Monday, 18 July 2016

Ice Age Collision Course with Pizza Express

There are some brilliant movies coming up this summer.  I've already reviewed The Secret Life of Pets, and there's also Swallows and Amazons and the BFG due out soon, as well as Ice Age  Collision Course. We were lucky enough to be invited this weekend as guests of Pizza Express to celebrate their collaboration with the film.  They have brand new kid's activity sheets featuring puzzles, colouring and quizzes from the movie, and a fabulous chance to win a trip to Hollywood just by sending in your drawing of your favourite pizza and Ice Age character.  The closing date is the 5th September, so you could take the sheet home with you and spend lots of time working on your perfect entry over the holidays.

The main prize is for a family of 4 to travel to Hollywood, with flights, accommodation, car hire and a trip to Fox Studios.  There's also 5 runners up prizes of Ice Age goody bags and vouchers for pizza making parties for up to 12 people, and 50 runner up prizes of an Ice Age plush toy and £30 Pizza Express voucher.

It would make such a fun school holiday treat to see the movie and then dine at Pizza Express, especially on a rainy day - or dare I say it, on a scorching one when you're looking for some air conditioned refuge.  With the kids' Piccolo menu at just £6.95 for 3 courses, it won't break the bank either.

We were invited to the Dean Street restaurant, in the heart of bustling Soho, and famous for its jazz nights.  It was a glorious sunny Saturday and the streets were buzzing with people.  As we stepped into the restaurant we were greeted by cheerful staff who took us to our table.

It was great to be able to try out some of the new summer specials, and the Watermelon Chiller with its blend of pink melon, strawberries and mint went down an absolute treat in the warmth. My partner enjoyed a cooling Passionfruit Lemonade, another new addition this summer.

Ruby and her friend went for Appletizer, a treat to have a fizzy drink!  We soon got to order our food, again relieved that Pizza Express cater so well for allergies and knowing there's always a great selection for gluten-free diners. Ruby had gluten free doughballs with a side salad of crudités and her friend had the regular doughballs. Ladling on lashings of butter, they both declared that Pizza Express butter is the best in the world!

Between courses they had a chance to fill in their activity sheets and plenty of colouring pencils were delivered to the table in their trademark tomato tins.  The girls were super excited to see the film, and spent the time getting re-acquainted with the movie characters.

For starters I ordered a refreshing tomato and mozzarella salad drizzled with vibrant basil pesto and my other half ordered the antipasto platter which they kindly brought out with some gluten-free bread.  It's lovely to eat somewhere where you don't feel like you're being a pain ordering special food.  

They always get the balance just right making it child-friendly but not gimmicky, and somewhere grown-ups want to visit and eat.  It's relaxed so you don't need to worry if your child isn't on their best behaviour, but most of all I love that they offer something different to the usual beige, fried food you find on most kids menus.

For mains the girls went for the Margharita pizza from the Piccolo menu, I picked my usual Padana pizza (loaded with goat's cheese, tangy onion marmalade and spinach) and the old man went for the new pizza the Barbarcoa, a meaty feast with smoked pulled beef and spicy chipotle salsa topped with coriander. He really enjoyed the flavour of the new pizza although felt there was 'a bit too much raw salad on top'. Perhaps it could have done with being more finely chopped?  All the food was delicious, as it always is at Pizza Express.  We know whatever town we visit, we can always rely on a Pizza Express branch to deliver great tasting food, safe in the knowledge we can dine gluten-free.

For dessert, one girl chose ice cream, the other a gluten-free brownie and the grown-ups shared some salted caramel ice cream which is to die for - well, when I say of us got a fair bit more than the other!

After packing up the activity sheets so we could take them home and complete our competition entries, we headed round the corner to Twentieth Century Fox's London HQ.  We were eagerly greeted by Sid and Scrat who were happy to give us a hug!

With excitement building, we headed to the private cinema inside to settle down for the movie.  Somehow the kids managed to find a bit more room to squeeze some popcorn in!

Ice Age Collsion Course is the 5th Ice Age movie, but don't worry if you're not familiar with the previous ones, the film works really well in it's own right and you don't have to have seen the others.  It has a great voice cast including Queen Latifa, Jennifer Lopez, Simon Pegg and Jesse J.  It's an action-packed adventure starting with Scrat the squirrel inadvertently diverting a space-ship and setting it off on a catastrophic course into the solar system, crashing with planets and causing an asteroid shower, which head towards earth spelling disaster.

Down on earth, Manny the mammoth is distressed about his daughter's Peaches upcoming wedding to Julien and there are some touching moments exploring growing up, and letting go as a parent.  

There's lots of laughs throughout for both adults and children and it's a light-hearted, fun movie, with of course, a happy ending!

A meal at Pizza Express and the Ice Age movie are a perfect combination so make sure you fit it in over the school holidays, and don't forget to enter the amazing competition too.

Disclosure: We were invited as guests of Pizza Express to dine and see the movie.  Many thanks to Ruth and Katy for organising.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Secret Life Of Pets - A Film Review

Ever since we saw the trailer for this, we were desperate to see the film.  It seems we weren't alone, as on opening weekend we struggled to get tickets.  We had to leave one multiplex and head to another across town, and even there had to wait for a further two showings before we were able to nab the final three seats in the theatre.  I've not experienced such a popular family film in long time.

Squished in the second row and craning our necks, the opening aerial sequence over a lively New York skyline was dizzying.  Ruby loved it off the bat as Taylor Swift's Welcome to New York boomed out and the whole audience were tapping their feet and settling in for the ride. 

The brilliantly ecclectic soundtrack was a feature throughout, with tunes to delight young and old - from the tween idol Swift, to The Beastie Boy's No Sleep Til Brooklyn and Bill Wither's Lovely Day, with a brief heavy metal burst from Armenian LA band System of a Down, and a deliriously bonkers dancing sausages montage backed by a well-known Grease hit.  There's also some Queen, BeeGees and Pharrell Williams thrown in there - told you it was ecclectic.

Those of you that have seen the trailer will know that the comedy moments come mostly from the brilliantly observed animal mannerisms and antics.  What pet owner hasn't wondered what they'd discover if they set up a hidden camera while they were out, or strapped a GoPro onto their fur-baby? In fact, if you look closely at the slightly out-of-control house party in one of the scenes, you will indeed spot one wearing a video camera.

The familiarity of the storyline will resonate with kids - think an animal version of Toy Story and you're pretty much there.  The cute pet antics of the home-alone felines and canines quickly make way for a fast-paced action movie, which is at times completely bonkers but always brilliantly animated with funny gags abounding.  The encounter with a bunch of disshevelled alley cats results in a beautifully choreographed vertical chase scene through hanging backstreet laundry and rooftops, which reminded me of old school Disney movie The Aristocats.

The main character, Max a wise-cracking terrier leads a charmed life with his human Katie, but soon feels usurped by the sudden arrival of the sizeable and dishevelled Duke, also rescued from the pound.  Usual sibling rivalry ensues and I can imagine this will strike a chord with children getting to know step-siblings.  Ultimately, of course they put aside their differences, learn more about each other's back story and work together to get out of the scrape they're in.

The 'scrape' comes in the form of cute-on-the-outside-crazed-on-the-inside Snowy, a white despotic bunny, rejected object of affection and leader of the underground gang the Flushed Pets.  

Ditzy, pouffy Pomeranian Gidget (who I was convinced was voiced by Ariana Grande, turns out I was wrong), finally pulls on her big girl's pants and leads the motley rescue mission.  It's great to see a female character kick ass, albeit because of love.

Clearly aimed at pet-lovers - we had to sit through lots of adverts for cat food, as well as some pretty exciting trailers for upcoming movies this summer including The BFG and Swallows and Amazons - if you are a pet owner, you'll adore this film, and even if you're not there's plenty to keep you entertained.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Your 5-point plan to getting married on a budget

I'm pleased to welcome Michael here on my blog today, giving some great advice on how to hold your wedding on a budget:

I always thought that I’d attend the most weddings while in my 20s, given that that’s when many of us and our friends seem to tie the knot. But whether it’s due to friends of friends, extended family or old acquaintances, it seems there’s no slowing down on the number of invitations and save-the-dates coming through the letterbox. I for one am not complaining - I love going to weddings, and they’re almost always a fantastic occasion.

But one thing that’s resulted from the various nuptials I’ve attended is that I rather see myself as a couch expert. I’ve seen so many things done well, a handful of things done badly, and too often seen people waste money where it could easily have been saved. When you consider that the average cost of a wedding has now inflated to over £20,000, it’s fair to say that, more often than not, there’s room to skim some pennies off the top.

Here are the five most common areas I’ve picked up where some cost-cutting can be done without compromising on the quality of the day itself…

A bout of realism

Perspective is the first step in the right direction. So many brides (and grooms) talk up ‘the perfect day’ concept in the build-up to a wedding. In reality though, the most enjoyable, memorable and fun-filled weddings I have been to have been notably imperfect. So the first thing to do is accept that something will almost certainly not go according to plan on the day, and that you need not throw a heap of money at things to frantically try and avoid this. Decide what’s important, and what’s less important, and begin your budgeting from there.


The first thing to do is know your prices. What should a photographer cost? Flowers? A DJ? Chairs and tables? A wedding planner? Cake? Once you’ve educated yourself and have a good reference in your mind, you need to take a deep breath and be willing to negotiate and bargain. It doesn’t come easily to all of us, and arguably isn’t the British way. But you have to remember that you hold the upper hand here. They want your business, and they have more than likely chanced their arm with the initial quote anyway. So don’t be shy to play competitors off against each other.

Going against the grain

A Saturday wedding in the summer, yes? No. Not if you want to save a bucket load of money anyway. Venues in particular will offer a significantly lower price if you get married during the week and/or in months outside of June to September. It might not be what you envisaged, but bear in mind two things… the weather in the summer is far from guaranteed anyway, and getting married in the week could have the added perk of naturally culling those who were borderline in terms of being invited. If they can’t make it during the week, then it works out well for everyone, without hurting anyone’s feelings.

A cunning helping hand

We all plan ahead for our big day, but the reality is that not everyone has thousands of pounds lying around to pay for a wedding. So if you and your partner are paying for the entirety of the day on your own, and need a helping hand with the costs, and that’s okay. But don’t stick it all on your credit card! Credit cards charge a fortune in interest, and, even though they’re convenient, can get you into a debt cycle. Low-cost, hassle-free personal loans are widely available, and can often be aconstructive way of financing your wedding. Not to mention the honeymoon too!

Get all the help you can!

Why not ask your guests to bring a bottle with them? Booze is the killer expense after all. Or bake your own cake? Be your own DJ? Be sure to get your friends to muck in wherever possible too, and fill roles such as master of ceremonies, or even officiant. And don’t be shy to ask your guests for money as a wedding present. It’s almost become custom these days, and everyone understands the costs involved with putting together a wedding. So, the lesson is… don’t be shy to ask, and take initiative yourself!

Thank you Michael for those useful tips.  Have you planned a wedding recently and have a great suggestion to share?  Or perhaps you've been to one and learnt a great budgeting idea?  Please share below.

This is a collaborative post.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Peace Of Mind If Your Child Becomes Ill

We are in uncertain financial times.  We don't like to think about it, but what would happen if you or your partner needed to take long-term time off work to care for a child who was ill?

Many of us quite sensibly take out insurance to make sure our mortgage and bills are covered if we lose our job through redundancy or as a result of an accident ourselves, but as parents we may also need to take extended periods of time off work if a child becomes seriously ill as a result of an accident or illness.

I know several friends who have had to face this and the impact it's had on family life has been far-reaching.  It's bad enough having to cope with the stress and anguish of having your child in hospital. The endless worries as they face operations and tests.  The impact it has on siblings whose life has to continue as normally as possible.  The added expense of travelling to hospital on a daily basis, the parking fees, the overnight stays... it goes on and on.  But add to that the financial worry of not being able to afford to take unpaid leave to care for your child and it can become unbearable.  Imagine the main breadwinner not being able to spend that precious time with their poorly son or daughter because they have to bring home the wage packet...

I spoke to some of my friends whose children have been ill, to see how that impacted financially on the family:

Laura from Tired Mummy of Two told me:

"When Elizabeth was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia our life turned upside down. Not only did we have to learn to cope with her diagnosis but I was a self-employed childminder so immediately we went down to a one income household. After the first two weeks of compassionate leave, Adam had to return to work otherwise he wouldn't have been paid anymore. We knew that eventually she would be entitled to benefits but that would take at least three months and in the meantime we had higher expenditure due to staying in hospital and no way to make ends meet. We ended up having to sell our car as it was cheaper to rely on buses than to pay the insurance and running costs. Money was a real worry and I cancelled all direct debits for our bills apart from our rent and just hoped for the best, luckily the companies were very understanding and once we were able to claim benefits we had a large amount of debt that had built up to our utility companies. If we had insurance to cover us for this then our life would have been a whole lot easier and we wouldnt have had to make the sacrifices that we did in a time when our sole focus should have been our daughter"

Cat from Parent Blogger News also experienced financial worry when her daughter became ill:

"Verity's diagnosis at 8 months old was a huge shock, not least because it soon became clear that the close monitoring she would need meant I wouldn't be able to return to work as we had planned. Losing my income with little warning really added to the pressure at a very stressful time."

Emma from Emma and Three also had to seek time off work to deal with her daughter's disability:

"I had to take a year off work with 10 days notice before my third child underwent multiple surgeries. I thought I'd have to hand my notice in as a Head of Dept at a secondary school but thankfully the Governors gave me a sabbatical year. Suddenly we lost an income and our costs increased as I had to buy special equipment for her. It was expensive and lonely as I needed to find ways to entertain her when she was not able to go to nursery."

The new insurance product InsureWithMax seeks to address these issues. Bourne from personal experience, InsureWithMax ChildMax will pay up to 12 months salary for you to take unpaid leave from your job if your child becomes seriously ill*.  From less than £50 a year, you can make that one-off payment and relax, knowing that you're covered. You are not tied in to continue with the policy year after year. The policy covers a number of illnesses and disabilities from an accident - check for details.

ChildMax is the brain child of Max Robinson, who is driven by a need to keep premiums low to assist working families because he wants them to financially carry on as normal, while restoring their child’s health.   The product comes from Max's personal family experience when in the 1990's his half-sister became seriously ill with a rare condition.  She required 24/7 care and Max's father had to battle both financially and medically to get the best for her.  Max's father became her full-time carer and his step-mother became the main breadwinner but it had a huge financial impact on the whole family.

Max is a professionally qualified insurance underwriter with 29 years’ experience. This included twenty successful years at a large European insurer which gave him the confidence to develop a new insurance product for working families. It needed to be affordable and protect them from financial hardship caused by salary loss when caring for a child with a major illness or a severe accident.
With a UK call centre and supporting claims team is operated by the Kent based Questor Insurance Services Limited, an independent privately owned insurance intermediary that is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Questor Insurance has been trading since 2007 and has sold over 1 million policies.

Just thinking about my own personal circumstances, I know if god-forbid my daughter became seriously ill or injured in an accident, we couldn't afford for her father to take long-term unpaid leave.  We wouldn't be able to cover our mortgage and bills and I know that would cause emotional problems if he wasn't able to be there for her.  I think this is such a brilliant idea and could be such a massive help to lots and lots of families.

There'll be a Twitter chat about Child Max and protecting your family's future on Friday 1st July at 11.15-midday. Come and join in for an upbeat discussion about how Child Max can help and there'll be prizes on offer too! #ChildMax

*As with all policies, certain exclusions apply.  Please see InsureWithMax for further details.

Collaborative post.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

How to keep your dog cool this summer

Our old dog Ella was a real sun-lover. She'd always seek out the sunniest spots in the garden and bask for hours in the rays.  Our new puppy Delilah however, doesn't seem so keen.  It's quickly become apparent that she's not a fan of the heat, she shows reluctance to go out on warm days and becomes tired much quicker in the heat. Even her black ears are turning brown in the sun!

Overheating or hyperthermia is a serious risk for dogs in a heat wave and the RSPCA have some excellent advice on the signs to look for and emergency treatment to take if your dog becomes too hot.

Prevention is always better than cure, so these are my top tips to help keep your pooch cool this summer:

1. Dogs die in hot cars.

This should go without saying really.  Surely everyone knows this and wouldn't be stupid enough to leave their dog in the car?  Nope.  Every year it's the same, with reports in the papers of dogs who have died in hot cars.

NEVER leave your dog in the car when it's warm.  Not even in the shade.  Not even with the windows down.  Not even for 5 minutes.

At 22 degrees outside, a car can reach 47 degrees in less than an hour and that's lethal.

Don't do it.  Simple.

Remember also that the same can apply to conservatories, caravans and tents.

Dogs die in hot cars Infographic - RSPCA

2. Avoid the mid-day sun

If it's too hot for you to comfortably be out in the sun, then it's definitely too hot for your dog.  Hot tarmac and sand on the beach can burn the pads on their feet so alter your routine so you're exercising your dog early in the morning and late at night when it's not so hot. As a general rule, if you can't lay the flat of your palm comfortably on the ground for 15 seconds, then it's too hot for your dog to walk on it.

3. Choose cooler walks

Instead of heading to your favourite park where it's basically a huge open parched field in the sun, opt for shadier locations like a forest or a riverbank where they can cool off in the water if needs be.  My general routine is to take the dog on the school runs with me, but now it's getting warmer it's simply too hot to leave her tied to the school gates (where there's no shade) at 3pm.  We'll instead do a walk later in the evening when it's cooled off.

4. Water, water, water

Always remember to take a bottle of water with you on summer walks.  You could also carry a collapsable bowl or a bottle with a fold out bowl, although our dog will quite happily drink almost straight from the bottle as I pour it, or from cupped hands.

Remember also to check your dog's bowl at home, it will need refilling more often and ensure that the water is changed daily at least.

5. Less running

Delilah would chase a ball all day long given the chance, but she simply becomes too hot in the sun.  Instead, limit the amount of free running when it's excessively hot and instead provide mental stimulation by playing games at home in the shade. Treat toys such as Kongs are great for preventing boredom, and you can pop them in a ziplock bag and put it in the freezer before giving it to your dog.  Our dog also loves ice cubes - she comes running every time she hears our fridge clinking out ice in a glass.  For some cool fun, try scooting some ice cubes across the kitchen floor and letting your hound chase and chew them.

6. Provide somewhere cool at home

Make sure their dog bed isn't in the full sun.  They may want to retreat to it more during the day when it's hot, so make sure it's in a shady position.  Dogs love to cool down on cold floors and will often seek out ceramic tiles to flatten their tummies to and cool off.  Alternatively you could wet a towel and leave that for them to lay on.  Make sure you keep your house ventilated with windows open (blinds shut if it's in the full sun) and a fan on if you have one.

If your dog lives outdoors, make sure there's a sheltered, shady area for them to escape from the sun.  You can also provide a shallow plastic kid's water pool for them to cool off in.

7. Let them pant!

A dog's main way of regulating their temperature is to pant.  If your pooch wears a muzzle or nose collar, make sure it doesn't restrict their ability to open their mouth and pant with their tongue out.

8. Keep them groomed

Some dogs with thick coats or dark fur will suffer in the heat more.  Get professional advice from a groomer before trimming their fur as this can actually offer a level of protection against sunburn.  Keep coats brushed and tangle free to allow air to circulate to their skin properly.  Ticks also thrive in the heat so if your dog enjoys running in long grass, check thoroughly after walks for any who may have snuck aboard.

9. Cool not cold

Very cold water can cause shock and be dangerous to a hot dog.  To cool your dog off use cool not ice old water.  A mist spray bottle can be useful, but don't turn a freezing cold hose pipe on them.  If your dog has overheated, cool down gently by putting a T-shirt soaked in cool water on them or letting they lie on a cool wet towel.  Offer them small amounts of cool water and get advice from your vet immediately.

10. Cool products for hot dogs

Last but no means least, there are of course endless products on the market to help keep your dog cool.  From doggie ice cream to sun screen, here's a few that have caught my eye.

Do you have any top tips for keeping your pooch cool in the summer?


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

My Fairy Garden - Lilypad Garden Giveaway

A short while ago I reviewed the lovely Lilypad Garden by My Fairy Garden Interplay.  It's a really lovely set, helping children to learn about gardening and taking care of plants, while at the same time having fun building fairy furniture and using their imagination playing with the far house below.

Ours is still thriving and looking beautiful and Ruby loves to water it as she comes home from school.

Interplay are giving my readers the opportunity to win their own Lilypad Garden which retails at £19.99 by simply entering this giveaway. If you're looking for gift ideas, do check out the My Fairy Garden Range as there are some adorable items.

To enter, simply leave a blog comment stating which you think is your favourite item in the range and leave a comment below.  There are extra entries available for social following.  Closing date is midnight Sunday 19th June 2016, and this is open to UK entrants only.  The prize will be dispatched by Interplay.

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Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Special Bond Between Children And Their Pets

A brand new survey commissioned by The Baby Show has shown the importance of that special relationship between children and their pets.

Our daughter has grown up with a dog in the house, as did I, and when we sadly lost Ella last year, we only managed a few months before we felt we had to get another four-legged friend.  Once a dog-owner, always a dog-owner I guess.

The survey revealed that nearly half (47%) of new parents today have pets at home in the first three years of their child’s life, while 83% of parents believe that having a pet is beneficial for their child’s development. 

The survey also reports why parents think having a pet has a positive impact on young children with 60% saying it is good for them to interact with animals from a young age and almost a third (29%) believing it teaches them responsibility whilst 1 in 10 say it improves their social skills.  

Dogs were crowned king of the pets, beating cats, rabbits and fish as the nation’s favourite animal to have with young children:

  1. Dog (48%)
  1. Cat (30%)
  1. Rabbit (7%)
  1. Fish (6%)
  1. Guinea Pig (4%)
  1. Hamster, Gerbil, Mouse or Rat (3%)
  1. Bird (2%) 

Sarah Beeson MBE, expert speaker at The Baby Show and author of Happy Baby, Happy Family, says "it's no surprise that such a high number of new parents have pets.  We often practice our caring skills on our beloved animals before we embark on parenthood.

"It's always better  to be on the safe side when setting boundaries for the relationship between your child and your pet but it's a great opportunity for your little one to learn. The experience of pet ownership shows us how to be loving and respectful, and can give children a little bit of supervised responsibility.  The relationship your toddler has with your pet often starts long before they make friends at school or nursery; they really are part of the family."

Participants described  how their children and toddlers often confided in their pets and this helped them to build social skills and companionship.  Billy is a best friend to Danny Wong's child Laila (pictured), he says: "they love each other's company - we often find them under the dining table playing together!"

Families agreed that having a pet is the perfect way to help them prepare for interaction with other children.  Excercise with their pet was also a beneficial way to keep fit and talk through any issues the child may be having.

I couldn't agree more.  The positives of having a pet in the home are fabulous, and we really wouldn't be without one.

The Baby Show, with MadeForMums, is set to return to the NEC in Birmingham from Friday 13th to Sunday 15th May and they are offering a pair of tickets for one lucky reader. The ultimate pregnancy and parenting shopping event for new and expectant parents, it will be home to over 200 exhibitors, showcasing the very best baby and infant essentials. 

For your chance to win a pair of tickets, please complete the rafflecopter below.  One lucky winner will receive an electronic code to download free tickets which can be used on any of the three dates.  Giveaway closes on Monday 9th May 2016 at midnight. Open to UK entrants only.

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