Monthly Archives: October 2011

Christmas 2011 issue on sale today!

After months of hard work, the Christmas 2011 issue of Australian family circle goes on sale today, and you’re going to love it.

I admit, I’m completely biased, but we’ve worked hard to fill it up with all the most wonderful, practical and drop-dead useful things to make your Christmas as easy and fabulous as possible.

Let’s start with the cover cake – it couldn’t be easier. Take one 4L tub of Neapolitan ice-cream (the Paul’s was about $7 at the supermarket, and really good quality), separate out the colours, mix in your fave sweeties to provide natty little contrasts in texture, colour and taste, then refreeze it in layers! Super-simple, but really spectacular when served up as the high point of your Christmas feast, and you can set your sweetie budget and bring it in at around $20 for a cake that easily serves 12.

Just be careful with those sparklers if you have marshmallows on top. The marshmallows will catch fire if you let them!

Then we have three great full menus that you can use on the big day, or mix and match according to your favourites. Whether you’re all about the traditional dishes, or trying to keep the calories and fat low this year, or else wanting to bring it all in on a budget – whichever way you want to go, we’re there for you. And don’t for a moment thing that low-fat means low taste. This is family circle – our diet menu has turkey and chocolate mousse, and STILL manages to be good for you. And no one will guess you’re on a budget if you serve up these splendours:

Clever tricks like using a shoulder ham instead of leg ham will save you a mint, while still keeping everyone happily stuffed at the Christmas table. Well, maybe not so happily in the case of the turkey and the chook …

We’ve rounded out our food with loads of nibblies and sides that you can use to pad out any meal when unexpected extras turn up, or else serve them up as finger food when you’d rather have the gang around for a few snacks and drinks than face a full-on sit-down production number.

And desserts. SO MANY desserts, and all so amazing – I’ve had to pull double-duty at the gym for the last few months just to cope with all the food testing that’s been tried out in the offices. The little Hazelnut kisses cakes on page 91 might actually require a little sit-down afterwards, they’re that rich and delish.

But food is only half the story of Christmas, we’re also crammed with beautiful craft projects that you can make up to have your house looking its best. Most require nothing techier than a pair of scissors and a ruler to make, but they’ll transform your home into something really splendid. And you won’t need a fortune in your craft budget, we spent about $20 on materials for testing each set of projects.

These felties were my favourites, partly because they look just so amazing en masse, but mostly because they came together so quickly with scissors and glue. And they’re extra-soft, so no worries about being dropped off the tree by little grasping hands. I think the deco box will be full of these by the time Christmas rocks around.

There’s more, of course: hair, beauty, health tips that really work (and really quickly at that!), a wonderful book extract from the brilliantly talented Rachael Treasure, kids craft kits you can make at home, and loads of amazing prizes you can win. All for just $5.95! AMAZING!

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Janelle Bloom: My Favourite Food for All Seasons

One of the major downsides of magazineland is that something brilliant always comes in just a few days too late to make it into the mag. This time, we’d just sent the book review pages off when the most beautiful new cook book arrived in the office. I made a sound like Chewbacca when Han Solo is captured, and there may have been a bit of mild swearing … However, the joy of the internet is that nothing is ever too late, so have a longer and fuller review here instead!

We love Janelle Bloom’s food here at fc. It’s achievable, reliable, seasonal (so, surprisingly cheap) and delicious. Her books are full of gentle hints, tips, techniques, extras and cheats, so it’s like cooking with a really clever friend. And while the end result always looks spectacular, the ingredients are mostly very simple, often ones you’ll already have on hand.

This book sees her pull together her favourite recipes, sorted by season.  Using the freshest, and therefore cheapest, ingredients for each time of year, Janelle serves up sides, salads, snacks and mains, then follows up with a separate section for sweets in each chapter. It’s a return to thinking of what is best at each time of year and taking advantage of the most vitamin-packed and taste-filled local produce.

And the recipes are amazing. Barbecued leg of lamb, seared sirloin with green salsa, berry custard slice – that’s just summer! (And probably my Sunday menu …)

Each chapter opens with a list of the best buys for fruit and veg, month by month, and produce tips including storage and buying tips. Variety suggestions for fruit like apples (juice with Granny Smiths, bake with Golden delicious and Fuji) are followed up by partnering suggestions for everything – and the onion section clearly spells out Janelle’s take on the eternal Australian shallot/spring onion/green onion conundrum, so you’ll always know which one she means!

The photography is droolworthy, and having seen Janelle on a photo shoot, what you see is what you get. There are no fancy pants tricks here, it’s all real, and what it should look like at your place. OK, maybe slightly more pristine, they do an awful lot of plate wiping on photo shoots.

Despite the call to seasonal eating, I know that you’ll probably do what I did and flick your way through finding a few faves that can be whipped up any time. It’s still spring for another month, so I’ll be laying waste to a few trays of Little chocolate macaroon tarts. And probably more through summer. Let’s face it, I’m unlikely to stop for autumn and winter.

My Favourite Food is 254 full-colour pages with shots for every recipe and explanations for any tricky steps and techniques. If you’re looking for fresh delish recipes, or if you know someone who needs a bit of help with their kitchen repertoire, this is the book – and just in time for Christmas! Available from next Monday (November 1), for $39.95 (published by Ebury).

 

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Quick storage tips

After putting the Christmas issue to bed, I’ve been trying to catch up on the housework that’s been neglected over the last month. And by ‘trying to catch up’, I mean reading tips on storage in a bid to make the most of my over-full tiny inner-city house. (When procrastination is made an Olympic sport, I will be on track for gold – provided I remember to put the paperwork in …) Anyway, let it not be said that procrastinatory reading does no good! Here are the best easy and useful storage tips I’ve found, including a couple I’ve successfully followed:

* At least twice a year, pull everything out of the pantry and have a big throw-out. Tip stale and unused cereals, flours and grains straight onto the compost heap (or just scatter them around the garden if you don’t compost, then lightly fork and water in). Empty ancient tins and bottles of tomatoes and beans similarly, along with most expired sauces, then clean the containers for the recycling. If you have rancid oils, you can use them to preserve timber garden furniture in a frugal pinch, or just drizzle them sparingly around your garden – they’ll decompose quickly and are no problem to soil or fauna as long as there’s not a big puddle.

* When you put everything back into your pantry, sort like with like. Herbs and spices are best all kept in the one plastic box for easy access, similarly cake decorating bits and grains and legumes. Pop all your sauces into an open-topped box that can slide in and out, and then look for other groups you can use the same trick for. If you have a lot of empty ‘above’ space, look at shelf inserts or under-shelf storage to make the most of it.

* Have a dump zone near your front door? Slap a piece of furniture there. A side table will keep handbags up off the floor, while a coat rack will give you space to store out-door clothes as well as bags. If you’re concerned about security, a set of neatly sized drawers will be easy enough for everyone to dump their bag into their assigned drawer, while making life hard for casual thieves. And if you’re a sporty set at your place, a big stainless steel rack with boxes for balls/mitts/pads/helmets etc and space for kit bags on the bottom shelf will see weekend and after-school sport proceed more smoothly – with no more ‘Muuuuum! Where’s my …?’ Just be sure to check for kit that needs washing regularly (I’d say hang a small bag or basket for kids to dump the washing in, but we’d both be dreaming it will ever get used.)

* Need more special space for little things like shed keys, shopping lists and bills? Use a magnetic hook on the fridge for keys that need an easy-access home not on your key ring (and then be sure to put them back there every time you spot the set left somewhere else. Eventually you will train your family.) Cork tiles or potstands stuck inside your pantry or study doors provide a pinable spot where you’ll need it – Stick on a blank sheet of paper and attach a pen with a 3M Commander clip so you’re always ready to jot down a shopping list or your to-dos. As for bills, try dropping everything into the one big buff envelope as it comes in, then taking it out and filing it away when its paid. Leave the envelope clipped to the fridge or beside your computer, so you can easily check to see what needs to be paid and when.

* Hanging shoe racks with pockets make a great tights and stockings storage. Just roll each pair neatly and tuck them into a pocket – you can sort with a row per type if you have capris, stirrup tights, opaques and sheers. If you’re like me and own quite a lot of tights, you might prefer a hanging storage unit like this one that you can buy little drawers for.  I keep my tights in drawers, sorted by colour and then my regular shoes in the open compartments, which makes getting dressed in the dark in the morning less of a risk!

* If you have hanging space near your laundry hamper, clip a zippered lingerie washbag (you can buy them in the tights and stockings section of most department stores or online) to a skirt hanger and hang above the hamper, then put your delicate smalls in their directly rather than needing to pre-sort each load of washing.

And if all else fails, there’s always the internet and the power of dreams …

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Pre-Christmas planning part 3 – Hair (and a bit of general beauty)

Curling Amber's hair for the photo shoot

You can make curls using a hair straightener and an awful lot of pins and clips … Me beautifying Amber in the office.

I know that October seems a terrifying time to be thinking about Christmas, but a bit of thought now will pay off in a lot less stress two months down the track. Scientists say that stress hormones cause the brain to deteriorate over time, so you’re best off keeping everything as chill and prepped as possible and thus guaranteeing a healthy old age.

Which is why now is a great time to think about your Christmas hair. With so many parties and get togethers through December and January, it’s fun to look your best. Often that means a new cut or colour, which is a brilliant way to revamp your look, but can be a bit risky if you don’t like it or haven’t worked out how to style it yet. With six weeks before the main party season, now is the time to make the change. It will give you time to check that you’re happy with the colour and cut, make any tweaks, learn how to manage the style and get through the dreaded post-cut doubts.

Make a booking for the hairdresser this week if you’re planning a big change, as there will be time for any miscommunications or disappointments to grow out before the photo season starts, and then you can just book a trim and touch-up at peak season, which will get you in and out much faster during the crazy time of year in a salon. If you’re just wanting a general spruce-up, make an appointment two to three weeks before your first big party, which will still give you time to learn all the styling tips and fix any accidents. Book in a set or blow-out on the day if you’re nervous – you’ll look salon-fresh without having to spend the whole afternoon in a chair or worrying about dye tidelines around your temples!

If you haven’t had time to visit a hairdresser in a while, we’ve all been there! Next time you wash your hair, comb it out perfectly straight, parted in its normal spot, and have someone you trust (husband/girlfriend/neighbour …) snip off the ratty ends with a pair of hair scissors (they’re about $12 from the chemist if you don’t own any) following the lines of your old cut, or just straight across the back. With the split ends removed, you’ll immediately look a lot more groomed and polished.

Then check out the supermarket or chemist for a good low-cost hair mask. I like Pantene 3-Minute Miracle ($7.99/3 ampoules – my fine shoulder-blade length hair gets 2-3 treatments per ampoule), VO5 Emergency Rexcue Elixir 1-Minute Nourishing Treatment (about $6.99/200ml – a little less oomph than the Pantene, but definite moisture boost without weighing hair down) and Garnier Fructis Sleek and Shine Treatment Mask (about $7.95/300ml – the serious stuff, I break this out for my baby-weight hair after too much swimming, when all the goodness has been sucked out, this sticks it back in! For thick and curly hair, it’s a brill weekly treatment.) All three of these deliver just as much as products that cost ten times more. Slather in a bit of shop-bought hair health once every week or two and by the time Christmas rocks around you’ll be sleeker than a seal.

If your hair is chin-length or below, you can whip up any of the four up-dos in the Christmas 2011 issue of family circle that will hit the shelves next Monday. And I really do mean that you can do it at home. We had ordered in step-by-step shots from the OS stylist who came up with the dos, but they were too low-res for us to use. So I recreated each of them from his steps, using the Better Homes and Gardens girls as models. Given that my usual hair style repertoire consists of Gently Windblown, Held Up With Hairclip and Ponytail I Am Really Too Old For, when I say that you can do any of them, I do mean it – they’re that foolproof!

Finally, make sure the rest of you looks as good as your hair. We’ll be updating the blog with some of our fave beauty products over the next few weeks, which are all tried and tested, but there are a few basic steps that will have you at your best through the party season.

* Start getting more sleep. We know – it’s not that easy! But even going to bed 15 minutes earlier will show in your complexion, leaving you fresher and brighter, and all for free!

* Up the water, fruit and veg in your diet. They all work to cleanse your system, which means that your skin will be purer and less irritated.

* Give your body a good old scrub – those funny mitts from the chemist or Body Shop do a great job at clearing away dead skin. And don’t worry if you have to go at your feet a few times, it’ll be worth it! For your face, try a gentle exfoliant with mild fruit acids.

* Slather on the moisturiser and sunblock, for both face and body. I like to splash out on my face moisturiser, but for my body, Aveeno Skin Relief ($12.95/345ml) is one of the best I have tried, as is Cetaphil Moisturising Cream ($19.59/550g), though for me that’s a winter-weight cream – if your skin is really dry, it could be the answer to your prayers. I am a massive fan of Hamilton sunblocks, their Everyday Face and Sensitive ranges both deliver without risk of breakouts, but whatever block works for you will do – spots are immensely easier to cover up than wrinkles, or, worse, skin cancers.

* If you’re nervous about make-up, book someone else to do it for you for your pre-Christmas dos. If you get in early, you can even have someone spruce you up for New Year. Most beauticians offer a make-up service for a reasonable fee, and you can also book in with a make-up artist at many beauty counters in Myer and David Jones, or at Mecca Cosmetica. Expect to be given a bit of a hard-sell on products, but since the cost at these counters is usually redeemable on product, buy the ones you like best and you’ll end up with a great face for free, plus new make-up that you know looks great. Remember to ask lots of questions so you can recreate the look at home, and pay especial attention to the brushes used! If you go to a beautician instead, take your own lipsticks at least so you can choose from your range – that way you’re set for touch-ups during the party!

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Dogs! We’re in favour.

Every Wednesday night, you’ll find a crowd of people on Erskineville Road in Sydney’s inner west. They’re standing around outside the Sydney Animal Hospital, not even pretending to be cool, and watching Puppy Playgroup as it takes place on the other side of the huge glass windows. There, about ten small bundles of fur will be galumphing and woofing their way about in glee as they take the first steps towards being proper socialised Grown-Up Dogs. Some of them even master Sit before they graduate.

It’s better than TV for the locals, as there’s always one  boofy big lab or German shepherd puppy who makes friends with a tiny chihuahua or fox terrier, while nervous Pomeranians hide under their human’s legs and gregarious pugs mug for the audience. These are all happy and much-loved dogs.

And a surprising percentage of them are also rescue dogs. Talking with owners, we’ve met pedigreed pooches and amiable mutts who’ve all been picked up from pounds and shelters around town, most often the RSPCA and the Sydney Dogs and Cats Home. Walking home past Puppy Playgroup last night I fell into conversation with one of the owners who was telling me that the RSPCA is desperately short of toys and treats for the dogs and cats they care for, which sent me home to pick up the rejected masses from our two pampered rescue cats and parcel them up for the post.

But the puppy-owning chap also broke the news to me that some of his friends were startled he’d gone with a rescue animal because they assumed that dogs (and cats) from pounds and shelters came with a whole raft of problems. In fact, experience and research have both shown me time and again that nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve had a raft of rescue animals over the years, from a number of different pounds and shelters, and this is what they’ve taught me.

Loads of rescue dogs have zero ‘issues’.

A large percentage of rescue dogs arrive at their new home as happy as Larry. Which you might think shows a deplorable lack of sensitivity to the fact they have been tragically abandoned and ended up in the Pound, but let’s be honest, most dogs just want a comfy bed and a good feed. So their old owners ditched them. Meh. They never really liked that family anyway. The pounds are filled with quality workers and volunteers who do their very best to keep the dogs happy and engaged, so it’s sort of like being on a great camp. And then YOU come along! You the person with the fabulous smell and the car that takes dogs on the inside and that stops at a house with a dog bed and a food bowl. BEST DAY EVER!

Most dogs don’t need to process their emotions. They’re dogs. They’re just looking for someone to love, and if you can provide them with a good home, they’ll love you.

When dogs do have issues, there’s help close at hand.

Sometimes animals have bad things happen to them. A much-loved owner might die, or might decide that the pet and the baby don’t mix (which is usually madness, kids go brilliantly with pets!) Some have been sorely ill-treated. So it is possible that the dog you fall in love with could be one that has a few problems.

You will be warned about this at the pound or shelter. Having bought from pounds and breeders, I have found that pound workers are immeasurably better at disclosure of problems than breeders (where a ‘He’s a little excitable’ can cover everything from ‘will widdle on your foot’ to ‘enjoys monstering postmen’.) The pound staff will not only be upfront, they will also help you with resources to deal with the problems through their connections to good vets, trainers, pet therapists and other services that can help your new dog recover from old traumas.

Best of all, they won’t match you with a dog you can’t manage. It’s heartbreaking for pound staff when a housed dog boomerangs back after it’s rejected a second time, so they go to great lengths to make sure that you and your family will be a good fit for the dog you propose to take home. Most of us have had the experience of helping one of our kids or family members get over one sort of problem or another, from depression to dyslexia, so it can be a great bonding experience to have the whole family pitch in to help your new dog recover from its problems, too.

And it doesn’t always take that much to bring an animal back to happiness. Our yard is too small for a dog, but we have two rescue cats. We met the first after she’d spent five months at the Sydney Dogs and Cats Home and was very withdrawn and depressed because everyone else had been adopted but her. She only weighed a little over 2kg, and had thin, short charcoal and beige fur. She spent the first day hiding inside the chimney. That night she came out and watched some TV with us, before sleeping on the bed. By the end of the week, she was so full of energy and happy with life that we had to rescue a second cat so she’d have someone to play with while we were at work! Now she weighs 4.5kg, has a luscious long coat of glossy black and white fur, and cheerfully bosses about the second cat, who is more than happy to be bossed.

Pound animals are generally healthier

Because pounds were intended as places to mind lost pets until they could be reunited with their owners, there is a lot of legislation governing the care of animals at the pound. Additionally, most have very strong relationships with vets who either work for them or work with them. As a result, pound animals are kept clean, free of fleas and parasites, and checked out for medical or congenital problems. This is a much better deal than you will receive from a pet shop, and also from a lot of breeders. When you buy a pet from a pound, you will often also receive discounted vet care for a specified period of time, in case any problems develop once you’ve gone home.

There are some conditions, such as kennel cough, that can develop in the pound where a lot of animals live closely together. If you have multiple pets, ask for advice from the staff about their quarantine strategies and any illnesses that have broken out. Often dogs are housed separately until they have a clean bill of health, so you can rest easy.

You can save a fortune at the pound

In most basic terms, most pounds and shelters charge around $150-$220 per animal. For that, you receive a wormed, deflea-ed, desexed animal with a vet check and a degree of warranty. Even if you’re just buying a mutt, that’s a bargain. But in fact there are often purebred dogs and cats on offer, too. Compared to the thousands you’d pay from a breeder or many hundreds from a pet store, you’re laughing!

How you can help

We’ve been reading through Pet Rescue’s Amazing Dog Stories (Penguin $29.95) here in the office, which is clearly a foolish move because I have to keep pretending I have sunblock in my eyes as I read story after story of heartwarming love from re-homed animals. If you’ve ever been uncertain about whether or not a rescue animal could be for you, pick up a copy and you’ll be won over (plus, all the profits go to helping animals waiting to be re-homed. Nice one, Penguin!) And dammit, I just read another story and now I’m blinking away tears again. This book will not help you maintain a butch image in the workplace, but who cares?

If you’re thinking about a new pet, ring around or visit the websites of your local pounds and shelters. Let them know about your family and what you’re looking for, because even if the right animal is not there right now, it could come in over the next few weeks or months as you continue the search. Pet Rescue is a great place to start with listings of dogs Australia-wide.

If you already own a dog, consider supporting brands and services that support animal welfare, shelters and pounds through fundraising and donations. One of our favourites is the Pedigree Adoption Drive that runs every year in conjunction with Pet Rescue. This year they were on track to house 6000 dogs and raise $125,000 for shelters in the campaign, which is just about to wrap up. I’m told that they may have even gone past their targets, which is brilliant!

And if you’re not looking for an animal to join your household at this time, see if you can help one of the great programs that are run to support animal welfare, like the RSPCA’s Living Ruff, which supports homeless Australians with pets. Or just edit your pet toy collection down and take the excess to your local pound or post it to the RSPCA – they’re seriously in need of more! You might also be interested in volunteering to help out your local shelter, these are places that take animals from the pound and give them a temporary home until they can find a permanent one. From people to play with puppies through to those who can take dogs for regular walks, they are often in need of reliable volunteers, or else they may require simple donations of everything from newspapers to old towels. Ring and ask, they’re just a quick online search away!

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Pre-Chrimbo planning, part 2 – Gifts

via Wikimedia CommonsYou might think that with a mag full of Christmas tips, we here at family circle would be GENIUSES of organisation come the big day. Alas, no.

Look, there are some members of the team who are – the food gang can always be relied on for a brilliant spread, while our redoubtable editor in chief and deputy editor both put on impressive family productions. But, ironically for someone who makes a living as a managing editor, I never manage it. In fact, last Christmas was spent eating ice-cream and sandwiches at our place, after we decided it was all too hot and horrid and we’d rather spend what energy we had playing at the park. So these blog entries are less the sort of lovingly trialled excellence you might receive from luminaries such as Martha Stewart or June Dally-Watkins, and more the tested but slightly harried suggestions of someone who thinks that a sandwich can be celebratory.

Now that’s out in the open, let’s talk presents.

There’s little quite as fraught with potential for disaster as the gentle art of gift giving. Quite aside from all the emotional turmoil when one child receives the toy another child had pinned all their hopes and dreams to, it can be quite the costly exercise and leave the credit cards groaning well into the new year. But there are easy ways to make everything a bit easier.

Controlling your costs

The most important piece of advice financial planners give regarding Christmas is to set a present budget and stick to it. I’m yet to do this perfectly, but every year I get a little bit closer. Following a tip given to me by an old business writer, I make a list of everyone who I plan on giving a present to on one sheet of paper, roughly in the order of importance, then on a second sheet of paper I write the amount I plan to spend altogether. Going down the list, assign amounts to each person and subtract them from the total as you go. So you might have $800 in total, and jot down $150 for hubby, $200 for each of the two kids, $100 for mum, leaving $150 for all the other relatives and friends and the in-laws. If that’s six people, you’re laughing, but if you’ve still got 30 to go, it’s either scale back on hubby and mum, or start striking some of the names off your list.

Before you sentence hubby to yet more socks, have a serious think about culling your list. If you and your sister have been waging an ongoing gift war of soap sets in return for cheap perfume and statuettes for the last 10 years, ring her up and say you think because the budget is tight this year, the two of you should just exchange cards and spend the cash on the children instead. The worst case scenario is that she will think you’re a bit miserly – and you know, if that means never again having to feign joy at the sight of a 15cm-high ceramic weeping puppy, that could be OK.

And for anyone who gave you a pressie once in the 90s but hasn’t reciprocated since, OFF! Unless they’re really lovely and deserving, or have a will that names you as a beneficiary …

There is, of course, one more way around things …

Cheap gifts

It is possible to give cheap gifts that don’t look cheap.  If you’re a wiz in the kitchen, whip up some flavoured oils and vinegars. You can buy gorgeous little bottles from many gift shops (also, try Indian, Chinese, Fijian and hippie shops, they often have some beauties lurking for massage oil blends), or online. Make sure to sterilise your bottles before using. Because you’re giving gifts of 200ml or so, buy good quality oil or vinegar in large bottles: even if it’s $40/Litre, that’s $8 a pop between five. Add $2 for the bottle, herbs free from your garden, and you’re laughing! There are good instructions online. Try here for herbal oil and butter, or here for vinegars (keep the vinegars topped up or else strain all the herbs out before using, as uncovered herbs in the bottle can spoil). Better at baking? Grab the Christmas issue of family circle on October 31 and whip up the biscuit recipes or brownies you’ll find inside.

Prefer craft to cooking? Grab a few metres of calico or linen and run up shopping bags for all your friends, or else drawstring bags that can be used for everything from keeping shoes together while travelling to storing craft projects. You can find lots of good patterns on the web, from this fancy-pants model, to this classic one (you can leave off all the appliques), to this easy-peasy drawstring. You can print or embroider motifs in place to personalise each bag, and it will cost you little more than time.

If your recipient lives online, buy them a new App or a gift to their fave social media site, for example, WordPress offers all sorts of services from domain names and ad blocking to HD video.

Alternatively, make the money count more! You can buy a chicken for someone in a developing nation in the name of your friend for $10 thanks to Oxfam, plus receive a great card or e-card to let them know you care. Check out our Giving feature in the mag for more charity ideas, where a little bit of cash can go a long way.

And don’t forget the old tradition of the present box: buy up big during the sales throughout the year when you can get lovely little gift packages of basics like stationery, soap and so on. There’ll always be someone you need to cough up a pressie for at the last minute, so it’s good to have a stash that you grabbed for 50% off in the pre- or post-Christmas sales. Make sure you buy things you like, if it looks as though they are getting past their prime, then you can use them yourself. And always store text books on top of the box – it’s amazing how few people will keep looking once they spot 4-Unit Maths Extension 2, or Introduction to Semiotics. If you don’t have any lying around, try breast-feeding pamphlets, they work a treat!

What do people want?

Santa has the right idea: get everyone to write a list.

In our house, you can write as long a list as you like, but everything on it has to be something you really want or need, and then you’re allowed to put extra stars or ticks beside the things most wanted. We then go onto the internet and look at roughly how much things will cost, so everyone knows that if they get one expensive thing while someone else gets three cheap things, it’s still fair. In a good year, a lot of each list might be delivered, in a tight year, less. But in tight years we make sure to wrap up handwritten vouchers for Time To Watch A DVD and Games Afternoons Down the Park, too, so they can be hoarded as treasures and cashed in at will (usually we give the voucher back and say ‘that was so much fun, it doesn’t count as a voucher use’).

Hold onto old present lists, but check to see if they’re still current. Last year’s must-have toy is probably passé now, while the hope for a dog might still burn bright and now be matched by an age level at which the puppy will be safe from tail-pulling.

Look at the lifetime costs of a gift, too. Computer games are amazingly popular, but they do encourage a sedentary lifestyle that’s less than ideal, and require regular updates of both console systems and peripherals, as well as new games as they come out. A bicycle will require some amount of mechanical work over its lifespan, but will help keep your kids active and keep parents off the sofa, too, as you teach them road sense and escort them until they’re old enough to ride alone. Similarly, some dollhouses and racing sets come with loads of dolls/furniture/cars/bits, while for others you need to buy each component, so what looks like the best value to begin with, often isn’t.

If you’re on a strict budget, don’t be afraid to say so. Kids are really good at trying to do their part around the house once they know it’s important. Let them know that both you and Santa are still worried about the GFC, and so they’ll need to prioritise and pare down their lists this year. Make sure you’ve made sacrifices if you’re asking them to, and then show how it all helps around the house – Scruffy’s dogfood is paid for the year because Son Number One asked for a new football rather than a Wii, while you deciding to go for at-home colour has paid for the electricity this quarter. Showing what you can manage on a budget can really help the kids to cope when you’re going through a financial rough patch, because they feel as though you’re all in it together, and that everyone has a level of control. If only our politicians followed suit!

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Christmas – it’s closer than you think!

Christmas glazed hamThings have been quiet in the family circle Aus social media world of late. Mostly because we’ve been hard at work putting our Christmas issue to bed.

‘Christmas?!’ I hear you splutter. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, woman, it’s barely October!’

If you’re reading this standing up on some cool i-Gizmo, you should probably sit down. OK, ready? There are 68 days until Christmas.

Not shopping days, DAYS. That’s less than 10 weeks.

Sorry! I should have specified sit down in a comfortable environment and maybe with a soothing herbal tea before I broke that one.

But you’re forewarned now, and forearmed. It’s time to make a plan!

First off: Where are you going to spend Christmas Day?

If it’s the same place you spend every year, take a moment to check that the host household isn’t exhausted – especially if it’s yours! It’s an incredible amount of work to put on the whole show for a big family, so be open to the idea of a roster that sees the family Christmas move each year, or else moving to a public space like a park or paid venue (a hotel or holiday house). While it’s a bit late in the day for booking many of the best spots, October can be a perfect month for snapping up cancellations and for being the first in at new venues launching their Christmas programs this year. Or Christmas in the park with a barbecue could be the best chance you ever have to make friends with the other families on your street.

Your second vital job: Divvy up the food responsibilities. Even if you prefer to cook all the main meal yourself, let others take over some of the salads, starters or sides. You might even find someone who wants to provide the pudding – give it a go, the worst-case scenario is an hilarious tale of the not-good-pud for next year, and there’s always more food than anyone needs at Christmas lunch or dinner anyway. If you’re trying to keep all the food to a theme, get the gang together early on and explain what the overall plan is, then have suggestions or even recipes for people to choose from. You’ll generally find that people are happy to follow a lead when it’s given.

Be sure to grab a copy of Christmas 2011 family circle when it goes on sale on October 31 so you’re armed to the teeth with recipes (and whether you love turkey, chicken, ham, pork, fish or even vego recipes, you’ll find something perfect), and then look for places to pre-prep and pre-cook.

Does your family love little pastry snacks? Bake up a few lots on cool days in November and then leave them in the freezer until they’re needed. Thaw, then crisp them up in the oven and they’ll be perfect on the day. Planning a pavlova-palooza? Make a sauce out of spring berries (grab whatever’s cheap at the markets/shops or fruiting in your garden – mulberries are brilliant! – they’ll all be costlier come Christmas week) by mashing the fruit and cooking it over a low heat, with a little sugar to sweeten, until it thickens up. Let it cool and then pour it into a zip-lock bag and bung it in the freezer until the big day.

Once you start looking, you’ll find a lot of areas where you can make shortcuts or get ahead with the cooking so that Christmas becomes a time of fun and relaxation for everyone, not for everyone but the cook.

And don’t forget the number one rule of the kitchen: Cook doesn’t clean!

We’ll be back later this week with some handy hints re gift-buying and giving, plus ways to get a fabbo party look in under 15 minutes and without needing any great skills in the hair and make-up department.

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