so that the right things get done and nobody runs out of pants. One of my children needs some encouragement to accept that, if you try on three t-shirts before settling on a fourth, the first three aren’t so contaminated by their fleeting contact with human skin as to need to go through the laundry before they can go back in the drawer; another tends in the opposite direction and would prefer to keep yesterday’s underwear on, or at least on the bedroom floor, and needs somebody keeping a discreet count to make sure the appropriate amount of clothes are getting into the laundry basket.

Managing the laundry is a vast network of processes, some simple and some surprisingly subtle, and my interest is in transferring as many of them as possible to the children. I’ve been thinking recently that the older children are ready to be a bit more involved in the laundry, partly because there’s just more of it than I can manage right now, and partly because I’ve been reading books by people with large families recently: “The Duggars”, “Cheaper by the dozen”, “Windows to our world”, “A sane woman’s guide to raising a large family”. All of them have fascinating lists of who does which chores at what age, all working on the assumption (unavoidable in a huge family I suppose) that everyone does as much as they’re capable of, to contribute to the running of the household.

I had been focusing recently on getting my children to tidy up more often and more effectively, but reading those books reminded me that I haven’t asked them to increase their contribution to the laundry recently. Now I think of it, my two-year-old doesn’t do anything, but could easily start to develop the habit of putting dirty clothes in the laundry bin, and could help sort clean clothes into the drawers (at his age everything is hard wearing and mostly stretchy fabrics so I don’t fold much, which means he could easily put t-shirts and trousers into the appropriate drawers). My five-year-old is actually pretty good at folding and putting away in drawers, though not great at hangers yet, but I should start prompting her to put her laundry away each day instead of letting it pile up for a week. My eight-year-old hates putting laundry away above all other domestic tasks, and we’ve been working through a huge backlog of it together, so there’s no point me trying to encourage her to learn new skills until she’s got a clean slate. On the plus side, she’s getting lots of practice at sorting and folding! And I know my ten-year-old can work the washing machine with some help, so I think the time has come to get her doing a load a week, maybe with some help from her siblings to peg it out and sort it into each person’s pile when it’s dry.

I’m happy to pass this off as laziness on my part – and it would be great if I could entirely delegate the laundry to my children – but the truth is that they are learning habits that they may keep as adults. If you’ve always put your pants in the wash basket, you probably won’t suddenly start putting them on the floor just because you’ve left home; the opposite is also true. The habits that are so ingrained they do them without thinking will be the ones that they effortlessly continue with throughout their lives. I’m just trying to make sure that they’re good ones.

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I’ve made lots of mistakes and wrong turnings over the years, and I make no claim to have it all sorted now (my children would certainly tell you otherwise), but I have a lot more experience, knowledge and confidence now that I wish I’d had right from the start. So I’m doing the next best thing: I’ve written it all down so that other people can have it. I’ve collected together all the ideas and information that has helped me, and other families, through everything from pregnancy and babyhood right into older childhood. Not all of it will work for you, but I promise you’ll find something you’ve never read before that makes parenting just a little bit easier.

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Cookbooks for older children

Following my last post about cookbooks for young children, I wanted to follow up with some for older children. Except… we don’t have many. We have two “family” cookbooks and one aimed at teenagers, but in practice they’re used by adults more than children in this house; maybe that will change as the children get a bit older. I’ll tell you about them anyway, because I think they’re good books.

The River Cottage Family Cookbook claims that it’s for “anyone in the family” to use, and that children aged 10-12 and upwards (isn’t that the same as 10 and upwards?) should be able to cook from it without help. The recipes are divided onto rough groups by main ingredient – flour, milk, meat, sugar etc – and there are some useful basics in there like soda bread, pizza dough, Victoria sponge, to name just a few from the Flour chapter. Personally I think my children might be more inspired to cook from it if there were pictures for each recipe and a bit less chat in between, but as they get older they might be more inclined to sit down and read the whole thing until they find something that interests them.

The Family Cooks is aimed at parents, but I’m including it here because it’s all about food that children might realistically eat at normal mealtimes, and plenty of the recipes are extremely simple because they’re designed to be put on a weekday dinner table within ten minutes of walking in the door. Each recipe has one clear photo of the finished product, and a set of tips at the foot of the page on how you could vary the recipe and on which bits of the process are best for involving younger children. It’s very much focused on cooking from scratch using wholefood ingredients, and has been helpful for coming up with new ways to eat vegetables that we get tired of (cauliflower popcorn, kneaded kale, and sweet potato soup with miso are some recipes we’ve loved).

Cooking Up A Storm is endorsed by Jamie Oliver and has some of the same “wotcha, geezer” style to it, which grates a bit. The recipes themselves are good, though, clearly explained and realistically cookable and eatable by the target audience. There are plenty of pictures but, one of my bugbears in cookbooks, I’d rather see more photos of the finished dishes and fewer of the chef having a laugh with his mates, or juggling oranges, or dressing up for a party. Is it weird that I want all the pictures in a cookbook to at least have some food in them? Also I’m fighting the urge to go through the book with a permanent marker and cross out all the stupid banter about “girls’ food” and mums fussing about and all the rest, leaving only the perfectly serviceable recipes.

In practice, when my oldest daughter (nearly 12) wants to cook, one of three things happens. One, she decides what she wants to make and we find a recipe on the internet. Two, she wants to make one of the things that we regularly cook and eat at home, so she asks me to stay with her and give instructions, and makes me promise not to interfere. Three, she uses something from the collection of written-out recipes that she’s been collecting since she did her Cook badge at Brownies four years ago. I know there are many more high-tech ways of collecting recipes, but an A5 sized ringbinder of bits of paper with recipes handwritten on them works fine for her (and for me; I’ve got my own very similar folder, though the recipes in it are a bit different). It’s been really useful for her to have some basics written out in detail – white sauce, vegetable soup, even how to make a cup of tea. Her collection is the kind of things that I can now make without a recipe, and that I use all the time. Maybe she should compile them into a cookbook…

Cookbooks for young children

I’m cross-posting this with my other blog, Lick The Plate, where I write about food. I haven’t posted here much recently because I’ve been writing a Have The Fourth One First book, so all my best ideas were going straight into there, but I’m on my final proofread so hopefully I can get back to posting on this blog more regularly soon. If you’re interested in simple, practical cookery, particularly cooking from scratch and reducing food waste, you can follow the other blog and get nearly-weekly blog posts delivered straight to your inbox.

I’ve always been keen to get my children involved in cooking, both to get them engaged with food and to get some extra help in the kitchen, though it takes a few years of not-very-helpful help to get to the point when they’re actually helpful. Mostly they join in with whatever I’m doing, but as they’ve got older they’ve wanted to use recipes and cook more independently. Ordinary cookbooks often don’t give enough detail for anyone who isn’t used to cooking – when I’ve tried writing recipes down for them, it’s really shocking how long it takes to spell out the steps involved in doing something like “heat the stock” or “dice the onion”.

Rrally good children’s cookbooks are hard to come by. The recipes are too simple, or too complex, or not well explained, or heavy on cupcakes with little everyday food in them. I’ve picked out a few that have really worked for us: the ones I’m listing here are great for young children just starting to cook, and next week I’ll suggest a few for older children.

The Usborne First Cookbook

Our copy of this is the one I had as a small child, now in tatters and still in regular use. By the age of 12 I had cooked basically everything in it. I love how it has really simple recipes (suggestions for sandwich fillings, ice cream sundaes, stuffed jacket potatoes) sitting alongside things that even adults find a bit intimidating (soufflé, profiteroles, pizza from scratch), without any flashing warning signs that we’re now Doing Something Difficult. There are some useful basic recipes in there, and it’s still my go-to source for chocolate brownies, chocolate mousse and the aforementioned profiteroles. It has line drawings rather than photos, showing all the intermediate steps. It does use some cookbook jargon but has a glossary, so older children (maybe 8+ if they have some cooking experience) can use it independently.

Pretend Soup and Salad People

These are aimed at very young children (4+) cooking under adult supervision. Every recipe is written twice: first as a regular recipe, then over the page a children’s version, with each step simply explained and illustrated with a drawing. You do need to look through the adult version first to get some of the specifics, but once that’s done and the ingredients and equipment are ready, a child who can read can follow the steps unaided. The recipes are a useful mix of main dishes, vegetable sides, puddings and drinks, though this often means that my daughter (recently six) wants to cook four different recipes simultaneously to make a full meal, which complicates things a bit. Still, to get a really young child to feel they’ve cooked some proper food, which other people actually want to eat. As a UK reader I do sometimes have to translate the US terms and swap ingredients for what’s available here.

Honest Pretzels

Another book by the same author, aimed at slightly older children. This is my nine-year-old’s preferred cookbook, and the style is the same: full recipe on one double page, followed by a step-by-step illustrated version on the next double page. The recipes are more ambitious, for example quite a few variations on making bread dough.

How To Cook In Ten Easy Lessons

This is such a great idea, and would work really well for anyone starting to cook, child or adult. Each chapter introduces a new cookery technique – chapter one is “using knives”, chapter two is “peeling and grating” and so on. The technique is introduced with photos and drawings and text explanations – so for example “using knives” tells you about safety, and shows in detail how to chop and dice and julienne. Then there are a few recipes using the new technique to make some sensible everyday things, like minestrone, hummus or pavlova.

Children’s World Cookbook

This is less of a “what’s for dinner?” cookbook and more of a “let’s have an adventure”, though no worse for that. It takes one country at a time, tells the reader a little bit about the place and its food, then for each country there is one simple recipe. It works well when children are doing projects on other countries, or when the World Cup or the Olympics has got them interested, and could be a great starting point for finding out more about a particular place. The individual steps are illustrated with drawings, and there are wonderful bright photos of the finished dishes and of each country’s landscape and culture. Unfortunately it’s wildly northern hemisphere-centric, and I have a huge issue with “Africa” being a single entry, and “the Middle East” another, when for example Sweden and Norway get an entry each. The recipe element is good, despite the problematic geopolitics.

Leave my clocks alone!

Here in the UK the clocks went forward an hour, late Saturday night/early Sunday morning. Before I had children I barely even noticed the clocks changing, and just got an early night on Saturday or enjoyed a bit of extra sleep on Sunday morning as appropriate. Now, it’s not only the disruption to the children’s sleep patterns that bothers me, but being tied (by them) to more consistent sleep and wake times means that changing the clocks really messes with me, too. For the last 48 hours I’ve felt exactly like west-to-east jetlag: I’ve been nauseous and had a terrible headache, I’ve felt exhausted but have woken up both nights at 4am and struggled to get back to sleep, only managing it just in time to be unwakeably deeply asleep by 6.30am when I need to get up. My oldest daughter has been waking in the night too (so she tells me; I’m sorry for her, but delighted that she’s past the age of coming immediately to tell me if she wakes in the night!). My nine-year-old has been struggling to get to sleep, even after the extra hour has passed, so has gone to sleep at 10 or 11pm two nights running and then found it almost impossible to get up in the morning. My youngest daughter was bursting helplessly into tears while trying to get to bed tonight, she said nothing in particular was wrong but kept going from fine to sobbing (“it’s happening again, Mummy!”). And my son, aged three, seems to have taken the change of clocks as his cue to give up sleeping entirely: despite some really busy and active days, I’ve had to wrestle him into bed, he hasn’t gone to sleep until hours later than usual, he’s also waking up in the night and staying awake, then he’s up at his usual time and not napping to make up for what he’s missed. I’m only hoping we can keep this disastrous show on the road for another day and a half until school breaks up for Easter, then we can switch off all the alarm clocks and let everyone get back on track in their own time. And once we’re back to fighting strength, let’s March on Parliament to demand that they stop messing about with our clocks twice a year: who’s with me?

To Barbie or not to Barbie

After a few months in a bag on top of a wardrobe, the Barbies are out again, and suddenly I can’t cross a room without stepping on a smiling naked lady. I always feel a bit weird about them – and bear in mind that I’m using “Barbie” as a generic term for those smiley plastic lady dolls with big boobs and tiny feet – and I don’t encourage the acquisition of new ones, although the girls have occasionally been given them as birthday presents. But most of the collection could generously be described as ‘vintage’ – or maybe ‘heirloom’, like an endangered variety of stripy tomatoes. Some were mine from the eighties, and some were my aunt’s from the seventies; there are Barbies, Sindies and cheap knock-offs from every era; there are Flower Fairies, sizes just right to be the Barbies’ children, and some little babies that were originally a separate play set but have been accumulated into the Barbie collection. Noticing that all the adults were female, I also picked up three man-Barbies of different kinds in a charity shop (when I played with them as a child, I pooled Barbies with two friends, but we had a single Ken between us so constructed complex family dramas to allow him to be the father of all the children belonging to all the different Barbies; between us we had plenty of experience of absent fathers and reconstructed families, but sadly no concept of gay marriage or donor insemination that might have given poor Ken a break from his duties).

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Seeing them together makes me realise that part of my uneasiness about standard Barbies is to do with their uniformity: this is what a beautiful lady looks like, here are twenty versions of her with only minor variations, and now you can start hoping that when you grow up you might look like her (you won’t, though). The variation in shapes over the years reduces that sense that “this is what perfect looks like”, and in a way it draws attention to the weird exaggerations and extremes as being a bit freaky, rather than unattainable ideals. They got my daughter asking questions that developed into an interesting conversation about changing ideas of beauty, not to mention the disturbing realisation that many Barbies, Disney princesses and so on are ultra-sexy-lady parts (tiny waist, long shiny hair, huge boobs, impossibly small hands) crossed with some features that make baby mammals appealing to their parents (big round eyes, gigantic heads that their tiny necks can’t support).

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Being so ancient, we do even have a number of Barbies with visible disabilities: missing hands, no legs, prosthetic arm (ok, I think it’s probably meant to be a weapon of some kind, but it’s the best we could do)… They are all thin and white, though; and even though I might be able to find a Barbie with darker skin, the recently released bigger Barbies still don’t get much beyond what you might call sturdy: they wouldn’t snap while walking in a strong breeze, but they aren’t even chubby, let alone fat. Maybe I should add a few biroed stretchmarks and play dough muffin tops. And today my daughter pointed out that “this one looks more realistic when you twist her waist right round so her bum’s at the front so it looks like a vulva”: definitely not territory that Mattel is likely to venture into any time soon.

Postscript:

When I’d just finished writing this, my daughter came into the room with a Barbie who needed my help to undo a hairdo that had gone wrong. As I untangled loom bands from the shiny brown hair, my daughter was explaining to me why this particular one was her favourite: “because she’s got hair the same colour as mine” (hers is a vivid red, but this doll’s auburn gets close enough for her). Without knowing what I’d been writing about, she added: “I wish they’d do dolls with curly hair so I could have one more like me, though”. So there’s another gap in our collection that I hadn’t even noticed: ginger Barbies and curly Barbies. I can’t quite stomach buying a load of new ones, but maybe I’ll try eBay, or DIY!

Things I never leave the house without (except when I do)

I made the mistake of clearing out my handbag. It really needed to happen: it was full of crumbs and hankies and unidentifiable bits of rubbish; some coins had got through a hole in the lining and were rattling around inside it; and some child had at some point put some chunky glass beads in there which meant that, while rummaging for keys, my fingers landed on a bead and I thought “oh, yum, feels just like a peanut M & M has somehow got left in my handbag, I’ll eat that”, and I’d only narrowly avoided trying to swallow a small chunk of glass. I’m not sure whether to be more embarrassed by my willingness to eat a sweet of dubious provenance (it’s not uncommon for my handbag to contain actual peanut M & Ms, so I did at least assume they were mine and were recent), or by the fact that this happened a total of three times before I finally decided that I wasn’t really safe to carry glass beads around and I ought to tip my bag out and sort through all the stuff.

So, with my newly un-crumby handbag emptied of junk, I set out for the day, but discovered that I’d removed a lot of really useful things from it. Yes, there was a blue crayon and some old receipts: perfect for a toddler who wants to do some drawing while bored in a queue. Yes, a small bottle of bubble liquid that might have leaked all over my stuff; it was also great that time we had to wait ages for food in a cafe so we took it in turns to blow bubbles and pop them on the table (I decided that nobody could really mind a bit of soapy water landing on a cafe table; and if they did mind then they could hurry up and bring us some food so we didn’t have to resort to bubbles). And all those hankies? Well, I failed to replace them with any fresh ones, with predictably disastrous consequences.

All of which got me thinking about the things I’ve learnt never to go out without. Obviously nappies and snacks and a bottle of water (not only to drink but for emergency wash-downs), and a handy bag or two, the kind that fold into a little pouch to keep in your handbag. I also collect small plastic bags: any time I get a magazine in the post or a weekend newspaper, I save the A4 plastic bags they often come in and stash them in a coat pocket or a bag or the car, because you never know when you’ll need to bag up something unpleasant to carry it home. Spare hairbands, cloth hankies, nappy pins (useful for so much more than nappies), a penknife with tweezers on it. A couple of unexpected small toys are handy to be able to produce in an emergency – finger puppets are particularly brilliant. In the car, I always have a couple of nappies, a packet of babywipes (I rarely use them in normal life, only in the car and on holiday), a collapsible potty, and a number of cot blankets which have substituted for coats, picnic blankets, even an improvised skirt for a child who has weed in all their own clothes.

And then sometimes I get to where I’m going and discover I forgot to put shoes on my toddler before carrying him to the playground, or that my daughter’s at school with no lunch, or I’m in the supermarket without my wallet. On those occasions, at least I have some finger puppets to cheer me up, or at least some clean hankies to sob into.