Many of us have been enjoying beautiful sunny days lately and with the school summer holidays now well underway, it really is the season for days out and picnics! If, like me though, you hate all the waste that comes with wrapping a whole family's sandwiches, snacks and goodies for a day out, there are some fantastic solutions available. They're safer, more environmentally-responsible and, in the long term, cheaper too than the throwaway materials we might typically use.
Public awareness is certainly growing regarding highly undesirable substances such as BPA, PVC and phthalates, to name a few, being commonly used in food coverings and food storage containers. These are capable of leaching toxic and harmful chemicals into our food and parents in particular are increasingly looking for non-toxic alternatives for their children's lunchboxes and picnics.
It's really quite a minefield though, trying to establish what does and what doesn't contain any of the wide range of nasties, but the founders of My Friendly Lunchbox and Ecoboodles, have eliminated all the guesswork for you. We love both of these companies, which only sell non-toxic products which are free of BPA, PVC, phthalates and lead. We found My Friendly Lunchbox first and have found many other uses for their non-toxic, easily washable and recycled sandwich wrappers which are also very handy for covering bowls of food or for wrapping leftovers before putting them in the fridge (we find that elastic bands work a treat in keeping the circular wraps in place over bowls of food). They have a good range of plastic and cloth sandwich wrappers and even some matching non-toxic ice packs, in addition to many other eco-friendly goodies, such as BPA-free food storage containers and shaped sandwich or biscuit cutters.
More recently, we were absolutely delighted to stumble upon the wonderful Ecoboodle organic cotton sandwich wrappers. These really are fabulous for wrapping your sandwiches and your children will probably feel as though they're opening a little present when they open your picnic sandwiches! These wraps are soft and pliable and are capable of holding several small rolls each, with a food-grade non-toxic lining to keep messy sandwich fillings from leaking or staining the outer certified organic cotton fabric. They're extremely easy to wash by hand but they can also go in the washing machine, up to 30°C - although they're not suitable for the tumble dryer because of the lining. We never seem to have enough of these in our house, so do think about buying several at a time to get the multi-buy discounts which represent amazing value for money. As far as we know, these are the only organic cotton sandwich wraps available in the UK and they're perfectly shaped to make the neatest, non-bulky, picnic parcels!
Our youngest children are usually really hungry when they come out of school/nursery and on the days that our eldest needs picking up from school too, there's at least a half hour wait for her school day to end. The little ones can't wait that long for something to eat if they're hungry, so the sandwich wrappers are great for quickly and conveniently transporting some healthy snacks in the car and they act as a mat too, saving the car's upholstery from at least some of the crumbs!
I've focused here mainly on these websites' sandwich wrappers because I'm such a huge fan of these, but My Friendly Lunchbox and Ecoboodles non-leaching ranges include stainless steel water bottles, attractive lunchbags, lunchbag sets and more! The earlier you switch to these non-toxic and waste-free lunchbox products, the sooner they'll pay for themselves and, more importantly, your family won't be paying the price of toxic chemicals silently contaminating their food.
I've always been a bit of a killjoy when it comes to any of our children wanting their faces painted at parties or other events. With all three of our children being particularly prone to eczema, I've always been concerned about the likely irritants in the paints, especially when used on the more delicate skin on the face. I've also always hated how close to their eyes the designs often tend to go, particularly as my eldest wears contact lenses. Equally though, I've always been conscious of the additional problem of how to effectively, yet gently, remove the often very stubborn face paint afterwards. So in order to avoid my kids feeling left out when others are having their faces painted, I've tried to steer them towards having their hands, rather than their faces painted, but in a child's eyes, this is a rather feeble compromise!
A few years ago, our eldest daughter wanted a birthday sleepover party with face painting and I thought I'd found the answer with Snazaroo face paints, which are water based, unperfumed and are described as non-toxic, hypoallergenic and "friendly to the most delicate skin" so I bought her a set. This week, with Red Nose Day nearly here and all my children wanting to head off to school or nursery with painted red noses, I didn't think twice about buying an individual red Snazaroo paint for the children's red noses. However, I left my local stockist empty-handed, because when I had a quick curious look at the ingredients, I was really disappointed to discover that they contain parabens.
After searching on-line for paraben-free face paints, I was delighted to discover Grimas Pure face paints which are made in top quality cosmetic-grade colours. The colours are rub-resistant, yet are easy to remove with tepid water and a skin wash. To help keep them safe to use, their containers are marked with a use-by date and have a shelf-life of three years after opening. They're unperfumed, paraben-free, gluten-free, non-toxic, water-based and are not tested on animals. (Please note that these face paints do contain lanolin.)
Grimas's original range of face paints has now almost entirely been converted to Grimas Pure, but do just specify that you'd like only Grimas Pure kids' face paints when placing an order at UK-based www.grimasfacepaints.com, where you can also find some handy face painting tips.
You can either buy individual paint colours from a wide range of colours, or there are choices of different paint palettes and paint kits, the latter of which contains application tools such as sponges and brushes and a face painting booklet with colour chart.
My only disappointment is that I didn't discover Grimas Pure face paints quite in time for my order to reach me in time for this year's Red Nose Day!
I have very little time to read newspapers and often miss the news, so the free Evening Standard app for my phone is a very valued tool for me. When I'm able to snatch random pockets of time, it allows me to catch the headlines and find out what's going on in the world.
This morning though I was rather rattled when I saw a headline proclaiming that organic food is "of little benefit". Apparently, a two-year study by "Which?" has suggested that there appears to be little or no nutritional or taste benefits to growing food organically.
The bulk of the Evening Standard's article elaborated on this "revelation", with just a brief paragraph at the very end, where the "Which? Gardening" editor mentioned that the trial didn't look at other benefits of opting for organics, such as the impact on the environment. A few years ago, Delia Smith also very publicly snubbed organic food. As someone who'd previously been an avid Delia fan, I immediately lost much respect for her at her staggering short-sightedness.
Whether the topic is organic food, organic textiles, organic cosmetics or toiletries or any other organic product, the main benefits are that with these: a) we're not exposing ourselves to harmful (often toxic or even carcinogenic) chemicals, antibiotic-pumped meat or GM food; and b) we're making a better environmental and social choice. Consumers should, however, be aware that only certified organic products should be trusted with these claims and to also be wary of products stating that they merely contain certified organic ingredients. This tactic is often used, particularly with toiletries and cosmetic products, to misleadingly gloss over the fact that actually there might be only a tiny percentage of certified organic ingredients in the product as a whole.
Very few of us are lucky enough to have not been affected by somebody close to us being given the devastating news that they have cancer. We are being invisibly bombarded with carcinogens or "suspected" carcinogens in virtually every area of our lives. The most potent triggers of this awful disease must be those which we ingest, inhale or absorb through our skin. (If you're in any doubt about the potency of absorbing chemicals through our skin, just think about the effectiveness of nicotine or hormonal patches transporting chemicals into the bloodstream through small areas of the skin.) I wholeheartedly believe that there is a direct link between the epidemic influx of chemicals saturating our lifestyles and the ever-rising new cancer diagnoses (as well as record highs of eczema, asthma and allergy cases too). Whilst foodstuffs and toiletries are of course not the only sources of toxic chemicals in our lives, they do collectively form a huge chunk of the chemicals our bodies have to process. Genuinely organic alternatives to these products are providing increasingly accessible escapes from so many harmful toxins.
Carcinogenic chemicals used in overseas farming may be either banned for use here or not yet clinically "proven" to be as harmful as they are, but how many people took up smoking (or passively smoked) in the time between the first inklings that it could cause lung cancer to when it was actually clinically proven to do so.
The environmental benefits of "going organic" can't be understated and are intertwined with complex and widespread social and health problems for people who work in and live around the vast farming areas throughout the world. Not only do the toxic chemicals used in most conventional farming methods cause large scale environmental damage and contamination to humans but it also poses critical threats to wildlife and fragile eco systems. Perhaps the most worrying of these threats (a view shared by many experts including Sir David Attenborough), is the dramatic decline of bees. Towards the end of last year, America reported that for the third year running, their bee population had declined by more than a third. It is widely believed that pesticides are playing a significant role in this, by interfering with bees' natural communication techniques.
As if increasing concerns about fuel and food crises weren't enough to worry about for future generations, the man-made contribution to the decline of bees is all the more perplexing, given that Einstein is said to have predicted that humanity would be unable to exist more than four years without bees.
There are, of course, many other attributes of organic food, including improved farmed animals' welfare, the absence of routinely pumping animals with antibiotics or other growth-inducing/profit-swelling substances and no GM food. So it's a real shame that the very small scale study by "Which?" didn't spend that two years so much more productively, by focusing on the far, far, more important benefits of organic food than taste-testing or minor nutritional discrepancies. At times when more families are struggling to afford the inevitably more expensive organic food, the infinitely more valuable use of the researchers' time would have been to educate people about what's at stake by not opting for organic, instead of falsely implying that people are wasting their money buying organic food.
My concerns about the various unnecesssary hazards at the school gates has been silently bubbling away for a while now and I've reached the point where I now feel compelled to indulge in a bit of therapeutic moaning! I'm certain that these issues must reflect the feelings of many other parents who have children in infant or primary schools, so I hope I'm not alone in my views here!
A Facebook friend recently posted a remark about her loathing of the habit of smoking during pregnancy, after seeing two expectant mothers smoking at the school gates - and I do wholeheartedly agree with her. Unsurprisingly, the post prompted a flood of passionate responses, mostly from other mothers who also felt the same way.
Not only did most people feel very strongly that smoking whilst pregnant was completely unacceptable, but there was also much anger felt specifically towards parents who smoked whilst at the school gates, thereby forcing children to have to walk through a cloud of smoke to enter the school grounds. Of course, there's also the immediate hazard of children being burnt by a lit cigarette, especially during the inevitable hustle and bustle at the beginning and end of the school day. I am very fortunate that the children's entry point to our daughter's school, (where all the children gather whilst waiting for the gates to be opened) is within a spacious additional gated school boundary which is a designated No Smoking area. This has proven to be an effective means of largely eliminating this problem but we realise that most schools aren't able to enforce a No Smoking policy on their perimeters in this way. Sadly, this also doesn't help children who live in homes where one or more occupants smoke.
Another significant problem around the school gates is the number of parents who bring their dogs when taking or collecting their children from school. Not only are many children (and also adults) very frightened of dogs, but there is real concern for the safety of children entering and leaving school with dogs in such close proximity. I've often seen breeds at the school gates which have a reputation for aggressive tendencies and I've yet to see any of them muzzled. At a child's height any dog can seem very intimidating and even the soppiest and gentlest of loyal family dogs can turn and snap as a normal self-defensive reflex, if they're accidentally stepped on or hurt in the busy school crowds.
I'm also always very conscious of the fact that with their keen sense of smell, dogs at the school gates probably have a tempting banquet of post-breakfast scents wafting past them, thanks to hurriedly washed or wiped little fingers and faces, which are all at a vulnerable, within-reach, height for most dogs (including younger children in pushchairs). Another bone of contention (excuse the pun) is the revolting trail of dogs' mess dotted around the school route's pavements, which can be virtually impossible to avoid sometimes. It's bad enough trying to navigate around this at the best of times, but it's an especially unsavoury challenge for mothers who are hurrying to school with pushchairs or prams, whilst simultaneously trying to ensure that their other children, who are walking or on scooters, manage to stay safe and clean.
I love animals - and dogs must of course have adequate exercise - but the school just isn't an appropriate place to bring a dog and the school run shouldn't be used as an opportunity to get dogs' daily walks out of the way.
Finally, I can't refer to hazards at the school gates without also mentioning how astounded I am at the scale of the national problem of illegal parking around schools. I accept that many schools, particularly in urban areas, don't have enough parking in the surrounding roads, but if walking to school is out of the question, a shortage of parking spaces means having to be more resourceful! Some realistic solutions would be to get to the school a little earlier and/or perhaps having to park a bit further away or maybe sharing the school runs with other parents. I know all this can be an inconvenience, especially for parents who also have babies or pre-school age children with them, or when the weather's miserable, but surely the safety issues must be a priority in any parent's mind? I don't understand how some parents don't recognise that children can be so seriously hurt when illegally parked cars obstruct their view or when cars are parked right on the corners of junctions, hindering the flow of traffic and obscuring lines of vision. In turn, this can also cause further mayhem and danger, leading to frayed tempers when unnecessary gridlock is the result of unlawful and inconsiderate parking.
A few years ago, I heard the impact of a schoolgirl being hit by a car whilst crossing the road outside my eldest's school, where illegal parking is commonplace (periodically, police now attend and issue parking penalties). I managed to find the girl's mother who was on her way to meet her daughter and told her what had just happened. She was of course absolutely distraught and desperately worried, although thankfully her daughter wasn't badly injured as the car had been travelling well below the speed limit. I'll never forget though the intense sense of dread and horror of how badly she might have been hurt and the vexing thought of "what if it was my child?". There just isn't any justification for thoughtless or dangerous parking near schools.
To end on a more positive note, I'm looking forward to the coming half-term week! With that in mind, there'll be another blog post on here in the next few days about a fantastic and really beautifully presented website with the most amazing creative ideas to help keep your children occupied whilst they're off school.
It's a familiar scenario in many households – it's time to brush your children's teeth but after a day of enthusiastically exercising their vocal chords, they suddenly become stubbornly tight-lipped! For many parents, they find that no amount of coaxing or distraction tactics will unzip those firmly sealed lips, in their child's determined defiance of the loathed toothbrush.
If brushing your children's teeth is a regular challenge for you, as it has been for us with our youngest who is now 3, you might feel encouraged that we've finally found a magic solution!
We were really worried about the damage to our son's teeth when he simply refused to co-operate with this routine. Other than pinning him down and waiting for him to open his mouth to wail his protests (hardly a positive toothbrushing experience) we simply couldn't clean his teeth. Our family dentist wasn't overly concerned and suggested just letting him play with the toothbrush himself. We were already doing that but his teeth really weren't getting even close to being cleaned properly and were becoming increasingly laden with a worrying and unsightly build-up of scale.
We tried numerous ways to make the concept of brushing fun for him, including involving his sisters and ourselves in a fun-packed routine, but he quickly saw through our ploy and we made no progress. His love of dinosaurs helped to an extent when we made up songs about mummy, daddy and baby dinosaurs brushing their teeth, to the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus", but even then our success was limited and we could only get the toothbrush in very briefly!
Sometimes children's main issue about cleaning their teeth can be something as simple as the fact that they simply doesn't like the taste of their toothpaste but for us, this wasn't the case – he was quite happy to eat his, given half a chance, which we were of course very keen to avoid! We bought numerous toothbrushes which featured favourite characters but nothing worked.
To our amazement though, we have now found the simplest answer which allows us to brush his teeth, with full co-operation for as long as we like!!!! This can be adapted to any child – hopefully with the same miraculous results we've had! Like so many children, our little boy is an avid fan of the Toy Story films. By involving him in a memory game, listing the names of all the characters we can think of across the three Toy Story films, he will let us brush each row of teeth for every character's name! What's great about this is that it can be kept novel and interesting by changing the theme or film/TV or book characters for any other favourites - and if you run out of names before you've finished brushing, just start again! Siblings will also love joining in with helping to remember the characters!
Bizarrely, our 4 year old (influenced by her 11 year old sister) insists on playing this game using all the characters from the Twighlight books and films, even though she of course doesn't know who any of them are!
Fingers crossed, this might help you to effortlessly win the battle at toothbrushing time – or inspire other similar ideas that work a treat for you! Good luck and please do feel free to share any ideas, suggestions or success stories that you may have, by adding a comment!
I have vivid childhood memories of my grandparents repeatedly telling me that it was important to wash fruit and vegetables before eating any with edible skin. If they weren't watching, I often didn't bother though. Even into adulthood, a bag of grapes bought with the food shopping, would often be too tempting (especially if I was thirsty) to survive the journey home, let alone last long enough to be introduced to the kitchen tap! A quick, half-hearted rub of each would suffice and down the hatch they'd go!
Now, knowing so much more about pesticides, decades on, I have finally taken notice of my grandparents' wise warnings and in doing so, I do my very best to avoid buying non-organic food. Many organic sceptics (including Delia Smith) seem to miss the point about why we're better off buying organic food, by assuming that the benefit is largely about taste or nutrition. A while ago I happened to catch a glimpse of a guest on The One Show being asked to blind test some food…… carrots I think, and then guess which sample was the organic one. He stated his verdict with absolute confidence, but unfortunately he picked the wrong one! No doubt the organic sceptics were all rubbing their hands in glee, claiming that this proved their point that organic food was just a fad that conned consumers into parting with more money.
Organic food is not just about taste though. I don't doubt that nutritionally, an organic tomato is quite possibly going to have a very similar nutritional value to a non-organic one – but that's not the issue. It is about buying food which hasn't been genetically modified and, most importantly in my view, food which hasn't been basted in pesticides. In the same way that this website denounces the detrimental effects of pesticides on cotton farmers and their workers, the same welfare concerns of course apply for pesticide use on food crops. Even if you are able to put the humanitarian factors to the back of your mind, washing your fruit and vegetables doesn't necessarily remove all residues of pesticides and the idea of ingesting these toxins is a particularly unpalatable one. Nobody would consider dousing their food in chemical household cleaning chemicals - and then trying to rinse it all away, yet we don't seem to be so particular about the poisonous chemicals that have been used in our food's production, before we bought it.
Don't be fooled into thinking that the effects of pesticides in farming is limited to faraway countries and that here in the UK we're better protected from the use of harmful chemicals on home-grown food. Georgina Downs has campaigned vigorously against the use of pesticides. In November 2008, she made legal history, winning a high-profile and landmark case against the government for their failure to protect the public against the use of pesticide-spraying. People living, working or going to school in rural areas or near agricultural fields are at the greatest risk of developing potentially serious health problems due to the spraying of crops nearby.
Pesticides are often: known or suspected carcinogens; hormone disruptors; neurotoxins; or developmental and reproductive toxicants, attributed to a multitude of health problems. A new study by Harvard claims that even tiny, allowable amounts of a common pesticide class can have dramatic effects on brain chemistry. Children have long-since been known to be especially vulnerable to the effects of toxins and they're reportedly twice as likely to have ADHD if they have above average pesticides levels.
Extremely worryingly, pesticides are also being considered to be a significant factor in the very serious issue of the massive decline globally of bees. Albert Einstein is said to have estimated that humanity would be unable to survive more than four years without bees. The US has recently reported that for the third year running, their bee population has declined by a third.
So I would urge you to consider choosing organic products wherever possible. Supermarkets are offering more and more organic options for everyday foods. You'd be amazed though at the worst culprits for high pesticide content – flour being a particularly unexpected one.
Choosing organic food may cost a little more than non-organic – but these days, it often really is only a LITTLE bit more. How easily do we waste much more than a few pounds or pence on other products or unnecessary purchases, without a thought? Jamie Oliver, in his mission to encourage more people to eat organic chicken despite the higher cost, offered the very valid argument to just eat chicken less often but to buy organic when you do.
Choosing organic food will help the environment and agricultural workers worldwide (many are children), as well as helping to safeguard your and your children's health too. Going organic will also encourage the shops to widen their range, through increased demand and by keeping it viable for them stock organic products with reduced wastage from unbought organic lines.
To find out more about the pesticides in your food, use this great What's On My Food tool (by clicking on the "What's on my food?" banner, above) from PAN UK (Pesticides Action Network UK) which will tell you what you really are eating. Try it out… you'd be amazed!!!