Keep calm?

After waking up to the tumultuous election results in the UK, we have not exactly been given the promised ‘strong and stable government’ that was bandied about. Although the phrase was repeated by the PM so frequently that it prompted comparisons to the Jungle Book’s ‘Trust in me…’, it was still not enough to convert the majority of constituencies into an adequate trance-like state of support. In fact, it feels more like the Tories have scored an own goal. But amidst the chaos of the fallout and uncertainty, you have to laugh. And looking around me, it is obvious that many have chosen to digest the result with a smile on their face. If anything, there is actually a feeling of hope in the air. It may seem utterly bizarre to the rest of the world that the atmosphere at the moment does not seem too bleak even though the pound has tanked to further depths. However, perhaps this is no different to the very British response to some other recent shocking events.

As the world knows, we very recently experienced two absolutely horrific terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. The fact that they were targeted specifically at children leaving a pop concert and those out enjoying themselves on a sunny evening was truly disturbing. However, rather than terrifying anyone, they seemed to only provoke a display of resilience and swell public spirit that continues today. The resolute refusal of the public to retreat from the normalcy of everyday life has simply stoked an atmosphere of defiance and this has spilled over into humour. It is no wonder then, that the publication of the New York Times headline, Terrorist Attacks in the Heart of London Leave 6 Dead in a Nation Still Reeling and subsequent criticism of the response of our politicians through social media, could not help but cause a war of words all over Twitter.

With competing Twitter feeds trending such as #OneLoveManchester, #LondonBridge and #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling, the overwhelming response to the terrorist attacks and the alarmist coverage of the UK by foreign newscasters ranged from the humorous and ridiculous to outright mockery. Perhaps the twitter feed that best sums up the unique British response to the attacks was #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling. The tweets that followed can only be described as a limitless series of sarcastic suggestions of what it really takes to shock the Brits in their everyday life. There were several themes to the tweets along the lines of the shocking unpredictability of the British weather, being stuck in London’s many tourist traps or shopping areas and references to a different kind of ‘reel’, the common folk dance in Scotland and Ireland. However, I could not help but notice another common theme in these tweets which of course, was related to food and drink.

Starting with my favourite tweet of all from Howard Manella @hmannella, who noticed that in one of the photos featured by the media, a member of the public is shown fleeing the attack at London Bridge carrying half of pint of lager. Yes, he shown running and fleeing terrorists but doing so using his free hand to keep the pint steady so he doesn’t spill a drop. It must be said that this feat is both admirable and hilarious.

And who could argue with the numerous tweets that shared such feelings of injustice by recent price increases and shrinkages of favourite chocolates? Not to mention complaints about the pointlessness of toasters that do not fit an entire slice of bread, choosing the wrong items in a meal deal and discovering the biscuits in your cupboard have gone soggy. Also at the heart of what really makes Britain reel are widely disputed customs that others get wrong. Number 1 of food gripes is people who make a cup of tea incorrectly. Such as when the water is heated using a microwave. Or when milk is poured into a cup before the tea. Other faux pas include people who eat KitKats left to right like some kind of rodent instead of chomping it finger by finger. And of course, there is much to reel about when it comes to the mispronunciation of ‘scone’ or the decision to sell Bake Off to C4.

So in the end, things may be a bit chaotic from the election result and recent shocking events in the UK. But at least at the moment, we are far from truly reeling. As the days go on, the uncertainty can only continue to galvanise people and provide an endless source of sarcastic tweets. And what better way to use social media, than as a force for good? With an uncertain future ahead, for now, the Brits will keep calm and carry on.

One more thing that chaos typically creates besides humour is an appetite. The recipe this time is for some very moreish Plum, blueberry and walnut scones. And as everyone knows, scone rhymes with ‘gone’!

Keep calm scones blog

How not to run a half marathon

Have you ever done anything before that was so ridiculous that you had to question how you got there? It was Monday again, and I was a bit more on the tired side than usual and had a couple of sore toes. Then the reason for this started to hit me…The previous day, I unexpectedly ran a half marathon race. And how I let this happen should be a word of warning to all parents.

As readers will know, I am a runner and I like to enter the odd event for fun now and then, albeit with mixed results. I am also married to runner and so it’s probably no surprise that taking part in sport is the norm in our family and our 3 children are very active. In fact, for some time, our middle child had repeatedly declared to anyone who would listen, that he wanted to run a half marathon. In fact, he wanted to run one as soon as he reached the required entry age of 17. Now as all parents know, there can be a big difference between what your child says they want to do and what they really think once the reality of the actual ‘doing’, sinks in. Which is why sometimes simply sleeping on it for a couple of days, months or even years is a parent’s saving grace. I cannot count the number of times this technique has worked to avoid unwise purchases, club memberships, hairstyles and piercings. At the very least, buying parents more time can help them make sure their offspring really understand what they are asking for or can give them the chance to come up with the least worst Plan B. With this in mind, we regularly reminded our son that a half marathon is just over 21km and is not exactly a skip in the park. However, he could not be deterred and after a bit of research, he announced that he was going to run his first half-marathon 2 days after his 17th birthday took place. On hearing this, his previously concerned father leapt at the opportunity to run alongside him and immediately began weighing up training plans. They had almost 6 months to train before the race took place, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, let’s just say that when you are a teenager, life often gets in the way of intentions and that includes training for a half marathon. In other words, our son spent the 6 months keeping himself very fit by playing and training for a number of sports and working out regularly at the gym. However, he didn’t devote much actual time to running and getting some needed kilometres under his belt. This didn’t improve even as time moved on and the day of the big event began to creep nearer. Our polite suggestions to him, that maybe he should go for the odd run and the occasional offers of joining him fell on deaf ears. As did his father’s opportune comments about the risk of injury of running such a distance untrained. Nothing could get our son to train. However, as determined as he was to avoid any specific training for the half marathon, he was just as dedicated to running it due to his supportive siblings. What else could cement his commitment other than by being given a clear vote of no confidence that he had any chance of finishing the race by his siblings. As parents, there wasn’t much else that we could do other than keep trying to convince him to do some training until finally, it was too late.

It was the week before the half marathon took place. My husband, by now in peak condition and raring to race, was enjoying some rest time. Meanwhile, my son, prepared himself by focusing his daily gym sessions on his upper body to ‘save his legs’. I, on the other hand, carried on with my usual weekday workouts as normal but had decided to go for my long run a bit later in the week. I may have even been inspired by the imminent half marathon because I ran slightly longer than usual, over 16km. I had the weekend ahead to rest, or so I thought…

But disaster struck less than 2 days before the half marathon took place, when my husband injured himself in his final easy run. Shocked to find that he could no longer run the half marathon with my son, I was faced with some very difficult questions. Do I let my son run his first half marathon – on his own – having had very little training? Or do I attempt to run the half marathon with him which I haven’t prepared for, physically or mentally, in less than 2 days? Will I even be able to run a half marathon when my legs are still knackered from my long run and the subsequent workouts I foolishly did in the days that followed?!! Do I actually have to run a half marathon on what is supposed to be one of my ‘rest’ days? Of course, I had no choice but to step up to the challenge.

With one day to go, my son and I sat down to prepare ourselves to face the Buckingham Half Marathon. I decided to do a quick assessment, starting with the positives. On the plus side, my son was extremely fit and had youth on his side. At 17, he could get away with a lot in terms of physical challenges. He was also very confident and determined to finish the half marathon, no matter what. As for me, I was also very fit and had been doing some long runs very recently. I was also an experienced half marathon runner, having clocked up 3 races previously. However, we did have our negatives. On the minus side, my son had never run longer than 16km before and had only done that once on a whim, many, many months ago. I was also not sure if he truly realised just how far 21km really is when you are running. Especially because he could effortlessly cycle over hundreds of kilometres. Come to think of it, his cycling mentality now explained why he was so crestfallen when I broke it to him that the 4 water stations on the Bucks Half course were not actually ‘feed stations’ and they did not serve coffee, either. Among my minuses, I was pretty tired from my recent workouts and my most recent half marathon took place over a year ago. And the memory of running the Milton Keynes Winter Half Marathon during a storm of biblical proportions, was still fresh in my mind. I was more than reluctant to repeat the pain.

We realised that the only way we were going to get through the Bucks Half would be to adopt a fun run strategy. That is, instead of racing we would sit back, take it easy and focus on enjoying the race. We would also completely disregard the time it took to run our 21kms of ‘fun’. Our Half Marathon aim would simply be to finish it together without any injuries. The plan seemed not only sensible but doable because we could take a break to stop and stretch whenever we wanted to. No pressure, no problem. With the fun run plan in mind, we joined the starting line of the Bucks Half the next morning.

As we waited to start the race amidst a crowd of 300 excited runners, we learned that it was the inaugural launch of the first ever Buckingham Half Marathon. While I wondered if this meant that we would be running the course as half marathon guinea pigs, we surged forward at the whistle start. At least my son and I would be familiar with some of the roads on the circular course route as we had cycled on the very same tarmac before. However, we were also well aware that the ‘undulating’ described course would likely be extremely hilly and there may not be much time spent running on flat ground.

However, the first 5km of the Bucks Half flew by very quickly as we spent our time chatting and catching up on the week while we ran. We even managed the hills expertly, recovering from each with just as much spring in our steps. As we passed the neon mile markers, I glanced at my watch and saw that we were running at a speedy pace. But we both felt great and were actually enjoying it.

In fact, we liked running the next 5km just as much as the last and after a couple of sips of water at the drink station, we were as good as new. Our legs were still strong and we carried on chatting, sharing funny stories and having fun. Although many of the scenic country lanes were isolated with the only spectators being farm animals, every now and then we would turn a corner and find a handful of eager spectators with offers of sweets and drinks. We also began to play a game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ with my husband, who frequently popped up when we least expected it, en route. He was by far, the most enthusiastic cheerleader of all spectators, shouting advice to us like a veteran pro on the inaugural course.

Another drink station later, and I could see that we were beginning to tire as we approached the neon 16km. My son now entered the danger zone of the unknown as he passed his running milestone. There was no telling what his legs were going to do. We carried on running and tried to keep to a steady pace and I noticed that the conversation started to get a little bit one-sided. I suggested that we take a break to stop and stretch. Admittedly, I also wanted to remove a painful rock from my shoe that I had picked up several kms ago. But my son’s legs were by then starting to cramp up. He feared that if we stopped, his legs may give up entirely. So we carried on sluggishly trying to shift ourselves forward again.

Just in the nick of time, we spotted my husband again as we came to the bottom of another mammoth hill. By now he was cheering wildly to everyone who passed by with shouts of ‘Not much farther!’ and ‘Looking good!!’. Another runner asked me, ‘Is he talking to me?!’ but I replied, ‘No, that’s just my crazy husband’. And as we started to slowly climb the hill we were spurred on by his words of ‘You’re almost there! One more hill after this!’.

Unfortunately, there were a further 5 more hills. As we ran on, I could not get more than monosyllabic answers out of my son and I realised then, that he had literally run out of ‘fun’. I spent the remaining kms giving a running commentary of the course to my son like a self-appointed motivational coach. I used my last reserves of energy to try and sound enthusiastic while guiding him with ‘OK, another hill coming up. We can do this!! OK, let’s just aim for that tree and take it easy…’ But I realised that my inspiring words weren’t what was driving my son forward. With gritted teeth and the end not quite in sight, my son revealed why he had no intention of stopping. Sibling rivalry trumps all when it comes to motivation and he was savouring the moment when he could tell his brother that he had run the Bucks Half. We kept going and at km21, we sprinted the final metres to the finish, crossing together and completely delirious with relief. We had made it together, finally, and in one piece.

We relaxed and refuelled while commiserating with fellow tired competitors whose wide smiles matched ours. After some time, I remembered to check my watch and saw that we had clocked a very respectable 1.52. But the real bragging rights were saved for home and for siblings who had dared to doubt. I stood back and enjoyed listening to my son replay the ups and downs of the Bucks Half while I tried to put my feet up. I hoped that my son had learned an important lesson about the importance of training for endurance events. However, I am not so sure…

The very day, before the stiffness in his legs had set in, he suggested that we do the next half marathon on a flatter course so that we could really get the time down. My only response to him could be to wonder if there might also be some merit in doing some training for it. As for me, I have learned the hard way that supporting your children only gets more challenging as they get older because their ambitions reach even greater heights. Which means that when it comes to teenagers, be prepared. There really are no limits to what you may be required to do.

And now, at last, the recipe and what could be better after a long run than a smoothie to recover. Why not try one of these?


Bucks Half

Is our health threatened by fake news?

You may have noticed that the media is, understandingly, a bit preoccupied with the current political situation in the UK and beyond. Each daily headline and news story seems to feature Brexit gloom and impending election doom with the latest random Trumpism thrown in to really mess with your head. When the murderous dictator of North Korea was described as being a ‘pretty smart cookie’ by the US president, it was difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. At least every now and then, a story about something completely different sneaks onto the news agenda. Of course, if the subject happens to concern itself with nutrition and health my ears begin to prick up like a meerkat in the savannah. Which is exactly how I looked when I heard about the latest threat to our health – diet drinks.

Diet drinks??! What now? I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything left that could be enjoyed with impunity. Especially since there has been so much focus on reducing the population’s consumption of sugar, fizzy drinks had been all but demonised. Diet drinks, on the other hand, with their sugar-free halo, were being heavily promoted as being a healthier alternative. Even the NHS had recently endorsed diet drinks by publicising a plan to remove all sugary drinks from their hospital vending machines and canteens whilst leaving those that are sugar-free. With the sugar tax looming in the near future, manufacturers are also finally starting to reduce the amount of sugar they use in their products and replace them with artificial sweeteners. Was our health threatened by some new evidence that called into question the safety and use of artificial sweeteners? Or was there something else in fizzy drinks that is even more harmful than sugar? Is it Kendall Jenner? Didn’t she start some sort of supermodel Pepsi protest?? Are we about to be hit with a new kind of Pepsi Challenge?? How has it all gone so terribly wrong for sugar-free?

As a Nutritionist detective, I had no choice but to investigate the source behind the recent scary headlines. The culprit was a recent study carried out by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and Tufts University, Boston. This published study was widely reported in the media as showing that consuming diet drinks triples your risk of stroke and dementia and is far worse for your health than drinking sugary drinks. This sounded pretty shocking but it all sounded quite conclusive. I am sure that many people would not have bothered to read past the dire headlines and they didn’t need to. The same conclusion was repeated in all the newspapers, tv channels, online and in social media. I suspect this may have prompted some smirks of satisfaction from clean eaters and agave syrup aficionados, alike. After all, the news was practically an endorsement of the liberal use of ‘natural’ sweeteners. But oddly enough, the media didn’t really reveal many further details about the findings of the study or offer any explanation as to what it was in the diet drinks that was found to be so harmful to our health.

Of course, it is not as if we even need to drink fizzy drinks, sugar-free or otherwise. Everybody surely knows that drinking water and milk is far better for our health than any soft drink on the market, despite whatever they claim to do on their labels. We are also very aware, nowadays, that consuming too much sugar is very harmful to our bodies and puts us at a serious risk of ill health. However, it is also true that as people still enjoy soft drinks they will continue to go on drinking them. As even the trusted broadsheets featured the diet drink danger story in the nuanced style of tabloids, what is anyone to think? What are parents supposed to do now when they’re faced with the choice between a fizzy drink crammed full of sugar or one without? Which drink is potentially worse for our and our children’s health? Is developing obesity, diabetes or dental caries any worse for us than having a stroke or suffering from dementia? Can’t any parent just have a Diet Coke break anymore without having to consider what’s going to kill them sooner?

Unsurprisingly, like most media flurries, I discovered that the scary claims were only a storm in a teacup because all was not what it seemed. In fact, the conclusions of the study widely quoted by the media were anything but conclusive. The study only concerned a selective group of data, taken from an entirely different, ongoing study – the Framingham Heart Study Offspring – to look for any links between the consumption of soft drinks and dementia and stroke. As you can imagine, using the data from a different study to find new links is not exactly straightforward. Fundamentally, there will be numerous factors and limitations of the study that must be considered throughout as they will inevitably influence the results and the subsequent interpretation. As they were considered in the full interpretation of the study by the authors, you would expect the media to also consider them before they come up with a snappy headline.

But incredibly, they didn’t because despite the negative headlines, the study did not actually show any causal link between the consumption of diet drinks and a risk of stroke or dementia. Yes, you did read that right. So rather than being a new threat to our health, diet drinks still remain the ‘healthier’ choice of fizzy drinks. Although, I wonder how many people realise this? I certainly didn’t see any headlines blaring this out. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tactics more akin to marketing are used to draw our attention to a health story that isn’t really newsworthy. After all, ‘Diet drinks still ok’ doesn’t really catch anyone’s eye and that includes me. But I wonder if it is getting worse. Have we been bombarded with so many bewildering political headlines of late that we have become primed and ready to believe ‘fake’ health news, too? Perhaps living in uncertain times makes it even more difficult to tell when stories about our health are slightly spurious. Or has nothing changed and as always, we will carry on believing the news that suits us when it comes to health and nutrition?

As we begin the countdown to the UK election and subsequent Brexit negotiations to unravel, only time will tell if any nutrition health threats manage to steal the limelight away again.  For now, I am probably safe to retreat from my meerkat stance as I expect the media to once again focus on all things political. However, if another extraordinary nutrition claim were to emerge again, my advice would be to keep calm and carry on as there is always much more to a story than what is written in black and white. And like Trumpisms, sometimes headlines only represent a warped sense of reality for which you can only shake your head and think, sad.

After reading some of the latest election headlines from France, I managed to come up with an easy recipe that will distract you with its yumminess. Unsurprisingly, it does not involve a fizzy drink but features sweetcorn. These Thai sweetcorn and spring onion fritters are so simple it makes the perfect go-to recipe when you arrive home hungry and the cupboards are pretty bare.

Corn fritters blog

The perils of a teenage packed lunch

One thing I have learned over the years, as a parent, is to always expect the unexpected. That is, just when you think you have seen it all and your children can no longer surprise you with anything, they do. You would think that any parent would know not to underestimate their offspring simply by the fact that they were once young, themselves, too. But we often forget the ridiculous things we did. Or at least we try to file them in the back recesses of our memory among the other stupid things that we have done and are too embarrassed to admit. This is why we are often surprised when we come across behaviour that seems, frankly, perplexing. This is never more true when it comes to the curious food habits of teenagers because this is the time of their lives when subsistence is central to everything.

For example, it has lately felt as if my 3 children have erected a pop-up Subway in my kitchen as every time I pass nearby, I am overwhelmed by the heavy aroma of melted cheese and oregano. I am so accustomed to it that I expect to see a daily sandwich bounty produced by the hard working sandwich press of one of my children. As my nose tries to distinguish the contents of a vast array of sandwiches, I don’t even bother to question the palatability of their chosen filling combinations anymore because I know it will be eaten. I may not fully understand why my children prefer to eat sandwiches that look like they have been run over by a giant steam roller, but they do. At least they are making their own lunch. I know that they wait and hope for the day when someone comes up with a portable sandwich press that they can cart off to school. Who wouldn’t want to be able to slide one of them out of their backpacks at lunch hour, ready to magically transform a cold sarnie into panini scrumptiousness?

In the meantime, living the reality of home and school drudgery means that my children are faced with the daily chore of making their own packed lunches, except for one day of the week when they buy their lunch from the school canteen. As you would expect, they don’t rate their canteen very highly and complain about the stringent queueing system, lack of choice and meagre portion sizes in equal measure. However, the eldest, being in the Sixth Form, has the privilege and opportunity to buy his lunch off-site and has discovered just how much food he can buy for little money. He has become an authority on rival supermarket ‘meal deals’ and as a connoisseur, he can reel off the pros and cons of each. He has also made some impressive purchases and has learned that if he bulk buys fruit from the market stalls, he can eat the proceeds from his backpack throughout the week.

With this in mind, it is not uncommon for him to fish out some discarded orange peels or forgotten food from his backpack now and then and you would think, no real harm done. After all, it’s his backpack and once a child hits their teens, does any parent really want to look into the dark depths of any of their school bags, sports kits or boot bags anymore? Does anyone need to see what is lying and fermenting at the bottom of their bag unless it is absolutely necessary? Unfortunately, there are times when parents have good reason and even feel compelled to investigate the contents. Our time was to come…

Last weekend, like most families, we spent our time by not relaxing or spending too much quality time together. Instead, we passed the hours by driving our children to several different sporting fixtures and training sessions and by trying to work on mundane chores without noticing anything new that we would need to add to the perpetual ‘to do’ list. However, among the chaos, something a bit odd began to happen. Every time someone walked past the large heap of abandoned school bags and backpacks dumped in the hallway, an unfamiliar smell began to slowly waft through the house. The smell wasn’t entirely offensive but it’s sharpness definitely stood out among the usual stench of dirty kit and rugby boots. As the odour drifted to and fro, my husband and I each played a game of who could quietly ignore it the longest. It was 1-0 to me as my husband and his twitchy nose caved first and he began to sniff around for the source. He soon discovered that the smell was coming from the backpack of our eldest child who was conveniently absent. After a moment’s hesitation, my husband felt he had no choice but to unzip the backpack and delve in. However, as soon as he reached into the backpack contents, he cried out and whipped his arm out again, covered and dripping with a deep, gloopy red. He then asked me a question that I will never forget. His exact words were, ‘Can you think of any reason why he would need to carry around with him an entire bottle of ketchup??!’.

Well, I could not. In fact, I was completely mystified. But I was looking forward to finding out why my son felt the need to carry around such a large condiment. Why did he need the ketchup and why so much? It’s not as if he douses everything with ketchup at home but then again, we rarely cook anything that warrants it. Ok, I haven’t exactly encouraged my children to eat ketchup on anything we cook, either but they haven’t been deprived of it. If anything, when they were younger I can remember their little fingers being covered in ketchup at every opportunity. Has my son been adding it to his food at home without us even noticing? Has this now spread to his sandwiches at school and he is starting to become a ketchup addict? Why else would he resort to hiding the bottle underneath his homework, like a dirty secret? Maybe he wanted to be caught and his sauce-laden backpack was a cry for help? I soon found out the truth behind the packed condiment and it was even more upsetting than I imagined.

I listened patiently as it was carefully explained to me that packing ketchup is a necessary solution to a particular lunchtime problem that he and his friends have come across. In their recent forays into town in search of lunch, they have discovered that a particular large supermarket sells some very tasty chicken schnitzel. However, on occasions, they find that it is not up to scratch and is simply too dry for their liking. Therefore, having a bottle of ketchup at the ready will remedy this instantly in a squirt. Otherwise, they would be forced to eat dry schnitzel or worse, walk all the way back to the school canteen to buy an overpriced ketchup sachet. As eating is time-critical, it is a no-brainer to pack ketchup in the event of a schnitzel emergency. Although this rationalisation sounded like a reasonable response to a potential schnitzel dilemma, I was utterly appalled and I began to doubt my parenting skills.

What kind of parent was I? Have I taught him nothing?? I thought I had worked very hard to pass on some of my Swiss heritage to my children by spending much time in the Alps camping, hiking and more recently, skiing. They are very well accustomed to and really enjoy Swiss cuisine and I include many traditional dishes at home such as rosti, spaetzle and of course, chocolate. But when it comes to their all-time favourite Swiss meal of schnitzel, they all know how to cook it properly and they will be able to pass on this tradition in their future families. However, all three of them know about the great importance of serving it with wedges of lemon! Not ketchup!!! What was my son doing?? I knew he was capable of creating sandwich fillings that were a little reckless but on some level, they still made sense. Essentially, they weren’t wrong. So how have I ended up with a ketchup dipping schnitzel eater?! What have I created? If he had had lemon wedges at the bottom of his backpack, at least it would’ve smelled better. But just try to reason with a teenager. They are impossible! And so we have now reached a schnitzel stalemate because he has not only admitted that he really likes it with ketchup, but apparently, his younger siblings do, too. I despair…

All I can hope is that in time, my children’s tastes will change and my son will be able to kick his ketchup habit or at least, confine it to chips. At the moment he has temporarily moved the now half empty bottle of ketchup into the fridge and his backpack is mostly clean. However, I suspect that the bottle will be packed again sometime next week, when it’s schnitzel day once more. Although I don’t expect this to be the last food mishap to uncover among their school bags, I think that I have learned something from this leaky episode. First, when it comes to children, never be complacent or believe that you have seen it all, especially when it comes to food. Just because you were once their age doesn’t mean that they won’t surprise you by doing something inconceivable. Second, sometimes ignorance is bliss so think twice before snooping into their backpacks and school bags, even if well-intended. You may learn more about your child and yourself than you cared to. Third, if you feel you need to pry further into a packed lunch or suspicious backpack, at least proceed with caution (and gloves). And lastly, be grateful for the small messes in life that you can clear up simply with a little soap and water. After all, when you are raising teenagers, you can always count on there being more difficult challenges ahead. In other words, there will always be worse condiments that you can find in their backpacks.

But now for the schnitzel recipe that my children cannot get enough of. As you would expect, this is the healthy version but it is also extremely tasty, easy and hassle-free.

Schnitzel blog

Burnt toast, fake news and the inconvenient truth

Ever since I woke up to the shocking Brexit result, I am just a little more guarded every time I listen to the news on tv. Lately, I have also adopted a delay technique that works as a pre-warn system when something else has happened unexpectedly. By simply reading the faces of my children as they eat breakfast and listen to the news before I enter the kitchen, I am able to predict with a high degree of accuracy if what I am about to tune into is bad. For example, finding my children gaping at the tv in silence, mid-bite, on the morning after the US general election gave me the necessary seconds needed to grab onto something (or someone). However, the system is not perfect and at times their quizzical looks and rumpled foreheads mean that I have to face the news blindsided.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, just when I thought that I had heard enough ‘fake news’ stories and actual fake news stories, I found myself listening to the news that the latest cancer risk is now burnt toast. The Food Standards Agency’s latest campaign ‘Go for Gold’ was behind the story by highlighting the possible cancer risk of acrylamide, a chemical formed when starchy foods are subjected to a high temperature. Every news channel appeared to be covering the launch of the campaign, accompanied by a display of every shade of toast as if to demonstrate when toast = cancer. You could almost sense a certain smugness in the news presenters who said they preferred theirs toasted barely beige. While other presenters seemed silently preoccupied and even defensive about their habit of toasting to a mahogany hue.

The news seemed quite improbable amid the abundance of news fakery, especially as it only referred to acrylamide as being a ‘possible risk’. If burnt toast was really so lethal, why haven’t we experienced an epidemic of death by crust? Will burnt toast be a weapon of choice in a future episode of Midsummer Murders? What about the burnt crumbs? Do I finally have a valid excuse not to clean out the toaster? And what about the risk of cancer through second-hand burnt toast aroma? Is my husband trying to kill me???

Whilst looking further into the Food Standards Agency’s campaign, ‘Go for Gold’, I discovered even worse news; this cancer risk is not only about toast. Acrylamide is actually present in most foods and it is impossible to completely avoid it. In fact, the majority of foods containing high levels make up a large part of many people’s diets. For example, starchy foods such as root vegetables, potatoes, potato products, for example, crisps, breakfast cereals, biscuits and bread all contain high levels of acrylamide. This is because acrylamide is produced when these foods are cooked at >120˚C, such as when they are fried, baked, toasted or roasted.

The World Health Organization says that acrylamide is ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans based on studies of rodents who were exposed to high levels and then developed cancer. Therefore, the recommendation is to reduce prolonged exposure to acrylamide, just in case it might cause cancer somewhere down the road. The ‘Go for Gold’ campaign says we can do this by cooking starchy foods less and aiming for a golden yellow colour. Better yet, stay safer and steam or boil, where possible. The campaign also advises to stop storing raw potatoes in refrigerators if they are going to be fried, roasted or baked later as it increases the level of acrylamide produced.

Unsurprisingly, the response to the campaign has hardly been successful and there are many who simply refuse to believe, on principle, that they must change their diets. After all, only the ‘worried well’ generally follow dietary advice for an unproven risk of cancer. And since the range of foods implicated in the advice is so vast, it does not seem realistic to expect many people to reduce their consumption or drastically change the way they have always cooked. The campaign has also caused much confusion over how to follow the advice on a practical level. For example, how are we now supposed to deal with frozen oven chips when they are doubly dangerous for their storage and preparation methods? Are there any biscuits left that are safe to eat? Is caramelising sweet potatoes just another nail in the coffin?

It is likely that the vast majority of the population will ignore the campaign with all the other difficult guidelines such as smoke and drink less, eat a healthy, balanced diet with more veg and less meat and exercise more. In the end, whether the morning news alarms us to burnt toast risks or bizarre political events what we do about it comes down to what we think is ‘fake’ and whether the truth is convenient. Because like fake news stories, people have a habit of accepting that something is true, however outlandish it sounds, if it more readily fits into their lives. Therefore, if there is a real risk of cancer, the Food Standards Agency would do better to concentrate on the food industry and look to methods of manufacturing that will reduce acrylamide levels in foods. This way, the risk of cancer due to acrylamide levels can be reduced at a population level ‘just in case’ regardless of whether or not the risk is believed. However, I imagine that it is also an inconvenient truth that the food industry has a long history of being resilient to any pressure that threatens their profits.

In the meantime, I don’t think that there is any reason to panic about your acrylamide levels and we have not drastically changed the way we cook in my family. Although I live in hope that the campaign will help to encourage my family to stop burning toast because I cannot bear the lingering smell. If anything has changed, we are now eating less potatoes because we have forgotten where they are stored…

In the meantime, I found some sweet potatoes which I used to make my favourite Sweet potato veggie burgers with tahini sauce. If I ever find the potatoes, I may even make my own oven chips!


Spoiler alert

After many of us in the UK enjoyed a very indulgent Christmas and New Year, it may have come as a surprise to hear that as a nation, we also wasted much food that could have been eaten. After witnessing 3 hungry teenagers take full advantage of our over stocked kitchen, I wondered if there had even been as much as a morsel of wasted food in our house. Especially as my middle child’s favourite Christmas present of a sandwich press seemed to be permanently glowing on standby. It had not only inspired sandwich creations only dreamt of but its constant use heated the kitchen better than any Aga. My children could not have been the only ones who had made a concerted effort to clean their plates over the holidays. That is, if you go by the number of targeted features on tv now focused on losing weight and the competing advertisements for ‘diet’ pills, meal replacements and fitness DVDs. If the UK is really throwing away so much edible food, why is my gym now packed with new members?

Incredibly, research from the supermarket, Sainsbury’s, found that people actually throw away more food that was once edible over the festive season. Rather than this simply being the consequence of buying too much food and reaching mince pie tipping point early, Sainsbury’s has reported a different root cause. Their research showed that festive food is more likely to be wasted because people do not know how to prepare and cook it. And if that isn’t bad enough, according to the waste and recycling advisory body, Wrap, we aren’t much better at thinking before binning household food waste during the rest of the year, either.

The problem with food waste is not just a case of finding ways to get rid of it all besides making a giant food waste mountain. It has now become a global problem with far-reaching implications. Depressingly, it is estimated that worldwide, 30% of agricultural land is used to grow food that is eventually wasted every year. Of course, the waste also generates greenhouse gasses over its lifetime and this will only increase as the population grows and the demand for more agricultural land to feed the world continues.

In the UK, previous efforts from food manufacturers, supermarkets and every part of the food supply chain to encourage us to reduce our food waste have been largely successful. However, Wrap is now saying that we have hit a food waste plateau. Using figures from 2015, they estimate that the UK throws away 4.4m tonnes of avoidable household food waste, annually. This is food that was edible at some point but for whatever reason was binned or composted. In effect, each household in the UK is wasting the equivalent of £470 worth of food every year which seems like a shocking number of supermarket trollies. Wrap attributes the fall in food prices and rising income since 2014 as being behind the food waste plateau.

However, I find this explanation hard to believe considering the unrelenting aftershocks still felt from our annus horribilis 2016. As everyone knows, the result of the UK referendum has changed everything and is still causing the pound to tank, food prices to rise and incomes to be anything but certain. Surely, if Wrap had some more recent figures post 2015, they would show that it has also affected the level of household food waste and worked as an incentive to reduce it. Even superhuman Jamie Oliver has had to close 6 restaurants because of the rising costs in a tough market and ‘pressures and unknowns’! If he can’t make the Brexit vote fallout work then how are the rest of us going to do it?

Without a crystal ball, it is difficult to predict if the Brexit unknowns and political shenanigans happening afar in 2017 will help to continue a downward trend in UK household food waste. How will people react while they tighten their belts amid a growing climate of uncertainty? Will it prompt people to shop wisely, plan their meals carefully in advance and cook everything from scratch? Will there be a growing demand for food with longer and longer ‘use by’ dates? Will ‘leftovers’ become this year’s biggest trend among foodies? Will vegetable peelings overtake spiralised courgetti ‘noodles’ as the new anti-carb?

Only time will tell as we wait for 2017 to pan out. But even if recent circumstances have meant that we are already starting to reduce our food waste, it is still worth mentioning the obvious (and not so obvious) things that you can do to limit your ‘avoidable’ waste.

  1. First and foremost, the obvious. Make a shopping list, stick to it and don’t buy too much of it. Pretty straightforward, I think.
  2. Don’t shop when you are hungry. Again, we’ve all found out the hard way when our stomachs rule the supermarket aisles, that we buy too much of the wrong things. To make it worse, when our brains finally kick in at home, we return again to buy what we actually needed. Shop when your brain is stronger than your stomach.
  3. Learn from your mistakes or at least try to remember them. If you know from past purchases that no one likes a particular flavour of bagel etc; don’t buy it just because they are out of the ones that they do like. No one is going to appreciate that you tried to get the right one. They will only remind you how much they don’t like the one you bought them, if they actually eat it.
  4. When you do buy too much food or if your plans change and you can see that something is threatening to go off, freeze it. Yes, it is a slightly ‘sticking plaster’ solution but at least it buys you time to figure out what you are going to do with it.
  5. If you cannot freeze it then be a bit social. Why not invite people over for a meal? Or cook it and deliver it to someone who could use it. After all, if they can’t use it then they’ll freeze it!
  6. Don’t forget that teenagers are particularly good at making surplus food disappear. They will eat just about anything served to them, especially if it is stuffed into a toasted sandwich, because they are always hungry.
  7. If all else fails and there is no way to cook it, preserve it, freeze it or give it to someone else then you must compost or bin it. Under no circumstances eat it because you cannot bear the thought of ‘wasting it’. Do not treat your body as a bin (that is an entirely different blog).

Now for the recipe. This week, another way to use up stale bread besides turning it into bruschetta, croutons or breadcrumbs. Pappa al Pomodoro is a classic Italian country soup and is a great winter warm-up that will also fuel you up before bracing the elements.


New Year, new you?

I have had a self-imposed break over the Christmas and New Year period after a hectic end to the year. Like everyone else, it seems, I am back with good intentions and resolutions to start off the year. The annual onslaught of competing fitness DVDs, diet books and ‘easy’ programmes that promise a New Year, New You is in full force. As is the publication of bad health news in the shape of more studies that show us how unhealthy the UK has become. Among it all, another call to parents by Public Health England’s Change4Life initiative to change their ways when it comes to feeding their children. This time, the focus is on sugar.

It is hardly new news that our children are eating too much sugar after finishing a recent holiday where it was positively encouraged and even endorsed by the fat man, himself. But anyone who experienced the repercussions of their offspring coming off a sugar high as the mince pies and chocolates dwindled will understand the potential damage it can do to our bodies. There’s tooth decay and the risk of becoming overweight and obese with the BOGOF risks of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and more. But, didn’t we already know this?

In fact, the hard, cold and depressing facts were released last September, when the results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey were published. The Survey showed that children aged 4-10yrs and those aged 11-18yrs consume 13.4% and 15.2%, respectively, of their daily calories from ‘free’ sugars. Far from consuming the government recommendation of no more than 5% of calories coming from additional sugars, children consume far too many sweetened cereals, yoghurts, cakes, biscuits and everyone’s favourite health villain, sweetened fizzy drinks. So what has changed?

Well, nothing. But it hasn’t stopped Public Health England from publicising the results of a small online survey they commissioned in November 2016. The survey was completed by 200 parents of children aged between 4 and 10 years about their child’s breakfast. Approximately half of the respondents answered questions about a weekday breakfast and half about a weekend breakfast. The survey showed that children consume over half of the maximum daily allowance of added sugar at breakfast, mainly in breakfast cereals, spreads and drinks.

Although online surveys with such tiny numbers are far from the gold standard of scientific research it has been used with the National Diet and Nutrition Survey as the basis for the new Change4Life campaign focusing on children’s breakfasts. The ad campaign highlights this by featuring a child eating a typical breakfast of sugary cereal, toast with chocolate spread and a glass of orange drink that transform to the respective numbers of sugar cubes that they contain. Although it is hard to believe that there could be any parents or children out there who would be surprised that this breakfast could be anything but high in sugar, the ad campaign is actually entirely about something else. Rather than being another reminder from Change4Life that names and shames sources of free sugars that our bodies could do without, the ad campaign is really about promoting their new app.

Yes, Change4Life continues to be down with the kids in their pursuit of technology that markets their public health mantra. Their new Be Food Smart app is similar to the Change4Life’s Sugar Smart app that was released almost exactly a year ago and allows the user to scan the barcodes of foods and drinks using their phone. The app then produces a readout of the product’s sugar content as long as it is actually on their database. The Be Food Smart app follows the same simple concept and allows smartphone users to be even better informed about what they are putting into their shopping trolleys. The original app has been supersized and Be Food Smart reveals the sat fat and salt content as well. To avoid any misinterpretation of the numbers, the app also produces the results in the form of a traffic light label.

I have to say that at first I was a bit cynical about the app as it does not tell us anything new about our food that a label cannot and this is especially true when you scan a product that is not on the database. However, the truth is that many people simply do not read ingredients labels or understand what they mean in the real world let alone, have the time to figure it all out. Manufacturers have not helped as they have not adopted clear, universal traffic light labels that are meaningful to consumers. Therefore, even if using an app to do all the work is slightly gimmicky, if it helps more people understand which foods contain hidden sugars (and sat fat and salt) and means they can make healthier choices, I am all for it. Best of all, like anything new in technology, children will naturally adopt it with ease and be encouraged to use it, even if it’s only used simply to lecture their parents about their bad choices. If you think about it, what could be more irresistible to them?

Which brings me to one of my New Year’s resolutions that many other parents may not like to admit to. In 2017, I am going to try to keep up with any new technology that my children take on and also make time to master my new iPhone before it is due for an upgrade. Which means that I will be enlisting the help of my teenagers to help me eventually achieve the technological equivalent of New Year, New Me. I have a feeling that they are going to enjoy this more than I am…

In the meantime, I will settle for New Year, New Recipe and we might as well start with breakfast. This Banana apple bread is an easy recipe that can be eaten as part of a healthy breakfast or a ready to eat snack.