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Dieting without doom

26 Jan

Veggie nice
This summer I became uncomfortably – quite literally – aware of an increasing case of weight creep. Not much, just a smattering of pounds (sorry, old money only in this blog) above where I like to be, but it was nearly impossible to pinpoint any dramatic reason for all this. So I realised that I had inadvertently fallen into some rather damaging dietary habits and even my passion for power walking couldn’t neutralise their effect. Slicing cheese for lunch? Oooh go on, just add an additional couple of slices which I’ll just scarf down. The odd crisp or two a day won’t hurt, will it? Odd one or two bags, I mean. And having a cider on a Thursday can’t possibly do any damage. So I’ll go ahead. These innocent examples simply form the tip of the iceberg.

And let’s not even get started on my caffeine and aspartame intake… pint after pint of squash (hydration – that’s definitely a good thing right, despite whatever it is I’ve flavoured it with) on top of pint after pint of coffee and some lovely diet Coke or Coke Zero, that’s the way to keep sharp during long days. The peaks and crashes caused by such dramatically fluctuating sugar levels were a wonder to behold, not such a wonder to experience.

The nudge I needed to tackle my dissatisfaction, which was creeping as inexorably as my weight gain was, arrived in the very welcome form of my wonderful colleague Katie and her nutrition course. She had devised a three day detox as part of the programme and needed victims, oh did I say victims, I meant volunteers, an easy mistake to make given that they both begin with ‘v’ (only kidding, Katie!) to trial the programme and give her feedback. This was exactly the trigger I needed to address the increasing lack of respect with which I was treating myself.

In a mere three days my eyes and my tastebuds were opened, and I am genuinely fascinated by how to nourish myself and my family in new ways that make everyone feel good. I realised I hadn’t tried a truly new meal for months, probably for years. I remembered that eggs are brilliant. I found new grains, and grain substitutes, to help me cut down my reliance on wheat (specifically, bread and pasta) while still keeping me nicely full and energised. Turns out this was just in time, as L1 now appears to be wheat intolerant – so I would have had to carry out this investigation into alternatives sharpish anyway.

Nuts and seeds are a pleasing crisp substitute, particularly macadamia nuts, with their smooth milky round crunchiness. Infusing turmeric root, ginger root and lemon juice in a pint of boiling water brings the day sharply to life and doesn’t taste like ‘a curry drink’ (copyright: my children, daily). I won’t claim to have given up coffee and have no intention of doing so, but I have quit squash and all forms of fizzy cola and their friends. Chromium genuinely quells sugar cravings. And yes, I feel significantly better for it all. And no, no-one’s really noticed that I cook in coconut oil, pour water with dinner and our pasta is made from spelt, not wheat.

What’s best about all this is that the dietary changes I’ve made have all taken place comfortably within the confines of normal everyday life. Katie’s healthy living ethos is that being kind to yourself includes a healthy dose of indulgence alongside healthy nutrition. It acknowledges that we all deserve treats and these can sit comfortably alongside a plan for good living. I can most definitely be doing with that attitude and I would thoroughly recommend anyone interested in this area finding out more via her perfectly-named website Imperfectly Pure.


Eat everything*

10 Apr


 On Tuesday I made a meal so disgusting that it could only be defined as left-overs from the start. It never attained the dizzy heights of being referred to as an actual current meal. At the first bite it was designated ‘something Daddy might like to try’; then swiftly downgraded to ‘the flavours might improve after a night in the fridge’; before plummeting unceremoniously to ‘let’s just put this in the bin’. I hate wasting food, so this is a dramatic and unprecedented decision which can only demonstrate how unpalatable the recipe in question – or at least, my interpretation thereof – was.

Although I can’t believe that substituting dried basil for fresh would have made such a sweeping 360-degree change as to make it something that normal people could actually eat. 

It got me thinking though about some of the unpleasant things I have made and / or sampled in the name of ‘why on earth not’. Even after having children I have never felt especially constrained by what ought in the name of all that’s holy go together in a culinary venture vs what should never be even loosely coupled. The kids stoically tolerate my cooking – L2, infamously and with my ongoing apologies to his first childminder – was initially post-weaning fed almost exclusively on quinoa (quinoa-with-x, ‘x’ being whatever seemed a nutritious ideal rather than a natural quinoa partner) which I can’t pronounce but was so fascinated that he actually ate that I was continually using to check he still did. 

It goes further back, too. There was the incident of the now infamous ‘water chestnut surprise’ – the ‘surprise’ of the title being that water chestnuts could ever be considered within a bolognaise sauce. And even more dim and distant, the dinner party I hosted just before my gap year travels began, when I flung entire sweetcorn (baby, ok, not full-size, my optimism has some boundaries) straight into a frying pan for a stir fry and wondered how on earth they were still one step less than al dente basically, ever.

Hope here is two-fold. Firstly M loves to cook – otherwise no-one could ever come round here to eat, ever. And secondly I am developing reserves of patience – or at least, now bothering to mine them – and will accept that a recipe is there for a reason. Just not that particular Koh Samui Thai salad recipe…


Disqualified vegetable growers anonymous

15 Sep

When is a courgette not a courgette? When it’s a marrow, apparently, although where ‘courgette’ ends and ‘marrow’ begins seems to have a hung jury.

And yes, I know marrows are courgettes grown on a plant where people have been a bit too busy to harvest for a couple of weeks, but to me this is not the sole definition of a marrow. A marrow has those big thick green stripes. It’s flesh is watery. A marrow can only be served stuffed with mincemeat as an unpopular tea in my house when I was growing up (this is now unfair as I like a stuffed marrow – stop sniggering, you at the back), but the palate matures with age particularly where the marrow is concerned, and I quite like it now. I would certainly not have been ashamed to have grown a marrow in a courgette’s stead, and would have had no qualms about confessing its ‘marrow-ness’ up front. And that’s a fact.

Rather like it is a fact that our courgettes, grown lovingly over a long (too long? Jury’s still out) time, were disqualified from the Village Produce Show (highlight of our family calendar) for being deemed marrows. So as you can tell, I have thought of little else but vegetable differentiation since Saturday. Little else.

Apparently arbitrary veg reclassification occurs without chance of disciplinary hearings to put both sides of the story, and with no option to bring in an independent supporter. I know vegetable growing doesn’t tally with employment law, and I appreciate this may drag out the duration of judging somewhat, but most important decisions taken on the part of others allow for the right of appeal.

Still, being disqualified from the Village Produce Fayre is, I would argue, noteworthy, and I shall be putting it on my CV.


The last six pounds, Special K, and a challenge

5 Nov

SONY DSCOn and off for, oh, the last six years, I have been trying to lose the last six pounds. To be honest, its longer than that, but it wouldn’t run together so nicely as ‘six’ and ‘six’, so forgive the understating for literary purposes. You get my drift.

Basically, I have had just under half a stone to lose for quite a while. That sums it up.

Start of this year I tried the 5:2 diet. Problem was, the decision to do that fell at a time when I simultaneously went on the ‘argh I am freaking out’ diet, which proved highly effective, but therefore made it impossible to evaluate the efficacy of the former. I was a bit gutted about that, to be honest – I was looking forward to relaying my experience via the medium of blog.

So, since I need to tackle this Before Christmas (yeah, I said the C-word, get over it, I’m having to mutter mutter bah humbug bleeurgh), I think the most effective way to do it would be to try a selection of headline diets, and write about ‘how was it for me’ on this blog. An unconventional motivator, perhaps, but a motivator nonetheless.

So, from today, for a fortnight, it’s the Special K diet. I am obsessed with Special K, it’s fair to say, anyway (mainly how it rhymed so well in that sentence). I love the sweet salty crunch. So all I need to do is weigh out a bowl twice a day, and have a normal meal for the third, plus fruit. Whether I’ll feel the same after two weeks – who knows. I’ll make sure any readers do, though. And then after that fortnight, if there’s still additional poundage to shed, I will find another diet that’s been reported about to try. Maybe even 5:2 again… Although my line is drawn at the cabbage soup diet. Watch this space.

The lessons of history’s silent majority

1 Jun

Potato and carrot pancakeWe’ve been having many discussions about the Second World War in our house recently, since L1 has been learning about it and has just finished a lengthy project, which she really enjoyed (yes, as did I, especially cooking the ration meals – illustrated here).

Some of our conversations – plus recent reads of mine and debates with friends – have really got me thinking about the way history is taught in our schools. I don’t mean the quality of the teaching – in L1’s case, her WW2 instruction has been exemplary, but I have written elsewhere about how lucky I think we are on that score.

What it is, is that in the syllabus there appears to be no acknowledgment that in the case of WW2 it was the actions of the few that led to life-changing horror on every side of the conflict, not just in the UK. This seems to be to be a message that is alive throughout our history – ancient and recent – and is prominent in these times in which we’re living.

I’ve just read Markus Zuzak’s incredible The Book Thief, in fact I read it some months ago but it’s so fresh in my mind because of it’s impact that it feels like I read it more recently than I actually did. The recounting of one girl’s personal experiences and tragedies in the midst of the macro tragedy that was starving terrified Germany ruled by a lunatic in the run-up to and during WW2 starkly, beautifully and devastatingly outline that there were all the other general populations of all the other countries fighting during those years undergoing the same unspeakable horror we were. The Allies’ actions, vitally necessary as they undoubtedly were, led to the same howling terror of night air raids and crushed cities for the general population as they did in our country too.

It is important that the undeniable achievements and bravery – which continues today – of our armed forces and civilians on the ground forced into untenable circumstances and practicing survival are highlighted. And it makes sense that the focus of what happened to the ordinary population – and how the ordinary population not only survived but became extraordinary in those horrendous, heart-breaking times – is on what it meant to the UK. By doing this it is easier to make it real, and more memorable, especially when told from the memories of our very own relatives, friends and kind people prepared to share their stories with our children, to make the events they underwent part of our children’s memories in the hope – and I do hope this – that lessons of the blessings of peace can truly be learned. Living in Kent, by the side of the constantly targeted London to Channel coast railway, the devastation of the bombings in our local area have always been very real to me, and have become so for L1, visiting Chislehurst Caves and Jubilee Park, and hearing their histories, as I did.

I’m not trying to lead a crusade to redress this balance except quietly in my own home. Whether for money or for religion or for oil or for territory or for any of the other legion reasons that wars are fought – be these wars blatant bombardments or undercover terrorism campaigns – I don’t want my children to think for one minute that the actions of a few leading these groups – whatever banner that few fight under – necessarily, or even ever, in the case of true evil and extremism – reflect the mindset of the majority. This lesson can be best taught, I believe, not by special focus but by including the message in the subjects taught as part of our current curriculum. Tolerance and understanding are qualities that are becoming increasingly important, so we have to start getting the message across while the next generation are young.

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5:2 – what are the odds the diet’ll work for me?

26 Jan

DINNER! DeeeeliciousI have a few motivations to start the 5:2 diet (where you eat what you like for five days, and fast – 500 calories throughout the day – for the other two – explanation much better than mine is here).

Firstly, because I want to shift the stubborn 4lbs lurking around my midriff – I bought a pair of very pleasing fitted trousers (in a dark aubergine, for those interested, not purple, L1 has banned the purchase of any other purple clothes for me) and there is no way that when the current freezing conditions lift I will be able to wear them with anything other than an exceptionally baggy top;

Secondly, because reports say that this diet has additional health benefits, and let’s get real, I’m not getting any younger;

Thirdly, because I love love love my food (a downfall with most diets) but I figure that even I can ‘deprive myself’ for two days a week on the promise that I can eat normally on the other five days – that’s a good ratio, I would argue;

And finally, because M and I are seriously stuck in a rut foodwise, something that came home to be when I referred to a dish as ‘Monday Night Tea’ and he knew exactly what I was talking about. It’s time to be more adventurous, at lunch (with leftovers or something fresh) and at dinnertime.

So, I can’t do it on my ‘home days’, since we eat with the kids. It’s still such a thrill for me to be able to do this during the week that I’m not going to compromise on our cooking and eating together by saying “You can have spaghetti bolognese, but Mummy has to eat coal”.

This means it’s left on work days, when M and I eat separately from the kids. This also makes things easier from another perspective, since a couple of others in the office are doing it and that’s great moral support.

So, two fast days in (I don’t count the previous week when I had exceptionally minor surgery and as a result didn’t eat for two days, but there’s no denying the fact that helped the weight loss progress!), how’s it been?

Better, easier, and more satisfactory than I had imagined, is the honest answer. Banana for breakfast, huge salad and Quorn slices for lunch, teeny slivers of apple as a through-the-day snack, and fish and veg for tea. On Thursday I made a fish stew – just cod, veg, a chili, some haricot beans simmering in tinned tomatoes – which M had with rice; it was absolutely delicious and because of the protein from the fish, much more filling than I had expected. And importantly ticking the ‘I wouldn’t usually have this for tea’ box. I have enjoyed experimenting with salad ingredients: finely slicing a sundried tomato into basic leaves, for instance; and rediscovering capers (best foodstuff ever, probably). The only dark night of the soul I encountered was on the first day, when I craved something sweet after my tuna and veg; I had to leave the room as M ate his yoghurt.

The best thing about it, though, in my view, is the fact that a day is finite. That may sound like a daft and obvious thing to say, but consider this: on most diets, every day is a deprived day, however well marketed and well planned the diet is – and I am a fan of WeightWatchers, which I believe to be effective and fair as a dieting strategy, but you still can’t eat ‘normally’ on any day. On this diet, even if it’s really tough, and you want carbs more than anything ever, you can focus on the fact that soon as you wake up the next day, that toast and that cereal, they’re yours, and even I can live with that, and boy do I love my food.

So let’s see how I do. I have to say that after a week on it I don’t feel as hungry on the days that I’m not fasting, and there is something quite invigorating about the fast itself. I have a friend who I recently learned has been following this eating pattern since August; she looks fantastic and I’m going to focus on that!

Cooking for calm

18 Jan

The kind of diagram that puts me off eating an oyster againYesterday was a manic day: I ran my hands through my hair to make it stand up at least seventy-three times; there was a flying visit to London (where, unrelatedly, I introduced myself to oysters for the first time, and was delighted by the experience, not least for the high level of kid-freakout-ability that such a foodstuff provides), and the whole thing was bookended by trips to two different medical emporia, The joy.

So once I was home and settled – not snowed in, not then, that looks like it’ll happen today, not sure if I’m excited or devastated, but either way, it’s coming down in Kent – I had a very hungry L2 on my hands (L1 was with a friend), and a dearth of energy to facilitate his starvation. How to occupy a very hungry five year old when dinner was a while away, since it needed preparing from scratch?

And then I hit on a cunning ruse: that tea that needed to be cooked, we could do it as a team. Activity to distract him, but at the same time keep him closely involved with the progress of his meal; and do something quietly focussed, together (these things are still treats for me, as I settle slowly into a part-time paid-work pattern).

Once L2 was over the thrill of using “the sharp small knife – the big one’s too big for me Mummy”, we made a great cooking tag-team. His job was the mushrooms, carefully cleaning them individually and then chopping them into well-sized slices, while I tackled the more risk-laden butternut squash (the butternut squash is, I find, fraught with potential preparation problems: if anyone has found a way to navigate the removal of its skin around the curved base, I would love to hear about it). We mixed the paste and coconut milk; he weighed the rice (pretty much spot-on, first time, which impressed me); and was responsible for stirring the ingredients to make sure everything was coated in the loveliness of the coconut milk / green curry past combination.

When he knew tea was coming – and he did, he’d played a key role – he was quite happy to settle to his latest distraction, drawing flags from L1’s Children’s World Atlas. Each to their own, I say – at least it isn’t causing harm to life or limb, for which, with him, I am always a little surprised, and ultimately grateful.

An added and slightly surprising benefit of this involvement was that L2 wolfed his tea, proud to eat something of his own creation. He is a terrible, fairweather eater; anything will push him to rejection, and no two eating circumstances are the same, so this was quite a breakthrough, when all’s told.