It’s Not All Hummus and Quinoa: A response to the Telegraph and Becky Dickinson

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Telegraph writer Becky Dickinson went vegan – sort of – with her family for a week to see what all the fuss was about. I was curious, having very much enjoyed reading about Guardian foodie, Jay Rayner’s week of veganism back in 2008. It was a funny and honest account. Vegan food is slowly becoming more mainstream and I hoped that it wouldn’t be approached as some alien matter in 2015. I was wrong.

I am sure that Becky Dickinson did her research for the article before committing to a week of a new diet, as you would expect anyone to do when entering a new diet. She had certainly contacted the Vegan Society as a first point of call and made contact with a nutritionalist; whose comments I will address later. Although it doesn’t seem like she has talked to any vegan families about what they eat, how they transitioned. Or if she did then she went into this with her mind set that it would be awful that there was really no point in her doing it.

“What’s more, I’ve always harboured a secret view that those who abstain from major food groups, often under the guise of self-diagnosed intolerances, are at best a tiny bit annoying, at worst, neurotic.”

I am very aware of public perception of vegans but it is important to say that people chose to not eat meat and dairy for many reasons, not just ethical and health ones.

If you’re going to get your family to change your diet for a week, you have to plan, adapt food from what they already like. Get a few cookbooks for a start and find out what easy oven dishes are available.

Cook books: a source of knowledge and tasty food.

Cook books: a source of knowledge and tasty food.

Of course kids can be tricky eaters at time. My own son had started to refuse onions in everything. This makes for some interesting meal concoctions at times. But the thing about vegan cooks is they love sharing what they do, they want to celebrate the wonderful food they are making so you don’t have to be creative. Just check out Vegan Dad or the PPK for starters.

What you don’t do is try replace fish fingers and chips with quinoa. It is setting the whole thing up for failure. It read to me as though the writer simply googled ‘what do vegans eat?’ and got the answer ‘lentils and quinoa’. Sure, not everyone’s child will eat lentils because they’ve probably not tried them before. It takes time to introduce new food. Why make life hard for yourself? And why reference the much discredited Gillian McKeith?

If Becky Dickinson had truly wanted her kids to give the vegan trial a go, why not start simple? Linda McCartney sausages with chips or mash. Fishless fingers, or some of the other great vegan frozen food that the major supermarkets and smaller health stores are producing these days. Ease into it before plating up the “frog spawn”. If the writer herself was going to be negative about the food, then the kids really weren’t going to get behind the whole thing.

Then there was the quote from Dr Eva Detko:

“Putting growing children on vegan diets is not the best idea and I certainly wouldn’t do it to my child.” 

It is almost a step away from saying a vegan diet is a danger to a child. This is certainly not the case. I have two very strong, healthy, well-developed children raised on a vegan diet fully for one and in the majority for the other. If humans couldn’t grow and develop on the plants around them then why are some cultures across the globe who exist on a plant-based diet still in existence? Or putting it in more scientific terms than I can, read up on two doctors who can explain why a vegan diet is healthy over at Forks Over Knives.

These comments just remind me of the eternal conversation I have with my health visitor over my very healthy vegan daughter. I will be asked where she gets her dairy from if not from animals. I respond that she is still breastfed and gets all the dairy she needs but perhaps the question to be asked is where she will get omega-3, calcium, iron, protein. If meat eaters get theirs from animals, where do the animals get their nutrients from to produce it in their bodies for us? Okay that is putting it in very simplistic terms but it is worth thinking about. Plants give enough nutrients for humans to live and thrive.

When my son was younger and still vegan we needed to take him into hospital. He had blood tests taken to check what was wrong with him and his nutrient levels came back as perfect as could be. His vegan diet was helping him thrive.

As I had been stewing over the article all day and the missed opportunity it was I realised that this is what most people think when going vegan. They go to extremes to crack and give up. They don’t understand the point of meat replacements (erm, it is not meat), and a week of being vegan probably would be hell. I just wish that Becky Dickinson had gone into this with a bit more positivity and planning.

So here is my day of being vegan with my daughter and the tasty, nutrient-packed meals we ate to help her grow and have a great relationship with food.

IMG_3543We eat as a family so the kids get a version of what we are eating in the day. It helps them try new things. My lunch today was a bean burger made with vital wheat gluten, which give it a meaty texture and look. I got the recipe from a vegan athlete blog. It was served with a potato salad and a green side salad with alfalfa sprouts. The kids grow the sprouts a few times a week, it’s fun and they like eating what they have grown. Sprouted beans help the body absorb vitamins and minerals.

IMG_3547This is my daughter’s easy-to-make and not very creative lunch.

IMG_3553And this is her enjoying it.

Friday night is pizza night in our house. Often I make tofu ‘ricotta’ from a recipe, occasionally buy fake cheese or if I am being lazy just use olive oil and nutritional yeast. It tastes cheesy and contains the illusive vitamin B12.

IMG_3576I forgot to get extra bases in. When I have time, I get my eldest to help make our own dough but it is rare we get chance. So we pop to the supermarket for pre-made if I remember.

IMG_3578Instead I got to eat some quick comfort food.

IMG_3581 IMG_3586Empty plates all round and not a spot of hummus all day.

We love our food and we love trying new things. I just wish the Telegraph had given the article to someone who seemed more positive about a week long trial. It might have opened a whole new world of food to them as it did to me when I took the plunge 10 years ago. I still miss cheese and cheap chocolate but I love the great choice of vegan food I get these days. Even in my little market town out of London.

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5 Lessons in getting fit

For the first time since I was in my early 20s I weigh less than 10 stone. Or if I use my friend’s very flattering bathroom scales, 9 and a half stone. That is well over one stone of weight loss since my journey to pre-child body began. I still have a long way to go but I have learned rather a lot along the way about myself, the person I want to be and my relationship with my body. This is what I know.

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1. #No Excuses

What a load of crap that is for a start. I don’t have any excuses for why I don’t exercise daily and lose weight quicker. I have lots of very good reasons as to why it is impossible for me to do so. Let’s start with the fact I am exhausted by the time I get the kids into bed, then have to yo-yo up the stairs as they tag team waking until I take my tired carcass to bed. After which, my youngest wakes a few times in the night meaning the choice between waking early to exercise or 30 minutes of sleep is a no brainer.

I would rather be chunky Mum than tired and angry Mum. And I think my kids would prefer that too. Quite frankly all that running up the stairs must be doing something.

2. Fit it in where you can.

I have a weekly date with the kettlebell class at my local gym whilst my son has his swimming lessons. Sure I’d love to watch my boy flap about in the pool but it is a guaranteed 30 minutes of exercise each week that burns 500 calories. Plus it doubles as ‘alone time’ if I ignore the menopausal women with better arms than me.

I also figured out that walking back from the nursery run with the new one on my front burns quite a few calories. So on the days I do the drop off, rain on shine I go for a walk. If I stay out all day it all tots up to almost 8 miles.

3. Food

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Ah the food porn of Instagram. I was invited to join a vegan cooking group on Facebook but a well-meaning friend. I say well meaning because the group was more about weight loss than it was about vegan cooking.

I fully support anyone embracing the plant-based lifestyle for whatever their reasons, it is just that mine are not centred around weight loss. I love my food, I enjoy cooking it and eating it. I love eating healthy, colourful food as well. But I also love cake. Lots and lots of cake. Which is why I have developed a sure fire way of eating well and not gorging on cake: do not buy the cake. Or the biscuits. Or that chocolate bar. If it is not in the house by 7pm then I cannot physically shovel it down my throat while justifying it with the breastfeeding calories. Breastfeeding will never burn off eating a whole packet of Lazy Day Tiffins, which ever way I look at it.

This kindly person, when I joked about my post-birth body suggested I hire a personal trainer. As cheap as the gym, she said. Ah but not as cheap as my tried and tested ‘eat well and exercise more’ method and also read Lesson Number 1 up there.

I have also learned that if I do accidentally lose an entire packet of tiffins down my throat or over eat on the fresh bread from the market that it is not the end of the world. Guilt will only make it worse. Everyone has bad eating days and you know what? The next day will be much better.

4. Use what you have around you.

Getting fit and strong doesn’t need gadgets, fancy clothes or equipment. I don’t have a gym membership, I wear my £5 leggings and an even cheaper vest. I forked out on a decent sports bra because we all know that bras matter. But that is it. I am a little obsessed with the Queen of all Fitness, Gillian Micheals but at a fiver a pop for a DVD, that’s not too bad.

Instead I use my kids. Bench presses with the baby, work out the legs while she goes ‘flying’, become a swing as I do squats and bicep curls to lift her. With the older one, a quick trip to the park and 10 minutes on the see-saw is more squats than I’d do all week.

You Tube is also amazing for free work out videos. I like a challenge to kick start a new routine in my day so I take up a 30 day challenge of yoga. Sure I maybe only get through 5 days and of that my kids try join in too so make that 3 and half. Possibly spread over two weeks. But we had fun doing it.

5. With great age comes great wisdom.

Or something like that. Basically, I have come to accept that I do not have the body of a 20 year old. I get my bikini body the old fashioned way: I buy a bikini and I put it on my body.

There was a time that I thought I would never wear a bikini again. I last wore one when I was 24, in a hot tub in Estonia where only my best friend would be subjected to the horror of my slightly squishy body. Then pregnancy happened.

I went from looking like rivlets of blood were scored down my torso to a chubby Barbie left too close to the fire. At first I cried and then I thought sod it because I love my children more than I dislike my stomach scars. I am rounded and a bit soft around the edges because I need to be. I am still breastfeeding so there’s not going to be any hardened abs happening soon.

Not only that but sometimes I go on the weekly family swim without shaving. I know, there are people in my town who now know I am capable of growing body hair, that I’ve reached puberty with all the dark hairs that go with it. I gleefully do kettlebells whilst flashing my pits. I walk through the change room with hairs on my legs. It is liberating how much I have accepted my body and wish, oh so wish, I had done so a decade ago.

10 Years On

10 years ago I had my 15 minutes of blogging fame. I was in newspapers and magazines, asked to appear on Japanese TV and do a talk in Amsterdam. This was because I wrote about what happened on the Piccadilly line train on July 7 2005 and what I went through afterwards. I was young and angry and needed the space to work out how I felt about what had happened to me. I didn’t always make the right choices but through the blog and subsequent media I met people who were on my train and at the other sites and some of these people remain my friends today.

Once a month, passengers on my train would meet up in a pub in Islington. We were called Kings Cross United. It was wonderful to talk to people who knew what I was feeling, were going through the same set of emotions and when some well meaning people around me told me that I should ‘just be over it by now’, the others from the train could tell me that I wasn’t being mad or melodramatic.

I have emotional scars from that day which I will probably carry with me for the rest of my life, but that is okay because I have the life. Flying will always be a problem, as will rollercoasters in the dark. Actually, I’m no longer very good with rollercoasters at all, which is slightly annoying as I used to love them. But that is okay, I’ve accepted these things.

It was with these other survivors that I went to the original memorial at St Paul’s and every year I take a moment to think of those who didn’t get off the train that day.

This week I received an invite to a 10th Anniversary service. It was unexpected, as much as the wave of emotion that hit me when I read the email. I knew that 10 years had passed but I hadn’t given much thought to it until that point and I stood in the street as I read the email and cried. I still don’t know why I cried.

I spent the walk home thinking about the intervening years and how my life had changed. Ten years ago, I could truly feel that my life was split between pre- and post attack. How I saw the world around me had changed and so had I. Now it feels like this event happened to someone else. I have told my story so many times that it is as though I am reciting something I had once read rather than something I have experienced. I am so far away from the person I was back then as well. I no longer feel that my life has been split in two but is ever evolving through the big and the little things alike.

On the walk home I decided that it wasn’t right that I attend the service for many reasons. I no longer live in London for a start and the places in the cathedral are limited. I don’t need to be right there to remember and reflect; someone who would like support on the day could have those places. Finally, I want to be with my family on July 7th. I want to be thankful for all the little decisions I made that day 10 years ago which placed me at the opposite end of the train to where I would usually stand and saved my life. I want to be thankful because the two beautiful children asleep right now are able to be in this world and I want to be close to them.

What do you get when you cross Catch 22 with 1984 and an angry mother?

Right now I am supposed to be spending five hours working on my search for a job but I am not. I am too cross and tired to spend five hours doing anything, let alone filling out Universal Jobmatch to show that after looking after two children for 13 hours on my own (and the countless hours throughout the night that I am currently preparing for), I have done the minimum amount of applications to qualify for my Job Seeker’s Allowance.

I was well aware of how morally reprehensible it is to cut off the benefits for those out of work because the rules haven’t been followed. It saddens me deeply that in trying to put food on the table and pay the bills the many have been punished because some people like to make examples of the few who choose to scam the system. I can really only speak for myself in this but if someone is skilled at playing the JSA game, let them do so because from experience, they really are the few and it is small price to pay to treat people with respect and dignity.

What I wasn’t aware of was with how little dignity people out of work are treated and how low down the scale children and family life are placed when money is concerned. Part of the problem is that caring for and raising children isn’t seen as unpaid work, even though it is essential for our society and the human race to exist. It is somehow seen by the DWP as a luxury that you should only do if you can afford to or otherwise: get a job.

I was told today that I needed to spend 35 hours a week minimum working on getting myself into employment, the Job Centre would no longer help or support in this and I was to do it myself as though it was my full time job. Additionally, I was expected to apply for every job within 90 minutes travel that I had experience in or could reasonably perform. I was to then evidence this to my advisor and show what I had done over and above this to get myself back into employment.

So far, so reasonable. That is if I did not have two young children relying on me. If they were older or I was childless, then of course I would spend my time applying for each and every job I could do rather than receive the dole. In fact, when I was made redundant from my first full time job I did just that; I got up at 5am each day and spent my entire day applying. Within a month I had a full time job again. But I am no longer childless.

Breaking it down, this is what life for me and my children would look like if I followed these rules. First of all, to spend 35 hours a week on my job search gives me two options:

Option 1: I do this in my evenings. This means after I have got the children to bed, I then need to be searching for jobs until at least 1am, probably later as parenting doesn’t stop when the children are in bed. This doesn’t include all the other things you do on an evening as a parent like clean, wash, prepare things for the next day. They would have to be done outside of this time.

Option 2: Do it in the day. My advisor said I needed to check the website and re-save my CV morning, noon and night. That means 5 hours in the day of essentially ignoring my children, putting their needs second, not meeting the developmental needs of my 9 month old. I would love 5 minutes in the day to go to the toilet in peace, let alone 5 hours to ‘work’ on finding work.

After finding 35 hours each week to look for jobs, if I were then to get as far as being offered one – in the extreme case scenario – 90 minutes away and full time. I should probably point out that this is not 90 minutes door-to-door but 90 minutes of reasonable travel time. For me, this would mean leaving the house before 7.30am and returning some time after 6.30pm. I wouldn’t actually see my baby awake for 5 days out of seven. My husband works abroad part of the time so for the best part of a week my children would see neither parent but hired childcare. Not only does this make me incredibly sad but after paying the cost of the childcare and the travel we probably wouldn’t be better off than we are now. I would be selling my kid’s childhood with their mother for a little bit of money or more likely, not getting into more debt.

I pointed this out to the advisor. I was told that while I can explain my family circumstances and it would be noted, it wouldn’t be taken into account as this was the bare minimum to receive JSA. It’s seen as a lifestyle choice.

I don’t blame the Job Centre advisors, they are simply following rules themselves so they don’t end up on the other side of that desk. To add insult to injury, they are no longer allowed to make reasonable judgments for themselves. I was informed that I would be expected to attend an Employability Workshop. This takes place once a week at 3.15pm on a Wednesday for two hours and is expected of all new applicants regardless of how ’employable’ they may actually be.

I pointed out that I had to collect my son from nursery on a Wednesday but if it was mandatory I would remove him an hour early and attend with both children. This is when I was told I wouldn’t be able to take either child. With a husband in Europe working and unable to afford childcare out of work, I asked how this would be possible. They agreed to pay for the childcare if I found someone before Wednesday but they could delay it a week to give me time. I asked if they thought it right I was being asked to leave my children for two hours with a stranger and what they recommended I do with my 9 month old who was still being breastfed and had yet to be left with a non-parent carer? I said I was unwilling to put my baby through that as I knew she would just scream for two hours and that would be traumatic for both the children. All to attend a workshop that wasn’t going to directly lead to a job. They are getting back to me with a decision as to whether or not I have to attend.

Suffice to say I left the job centre feeling stressed and down hearted. I am applying for JSA because in the past five months of applying for every part time job available in my area, I have barely heard back from any and we now need the extra support while I continue to do this. I posted on Facebook about how frustrated I was with the interview and how it saddened me that this is how we treat people in this country. The response from people I knew who had also experienced this was surprising. All found that the job centre has become a series of hurdles of overcome where you are trying to prove you deserve JSA and meet all the rules and regulations, regardless of whether they help or hinder a job search. On the most part, it feels like you are being set up to fail from the outset and done so on purpose so that you won’t claim, so the statistics show that you are not unemployed.

Sometimes people find themselves between jobs, they can be educated, have long careers, great skills and still need support. Regardless of why someone is unemployed or how long they have been, they still deserve a level of respect and dignity that is no longer given. Above all, family life should be supported, time with young children should be valued.

How old were you when you first tried hummus?

I am some times a tad jealous of the range of foods my kids have chucked on the floor within the first few years of their lives. Maybe it was because I was quickly North-Londonised that hummus, pesto and olives are standard meal time fare in our house but I didn’t touch any of those things until I was in my mid-20s.

My move to London was a watershed in my life of “things I didn’t know but which normal people do”. The nearest revelation I had experienced prior to this was not knowing if the cafe I was in was a ‘go up and pay’ kind of place or an ‘ask for the bill’ one. All of this is pretty obvious these days but back in my early 20s it was not. Painfully not.

Take for instance trying to buy a sandwich in my first year of university. How can buying a sandwich possibly reign embarrassment over me and expose my total lack of social awareness? Here’s how. For 3 months I had been patronising a sandwich bar in Angel for cheap and large portioned sandwiches. I came from Bradford and a panini is as exotic as you get there. In fact, it is less the curry capital and more the panini capital given how prolific the toasted sandwich is up there. I am not sure the Italians had bacon and baked beans in mind when inventing the panini or that it should be used to describe said filling placed in the middle of a white roll and warmed in a microwave but knowing this might go some way to explain my actions.

In this Islington sandwich bar I tended to order a roasted vegetable, avocado focaccia. Which is all very good but for 3 months no one thought to explain to me that I was pronouncing focaccia incorrectly. In fact, I think the deli guy did once correct me but to my untrained ears it came back as an incomprehensible cough and I probably did the nod-and-smile of which I was so often on the receiving end. Mispronouncing ‘foccacia’ in a broad Yorkshire accent came out sounding more like ‘fuck-a-chee-ah’. To add insult to injury, I had also never seen an avocado before and could never remember what the things were called so I used to just ask for ‘the green stuff’.

It wasn’t just food that this was limited to. One of my first experiences of a London club was also an eye-opener. With some of the people in my halls of residence we went to the Zoo bar in Leicester Square. Now I thought this was amusing because it was a world away from the now defunct Zoo Bar in Halifax where the beer was cheap, the floor sticky and the average age of punters was 16. The Zoo Bar in Leicester Square was filled with tourists or bankers or worse, men pretending to be bankers. Someone passed around champagne at one point but being of the nature that bought drinks should be returned in the next round, I politely declined.

It was in the loo that my faux pas finally took place. You’d be lucky to find a toilet door, dry floor and a seat in most of the bars I’d drink in back home so to find a nice lady sat by the sink, politely handing me a towel to dry my hand was something of a surprise. I’d never come across a toilet attendant before in my life. I never knew such a job existed. And so being so wide-eyed and amazed by such a thing, the toilet attendant announced that it would be £1 to visit the loo. “Every time?” I asked. “Yes, every time” she said. I worried. I have the bladder the size of a peanut and had little more than my bus fare home left. I don’t think I have ever held on longer in one night than I did that night.

I feel I have come a long way since those days; I am no longer offered a fork and spoon in noodle bars for a start. However, it was pointed out to me yesterday that I have been pronouncing crudites incorrectly for my entire life.

Should I share my bed?

This morning I appeared on Good Morning Britain as a vox pop about shared-sleeping. I love shared-sleeping and wished I could have spoken for longer about how wonderful it is but I had about 30 seconds at 6am which was aired at 8am. I do not operate at the best mental capacity at 6am for anything.

Shared sleeping is often bagged into one of those attachment parenting things. I hate labeling parenting as anything other than parenting so I see it as once of those getting a good nights sleep things.

It isn’t just about my energy levels the next day but about what is best for my children. They have lived inside of me for 9 months and that separation process is a slow one. They will be more confident and happier to sleep on their own if they’ve been kept close for the first few months.

There are risks involved in shared sleeping as much as there is with anything to do with a little person who relies on you for everything. These are common sense things such as not drinking, not taking medication, moving pillows and duvets away. I never share the bed with either of my children if one of us are drunk, it is simply not safe and that is very obvious. As I am breast feeding, I don’t drink very much these days any way.

The positives though are that you get a great bond with your child, they transition to their own room better in their own time, you can respond to their cues instantly and you have the energy to meet your children’s needs the next day.

We have a lovely set up in our room, which makes shared sleeping very safe and sadly this didn’t get the chance to be expressed on TV this morning. The cot has one side down and is up against our bed so while my daughter is in arms reach and contact with me throughout the night, she also has her own sleeping space.

This works wonderfully until about 1am when she gets a feed at which point she decides that 6 inch gap between us is too much and needs cuddles. I can do so without the tears of transferring her back to the bed or risking her safety.

I always wondered why I never really rocked or bounced my children to sleep as I have known others to do and it’s because they have been allowed to get the comfort they need through the night and know that I will be right there.

It hasn’t been a easy road to this confidence about shared sleeping. When I had my first son I was told I would smother him or make a rod for my own back. It didn’t take long to realise that ‘make a rod for my own back’ was often said through sucked teeth and really meant “you’re doing something that I don’t like with your child”. In this case I was told how we would never get him out of our bed, that my husband would hate shared sleeping and I would regret it.

The opposite was true. My son went into his own room at around 1 year old and there he has stayed. It has been commented on how well he goes to bed and how happy he is there. When discussing my husband’s thoughts yesterday, as I had until now not actually asked him his thoughts because it just seemed so natural and normal to both of us, he said he felt a stronger bond to the children and it was great that no one else was woken by the night feeds. So it is fair to say he is very supportive of sharing the bed.

In fact, some of our nicest mornings are when my son wakes and comes and crawls into bed with us. We have four in a bed and some wonderful family memories.

***

The safety of home birth was in the news again today. I will be later comparing my experiences of home vs hospital from both my lovely births.

Circles

I started this blog 3 years ago because being a new mum was a lot like being a University fresher or the new kid in school. You are dropped in with a bunch of women who happened to procreate around the same time as you and it’s hoped you get along with the single common denominator of when you gave birth.

Just like starting University, being in new social circles takes a while to settle down but with less alcohol and more body issues. I started university with high expectations of what the social life would be like and the reality was hugely different.  I had never given my blue spiked hair, piercings, make up or choice in clothing a second thought before I started university. Where I came from and the people I met were completely accepting of how anyone looked and those who weren’t just were not in my sphere of awareness. At university, this was the first time that I was made to feel self-conscious about how I expressed myself and how I had felt comfortable for so many years.

Eventually, I had a wonderful group of friends and housemates at university and again in the work place. I didn’t compromise who I was to the situation but found people who I was comfortable around again. I didn’t expect to have to go through that again in such a significant way and yet I did when I had my son. Again, three years on, I have a wonderful network of friends who I have more in common than simply procreation.

So three years on and a second child in and I am back in the same situation once more. We relocated a month ago to a whole new part of the country where I did not know anyone. I had a newborn and a three-year old. I am carrying some serious post-baby weight. I am back where I was when I started this blog. Only, I am not because I have learned from last time.

I am aware that settling into a new major situation takes time and breathing space. I cannot expect an instant social scene but will take time to meet people who will become firm friends. It took years to build friendships that I made following my first child and they are friends I treasure. I cannot expect it to be any different this time around.

My post-baby weight is slowly shifting. I am taking small steps; 20 minutes of hard core exercise when I am able to do so; eating wholefoods; wearing clothes that fit rather than clothes that I want to fit. I am out of maternity clothes already and fit into my size 14 clothes. By ‘fit’ I mean breathing in and hiding lumps with baggy jumpers. I am aiming for between baby sizes rather than pre-baby sizes.

I feel more confident about achieving these goals and have the focus to do so. Plus the wide open space of the countryside is certainly helping.