Giving advice – how hard can it be?

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Well, the answer is – very hard indeed! And the other question is – how good are we all at taking advice?

I heard on the radio this week criticism of guidance given on the amount of exercise we should be taking on the basis that it would be unrealistic for many people to achieve that level, and so they would be de-motivated to try to exercise more. I only fleetingly heard this, so I can’t give details, but I believe the advice was that we should be taking 2.5 hours of moderate exercise every week.

Similar problems arise with recommendations about the amount of  fruit and vegetables we shoudl be eating every day. Most, if not all, nations are pointing out to their citizens that the more fruit and veg they eat, the healthier they will be, but the quantities recommended vary greatly. In the UK it’s now 7 a day, I believe, up from the 5 a day we have become used to. But in Japan they recommend 17 different fruit and veg every day. The difference is largely down to the fact that most people in the UK struggle to get to anything like 7 portions a day. However, I have heard some commentators say that it is discouraging to mention 7 so we shoud recommend fewer portions.

The problem is that if we are simply advised to “eat more fruit and veg” or “exercise more”, many people wll have no idea of what they should be moving towards, or how close they are already to the ideal. Someone who only ever eats meat and potoatoes may think they are doing marvellously by having an apple every week or so, or some fruit juice with breakfast. Someone who always drives may think they are exercising well if they walk to post a letter. How will they know otherwise unless someone tells them?

I know that when I was teaching, I had a series of conversations with a parent whose child was doing very badly at school, and had little or no ability to take part in their lessons. Eventually I asked the right question (“Is it just that he’s tired?”) It turned out that he was watching videos every night until his parents turned off the television at midnight. No one had ever told them how much sleep a child needs.

Part of me is continually surprised that we need this kind of advice. But another part of me realises that many intelligent and well meaning people just don’t have the informaton they need to make good choices.

So maybe we all need to toughen up a bit, and learn to take advice the right way. We might not be able to exercise for 2.5 hours a week, but we should know that if we are doing less, we would be wise to make an effort to do more. We shouldn’t give up just because it is hard and we have a long way to go, but use the guidance as a measure of how well we are progessing.

(In case you are wondering why I chose the photograph above, it’s about perspective and point of view.)

Putting your best foot forward. How are your New Near Resolutions going?

Do you manage to stick to your resolutions? It seems that most people just can’t do it. They know what they should do, right enough (lose weight, get fitter, spend less, be tidier etc) but it’s just too difficult to see it through.

Well, there’s a simple trick to achieving what you want to achieve, and that is to find the fun in it. Let me explain.

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Let’s take getting fitter as an exampler. It’s mid-January, so the annual peak in gym membership applications is here. There will be lots of new faces signing up for classes or inductions to the gym to start the process of losing weight and toning up. How many of these people will still be regularly training in February? Not so many, I’d be prepared to bet. The problem is that unless you are fairly fit to start with going to the gym, or an energetic Zumba or dance class, it’s going to be too hard to be fun. And if things aren’t fun, it’s very hard to stick to them. At the slightest excuse (it’s pouring with rain: my kit’s in the wash…) it’s too easy to give up. But if things are fun, you do them whatever the inconvenience. Shopping? Going to the pub? Many people don’t have to be asked twice!

I’ve written a short Kindle book to explain my thinking about getting fit through walking, and I’m sure that this is a really good way for most people to get started.

You see, establishing the habit of walking doesn’t need too much time or special equipment. Most people can easily fit some walking into their normal day, either walking to work, or walking the children to school, or walking the dog or going to the library. If you choose your walks carefully and have the right mental approach you can easily find that walking is fun. The more pleasure you find in walking, the more you want to do it, and the fitter you become. The key is enjoying the place you are walking; taking notice or and an interest in what is around you. If you can manage a fast walk for 30 minutes or more, preferably including some hill work, then you are probably fit enough to enjoy going to the gym or starting an energetic class. Read more in my book. A beginner’s guide to walking for pleasure   ASIN B00L3D7ENY.

The same principles apply to other areas of life. To take one more example, it’s easier to eat better and spend less on food if you learn to enjoy cooking. It is fun to cook if you approach it with the right positive attitude; starting with something quite easy and building up new techniques as you gain confidence. I’ve enjoyed cooking for years, but am still working through some techniques that are new to me – making my own pasta for example, and getting good at making bread by hand. (My rye and wheat loaf with caraway seeds and ale was a masterpiece!) Again, it’s about enjoying learning new skills and the results of your work.

So, don’t set yourself up to fail by setting too big a challenge for yourself. Start small-ish, but keep challenging yourself. Above all, find a way to make what you want a pleasure, by focusing on the positives, and you’ll find it much easier to get where you want to be.

Too tasty to photograph! Sorry!!

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As soon as I started eating this, I realised that it was something worth mentioning in a blog, but it was far too tasty to leave. So the empty plate is all I can offer in evidence.

What it was was just about the simplest and quickest lunch you could imagine: mushrooms and bacon in a creamy sauce on a fresh, crispy bread roll.

We’d been out shopping earlier, without a real idea of what to do for lunch, and I spotted some of those big open mushrooms, which looked great. I knew I had some bacon in the fridge that needed using up, so I just added some crispy rolls to my basket and that was that.

At home I softened up a small finely chopped onion in some light olive oil with some ground black pepper, added the chopped up bacon to get a bit crispy, dropped in the mushrooms which I had just wiped over, trimmed the stalks and quartered, and cooked everything through for a couple of minutes. The sauce was just made by adding a spoonful of flour and cooking it in, and I added a spoonful of mustard and a pinch of rosemary and oregano too. Then, as we also had some cream in the fridge I used that up, with a little extra milk to get the sauce not too thick. Heated until it was bubbluing and thick, and stirred in a little grated cheese. Tasted and added a tiny bit of salt. I cut the rolls in half and put them cut side down into a heated, dry frying pan, just to crisp them up and add a little colour. Put them on the plate and covered them with the mushroom/bacon/sauce mixture and voila! Lunch for two for not very much money, on the table in less than 10 minutes.

This is the sort of food I wish you could get in more pubs, rather than huge portions of rather sub-average fish and chips, or burgers straight from the freezer. Or massive ploughman’s lunches that are made affordable by using cheap cheese. As long as the taste is there, in a pub lunch I think less is usually more. And of course if people do serve up smaller portions, and the food is delicious, there is just the chance that you’ll go back in for a pudding.

It’s also a reminder that you don’t need to buy expensive jars of ready made sauces. If you have some very standard things in your store cupboard and fridge, then you can whip up a fresh sauce in about the same time that it takes to heat through something ready made. So nice to use up good food ( in this case the bacon and cream) rather than chucking it away!

If you don’t already cook like this yourself, get creative. Think about what you already have at home, and how you can quickly and easily use it up. It’s fun, as well as a way to save money and avoid waste, and you get to eat some amazing things!

 

 

 

Taking the pressure out of everyday meals

I love food and relaxing over a good meal but I do worry about food related things too: how much cooking fuel costs, how sustainable the food I eat is, how I can eat well on a budget.

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If that makes me sound neurotic, I’d rather say that I prefer to think about the best way to do things, rather than putting my head in the sand and carrying on in the way I always have. And the messages about thinking about what and how we eat are really stacking up.

  • Obesity in the west is still a growing problem, while people are starving all over the world. I read that in the UK weight and diet related illnesses such as diabetes are the biggest drain on the health service. 
  • In the UK we throw away around 30% of all food produced – I haven’t seen the current figures, but I am pretty sure we haven’t turned things around significantly in the last couple of years. And this is at a time when most people are finding the cost of living is rising, and income is at best static.
  • Fuel prices are gong up year on year, and likely to continue to do so.
  • The amount of meat eaten in the west per person is unsustainable – as summarised on the BBC Horizon programme last week. Plus eating more than a very small amount of (red) meat each day leads to health issues too – fat around your internal organs for one. Part one of Horizon focused on the amounts of meat we can healthily eat.

So in our house we’re reviewing our food and cooking choices to see if we can manage our budget better, eat more sustainably and generally feel we have less to worry about. This is what we’ve done so far:

  • We’re reducing the size of the meals we eat – and this is easier if you eat food like stir fries and shepherd’s pie. You just have a modest portion to begin with, eat slowly and enjoy, and then think carefully about whether you really need a second helping. This ties in well with our efforts to manage our weight through exercise.
  • We make truly delicious vegetable soups from the rather scrawny looking items left in the vegetable rack and fridge on a Saturday, sometimes supplemented by anything seasonal and good value from a shop. You can easily make six servings for just a couple of pounds, and we freeze what we don’t eat to have for lunches later. 
  • We’re trying out meat free days, rediscovering things like jacket potatoes and salads. We’re finding that if they are well done they are delicious. Vegetarian recipes from around the world are well worth checking out.
  • We’re eating more dishes that combine small amounts of meat with terrific vegetables to make food that doesn’t feel meat free – stir fries with a sprinkling of pork, or chicken, or prawns, for example. Shepherd’s/cottage pies with lots of veg in the mix to make the meat go further. We’re slowly learning how to use lentils and pulses well – so they add to the meal rather than dominating it.
  • We’re careful about when we buy meat – we cook a roast on the days when we have company, or know we will use it all through the following days, or have the time to cook something from the leftovers and put a dish in the freezer. Never throw away meat, and only throw away vegetables if you really have to.
  • We check through the freezer regularly to make sure we eat the things we have put in there, rather than having a yearly (or less frequent) sort out, when spoiled food ends up in the bin.

We’ve also bought a pressure cooker, and think this will work well for us.

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It’s a bit of an investment – the one we bought cost close to £100, but it reduces the cooking time by up to 60%. This means it also reduces the amount we spend on fuel by 60%, and this should come into its own when we get to the colder weather and stews becoming appealing again. I wonder how long it will be before we have saved £100 in gas bills? Stews are easy to cook in the pressure cooker, and they are another great way to use cheaper cuts of meat, and to increase the veg: meat ratio without anyone noticing. We’ve also invested in a couple of recipe books focusing on stews from around the world, so the choice is much more exciting than the word sounds. The plan is to cook up a good quantity and freeze enough for a couple of meals. Then we’ll only need to reheat to enjoy – saving time and minimising energy costs.

Stew really is a word that needs reinventing. Suggestions anyone?

I remember pressure cookers from the old days – terrifying things hissing away threateningly on the cooker. I always felt that the cook was taking their lives in their hands every time they turned the thing on. Not so with the modern incarnations, which are quiet and feel much safer – although you do of course have to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, and there is a little trial and error initially in getting the timings right, as you get to know the equipment. 

We had considered getting a slow cooker for many of the same reasons, but decided this wouldn’t work for us. We are not quite organised enough to get everything we need ready for a meal long enough in advance of wanting to eat. The pressure cooker means we can be spontaneous and cook something pretty quickly when we are ready to eat. 

I haven’t unpicked the costs involved in all these decisions, as I haven’t been using the pressure cooker for very long. My feeling is that we are managing to reduce our basic food bills, so it is less of a burden to afford celebration meals for a treat. We shall see how all this works out, but it’s definitely food for thought!

 

 

A Cornish interlude (complete with mermaids)

It amazes me how the origins of stories and legends – such as the existence of mermaids or lands that can only be seen and reached at certain times of the day or year – can become crystal clear through a personal experience.

I wrote in a previous blog about the mysterious way that Wales, when viewed across the Bristol Channel, can either appear close enough to step across to, or can vanish completely. As another example, on our recent visit to Cornwall, I snapped this group of mermaids swimming past th harbour at St Michael’s Mount.

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It really did look like long red hair, streaming through the water, and so a legend is born … the mermaids of St Michael’s Mount!

Here’s a more prosaic picture, looking back across from the harbour to Marazion.

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We’ve been down to Cornwall several times visiting our good friends, who now offer holiday lets in The Cabin at Trenow and we are never anything other than entranced. There is always something breath-taking to see, including gorgeous cottages, fabulous land and seascapes and rare wildlife. Food and drink is in no short supply either, with pubs, cafes and super restaurants like Ben’s Cornish Kitchen (which you can almost see in the photograph) all delivering on quality and character. We ate at Ben’s one evening and had a delicious meal from a tempting menu. Each dish can be accompanied by a glass of a recommended wine, and the matching worked perfectly for me. My main course was a fairly straight forward dover sole, but the starter and dessert were both things I have never tried before: a light and airy gorgonzola mousse to start and a cold curry to finish (cardamom flvoured rice pudding, mango curd, coconut jelly, a little popadum and several other perfect little surprises. You’ll be wise to book, as the tables are well spaced and they only go for one seating per evening, so once everyone who had booked was in, the closed sign went up and we just ate and chatted in perfect surroundings.

Sorry to go on – I was getting carried away with the memories!

In short, if you don’t know Cornwall well, or haven’t been down towards Land’s End or the Lizard for a while, you really should try and get there. It is a fairly long drive right down the length of Devon and Cornwall, but takes just less than three hours from Clevedon – provided you don’t try and travel at peak holiday times (a Friday or Saturday in August, for example). Why not take a few extra days on the way down and back to break the journey with stops at Clevedon, or other lovely Somerset towns on the way?

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Regaining health

There’s an aspect of health and happiness that I have been strongly reminded of, and that is the central place of food and appetite.  Cue picture of home-made soup!

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From child-hood – well, from birth actually – the sign of good health and thriving is a good appetite and eating well.  We all too often have cause to focus on the evils of being unable to control your appetite and the dangers of over-eating, but when someone is ill and loses their desire for food tremendous emotional pressure is felt by the patient and by those looking after them.  Everyone feels that if only they can come up with the right tempting offering, the ill-one will be able to eat and enjoy a meal and everything will be all right.

My dad is very poorly at the moment – I won’t go into details at the moment – hence this subject for the blog.  I went shopping for some bits and pieces for mum and dad at the weekend, and while I was out browsed for tempting, healthy food that could appeal to him.  Easy enough to find things like full fat fruity yogurts, but he fancies warm food at the moment.  It must be easy to digest, so we fell back on soups.  We were given a great recipe for a delicious chicken soup which I’d like myself.  All you do is poach a chicken breast in stock, and add some vermicelli (or fine egg noodles, as there wasn’t any vermicelli handy when I shopped) which you have browned (in this case by lightly frying in butter).  When it’s all soft, add some fresh lemon juice and seasoning, and blitz for a smooth finish, or shred the chicken with a couple of forks.  Nice!  I also added a tin of cream of chicken soup, but really didn’t need to.  Quite calorific, with the frying in butter and all, but great for an invalid. Dad certainly liked it, even though he couldn’t eat much.

After eating, mint tea – just made by infusing dried mint leaves in boiling water – helps with the digestion.

If you have any restorative family recipes, please do share!  And if you are trying to tempt someone back to health – my very best wishes for success.