That’s what apples look like! #NewcastleCan

My teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. 

It’s not that she doesn’t eat fruit. It’s that the fruit she’s used to is generally supermarket bought; uniform, highly-shined fruit, available all year whatever the weather. 

A couple of years ago I read Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman* and learned about some of the processes that happen to supermarket fruit to keep it shiny and fresh looking. I was horrified. I thought I was feeding my kids healthy fresh fruit, but it turns out its covered in chemicals the shops don’t need to declare because what they’re doing to the fruit counts as a process not an ingredient. 

There seems to be so much to worry about when buying food anyway, excess packaging, food waste, air miles, palm oil, E numbers, fats, sugar, carbohydrates, cholesterol… It’s all too much to take in – so I just filed the information away in my brain and kept buying the fruit. Because some fruit is better than none, and they wouldn’t be allowed to use anything dangerous, would they? 

I’m currently reading Unprocessed: My City Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, by Megan Kimble* and it’s got me thinking about the issue of processed food all over again. In trying to get healthier for the Newcastle Can challenge I’ve been trying to cook more meals from scratch, less take always, less frozen chips, more fruit and veg. But if the fruit and veg I’m buying from the supermarket has already been sprayed with pesticides, shined with wax, and coated with chemicals to make it last longer is it still healthy? 

I don’t think I could completely avoid processed foods but I would like to avoid more of them. I think there’s a connection between the increase in obesity and the rise in power of the food industry. I’m no dietician or nutritionalist, I’m just a very confused ordinary person who wants to do better. But where do I start? 

In the introduction to Unprocessed Megan Kimble describes how a simple suggestion made her see things in a totally different way: “Spend money better.” Her example uses American dollars, but I imagine it would be similar in the UK. 

“If a community the size of Tuscon shifted 10 percent of its spending to local businesses – a 10 percent shift, not an increase – within one year, we would create almost $140 million revenue for the city. What this also means, I realise, is that we would withhold that $140 million from the balance sheets of those corporations that then use our money to influence government policy, to grow unsustainable food, to waste energy – and to process and sell us foods that aren’t good for us. 

This came as a revelation to me too. I mean, I knew buying local was a good thing. I try to support small local businesses rather than big chains when I’m treating myself to cake and coffee, going out for a meal or buying gifts, but it had never occurred to me to do the same for my food shopping. The supermarket is just where you buy your food, it has been all my life (although, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, the supermarkets when I was little were very different from the massive 24 hour stores I’m used to now).

For a while in the late 90s/early 00s I got organic veg delivered. But my budget was tight and organic food started being available much more commonly in the supermarkets, so I stopped. As money got tighter I started only buying organic for the things we eat raw, and gradually only buying organic if it was reduced to clear.

I like to think of myself as frugal rather than penny-pinching, careful rather than tight-fisted. I like a bargain, who doesn’t? As prices have been going up much faster than wages for quite a while I need to watch what I spend, as do most people. 

But I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t want to just whinge and worry about processed food, excess packaging, sustainability, air miles and the rest. I want to do something. And I think it would be great if as well as bringing the city together to get healthier the Newcastle Can project boosted the local economy! 

So I’ve signed up to a trial weekly fruit and veg scheme from North East Organic Growers. It felt really expensive, but then I’ve never paid for a full months worth of fruit and veg in one go before. And given what I’m saving on take-aways since signing up to Newcastle Can I have some spare cash.

Every week my fruit and veg is delivered to a local contact person and I collect it from there. I don’t know what I’ll be getting in advance, it’s like a lucky dip and the kids are always keen to help unpack to see what’s there. There will always be staples like onions, potatoes, carrots, apples etc. but there are other things too, things I wouldn’t necessarily pick up if I was food shopping. For example purple sprouting broccoli is something I’d heard of but never cooked with, so it’s challenging me to cook new recipes and try new things. 

Veg I recognise…

… and the odd thing I don’t.
It’s also showing my kids what real fruit and veg is like. I remember when I was little strawberries were a summer treat, waited for with anticipation, then wolfed down in abundance because they didn’t keep. To my kids strawberries are just another item on a supermarket shelf year round. Yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman again, but it was different when things were special, when we didn’t all expect to have everything and have it now! 

Real fruit.

So, my teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. But I’m working on putting it right.

“Those apples look weird.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

They’re not very shiny. And that one’s got speckles.”

“That’s what apples look like! Just try one.”

She liked it.

– – – – – 

Click here for an extract from Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman

Click here to find out more about Unprocessed, by Megan Kimble.

Getting more than 5 a day – Sausage One Pot #NewcastleCan

When I tell people that I’m taking part in the Newcastle Can challenge and making small, sustainable changes to eat healthier and lose weight, the most common question is “What small changes?” Well, there are a few, but one of the easiest was adding more vegeables to my meals.

Rather than try to add to my already stressful life by learning a whole raft of new, healthy recipes and, possibly even more stressful, persuade my partner and teenage children to eat and enjoy new things, I’m revamping the recipes I use regularly. Upping the healthy stuff and leaving the unhealthy stuff alone. Since starting this I’m regularly getting more than my 5 a day. 

Since people have been asking about it I thought I’d demonstrate.  This is an adaption of the Sausage and Lentil One Pot recipe in Jack Monroe‘s A Girl Called Jack cookbook. It’s my go to recipe when my daughter’s out (she hates sausages.) Jack’s recipes are generally pretty healthy anyway. When you’re managing on the sort of budget she is there’s not a lot of room for luxurious extras. But this challenge is all about making the recipes I regularly use healthier, so here goes:

You’ll need:

  • 6 sausages
  • At least 6 rashers of streaky bacon (I threw a whole packet in last night as it needed using up)
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 large carrots
  • 3 medium potatoes
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 tin white beans (I used haricot)
  • 2 tins chopped tomatoes
  • A handful of fresh herbs (the original recipe says thyme or rosemary- I used oregano because that’s the nearest I had in the garden that had survived the winter.)
  • 250g red lentils
  • 800ml vegetable stock

Serves 6-8 depending on how generous the portions are! 

Put a large pan on a medium heat. Chop the bacon into small pieces and add it and the sausages to the pan. If you like you can add a spoonful of oil at this stage, but I tend to think the bacon’s fatty enough not to need to. 

While the bacon is crisping and the sausages are browning peel and chop the onions, carrots, potatoes and sweet potato. The sweet potato will cook quicker so needs to be in bigger pieces than the carrot and potato to cook in the same time. (That might seem obvious, it wasn’t to me and led to unpleasantly mushy sweet potato the first time I cooked this!) Chop the herbs.

Add the chopped veg to the pan and stir well. Leave for a couple of minutes then add the herbs, tinned tomatoes and lentils. Stir again before adding the stock. Increase the heat and bring it up to the boil. Once it’s boiled for a couple of minutes reduce the heat and allow it to simmer, stirring occasionally.

After 20 minutes of simmering fish out the sausages and cut each one into four pieces. Drain the tin of beans. Put the cut up sausages back into the pan and add the beans. Stir again and simmer for another 5 minutes. 

It should now be ready to serve. I get six generous portions out of this, three for when I cook it and three to box up for another day. I prefer to cook in bulk like this, but you could reduce down the ingredients to make a smaller amount. 

You can mix and match the vegetables too. I’ve used parsnips as well as carrots before, sometimes spinach added near the end. It depends what I have in and needs using up.

A note on herbs

For years I used dried herbs bought in the supermarket, and for many things I still do. But for the last couple of years I’ve been growing my own herbs in pots in a corner of my garden. I’m not the worlds best gardener, so it tends to be the hardiest ones that survive but I’d recommend giving it a go. Food really does taste better when there’s something you’ve grown yourself in it. 

Mostly herbs.

Let me eat cake! 

Don’t ban any foods from your weight loss plan, especially the ones you like. Banning foods will only make you crave them more.

From NHS weight loss tips

This makes sense to me. 

It works psychologically: If I ban myself from eating cake and succumb by Wednesday I’ve failed, and may as well give up. Whereas if I allow myself one cake a week and succumb by Wednesday I try extra hard not to have any more cake that week.

It also works practically: It allows me to plan ahead. If I know I’m eating out at the weekend I’ll try harder to avoid cake through the week. I find it easier to try and behave healthily when I set myself targets and limits, whether it’s one cake a week, 10,000 steps a day or at least five portions of fruit and veg a day. 

I’d previously decided to allow myself a day off from my healthy eating today, having planned to take my mum out for afternoon tea. The day got even less healthy when my children woke me up with the most amazing cake they’d made.

“It looks wonderful. Thank you. I’m going to have to scrap the one cake a week rule!” 

“Ah, but it’s only one cake. We knew about the rule so we didn’t make cupcakes.”

I love kid logic. 

I decided to go with it for one day. I mean there’s no point even pretending to be healthy after chocolate cake for breakfast! 

So I also had afternoon tea. It was wonderful.

I made sure I got my 10,000 steps in, so not everything healthy stopped. I’m going to be trying extra hard to be healthy this week to make up for it. And I’m not going to beat myself up about it, even if my weight goes up a bit this week. Because I had a fabulous day with my family and enjoyed my treats immensely. I recognise how one day full of treats in many weeks is a massive improvement on the several cakes a day I used to have. And how sweet it all tasted now I’m used to eating less sugar. One sugar filled day is a sign of flexibility not of failure.

If you decide to eat sugar, choose a REALLY nice cake or similar and REALLY enjoy it. Do not feel guilty about it, just plan to eat less or less often next time.

When the scales don’t move. #NewcastleCAN

Things went a bit wrong last week. There I was all proud of myself for cooking instead of getting a takeaway, hitting my 10,000 steps target every day, avoiding sugar, doing well. Right up to the point where I stepped on the scales and they hadn’t shifted. I was still exactly the same weight I’d been two weeks before. 

My mind went into overdrive trying to rationalise this. Could it be a side effect of my medication? The result of an IBS flare up? Fat turning into muscle? A fault with the scales? 

But I have to be honest with myself. And, being honest, I had to admit that I’d probably given myself a few too many ‘special dispensations’ to eat unhealthily. A colleagues birthday, biscuits someone brought specially, a funeral… When I really thought about it I realised I had probably had more days with unhealthy snacks than without.

This led to a wobble. A couple of days where I thought “I’ve failed at this, I may as well eat what I like.” 

But I pulled myself around. Reminded myself why getting healthy is important to me. Decided what to do next.

One of the bits of advice on the Newcastle Can website is

Keep a food diary – of EVERYTHING you eat. How much, what time you ate it, how you felt after you ate it etc. This is the best way to find out where you could cut back or where your problem areas are and what causes you to overeat.

Its something I’ve resisted. I wanted getting healthier to be about small, sustainable changes, not about counting calories. I didn’t want to worry about it so much that I was weighing everything I ate to calculate whether I could eat it or not. 

But given my apparent ability to justify unhealthy on offs, and the way all those one offs add up without me noticing it, I decided I’d give it a go. I started Monday, using the Fitbit App for tracking, and My Fitness Pal for working out the total value per portion of home made meals. 

So far it’s going OK. It’s sometimes a bit approximate. If I eat something that’s not listed I guess at a similar item and hope the calories are within the range. And when I’m making something homemade the portions we have for tea will be slightly larger than the portions I save for lunches but I just put the same for both. Generally I think it’s in the ball park even if it’s not exact.

Its a good discipline. I’ve felt more aware of what I’m eating and less tempted to have treats. Its been reassuring to see that in my usual eating pattern my calories in are fewer than my calories out. Using the tools available in the apps it hasn’t been as complicated as I’d feared it would be. Even though it’s early days I am hopeful that I’ll persevere it.

And hopefully next time I step on the scales it will make a difference.

Tanking the Takeaway #NewcastleCAN

I’ve had a hard day. And it followed a hard night. Phobic issues led to very disturbed sleep which left me already jittery and anxious to face what turned out to be a very stressful work day. Preparation for tea was delayed by having to drive through awful weather to collect the dog from the vet and my son from his Granny after work. All with a stotting headache. These are the days I inevitably order a takeaway. 

But I remind myself I need to break the habit of stress leading to food. And I already had the one take-away a month I’m allowing myself while being healthier, actually just this week. 

Then I tell myself there’s hardly any food in as I need to go shopping, and what harm would one extra takeaway do? After all it would prevent me feeling stressed. Reducing stress is healthy, right?

Then I take myself to the kitchen where we have one onion, one pepper, the tail end of a bag of rice and some leftover chicken. Add some frozen veg, garlic, ginger and about the amount of time it would take me to walk to and from the nearest Chinese takeaway and…

Enough to feed myself, two hungry teenagers and save a portion for tomorrows lunch. And I get to bask in the virtuous glow of not having given in to temptation. 

I can do this. 

Have a banana. #NewcastleCAN

I’ve signed up to NewcastleCan and am counting myself lucky that the city I live in is the one that’s been chosen for this project. Its a city wide campaign to get healthier and lose weight, supporting each other to do all the things I for one have been intending to do for years. Finding sustainable small changes that will make a positive difference and building on them. I know what it will take to get healthier, but I get frustrated and backslide. I hope this campaign will make it easier to keep on track, or to get back on track when I wobble. 

One of my main problems is my relationship with food. When I’m stressed, depressed or anxious – I eat. When I’m happy or celebrating – I eat. That covers most occasions. I’m the member of staff with the multipack of Crunchies in my desk drawer, who knows the two for offers on all the biscuit brands and calls the pizza delivery guy more often than family. 

Stress eating is an easy habit to get into, but really hard to break. I’ve made various attempts over the years, but its never really lasted. Having to give up alcohol a few years ago due to medication just made it worse – the level of unwinding that used to be achieved with one glass of wine began to take a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s. And while I’ve managed to keep 10,000 steps a day or thereabouts going for over two years now my eating was getting worse and worse. 

My latest attempt to deal with it started last November. An over 40s health check at work showed up much that was troubling, and the nurse called me in to my local GPs to give me a warning. I have til March to show improvement, or there’ll be a whole new lot of medicines I have to add to my daily routine.

I realised most of my failed attempts had failed because I tried to change too much at a time. So I thought this time I’d start small. First change – No unhealthy snacks at work.

The first day was agony. My workplace always has several packets of biscuits on the go, chocolates too in the run up to Christmas, and cake at least once a week. My first healthy snack only day there was an open packet of After Eights on the desk next to mine that I was acutley aware of all day. It sounds daft, but it was hard to concentrate on my work knowing they were there.

But I made it through the first day, and the first week. By the second week I was less painfully councious of the sweets around the office. It helps that my workplace also has a healthy eating scheme, so there is usually fruit around. An apple just isn’t the same as a chocolate bar when you’re having a bad day, but it stops me using being hungry as the excuse for indulging.

I made it three weeks without unhealthy snacks at work before I broke up for Christmas. And I’m keeping it up so far this year too, despite a lot of stressful situations that would usually have me reaching for the Dairy Milk. I’m not perfect. I allowed myself a special dispensation for cake on a colleagues birthday, although I did have a smaller piece than I would have last year. I sometimes allow myself something sweet with my lunch, because that’s a meal not a snack. Or so I tell myself! But its not everyday like before. 

Today I felt grotty, with early migraine symptoms, and needed to eat something to take my tablets with. The staffroom had four different sorts of biscuits, no fruit. Did I have a biscuit? No. I went out to the greengrocer and bought some bananas. That sounds matter of fact, an everyday occurance, but it would have been unheard of for me to refuse a biscuit a few months ago. But its now a fixed habit that I don’t snack unhealthily at work. 

The next step of course will be to stop having unhealthy snacks at home too. I’m aware of the hypocrisy of no healthy snacks at work, then coming home and eating half a pack of chocolate hobnobs because I’ve had a bad day. And ringing for another pizza! 

But I think I’m heading in the right direction!