A spin on children’s exercise

I read with interest, the other day, that a recent international study has found that British children are some of the least active in the world. Rather than getting their minimum of an hour a day physical activity that is the official government advice, the majority are spending their time watching box sets, playing games consoles and texting while they eat their weight in sugar. As a result, the alliance of health experts has awarded England and Wales a grade of D- for ‘Overall Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour’ while Scotland was one of 5 countries to come joint last with a big, fat F.

However, I found this really hard to believe and could not help thinking that they must have got it wrong. How could this be true when the number of my children’s sports fixtures for school and outside clubs was increasing lately, causing an even worse nightmare of co-ordinating the taxiing to and from pitches. Every weekend we had to sit down together with the home diary and I attempted to broker a negotiation with 3 teenagers about who was being picked up when, who could get the public bus and if we could ride share with anyone. From the arguments that entailed and the complexities of trying pick up at the same time in three different locations you would think that I was trying to settle a peace agreement between rouge states. In a sense, I was because inevitably, agreements were reneged when fixtures were unexpectedly added or cancelled causing the whole plan to fall by the wayside. Therefore, I could not relate to the news that children were not getting enough daily physical exercise. In fact, I was beginning to wonder that if this continues, my children could singlehandedly up the stats. To top all this off, they have now invaded the gym I go to which has had an unexpected effect on my own level of physical exercise. I have been roped into joining them in a weekly spin class, despite promising myself never to get back into that saddle.

About a year ago, I made the mistake of going to my first spin class at a different gym with one of my children and the members of his cycling team because I thought it would be a ‘fun’ thing to try out. However, what I hadn’t bargained for was a class of sweaty, highly competitive alpha males lead by a teacher who shouted at anyone that he thought wasn’t pulling their weight. It was difficult enough for me to understand what we were actually supposed to be doing without falling off my bike so I just tried to copy my son. Unfortunately, his long legs and speed didn’t match mine so in addition to tipping my water bottle all over the floor, I spent the entire time lagging behind everyone while counting down the minutes until I could finally stop.

Of course, when my son joined my gym, like all teenagers, he instantly knew the run of it and began to tell me things about it that I hadn’t noticed in all the years that I had been going. He also quickly established that there was a spin class and insisted that we had to try it out even though I was extremely reluctant. In retrospect, I think that he knew that if he ignored my replies of ‘We’ll see’, I would cave in if I believed that he wouldn’t go on his own. Before I knew it, we were heading into a class, trying to find a bike amongst the crowd. I claimed what I thought was a good bike as it had been left in the centre of the room, which also saved me from hefting over another one. However, as the class quickly started with the blare of the music, I realised that I was starting to fall off my bike as my saddle tilted sharply. I was quickly identified as the newbie as I ran to swap my wonky bike and start again.

Finally sorted out on a different bike, I pedalled away and tried to listen to the rapid fire instructions being shouted out. We did a series of short sprints to warm up but this rapidly progressed into racing and climbing imaginary 3rd category hills in the Tour de France. Unlike the professionals, I didn’t feel that I was gliding past anyone as I tried to pedal out of the saddle as if I was climbing a never ending ladder. It was quite bizarre to be cycling hard in an indoor peloton, sweating to loud techno music trapped in what felt like the worst 90’s disco. Looking up, you could see our pained reflections on the mirrored walls, like some grimaced Tour spectators. The class seemed to last forever but just when I thought I couldn’t pedal anymore, I finally felt a wave of relief as we reached the cooldown and I lowered the resistance on the bike to nought.

I was a fool to think that after a shaky start, I could get out of the next spin class because the following week only got worse. By then, my daughter had also decided to join the gym on the premise that she had injured her knee playing rugby and needed to cycle to help her recovery. And what better way to do this but in a spin class! So pressured now by two persuasive teenagers, I didn’t really have a chance to get out of spinning. This time, the class was even more packed and the bikes were bunched up into a peloton. However, I managed to grab a good bike and squeeze it into the gap between my two offspring. Once again, the blaring music announced the start of the class and instructions were shouted out as we started to pedal. I thought that this time, I had a good chance at not standing out quite so much as I struggled as at least I was hidden in the middle of the pack. Besides, I wouldn’t be the only one at the back of the pack as my daughter would have to be taking it easy with her knee. But as expected, an injured teenager is still stronger than any adult having a Beroca day. The instructor only urged us to go faster with shouts of ‘If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not going hard enough!’. I tried to pedal at a manic pace but glancing aside I soon realised that my ‘hard enough’ is quite different from my children’s. They pedalled possessed as they effortlessly soared past imaginary cyclists on the steepest mountain climbs and left me behind in their wake. They seemed to only get stronger as they accomplished the never ending sprint intervals and they almost looked like they were enjoying it.

By the end of the class I had reduced to crawling on my bike until we finally reached the cooldown. We left the class sweaty and exhausted and unsurprisingly, my children absolutely loved it. They have already signed us up for the next one and so this spin class agony is only going to continue. I know I should be happy that at least they are getting the minimum one hour of physical activity a day but unless I can stop them from trying to meet the maximum then I am afraid that I am going to have to continue spinning. Which means that unless my children get bored of it, I am just going to have to get better at it.

But perhaps that is the key to keeping children active and upping these depressing statistics? Find them an activity or sport that they enjoy and even better, one that takes full advantage of their natural abilities and competitiveness. In other words, if you can find the physical activity that ‘fits’ your child, it will hook them as long as they keep enjoying it. The long list of physical rewards they will get in return from taking part such as feeling good, relaxed and stronger will help to encourage them to do it again. Of course, it is easier said than done to find the Holy Grail of an activity that they enjoy, you have access to and can afford. But no one said being a parent is easy. And be warned, once you find the sport that fits, you may also find yourself joining them for the ride.

All that spinning has made me hungry so here’s the recipe for a great recovery snack. This Pecan and date bread is very easy to make, very easy to eat. Enjoy!

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The other results are in…(and what you can do about it)

Well, it is now official as the results are out there in the public domain and we can’t pretend that it was just a bad dream. It does not make for an easy read but the numbers don’t lie and in fact, the figures show that the situation is even worse than anyone expected. The question is, will these shocking figures finally prompt the UK government to act for the sake of future generations? No, the unwelcome news is not related to the number of growing Brexit woes or the rise of Trumpism or even the domination of the X Factor by supporters of Honey G. The unhealthy results make official what every parent and teacher has noticed over the years – more children are getting fatter. Hot off the press, the Government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England, 2015-16 school year has just been published and it confirms that we are definitely losing the battle against obesity. Figures now show that more children are becoming overweight and obese to the point where it has become normalised. In fact, over one fifth of children in Reception (aged 4–5 years) and over one third of Year 6 pupils (aged 10–11 years) were classified as being overweight or obese. Other depressing ‘highlights’ of the publication show that obesity prevalence was higher for boys than girls and that deprived areas in England had double the prevalence for obesity than in the least deprived areas.

This may be stating the obvious but it is worth just thinking about those figures for a minute. In a Reception class of 30, there will be more than 6 children aged 4-5yrs who are either overweight or obese. In Year 6, over 10 children in a class of 30 will be overweight or obese. This is simply staggering and the figures should be ringing governmental alarm bells calling for urgent action. What is even more astounding is to see such figures while the government’s Childhood Obesity – A plan for Action is still being digested.

The long-awaited and much delayed strategy, which aims to ‘significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years’ has received much criticism after the promise of ‘draconian’ action turned out to be a damp squib. Rather than endorse the 8 recommendations made in the Public Health England report Sugar Reduction, The evidence for action, the strategy focuses on increasing physical activity and asking industry to voluntarily reduce the sugar content of their products by 20% by 2020. But without any punitive measures for companies that don’t voluntarily reformulate, why would they risk losing their loyal consumers?

Even the British Retail Consortium is unhappy with the voluntary code as a mandatory sugar reduction would ensure that all companies would have to follow suit rather than only those who could afford to. But the strategy’s approach is about ‘respecting consumer choice’, the ‘economic realities’ and ‘the need to eat’ even if the only choices are unhealthy. So the BOGOF offers of high sugar junk will continue to flourish alongside the flashy TV ads that promote sugary snacks to children before the 9pm watershed. Sure the government has the magic bullet of the sugar tax to aim at industry but as it doesn’t take effect for another couple of years, I can’t imagine it as being much of a threat, yet. And meanwhile, the number of children getting fatter continues to grow.

I cannot imagine how much worse the overweight and obesity figures need to be to cause the government to address the problem head-on when they don’t even take on the recommendations of their own advisory group. But it is worth repeating 3 key points made in the Public Health England report’s recommendations:

  1. It is unlikely that a single action—such as the sugar tax—would be effective in reducing sugar intake
  2. A structured approach, involving restrictions on price promotions and marketing, product reformulation, portion size reduction and price increase on unhealthy products, implemented in parallel is likely to have a more universal effect
  3. As sugar intakes are higher in lower income groups, reducing levels of sugar in foods through reformulation may have the biggest effect on this group

It is such a shame that the government’s obesity strategy hasn’t fully endorsed these recommendations and come up with something more robust and it feels like we’ve missed another opportunity to make a real difference to children’s health. Especially as the NCMP has underlined that families who live in deprived areas need governmental action the most. It is not difficult to understand that if you live in a food desert, your access to healthy, affordable food is limited and the latest figures show that the unhealthy trend towards obesity is continuing to grow.

However, it does not mean that you cannot do anything about it because for most parents, there is plenty. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own and our children’s health. We buy the food, provide the meals and enable our kids to get exercise or not. We can also see if are children are becoming overweight and not ignore it. It is not easy and takes more work and time, for example, to shop and cook rather than ordering a takeaway. But for most of us, it is not impossible.

We can also pressure our schools and sports teams to provide healthier meals and snacks as they really should be doing. And we can involve our children at home with the shopping, planning of meals and yes, the cooking. This can obviously be very testing at times and may elevate stress levels sky-high but it really does get easier (and can even be rewarding!) We can also help more to support our children participating in sports and fuel them up with healthier foods and drinks. Of course, this also means asking ourselves if we are eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise, too. And if not, why not? If we want a healthy future for our children and grandchildren, what are we doing to arm our families against obesity?

As we wait for Brexit to pan out (and the implications of Trumpism and Honey G) we have to hope that there will be a point where the government and industry will be forced to respond to the obesity figures even if their motives are primarily financial. In the meantime, I will continue to play the bad guy in my family and fight the ongoing war against junk food as my children go through adolescence. I may be war weary from arguments caused by saying ‘no’ to snacks of biscuits or copious amounts of Nando’s sauce but it’s a small price to pay if I can give them a healthy future.

Now for the recipe. This one came about after finding some abandoned rice cakes in the back of the cupboard that my daughter no longer liked the flavour of and I wondered if I could do something with them. Turns out that they make an amazing Popcorn chicken.

popcorn-chicken-blog1

 

Picky genes still mean you have to eat your greens

I am certain that I was not the only parent last week who suddenly stopped what I was doing and glued my eyes to the morning news when I heard that we can now shift the blame for our children’s eating habits on their genes. Anxious to hear more evidence that supports my theory that there is no upper limit to the amount of peanut butter a teenager can consume provided they have enough milk, I was somewhat disappointed to learn that the news story was about toddlers. A study widely publicised by the media and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry of more than 1,900 families with twin toddlers, found that the children’s genes influenced fussy eating and a refusal to try new foods. In fact, they found that picky genes played a role in 46% of fussy eating and in 58% of the rejection of new foods. In other words, the study demonstrated to parents that all those hours they spent with tears of frustration, tearing their hair out, cajoling, bribing and doing anything they could to just get their children to eat a little bit of veg was a massive waste of time because the genes weren’t having it.

Almost immediately, the media was flooded with an influx of competing interviews with parents attached to toddler-sized fussy eaters who were absolute nightmares, as television hosts nodded on, reassuringly. After all, how can parents be expected to do anything with a picky eater if it’s genetic? As the headline of the study was repeated throughout the week, the heavy burden of trying to feed a fussy eater was lifted from the shoulders of parents, with a collective sigh of relief, and was placed firmly into the arms of the picky genes.

However, what many people did not pick up from the study was that they did not pinpoint one particular gene responsible for all that pickiness that could put the parents of fussy eaters in the clear. The authors of the study believe that the genetic influence was likely to be the result of several different genes that, for example, could affect how sensitive individuals are to the differing tastes, textures and appearance of foods. Moreover, the study confirmed that environmental factors still play a larger role in eating behaviour than genetics. In other words, the environment in which the children lived and experienced at meal times made a much larger difference as to whether the children were fussy eaters or not and even influenced whether they rejected new foods.

Unfortunately for parents, what this suggests is that we cannot simply blame our children’s fussy eating on their genes. The role parents play in creating a positive environment is still key to their children’s eating behaviour and genetics aside, there is a lot we can do to encourage them to be less picky. So rather telling parents to throw in the towel, this study is actually saying that they can still help their children overcome picky eating with the right environment, even if their child is genetically prone to being a little fussy. Which brings me to some suggestions of how exactly to create an environment that helps to overcome picky eating.

  1. Keep calm and carry on – It can feel as if you are at war with your toddler at mealtimes but it pays to stay calm and consistent and use meals to set a routine. Set rules such as everyone sitting at the table until everyone is finished eating or no tv at mealtimes. Give lots of praise and encouragement when your child is eating and try not to overreact to a refusal of food. Introduce new foods one at a time and try to get them to try at least one bite (and give lots of praise for doing it). Even if they don’t like the food, don’t stop offering it on another day.
  2. Don’t ask, don’t tell – Don’t offer your child a menu, give them the same food as the rest of the family, as much as you can. Increase the variety you offer over time and keep serving whatever the family is eating even if it was refused on a previous occasion. You know that almost mythical number of times a child has to try a new food before they like it? Double it! Whatever happens, don’t tell them they can have something different to eat, instead. If you let them go off-menu, they are more likely to interpret it as a reward for refusing to eat the family meal.
  3. It’s all in the details – Do not serve too much food on their plate at a time as it can be overwhelming. Don’t worry too much about messiness and let them touch their food if they wish to. Just keep praising them if they (or others) are eating and try to ignore bad behaviour. Limit mealtimes to a set amount of time and remove the dishes when the meal is finished rather than waiting for hours for them to finish everything. Do not insist that they finish their entire plate of food or use pudding as a reward for eating well. Use a sticker chart instead.
  4. Every little ‘helps’ – Try to involve your picky eater with the food shopping and cooking, if possible. This is not easy and is messy but if they can ‘help’ by ticking off their own shopping list, for example, or by doing some simple tasks such as stirring or placing food in a bowl or bread in a bread basket, they are more apt to become more interested in eating.
  5. 1st World problems – Try not to make up for lost meals by giving your child too many snacks between meals or they will not be motivated by hunger. Unsurprisingly, you will not find many picky eaters in countries where there isn’t an abundance of food.

 

It goes without saying that these suggestions are no magic bullet but at least they should help to override the picky genes. Let’s face it, children—and particularly when they are picky eaters—are a lot of hard work and feeding them requires an endless supply of patience, time and determination. But no matter what, most children will grow out of being fussy or stop by succumbing to peer pressure in school canteens and suddenly you will realise that they are pretty much eating normally. Until they become teenagers and they discover food combinations only dreamt of by pregnant women, such as one of my children’s favourite sandwich fillings at the moment: peanut butter and lemon curd. Which brings me back to my theory, that there really is no upper limit to the amount of peanut butter a teenager can consume, in any combination, provided they have enough milk.

And now for another recipe involving peanut butter but in the classic combination of pb & banana. These healthy muffins make a great breakfast, afternoon snack or a nice addition to a packed lunch. Of course, Peanut butter and banana muffins go down best with a glass of milk.

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A Pretty Muddy start to Autumn races

After enjoying the unusually warm weather of late, I could not help but notice the slight chill in the air that reminded me that autumn is on its way. Suddenly, the evenings are getting shorter and there is less time to finish late runs or bike rides before being enveloped by darkness. And now it is even difficult to recognise my own children while they train with their teams in the early evening dusk while I watch them from the sidelines. However, the autumn also brings with it some more sporting events to take part in despite the changing weather. Bizarrely, there are a great number of triathlons, road races and cycling sportives taking place just as the weather is starting to turn. I don’t know if the organisers have put them on so late in the season to spite the weather or as a dare to those who sign up for them. But like moths to a flame, there are plenty of punters who gravitate towards these events and they quickly sell out.

Of course, I am no different and have also thought about signing up because the events, themselves, sound like a lot of fun and surely, they wouldn’t be held every autumn if the weather was always awful. People simply wouldn’t sign up for them every year, would they? That would be ridiculous…Then again, when the summer is still lingering around and you see that the places for these events are filling up it is very easy to convince yourself that you should also sign up before it’s too late. Which is why I also tempted fate and recklessly signed up for what can only be described as a variety of unusual autumnal events and have even decided to repeat some past events that were not entirely successful. But in a true morning after the night before sudden realisation of what I have done, I am faced with training for and completing 5 completely different events this autumn. After all, why stick to just one sport…

Therefore, in an effort to avoid this scenario next autumn, I have decided I should actually rate these events in order to inform my future sign-ups and remind myself just how hard they were. Because even when it all goes horribly wrong, there may be a goody bag at these events but is it any good? So far, I can already tick off two events from my autumnal list: the Cancer Research UK Race for Life Pretty Muddy 5km and the Leighton 10 miler.

As I had run the Pretty Muddy race last year and got extremely muddy, cold and wet, I entered this without really expecting it to be much different. But I was wrong because this year the Pretty Muddy got supersized by the atrocious rain and wind. Even with the dreadful weather forecast, hundreds of runners still showed up to face the elements and a lot of mud. Despite having to start the runners in subsequent waves, there was a constant stream of pink clad women who sprinted through the starting gate. My daughter also decided to repeat last year’s mud-fest with me and we were lucky enough to be in the first wave of runners. However, this meant that we quickly became covered with mud as the course was filled to the brim with gunk in order to last for the next waves of subsequent runners. We ran, climbed, crawled and slid down a tricky course full of mud-filled obstacles. There really wasn’t much point in trying to avoid being pelted with more mud and sprayed with squirt guns full of muddy water by the gleeful race volunteers.

This year, some new muddy obstacles were added to the course just to liven things up a bit. We had to bounce our mucky space hoppers through a muddy field, run over several balance beams without toppling off and dodge past a motley gang of even happier race volunteers disguised as muddy sumo wrestlers in the dirtiest game of British bulldog. We squelched to the finish soaked to the core with only the remnants of our race numbers clinging to us. We were absolutely freezing and the rain and wind had worked to cement the mud onto us like a second layer of skin. As we went to collect our belongings and get ready to leave, we felt the eyes of several clean and dry participants who huddled together under their umbrellas, waiting for their wave to start. Our muddy appearance must have seemed like a warning of the impending mucky doom they would face in their race but I have to hope that they also noticed our big smiles because it was by far the most fun we’ve had doing a 5km. My rating is as follows (0=rubbish, 5=excellent):

Weather: 0/5
Difficulty: 2/5
Fuel stations: 0/5 but not needed
Race atmosphere/fun factor: 5/5
Goody bag: 1/5 (Nice medal but otherwise only a pain au chocolate and face cream sachet)

The Leighton 10 was another race that I was repeating despite the fact that last year, I only realised at the starting line that I had entered into a race full of very adept runners representing competing athletics clubs. Although I didn’t expect the participants to be any different this year, I was still planning on running it with my husband who was very keen to do it. However, as he had also just returned from a long-haul flight, we were treating it more as a long autumn run. But I wondered if the Leighton 10 would feel any less competitive if we were running it just for fun? I knew from a recent Park Run experience never to underestimate the level of competition inflicted on any event.

Only two weeks earlier, I had decided at the last minute to run what I thought would be a laid-back 5km Park Run at a local park. I had never done a Park Run before and I assumed that it would be similar to doing a fun run. I couldn’t have been more wrong because right from the start, the run quickly turned into a full-on aggressive race-for-your-life among two hundred Saturday morning alpha males. I was really surprised to find that the run was being taken so seriously but in retrospect, the fact that the 5km run has chip timing and the results are posted online should have hinted at this. But on the day, this competitiveness was confirmed to me in the last 100m sprint before the finish when I was literally elbowed out of the way by someone who didn’t want to be beaten by a woman.

With that in mind, and finding myself once again at the beginning of the Leighton 10 surrounded by a field of the other runners wearing their athletics club’s kit, I kept reminding my husband that we weren’t racing anyone. We started off well and surged forward in a massive crowd and everyone pounded the pavement and tried to set a pace. But there was no pushing or shoving as we headed to some wood-lined lanes where the runners thinned out. The course was the same as in previous years but this time I knew what to expect because although the Leighton 10 is one of the prettiest races it is also the hilliest. So we took our time and once again we shared the road with plenty of pelotons of cyclists who gave us the nod of respect as we tackled the climbs. The race was a long 10miles but there were plenty of spectators and race marshals to clap everybody on with encouraging words and the offer of jelly babies just at the flagging points. In fact, it is thanks to jelly babies that many people managed to get to the top of the monster hill at mile 9 because it was an absolute killer.

As to the competitiveness of it all, we actually managed to avoid being sucked into racing and we ran at a comfortable enough pace to chat to each other and enjoy the surroundings. There were definitely some sprinters ahead of us and plenty of others who were pushing hard to get a PB. However, unlike the Park Run, it didn’t seem to rub off and create a fight to the finish. In fact, this year I noticed several couples running together, parents running with their older teenagers and many others, like us, who were simply running for the pleasure of it. The age range was also very impressive as although it started at 17, I spotted several older runners who must have been well into their 70’s. And my finish could not have been more different from the Park Run because as I crossed the line and walked towards the water station, a fellow runner I had not met before shook my hand and congratulated me, asking me how it went. As my husband and I went to go stretch, we noticed several groups of runners wearing their event t-shirts by the finish line that were still cheering on the next finishers. I don’t know why the Leighton 10 breeds such camaraderie but it does. Perhaps it is because it is such a tough race to complete or maybe it is because it only attracts runners who will do it despite a lack of chip timing. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed the Leighton 10 more than my first Park Run. But now for the all-important rating:

Weather: 3/5 cold but dry
Difficulty: 5/5
Fuel stations: 5/5 With bananas at finish
Race atmosphere/fun factor: 5/5 (Definitely points for atmosphere, not fun!)
Goody bag: 5/5 no medal or bag but excellent technical t-shirt

So that is two down and three to go of autumnal events. Coming up is the Brackley Triathlon, Macmillan Cycletta Bedfordshire and the Squeaky Bone relay. But first to refuel with some food. I was inspired by the Autumn weather to come up with a new rosti recipe and my family voted these Mini Autumn rosti as a winner.

mini-rosti-web

 

My kitchen is having a breakdown but Bake Off provides the real drama

It has been a while since the last blog as I have been too overwhelmed by the circumstances around me to reach my keyboard. Like many parents, I find that every year, the summer holidays spent with home-bound children are just enough of a distraction to prevent me from getting anything meaningful done at home. You would think that by now I would plan ahead and timetable in some ‘protected time’ to work in my office from home. But this goes against the conviction of every teenager, that a parent’s mere presence on home turf equates to them being available for all taxiing, shopping or organising needed.

This summer we decided to intensify the chaos by adding a full-scale kitchen breakdown which meant a house of noisy builders who seemed to travel with their own soundtrack as they worked. It forced us to de-camp to our living room for over a month which we adapted to also use as a quasi-kitchen/dining room. It wasn’t all bad as it meant that it was easier to corral any children into helping to prepare meals before they could find something ‘important’ to do. As they lounged around the living room, slumped in chairs or trying to fill the entire contents of the couch while they multitasked with phones, music and the tv they were trapped into helping because they were already in the kitchen. Our new setup in the living room also allowed us to prepare meals while perusing long forgotten books on our bookshelves and listen to dusty old CDs and it added a culinary slant to the definition of ‘couch potatoes’.

However, it was quite a bit like camping in our own home on a very poorly rated staycation. In other words, the novelty of cooking in a tiny corner near one of our yawning cats on a cushion quickly wore off. It simply became annoying to cook as each meal involved precise planning and execution to prepare the simplest of dishes with only the minimum of equipment and without a nearby sink. Of course, I had several culinary miscalculations when I remembered past the point of no return in a recipe that we didn’t actually have a usable oven at hand. Promised cupcakes for a BBQ became microwave-friendly rocky road and there were last minute improvisations to produce ‘roasted’ veg, nuts and fish. It goes without saying that another of the downsides of the kitchen/living room union was that the enclosed room containing the lingering smells of many days past meals did not promote the most conductive atmosphere for relaxing…

Obviously, the kitchen breakdown sits very firmly with other first world problems, but in effect, it still became impossible to think with all of the noise and dust, let alone, write. But finally, with the new kitchen almost complete and some more one-pot recipes born out of cooking with a tiny hotplate, the dust seems to have temporarily settled. And it is just in the nick of time as last week, the new series of The Great British Bake Off returned to our screens.

This has caused the usual media interest stories pitting baker against baker and speculating who, if anyone, is going to make Paul Hollywood cry. I am one of millions glued to my seat, watching for any hint of a repeat of last year’s ‘bin-gate’. So far, this year’s series seems to have some potential for drama because it is already getting a bit emotional. There have been tears over technical challenges and showstoppers by contestants and the presenters, Mel and Sue, seem to be on constant standby with an endless supply of concerned faces, ready hugs and commands of ‘Deep breath!’. However, the series has prompted even more drama outside of the tent as uncomfortable questions have been asked in the media about whether the popularity of so many cooking shows in the UK really influences our cooking skills or diets positively. With our obesity rates rising like one of Paul’s many loaves, who’s to say that these shows are good for our health? Add to the mix the most recent controversy from none other than the Queen of Cakes, Mary Berry, and the issue is even further confused.

Apparently, Queen Berry has come under harsh criticism from all fronts for an interview she gave to Good Housekeeping when she said that ‘We need to teach parents about the right foods to give children. It’s very difficult…Many people think children must have chips. I don’t think any household should have a deep fat fryer.’ She also dared to suggest that children should not consume ‘sugared drinks’. Many in the media found this outrageous, that the Queen of Cakes was sharing sound healthy eating advice on par with the NHS and public health guidelines whilst headlining a show that is promoting the baking of cakes and other indulgences. There has even been criticism from the kitchens of Bake Off’s main competition, Master Chef, who put a Brexit slant on it by saying that the UK was ‘built on chips and spam fritters’ and Berry’s comments are an attack on our British way of life’.

However, the Bake Off has never purported itself to be a healthy eating cookery show and the clue is in its title. It’s simply about baking from scratch and watching the contestants try to create one of Paul’s breads or Mary’s cakes and desserts. If it promotes anything, it is to get back into the kitchen and do more than just microwave. And, going back to Mary’s comments, if we are honest with ourselves, we know she is right about how important it is that children (and their parents) have a healthy diet and ‘sugared drinks’ and deep fat fryers do not need to be a part of it. In fact, the new Public Health England Eatwell Guide does not even include a pie slice of high fat, salt and sugar foods on its plate in order to emphasise the official recommendation that we eat it less often and in small amounts. But this is not to say that on occasion, these foods cannot be eaten and including them in the Eatwell Guide recognises that we do enjoy to eat these foods. Therefore, it is the nutritional quality and the portion size that is really important to get right.

In regard to the nutrition, it seems obvious that cooking something homemade always trumps readymade. Although some manufacturers may dispute this, homemade breads and cakes are generally healthier (and tastier!) than any of the readymade versions available because you are more able to use fresh ingredients and can control the amounts and types of sugar and fat you use. But does the Bake Off encourage its viewers to bake their cake and eat it, too?

Portion size is literally a big issue when it comes to preventing overweight and obesity and it goes far beyond Bake Off. I cannot fathom that the judge’s nimble tasting of the breads and cakes is encouraging viewers to eat an endless array of them. The truth is that as a country, we have an obesity problem that is not shifting and blaming it on Bake Off is simply a distraction to the more difficult option of doing something about it. So demonising such a great show is pretty pointless when it could actually help to get people cooking again. Especially when one of the greatest things about Bake Off is the fact that the contestants are quite diverse. They come from a range of backgrounds, cultures and ages and there is consistently an equal number of men and women battling it out to be Star Baker. It is a great endorsement that anybody, really, can cook (although I do hope that we will see some contestants with disabilities facing Paul and Mary in the future).

So I return again to the wise words of Queen Mary, who was also asked how she managed to eat so many cakes on Bake Off and stay trim. She replied that she has a balanced healthy diet and exercises to keep herself fit but the key is this: it isn’t about the many cakes she has to eat, it’s about the size of the slice.
And now for some more cooking, inspired by our recent kitchen breakdown. Luckily whilst confined to the tiny kitchen, the weather was relatively good and amongst other dishes we ate a lot of hearty salads. Feta cheese is one of my favourite’s and here is a recipe for a recent delicious feast, Summer salad with feta, papaya and mint.

feta salad (2)

Brexit winners and losers

To say that it has been an eventful couple of weeks in the UK is a bit of an understatement. First, the shock result of the referendum on Brexit hit us hard because in spite of the oft repeated numbers reported on the morning after, no one could actually believe that it had happened. As reality set in, the penny literally dropped as politicians realised that everybody had thought that someone else was making the plan for a Brexit outcome. It quickly triggered a mass exodus of politicians from all sides including the Prime Minister and oddly, some of the very people who fought and got the result they wanted.

While the deserting politicians scarpered off, a blame game began among those still shell-shocked by the result and an unexpected leadership contest was inflicted upon the larger political parties. As incessant infighting and open warfare within the different parties played out like two non-EU Greek tragedies, the public could only watch and wait for the next act to begin. The removal of ‘parenthood’ from the list of essential skills required in the job description for Prime Minister caused one leadership contest to conclude dramatically. However, the other contest still plays on as a true comedy of errors. Today we are faced with a swiftly installed new PM while the current leader of the opposition continues to face his detractors like a barnacle to the waves.

As the pound plummets and we wait to find out the real implications of Brexit and how exactly it will affect our family’s lives and future prospects, there have already been some nutrition winners and losers of the referendum. First up is chocolate.

As anybody living in the UK knows, people like their chocolate. In fact, the British consume an average of 7.4kg per year which globally, keeps them on the podium just behind Switzerland and Germany. However, the falling pound due to Brexit has caused the price of cocoa to increase to a 40yr high and this is likely to be passed onto the consumer. Although one could argue that if the price of chocolate rises then perhaps people will consume less of it and this could make a positive impact on their health. However, there is no guarantee that all that chocolate wouldn’t be replaced by other unhealthy foods. So chocolate is a Brexit loser.

Next up are fizzy drinks. It makes sense that if a devalued pound affects the price of cocoa and increases the price of chocolate then the same should be true of sugar and fizzy drinks. However, what many did not predict was that the canny Food and Drink Federation (FDF) was also going to use Brexit as a means of putting pressure on the government to delay introducing the ‘sugar tax’ imposed on fizzy drinks due to start in April 2018. The FDF has claimed that the increased price of its imported ingredients and their reliance on migrant EU workforce puts their industry at unnecessary risk and therefore, the sugar tax should be ‘paused’. They also argue that once the UK leaves the EU then we will be flooded with imports that threaten the tax’s efficacy. What this means is that the industry may not only increase their prices to account for the increased costs, but some companies may also delay investing into any reformulation that makes their drinks healthier to avoid the tax being imposed on them. I don’t think it is cynical to question if companies are going to invest their time and money in reformulation if there is a chance that putting pressure on the government may result in a ‘pause’? So fizzy drinks may turn out to be a Brexit winner (but a nutrition loser).

And the last contender is fruit and veg. It may be hard to believe but we only produce around 60% of the food we consume in the UK. Of this, only 15% of the fresh fruit and 55% of the vegetables sold are grown here and we import most of the rest of it from the EU. Again, the weak pound makes it more expensive to import and this impacts on the prices in supermarkets. Clearly, fruit and veg is a Brexit loser.

So far Brexit is not looking good for nutrition but currently there is just not enough certainty about the extent to which the UK’s food security will be affected and impact on our health. For example, the food we produce in the UK will also be affected by Brexit as not only do UK farms largely rely on a EU sourced workforce but they also benefit from some chunky EU subsidies. Last year alone, British farmers received €3.1bn from Brussels through the common agricultural policy. But didn’t those Brexiters on the bus promise something about making up for this shortfall? Or was it for the NHS?? Until we know more about any trade deals between the UK and EU countries and how it will affect the free movement of people, goods and services how can anyone possibly predict what a Brexit Britain will look like?

In the meantime, we can only be sure of witnessing more political dramas as they unfold as the PM steadily forms her new cabinet of ministers with a quick succession of appointments and sackings. On the other side, the comedy of errors has deteriorated into a Mexican standoff and the stakes are higher than ever. I think we will have to wait until the dust has settled on the political front to bring some clarity to what comes next. Who’s to say how Brexit will influence our future shopping habits, national diet and subsequent health. In the meantime, we might as well continue to enjoy some of the UK’s finest and most nutritious produce such as Scottish salmon, er…

And here is a great recipe to make the most of it—Pistachio crusted salmon. It is a quick fix and you can adjust it to the quantities you need.

Pistachio crusted salmon blog

Mis-apps

I couldn’t help noticing the recent news reported in several newspapers that Sydney has become the latest city to install traffic lights in their pavements. The ‘in-ground traffic light technology’ was not fitted for artistic effect or as an aid to help guide dogs and children navigate crowded streets. The traffic lights have been mounted in the city’s business district to stem the growing number of accidents caused by distracted pedestrians who walk while using their smartphones. This was prompted by research that found that pedestrian deaths in New South Wales had increased by 50% from the previous year with many being caused by those who attempt to speak, text and listen to music on their phones while walking. Unsurprisingly, it was found that pedestrians who are engrossed in telephone conversations are less alert to their surroundings. But even worse, pedestrians who text and stroll are less likely to walk in a straight line while those who listen to music are four times more likely to take risks when crossing a road. Basically, when pedestrians use smartphones they begin to walk and behave like an average toddler and I am no different. In fact, on three occasions when I have texted and walked through cities, I have looked up after finishing a lengthy text only to find that I am completely lost. And I really do mean lost, as in not having a clue which direction I should be walking in to get wherever it was I was supposed to be going.

But at least many governments are starting to recognise this because using our smartphones to manage our lives while walking has become an accepted cultural norm. In effect, it is too late to try persuading us to put away our mobiles when we walk and look where we are going and far easier to find innovative solutions that will help to prevent us from causing so many accidents in busy cities. Because, after all, the multitude of different apps available that help us organise our work, children and home from our smartphones seems to grow every day. As we begin to use increasingly sophisticated apps in more aspects of our lives our smartphones are becoming essential to us and are involved in our daily decisions. Should I go for a run? I’ll just check my weather app (rather than look out the window or venture outside to check the temperature). Then I’ll use my running app to record it, rate it and share it with everyone I’m ‘friends’ with.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with using apps and it is amazing how technological advances have allowed us to carry around what is essentially a mini-computer in our pockets. Maybe not all apps are useful or work perfectly but even if my running app annoyingly measures my runs as being shorter than my husband’s whenever we run together, I continue to use it. However, I think our app habit has now become so endemic that our smartphones are a central part of our lives. Which means that we depend on them and are still distracted even when we are relaxing at home. But this also means that we are just as likely to cause an accident as when we were on a city pavement. Unfortunately, I found this to be never so true as in the countryside, where distracted smartphone apps’ users have been causing me some cycling mishaps.

Reluctantly, I have had to get back in the saddle again as I have started to train for an upcoming triathlon and duathlon that I signed up for. Although I had been keeping up the running throughout the winter months, I hadn’t swum or cycled since last autumn and wasn’t exactly looking forward to doing either. I thought I would start out slowly and I began to go out cycling with one of my sons who had offered to retrain me in how to clip in and clip out of my bike’s death cleats. The first ride went very well and apart from almost falling twice, I finished it feeling slightly more confident. However, last week it did not exactly go according to plan.

We left home cycling on our usual route but after only 15min, we could no longer ignore the random rattling noises of my son’s bike that clearly had some ‘issues’. At a crossroads in many ways, he abandoned the ride while I decided to keep going, thinking that I really should be able to do this cycling thing on my own. And for a while I was doing great and even starting to imagine enjoying it. But as it was unusually nice weather I was, of course, not the only one out there. In fact, there were several groups of cyclists on the roads riding in mini pelotons while many other people were running, walking their dogs and children or just outside enjoying the sun. However, they soon reminded me of the distracted city pedestrians I had read about, and I wondered if they had left the pavements and invaded the countryside. Because absolutely everyone I could see outside and in the parks, gardens and trails was either talking on their phone, texting, listening to music or taking selfies. For a nervous cyclist, such as myself, this frequently became a little bit hazardous.

Instead of cycling through every village on my route as I normally did without worrying about unclipping my cleats or losing my grip on the handlebars, I had to slow down to a crawl and negotiate past people who were too distracted to hear or see me approach. Every time I got closer to another built up area, I tried a different strategy to warn anyone nearby that I was approaching but it always failed to catch their attention. Even when I rang what is probably the only bell in existence to be actually mounted on a road bike, no one seemed to register the sound with an incoming cyclist. It was as if my bike was a moving smartphone magnet, compelling their users to walk towards me as I approached. Judging by the startled reactions and flying arms that almost careered me more than once into hedges or lakes, clearly no one had expected me to be cycling past them. Certainly the dog walker whose dog had decided to pull their extra-long lead across my wheel at the last minute was not impressed by my sudden interruption to their walk (and my language).

As I got closer to home, I left the villages behind me and I relaxed, knowing that there weren’t too many areas left where I would have to compete with distracted pedestrians for space. I stuck to the cycle paths as the rush hour traffic started to congest the roads with impatient drivers but then I encountered something even more dangerous than a pedestrian with smartphone—a cyclist using one. In the near distance, I could see another cyclist ahead and realised that the cycle paths would soon be filling with many commuters returning from work. But at this moment there was only one to contend with and this cyclist looked pretty experienced. At least that’s what I assumed, based on the fact that they were cycling with one hand, which I certainly couldn’t do for any length of time. However, on getting a bit closer I realised that they were only cycling with one hand because they were smoking. I could see that they went back to the standard two hands stance after they flicked the remains of the fag into a bush and pedalled on.

Now getting closer still, I considered whether I should try to pass them or not as they seemed to fill the width of the wide path by wavering left and right. I prepared myself, sped up slightly and rang a warning bell and added a ‘On your right’ after I didn’t sense a flicker of a reaction. But somehow this only seemed to pull them over to the right as well. I had to quickly brake to avoid ploughing into them but managed to keep control. I slowed behind the cyclist and decided to try again thinking that I must not have been loud enough. So I rang my bell and tried a ‘ON YOUR LEFT!’ but now they almost instinctively wavered to the left and blocked me, forcing me to brake suddenly, again. ‘Are you kidding me?!’, I thought. How could they possibly not see that I was trying to pass them. It felt like I was playing a crazy version of the childhood game, British Bulldog, on bikes. I thought I would give it one last go before having to resign myself to following them in their wobbly wake for the next 5km but this time I was really going to go all out.

I geared myself up, rang my bell at full ping, shouted ‘ON YOUR RIGHT!!!!!’ and attempted to cycle by like a bullet. This time the cyclist started to waver again towards the right but then finally pulled back as I levelled with them. Passing them at last, I looked at them with the unmistakable face of ‘Why didn’t you hear me?!’. However, I was met with the startled expression of a zoned-out cyclist wearing headphones and listening to their iPhone who was completely shocked to see me. With them soon safely in the distance, I carried on home without incident but I wondered if the distracted cyclist had had the sense to turn down the volume of their music.

As my cycling training continues in the coming weeks while the weather is improving, I know that there will be many more distracted people outside using their smartphones. I can only hope that I get better at cycling and more skilful at manoeuvring around people, dogs and other cyclists. Because if the use of smartphones apps in our daily lives is only going to further increase in the future, then the potential for mishaps will inevitably multiply. So like Sydney’s in-ground traffic lights, it seems that we will still have to come up with more innovative solutions to keep us safe while benefitting from new smartphone technology. I wonder how long before they make an app for that..?

Now for a recipe that reflects the better weather and includes some apples. Use your favourite apples in this recipe for Apple slaw to make the perfect addition to any meal, picnic or BBQ.

Apple slaw blog