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Not Quite Homesteading: My Balcony “Farm” Project

Living in England, I had a beautiful allotment, and I loved growing my own food. It gave me so much pleasure! Moving to Australia meant giving that up, and the flat we lived in for the first 2.5 years had a dark balcony and no natural light, so it was almost impossible to grow anything.

Last May we moved across the hallway to a flat with a much bigger balcony with a much better aspect, and I was determined to get some plants growing. After all, this was what I was going to see every time I looked out my living room window if I didn’t…

Concrete Balcony

The concrete balcony outside our flat (and living room window)

When we moved, the plan was to be here for about a year, and then move onto somewhere where we could actually grow our own plants. We decided to keep things in pots that we would be able to transport with us to the new place.

First up, we bought some trees. A lemon, a lime, a strawberry guava and a blueberry bush.

Balcony gardening fruit trees

A Tahitan Lime, Strawberry Guava, Blueberry bush and a Eureka Lemon tree.

Next up, we bought a couple of old wine barrels from a local winery, and four planter boxes made from old mattress parts (sold by a local company that recycle mattresses).

Drilling Wine Barrels2

Drilling holes into the wine barrels for the citrus trees.

recycled planters

Four planter boxes made from old mattress components – the trellises are made from old cot mattress springs!

We also got herbs and seeds from friends and family, and slowly planted these into the planters and other pots that we found on the verge.

Not Quite the Garden of Overflowing Produce I’d Dreamed Of…

We quickly realised that we didn’t get enough sun to grow many veggies. My early experiment with seedlings saw them grow elongated and straggly. Fortunately the planer boxes are on wheels, so I was constantly moving them about to get more sun, but from the whole first planter box, I grew two radishes and four carrots. The kale would have made it had the caterpillars not decimated it first…

Planter with seedlings

Poor straggly seedlings : ( Two radishes made it, and 4 carrots, plus there’s one kale seedling still clinging to life several months after it was planted out…

The other problem that came with the lack of warm sun and the exposed position on the corner above the driveway was that it got very cold in winter. My lime tree didn’t make it.

My peas and beans in the trellis planters never took off either, and I had a handful of beans and a couple of peas.

The odds may have been against us, but we kept on trying. And we did have some successes.

Not Quite Urban Homesteading – but it’s a Start!

When spring came this year, the trees fruited! All of them! The strawberry cherry guava (which may not actually be a strawberry guava at all but a lemon guava) has several fruits, and the first three were harvested at the weekend. The lemon tree flowered prolifically and has about 15 lemons slowly maturing on the branches. Plus my mandarin (which replaced the lime) has a sole fruit – it did have two, but the other dropped off. The blueberry has, to date, yielded 2 blueberries…

Cherry Guava

Strawberry cherry guavas… except they’re not red! The yellow colour seems to mean they are actually lemon guavas. Regardless ,they were delicious!

Lemon Tree with Lemons

My lemons are slowly ripening on the branches…

Balcony Project March 2015

Can you see the lonesome mandarin? On the tree on the far left – it’s on the right hand side. It’s still very green at the moment!

We’ve had success with the seedlings we’ve pushed against the railings. A couple of cucumbers, a single capsicum (with a second on the way), and heaps of cherry tomatoes. The aubergines have been flowering continuously, but are as yet to bear a single fruit. Still, it makes me happy that they are there, greening the place up. We’ve also got oregano and parsley, and last week I planted a mango seed that I found sprouting in the worm farm, so we’ll see what happens with him!

Aubergine plants

I have 7 aubergine plants, and despite their continual flowering, I’m yet to get a single aubergine. Ah well. I enjoy their company!

Tomato Crops 2015

Tomatoes tomatoes! I had three plants and these have gone great guns! Plus I love the pop of colour they add to the balcony.

Whilst it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to stop food shopping any time soon, the few things that we have managed to grow have given us heaps of joy. Gardening is so magical, and I never tire of the excitement of a seed sprouting, or a flower turning into fruit. I’ve probably spent far more in soil and planters than I’ll ever recoup in food, although I hope the planters last for many years, and the soil I can amend with compost and worm castings which are free. I’m excited that in 6 months time we’ll be moving to a place with a proper garden, and I’ll be able to go crazy!

Sadly Not Everyone Thinks Like Us…

My husband and I are very proud of our little corner of greenness, but sadly one of our neighbours isn’t. (He’s the neighbour that heads the Strata Board (and built the whole building), and last week we received a letter from the Strata company informing us that pot plants need to be kept out of common walkways. Whilst we consider this to be our own private space, our landlord has taken this to mean we can only have a couple of pot plants by the front door, and has threatened to issue us with a “breach of contract”.

Threaten away, landlord, because I’m not getting rid of my beautiful plants without a fight! Removing my plants will be like cutting off my arms! How can I get rid of them, when the outcome would be this?

Doom and Gloom - our Balcony with No Plants

Doom and Gloom – the view from our front window if we moved all our glorious plants…

Have you had any experience of balcony gardening? Are there any tips you’d like to share? Plants that grew well, or things that didn’t? How about strata companies…have you had anyone try to evict your plants (or you!) simply for trying to grow some tomatoes? And tell me…who’s willing to come round and chain themselves to my fruit trees if it comes to it?! ; p I’d love to hear your thoughts so leave a comment below!

5 Superfoods You Already Have in the Cupboard

Superfoods is a word that’s banded about a lot these days, and marketers have got on the bandwagon, telling us we need to be buying superfoods (complete with super-hefty price tag) for optimum health and well-being. If you’re into sustainable living, and don’t want to spend a fortune on your food budget, purchase overpackaged ingredients that increase your plastic consumption, or buy produce shipped from faraway countries, superfoods can seem like they’re an impossible ideal.

Thing is, if you know what “superfoods” actually means, and look through all the marketing hype, you’ll find it’s possible to source superfoods that are cheap, sustainable and readily available – in fact, you probably already have a few in your pantry. Not all superfoods are super-expensive air-freighted plastic-packaged portions of exotic berries, or fancy obscure powders.

The term “superfoods” means foods that are particularly nutrient-rich, and considered beneficial for our health. The sometimes outrageous health claims that accompany some of these ingredients are marketing hype, often designed to sell more or to justify the hefty price tag. Whilst these claims may or may not be true, superfoods are proven to be packed with minerals, nutrients and vitamins that our bodies need.

Disclaimer: this is for information purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Superfoods are not a substitute for professional medical care.

Five Superfoods You Probably Already Have in the Cupboard

1. Cinnamon

cinnamon pic

Cinnamon is a spice made from the bark of Cinnamomum trees, which can be found as rolls of dried bark or as a ground powder. There are two main varieties of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon and Chinese (or Cassia) cinnamon.

In studies, cinnamon has been shown to control blood sugar levels, and aid people with type 2 diabetes to respond to insulin. It is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi, including Candida. Cinnamon also boosts brain activity – even the smell of cinnamon improves cognitive processing! There have also been links made to prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, MS and HIV. (If you’re interested in the science, check out this link).

Cinnamon is very high in manganese, a mineral used by the body to form connective tissue, bones, blood clotting factors, and sex hormones. Manganese also plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism and calcium absorption. Cinnamon is also a very good source of calcium and an excellent source of fibre.

Serving suggestions: sprinkle some cinnamon on your porridge in the morning, add to muesli or hot chocolate, or use to spice up your baking.

2. Turmeric

turmeric pic

Turmeric is the bright yellow spice used in curries and Asian cooking. The powder is made by drying and grinding fresh turmeric, a root that looks similar to ginger on the outside, but with orange flesh inside.

Turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which is responsible for many of its health benefits. Curcumin is anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant (antioxidants absorb free radicals which cause cell and tissue damage), which may help reduce symptoms of inflammation-based diseases such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel symptoms and and heart disease. It supports healthy liver function and is thought to aid digestion. Studies have shown curcumin having the potential to fight degenerative brain diseases and depression; in lab experiments curcumin has been shown to inhibit tumour growth.

Turmeric is high in iron, and also contains calcium. Fresh turmeric is a source of vitamin C. Black pepper aids absorption of curcumin into the bloodstream.

Serving suggestions: Add to curries and soups, or add to egg dishes such as omelettes. If you’re feeling braver, add some to your smoothie. Some health cafes serve turmeric lattes as a coffee alternative – they’re usually made with nut milks.

3. Cacao

cacao pic

Cacao needs no introduction – yes, we’re talking chocolate! Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. This is different to cocoa, which is made using roasted cacao beans and treating the powder with an alkaline solution (called Dutch processing) to produce a more mellow flavour. The processing also makes the resulting cocoa lower in nutrients, particularly antioxidants. Confusingly, the two names are sometimes interchanged, but raw cacao will always say “raw” on the label.

When the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory tested the antioxidant activity of a number of foods, measured as an Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) score, raw cacao was found to contain the highest antioxidant activity of any food, with a score of 95,500 per 100g. Whilst only having around a quarter of the antioxidant properties of raw cacao, roasted cacao still contained the third highest level of antioxidants of the foods tested, and more than berries such as acai, goji and blueberries.

Not only that, raw cacao has the highest concentration of iron of any plant (double the iron in spinach), and is very high in magnesium. Cacao also contains potassium, manganese and zinc, and also the “bliss chemicals” theobromine, phenethylamine (a mood enhancer) and anandamide. These are what cause the happy feeling you get when you eat chocolate!

Serving suggestions: use raw cacao powder in smoothies, desserts and baking. If buying bars of chocolate, dark is best and the higher the cocoa content the better.

4. Honey

Honey jar pic

Honey has been used by humans for millennia. Cave paintings in Spain dating to 7000BC showing beekeeping practices, and Egyptian hieroglyphs from 2400BC showing bees kept in hives.

Honey has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and has been found to help burn wounds to heal more quickly. In lab tests, honey has shown antibacterial activity against bacteria including E. Coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. Honey also helps soothe coughs and sore throats.

Antibacterial quality varies between different types of honey. Manuka honey is a particularly potent anti-bacterial honey, due to the presence of methylglyoxal (MG) found in manuka flowers native to New Zealand (you can read more about manuka honey here). West Australian Jarrah honey also has high antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Generally, honey that is darker will have more antibacterial and antioxidant power. Raw unprocessed honey is considered better and more nutritious than regular honey, which has been heated and pasteurised.

Nutritionally, honey contains manganese, iron, zinc,selenium and calcium, plus B vitamins. Refined white sugar contains none of these!

Serving suggestion: anywhere in place of refined sugar! Drizzle on porridge, add to smoothies, include in salad dressings or use in baking as an alternative to sugar.

5. Oats

Oats pic

Oats are a grain that, unlike wheat, rye and barley, are naturally gluten-free. (NB Because oats are often processed in the same facilities as these other grains contamination may occur, so they are not usually considered gluten-free unless processed in a separate facility.) And yes…actually, oats are a superfood!

Oats contain more dietary fibre than any other grain. The insoluble fibre aids in digestive health, whilst the soluble fibre, beta-glucan, has cholesterol-lowering properties. Oats have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels due to the presence of tocotienols, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, relieve hypertension and to stabilise blood sugar levels.

Even when hulled, oats contain all three parts of the grain: the bran, endosperm and germ. This makes them wholegrains, meaning they retain their natural minerals and vitamins. Oats contain manganese, selenium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, molybdenum and iron, and also folate, B vitamins and vitamin K.

The other super thing about oats? They’re super cheap!

Serving suggestions: start the day with a bowl of porridge or make your own oat-based muesli, bake into cookies or cereal bars, or grind into flour. You can make oat milk by soaking oats, blending with water and straining.

You don’t need to spend a fortune to be healthy. Ordinary foods have super powers too!

A Recipe: Plant-Based Banana Chocolate Muffins (Gluten-Free)

These muffins may look plain on the outside, but there’s a decadent rich chocolatey centre hiding inconspicuously inside each one. Because chocolate makes everything better, don’t you think?!

They’re great for people with allergies, being vegan and dairy-free, paleo-friendly and gluten-free. They are also full of nutritional goodness; rather than flour and dairy they’re packed with bananas, almonds and flax seeds. Bananas are packed with potassium, magnesium and manganese, and B vitamins including B6 and folate. Almonds are a great source of magnesium, calcium and zinc (as well as many other minerals) and are also high in vitamin E. Flax seeds are super high in omega-3s, B vitamins and minerals including magnesium and selenium.

Did I mention that they’re super tasty too?

pic4 pic9 pic8 pic7 pic11

Recipe: Chocolate Surprise Banana Muffins

Makes 10 muffins.

Ingredients

3 bananas (about 300g)
1/4 cup nut milk (I use cashew nut milk – you can make it yourself; it’s super simple)
2 tbsp maple syrup (or other liquid sweetener)
50g macadamia oil (or other high quality flavourless oil)
175g ground almonds
30g ground flax seeds
1.5 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp chia seeds

For the chocolate filling:
30g macadamia oil
20g cacao powder
20g maple syrup

What To Do

Preheat your oven to 170ºC.

Blend bananas, maple syrup, cashew nut milk and oil together until smooth. Add the ground almonds, ground flaxseeds and baking powder and mix well.

Put the 1 tbsp chia seeds in a bowl and add 3 tbsp water, stirring well. Leave for 10 minutes or so until the chia has formed a gel.

Separate 1/4 of the cake mixure and place in a separate bowl. If you want to be accurate, use scales. Otherwise guesswork is fine! Stir the chia gel into the larger cake mix portion.

To the 1/4 mixture in the separate bowl add 20g cacao powder, 20g maple syrup and 30g oil and stir until combined.

Put a heaped dessertspoon of cake mix into 10 muffin cases. You should be left with a small amount of cake mix. Using a teaspoon, make a well in the centre of each muffin.

Divide the chocolate mix between the 10 muffins, carefully filling the well in the centre using a teaspoon.

Top each muffin with a thin layer of the remaining cake mix, using a spoon to seal the gaps. You shouldn’t be able to see any of the chocolate mix.
pic12premuffin1 premuffin2 premuffin3 premuffin4 premuffin6Place in a pre-heated oven and bake for 25 minutes until golden.

Enjoy!

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Tips:

  • I used chia seeds to help bind them together as these muffins don’t contain egg. Flax seeds and bananas are also great binders though, so if you can’t find chia seeds just leave this step out.
  • If you think the assembly sounds like too much hassle, don’t stress. Just fill the cake cases with half of the plain mix, add a spoonful of the chocolate one and then top with remaining plain mix. They might not look quite so neat but they’ll still taste amazing!

How I Quit the Supermarket

For a long time I was uneasy with shopping at the supermarket. I wanted to shop sustainably from independent producers, support local businesses, and buy ethically, yet quitting the supermarket seemed so… drastic. I wanted to divorce my supermarket. Split up with my supermarket. “That’s it! I’m leaving you!” Storm out of the door, dramatically, never to return. However much I might have wanted to, something held me back. Actually taking action seemed too overwhelming.

Yet I realised at the start of this year that I don’t really shop at supermarkets any more. As a couple, for every $100 we spend on food, we probably spend $1 in the supermarket. In the space of two years, I’ve gone from shopping there multiple times a week to maybe once a month. What happened?

I didn’t divorce my supermarket. There were no fireworks, no drama, no tears and regret. Things simply changed. We drifted apart. We had nothing in common. It was a gradual shift, so subtle that I didn’t really notice it, until one day I realised that we just weren’t doing things together any more, and I was free.

Here’s how I quit the supermarket.

The first thing was starting to buy my fruit and vegetables elsewhere. Supermarkets in Western Australia have very expensive fruit and vegetables, limited choice and almost no organic produce. I tried a few things – shopping at the local fruit and veg stores (cheaper but most produce was imported from China), before switching to Farmers Markets (more expensive but locally produced) and signing up for a weekly organic vegetable box delivery.

The second thing I did was to stop buying bread from the supermarket (it’s filled with additives, preservatives and palm oil) and start buying bread from a proper bakery. Nothing beats freshly baked bread! I also learned how to make my own sourdough, both to save money and so I could enjoy fresh bread when I needed it, rather than just on Saturdays.

Thirdly, I started shopping at bulk stores for grains, pulses, spices, nuts, and seeds. The prices here are far cheaper than the supermarkets and the choice is better. I have at least three very good stores close to me, and the more I look, the more I find.

Next, I gave up plastic. This meant not buying anything in plastic packaging. This was quite a big shift, and saw my supermarket consumption drop considerably. I found a local supplier of milk and yoghurt at the Farmers Market with products packaged in glass (and they collect empties for re-use). I also learned that is really simple to make yoghurt at home.

I discovered that it is possible to buy laundry and dishwashing liquid in bulk from the bulk bin stores by bringing my own containers. Rather than buy shampoo, conditioner and shower gel from the supermarket, I found a local artisan producer who used natural ingredients so I could avoid the chemicals found in regular brands. I now make my own deodorant and toothpaste.

You don’t need to buy expensive cleaning products from the supermarket either. Green cleaning solutions such as using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar work just as well, and are far safer than a lot of products for sale in the supermarket.

The next thing to go was switching from the supermarket service counters when buying fish, cheese and deli items. I found a local fishmongers; although the price is higher, the quality is infinitely better and the selection is amazing. We buy olives and cheese from a local deli rather than the supermarket.

From this point I was only stopping in at the local supermarket for odd bits and pieces, and the challenge now is to find alternative sources for these few things. We had a win recently with finding an alternative source for toilet paper, which was one of the last remaining supermarket staples.

Important note – this was not a quick process! It has taken me two years to get from where I was to where I am now! I started slowly and just chipped away until there was almost nothing left.

So…what is left now? There are a few things that I still go to the supermarket to buy. One is tins of coconut milk. I still can’t find an organic brand that I like, so for now, I sticking with the supermarket brand. It’s not a regular purchase though; I’ve probably bought 4 tins from the supermarket so far this year. I also bought a jar of black tahini recently as I’d read about it, wanted to try it and hadn’t seen it stocked anywhere else. Eventually I’ll find alternatives for these, too. There’s no point worrying about what is still left to achieve; it is far better to celebrate successes, and I’m pretty happy that I made it this far!

Have you thought about quitting the supermarket? Have you given it a go or do you find the whole idea of taking action a little overwhelming? Maybe you are you a pro with loads of tips to share? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

I Just Wanted to Thank You

It’s been (just over) a year since I first started this blog – my first post published on 28th March 2013. When I first started writing, I wasn’t sure that anybody (apart from my mum) would actually read what I had to say, but you came and you read, you liked and you commented. So thank you!

Over the past year I’ve been figuring out what my blog is actually about. At times I wondered whether it was just an assortment of ramblings, but after a year there are definitely some reoccurring themes in there! I’m writing a blog about sustainability, health and happiness. For me, this means living simply, with less stuff (minimalism), making time for things that matter, reconnecting with the seasons and with others. It also means living with less waste, with a big focus on being plastic-free. Food is something I am also really passionate about. For me this means making food choices that don’t harm the environment or exploit others, supporting and encouraging sustainable and local food systems, and the joy of eating real food made with real ingredients that nourish, satisfy and taste amazing.

This space is also a place for me to share my knowledge and thoughts, start discussions and learn new things; to grow, to connect with others and create community. I have met so many great and interesting people through the blogging world, and learned so much and I’m sure I will continue to do so!

It’s been fantastic meeting you all over the past year, and I wanted to thank you for your support, encouragement and inspiration.

One last thing. It’s taken me a year to do it, but…drum roll… I’ve finally added a photo of myself to my site. When I first started writing I wanted to remain anonymous – I think it was the shy English girl in me that feared rejection! But as time has gone by, I’ve got a little bit more courageous, and I’ve realised it’s far nicer meeting people when you have some idea what they look like and you know their name. So, allow me to introduce myself properly at last!

I’m also planning to make a few more tweaks to the blog to make it more user-friendly. I’ve realised that there’s some good posts in here from the early days, and it would be good to make these more accessible – particularly recipes and how-to guides. So stay tuned for more updates in the coming months!

It’s been great having you along for the ride so far, and I look forward to our new adventures together!

Lindsay x

Do you know what’s in your food? (And can you trust your supermarket?)

If we all knew what went in our food and connected with where it came from, if we all shopped locally and supported independent shops rather than the big supermarkets and if we all cooked a little more from scratch, rather than buying products in packets containing dubious ingredients, then in my mind, the world would be a better place. We’d be healthier, we’d be more connected to the seasons, our food systems would be more sustainable, and local economies would thrive.

But the problem is, supermarkets dominate the landscape, we’re short of time, and so supermarkets seem like a good option. The choices are endless. There’s a lot of “choice” on those shelves that isn’t even real food. Products made with fake ingredients, pumped with preservatives and then packaged and marketed in a way that make them look enticing, often with clever and emotive language, and of course, pictures.

Most of us don’t really stop and consider all this choice. It’s overwhelming. We put our trust in the supermarkets and the companies that sell the products lining the shelves. We let them choose for us. We don’t realise that in many cases we’re being misled. Just because something looks healthy, or comes from the “healthy” aisle, or has “natural” printed all over the box, it doesn’t mean that it is.

We don’t know what’s really in those packets because we don’t take the time to study the ingredients. Most of us don’t have the time. Even if we did, spending hours in the supermarket reading all the labels may not be our idea of fun. But filling our bodies with man-made ingredients, chemicals and preservatives isn’t much fun either, and it certainly does nothing for our health. I’ve thought of a solution. Rather than encouraging you to read all the labels next time you need to buy groceries, I thought I’d make things a little bit easier. I’m bringing the labels to you.

The Bakery Aisle

There’s nothing more ironic than the “treats” lining the bakery aisle, all fillers, preservatives,  mystery ingredients and refined sugar.

tempting temptingingredientsIngredients are always listed starting with the ingredient that there is most of, in descending order. Which means these cupcakes have more sugar and water than anything else. Yes, water. In a cupcake. By adding emulsifiers, water can be mixed with oil and stabilised. It’s a sneaky way to bulk out a product on the cheap. junk15 junk16These muffins contain more flour than sugar, and more oil than water, but they’re still making use of the emulsifiers to bulk out the product with non-ingredients. You might notice at the bottom of the label that they have been “Thawed for your convenience”. So these have been made somewhere else, cooked, frozen and transported, and then defrosted in order to sit on the shelves as a bakery product. junk20Everything about these is wrong. There’s 24 E numbers, a high water content, palm oil is a listed ingredient (demand for palm oil is causing large-scale deforestation and devastating the orangutan population) as well as thickeners, preservatives and added flavourings.

The “Health Food” Aisle

To distinguish between this junk food and all the other junk food lining the shelves elsewhere in the store, the supermarket has labelled this section “health food”.

healthaisleThere is a high proportion of gluten-free snacks, but being gluten-free doesn’t automatically qualify something to be healthy. Nor does the label “organic”.

jnk2 jnk1I tried to count the ingredients of these crackers several times, but had to give up – there’s just too many. Not to mention the brackets within brackets within brackets. Food should not be this confusing.jnk3 jnk4 Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids are synthetic (man-made) fats. They are also E numbers (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides is also called E472e). Shoppers often avoid E numbers, so manufacturers write the names of the ingredients out in full to make the product appear to be more natural.jnk5 jnk6These organic vanilla bars contain brown rice, sugar, oil and salt. In fact, they contain 5 types of sugar and 2 types of oil. And that’s pretty much it. Doing the maths, these bars are 35% rice, so they are 65% oil and sugar. Yuck. They are a great example of how organic doesn’t necessarily equal healthy.

The Drinks Chiller

Adequate breakfast solutions? Hmm…jnk7 jnk8This “chocolate-flavoured beverage” has 0.5% cocoa. That’s less than 2 grams in a 350ml drink. The four main ingredients are water, sugar, powder and oil. Because the vitamins listed do not state their whole food origin, it is extremely likely that they are synthetic. Synthetic vitamins are not absorbed by our bodies as easily as natural vitamins, and don’t behave in the same way. Synthetic B6 is actually made from petroleum. jnk9 jnk10I find these ingredients crazy. If you want to drink mocha flavoured milk for breakfast, why wouldn’t you add some coffee and a spoonful of cacoa powder to your own milk in the morning, and add some sugar if you like it sweet? Why go to the shops and pay extra for milk solids, modified starch, emulsifier, flavours, salt and artificial sweeteners?jnk11 jnk12Interestingly, this pack claims a serving size is 250ml, whereas the serving size for the chocolate milk in the previous pictures was 600ml. By making the serving sizes smaller than are probably realistic, the calories, sugar and fat content seem much smaller. One serving of this contains 21.25g of sugar. But if the serving size was comparable with the other product and was 600ml, there would be 51g of sugar per serving!

So what are the solutions?

Don’t despair! If you’ve been reading this and feeling guilty, despondent, or overwhelmed, there’s really no need; there are plenty of alternative options and choices out there. Here are just a few that I’ve found helpful.

  • Make your own at home. I don’t mean making everything from scratch, all the time, if that’s not your thing. Figure out what works for you, in terms of what you like to eat, your time and your skill level. There’s always options. If you can’t bake, and haven’t got the patience to learn, what about simple raw desserts like this one?
  • Get yourself a blender. It doesn’t need to be expensive or even new (you can pick one up from somewhere like Gumtree with minimal outlay) and you can make smoothies, milkshakes and even desserts (like this chocolate mousse) in minutes. I use mine almost every day and I wouldn’t be without it.
  • Think outside the supermarket. If you like the convenience of ready-made, look around your local area for a bakery, a deli and a butcher/fishmonger that make things from scratch and sell them fresh. My local bakery bakes their bread every morning on site. The local butcher makes ready-to-go meals daily, and the fishmonger sells chowder, sushi and marinara mix in addition to the usual fish.
  • Farmers’ markets are the perfect place to find local producers, and a great place to pick up all kinds of delicious treats. Usually you’ll get the chance to talk to the people who actually make the products so you can find out what goes into them, hear about new things they are planning to try out, and even make your own suggestions.
  • If you’re time-poor, vegetable box schemes are a great option and often deliver far more than fruit and vegetables to your door. Riverford in the UK deliver organic pies, tarts, soups and vegetable burgers as well as dairy products and pantry staples, in addition to their core business of fruit and vegetables.
  • If you really need convenience options and can’t ditch the supermarket, try the freezer aisle. Freezing food is a way of preserving it, because of this frozen foods don’t need fake ingredients and extra preservatives to prolong their shelf life. That’s not to say there isn’t some junk in this department too, but it can be a better alternative than the chilled aisles.
  • Don’t beat yourself up when you do buy and eat something rubbish, and definitely don’t give up. Just because you ate one Dunkin’ Donut, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure and doomed to eat Dunkin’ Donuts forevermore. Or that because you ate one, you may as well finish off another 11. Or because you ate one, that you’ll never be healthy/be able to quit the supermarket/be perfect etc etc. Accept that we all have moments of weakness, forgive yourself, dust yourself off, and try again.

Whilst I do think it’s important that we realise what’s in our food, that’s not to say that there’s not a place for convenience – we all have busy lives. But the better our food choices are, the better we feel – both inside and out. Choosing real food helps support farmers, growers and local businesses. Ultimately it gives us more options, better quality, and safer, healthier, more nutritious food, whilst encouraging farming and production systems that don’t deplete soils, damage the environment or harm wildlife. Who wouldn’t want that?

What do you think about convenience foods? Do you have anything you struggle with, or any great tips or things that have worked for you in avoiding junk? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

What I Learned from Quitting Sugar

At the end of last year, I decided to try quitting sugar. For a while I’d been noticing articles popping up in the media about the negative health impacts of sugar. I looked into it a little more: I read David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison and also I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson. I had long conversations with my next-door neighbour about the book Primal Body Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas (which I attempted to read myself, but couldn’t motivate myself past the introduction – it’s a dry read). I decided to jump on the sugar-quitting bandwagon, and try it out myself.

The Science-y Bit

If you’ve missed the “sugar-is-actually-really-bad-for-you” frenzy, let me briefly explain. The word “sugar” actually refers to a number of different compounds characterised by a sweet taste. Simple sugars include glucose and fructose.  Table sugar (sucrose) is actually a double sugar made from fructose and glucose. Carbohydrates are complex sugars that can be broken down by the body into glucose.

Our body needs sugar (namely glucose) to function. But it doesn’t need the immense quantities that most people eat every day. Almost all packet foods have added sugar, even the “healthy” ones like muesli bars and granola. Those low-fat options that we were told were better for us? All have far more sugar than the standard versions. Sauces and condiments are also often packed with extra sugar. It’s everywhere.

After the low-fat revolution of the 1980s led to higher rates of obesity and diabetes, researchers discovered that fat wasn’t making us fat. The culprit is sugar. The American Heart Association recommend only 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men (one teaspoon is a little under 5 grams). It is estimated that the average American consumes more than 42 teaspoons of sugar every day!

The sugar that’s receiving all the bad press is fructose. It’s the sugar found in fruit, and also in table sugar and honey (which is usually around 50% fructose). Our bodies don’t respond to fructose in the same way as with other sugars. Whilst eating glucose or carbohydrates causes a hormonal response that makes us feel full, fructose doesn’t work in this way. Not having an off-switch means we’re far more likely to over-indulge. And when we have more fructose in our bodies than our liver can break down, our bodies convert it into fat.

It’s not just about weight-gain, either. Research has suggested that fructose is linked to the development of a number of cancers including pancreatic and small intestine cancers, it inhibits our immune system, causes inflammation,  it speeds up aging, it impacts our digestive system, and many more.

All of this is pretty scary stuff. If that wasn’t enough to convince me to give it a try, the promises of feeling clearer mentally, of having more energy, of not succumbing to sugar cravings (and accidentally eating an entire chocolate bar when I only meant to eat two squares) definitely were.

Quitting Sugar

What I didn’t Eat

In order to quit sugar, there’s a surprising number of things to avoid:

  • There’s the obvious added sugar of course, which means avoiding most packaged foods. As I don’t eat packaged food anyways, this wasn’t a problem for me. If you do eat anything from a packet or jar, check the label – the amounts of sugar might shock you!
  • All of the “natural” sugars, like honey, maple syrup and molasses are still sugar, so they were crossed off too.
  • All fruit, including dried fruit…and this includes tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes. Remember how in school we were always taught that they were a fruit? Well, it applies now. Have you ever seen how much sugar sun-dried tomatoes contain? No wonder they are so tasty!
  • Sweet vegetables, including sweet potatoes, beetroot and carrots, which all contain fructose.

What I Did Eat

So what was left?

  • Proteins such as fish and eggs. I don’t eat meat, and I don’t eat a lot of fish, so this meant eating a lot of eggs.
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • Leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables.

How Did I Find It?

If you’re looking at that list above thinking it all sounds very boring, then I’m going to tell you – it was. It was extremely boring. In I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson advocates eating a lot of meat and dairy. I don’t eat either of these, and this severely limited my options. I ate virtually the same meals every day for two weeks – which made me question whether I was missing out on valuable nutrients by cutting out so much.

As to how it made me feel… I didn’t get the amazing clarity of mind that I was expecting. But I didn’t get the sugar cravings that I read I should expect, either. Everything just carried on as before. I don’t really know how much sugar I was eating before, but I guess my body didn’t need the big sugar detox I had expected it would.

Lessons from Quitting Sugar

It was a good experiment, and I’m glad I did it because it made me more mindful of the sugar in my diet. More importantly, it made me realise how much enjoyment I get from food – from cooking, to eating, to sharing with others – and that wasn’t something I was willing to sacrifice. Food is my creative outlet. My experiment coincided with the start of mango season; I realised I didn’t want to be eating omelettes for breakfast when there was so much beautiful fresh produce out there for me to enjoy.

fruit2It is worth recognising that other people’s journeys aren’t the same as our own. David Gillespie, who wrote Sweet Poison, was struggling with obesity when he quit sugar; he was also eating and drinking a lot of processed food. Sarah Wilson has an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s, and reducing her sugar intake helps her manage this. Neither of these conditions apply to me, and so I don’t have the same incentives to make quitting sugar a way of life.

Plenty of bloggers, writers and recipe creators out there talk about quitting sugar, and being sugar free, when what they mean is refined sugar-free. Don’t get confused by the two. Honey, particularly raw honey, is thought to have great health-improving properties, but it is still sugar. Berries, such as blueberries, are extremely high in antioxidants, and are considered superfoods because of their high nutritional content, but they are a fruit, and fruit contains sugar. If you want to enjoy these and many more amazing foods, then do! Just don’t kid yourself that you are eating a completely sugar-free diet.

What works for me is quitting refined sugar. That means I can still eat fruit, and I can still bake, but I choose sugars that have not been highly processed and still retain nutrients. They are more expensive than table sugar – which helps limit the quantities I eat! (I’ll cover unrefined sugars in another blog post.)

If you want more information about sugar, I’d recommend reading both the books I mentioned at the start (I found both of these in my local library). The science behind sugar is really interesting, and I think it’s important that we connect with the food we eat in as many ways as possible.

Have you tried quitting sugar? How did you find it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Oven-Roasted Chickpea Recipe – a plastic free alternative to potato chips?

When we gave up buying food that came packaged in plastic, one of the hardest things for my boyfriend to give up was potato chips. He’d wander down the crisps aisle forlornly, rustling each packet and declaring I’m pretty sure this one is plastic-free! It feels like paper! See?

Sadly though, potato chips do not come in paper. They are all wrapped in plastic, even though the plastic is often cunningly disguised as paper, or foil (you can do the scrunch test to figure out if something is wrapped in plastic or foil. Scrunch it up; if it springs back into its un-scrunched position, it’s plastic).

Because of this we’ve had to find alternatives. I’ve not tried making my own from real potatoes yet, although I haven’t ruled it out for the future.

We found a bulk bin store that sells sweet potato chips, but they are very expensive and not something we buy often.

I’ve recently experimented with making kale chips (not as weird as they sound, although yes, they are made with kale), which are actually quite tasty, but you need a lot of kale for not that many chips, which makes them another costly option, and you can’t fit that many in the oven at once, so it’s quite a laborious process.

Our staple replacement is popcorn, made with popping corn kernels bought at the bulk bin store. It’s cheap, super easy/quick to make, and satisfying. Of course it tastes nothing like potato chips (it tastes like popcorn, obviously) but it meets that need for a savoury, salty snack that can be delivered by the handful.

Popcorn may be the current favourite, but there is now a new contender on the block – roasted chickpeas. I got the inspiration for this from a couple of places. I’ve seen them for sale in the bulk food stores, and if you’ve ever eaten Bombay mix or similar Indian-style snacks you’ve probably had them yourself.

Secondly, I always buy dry chickpeas and cook my own, usually 1kg at a time, as they freeze amazingly well and I try to avoid cans where possible to save waste. This always seems like a great idea, but when I’m storing the resulting 3kg of cooked chickpeas I’m thinking of novel ways to try to use them up so I don’t feel quite so intimidated every time I open the freezer door.

I’m not going to tell you that they taste like potatoes. Of course they don’t. I am going to tell you that if you want a salty, crunchy alternative that you can munch away by the handful, plastic-free, then roasted chickpeas are seriously worth considering.

They’re cheap and simple to make. Have them plain, or flavour them. I’m still experimenting with what flavours I like best, so I’ve given you a couple of ideas to get started.

chickpeasfinal

Recipe – Roasted Chickpeas

Ingredients:

2 cups cooked chickpeas (380g approx)
2 tbsp macadamia oil
Spice mix: 3/4 tsp turmeric, 3/4 tsp ground cumin, 1 1/2 tsp paprika (or omit altogether for plain chickpeas)
Salt and pepper

Method:

Pre-heat oven to 180°C.

Rinse chickpeas and spread onto a clean dry tea towel to remove excess water. Remove any loose skins and discard.

Put into bowl, add oil, spices (if using) and salt and pepper, and mix well until all the chickpeas are coated.

Line a roasting tin with greaseproof paper and empty chickpeas into tin, spreading out as much as possible. Place in oven and cook for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and to ensure they cook evenly.

Remove and allow to cool completely. They will continue to harden as they cool (don’t be alarmed if they still feel soft when you take them out of the oven). Store in a glass jar if not eating immediately.

Chickpeas2 Spicemix1 Chickpeaspices1 chickpeas3 roastedchickpeas roastedchickpeas2 Enjoy! If you have a go at making them, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments!

The Irony of the “Treat”

Why is it, that when we think of treats, we often think of the over-processed, over-packaged, sugary, additive-filled, preservative-pumped, nutritionally-devoid excuses for food that we can buy at the supermarkets? I used to think that way, and I’d head to the supermarket to pick up a sugar-laden, calorie-filled, preservative-packed “treat” whenever I felt like I deserved a reward, wanted to celebrate, or was feeling sorry for myself.

Thing is, after that initial euphoria that came with eating said “treat”, I’d end up feeling less than special. All that refined sugar and refined carbohydrates would make me feel tired and lethargic.

I’d often end up bloated and with stomach ache.

I’d feel guilty – for having filled my body with junk, for having wasted my money, for not having the willpower to eschew junk food altogether and treat myself to a relaxing bath instead. The kind of guilt that could possibly be placated by the soothing comfort of a chocolate bar – and so it would continue.

I used to think like that, but I’ve changed. I haven’t stopped enjoying treats though – I still love chocolate and cake and all of those things. What’s happened is I’ve discovered that it’s possible to enjoy treats that still taste amazing and are made ingredients that are actually good for us. More on that later.

profiteroles and ingredients

Custard-filled profiteroles. But seriously, have you seen the ingredients?! How is filling your body with rubbish like that any way to treat yourself?

This change wasn’t a quick process. A combination of a few things – increasing interest in my health, a desire to stop buying things in plastic packaging and a passion for sustainable food – led me down this path, but it took time to learn and adjust. Once I was on the path though, I knew there was no going back.

I can’t tell you how much better I feel. When I eat something packed with nutrients, there’s no way I feel guilty! Food made with real ingredients fills me up, tastes far better, and the flavours linger… which helps stop me eating 100 cookies all at once.

If I served you a banana, an avocado and some walnuts for breakfast you’d probably think that was pretty healthy. And possibly also a little boring. But chuck it in a blender and add some cacao powder and a few other bits and pieces and you have chocolate mousse. For breakfast. How awesome is that?!

chocmouseebreakfast

Yep, this was breakfast! Chocolate mousse topped with walnuts and cacao nibs, with oatbran and cashew nut milk. What a way to start the day!

The point of a treat is just that. It is a treat. A treat should be something that makes us feel good. But this feeling shouldn’t just come simply from the knowledge that we are indulging ourselves. It should also come from the fact that we are indulging in something that will nourish us, that will provide our bodies with what it needs to feel good, to repair itself, to restore us.

With food, this means something that will continue to benefit our bodies long after the taste has left our lips. What is the point in “treating ourselves” to something that tastes sugary and satisfying but as soon as it is gone we are plagued with regret, because we know it is actually bad for us – full of preservatives and fillers but devoid of any nutritional benefit?

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m super passionate about food! So this year, one major focus on the blog is going to be to try to inspire you in the ways of clean eating, by making and sharing simple recipes (with probably far too much focus on desserts and sweet treats!) that are packed with things that are good for us and make us feel great. You don’t need to be a great cook. For some of them you won’t even need an oven! Simplicity is best.

Here’s to a year of deliciousness : )

How to Eat Clean

My last post was about clean eating, what it is and why it is so important. I thought I’d follow up with this post on how to eat clean… in the real world.

A lot of clean eating guidelines just aren’t practical. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be filling up on cheap but nutritionally devoid foods like white rice, pasta and white bread that offer us no health benefits. In an ideal world, we’d all be buying fresh, seasonal produce by the trolley-load, drinking cold-pressed juice daily and we’d all be fantastic home cooks and bakers with limitless free time to spend on preparing the best meals we can. But we don’t all live in an ideal world, we live in a world where good quality food is expensive, time is at a premium and it seems much easier to grab a piece of toast and rush out of the door in the morning than it is to knock up a almond flour pancake stack with stewed fresh fruit and homemade yoghurt.

The good news is, there’s plenty of things we can do to make our diet cleaner, whether we’re short of money, or time, or even motivation. Here’s a few ideas.

Be Prepared to Spend a Little More

It is definitely possible to eat clean on a budget, but you will need to spend more than the bare minimum if you want to eat fresh, clean food. For people who are genuinely struggling to make ends meet, clean eating may not be a priority. But for most of us, we have a choice about what we spend our money on. For me, eating good quality food is more important than spending money on an expensive phone contract or a magazine subscription. Our food is our health insurance. (In fact, as someone without health insurance, it literally is my health insurance.) That’s not to say we need to spend a fortune. Spending a little bit more in the right places goes a long way.

Organic versus Non-Organic

Organic food isn’t a modern concept or a fancy premium product invented for the rich. It’s how our grandparents used to eat, before modern unsustainable practices took over in the quest for ever increasing yields and ever increasing profits. Organic food is better for us and for the planet, and if I could afford to, I would ensure all of the food I bought was organic. Who wants to eat pesticide residues?! However, it can be seriously expensive!

Eating clean means eating fruit and vegetables untainted by pesticides. Pesticide levels vary on conventional produce from plant to plant, so some are safer than others. For those of us on a budget, the US-based Environmental Working Group does a fantastic job each year of telling us which ones have the safest levels and which ones are the highest risk.

dirtydozenIf you can’t afford to switch your entire shop to organic, try to switch the so-called dirty dozen (the ones containing the highest pesticide levels): apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, chillies, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, bell peppers/capsicum, kale and courgette/zucchini. If you can’t afford to purchase organic at all, try to limit how many of these foods you consume per week.

EWG found that people who ate conventional products daily from this list were ingesting 10 pesticides per day.

Ditch the Supermarket

Food should be exciting and inspiring! Supermarkets are soulless, depressing places… crowded, noisy and without natural light, where we are bombarded with “choice” yet can never find what we want. Yet, it is extremely easy to find all the processed overpackaged rubbish we don’t want – and no doubt it is on ‘special’ too. How many times do we buy things we don’t really want because we were seduced by the saving?! Special offers don’t mean money saved, they mean money spent. The best way to avoid temptation is not to shop there.

SPECIAL

There’s nothing ‘special’ about wasting our money on food that we don’t need and isn’t good for us!

In supermarkets, fresh doesn’t mean fresh. They have huge centralised distribution centres so “fresh” produce spends days on the road and days more in storage before reaching the shelves. It’s picked before it’s ripe so it lasts longer, but this impacts the taste. To top it off, it’s usually far more expensive than you’d pay at a farmers market or local farm shop… especially organics.

If you really don’t have any option available to you other than your local supermarket, try to keep to the edges and avoid the middle aisles. When buying fruit and veg, to get an idea of what’s in season, look at the country of origin and choose local.

Buy Loose

If you want to save money (and reduce your packaging consumption) find a bulk store where food is sold by weight and priced by the kilo. Prices are usually far lower than the supermarkets, and no endless fiddly packets either. The range is also far greater. Items that often appear on the exotic world food aisles with their exotic prices in supermarkets are a fraction of the price at these stores.

bulk1Shop Local

The Farmers’ Market is your friend. Fruit and vegetables are far fresher than those in the shops, they’re are seasonal, and far cheaper. Plus you can chat to the producers themselves! It’s not just fruit and veggies that you can pick up. Often there’s cheese, meat, fish, olive oil, eggs, bread and endless tasty wholesome treats to be had. Farmers Markets have a great atmosphere; they’re welcoming and relaxed, and make the whole shopping experience far more pleasurable. And that’s what food is about, right?

If you’re not a fan of the early rises that accompany Farmers Markets, let the shopping come to you! There’s plenty of local vegetable box schemes that deliver right to our doors, and they often deliver milk, eggs and grocery items too. If you lead a busy life, this can be a huge help, saving you time and energy.  And if you’re really not a fan of grocery shopping and tend to put it off until you literally have nothing left to eat, a delivery scheme ensures your fridge stays full and you don’t need to resort to emergency pizza to fend off starvation.

When we buy our food, we are making a choice about our future. If we want to live the fullest lives we can, to achieve all the things that we want to do, and be there for our communities, our children and our grandchildren, then we need to look after ourselves.

If we don’t look after our bodies, where are we going to live?