Purge your Presses!
If you want to clean up your diet, start by clearing out your kitchen. Here, Claire O'Mahony asks the experts what should be binned - and what should always be in stock for a healthy menu
It's rare to find the person who hasn't made some form of dietary overhaul a part of their 2018 self-improvement plan. These can be terribly ambitious schemes involving Draconian carb- and alcohol-free measures, or it might be the vague promise to yourself to 'eat healthier' this year. But whether the target is weight loss, improved gut health, increasing your energy levels or overcoming an expensive takeaway addiction, it's literally a case of getting your house in order first. Becoming organised and tackling a kitchen purge and restock is the necessary first step towards hitting the reset button on your eating habits, and arguably a more constructive way to spend January than weeping over your bank balance or holing up with boxsets.
Dietitian Sarah Keogh, who runs nutrition consultancy Eatwell, advises doing a full and proper clean out of your food presses and binning everything that's out of date. "We all have jars and packages that are just sitting there and the clutter is a problem," she says. Instead, she says that store cupboards should be stocked with ingredients that can make a quick and healthy meal for those days when you're tired and hungry and tempted to order in. "I know people have concerns about baked beans but the amount of actual added sugar in there is tiny and what you have is protein and fibre and all these other nutrients, so beans on toast as an emergency dinner is fantastic," she says. "Tins of salmon and tuna mixed with tomato sauce on pasta are a quick dinner for those evenings that you don't feel like cooking. I would look at adding seeds and nuts, particularly seeds, as they're incredibly packed with nutrition, so have a few in the press to put on yoghurt, breakfast cereals and salad. They're really positive things to do for your health in the New Year."
She also believes in the rule 'if it's not there, you can't eat it'. "I'm not a fan of never having any one thing, but I do think that if you have a treat, you're better off to buy it on the Friday and eat it on the Friday," she says. "What I see people do is stock up and have biscuits in the house 'just in case' somebody calls. That's fair enough but these days, how often do people drop over unannounced? The thing I often say to people sitting in the clinic is that you can make scones in 20 minutes. Everyone loves a scone and a cup of tea. If you're sitting on the couch at night watching TV and you fancy something, do you fancy it enough to go and make it? That's when you'll find out if you really want something sweet."
If whipping up a batch of scones is beyond your culinary capacity, Sarah says that learning how to cook even very simple things this January is time well spent. "I think that we forget that healthy food can taste amazing and be comforting. Soup takes 15 minutes of actual work, and soda bread is an hour cooking but only takes five minutes to make."
Another suggestion she has for keeping a healthy eating track is to take an hour, sit down and write a three-week menu. "Some people might think it's very boring to have a menu but you'd be astonished at how your nutrition improves when you have a planned menu. January is a nice time to flick through recipes and see what you might do. And if I cook Bolognese, chilli or stews, I make three times the amount and freeze two dinners' worth, and that takes the same amount of work to make."
Tara Walker of Louth's East Coast Cookery School says that doing a good shop is key so that you always have the ingredients to hand for a healthy lunch or dinner. Canned goods - chickpeas, sweetcorn, beans, tomatoes - allow you to throw together a quick salad. "Something I often have for lunch myself is a tin of cannellini beans, a tin of tuna and some cherry tomatoes or cucumber from the fridge." She too is a firm believer advocate of stocking up your freezer. "Personally I get a little bit bored eating the same thing and if I make a pasta, Bolognese or stew, I'll probably only want to eat it twice over the coming weeks so I like making a base recipe and get a few different things out of it," she says. "You can make a big batch of nice tomato sauce and pop that in the freezer. Then you can use it for homemade pizzas using wholemeal wraps as a base, which is a really quick supper. Another thing you can do with a tomato sauce is a prawn arrabbiata, which I serve with spelt spaghetti. All you have to do is heat the tomato sauce in the pot, add your prawns in with a bit of chilli if you want and it's such a quick healthy, low-fat dinner."
She advises always having things like a couple of bags of mince in the freezer, as well as fish like salmon and hake that can be taken out and defrosted in the morning for dinner that evening. When you have store cupboard essentials like balsamic vinegar, oils, and spices, you'll always have an easy meal at your disposal, she adds.
Even curry pastes, which have a reputation for being complicated and time-consuming to make, can be simplified, Walker says. "A homemade curry paste can be made by mixing a teaspoon of cumin, ginger, turmeric and coriander with a bit of oil and you can use that to make a chicken curry or marinate a piece of chicken and roast it in the oven if you want it to be really quick and easy. Or spread the paste over some hake or cod, put some tinfoil over it, and put it in the oven for about 15 minutes. The curry paste will mix with the juices of the fish and give you a nice sauce, and then just throw on some brown basmati rice, which doesn't take too long to cook. Just make it as simple as possible to eat healthily."
Veganism is predicted to be one of this year's biggest food trends with a record number of people taking on the Veganuary challenge for the month of January. Surfer and blogger Finn Ní Fhaoláin, who released her first cookbook Finn's World isn't going full vegan but instead is doing what she calls "Veganuary Light". A key ingredient for her this month - and one she believes is a handy staple for everyone - is the multitasker coconut milk. "I've started replacing the yoghurt in my porridge with coconut milk; it can go in a butternut squash soup for lunch and curries for dinner." For those trying to reduce their meat intake, she recommends having lots of tinned beans, like haricot and butter varieties in the pantry. "I'm putting them in salads with chopped up baby boiled potatoes, spinach and peppers," she says. "Or else I'm blitzing them with a blender and turning them into veggie burgers which are really handy to freeze and then just stick under the grill." Another of her kitchen must-haves is frozen berries. "It's a handy one instead of buying fresh blueberries and strawberries, which can be expensive and maybe not so good at this time of year. I stew them up in a pot and when they've cooled down add chia seeds and maple syrup for a healthy jam - although you do end up eating it by the spoon." And if you still have a surplus of Brussels sprouts lurking in your kitchen she urges you not to throw them out: "I peel off the outer layers, putting an x in the bottom and freeze them in batches. Anytime I need some greens for dinner, I take out a portion, stick a little bit of olive oil on them and bake them in a hot oven for 20 minutes until they become crispy."
Whatever your healthy eating aspirations are, dietitian Sarah Keogh stresses staying realistic.
"Everyone sets out and thinks they're going to overhaul their diet and be perfect at the end of the month. You're not. Pick one habit and spend three weeks getting used to it and then pick another one," she says. "I'm a big fan of what you're going to add in rather than what you're going to take out. My favourite thing to start people off in January is fruit for breakfast every day. Whatever else you're having for breakfast, add a banana, add an apple, add a handful of berries. In terms of long-term impact on your health, you're getting more fibre, which helps reduce things like bowel cancer, but it also fills you up and you're less likely to get hungry for a mid-morning snack; you've got all the lovely antioxidants in there which protect against heart disease, cancer, diabetes and that is a serious investment in your health."
Professional food stylist and home cook Jette Verdi outlines the ingredients she always has close to hand to make healthy, satisfying meals from scratch.
Tins of tomatoes
They can go into everything from a spaghetti Bolognese sauce to a really yummy coconut and tomato soup.
Fresh turmeric and fresh ginger (in the freezer)
They keep for three to six months; you can just grate them from frozen and it's the easiest way to use them. A lot of the powdered spices aren't 100pc pure and sometimes if you buy a cheap ginger powder, it can lose its strength.
This is always in my cupboards.
These can make a warming soup or a nourishing dahl.
Cider vinegar and rapeseed oil
I love cooking with rapeseed oil and it's great in salads. With cider vinegar, you can make any kind of dressing, like combining it with honey, or garlic and it's also so good for you.
I tend to use everything fresh, as much as possible, because I find that I don't use them enough to buy a little jar of dried parsley and by the time I'm half way done, you can't taste it anymore. But I do have dried cinnamon and nutmeg and cumin, and use cumin in everything.
Soak these overnight and cook the next day and make a really simple warming curry and have it with brown rice.
I put this in when I'm cooking rice to give it added flavour.
Mixed up with an egg and some water or coconut milk and you've got a really yummy thin pancake mix, which you can have with things like savoury stuffed mushrooms for lunch.
For curries, or things like butternut squash and coconut soup which is so easy to do.
Mix these with oats the day before and whack it in the microwave the next day for an easy breakfast that you don't have to think about.
One that's 70pc. If I'm making a really rich stew I might grate some of this in. And it's also useful to have when you want to take the edge off things - have a little square of this and you'll be fine.