Does parental choice make for Happy decisions?

I had a bit of a double-take the other day when I read about two recent diet-related news stories. The first headline referred to a report on a French study that showed a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer, suggesting that the more of them you ate, the greater your chances were of getting cancer. So far, no surprises there and even my own children’s response when I shared this news with them was a sarcastic shrug and a ‘Yeah, I know?!’ They were not alone in dismissing this as ‘news’ because despite the best efforts of the newspapers and tv programmes who featured the story and tried to whip up interest, the lack of controversy meant the story quickly died away. However, just because it is widely believed that the more processed something is, the worse it is for you, it does not mean that you will change your behaviour. It is also true that not everyone who eats a diet full of ultra-processed foods necessarily chooses to do so. Which brings me to the second piece of news that I read with interest.

McDonald’s have announced with much fanfare that as part of its global commitment to support families, they will be changing the menu of their children’s Happy Meals in a bid to tackle childhood obesity. Although this sounded commendable, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast of this press release compared to the discreet phasing out of McDonald’s menu option to Supersize items, some years ago. Back then, McDonald’s released a quiet statement to say that they decided to shelve Supersizing in an effort ‘to simplify their menu and give customers choices that support a balanced lifestyle’. Given the increasingly high obesity rates in children, globally, McDonald’s is reducing its menu choices in order to improve their health. To kick off, from June 2018, the Happy Meal menu will no longer include the choice of a cheeseburger or chocolate milk. Additionally, all Happy Meals will be reduced in the number of calories and the amount of sodium, saturated fat and sugar they contain. McDonald’s aims to get all Happy Meals down to less than 600kcals by 2022.

The news coverage of this announcement was more widespread than the cancer story and was mostly positive. However, many health pundits also expressed the view that it was about time that McDonald’s took some responsibility for the effect of their success on the health of their customers. Since Forbes put the company comfortably in the top spot as the world’s largest restaurant in 2017, it certainly could afford to make an effort. Despite other renewed calls for more fast food restaurants to follow McDonald’s lead, none of them responded with similar healthy pledges of intent. Before long, the Happy Meal press also faded into the background of bigger news stories. But the news may have lingered a little longer inside most households of children and teenagers, alike.

And my children are no different because although they have long outgrown Happy Meals, when I shared the news at home, they looked up from their phones in utter disbelief. At first, they were slightly shocked to learn that each ‘tiny’ Happy Meal was more than 600kcals. How could it be possible, when they weren’t even filling?! But then they were even more outraged by the fact that they had never known that there had been chocolate milk. Why didn’t I tell them?! Why hadn’t I let them have any?! They’d been robbed! They then continued to lament over all the missed opportunities to indulge in glasses of chocolatey pleasure and proceeded to fling accusations at me of unfairness and menu censorship. At least they had forgotten to add the usual, ‘Why do you have to be a nutritionist?!’

I was taken aback by their overreaction for two reasons. First, how can anyone drink chocolate milk alongside a pile of chips that will inevitably be doused with vinegar or ketchup? It is a textbook car crash of opposing flavours and aromas and nobody’s stomach is going to thank them for that combination. Second, I am not part of the anti-chocolate milk brigade and in fact, I think it makes quite a decent recovery snack after a hard workout. Nonetheless, its high sugar content makes it a more suitable drink for children at pudding where it can be dunked into at leisure. Therefore, I do not recall chocolate milk ever entering into the equation of what drink should be picked in a Happy Meal lunch or dinner. Was it really on the menu?

However, I do take full responsibility for depriving my children of McDonald’s, in general, as I confess that I never willingly took them there. My defence is that when my children were younger, they went to more than enough birthday parties that were held at McDonald’s and at similar type establishments. In other words, their school and the propensity of other parents to invite absolutely everybody and their siblings in their year to birthday parties gave me an easy ‘out’ to say no at home. I admit, McDonald’s was relegated to emergency only status but even though I wasn’t a fan, I never stood in the way of hunger.

I decided to look into the news story to learn more about the Happy Meal changes and to get to the bottom of chocolate milk-gate. What I found out only reminded me of the difficulty that parents face when trying to steer their children to make healthy choices, especially when it comes to ultra-processed fast food.

Even though fast food is well-known for being bad for our health and we hear alarming stories about its links to cancer, we just can’t stop eating it. But it is easy to understand why. It is produced to be hyper-palatable and attractive, it has a long shelf-life, it’s readily available, largely affordable and it can be consumed anywhere, at any time of the day. The entire formulation, presentation and marketing of fast food not only often promotes consumption but overconsumption. Parents, therefore, often face a battle trying to avoid an overreliance on these foods. Therefore, I was very interested in looking into the fine print of McDonald’s announcement to see how they were going to help parents improve the health of their children. What I found out about their new initiative, however, turned out to be anything but clear.

To start with, despite McDonald’s initiative being part of their global commitment, the reduced menu choices of the Happy Meals only affect restaurants in the US. But that’s not all, the calorie content will be reduced at the same time in the US and so will meet the 600kcals cut-off by June 2018. I wondered why the reduced menu only affected the US and why the rest of the world had to wait until 2022 for any changes? Wouldn’t it make more sense and be far easier for McDonald’s to make their global changes, globally? Curiously, as I read more and began to untangle the details of the changes, it seemed that the reduced menu choices in the US would be nothing more than a slight of hand. Rather than completely phasing out the unhealthy cheeseburgers and chocolate milk, they will both still be available to order from the larger menu after June. The only real change is that they will not appear listed as choices on the Happy Meal menu so that the only mains featured will be the hamburger and the 4 or 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. Bottled water, however, will be added as a Happy Meal drink choice, taking up the place of the chocolate milk on the menu.

As for the situation in the UK, the Happy Meal menu choices are not being reduced and the same cheeseburgers will continue to be featured as a main option. The UK is one of McDonald’s ‘20 major markets’ and as part of the global commitment, these markets aim to meet the new nutritional standards set by 2022. Which means that despite the big announcement, in reality, nothing in the UK has changed unless you think simply having an aim is a news story. As for chocolate milk-gate, I discovered that it is not listed on the Happy Meal menu or even the wider menu at present in the UK. In fact, I couldn’t find any evidence to show that chocolate milk was ever on the menu. Phew! Although I felt slightly relieved and looked forward to sharing this useful nugget of information at home, I had to wonder. Will there actually be any advantage to parents when McDonald’s reduces the menu choices in Happy Meals? In other words, will having a visually limited menu help parents and children make healthy choices even when the unhealthier items are still freely available?

Parents in the UK have never had to face the choice of whether they would let their children choose chocolate milk in a Happy Meal or not but what if it had been on the menu? My teenage children made it pretty clear to me that they would have wanted to choose it. However, they also know that I wouldn’t have let them have it which is why they didn’t entirely trust my lack of chocolate milk memory. Surely other parents would have said ‘no’ to a chocolate milk option. It is not exactly impossible. But if it’s listed on the menu as a perfectly acceptable drink choice and other children around you are happily slurping away on it with their Happy Meal, it is not easy. If you decide to give your hungry children a choice but then try to convince them that chocolate milk is not a good option for them, you might as well be trying to reason with a Tasmanian Devil. Which means that even if you know that chocolate milk is loaded with sugar, it is far too easy to convince yourself that it is an absolutely sensible drink. After all, at least it’s milk which has some nutritional value, unlike a horrible fizzy drink.

But then what would happen when the chocolate milk is no longer listed on the menu but is still lurking around? How do parents avoid buying chocolate milk (or a cheeseburger) if that’s what their child has always chosen before? How do you reason with a little angry person who doesn’t believe that chocolate milk is not on the Happy Meal menu when there are plenty of children with chocolatey moustaches running around showing you that it is very much available? There is nothing that children hate more than when a parent changes their mind, especially when it is about something that they previously allowed their children to do.

I can only conclude that McDonald’s reduced menu is not going to improve the health of children unless they have the most willing, able and determined parents. Because to make healthier choices for their children, parents will need to be strong enough to ignore the unhealthy choices still available and heavily promoted on the wider menu. Those parents will probably rue the day when chocolate milk was ever a Happy Meal menu choice. Fortunately for McDonald’s, there will still be enough parents who, for a number of reasons, will find themselves having to order some extra chocolate milk off the main menu every time they purchase a Happy Meal. Ultimately, McDonald’s will benefit the most because these families will even have to pay more for unhealthy choices.

As for my family, despite knowing that chocolate milk was not a drink choice in a Happy Meal, they still feel slightly cheated. It doesn’t make any difference that they know it’s unlikely that I would have let them have it as a main drink. Of course, it’s always easier to make healthy choices if there are no other options. But surely parenting is about making choices for our children precisely when it’s not easy. As a nutritionist and a parent, McDonald’s announcement of their new nutritional standards can only be welcomed. But simply reducing the menu choices of Happy Meals by shifting the unhealthy items onto the larger menu does little to help parents. The only healthy benefits that I can see are McDonald’s.

Although I have chocolate milk on my mind, I am more tempted to share a recipe for something else that is dark and rich to be enjoyed on St Patrick’s Day: Irish soda bread with Guinness. We will be eating it while watching Ireland win the Rugby Six Nations and more than likely, the Grand Slam, too.

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What I didn’t learn from Veganuary

Many people will still be experiencing a welcome relief since Veganuary finally ended. It was a long month, but no longer do you feel the watchful eyes of friends and work colleagues on you at all mealtimes and you can safely return to your old habits with impunity. Or at least, without anyone questioning your food choices publicly. However, many people will have also been surprised to discover that their month of meaty abstinence really wasn’t all that bad. In fact, whether you waltzed through the month as a born again vegan or if you barely made it to the February, only confirming your commitment to being a proud carnivore, you may have done yourself more good than you realised. For some, choosing to follow a month-long vegan diet may have left them with some unexpected side effects. Thankfully, I don’t mean the compulsion to continue telling everyone about their month of denial. But even those that ditched veganism the second they could, may have inadvertently adopted some better food habits that could last a lifetime.

Now I have to say that I am neither advocating veganism as the magic bullet to guarantee a long life and inner peace nor suggesting that following a vegan diet is the best way to get a healthy, balanced diet. There will always be people brimming with good health who follow a particular diet and obviously, this includes many devotees of veganism. However, there are also plenty of others who rely too heavily on ready meals and junk food and it makes no difference to the quality of their diet if they are labelled as being vegetarian, vegan, paleo or gluten-free. In fact, some of the biggest cake eaters I know also happen to be vegetarian.

Nonetheless, having to follow a vegan diet as a newbie for Veganuary will have forced most people to do 3 things routinely if they were to do veganism ‘properly’. By which I mean, if they were to achieve a healthy, balanced vegan diet. Like anything else, repeat these 3 things enough times and they will become habitual. And for those that lasted the month, they may now have a healthier default mode when it comes to food. However, these 3 habits can actually be adopted by anyone, regardless of whether your diet includes all things animal or not. Therefore, even if like me, you side-stepped Veganuary altogether, you can still benefit by taking on these better food habits. In other words, we might as well take on the lessons learnt from those who took one for the team in Veganuary. Here they are:

1. Think more about what you are eating

It sounds pretty simple and probably something I often do to get through a tough workout. However, for a newbie vegan, it’s not quite so straight forward when you realise just how many everyday foods and drinks are by products of animals. It’s not just vegetarianism 2.0 and it would have been a sharp learning curve for those who only signed up to this on a whim on New Year’s Eve. Despite the growing trend in veganism that has prompted a massive surge in vegan-friendly foods available in most supermarkets and cafes, it can still be confusing. Which meant that many vegan newbies had no choice other than to adopt the first better food habit, to spend more time thinking about what you eat.

Now this doesn’t mean day dreaming of plump sausages and crispy bacon, although it may have been difficult for some to follow a vegan diet so soon after an indulgent Christmas meat-fest. Newbie vegan would have had to devote more time in their day to think about and plan their meals, simply to get it right. But doing this will mean that you are much more conscious about what you are eating and that can help you eat a healthier diet. How many people grab food where and when they can and blame their bad food choices on the fact that they don’t have time to do anything else. If you make time to think about and plan your meals, then you place more importance on what you eat and will have more control about the choices you make. Which means that no matter what diet you are following, you will have more opportunities to plan ahead and make healthier choices where possible.

2. Try to eat a wider variety of foods

Instinctively it may seem that those who went through Veganuary must have spent most of their time eating less of a variety of foods while avoiding everything animal-related. However, the truth is that it would have forced many newbies to eat outside their comfort zone. Once you get the hang of what is and isn’t vegan, the next important challenge many would have faced in Veganuary would have been how to eat a balanced diet. We are routinely told by the NHS and Change4Life that to eat a healthy, balanced diet we should be basing it on the Eatwell Guide. However, it looks somewhat different to vegan eyes when you can no longer rely on even some common vegetarian staples of milk, eggs and cheese. Once you cross out the foods that aren’t vegan, you’ve got some blank spaces to fill.

This would have forced vegan newbies to look further afield for some initial alternatives.  However, not many people would have survived the boredom of a month of eating their way through a book of ‘101 ways with lentils’ recipes. In other words, many who went through Veganuary would have been compelled by desperation to try something new. There is an abundance of beans, grains, pulses and vegetables to discover and many newbies would have been surprised at the variety of alternatives available. There is a common misconception that tastes are fixed in childhood, but this is not true. Tastes can change, even when you are an adult, despite most people’s firm reluctance to try new foods. I, for one, avoided trying stilton cheese because it ticked all the boxes for mouldy food. However, after a long dinner that was far too small (and with a little Dutch courage) I found that despite its appearance, I loved it. Hunger is always a good motivator.

In the same way, to follow a vegan diet ‘properly’, there are some important essential vitamins and minerals that you need to ensure your food will provide, such as iron, calcium and vitamin B12. Therefore, it would have forced newbies to try some new sources out of necessity, including grains, pulses, vegetables and fortified foods.

But this also works for non-vegans, which is why everyone can benefit from taking on this second food habit. Trying new foods and adding them to your diet increases the variety of what you eat and provides a greater range of nutrients which in turn, guards against deficiency. This is true no matter what diet you follow so it pays to keep trying new foods and eating a wider variety rather than sticking to a limited number of foods and a routine of meals that never varies. At the very least, if you adopt this habit, you will surely enjoy your food more.

3. Cook more

Most people will read this, roll their eyes to the sky and mutter that they don’t have any time to cook. However, hear me out when you consider those who went through Veganuary. Of course, for many it would have been possible to make it through the month living off vegan convenience food. However, in order to do it properly, newbies would have been forced to learn how to cook some of the unfamiliar vegetables, pulses and grains they were trying out. Most people would have also been surprised to find out how easy it was and how versatile these new foods were in dishes. Not to mention that many of the bog-standard vegan staples such as beans and lentils are surprisingly inexpensive. Surely, that is something we can all benefit from, no matter what diet you follow.

Making the time to cook not only allows a bit of trial and error but it makes it easier to prepare something healthier, tastier and more fulfilling. In addition, if you make the time to cook you can prepare meals in batches and freeze leftovers. This means that on busier days you can defrost something homemade to eat rather than having to rely on ready meals or take-aways. Whether you are vegan or a carnivore, adopting cooking as a habit and making it norm when it comes to food preparation will help you eat a healthier diet (and a tastier one, too).

There will be those who finished Veganuary, embracing it like a new food religion as veganism has become one of the fastest growing lifestyle trends. The less converted may at least come to realise that they had probably been relying too much on the same animal products in their diet out of sheer habit. And there will those who ended the month at the other end of the scale, returning to their old ways with a vengeance. For some, abstinence will only have made the stomach grow fonder. And like putting on an old cosy t-shirt that magically makes you feel that everything ok again, it is easy to relax and carry on with your ‘business as usual’ diet again.

No matter how you ended Veganuary, or if like me, you avoided experiencing a month of avoidance, there will always be room for improvement in your diet. It is never too late to adopt better habits so we might as well learn from others who had to step up. Devoting time to thinking about what you are eating, eating a wide variety of foods and cooking more will not guarantee a golden ticket for a long life. However, they will go some way to helping you eat a healthy, balanced diet needed for good health, no matter what discipline you follow. When it comes to food, there is no diet where you can have your cake and eat it too but at least these 3 food habits will help to make healthy eating a piece of cake.

And now for the recipe, suitable for vegans, carnivore and the rest. I thought I would go for a healthier snack that can be munched while you cook other things. The only problem with these Spicy snacks is that they are difficult to stop eating them…

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Snacks attacked

With our Christmas tree down and the accompanying paraphernalia long packed away, our empty house and bare walls only emphasise a clean start to the new year. Change is in the air. At least, most hope things will improve on many fronts in 2018. Meanwhile, on an individual level, many have already made a change for themselves and are halfway through January as a teetotaller, vegan, raw water drinker or exercise fanatic. But even if you haven’t joined the masses and embraced a new food or exercise fad, you will still have to contend with the repetitive commercials and programs focusing on diet trends and quick weight loss. Amongst all this comes the news that parents are failing their children, again, when it comes to a healthy diet. Yes, it’s a cheery Happy New Year from Public Health England (PHE) who have launched their latest campaign even while the remnants of Christmas stockings are still hanging around many households.

The timing of Change4Life launch on the 2nd January meant it could have easily been sold as a New Year’s resolution for parents. Christmas was evidence enough for most parents to witness just how much sugary indulgence their children could pack in each day. Therefore, parents didn’t need to be reminded of the PHE’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey that showed that we are all eating far too much added sugar. As a result, there are a record number of children with dental caries and eating snacks containing added sugar between mealtimes is the main cause. Of course, the more visible effect of eating too much sugar can be seen in our nurseries and schools. Who could dispute that over a third of children are still leaving primary school overweight or obese? Which is why the focus of PHE’s new campaign is on the amount of sugar and calories that children and teenagers graze on throughout the day. With over half of amount of added sugar children and teenagers consume coming from unhealthy snacks such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, buns, sweets, juice and fizzy drinks, PHE are now calling on all parents to get a grip.

The ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max!’ Change4Life campaign aims to help parents take back control of their children’s snacking habits by closing down the 24-hour buffet of high calorie sugary snacks available to them. Using the slogan’s simple rule of thumb, Change4Life wants parents to reduce the number of snacks their children eat each day and cut down on the amount of sugar and calories contained in each snack. Parents are advised to offer a maximum of two healthy snacks per day using the ‘100 calorie’ rule. However, the rule does not apply to fruit and veg as PHE wants everyone to eat more of these.

The Change4Life campaign is spreading its message with their distinctive Aardman characters. In the new ad, the characters try to avoid being squashed by a growing number of sugar cubes that pour out from some sugary foods and drinks while exploring the supermarket aisles. This is quite a feat, as apart from a mouth, they have no facial features whatsoever, but perhaps they can taste danger. In any case, all is ok because as a voiceover asks what we can do to protect our children from the harmful snacks, we see the characters safely singing and dancing near the clearly labelled ‘healthier snacks’. Just in case we weren’t following the plot, an actual parent appears and checks the label of a box of healthier snacks before reassuringly popping it into their shopping basket with a happy child in tow.

In conjunction with the 8-week campaign, a Smarter Snacking Pack that includes money-off vouchers for healthier snacks and stickers can be ordered by signing up to the Change4Life website. In addition, the handy Change4Life Food Scanner app has been relaunched to help parents identify which snacks are healthy while they shop. The app scans the barcodes of foods and drinks and gives a calorie count and ‘traffic light’ rating according to the amount of sugar, sat fat and salt contained. An amber or red traffic light will trigger a ‘More ideas’ link underneath the traffic light which will bring up a relevant Change4Life webpage suggesting a healthier swap to something more ‘green light’.

With the campaign now in full swing and children back at school and away from any leftover Christmas treats, it is a very good opportunity to try to help families make a healthy change to their diet. Therefore, this initiative seems to be a very positive way to encourage parents and children to think more about what they are eating and promote healthier snacking. However, as I looked further into the details of the Change4Life campaign as both a health professional and a parent of big snackers, I was a little surprised by what I found.

I thought I would start by visiting my nearest supermarket armed with the Food Scanner app to check out some of the the100kcal healthier snack options available through the Change4Life money-off vouchers. The snacks featured in the vouchers included malt loaf, lower-sugar fromage frais, mini-packs of nuts and flavoured water with no added sugar. Although they weren’t the kinds of snacks I expected to see in the vouchers, I forged ahead, ready to watch out for any sugar cubes lurking in the aisles.

After scanning some random foods on the shelves for comparison, I went to the first snack on my list, Petit Filous fromage frais. I recognised the little pots and had bought them in the past as my children used to eat them for their pudding. But from memory, they used to contain added sugar. However, when I scanned the pack, rather than getting a traffic light rating of the fromage frais, my screen filled with a bright yellow Change4Life ‘Woohoo! This is a healthier yoghurt choice and makes a great snack, yum!’ I was a little surprised by this but I thought Petit Filous must have changed the ingredients. What did I know? I hadn’t bought it for several years. I took a closer look at the ingredients label but there it was, the second ingredient was still sugar. How could Change4Life be saying this was a good snack choice? What about tooth decay?

I went back again to the scan of the fromage frais, which I had to pick out from my list of previous scans. I clicked on it and interestingly, the scan now looked very different. The ‘Woohoo’ had now shrunk to the bottom of the screen and now the missing traffic light appeared. Only it showed amber for sugar and sat fat and green for salt. Now I was really confused. Is Change4Life saying the Petit Filous was still a healthier snack option and that amber, amber green snacks were ok? The traffic light told me that each tiny pot was 41kcals and contained 4.7g sugar (more than1tsp). To be fair, there are much worse fromage frais and yoghurts and this one was certainly not sugar-laden. But eating it as a snack still counted as eating the white stuff between meals. Our teeth don’t care if it’s the least worst fromage frais.

I then clicked on the link underneath to ‘Find out more’ and it showed that Change4Life had had second thoughts about the fromage frais. The screen showed a blue Aardman figure holding up a large sign saying, ‘There’s no reds but can you find a swap with more greens?’ So now they do want me to swap the Petit Filous for something healthier? Let me see, if only I could find a healthier fromage frais to swap with? I wonder what Change4Life would recommend? Of course, I scanned the same Petit Filous again and rewarded with the same healthier ‘Woohoo!’ Sorted!

While scanning and Woohooing the fromage frais several times to see if I could trip it up, I thought I might as well check out the rest of Petit Filous range as they appeared to only differ in flavour. Scanning them didn’t produce any initial Woohoos, but funnily enough, the traffic light rating of the Petit Filous Big Pots, Greek Style and Frubes were all the same. In fact they shared the same traffic light ambers for sugar and sat fat and greens for salt as the recommended fromage frais. But did this mean that these were just as ‘healthy’?

A quick look at the ingredients revealed that Greek Style and Frubes fromage frais contained considerably more added sugar than the original fromage frais but worse was to come. I scanned the Petit Filous Little Desserts Chocolate & Vanilla flavour expecting to see some red traffic lights because as the name implies, they are desserts. In addition, the ingredients label clearly showed that each 55g pot contains almost 17tsp of added sugar. However, inexplicably, a quick scan of the Little Desserts gave the same traffic light rating as the ‘healthy’ fromage frais.

I had had enough of the chilled aisle by now and went in search of the next healthy snack available through the vouchers. Soreen Banana and Original Malt Lunchbox Loaves were in my sight and I quickly got down to work scanning. Each of the 25g different flavoured Lunchbox Loaves was roughly 95kcals and the scans prompted the same congratulatory ‘Woohoos’ as the fromage frais. Delving further, I called up the scans again through my scan history to get a traffic light. This time, the Loaves were given a traffic light rating of amber for sugar, green for sat fat and amber for salt. Looking closer again at the ingredients label, I found that the Banana and Original Malt flavours contained 5.8g and 5.1g added sugar, respectively. Which meant that there was even more sugar than the fromage frais hidden behind the Woohoo! What about the teeth??! I clicked on the link underneath the traffic light to ‘Find out more’. As expected, another blue Aardman figure appeared holding up a sign saying ‘This is mostly amber. Can you find foods with more greens?’ Not again!

Looking on the supermarket shelves, I saw two more flavours of Soreen’s range of individually packaged loaves. Soreen’s Mini Loaves weren’t included in the money-off vouchers but that wasn’t surprising as they came in toffee and chocolate flavours and featured Disney characters on the packets. A quick scan of the Mini Loaves didn’t result in a Woohoo but in the expected traffic light. It told me that the Mini Loaves were a fraction larger than the Lunchbox Loaves at 30g but were still under 100kcals. Surprisingly, the amber, green, amber traffic lights also showed that their sugar content was comparable to Soreen’s healthy Lunchbox Loaves. Toffee flavour contained 5.4g added sugar and chocolate flavour contained 5.8g added sugar.

I felt like I was scanning in a parallel universe as it seemed utterly bizarre that the larger Toffee Mini Loaf contained less sugar than the recommended ‘healthier’ Banana Lunchbox Loaf. I could not understand why Change4Life was telling parents to give these to their children as healthy snacks. Why would any parent think that the Toffee Mini Loaves are any less healthy than the Banana Lunchbox Loaves if they have less sugar? The loaves even resemble mini cakes so what’s the difference between giving your child the recommended Lunchbox Loaf or just giving them a slice of cake? Would toffee cake be better than banana? How can any parent know what a healthy snack is if Change4Life is blurring the lines? I despair…

By this point, I had had enough of disappointing scans and I simply couldn’t face the last two snacks on the vouchers. I also was tired of getting odd looks from supermarket staff and other shoppers who had watched me pick up a series of different foods to scan and only to scowl and put them back in the wrong place. Despite the time I had spent, my shopping basket was still empty and I was starting to get hungry. I headed straight for the large green light section of fruit and veg to fill up my basket before heading home.

Although it is clear that we need to do something about the unhealthy snacking culture of our children and teenagers, parents need all the help they can get. Which is why a campaign that encourages healthier snacking with money-off vouchers and a handy app is very welcome. However, I think that PHE, through the Change4Life ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max!’, have confused the message of what is a healthy snack. It is not helpful that they are encouraging snacks containing added sugar because not only do they cause tooth decay and contain empty calories but they can be easily confused with similar snacks containing even more sugar. And if Change4Life’s own app can’t make up its mind on whether a snack it’s supposed to be promoting is healthy or not, how can they expect parents to?

So, what is the answer? Well, as a parent I would say that there’s no time like the present to have another look at what your family is eating and take on the broad message of the Change4Life campaign. Make changes, where needed, to your children’s snacks and limit them to between meals.

When it comes to what is a healthy snack, my own rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Start with the super greens of fruit and veg. Add some carbs such as bread/toast, a bagel, pitta bread, rice cakes or bread sticks. If they’re really hungry, add a little protein such as cottage cheese, hummus, peanut butter or cheese. At the moment, some of the snacks eaten in my kitchen by teenagers include a peanut butter and banana wrap, cheese bun with an apple, hunk of bread with a carrot and even porridge and banana. Clearly, different children will have different tastes so the trick is find out what works for you.

Speaking of which, what works for my family is a slice of Banana walnut loaf which can be sliced up and packed into a lunchbox or tucked into for a mid-afternoon break. And fear not, there are no sugar cubes lurking in it.

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A heart to heart with the Christmas cheese board

As we head towards Christmas, I feel like a speeding train, incapable of stopping shopping, baking and wrapping unless I simply run out of fuel. Meanwhile, my fridge seems to have been taken over by mice. Every time I open it, I am met with a shelf packed entirely of every variety of cheese, sandwiched together carefully like a stinky puzzle. Each pack balances precariously against the rest, threatening to topple Jenga-like if I dare remove it.

But for now it is safe, as I know that it will be impossible to help myself to a little Wensleydale and cranberry without sending out a silent cheese alert, compelling my children to swiftly come to the kitchen. Once there, before I have even finished the last creamy crumb, they will begin to take out every morsel of cheese from the fridge, not to mention the collection of chutneys that lurk in its dark recesses. Then they will scavenge through the cupboards and take out all the boxes of crackers that they can find, regardless of whether they actually like them or not. And in an instant, my intended tiny snack will have kickstarted a cheese party. Unlike a quick bite, the cheese fest will be a crumbly, sticky mess of loveliness that never seems to end.

Now that would be fine if there wasn’t so much to do before Christmas because like many people, I like a good cheese board. However, breaking for cheese means you might as well give up on getting anything useful done for the rest of the day. If not for the time lost whilst indulging in the infinite combination of different flavours, then for the cheese-induced foggy state that will inevitably follow.

Which is why it made me smile, the other day, when a cheese-related headline caught my eye. A study was reported in the national press as showing that eating a small portion of cheese every day could reduce your chance of developing heart disease or stroke. The study was actually a review of 15 previous observational studies and it was reported that cheese eaters had a 10% reduction of risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. The largest reduction of risk was seen in people who ate 40g of cheese per day.

40g of cheese a day? This ‘small’ amount was larger than the UK standard portion of cheese of 30g, or ‘matchbox’ size. How could it be possible that cheese, known for containing copious amounts of saturated fat and salt, could play some role in reducing cardiovascular risk? It seemed extremely unlikely when sat fat and salt are the archenemies of heart health. Was this another case of ‘fake’ news? Or was there something else going on? I knew I had to investigate before the cheesy headline would be used by some hungry teenagers to justify overconsumption on my home turf. And time was of the essence, with Christmas coming up and cheese aplenty being promoted in every supermarket aisle. It was already becoming harder to resist yet another new cheese to try for festive entertaining. Especially because with kids off from school, we were suddenly going through food quicker which meant being accompanied more often whilst grocery shopping.

I looked into the study and it was clear that all was not what it seemed. As the analysis focused solely on the amount of cheese consumed, it didn’t look at what type of cheese and its fat content or any other dairy products consumed, let alone anything else in the participants’ diets. In addition, the analysis only looked at several observational studies which are not the gold standard of studies. They rely on participants to accurately recall information but common sense tells you that when it comes to questions about food consumption, people are rarely precise with their portion sizes nor are they very forthcoming. Which makes the findings rather curious. Why did they find that eating the magic 40g cheese per day reduced risk when eating less than or more than 40g increased the risk?

The truth is that we simply don’t know why the study showed a decrease in risk. But that does not conclusively mean that the cheese should get all the credit. Cheese may taste great and be a good source of protein, calcium and vitamins. However, there is no getting around the fact that eating too much of it can lead to becoming overweight and developing ill health, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Many people already eat far more than a matchbox size piece of cheese on a daily basis and clearly the amount of cheese increases significantly over Christmas. In other words, we don’t need any encouraging to eat even more cheese. In the end, this study may be another small addition to the body of evidence that is looking closer at the role of saturated fat from dairy products in our diets. Until we know whether it may be protective or not to eat particular sources of dietary fat, it is always sensible to return to what we already know. When it comes to a healthy diet it pays to eat everything in moderation.

So as I attempt to finish my final preparations before Christmas, I will still try to have the odd little snack of Wensleydale and cranberry without alerting the hungry troops. I have realised that when it comes to cheese, the selective listening of teenagers only translates the concept of eating in moderation to eating everything moderately quickly. My only hope is that they will reach a tipping point of peak cheese consumption. Only a couple of days before Christmas and they still seem to be winning the war of teenagers vs cheese…

Thinking I could perhaps reduce the cheese consumption or at least hide it among some healthy stuff, I decided to make a Wholewheat cheese bread. You can make it using any leftover cheese you have from Christmas.

Blog cheese bread

Does your sandwich taste like Christmas?

We have reached that time of the year again, when the weather has changed and brought with it some early dark evenings. Late workouts now require some extra layers and high vis accessories, but in early December, it still feels like I am in the lull before the storm. But perhaps I am in denial as there are definitely the tell-tale signs of the upcoming holiday festivities around me. Already, the Christmas tv adverts are on repeat and the annual lighting of the Christmas streetlight displays has taken place. The shops are also filled with the most organised consumers determined to have ordered, bought and wrapped everything before the rest of us even think about it. Many others are hitting the shops while strategically settling in at home, posed and ready to strike online. As the the Black Friday sales stretch into Black Friday weeks, Cyber Mondays, festive Tuesdays and ‘FINAL’ sales, I will eventually have to face the fact that Christmas is coming. In the meantime, before I completely surrender myself to the organisational chaos and frenzy of planning Christmas parties, shopping and of course, cooking, there is a more pressing matter at hand. The battle of the Christmas sandwiches 2017 has commenced and every supermarket has launched their version of holiday spirit between two slices.

It’s game-on again as each supermarket returns this year to try and tempt us with their sumptuous creations of the ultimate Christmas sandwich. The sandwich stakes are high as each is heavily promoted alongside the rest of their Holiday foods and drinks they hope we purchase between bites. It is widely accepted that the gold standard of Christmas sandwiches is based on roast turkey, as it continues its reign at the top of the popularlity charts as the main star and focal point of Christmas dinner. However, over the years, supermarkets have increasingly hedged their bets and diversified by creating more Christmas varieties using different roasts including vegetarian and vegan options. Even so, the range of Christmas sandwiches on offer by different supermarkets is, in general, still very much the same. This adherence to traditional Chrsitmas sandwich fillings means that there is not much scope for supermarkets to stand out from the competition. However, doing so can also backfire…

Who could forget the 2015 Sandwichgate, when Tesco thought that had come up with a lunchtime winner with a chocolate and cherry monstrosity that they tried to pass it off as a sandwich? The decadently thick layer of chocolate and cherry filling with mascarpone cheese made an incredibly stodgy filling that could barely be contained between the slices of cinnamon bread and had no business being there. The flavours just didn’t work and even the hungriest office workers and students found it too rich to eat more than a couple of bites. Not even being part of a meal deal could shift it. As word spread among the sandwich eating masses, they took to social media to share their outrage. Luckily, the lesson of what can happen when a Christmas sandwich goes rogue must have stuck because the retail offerings in 2016 returned to much more tradional fare.

But a lot can change in a year and in 2017, some of the supermarkets have pushed sandwich boundaries again. I had heard the rumours that some of this year’s Christmas turkey sandwiches were unrecognisable and some supermarkets had created what can only be described as turkey sandwich imposters. Even worse, some of the Christmas turkey sandwiches had been lumped together with others that were decidedly unfestive. Taking matters into my own hands, I had to investigate.

With less than a month until Christmas, time was of the essence. I thought it would be wise to concentrate on the legendary Christmas turkey sandwich but also keep a lookout for any rogue sandwiches lurking on the shelves. Now when it comes to Christmas turkey sandwiches, everybody has their own way of making one at home and the question of the ‘right’ way to do it can cause a lot of controversy. Which seems odd because the sandwich is entirely dependent on the variety and availability of leftovers from Christmas dinner. Needlesstosay, the contents of the said, Christmas dinner, varies enormously. Therefore, I am not about to start an argument for and against the addition of chipolatas, mashed potatoes, gravy or Brussel sprouts to a turkey sandwich filling. However, I think it is reasonable to say that as a bare minimum, one would expect a supermarket bought Christmas turkey sandwich to contain 3 essential ingredients, mainly some turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce sandwiched together between 2 slices of bread. With that in mind, I sought out the Christmas turkey sandwiches 3 of leading supermarkets to see if they were sticking to tradition or trying to shake things up this year.

Starting with Marks & Spencer, it’s no surprise that this long-established store has once again brought back its bestseller, the Turkey Feast sandwich. This traditional sandwich contains everything that you would want and expect to find in something made from your Christmas dinner, all wrapped up in festive colours. The sandwich ingredients of turkey breast, canberry sauce, herby stuffing, mayonnaise and crispy bacon are simple and the soft malted brown bread holds it all together like a warm hug. And with 5% of the sandwich proceeds going to the homeless charity, Shelter, this is a sandwich with a heart.

However, sitting right next to the Turkey Feast in another jolly box was another offering from their Christmas sandwhch range which seemed particularly unfestive. It was M&S’s Lobster & Prawn Thermidor with Brandy, sandwiched in a brioche roll. A brioche roll?! Used in a sandwich?! Is that even legal?? On closer inspection, I found that the rogue sandwhich was also part of the Help Shelter campaign. Admittedly, the filling itself does not sound unappetising but I ask you, is it Christmassy? I think not.

Next, I went to Sainsbury’s to see if they had stuck to tradition or gone off piste with thier Christmas sarnies. At first inspection, I breathed a sign of relief as it looked like they had played it safely this year with their own Turkey Feast sandwich. Like Marks & Spencer’s, it ticked all the boxes of a traditional Christmas sandwich, containing turkey breast, pork and chestnut stuffing, maple cured smoked bacon, cranberry and port sauce and mayonnaise on malted bread. However, there was also a decent amount of spinach in it which looks like it was added as an afterthought or maybe just to fill it out. Although the spinach does not add anything especially Christmassy to the filling, I think the Turkey Feast gets away with it. In the end, the Turkey Feast is a dependable sandwich that doesn’t rock the boat too much. Alas, it was joined on the shelf by two new Christmas turkey varieties and it was clear that Sainsbury’s had entered new sandwich territory.

First up was the Christmas Lunch Wrap. A flour tortilla wraps around a filling of turkey, stuffing and a little cranberry sauce but it is also stuffed heavily with sausage and bacon. The Wrap also contains spinach which only helps to dilute any festiveness created from the Christmas filling. In effect, the Wrap does not seem anything like a Chrstimas turkey sandwich should be. It only looks like an ordinary wrap made for a boring lunch, thwarting any holiday spirit. Bizarrely, this disappointing Christmas sandwich is an absolute antithesis to Sainsbury’s second turkey sandwich creation. It is fair to say that they tried to supersize the Christmas cheer in their new sandwich which has been christened, The Snow Globe.

The Snow Globe is unlike anything seen before in the chilled sandwich section of any supermarket. The turkey sandwich is packaged just like a snow globe, in a domed case, and from a distance it looks like it contains something more burger-like. However, on closer examination, the label reveals that it is actually Christmas dinner in a brioche bun. Brioche, again! However, this is not some ordinary brioche but is a brioche topped with edible stars which can be shaken around the packaging like a real snow globe. I had to assume that the sandwich was meant to be shaken far more gently than most children shook an actual snow globe. In any case, the star-covered brioche is filled with the traditional ingredients of turkey, stuffing and cranberry. Now if they had stopped there, they may have kept within the boundaries of Christmas turkey sandwiches. However, Sainsbury’s could not resist adding bacon, more spinach and a Brussel sprout ‘slaw’, thus moving the sandwich further away from tasting like Christmas dinner and only emphasising the presence of the brioche. In effect, the Snow Globe may look sparkly and festive but it’s not really a Christmas turkey sandwich.

Lastly, I thought it would be worth returning to Tesco to see what Christmas sandwich creations they had come up with this year. Tesco continues to have one of the largest ranges of Christmas sandwiches on offer including a Turkey & Trimmings sandwich, Finest Turkey Feast sandwich and a Healthy Living Turkey & Trimmings sandwich. They all resemble traditional Christmas turkey sandwiches and contain similar basic ingredients. They differ mainly in the quantity and quality of ingredients and for instance, the Healthy Living sandwich is considerably sparser and uses spinach as a filler to cut the calories. This makes the Healthy Living sandwich less like eating Christmas dinner and more like the beginning of a New Year’s resolution. Tesco has also come up with one more turkey version, the Turkey & Trimmings wrap. Like Sainsbury’s wrap, Tesco’s gets all the ticks for containing turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. However, the wrap goes all wrong with the addition of shredded lettuce, and only reminds you that it is nothing like Christmas dinner. Like many people, I enjoy eating wraps but it has to be said that it is just not Christmas turkey sandwich making material. Trying to pull off a wrap as Christmas dinner is just sad.

I was relieved to find that this year, there was no evidence of Tesco producing another chocolate and cherry concoction. However, as I scanned for the rogue I came across another Christmas sandwich that stucks out among the rest. Amongst Tesco’s vegetarian range, Tesco’s Finest Bubble & Squeak Fritter with Spiced Red Cabbage Roll caught my attention. It goes without saying that no one would expect a vegetarian Christmas dinner sandwich to contain traditional turkey accompaniments and this sandwich is no different. The sandwich’s carrot and flour roll is filled with breaded potato and cabbage fritters, onion and sage stuffing, cooked red cabbage spiced with cinnamon and star anise, held together with vegan mayonnaise. It sounded like a pretty straightforward albeit different vegetarian sandwich, but the spiced cabbage helps to give the sandwich a Christmassy flavour. However, this vegetarian sandwich comes with a slightly questionable accompaniment: a sachet of coconut bacon flavoured flakes to sprinkle inside the filling, to add some crunch. For a vegetarian sandwich to use bacon flavouring, even if it is strictly vegan, just seems wrong. I cannot help thinking that a vegetarianism (and veganism) is not just for Christmas…

So there we have it, a small sample of what sandwiches are out there waiting for you to munch on while you work on your Christmas preparations before the big day arrives. I am sure that I may partake in the odd store bought turkey sandwich or two but if I’m honest, what I am really looking forward to is making my own. Because only I can make the ultimate Christmas turkey sandwich (although my husband will argue that he does). We may have different techniques, using the same leftovers but one thing is for certain. The best Christmas turkey sandwich will never be made with a wrap!

But now on to the recipe…Without the Christmas turkey leftovers, it would be impossible to recreate the best turkey sandwich. But with all my criticism of wraps stuffed with spinach disguised as Christmas turkey sandwiches, I thought the least I could do was come up with something that would use them up. This recipe for Speedy seedy tortillas is perfect for dipping into the Spinach hummus and Spinach & ricotta baked dip. They are all very tasty and so were quickly devoured by my family. They would work very well as a last minute addition to any holiday entertaining you have coming up but they are so effortless to prepare, you don’t need to wait for an excuse to make them.

Day 7 Cancer Research UK Pretty Muddy 5km

I woke up early feeling very excited, albeit slightly knackered, on the final day of my running tour. Just one more race to go and I would have done the week! But I also knew that Pretty Muddy wouldn’t be anything like the previous 6 legs of the tour. If anything, the name hardly suggested what I had signed up for. It could have been called Extremely Muddy or even Awfully Muddy because there wasn’t anything pretty about it. The reality was it was a 5km muddy, squelching course full of far too many filthy obstacles that you had to climb over, crawl under and charge between. The final obstacle of the course was the main attraction of Pretty Muddy and was strategically placed right before the finish to draw the crowds. It was a gigantic mud-coated, slippery slide that you had to climb up, hand over foot in order to get to the top. Once there, you faced plummeting it down into a deep, dark mud pool. Of course, the question that comes to most people is simply, why?! And also, who? Who would willingly choose to spend several days after doing a 5km run, still trying to get the mud out of their trainers, kit (and themselves)? Well the answer is that many hundreds of people are willing to make a mucky effort for a worthy cause and the funds raised by Pretty Muddy go towards fighting cancer.

With this in mind, if I had felt slightly pressured at times whilst running in the Tour of MK, then this final 5km leg for a good cause was sure to be at the opposite end of the scale. It wouldn’t even be as competitive as a Parkrun as there would be no chip timing and so no fights to the finish. Understandably, there are more important things to think about than running a 5km PB when you’re being sprayed by muddy water while trying to scramble, climb and run through sludgy obstacles. Which was great as a relaxing, muddy jaunt would help my legs to recover from the week of heavy mileage. The more I thought about it, the more I talked myself into believing that the mud may even have some restorative properties, like a mud pack for legs…Obviously, my tiredness also allowed myself to conveniently gloss over my memories of the last two Pretty Muddy 5kms runs with my daughter. Perhaps I had also deluded myself as a survival technique, as I could not escape the fact that I had signed up as the accompanying adult to my daughter and a friend of hers from her rugby team. In other words, there was no option of pulling out and letting the rugby girls down.

Once again, the high number of entrants for Pretty Muddy meant that it had to be started in several waves of runners. We had signed up to run it in the third wave reasoning that by then, the course would be sufficiently muddy and soft but not yet a complete swamp. However, when we arrived at the race registration, it was clear that it had been raining throughout the night and things were already swampy. For the moment, though, we were warm and dry and we walked up to the warm-up area and into a sea of pink.

There were masses of girls and women of all ages around us, wearing every shade of pink imaginable. As Wave 3 was called up to the cordoned off start area, it felt like we were entering a noisy carnival. We spent the next few minutes entertaining ourselves by trying to spot who was wearing the most elaborate fancy dress amongst the crowd. Above us on a stage, an announcer appeared from nowhere and loudly started to address everyone. As soon as everyone turned to look at him, his shocking pink hair set off a chain reaction of selfies, completely distracting anyone from paying attention to the health and safety fine print he reeled off. With an ear-splitting blast of 90s Europop, two very energetic fitness instructors then came on stage to lead the warm-up. It was unlike any warm-up I’ve ever experienced for a fun run and consisted entirely of kick boxing moves, left jabs and right hooks. As I tried to avoid both kicking and being belted by other runners, I couldn’t help thinking that it was an odd series of moves to practice before the run. Then again, the course was sure to be different this year and I really didn’t know what obstacles we would be facing. With the warm-up done, the announcer came on a final time to psyche up the crowd again and the marshals started spraying everybody with mud. My rugby girls quickly dobbed some mud on their faces to draw ‘war paint’, which in retrospect, I should have taken as a sign.

Once done, they quickly dragged me over to the start of the race, positioning ourselves first on the line. I reminded them that it didn’t matter where we started as we weren’t actually racing. However, as the countdown began they looked primed and ready to go. Sure enough, once the blowhorn sounded, the rugby girls sprinted off with me chasing behind, shouting, ‘It’s not a race!’ They didn’t slow down but sped up and all I could do was to try and run faster. I finally caught them as they paused to weigh up the first obstacle, a series of enormous slippery rollers on a field of mud which we had to get over. They managed to vault over the rollers skilfully like mucky ninjas while my technique of hugging and rolling myself over the top of the rollers only slowed me down. After we cleared the rollers, we were then greeted with several sprays of icy, dirty water fired at us by the race marshals. Since we were the first of our wave to reach the obstacle, we were a clear and easy target.

We quickly sprinted off again in the direction of the next obstacle and as we ran, we started to pass people who had started in an earlier wave. The course then veered towards another muddy area and we approached 3 large metal pipes laid on their side, as makeshift tunnels. Stationed to the left of the tunnels was a happily armed marshal which meant that the rugby girls immediately scurried into the tunnels to the right. Getting the short straw meant I was easy prey for the marshal and before I managed to even enter the tunnel, I was soaked to the skin. Unfortunately, the only way to get through the pipes was by crawling through wet, cold mud. I emerged very wet, muddy and cold and was not surprised to see the rugby girls smiling at my appearance at the other end. We ran off before we could be sprayed any further by the marshal in search of the next obstacle.

As we ran, we passed several more groups of muddy runners and walkers and I reminded them again, that it wasn’t a race. The rugby girls looked at me incredulously and said, ‘But we’ve already caught up to the front of the second wave!’ However, I also noticed that we were not the only ones. Not far behind us was another girl that I recognised from the Wave 3 warm-up and trailing some way behind, was her slightly harassed looking mother. I could see that the girl was trying desperately hard to hurry her up. However, as soon as the rugby girls also clocked the competition, they took off running again saying, ‘She’s trying to beat us!’ I ran after them and realised that the fun run had turned into a muddy race. I couldn’t believe it! It was my final day of my running tour and it just had to get competitive! I could only hope that the obstacles might at least slow them down.

We headed towards the next obstacle but this time, I was more prepared to watch out for the armed marshals. As we got closer, it looked like we would have to crawl under some heavy netting that was lying, invitingly, on some wet, thick mud. Unfortunately, there were two armed marshals, stationed on both sides of the netting, ready to fire from every angle, at their leisure. Since there was no way to avoid them, my only defence was speed, so I dove under the netting and crawled at what I imagined was a lightning pace. The rugby girls used the same tactic and mud flew everywhere as we power crawled under the netting. Only disaster struck, when my hairband got caught in the netting and I was temporarily trapped like a dirty rat. And just like shooting fish in a barrel, the marshals easily fired their puddle water at me until I managed to wriggle free and crawl to safety.

Completely drenched and with my trainers soaked through, I ran to the rugby girls and we continued around the lake. As we ran on, we passed even more people and realised that we were starting to catch up with the first wave of runners. Every now and then, the rugby girls checked behind us, like watchful meercats, to gauge if we were sufficiently ahead of the competition. Which meant that every time they imagined that the competition was advancing, we had to ramp up our speed another notch. I wondered how many other parents were, literally, chasing their children around Pretty Muddy?

Nevertheless, we soon made it to the next obstacle which looked like a cluster of several outsized punchbags, hanging and swinging together, above the mud. The challenge of this obstacle was to get through the cluster of punchbags without falling or being knocked over into the mud. This time I didn’t hesitate, and I quickly weaved around and between the heavy punchbags whilst trying to avoid getting sprayed by the marshal. My rugby playing daughter, however, approached the punchbags as opponents in a match. In other words, she rammed into the first punchbag, tackling it so hard, that she knocked it completely off its support. As the liberated punchbag carried on bouncing away into the distance, the shocked marshal ran after it, shouting to my daughter, ‘Are you ok?!’ I shouted back, ‘Sorry! She plays rugby’. We could not stop laughing as we ran on in search for the next obstacles.

By then we knew that we were more than half-way through Pretty Muddy and there would only be a couple of obstacles left before the infamous mud slide. We passed through the next two obstacles unscathed as they were manned by unarmed marshals. Whether they out of muddy ammunition or not, we took full advantage of the situation to power through as it was far easier climbing over high barriers and ducking under bungee cords in a mud bath, when you are not being intermittently sprayed by cold, dirty water. Even when we had to immerse ourselves into cold muck, at the back of our minds we knew it could have been far worse if we had been under fire. However, the marshals’ truce didn’t last. We spent the penultimate obstacle being fired on as we bounced around a circuit on dirty, slippery space hoppers. By then, my legs were too tired to bounce with any speed and as I wrestled with staying on the space hopper, I was an easy target.

We ran on but after checking the location of the competition behind us, we were compelled to sprint to the final obstacle. However, when got there, we found that there was a complete bottleneck of people waiting to climb the slide. As we joined the long queue of muddy runners, we could only think about how deep the mud pit we would be sliding into. However, I could see that the rugby girls were still nervously glancing around them, wondering if we would be overtaken by the competition. However, I knew that this was now impossible simply because we were in the UK. We could rest assured that no one in their right mind jumps a queue! We eventually got to the front but by then, the mud on our bodies was dried and cracked. Since I had been fired on so many times with dirty water, I appeared slightly ‘cleaner’ than the rugby girls and in my daughter’s words, I was not muddy enough. I told her that it wouldn’t last much longer as we stepped up to the start, waiting for the signal to go.

Up we went, climbing thick, mucky ropes, towards the top of the enormous, steep slide. After losing my footing many times, I joined the rugby girls at the top. We quickly swung our legs around and pushed off, launching ourselves down the slide, like slippery eels. We splash landed straight into the cold, dark mud bath and before I could react to the coldness, my daughter grabbed a big handful of mud and landed it on me. I quickly retaliated and we all stumbled out of the bath and ran over the finish line, still laughing and dripping with mud.

I was so happy to finally finish the race, and what a way to finish my running tour. After a very long week, full of some crazy challenges, I was more than ready for a break! We headed back to collect our bags and on our way, we happened to spot some more muddy members of the girls’ rugby team. As they began to swap stories, I shared a knowing look with another mother and knew that they, too, had been racing in Pretty Muddy. I can only conclude that children, and especially rugby-playing teenagers, are even more willing and ready than adults, to find competition in just about anything. In fact, they even enjoy it! If there is one thing that I have learned from my running tour it is that I don’t really enjoy competition. Therefore, the challenge for me is to resist competition whilst still participating in events. How to actually do this is the big question and like a running Holy Grail, I guess I will have to continue to search for the answer. In the meantime, the safest bet is to enter events that sound more interesting than competitive…or at least come with a nice t-shirt. I wonder what colour the Tour of MK t-shirt will come in next year??

In the meantime, I made this Warm autumn salad with cauliflower and tahini which went down very well at home and the leftovers did not last very long…

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Day 6 Willen Lake 11.3km

It was the last day of the Tour and I couldn’t believe that it had actually arrived. Finally!! Of course, I realised that this running tour would continue a further day for me, as I had foolishly signed up for the Cancer UK Pretty Muddy event on Day 7. But for the moment, I put the bonus run firmly at the back of my mind. Which was easier to do once I remembered that the final Tour race was cruelly, also the longest of the series. I didn’t know whether this last push was originally set as some kind of endurance test or to really see if ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’. What it definitely would do is to demonstrate perfectly how the cumulative effects of continuous racing affects running style. At least I wouldn’t be alone in running with a slightly wonky gait as my ankle was still complaining about yesterday’s race. However, on the bright side, I had heard that this final race was mostly flat and it was routed through grassy parkland and around the same lake that Pretty Muddy would take place at. This meant that during the race, I would be able to have a sneaky peak at what Pretty Muddy had in store for me for the following day. It may even be just enough to distract me from the fact that I was running while knackered.

However, if I arrived at the race believing that the majority of other runners were also too tired to sprint and we would end up taking part in a celebratory relaxing group jog, I was wrong again. In fact, the opposite was true as everyone seemed to be really hyped up and raring to go. Many of the runners were performing different variations of warm-up drills. Some concentrated on doing leg swings whilst others conducted a series of high knees, lunges and stride outs. But they all looked like they were going to be setting some course records. I could not understand how they managed to catch a second wind of energy but perhaps it was more about the competitive spirit of the Tour. I suspected that I was the only runner left still trying to resist it and hoping to enjoy the last race without racing. In any case, on this final Tour day I knew my tired legs would dictate the pace.

I walked to the start for the final countdown and last whistle and off everyone sprinted in a massive pack. As we reached the end of a grass pitch the crowd was forced to thin down almost to single file, and we started to run along an uneven footpath. The footpath edged along adjoining fields home to several cows who didn’t appear to give much notice to the never-ending file of runners pounding past them. Each time we left a field to enter the next, we had to pass through a connecting gate alongside cattle grids. This caused a noisy succession of runners who continuously opened and slammed the gates. It also prompted some uncertainty about the running etiquette of holding gates when racing.

Should you hold a gate open for the next runner to grasp if you are competing against them? How long should you stop and wait, holding a gate ajar, before running on? Is there an acceptable distance, between you and the next runner, by which you shouldn’t be expected to wait? What about subsequent gates?? Should you take turns opening and closing each gate or is it first come, first serve? Do you thank your fellow competitors every time they hold the gate for you or just on the first time?

Some runners had thought enough to completely avoid this dilemma by running straight over the wide cattle grids, bypassing the gates, altogether. Which was extremely wise, considering that there were at least 8 more gates to get through on the way to the lake. It may have broken our stride but I was more than happy with this as the gates gave me the chance to catch my breath. This also caused the race to spread out and by the final gate, the little group I was running with had whittled down to only one other runner.

I recognised the other runner from some of the previous days’ races and she looked relaxed as she ran, listening to her headphones. We kept pace with each other and continued running as the course began to circle the lake. Looking around, I could see that they were beginning to set up several obstacles and deep, muddy baths for Pretty Muddy. As I ran nearer, I couldn’t help noticing the slightly ominous signage of ‘Body slam’ and ‘Get a leg over’. I was beginning to wonder if a lie-in wouldn’t have been a better choice than opting for tomorrow’s early start with a cold and muddy run. However, my tired legs soon caught my attention and I returned to concentrating on the task at hand.

We ran in silence and finished rounding the lake and I could see that we were still managing to keep pace with each other. As we headed back towards the fields again, I wondered if this meant that I was actually running in time to her music. Perhaps the musical pacemaker helped us to stick to a constant pace, as we continued running along the fields. But more likely, it was the companionship and a little running etiquette that was buoying me along when I was tiring. In effect, I had no choice but to keep up to share gate opening duty. Simply put, it would have been rude of me to slow down.

After several more kms of familiar fields and gates, we found ourselves confronted by a heavily blocked footpath. A group of sleepy cows had shifted their bulk over and completely blocked our way. We quickly scanned our eyes around the field for a way out. After a very cautious diversion, we made it to the last km of the race and heard that the finish was near. I found that I somehow had a bit of sprint left in me. My legs, naturally, started to very slightly speed up. I glanced at my running companion still holding to our steady, slower pace and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I hesitated further and looked again to see if she wanted to come but the distance started to stretch out between us. I decided to keep going and soon saw the finished runners in the distance who were cheering everyone on. The finish line seemed to move further away as I tried to keep sprinting as it took forever to reach. Finally, and gratefully, I crossed it. I was exhausted but shortly afterwards I saw that my running companion had also crossed the line. I went over to thank her for keeping me going when I felt like stopping and was surprised when she thanked me back for doing the same.

Eventually everyone had finished and after some milling around, the crowd moved inside for some awards and food. I ended the evening very tired but on a high as I really enjoyed the final race of the Tour. The Tour, itself, was quite an experience and I now understood why it is described as something that runners simultaneously dread and look forward to. Although my Tour had its ups and downs, I was overjoyed at completing it in one piece. I proudly put on my Tour t-shirt in Hawaiian blue, and as I ate I realised that I was now a vet! The only problem was that I was finding it hard to ignore a slightly nagging thought. Vet or not, I had another day left to run and Pretty Muddy was looming. But then I reasoned that maybe I could try to use it as a cool-down run. After all, it’s wasn’t going to be a competition. How little did I know…

In the meantime, with the stormy autumnal weather approaching, you might as well warm up with a warm plate of pasta. This Spaghetti squash with Autumn pesto makes a great recovery meal, as well.

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