Category Archives: Lifestyle

Alyson’s Top Ten Ingredients of 2015

The end of the year is always seen as the perfect time to reflect on the year that’s just gone by, and look forward to the next year. Since we’re a food blog, it’s only fitting that we look at the past year in terms of food and its impact on my life. So here are my top ten ingredients of 2015.

Garlic

1. Garlic 

The smell of garlic has always reminded me of the best kind of home cooking. It was my uncle who first inspired me to cook, letting me sit at his butcher’s block as he chopped and fried, throwing together the most delightful array of tasty little dishes in seemingly no time at all. Now I’m older and can look back on it, I suspect he lost whole mornings making lunch!

Garlic always featured heavily in his cooking, and was the predominant smell in his house, but in a “welcome to the nourishing bosom of our home” kind of way. So that’s what got me into garlic. And I just can’t seem to look past it. If it’s a pasta sauce, curry sauce, marinade, soup, roast or stir fry, garlic is the starting point. It’s good for you and it does so much flavour work!

 

2. Ginger

This year has been a turning point for me in terms of food and nutrition. I’ve finally had the willpower to make a few healthier changes which have helped me to drop the dress size I wanted to shed before our wedding, as well as helping me to realise that eating healthily is a lot less difficult, and much more tasty, than you might think.

Soups for lunch and stir fries for supper have played a massive part in this, particularly when I learned that it’s pretty easy to keep stocked up with the makings of a great stir fry marinade, delicious enough to forget about those calorie stuffed sachet sauces. Ginger is a big hitter for me, and I always have a knobble in my fridge (especially since Charles told me off for resorting to ginger purée!).


3. Soy Sauce 

For similar reasons to the above story about stir fries, soy sauce has been hugely helpful in letting me throw together healthy but filling suppers, satisfying enough to stop me rescuing for a takeaway menu or a bag of pasta. Even if it doesn’t feature in your stir fry, it’s a slightly heather way to ass on your Asian food, so stick it on the table in case there isn’t enough salt on your noodles or rice.

The legend says that light soy is for flavour, whilst dark soy is for colour, but I just prefer dark soy sauce – it seems a little less bitter to me.

 

4. Honey 

Honey has been getting a bad rep, recently  – “oh it’s not as healthy as you think”, “it’s as bad for you as sugar”, yadda yadda, but everything in moderation.  A teaspoon in your marinade isn’t going to kill you, but it will give you the perfect dash of Asian sweetness, as well as the most beautiful sticky glaze to your stir-fried meat (see my Chicken Teriyaki for the evidence!).  I like to buy the runny kind in a squeezy bottle for easy dispensing, but I’m not at all fussy about brand so don’t take the photo as a specific recommendation – whichever is on offer will be the bottle which makes it into my basket.

 

5. Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

Really, I could be giving you a top ten rundown of my favourite/most eaten fruits and vegetables, so I’m afraid the title of this item will have to be as general as this!  You may remember (if you’ve followed my blog from the beginning) that one of my major resolutions for 2015 was to do my darnedest to eat my 5-a-day.  And, for the most part, I’ve achieved this (apart from the odd Saturday and Sunday, but that will change in the Brooker household).  It’s really much easier than you think.  I’m sure I’ll eventually get round to a post about the little changes you can make to the everyday to make your diet that little bit healthier, but generally melons and grapes have replaced my lunchtime packet of crisps, homemade soups and salads take the place of M&S sandwiches, apples and clementines float around my handbag in case I get peckish mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and bulking out my suppers with lots of fresh vegetables helps me to cut down on the carbs.  It can seem like an expensive way to eat, but once you’ve figured out your favourites, your weekly shop becomes a lot easier and a lot better for you.

 

6. Ribeye Steak

Charles has the credit for introducing me to this one.  The lovely, succulent, tasty ribeye.  It has more flavour that a sirloin or a fillet, and it’s generally pretty easy to trim out the excess fat.  It just has more…steakiness about it.  We had ribeyes from my butcher for our first supper as an engaged couple (I didn’t know we would be an engaged couple but we were otherwise celebrating heading off for a wonderful week together on Skye, it just worked out quite well) and Charles has also introduced me to the wonders of Aldi steaks.  Seriously. Try them.  They beat the butcher hands down because they are hung for a bit to tenderise and mature the beef, and yet they are sourced locally from farmers who meet the highest standards.  When I’m not celebrating, however, I love these Tesco ribeyes, which, at £3 a pop and big enough to make two stir fries, are my protein-packed best friend for a tasty midweek supper which will help my muscles to recover from HIIT and Pilates.

 

 

7. Brown Rice 

My name’s Alyson and I used to be a brown rice sceptic.  Until I bought a bag, learned that it took forever and a day to cook it, and tasted it.  It’s easier to prepare than basmati (provided you have 20+ minutes to let it simmer),it won’t turn stodgy on you, it tastes beautiful and nutty and delicious enough to eat alone, and it has a low GI, which means it takes longer to break down in your body and is therefore less likely to turn to fat.  Sorted.  Although you should definitely stock up when i’s on offer as it can get fairly pricey (£2.50 from Tilda in Tesco right now ….on the shelf you will stay).

Olive ou


 

8. Olive Oil

Everyone, surely, knows the benefits of olive oil.  It’s a staple. It’s always kicking around somewhere in both of our kitchens.  If I’m stir frying, I prefer groundnut oil as it can handle a higher heat without burning (be careful if you’re allergic to nuts), but olive is still a great starter for dressings, marinades, pestos, and getting a gently sweat or fry on the go.  Let’s try some new oils in 2016…

 9. Tinned Tomatoes 

Such a staple, even my Mum keeps them in the house, tinned tomatoes are a must-have store cupboard ingredient.  They’re a great start to a pasta sauce, a curry base or a casserole and they help to make an excellent minestrone.  Buy a four-pack when they’re on offer.  I used to be all about the chopped tomatoes but I think I’ve convinced myself that tinned plum tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes if you’re feeling flush) give you a better flavour and texture.

image

10. Stock Cubes and Stock Pots

I’ll probably be breaking a “foodie” (yeurgh) law by telling you that I swear by Knorr stock cubes.  Chuck two or three in some boiling water and add to some vegetables in a soup pot and you’re halfway to a week of nutritious hot lunches.  They also give a great savoury backbone to sauces, and one beef stockpot added to a stew or casserole will hit all the right notes.  By all means, make fresh stock if you have leftover bones and the wherewithal, but don’t be too much of a snob to reach for reach for a helping hand from your cupboard.  Cooking loses it’s shine a little if make things too difficult for yourself, so take shortcuts when you can!

Let us know which ingredients you haven’t been able to keep out of your shopping basket this year, and have a great time at New Year!

Gifts for Your Gentlemen

We all have a demographic for whom Christmas shopping is most difficult. For me, it seems to change from year to year, depending on what the person has coming up, whether they have made requests, and how inspired I’m feeling. This year, I’ve been pretty well-organised, with most ideas gradually hitting me. My last sticking point is one of my Grandads, but everyone else is pretty well sorted, after lots of head scratching surrounding uncles, Dads, fiancés and so on. So when I finally got there, I thought it might be an idea to share some of my better ideas (sharing is caring).

 Christmas Blog 
1. A washbag. Is it just me, or do men seem to be becoming more and more concerned about their accessories, hair and skincare? Even the older generation seems to be going mad for beard oil. Every self-respecting man about town, therefore, should have a respectable washbag. This season, there seem to be lots of these on the market. Just hit a department store and you’ll find a range of options to meet a range of budgets. This one is by Jasper Conran, can be found in Debenhams, and will be under the tree for my Dad. If only they hadn’t left the security tag on….need to take a trip into the shop before I can wrap it.

 Jasper Conran Washbag 
2. Socks. Whether you have a stocking to fill or a little extra to pad your other presents up to your budget, lovely or wacky socks are a bit of a Christmas must-buy for boys and girls alike. My uncle likes to wear brightly coloured socks (really really), so gets them every year, but these ones are lovely thick, soft work socks for my future Father in-law. 

 Work socks  

3. A good jumper. Or any clothes, really. You have to know the person fairly well, though, or have a particular eye for style, as clothing can be a pretty personal thing. And then there’s the dilemma surrounding choosing the right size (please don’t offend someone – if in doubt, steer clear!) I found this jumper (reasonably priced but smart) quite by accident in the men’s section of Debenhams but later ordered it online as they only had it in medium. This is for my dad and is a sort of crisis cross knit with surfer shoulder panels. Cosy and smart and relatively stylish for a 50 plus. I also bought my grandad a £10 shirt and tie set from Tesco (who’s to know?!).

Men's Christmas Gifts 
4. Man chocolate. Unless your gifted has a particular favourite (my Dad’s used to be Toblerone), experience tells me that 9 out of 19 men prefer manly dark chocolate. These mint batons are a slightly classier After Eight, and are a great extra to throw in.  Chocolate Mint Batons 
5. The Amazon Fire TV Stick. This is my Dad’s main present. I bought him a Now TV box last Christmas but I had to throw this one in this year because Top Gear is coming back, and this little stick lets you access Amazon Instant Video and Netflix (provided you pay the subscriptions) without shelling out for a smart TV. 

 Christmas Gifts for Dads 

Super Drugstore Stocking Fillers for Ladies

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to come up with ideas for stocking fillers as each year goes by. It’s really important to me that people don’t receive presents for the sake of just having a present; it should always be something people might want or like, or don’t even know they might want!  
My Mum, Nana and I contribute to a great big stocking for each other every year, so it can be hard to think of new ideas. Yesterday, I took a trip up to Superdrug for a bit of a stocking filler smash and grab (without the stealing) and I thought it might be helpful to share with you some items which make great stocking fillers but wouldn’t necessarily be traditionally considered for a Christmas present. 

  
This is something I’ll probably put in my own stocking: the B. Eye Shadow Brush, which looks lovely and soft, as well as big enough to blend out your shadow. It would probably be great for concealing too. At £3.99 and with good-sized packaging, it ticks the stocking stuffing box, whilst being a great present.

 

Imperial Leather; Stocking Filler Ideas
Imperial Leather Shower Gel
 
Shower gel is another great filler product. Most people use it, and they certainly know someone who would use it even if they themselves have a bath every day. It might be a bit of a boring present, but it will at least be useful (which, let’s face it, we start to appreciate as we get older) and if you can find an exciting scent or texture, even better. 

 

Superdrug Stocking Fillers
Superdrug staples
 
Beauty staples….I happen to know my Nana can’t be without this Vitamin E Intense Moisture Cream and my Mum keeps complaining about having dry elbows so I’ve picked a pot up for her as well. 

Nail polish remover pads are so handy for anyone who might ever wear nail polish, so a great, cheap little thing to throw in there. I always seem to be running out!
This GOSH Eyeliner was for me to replace one which has stopped sharpening, but you can’t really go wrong with a kohl liner as a little extra, and it’s always an intriguingly shaped present to open. And you currently get a free smoky eye palette when you spend £10 on GOSH in Superdrug (one present for you, one present for me….)!

Makeup Stocking Fillers
Makeup Revolution Palettes
 
I have to admit that eyeshadow palettes are a bit of a guilty pleasure for me just now – so many pretty pigments. However, I’m a big believer in sharing the love, so if you’ve bought something and loved it, why not buy one for someone else?  These are getting towards the pricier end of stocking filler territory but there’s still a 3 for 2 in Superdrug so it sort of evens out. The Makeup Revolution Beyond Flawless palette is one of my favourite things just now, but the Flawless palette has a slightly broader range of colours for people who might not be so comfortable with the concept of 50 shades of nude. 

I also picked up the Makeup Revolution Iconic Pro 1 palette for my Mum, as she tends to wear a lot of purple shades so I thought this might introduce her to the 21st century and no make-up make-up. Plus it comes with a brush, and it’s in that crucial £5 bracket. 

Other things I’ll probably pick-up at some point or which might be suitable for a sister or friend:

  • Hair bobbles 
  • Hand cream
  • Face masks
  • Hairspray or dry shampoo
  • Bath bombs/bath salts/bubble bath 
  • Body lotion 
  • Vaseline or lip balm
  • Nail polish
  • Lipstick or lipgloss
  • Blusher, bronzer or highlighter 
  • Your favourite primer or setting spray 

I wouldn’t recommend gifting a concealer or foundation (no matter how badly you want to share the wonder of Collection concealer) as you are very unlikely to be able to correctly match their skin tone!

Let me know if this has helped any of you out or if you have any ideas for me!

Empties

This is the first empties blog I’ve done, so please bear with me! I seem to take ages to get through some things, whilst using others like they’re going out of fashion. 

   
Firstly, a moment of silence for my fallen Benefit Dandelion. This has been a constant chum, giving the prettiest pink blush flush, but finally I’ve rubbed the pan clean. Sad, sad, sad. I can’t decide if I’m going to buy another one or if I’m too old for it now, but either way it’s too pink for Winter so I’ll try to find something new for now. Any suggestions welcome! 

  
I’ve also finished a tube/bottle (?!) of this old workhorse. I’ve been a big fan of Max Factor Colour Adapt for many years, after s friend suggested it whilst we were out shopping. I always buy it in Creamy Ivory, which is the palest shade they seem to stock in Boots, even though it isn’t all that fair so really pale ladies would struggle with this range. Nevertheless, it’s good value, fairly long- lasting if you prime and set, and it has the most glorious velvety texture which was the reason I fell in love with it in the first place. It can be quite gathers over dry skin if you combine it with a concealer, but that doesn’t bother me too much as when my skin is as winter dry as it is just now, there’s no getting around that for my eye area. 

  

 Moisturiser. I can’t get enough of this stuff. I think I’m going to keep using the night cream above, at least in the winter, as although it’s not as thickly moisturising as I’d like it to be, it’s the best moisturiser I’ve found so far that doesn’t sting when I have really dry, irritated skin in the winter. Not a nice wake up call!
Although I’ve used the Replenishing Rich Moisturiser for years, I’m not convinced it’s doing all that much for me. Basically I but it because it’s usually quite cheap and I know there are no perfumes in it to irritate my skin, but I think I should be doing better at my age! Recommendations welcome! 

  Shower gel isn’t something I’m too loyal to. I like buying and trying out new ones, and browsing the aisles to see all the new colours, scents and textures these guys are trying to flog us. I’m quite lucky in that my skin (apart from my face) doesn’t seem to respond positively or negatively to whatever I choose to wash with so I generally have my pick. Ok, I generally pick what’s on offer. I prefer something citrusy or somehow zingy, and always a gel rather than a cream or a milk; far too namby pamby for the working week. The bottle I’ve just finished up is a basic Radox “feel revived” mandarin and lemongrass shower gel. Inoffensive, but not particularly exciting.

  
This, as you may know, is a range I’ve been struggling to get my head around (boom) since I started using it. I never seem to use up shampoo and conditioner at the same rate, so I’m on my first shampoo and second conditioner (they’re crafty, those 3-for-2s). I love the scent and the creamy way it applies to the hair, as well as the generally feeling that avocado oil and Shea butter must be good for your hair. This morning is the first time since using these that I’ve thought that might be true, as my hair has been so so dry with no sign of a comeback, even after switching from Frizz Ease. I probably won’t buy these again, but they were worth a shot, and they do give your hair a lovely scent. 

Happy December and Collab. Shout Out

Happy 1st December, one and all!

I won’t claim I jumped out of bed with any sort of vigour, never mind renewed vigour, because I was up at 6.30am to get a train to Edinburgh. And I hate public transport. Really really despise it. What is with sitting on the platform freezing your toes off for 20 minutes to get on first just to be beaten to it by people who’ve been sitting inside until the very last minute who either happen to stand exactly where the train doors stop, or barge their way in front of you as soon as the doors open?! Rude. 

  
I have a personal space issue, you see. I’m one of those horrid only children you hear about. I can’t stand it when people in a queue seat forward so they keep bumping into your back, or having to sit next so someone on the train. It’s not their presence I object to as such, it’s the lack of space and total lack of control as to when you can decide to get up and leave. You spend the journey with your handbag digging into your knees and you can’t get into it for anything without feeling as though you’re elbowing them multiple times. And then there’s the awkward “are you getting off, can I get out please” dance. Just no. That’s why I always buy advance first class tickets when I visit Mr Brooker. Individual seat, free wine, lots of leg room – bliss. 

  
Anyway I’m digressing! I did get to enjoy my first Starbucks Toffee Nut Latté of the season, and there were turkey, cranberry and stuffing sandwiches for lunch! Excellent. For me, there should be no Christmas before 1st December, apart from any mincemeat/Christmas Cake you might have to bake. So I can finally dig out some decorations and a cinnamon candle. 

My Mum bought me the Ciaté Mini Mani Month advent calendar in TKMaxx (which I suspect was last year’s model but who cares! It’s rather lovely and will hopefully help me not to buy any more nail polish this year. We shall see….

  
This morning came with this rather lovely little bottle of Miss Mistletoe glitter, which I’m very excited about layering over something red or gold. 

  
I wasn’t sure I’d get home at a reasonable time tonight so I’ve opted for a cheat’s supper of fish fingers and peas. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this except that I’m considering whether Blogmas is a realistic possibility for me, and if so, what I ate this evening ought to feature, so let’s not leave 1st December out! 

    
I’m off home now to tackle two rounds of Blogilates (one is to make up for not doing any tomorrow night) including a rather ridiculous 4xHIIT workout which has rather innocently been called the Snowbunny Blast…

Anyways, the initial point of this post was to ask of anyone fancies a bit of a Christmas food collaboration? As Mr Brooker would readily tell you, I love a bit of themed baking/cookery. So just putting it out there – give me a shout if you would consider sharing your favourite Christmas foods. You wouldn’t even need to provide recipes- just share your “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without” traditions. 

Happy December!

November Favourites 

November welcome in the cold, and with it, a big old cold for me! Not to worry – we should embrace what life throws at us, right? If life gives you a cold, enjoy your warm bed, scarves, soup and plenty of cups of tea.

  
I was thinking of running separate beauty and lifestyle favourites posts but I’m not a fan of scrambling around to force favourites which aren’t necessarily favourites just to fill up a post. So the combined post was born…

So, in no particular order, here we go…

 

1. Maybelline Baby Skin Instant Pore Eraser

I’ve been using this for about 5 or 6 weeks now. I can’t comment on its ability to erase pores, as it’s so darn dark in the morning that it’s impossible to tell. However, I really love the formula of this primer. It’s velvety soft, without being powdery, and as it’s quite thick and siliconey it really does feel like you’re giving your make up a good thick base, whereas creamy primers can sometimes feel a bit thin and toothless. 

However, because it is thicker, it isn’t very easy to spread as far so I feel like I’ve been using more product meaning it’ll be used up more quickly and be poorer value for money than a sheerer primer. On the other hand, it is in a tube so it’s going to be easier to squeeze out the last traces than would be the case with a pump. Overall, a great everyday base; even better if there’s a deal on!

  
2. Vaseline Lip Therapy (Cocoa Butter)

This is more of an essential than it is a favourite. I always have at least one of these kicking around, and I have real trouble getting through a winter workday without one of these in my handbag. I’ve actually gone out to pick up a new one at lunch time before, it’s just that necessary (I should really keep one in my drawer….).

Anyway, like many, I really suffer with dry skin when the weather gets cold and the heating comes on. Particularly when it comes to my lips and eyes. I primarily larger this onto my lips throughout the day, and it’s the only product which has ever worked for me in terms of coming even close to being in any way moisture repairing. Some people hate petroleum jelly due to it being so greasy, but that seems to be necessary for me!

I have very sensitive skin and some really odd allergies, so I’m quite fussy about moisturising products. In terms of the scent, I prefer the cocoa butter or the crême brûlée (although I think it was limited edition) as I had an allergic reaction to the rose and I find the original and aloe vera to smell crude oily and a bit unpleasant – the cocoa butter makes it feel a but more like a lovely girly product. 

When my skin in general is really dry, I also use this to help give it a boost, anywhere I have set patches such as my undereyes, eyelids and elbows, as it’s much better for rescuing skin than an ordinary moisturiser, and can also be used sparingly just before you apply your make-up to give your dry areas a fighting chance.

  
3. MaxFactor Creme Puff Blush in Gorgeous Berries 

I mentioned this blusher in my recent Superdrug haul, as I picked it up as a deeper berry shade for the winter – farewell pretty, peachy pinks! It is a beautiful colour which goes into the skin as the darker of the two shades in the pan. It’s pretty matte, as far as I can tell, so it’s perfect for an everyday autumn/winter look. 

However, it is a drugstore brand blush, so it was always going to fall a little flat for me as I’ve used Benefit blush for years, and have recently fallen for a MAC Mineralize product so the quality is a little disappointing. It goes onto the cheek in a very pigmented but uneven way, but seems to buff off rather than in, meaning that you end up with only a slight flush at times. It doesn’t seem to have much longevity either, and you definitely need a mirror to apply it. I’ll keep playing around with it though as I may just be using the wekmg brushes. The Real Techniques Blush Brush is too soft for buffing but a Kabuki is perhaps too harsh. The colour is too beautiful to give up on!

  
4. Bicycle Jumper from Gap

I bought this jumper at an outlet sale towards the end of summer. It’s the perfect smart casual weekend jumper, layered over a shirt. It’s great quality snd was an absolute steal. I don’t think you can buy this particular one anymore, but there are lots of similarly shaped jumpers in the sale, which I’ve linked above. 

  

5. Miss KG Spitfire Tan Boots 

I’ve finally had to concede that my favourite River Island pixie boots are letting in water. My Nana bought me some great Moda in Pelle ankle boots last Christmas, but they have a 4 inch heel and I was in dire need of something comfortable, warm and waterproof for a trip to Newcastle at the start of this month. 

Solution found after about 5 minutes on the Debenhams website. A £68 impulse buy but really they’re cracking value. They are smart, comfortable, cushiony in the inside, with a hardwearing sole and they’re waterproof, with the uppers made from beautiful tan nubuck. I wore them all weekend (including standing up at a gig for about 5 hours) without breaking them in, but with no pain. Very lucky find!

  

6. Twinings Lady Grey Teabags 

Lighter and fresher than my old favourite Earl Grey (although I’m pretty sure Twinings changed the formula for their Earl Grey a couple of years ago and I’m not quite over that yet), so I’ve switched to this guy. A godsend in the cold evenings, and all day when I was ill. 

  

7. Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles Strawberry & Blackcurrant

Fruit Pastilles, only better!

  

8. Revival by Stephen King 

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for as long as I can remember. His writing is perfection, his plots have me hooked, and every story is totally different. I’m still reading this one actually, but it’s a good’un, and I would highly recommend it if you like a thriller. It’s supernatural but I’m not sure I would call it a horror. Not yet at least! Almost looking forward to the 75 minute train journey tomorrow morning just to have plenty of time with this bad boy. 

9. Live Music and New Adventures

I’ve told you already that I had a great weekend with Mr Brooker at the beginning of the month, seeing some really great bands (Truckstop Honeymoon, Beans on Toast, Will Varley, Skinny Lister and Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls) all of whom are represented by Xtra Mile Recordings (apart from Truckstop) who I’ve linked above. 

It was the first time I’d spent a weekend in Newcastle and it was pretty eye-opening! Even though the weather was miserable and I got a bit grumpy thinking we might miss our train and then again re the start of the gig because we couldn’t get a table for supper, I really had a great time. Just not enough down time with Mr B for my liking!  

10. How to get Away with Murder 

A great new drama on Netflix with some great twists and turns. I was a bit disappointed with where they went with the season finale, but I’ll reserve judgement for the next season!  

That’s us for another month! What are your favourites this month?

The 5 Best …Websites for Starting Your Christmas Shopping 

Here we are again. Galloping towards the end of November, but we’ve barely started our Christmas shopping. We’ve taken a few rambles around the local shops: Boots offers the same old FCUK and Nando’s gift sets, M&S wants you to give your grandad another mug to remind him he’s “Head Gardener”, and a scarf for, well, every female relative you know, just isn’t going to cut it this year.

  
Ok, ok, before you tell me off, I know that shopping local is great. It’s the best. But let’s not get into Perth local politics. In fact, I’ll be buying a fair amount from good local businesses, but we’ll get into that nearer the time. Just now, though, help is at hand. With a little bit of time, organisation and a sufficient number of postage days before The Big Day, you can really break the back of your Christmas shop in a relatively short amount of time. It won’t even do that much harm to your credit card if you start now during the Black Friday sales.

  

1
. John Lewis

Try to block the terrible Christmas advert from your mind for a moment. I mean, they have put some pretty good ones out in the past. John Lewis is great. It really is. It can be pricey, but not obnoxiously so, so it offers a good range of ideas to suit pretty much every demographic. Even boys. 

  
Their website is really helpful too, with lots of “gift by recipient” categorisation to help you navigate the options available without visiting every department, as well as allowing you to sub- search by budget. So if you want to spend under £30 on your granny, John Lewis has you covered. Genius. 

  
Another thing they do pretty well every year is their selection of hampers. I hear you groaning in boredom already. But hear me out. We hate hampers because every hamper we’ve had has been filled with rubbish no one wants to eat or drink, right? What if you could find a hamper that doesn’t break the bank, that gives someone a load of their favourite things all neatly packaged together and which might just let you get away with a sneaky 1-4-2 couples’ present (smaller price tag than 2 presents, and less time spent shopping)? I told you to trust me!

John Lewis offer hampers ranging in price from £15 to £500 (like you would…) as well as make your own hamper boxes, baskets and trays, if you wanted a more personal touch, so they’re worth a look (especially that Chocolate Cube….).  My biggest criticism is that all of them are Christmas themed. Ok, it is a Christmas present, but (think about it John Lewis) who really needs brandy butter and a mini Christmas pudding on December 25th? (Unless you’ve given them a spoiler not to go out and buy one or they’ve burnt the main guy or whatever) That’s why we hate hampers!

2. The Book People

There’s not as much to say about these guys, except I’m not entirely sure how the manage their crazily low prices. As a bookworm and lover of language, I think books make wonderful presents. I’m not a zealot, so I do get that you can take a person to the pages but you can’t make them read, but you can probably find a book on this site for about 80% of people. They do kids’ books, cookbooks, craft books, humorous books etc etc etc. 

  
There’s a bit of nostalgia for me with The Book People because I remember my Mum buying me books from them when I was a kid in the days when their reps would bring books to offices to sell. Weirdly they’ve just started doing that again. Anyway they had a catalogue at that time and have now moved online so I’ve had a great time rediscovering them over the last few years. The best thing they offer, in my opinion, is their collections. 

  
Basically, they offer collections by the same author, for example, the Harlan Coven collection of 10 of his novels for £10, or themed collections (I have the Penguin “Banned Books” collection, for example, whereby the books are sold as a collection for a fraction of the price they would be bought separately. Great, great presents. 

  

3. Not on the High Street

People seem to have mixed feelings about this one; they love its quirkiness or they’re put off by its gimmicks. I have to say I’m somewhere in the middle. The original idea behind this website, as I understand it, is to bring professional small scale producers to the mass market, in a more organised fashion than Etsy can manage. However, the message is getting lost a bit with all sorts of mass-produced gimmicks finding their way onto the site, I mean, who actually wants to receive chocolate Brussels sprouts, let alone pay a tenner for them?! 

  
  Still, I do think this website has its place, you just have to be savvy and be careful that you’re happy to pay the price their asking, especially as the base price can really ramp up when you add personalisation, gift wrapping, postage etc. There are some really lovely unique gifts on offer and it’s a great place to get ideas. I bought a lovely (in my opinion!) business card holder for Mr Brooker from this site, engraved with one of his favourite song lyrics. It was reasonably priced and the turnaround time was spectacular. Have a browse!

  
4. Feelunique.com

This website hasn’t been on my radar for very long, but they offer some really nice beauty brands, as well as their own beauty advent calendar which gives you 12 little gifts for £30. 

  
Although a lot of what they have to offer is on the pricier main present side of the scale, they have some great little stocking fillers which are a little bit different from the usual socks and chocolate orange. 

Even though you may hate gifting “bath stuff” to those friends and relatives you need to find a gift for about whom you know very little, this site offers you all sorts of lovely gift sets people might actually want and use.

5. Debenhams

Trusty old Debenhams has a load of good deals on just now; I saved £7 on a jumper I was planning to buy for my Dad anyway yesterday. So get in there before Friday’s over!

  
Debenhams is a middle of the road alternative to John Lewis, offering everything from slippers to food gifts, as well as the customary Christmas socks and gadgets. You can tick off lots of people at the sane tine with this one, especially your Mum and Granny. 

I hope this has been helpful! Let me know if you have any go to Christmas shopping websites. 

 Sunday Chat

I just wanted to have a little catch up with all you lovely people to touch base about life in general and to say thank you to everyone who has supported me so far. 

  
If you’ve read my “After my Exams”post, you’ll know that studying for professional qualifications after work has taken up a lot of my free time. But now I’m finished, and I’m taking a well-earned break, and that leaves me free to dedicate more time and energy to a lot of things, but particularly my blog. Just this morning I’ve decided to sort out my Twitter account and start using it again, as well as trying really hard to get better at scheduling my posts, although I’m not entirely sure sticking to the same upload days is necessary (I’m not a YouTube sensation after all). 

I’m also going to take some time to consider hosting outside of Word Press, as well as thinking about how to make the leap to YouTube eventually. 

  
On Saturday, I’ll be taking part in my very first collaborative post, which I’m really excited about. It was spearheaded by a lovely lady, Siobhan, who has a fantastic beauty blog, Beautyandthelook and who basically out herself out there with a shout out to anyone who fancied joining in. So on Saturday, Siobhan, myself, Jennifer, Becca-Louise, Karen and BunniesBlanketsandBandanas will each be blogging about our top 5 Christmas party essentials – it’s really exciting for me to be part of, if for no other reason that it’s put me in touch with some lovely bloggers who have great blogs. That will be dropping at 6pm on Saturday 28th November if you’re interested. 

  
I’ve had a bit of a mixed bag this week after having an amazing long weekend with Mr Brooker, seeing two great bands (Truckstop Honeymoon and Beans on Toast) at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh after last Friday night, and then  Will Varley, Skinny Lister and Frank Turner at Newcastle uni on Saturday night before having some quality time being spoiled rotten by my wonderful husband-to-be.

  
Then it was back to work with a heavy heart and a scratch throat, only for that to develop into a horrid cold, then a cough, meaning I’ve been off work Thursday afternoon and Friday. I’m starting to feel a bit better now thankfully, however that’s been replaced by my right eye having a horrific allergic reaction to my parents’ central heating. All of that and a dozen lectures from my Mum about being “too thin”. 

This is something I want to take some time to address because it’s an issue that affects a lot of people, throughout the ages. I’ve always been chubby, curvy, whatever you want to call it. A UK size 12 on the bottom and a 14 on top, which might seem great to plenty of you until you add in the fact that I’m under 5′ 2″. I love food, you know that, of course, and yet I’ve never quite been 100% happy with my body. I loved having a decent cleavage, but I hated the cellulite on my thighs, my seemingly immovable muffin top and bingo wings, and I have been making numerous attempts with varying degrees of effort over the years to get into better shape.

  
I’m asthmatic, so exercise has always been a difficult concept for me, but I got into regular workouts when I moved into my own place last February. Davina’s workout DVDs were hard, but ultimately fruitless, although I suppose I shifted a few pounds by lightening my lunches a little and making breakfast bars for work. It was Jillian Michaels‘ 30 Day Shred which finally got my muscles to take shape and burned off some of that fat. After repeating that for a few months I was starting to get a lot happier about how I looked but also about how I felt. So I stepped up the healthy eating. 

I’m not going to call it a diet, because it’s not. It’s just a better way of eating. It’s not  even that super-healthy. I’ve swapped white rice and pasta for whole grain, stopped snacking on biscuits at work although they still sometimes sneak in, cut down on bread and increased the number of fruits and vegetables I eat. It’s not Paleo or clean eating or anything like that. It’s just being a bit more careful about what I stuff in my pie hole. I have a full fat yoghurt for breakfast every weekday, fruit to snack, then a homemade soup or salad for lunch, followed by more fruit. When I get home at night, I work out (I’m now doing Blogilates, which has kept up and built upon Jillian’s hard work, without there being too much off-putting cardio) and spend some time making a healthy supper of the type you see on my blog. I eat good portions. At bed time, I have a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. If I bake, I’ll eat cake. If I’m eating out, as long as it’s not too often, I’ll eat pizza, pasta, bread, pudding and I’ll have wine.

 
I’m not hungry all the time and I’m not too thin. I’ve dropped down to a 10 on the bottom and a 12 on the top and people keep telling me how great I look. And I feel a whole lot better about the idea of prancing about in a wedding dress next May. I’m not trying to show-off here, I’m just trying to work-out when it became ok to tell someone they’re too thin, but still it’s rude to tell someone they’re too fat. I mean, it’s not like I’m Cheryl Cole.
  
Anyway, I’m off to put my glasses on and cook until I feel a whole lot better, before tucking into some fresh fruit and then a cup of coffee and one of my Nana’s cupcakes. Hope I didn’t bore you too much!

Little Primark Haulette

So it’s been a little while since I shared any shopping with you, and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity, as it was a bit of an accidental haul. You can’t really go wrong with 4 items for £16! 
  So, first of all, this lovely £5 scarf. It’s nice and long, thick and wide and comes in a couple of different colour options. It’s also ridiculously soft. Being 100% acrylic, it might not have the best longevity, but when even new look is looking for £15 for a blanket scarf, you can’t really go wrong. Plus it would make an excellent knee blanket if you’re feeling particularly middle-aged…. 

 (And now for the close-up)

Item number 2 is a lovely, cosy pair of tartan pyjamas. £8, 100% cotton. They are super soft, again, but relatively smart in case you’re planning on a movie night with your friends. I particularly love the wiggly white edging.

  These were a total impulse buy, I’ll admit, but I was getting a bit sick of mismatched cost bottoms and thin tshirts with Mr B’s fleece thrown over the top. Time to be a grown-up. Again, they had a few different patterns, but these ones look much more expensive than the other colourways, which looked a bit cheap. That’s the key to Primark though – shop wisely! They’re even pattern-matched at the front! 

My one criticism would be that the cord on the trousers is pretty short so I’ll have to make sure it doesn’t make a break for it by wriggling back inside. 

  

I have some really lovely navy tartan thick cotton pj bottoms which are relatively slim legged and generally quite smart, so I thought I ought to treat them to a new tshirt. £2.80. Now that’s bang for your buck. It is a pretty stretchy fabric though so if in doubt I would size-up.

  

Aaand, last but not least, this absolute steal: 

  
Pretty right? I thought it would be perfect to slip inside the neck of a nice plaid shirt. 

  
Yerp. A single pound. Even at the original £2 it’s a pretty good deal. 

So that’s us. Let me know if you’ve found any hidden gems recently!

What’s in my Hand Luggage

Whilst recent events have made me reconsider my normal hand luggage packing practice (being tested for explosives in a Croatian airport), I always find it interesting to read other people’s hints and tips for packing, so I thought I might as well share mine.


The bag – first of all, you need a bag to put all your stuff in. I prefer a large handbag with good handles or a shoulder strap. If you go with a bag that has to be carried (rather than a small wheely case), you’ll be less likely to overpack. Also, for a girl, it’s better to treat your hand luggage as a roomy handbag, as you’ll want to keep your normal handbag essentials on you when you travel.

Being short, I’ve always struggled with managing overhead storage on planes, trains and buses, so for me it’s essential (unless I’m travelling with Mr Brooker) to have a bag that will fit under the seat in front (or under the table on a train). That makes this bag perfect for me, as it’s fabric and will easily mould into a small space.

A change of clothes – despite never having experienced lost luggage (touch wood), I always pack a change of clothes in my hand luggage, just in case. Usually, that consists of a pair of shorts, a tshirt, a change of underwear, flip flops and a dress, if you have one light enough which won’t crease easily. This also takes a little weight out of your suitcase. Stick them in w plastic bag, to keep them nice and clean, just in case emerging in your bag leaks or spills.

Important Documents – passport, tickets or boarding pass, travel insurance policy schedule and contact details. I also had some Italian and Croatian phrases to read on the plane. 
Your general essentials – phone charger, camera and charger, your tablet, if you’re taking it, and any medications you might need. I also travel with Vaseline in my bag to deal with dry lips, mints to freshen up and a hair bobble in case my hair needs to be dealt with. 
Travel time essentials – sunglasses so you’re prepared as soon as you step off the plane, and something sensational to read during all that time sitting on your bum. I also take another book or two in my suitcase, or buy more at the airport, but that usually works out to be extremely pricey!
Money! – I always travel with 2 purses to split my money up. I have my every day purse with sterling and a little local currency as well as my cards etc, and another for foreign currency only. Only when we travel do we carry such an amount of cash. So keep what you don’t need for each day safe in a separate purse in your hotel safe. Plus if you get pick pocketed en route, they’re not going to be looking for 2 purses. 

Make-up – we’re talking non-liquid essentials and anything fragile, such as palettes and baked blush. You don’t want these getting wrecked in the hold. And everything’s to hand  if you do lose your luggage. 

Ok, a pop-up wine glass isn’t essential. But this one’s pretty cool. £4 at Tesco.

  

Liquids – I’m sure you all know about the plastic bag rule for liquids in your hand luggage. Nothing over 100ml, and all to be placed in a clear plastic bag. I think ziplock freezer bags are the best thing for the job, and a great way to keep all your make up and hand sanitiser altogether.

So that’s pretty much it! I’d love to hear your hints and tips for packing – which items can’t you do without?!