Tour de force?

Well, it certainly feels like the summer has wound down with the damp weather, slightly cooler air and just a hint of autumnal leaves about. With the return to school and start of the new sports season, there is a sudden flurry of activities at home. Adjusting to the new routine whilst being presented with some looming deadlines have managed to stir my sleepy children, who act more like grumpy bears, woken from their endless summer of hibernation. I also had a slow start and was reluctant to remember our schedule of coordinating meals with drop offs and pickups again. I can’t say I take great pleasure from also being landed with some homework, hidden within the influx of red flagged emails and communications from my children’s schools and sports clubs. The sheer number of them is slightly overwhelming and only makes me second guess whether I have actually managed to finish filling in forms and ticking boxes before I pass them back again like a hot potato. At least there is still a little breathing space on the weekend left to catch up on things before we become fully entrenched into rugby and cross-country season. Or at least I thought there was…

Unfortunately, like my children, I was also woken up from my summer hibernation to realise that I had signed up for some running events in September. Ones that I conveniently put to the back of my mind after signing up, believing that they would be ‘fun’ and a great way to finish off the summer. Why wouldn’t I want to take part in a 6-day running tour of my local area that included 6 races of different distances and mixed terrains? The longest race was only 11.2km, so how hard could it be? Sure, there were two races of around that distance and a couple of 8kms but the remaining two days were far shorter. Sounded like it would be a week of good workouts among like-minded runners without the pressure of actually ‘racing’ and the chance to add to my collection of technical t-shirts. This year was the 35th anniversary of the Tour and rumour had it that the t-shirt was going to be in ‘Hawaiian blue’.

That alone, was enough to sign myself up to the Tour several months ago and I should have stopped there. But in my summer haze of naivety, I also signed up for the Cancer Research UK Race for Life Pretty Muddy 5km event with my daughter and her friend. As minors, they needed an accompanying adult and after enjoying the event in the past, I didn’t hesitate in signing up. I knew that it would take place the day after the Tour finished but did it matter if I extended my own Tour and finished on a very muddy 7th day? It was for a good cause, after all.

Unfortunately, I have found out the hard way that you should always read the small print. Especially, when it comes to running events. A couple of days before the Tour took place, I began to realise that I may have underestimated just how difficult it would be. As my daughter read out the description of Tour races to her brother, the reality of it all began to set in. When I overheard her say that the event was one that ‘local running club members simultaneously dread and look forward to’, I felt like I might have signed up to the wrong Tour. What happened to the week of relaxed workouts?? It was too late to bail out but I was starting to feel a bit out of my depth. The only option seemed to be to go forward and so I stepped up gingerly to the first event.

Day 1 Tattenhoe Park 11km
On the first day of the Tour, I arrived to register amongst a large crowd of mingling runners who were also collecting their race numbers. When I reached the front of the queue I discovered that they had been allocated alphabetically, which meant that for the Tour, I was number ‘1’. Now probably many people imagine that they would like to be wearing this number thinking that they could tell everyone with impunity that they were, in fact, numero uno. However, wearing this number also invites plenty of comments from others before you’ve even started running. Thus, began a running banter of variations of ‘She’s in the lead!’, ‘Look out for her!’ and ‘No pressure, then!’. Now this is fine if you are a confident runner and are feeling good about an event. However, if you are at all a little nervous, overwhelmed or intimidated by the whole series of RACES then it does not bode well for a week of being number 1.

Nonetheless, with my pristine number 1 pinned to my chest, I stepped forward to the start of the race. I knew that if this went well, it would help to put things into perspective and could herald the start of a really ‘fun’ Tour. But I began the race packed into a crowd that struggled to unfold. Gradually, we began to spread out as we faced the 3-loop course that alternated between tarmacked footpaths and parkland. Before long, I found a place to run alongside some friendly faces and I reminded myself that this was just a workout. However, it became abundantly clear that most people were opting to race. At the time, the race felt like it was a little bit speedy but I had no idea what pace I was running at as my watch’s GPS could not pick up any signal.

After the first loop, I was already tiring and I realised two things: I was running way too fast for a ‘workout’ and the course was not as flat as I had hoped. I started the second loop dreading the same again and now with legs that were starting to feel like blocks of wood. I focused on relaxing and managed to engage a couple of other runners in conversation for a km or so. But they didn’t have time to chat in the middle of a race and soon outran me. I somehow finished the second loop but then I began the mental torture of repeating a third and final loop. By then my watch had started to kick in but it was far too late to tell me anything useful. My legs had also transformed into concrete slabs and I felt like I was running through treacle. I could only grimace to cheers of encouragement and shouts of ‘Look, it’s number 1!’ from spectators. I grumbled on and wished I hadn’t won at the alphabet. It seemed to take days before I finally saw the finish area in sight and it couldn’t come soon enough for me. I was pipped in the final metre of the finish by another runner which only made me feel more knackered and frustrated. The first day of the Tour didn’t feel anything like ‘fun’. After commiserating with fellow tired runners, I heard that the first day was supposed to be the worst of the 6. In fact, runners were supposed to improve as the week goes on as long as they don’t start out too fast and overdo it. I also knew that you had to do all of the races to get the t-shirt. And I really wanted the t-shirt. Which meant that despite my low mood, I knew I would continue with the Tour. I mean, how much worse could it possibly get?

While you wait to find out, why not make a Spiced plum loaf? It makes a great snack to fuel up on before a run (or another race…) Or you can just relax and enjoy a slice with a cuppa.

Blog photo

goodness KNOWS no bounds

Well I have to hand it to Mars. Just when you thought that they had cornered the market of all things confectionary, they’ve done it again. They have created a new brand and with it, an inspiring new reason to snack. Forget hunger or sustenance, that’s old school. Now your elevenses can bring you even closer to realising your dreams. That’s right, every bite of the new goodnessKNOWS snack will help you to take ‘a simple step toward being your best and reaching your goals’!!! And all in 4 little squares! Which makes me wonder, what exactly is in those little bite-sized pieces of perfection? And what is behind Mars’ launching a new brand?

Luckily, Mars is letting us into the secret as they launch their new brand in the UK with a £4.6 million marketing campaign and social media presence. goodnessKNOWS snack squares have been marketed as a new, low-calorie snack containing simple, natural ingredients and its branding invites us to ‘try a little goodness’. The snack is targeted at the growing market of snackers who seek out ‘healthier’ choices as consumers have become more aware of the effect of diet on their health. According to the Euromonitor, UK consumers chomp their way through more than five times as much confectionery as the global average. However, health concerns have caused a downward trend in the sales of sweets and chocolate as consumers are switching to savoury snacks and yoghurts. goodnessKNOWS has arrived just in time, then.

But back to the little squares. What about their ingredients and how are they going to help me be my best? It turns out that the goodnessKNOWS snack range has already been available in the US but Mars had to spend 18 months rejigging the recipe to suit UK palates. Contrary to the widely accepted negative stereotype of American eating habits, the US version of goodnessKNOWS was found to be not sweet enough for UK consumers. As you would expect, just a spoonful of sugar (or two or three) to help the little squares go down, did the trick. Now it may seem odd to mention sugar at all as an ingredient when goodnessKNOWS has marketed itself as a healthy snack food. But here is where it all gets slightly suspect.

The snack squares are advertised as containing whole nuts and real fruit with dark chocolate. So far, that sounds like real food and the packaging certainly displays the real thing. The different flavours are shown to contain slices of crunchy, fresh apple, sun ripened peach and fresh berries together with whole nuts and just a curl or two of dark chocolate. But just in case you even doubted whether this snack was good for you, goodnessKNOWS have done the thinking for you with a marketing blurb that invites you to ‘pat yourself on the back’ for choosing it. goodnessKNOWS also awards you a ‘Well done’ for eating something that does not contain any artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup. However, sugar is not really mentioned, not even the extra spoonful, until you take a closer look at the list of actual ingredients.

In fact, each of the snack squares contain sugar within just about every ingredient listed. For example, the Apple, peanut & almond with dark chocolate snack square is advertised as containing ‘Sweet apples. Roasted peanuts and almonds. Dark chocolate’. But take a look at the ingredients listed. The squares contain sweetened dried apples, rice sweetened with raisin juice concentrate (essentially, sugar) and honey plus some toasted oats sweetened with brown sugar and white sugar. In addition, the squares contain brown rice syrup (more sugar), dried cane syrup (same again) and for good measure, some more sugar. All in all, each 34g pack containing 4 little squares comes out at 12g sugar which is 3 tsp. But at 150kcals a go, many people will not think twice about the sugar content. And to be fair, compared to many of the flapjacks, granola bars and paleo snacks on the market heavily promoted as being ‘healthy’, they are certainly not higher in sugar. But they are not a whole lot less, either.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with the little squares, per se. They may even taste good. After all, I like dried fruit and roasted nuts and I choose dark over milk chocolate every time. But it has nothing to do with the cocoa flavanols, which goodnessKNOWS tells me, ‘are the good stuff in dark chocolate’. And this is exactly why I think Mars’ new confectionary brand should sit a little uneasy on its healthy pedestal.

What I find problematic and slightly disingenuousness about goodnessKNOWS is the fact that it is being promoted as a sort of superior snack of wellness rather than as a confectionary. This is not to say that Mars is alone creating a product that targets the growing number of consumers who are health conscious. Manufacturers have flooded the market with ‘healthy’ bars, snack packs and drinks aimed at followers of clean eating, carb-free diets and any number of wellness trends. So why wouldn’t any company not want to profit from products that they are allowed to market as being better and ‘healthier’ than the alternative? The problem is that these products are more than often not nutritionally better than a biscuit and consumers may not realise this. When it comes to goodnessKNOWS, they have also pushed the boundaries a bit beyond their ‘healthy’ claims by tying up value judgements to their products.

Some very clever marketing and down-to-earth, simple language is used to validate the notion, that eating the snack squares will not only make you healthier but be a better person. For example, goodnessKNOWS is described using numerous self-congratulatory phrases and even a little smugness dressed up as pride. Every time you unwrap a goodnessKNOWS, you will not simply be having a quick bite. These snack squares will enable you to ‘take that one small step toward being your best’. If only I had known this earlier…The marketing materials also tell you that by choosing goodnessKNOWS, you will also be giving an emphatic ‘no’ to some ingredients you may not even care about. Does it make it any more nutritious if it is gluten free, not genetically modified or kosher? The truth is, it’s just an upmarket biscuit. It is not going to change you or the world. And it’s certainly not going to make you healthier.

In fact, the last thing that consumers need right now is more encouragement from manufacturers to eat more snacks between meals, especially ones that contain added sugar. There may now be a general awareness among the public of the high rates of obesity in the UK and the role of our diet plays in our health. However, I wonder if we can also say the same for tooth decay? How many people are aware that the UK is also breaking records when it comes to the rising number of tooth extractions carried out and the rate of dental caries, particularly among children? The evidence based truth is that eating snacks between meals that are full of added sugar, aka free sugars, whether it is the ‘natural’ sort such as honey or agave syrup or heavily processed high fructose corn syrup, is not good for our health, contributes to our waistlines and causes tooth decay. Dried fruit is very high in sugar and sticks to our teeth which makes any snack containing them particularly bad for them. However, goodnessKNOWS says that their snack squares can be eaten all in one go or broken up to eat throughout the day, depending on how you feel. Your teeth do not care how you feel and neither does your dentist. These are the kinds of snacks your dentist hates. I don’t quite see Mars using that as a catch phrase, though.

Despite all this, I am sure that goodnessKNOWS will do well in the ever-growing market of health-conscious consumers. After all, there has been a market for products that promise health and wellness since time immemorial. Perhaps the only thing that has changed has been the degree and sophistication of the marketing messages that make us buy the products. Wouldn’t it be refreshing and even revolutionary, for a company to just come out and be honest about their wares? Especially, when it comes to food and drink. In other words, call a pudding a pudding, even if you are claiming that it is made of better stuff. But there is a time and a place for pudding and it is not every so often, throughout the day, as a snack. If you are going to have a pudding, for goodness sake, everybody KNOWS that you should enjoy it with a main meal.

Now if you are going to have a proper snack, why not try a Roasted nut and nectarine buttermilk scone? They make a great breakfast, too.

roasted nut scone blog (2)

Some like it hot…but will it keep you cool this summer?

I may be tempting fate by saying it, but summer has now truly arrived in the UK. It’s almost hard to believe the weather forecasts of temperatures more akin to holiday destinations. Another day of sun? Again?? It almost feels greedy to experience such a run of glorious sunny days filled with blistering heat. With no end in sight and only the odd interruption of a storm to clear the air, we may actually defy the odds of not having the common English variety of summer, of rain and more rain. However, there appears to be only so much good weather that people can take. It only takes a couple of degrees for the blue skies to transform someone’s sunny outlook to a flared temper that can rapidly morph into the mother of all meltdowns. Luckily, the remedy is always the same: chill. But getting cool is easier said than done and I am often surprised by some of the unusual attempts and methods used to achieve a little comfort. Especially when it comes to food and drink.

There are those that swear by eating spicy foods when the temperatures rise in order to get some relief. They point out that in hotter countries such as Mexico, Vietnam and Malaysia to name a few, the cuisine typically features copious amounts of chilies. Chillies contain capsaicin and as soon as we eat something spicy, the capsaicin in our mouth triggers our bodies’ internal AC to start up and we begin to sweat around our forehead and neck. By sweating, we begin to release more heat from our bodies as our sweat evaporates into the air. We carry on with the sweating until we have cooled down and reached our normal temperature range.

Of course, there are as many types and ways of using chillies in cooking as there are strengths. In Mexico, chillies and chilli powder is sprinkled on just about anything including fruit. In fact, one of the most common street foods available are brightly coloured overflowing pints of ensalada de fruta. These massive plastic cups are filled to the brim with diced pineapple, papaya, watermelon, cucumber, jicama and lots of chillies which is then doused with lime juice. Or you could try to cool down with a chamoyada, a Mexican version of a granita, with a difference. Sounding not too dissimilar to a craving experienced during pregnancy, a chamoyada typically contains mango, chilli powder and salsa that is frozen and blended into a slush. It is then topped with more salsa and served in a cup like a spicy Frappuccino, but not before sprinkling it with some Haribo-type sweets. I don’t imagine Starbucks taking on any of this soon but I could be wrong.

Although I do like my chillies, and will eat Mexican food at every opportunity, I am not so sure if eating something spicy in hot weather to stay cool works for me. If sweating is supposed to cool my body down, why does it make me feel hotter? Can eating spicy foods actually work to dial up my AC if I am already sweating beforehand? What if my internal AC is working on full power when I eat something spicy? Is there a danger my AC could blow after one too many chamoyadas? Perhaps there is a sweating tipping point.

Another school of thought says that to cool down you should bypass the chillies and instead eat or drink something that is hot in temperature. Using the same argument, by the time the hot food or drink hits your stomach, it has triggered your internal AC to do its magic. But this time, you sweat in all the usual places which means that more heat is lost from your body than by eating spicy foods. In terms of food and drink, proponents of this practice point out that tea is traditionally taken in numerous hot countries around the globe. With over 1,500 varieties of teas to choose from, it is the world’s most consumed drink after water. Why would everybody be drinking it to stay cool unless it really worked? As for food, the obvious choice would be a soups, stews and hot pots and this method of cooking is customary in many of these same countries. But many traditional dishes even go one step further in the heat stakes and intensify the heat by combining the hot and spicy. There are many dishes to choose from such as the Ethiopian doro wat, a stew of chicken and whole boiled eggs, the Thai tom saab kra-dook aon, a soup of pork cartilage and Thai bird chillies. However, you always could stick to a favourite culinary import to the UK, the vindaloo curry.

However, I am not entirely convinced that eating or drinking something hot really works to cool me down. Although I drink the odd cuppa and still enjoy a coffee throughout the summer I have to say that when it is really sweltering, I prefer it on ice. After all, when the humidity doesn’t allow your sweat to evaporate, a hot drink seems to only work to make you sweat in places you didn’t know were possible. As for hot food, I can’t seem to bear it on a hot day even if it contains my beloved chillies.

But there are those in yet another camp who believe that if you want some cool relief, the choice of what to eat and drink is no mystery. You should obviously eat or drink something cold when it is hot outside. As you would expect, there are also a wealth of tempting examples from hotter climes to back up the simple notion that consuming chilled foods and drinks will do exactly what they say on the tin. Instead of trying to lose your body heat by spending all the energy sweating, the theory goes that the low temperature of the cold foods and drinks will instantly shut down your internal AC. By shutting off the power and subsequent sweating, and lowering your temperature, you will get instant relief.

In terms of food and drink, ice cream and iced drinks immediately spring to mind as do frozen grapes, smoothies and chilled fruit. Crisp salads also take centre stage when the sun is beating down, full of leafy greens and crunchy veg that also helps to quench your thirst. Then there are many people who on a hot day, like nothing better than to sit down to eat a nice bowl of soup, but ladled out ice-cold. The chilled soup gold standard has to be the Spanish gazpacho, essentially a tomato soup teaming with garlic and cilantro. However, a rival chilled soup also exists in Spain. Described as a white gazpacho, the ajo blanco, is actually prepared with almonds, bread and masses of garlic. Other well-known chilled soups throughout the world include the vibrant borsht beetroot soup from Poland and the French vichysseoise, a purée of leeks, onions, potatoes, cream and chicken stock. There are also plenty of competing recipes for fruit and vegetable chilled soups which can sometimes turn out as something a little too similar to a smoothie that you have to eat with a spoon. However, I think the most unusual chilled soup I have come across is the Korean mul naengmyun. This cold noodle soup is a bowlful of buckwheat noodles swimming in cold beef stock that is topped with several slices of cold beef, a halved hardboiled egg and slivers of cucumber, Asian pear and pickled radish.

I have to say that the idea of having a cold drink to cool down really works for me. I am also a big salad eater and it is my ‘go to’ meal when it’s hot outside. As for ice cream, if I am going to have one, it has to be on a hot day. However, the idea of eating a chilled soup simply leaves me cold. To me, soup = warmth and the chance to warm up icy fingers on a massive bowl. In fact, during the winter months, my family embraces soup season, where each and every Saturday becomes a ‘souper’ Saturday. On this day we make one of our many hundreds of different soup creations for dinner. As we sit down and dip great hunks of bread into our heaven in a bowl, I am in utter bliss. But dipping bread into a cold gazpacho or a borsht??! Or cold NOODLES?! Admittedly, I have never tried cold noodles in soup and I may be missing out on a bowlful of deliciousness. But instinctively, it just feels wrong because I don’t know what would I do with my hands…and all that bread??

So in the end, we have 3 widely held but different practices of eating and drinking to help stay cool in the heat. But which one works best? Will we stay cooler if we eat or drink something spicy, something hot or something cold? Worldwide, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus of opinion and as you would expect, beliefs are rooted in tradition. What is true is that when you are roasting, you will do anything you believe works. So despite the science and growing evidence that gives a slight edge to the effectiveness to eating or drinking something hot to reducing body heat, I can’t say I will be taking it on board. It may not reduce my body temperature as quickly as a steaming cup of tea but I still believe that there is nothing better than sitting back with an ice cold drink on a hot summer’s day. Unless, of course, there is some especially good ice cream on offer or some cold watermelon or berries…Anything chilled – except soup!

Speaking of which, here is an easy recipe for Summer jelly pops to give you some ice cool relief. It makes a great afterschool (or after work) snack and is a healthier alternative to whatever the ice cream vans are peddling. You will also save yourself the inevitable disappointment of discovering that they have, once again, increased the price of a Flake 99.

Ice lollies blog

 

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?

Smoothie2

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