Sunday, March 28, 2010


When I was in primary (elementary) school I had school dinner (lunch) every day. My mum counted on us having a good meal, to the point where our evening meal at home until I was at secondary school (6th grade) was a sandwich and a bag of crisps. I think we probably did have pretty good lunches, though I remember not liking the liver very much. I actually liked the flavour and the texture, but I didn't like the 'rubber bands' you had to cut out of it. I remember getting told off by the dinner ladies for 'playing' with our food when we stirred the dollop of jam into the semolina to make the semolina pink. I liked semolina, but we never had it at home. We sometimes had pink custard too, which I'd forgotten about completely until another blogger mentioned it recently.

School lunches definitely weren't so good once we got to secondary school. I remember being served battered and deep-fried spam fritters and loving them. I actually added more salt! One day I was at the very end of the line and they had literally run out of food. My lunch that day was white rice and chips. That was the day I discovered that plain white rice could be made more interesting with the addition of malt vinegar. By the time I was in the 6th form I was too lazy to walk to the other side of the school to get my lunch so I stopped having school lunches. In fact I think I stopped eating much of anything for lunch because I was too lazy to make a lunch to bring to school with me. I survived on coffee and Lipton's Cup-a-Soup because we had a water heater in the 6th form common room and everyone had their own jar of instant coffee and CoffeeMate. I had coffee when I arrived at school, one at mid-morning break, one at lunch after my Cup-a-Soup, and another if I had a study hall in the afternoon. A cup of tea when I got home from school, and a coffee after dinner, and it's a miracle I ever slept!

After I moved on to university, they changed to a cafeteria system at school so that instead of paying a set price for a (supposedly) balanced meal, kids could choose what they wanted. I have no doubt chips outsold everything else.

I was pleased when I heard of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals in the UK, though I don't know how successful it was. Certainly, there were stories in the press of parents circumventing his plan for no junk food by delivering fish'n'chips to their poor children who couldn't stomach the thought of a healthy meal.

Jamie has now made a new series for American TV about food – how families eat, what kids get at school and why, like the UK, the diet of processed food and snacks is causing so many health and obesity problems. I choose to send my kids to school with a lunch from home, as I have not been impressed with the lunch menus. The series was filmed in Huntington, West Virginia and from what I've seen, the school lunches there seem very similar to school lunches here, several states away. I've watched the first two hours of the series and I have to say some of it seems to be a setup. One of the 'lunch ladies' (who seems confused by that title) seems convinced that nothing he does will succeed. Given that the entire series has probably been filmed already, I am guessing that she eventually will see the light and become one of his greatest supporters.

The first meal Jamie served was in competition with the 'regular' school meal, and of course most of the kids chose the meal they were familiar with. The next meal, all the kids were served Jamie's menu. The administrators complained that Jamie had not provided nutritional analyses of the meals, and had not provided two starches 'as required'. Why was he not told in advance his meals had to meet certain nutritional requirements? Well, it does make for more dramatic television . . .

He was 'allowed' to serve a third meal, which initially was no more successful than the first two. Part of the problem was that in order to eat his food, the kids needed a knife and fork. Why is that a problem you ask? American public schools (at least none that I've been in) do not provide knives for their students to use. Well, I can see their point - they use plastic cutlery, and a plastic knife is usually pretty useless. I did lunch duty in one school for two years, and there was one meal (some kind of meat patty served with gravy) that the kids really needed a knife for. Most kids would pick the patty up with the fork and then nibble around the patty, never taking it off the fork. Practical, but hardly good table manners. There were two of us on lunch duty and every time this meal was served, we would go into the kitchen and ask for real knives, and then would go around the room asking the kids if they wanted us to cut their lunch up for them.

Eventually, we managed to persuade the woman running the kitchen that for that one meal in the menu cycle the kids could be trusted with plastic knives. Yes, I said trusted. Her reasoning for not providing knives was the kids couldn't be trusted. Excuse me? Like they couldn't poke each other's eyes out equally effectively (if not more so) with a plastic fork? Actually, I think she was following policy set by higher ups, as she's really a very reasonable lady. Once the kids were given the plastic knives, I realized we had another problem. Most of the kids (and I kid you not) DID NOT KNOW HOW TO USE THEM! Now instead of going round the room cutting the kids' meals up for them, I had to go around the room teaching them how to use their knife and fork effectively.

Therefore, I was well aware before Jamie's new show that American kids as old as 10 years old may not actually know how to use a knife and fork. In the UK, on the other hand, I remember my mother saying that when she taught the reception class the parents were told that when their child started school at age 4 or 5 they needed to be able to use a knife and fork by themselves because the staff did not have time to help them. So I also understand why Jamie expected the kids in the US to be able to use a knife and fork, and his reaction when he found they couldn't. What completely threw me for a loop was the oppositional lunch lady's reaction when he said that in the UK kids as young as 4 and 5 are expected to be able to (and can) use a knife and fork. She said, in all seriousness, "Can you document that?" She honestly did not expect kids to be able to use a knife and fork!

Jamie asked if some of the kids could be made to stay at the lunch tables for a little longer and he started going around showing the kids how to use a knife and fork. The principal then started doing the same thing. Lo and behold, once the kids were EXPECTED to eat, and TAUGHT how to use a knife and fork so that they could eat the food, many more of them ate up and did in fact enjoy the food.

If we don’t expect our kids to be able to use a knife and fork, then they will never learn. If we don’t set expectations for our kids, they will have nothing to rise to. And quite frankly, I don’t think learning to use a knife and fork is a very high expectation, even for a kindergartner! Or is the US-UK cultural divide greater than I thought?

(Oh, and go read Expat Mum's post on this topic if you haven't already!)

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Our family traditions regarding Easter when I was growing up were simple - lamb for lunch and a large chocolate Easter egg each. One year for breakfast on Easter Sunday, my mother gave us eggs that looked like real eggs, but in fact they were made of some kind of hard candy with chocolate yolks. She gave them to us in egg cups as though they were soft-boiled. We spotted immediately that there was something 'not right' about them as they were cold. She tried to blame that on us having taken too long to get downstairs for breakfast. I think she finally had to tell us that they were a joke when we started banging them on the table - they were VERY hard! Those were the longest lasting Easter eggs we ever got - it took us weeks to lick our way through to the chocolate yolks! (We did get regular chocolate eggs that year too - I'm sure those disappeared very quickly!)

DH's family likes to decorate real hens' eggs, which usually means simply dipping them in some kind of dye to color them. This year, DS and I had the chance to take a class in creating pysanky - Ukranian Easter eggs. I wasn't sure if DS would have the dexterity to do a good job, but I needn't have worried. The teacher knew what she was doing when she said "first grade and up" and he was quite capable of handling the class, open flames and all! He realized immediately that the traditional pysanky were beyond his skills and simply created his own style. After some complaints as we got started, he really enjoyed himself. He not only asked if we can take the class again next year, but wanted to go out right away and buy the tools so that we can teach his sister next weekend.

We'd been warned to wear old clothes as the dye we used is a permanent one. I hadn't realized that the eggs we would be using would be regular, raw, eggs. I'd assumed they would have to be hard-boiled or blown, but apparently it is actually easier to work with raw eggs. In the end, although we both ended up with multi-colored hands, I was the one who dropped a couple of eggs, not DS, and neither of us ruined our clothes.

I think we've just found ourselves a new tradition :-)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blame it on Mommy

DS came home from school today and tore his bed apart. Not literally - one of his classmates told him that the leprechauns left gold coins under his pillow last night, so DS figured he must have some too. DH explained to him that the leprechauns don't visit our house "Because Mommy's English." Why blame it on me? It's not like DH is Irish either! (Some of his ancestors did come to the US from Ireland - but they were French Huguenots who stopped off in Ireland for just a couple of generations in the late 17th century on their way to America.) Still, they do say "Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day!" Except Mommy apparently :-)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The wearing of the green

Last weekend we went to visit friends for a St. Patrick's Day party. This is not a 'holiday' I have ever really celebrated before - though I did go to the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston the year that I was dating a bloke who grew up there. True to stereotype, there was much drinking involved before, during, and after the parade - to the point where I was the one who drove us home at the end of the day even though he had promised he would stay sober.

Americans love to decorate for the holidays and even people who have no ties to Ireland at all will often decorate their house for St. Patrick's Day. Our friends however, are of Irish descent so we were not surprised to find the house well and truly decorated. Many Americans don't realize that St Patrick's Day has long been a much bigger deal in the US than in Ireland itself. It was only in the 1990's that it began to be celebrated in Ireland the way it is here with parades and so on because the Irish realized it was a great tourist attraction. St Patrick's Day was of course originally a religious holiday and up until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on March 17th!

At our friends' house, there was a holiday wreath of leprechauns on the front door, and an Irish flag on the front of the house:

As we entered the house, everyone was given a "Kiss me, I'm Irish" necklace to wear:

I realized I had probably committed a major social faux-pas as I had neglected to wear anything green. Our host was wearing an Ireland rugby shirt - very appropriate as Ireland won on Saturday - and his children had really dressed for the occasion:

There were shamrocks and leprechauns all over the place:

There were even holiday-themed craft projects for the children to complete. There were green beads and safety pins to make brooches, and stickers to decorate these shamrock shapes. It might be difficult to see in this photo, but that's a pot of gold at the end of each rainbow.

The beer menu included Guinness and Harp, and there was Jamieson's Irish Whisky on hand too. Just about every stereotypically 'Irish' item you could think of for St Patrick's Day - with the exception (thankfully) of green beer! I'm looking forward to celebrating St Patrick's Day again next year!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Planning a trip to the UK

It's been too long since we were last in the UK and it's time to start thinking about another trip there. We used to go a lot more often, but now that we have four plane tickets to buy, it's got significantly more expensive. Still, by planning ahead, there are some ways we can save money.

Direct flights from the east coast of the US are more expensive than a flight with one or more change of planes. For example, we flew IcelandAir via Reykjavik the last time we flew to the UK. You have to weigh the hidden costs of a 'cheaper' flight though. When you're travelling with kids or have a limited amount of vacation time, it's not just a question of money. Is it worth it to spend significantly longer en route? Spending several hours in the middle of the night in an airport that was basically shut down for the night was not particularly entertaining. Nor was it fun to have a three year old screaming for the first several hundred miles because his sister had promised him his own seat-back TV that never materialized because we were on a 'short-haul' flight with TVs that dropped down from the ceiling of the plane. Next time we're paying the extra and flying direct!

In the past, we've had the good fortune to have a family member working for a car rental company in the UK, so we've been able to hire a car at a staff discount. Not so now, but I discovered that if you book a car at the same time as you book your flight with British Airways it is significantly cheaper than booking it separately. I think a manual Vectra for 15 days, including unlimited mileage and all the optional insurance works out at under $300. If you sign up for the BA frequent flyer program you can add a second driver at no charge, which is another savings. (Not that DH ever drives in the UK, but it would be nice to know that he was insured to do so if he had to for some reason.)

Given that we're visiting family when we go to the UK, we are able to save money by staying with them for at least part of the time. On our last few trips, we've made a point of spending a few nights in hotels to visit parts of the country where we don't happen to have any relatives. The first time we did it was for the sheer delight of spending only $9 a night TOTAL for a family of four! The Travelodge chain was having a "Fiver Frenzy" sale - rooms available for five pounds a night! I admit it was close to ten years ago and we've never hit a sale quite that good again, but their regular rates are excellent if you book ahead. The rooms are basic. There are no toiletries provided. (Towels are though.) Breakfast is not included, but there's instant coffee and tea bags in the room along with a kettle, and your room key gets you a discount at the restaurant next door for breakfast. WiFi is available for a fee. Given that we're not there to do anything other than sleep in the hotel room, it suits our purpose fine. If Travelodge is not your style, try checking out's voucher codes for

We like to visit pubs when we're in the UK. There are so many though, and it's really easy to pick a bad one, so we rely on the latest edition of the Good Pub Guide. I have too many American friends who have never heard of it and ended up having a bad pub experience and thinking that all pubs in the UK serve naff food. If you're only there for a few days on vacation you don't want to waste your money on a bad meal! Nowadays, we look not just for pubs that have good beer and good food, but also that are child-friendly.

On our last trip we used the Good Pub Guide to find The Mole and Chicken in Buckinghamshire. There was a similarly highly recommended pub not very far away, but the Guide warned us that it was NOT child-friendly. At The Mole and Chicken we had an outstanding evening, and the children had as good a meal as we did. This time we may not even have to buy the Guide if we plan well as it is now online! In fact, the last time I checked, the 2010 guide is not available in the US yet, so we'll be doing our planning using the website! I may buy DH the book for his birthday though as he does like just browsing through it, and it could come in handy if our carefully made plans fall apart once we're in the UK!

If you're going to visit historic sites, don't forget to work out whether it's worth buying a pass rather than single tickets. There's the London Pass for 55 sites in London, CADW has passes for Welsh sites and the British Heritage Pass covers over 500 sites, some of them National Trust sites. The National Trust has both short-term passes and an annual membership that covers over 300 historic sites. Depending on which sites you want to visit, the National Trust annual membership may actually be a better deal than the British Heritage Pass for a limited number of days! An even better deal for Americans is to plan ahead and join the Royal Oak Foundation which is for American members of the National Trust. A family membership is just US$90, as opposed to the 82 pounds it would cost for National Trust membership - and it's 100% deductible as a charitable donation on your US tax return! Oh - and if you have a membership to a local science museum in the US it is often valid at other museums including a few in the UK.

You can also check sites like to find their latest money saving voucher codes and offers, including Discount Codes and Expedia Voucher Codes. While the site is not necessarily geared towards international tourists visiting the UK, there might be some useful offers there. I've seen printable coupons for meal deals at a Covent Garden restaurant for example. If we were going to such a touristy location where the prices are inevitably going to be high, I'd definitely rather have a coupon in hand! I'll be looking to see if they have coupons for some of the chain restaurants we might stop at with the kids as they seem to have a lot of BOGOF deals, which would certainly make it more affordable. (I do hate the acronym BOGOF - looks too much like 'bog off!')

There are lots of things that seem to be more expensive in the UK than in the US, but I suppose I could 'save' some money by stocking up on a few of the things that aren't, like Indian spices. I remember returning to the US in the past with a large quantity of Patak's curry sauce jars in my suitcase! If I didn't already have more than enough knitting needles, I could stock up on the highly desirable Addi needles as they are generally 1/2 to 2/3 the price in the UK that they are in the USA. Tea bags. Custard creams. What else?

Does anyone else have any suggestions for how to save money on a trip to the UK?

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

My desk

This cartoon is by Dave Walker and is used with permission.

Actually, my desk doesn't look quite like this - it's not as organized as this, and one of the mugs is often not a mug but a wine glass.
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