Blood, sweat and tears – and grass stains

Children seem to attract muck – well, certainly my children do. The youngest has only to look at a muddy puddle before he might as well have rolled in it.

They play football too, and lots of it, so at least three times a week I have very muddy kit to deal with.

Some of it is white, including the shorts. WHITE. I ask you. No person who thinks white is a sensible colour for the kind of sports kit which is guaranteed to get grass-stained or muddy could possibly be the person in his/her household responsible for laundry.

Many years ago I used to be responsible for the laundry of Other People’s Children, including a whole team’s worth of cricket whites. It was in that job that I learned about Swarfega.

What you’re looking for is the Swarfega in a red tub with a green lid.

I found this image on Wilko’s website and you can often find it there and in other “cheap shops” such as Quality Save, B&M Bargains, Poundland and so on. I really begrudge paying full price for it in Halfords or the supermarket but you can usually find it there too.

It’s designed for de-greasing hands – mechanics love it. It shifts engine oil as though you were rinsing off icing sugar. Grass stains in particular are oily stains. Treating before you wash means you won’t cook the stain in.

So, to work. Here is a typical pair of shorts after a football session, then liberally plastered in Swarfega.

muddy shorts

swarfega shorts

It smells unpleasant and has a texture somewhere between shower gel and jam. Persevere! Once the stain is thoroughly covered, and you don’t need to scrub particularly, throw in its normal wash. In this instance I forgot and put it in a quick wash, but it still came out like this:

clean shorts

There’s a slight shadow of filth, yes, but by golly it’s better than when it went in. The remaining stain completely disappeared on the washing line.

Swarfega and sunshine remove just about every stain I have come across in my parenting career, including blood, grass, gravy, blackcurrant: the lot. Sunshine also zaps any bacteria lingering in your wash. I try to wash at 30 where possible, but when there are bugs whizzing round school it’s vaguely reassuring that at least they can’t cling to the clothes.

A last word before I go, relating to blood stains. I’m afraid they are pretty much inevitable with active children! Blood cooks – maybe you’ve tried black pudding! – which means that you cannot wash it out in a hot wash. Anything bloody needs to be thoroughly soaked in cold (not warm) water before treating, then washed at no more than 30 degrees. If the garment needs it you can then do a warmer wash later, but if you wash it above body temperature you risk cooking the bloodstain into the fabric and it will then never come out.

The Village

There is a saying bouncing round the Internet: It takes a village to raise a child. Now, regardless of the dubious provenance of the aphorism itself, it neatly fits my experience.

You can do the parenting thing on your own, but it’s lonely and frightening. As soon as you involve other adults, you have back-up. For many of us, our primary back-up is the other parent, but even then work commitments can get in the way.

Before there was such geographical mobility, people tended to live where they had been born, within walking distance or even shouting distance of their parents, siblings, cousins, and so on. Women got on with the business of housekeeping with gaggles of small children (not necessarily their own) around their feet until those children were old enough to have jobs of their own either domestically or in employment. If a child fell and Auntie Cathy was nearest, she picked him up and kissed it better. If a child got a bit too close to the river’s edge and his mother was nowhere to be seen, someone else would pull him away and talk about drowning.

It should go without saying that not all adults are good with children. Even those who are good with their own children aren’t necessarily good with anyone else’s. There exists an enormous spectrum of parenting styles and resources, and the Village does need some consistency.

So how do we build a Village nowadays, when we might live hundreds of miles away from our own parents, who in turn live hundreds of miles from where they grew up?

There are two ways, really: geographical and virtual.

My geographical Village is made up of other parents we’ve met through baby groups, toddler groups, pre-school and school. We share pick-ups and drop-offs and babysitting. We text each other reminders about own clothes day or homework. We know where to find a fancy-dress costume with eighteen hours’ notice, or where to find PE kit in an unusual size. If my smallest falls over at toddler group, someone else will pick him up and make sympathetic noises until he’s ready to toddle off again. Middle child is now faintly disappointed if I’m the one picking him up from preschool rather than Alice.

My virtual Village can’t help with any of that. They help with different things. There’s a group I met online who were all pregnant at the same time, so we hit milestones together and discuss why on earth a six-year-old can be so hormonal. There’s an opinions group I met online, so we talk about how to avoid Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, and how to make sure our children grow up as feminists. There’s a camping group. There’s allergy groups (although mercifully I’ve been able to fall away from that need). Whatever very specific community you need, it exists online, just a Google search away.

They are all my Village. The words do not exist to explain how much I need them, and how much I appreciate them. I can tell you, though, that I’d be a shuddering, shrieking wreck without them.

Happy Mothering Sunday. Who is your Village?

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Shortcuts in home cooking

oozing goodness

There is a spectrum in cooking, from restaurants at one end, to cooking only what you grew yourself at the other. Using jarred sauces or ready meals falls in-between, and you can find people very ready to have an argument about where the line falls between “cooked from scratch” and not, or between “home cooked” and not.

I don’t particularly care whether a stranger – or even a friend, to be brutal – thinks I cook “from scratch” or not. There are so many competing pressures on you when you have children to feed. You have to balance variety against food miles and familiarity, quality against cost, and so on, and that’s before you start to fret about artificial additives and salt content. As long as I think I’m striking the right balance, and my children are healthy, anyone else can get stuffed (with ready-made organic lentil stuffing).

Where on the spectrum do you fall?

Before we had any children I was far closer to the DIY end than I am now. We tried new foods, and I happily spent hours after a full day’s work fiddling in the kitchen. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned before, the children want feeding All The Time, but they won’t give you more than two minutes to prepare anything. Moreover, once they’re over about one and a half they have Opinions about food. I remember a conversation between friends some years ago where one said she tried hard not to give the children the same meal more than twice a month; another friend (with twins, and I think that’s significant) said she felt she was doing well if they weren’t given the same meal more than twice in a row…

In surveys I tick the box labelled “I cook from scratch most days”, because my definition of “from scratch” is “from a collection of ingredients that could have made something else”. If you look in my trolley at the supermarket you can’t tell quite what is on the meal plan this week. Those sausages might be grilled with vegetables, or baked with pasta, or in a Sunday brunch sandwich. Those tinned tomatoes might end up in a casserole, or a chilli, or bolognese. I try to avoid ingredients that limit your meal plan, such as a jar of pasta sauce, which can only be pasta sauce.

This isn’t a pious post, by the way. I am not trying to convert you to hand-knitted lentil bake. I just need to start off by explaining my position: time-poor but slightly fussy.

So I take shortcuts – of course I do. Shortcuts include simplifying the menu (remember macaroni cheese!) and getting someone else to do the grunt work. You can buy nearly anything already chopped up or cooked – believe me, I’ve tried nearly all of them.

We did not like frozen cauliflower florets, but frozen diced onions and frozen sliced carrots are now saved in my Favourites for the online shop. I also buy fresh shredded (that is, grated) carrot. Shredded carrot and diced onion is the base for anything Italian I ever cook, with diced celery if I have an extra minute without someone’s choosing to wipe his nose on my leg.

Frozen diced onion is a bit wet, so you need to fry it off before you put anything else in the pan. No good on a burger, but absolutely fine as the base for something like a stew or soup.

But if I tell you nothing else today, I want to tell you about frozen mashed potato. It sounds disgusting, and it’s no substitute for proper home-made lumpy mash with just slightly too much butter in it, but it means I make cottage pie and fish pie.

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It comes in weird nuggets. You can lay them straight on top of the fish and white sauce (remember? I promised I’d explain further) or mince and vegetables, then happily into the oven. Fork them over once they’re nearly cooked and nobody can see the joins.

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Free yourself. Cook food they like without having to shriek “Don’t kill your brother” from the kitchen for an hour every day.

Most importantly, though, is to remember that meals don’t have to have a name. It doesn’t have to be suitable for a restaurant menu. They can have “chicken, toast and peas” if that’s what there is and that’s what they’ll eat.