Healthy Lunch Idea #4 Broccoli and Spinach Soup

Packed full of green goodness
Packed full of green goodness

Just a few short weeks ago, it felt like spring had heralded its arrival. There were lighter mornings, warmer temperatures and less rain than usual. Then came the cold snap. For some reason, we seem to have gone back to having to scrape sheets of ice from the car windscreen again and getting the gloves out of a morning. With this inclement weather though, came the opportunity to revert back to soup. I dusted off the old trusty microwave soup pot and whipped up something nutritious and delicious.

Making enough soup to last for a few lunches is always a good idea. The only problem that I have is making the trek down to the microwave. Ok – it really isn’t that far but, on a busy day, it is far enough to resort to a few biscuits or sweets or cereal bars or something instead of sticking to my healthy eating. This time though, I really made the effort and I’m pleased I did. This soup does have some spring like qualities – the vibrant green certainly acts as a glorious pick me up and it isn’t a heavy pearl barley broth by any stretch of the imagination. Yet it still provides some key warmth on a chilly afternoon.

I think the real key here is the butter beans. They are a great source of protein and so really help to fill you up and they also give the soup a lovely creaminess. Without cream. When you incorporate the fresh zing from some lemon and coriander, it gives the soup a cleansing, vibrant kick: you can almost trick yourself that you’re eating a real summery dish. The broccoli, spinach and coriander also create this wonderful vibrant colour and I was pleased to read the other day that spinach packs a harder nutritional punch when it cooked, compared to when it is raw. Who’d have thought it?

Here’s the recipe:

700ml chicken stock (or vegetable stock, or water)

1 head of broccoli, chopped into florets

1 bag of spinach (200g)

1 handful coriander

1 white onion, diced

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 lemon, halved

1 tsp cumin

Fry off the onion and garlic in a large pan until soft and translucent but not coloured – I use olive oil. Add the cumin and stir well. Once incorporated into the onion and garlic mix, add the stock and broccoli. Place the lemon halves in the pan and cover, simmering for approximately 8 minutes. Add the coriander and spinach and leave to steam down with the lid on until wilted. Once it is cooked, removed the lemon halves and blend with a stick blender.

I enjoyed this soup for dinner with some feta cheese and fresh pea shoots; sticking to just plain old soup (but not quite!) for lunch. It freezes well.

Healthy Breakfast Idea #1 Chia and Raspberry Porridge

Pumpkin seeds give a wonderful crunch to this cold porridge...
Pumpkin seeds give a wonderful crunch to this cold porridge…

So in lieu of what promised to be a heavy(ier) weekend, on both the eating and the drinking front, I decided to make Saturday morning as healthy a start as possible. This was all in the knowledge of two meals out and several gin and tonics (and/or wines) to contend with. Awake at dawn, for some inexplicable reason, I decided to get a healthy breakfast prepared for when I came back from my morning run. Again, this was another sly manoeuvre –  all in the name of damage-limitation.

Contrary to how it might sound above, I really don’t mind sacrificing a day or two from my health(ier) regime for family occasions or drinks in a pub. It’s just that in the past, that could have been an excuse to forgo all healthy eating in the run up to the event just because I knew I would be dining out and what’s the point of eating a bowl of fruit for breakfast when you’re having a pub lunch, just start with a fry-up now or it would have been the start of a very slippery slope. One that winds up with me drinking alcohol most evenings and demolishing family packs of greasy crisps…then eating biscuits and cakes in the week just because I let my (rather short) hair down for the weekend.

Well, this weekend, I have had my weekend. I had a Friday-night takeaway and wine; I had gnocchi; I had birthday cake (at least twice!); I had a slab of chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce and hazelnut ice-cream; I had chips; I had a fry up with two sausages and white bread, with a croissant and jam chaser; I had crisps; and I washed the whole lot down with at least one bottle of white wine and several gin and tonics. Do I feel guilty? No, not really. This is because I knew I laid good foundations with my salads at work this week and with my physical activity. I also felt the metaphorical return of light and brightness to my health-food halo when I went food shopping and stocked up on broccoli, avocado, butternut squash, spinach and salads; it was a good feeling because I knew I was back in control. I’m making a cleansing green soup for dinner tonight, packed full of veggies to help re-nutrify my body and get it ready for the week ahead.

One of the reasons that I feel able to regain control is the fact that I made a healthy start to my weekend. I had a cold Chia Seed and Raspberry Porridge. And it was delicious. It sat marinating in my fridge, whilst I went for my run and was perfect with a cup of tea – it was cold on Saturday morning – when I got back. I am a big fan of the tapioca texture derived from simmering chia seeds in with my porridge but knew time would be precious when I got back so I bit the bullet and tried them soaked, but without cooking. I’m glad I did, because I suspect this mixture works well over night and will be welcome in summer when I have relinquished my grasp on steaming bowls of oats.

To prepare: put about two handfuls of raspberries in a bowl and mash with a fork. Drizzle in a little honey at this stage to balance the tangy bite from the fruit. Add two tablespoons of porridge oats, a tablespoon of chia seeds and just cover with milk. You could use almond, hazelnut or rice milk I guess, but I went for good old semi-skimmed. Leave this in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and then add some more oats, a drizzle more honey and a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds for some much-needed crunch. With the protein hit from the chia seeds and milk and vitamins from the fruit, I felt it was the perfect remedy to an early start with exercise. It would also be great with a blob of Greek yoghurt.

Enjoy!

Healthy Lunch Idea #3 Butternut Squash and Feta Salad

Pumpkin seeds add delicious crunch...
Pumpkin seeds add delicious crunch…

I have to admit, I’ve been making a bit of an effort this week where lunch is concerned. Ok. Not a bit: a lot. It has been time-consuming and has created extra washing up both in terms of the utensils and pots to prepare the food and the plastic tubs that need washing at the end of every day. Has it been worth it? Yes. I certainly feel like I can wear my food halo with pride and relish my inner smugness at avoiding the carb overload that is the canteen.

I have found that preparing enough food for a few days is the way forward with this one. Nobody wants to be faced with extra washing up every night. Having a salad ready-to-go in the fridge the night before means that mornings are freed up and there is no excuse to buy unhealthy convenience foods en route to work. Or try to survive a day on flapjacks, cookies, cakes, crisps etc. I have also discovered that the must-buy to healthy eating at work is a lunchbox. Allow me to indulge in a little nostalgia here. I had a Ninja Turtles lunchbox when I was at primary school and it was cool – I even liked it when the picture on the front went a little crinkly and started to peel off with too much vigorous washing. Anyway. You also need some of those mini gel packs that you can pop in the freezer to keep your food cool and I recommend a tiny plastic pot or jar to keep your dressing separate until you eat. Nobody in their right mind likes soggy salad leaves.

Whilst admittedly still in its infancy, my new-found love of portable healthy lunches has kicked off to a good start and I have decided to share one of my ideas here for all of those people looking for ways to boost their daily vitamin and mineral intake, as well as trying to attain the holy grail of healthy eating: the five-a-day. It is essentially a collection of salady things: rocket, roasted vegetables, feta, tomatoes and cucumber with a sprinkling of olives, tossed over a bed of bulgur wheat and drizzled with a homemade tangy dressing. I’m fairly new to bulgur wheat and was intrigued by its promise of being high in fibre and protein, as well as packing a punch nutritionally with iron and B vitamins, along with vitamin E. It also tastes great along with the other items in this dish.

To prepare this salad, roast chunks of butternut squash in the oven for about 45 minutes, until golden and cooked through. You can add any flavourings here, like chilli flakes, thyme, salt and pepper etc. Simmer some bulgar wheat until cooked according to the instructions on the packet. Then layer up your salad with some iron-boosting rocket, some lycopene-loving tomatoes and cool slices of cucumber with a sprinkling of olives. Last but not least, a healthy crumble of feta cheese over the top – but not too much! Prepare a lemony dressing in a small pot of jar with olive oil, lemon juice and a blob of honey, which can be shaken and poured over the salad before eating.

When eating: sit back, relax and be safe in the knowledge that you are doing your body a favour and providing it with the fuel it needs to get through a busy afternoon. It also becomes easier to resist the biscuit tin in the afternoon if you are making an effort with lunch!

Healthy Snack Idea #2 Blueberry Muffins

Oats provide multiple nutritional benefits...as well as great texture.
Oats provide multiple nutritional benefits…as well as great texture.

I love blueberry muffins. Particularly the ones that you can buy from most chain coffee shops, where the deliciously soft muffin top blooms out over the edge of the paper case and begs to be gently peeled away from the fluffy goodness underneath: you have to eat the muffin top last, obviously. You can’t just dive in there and take a huge bite, muffin top and all. I also love how the blueberries have burst open in the oven and stained the creamy muffin, bringing delicious pops of flavour when you take a bite. What I don’t love is the butter, sugar and white flour that have gone into them. Not everyday anyway.

I had a go at making an updated ‘more healthy’ version that you can take to work and enjoy with a mid-morning cuppa without wracking yourself with guilt at caving in to something delicious. These muffins are perfect for the days when you feel like standing over the biscuit tin and mindlessly shovelling in digestives because your body is craving a quick fix and some much needed energy. It is so easy to cave to those sugar urges when you are tired and have worked tough hours. Instead of relying on a quick energy fix, the oats in these muffins serve their purpose of keeping you fuller for longer and providing some slow-release energy, as well as bringing a wonderful texture to the mix. I found that, along with the banana, the blueberries brought a sufficient sweetness, thus reducing the need for lots of sugar. They also bring their antioxidant benefits to the party. Fluffing up the egg whites with a whisk makes these muffins light and airy; you could almost be forgiven for thinking that you are tucking in to the most calorific treat. Surely only butter gives cakes that light edge? Apparently not.

Here’s the recipe – they do freeze well, so like my other muffins, make a couple of batches at the weekend and you have a few weeks worth of snacks ready to go.

  • 75g wholemeal flour
  • 200g rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup honey, or maple syrup
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • 3 tbsp light olive oil
  • 250ml milk, you could substitute non-dairy if required and I used semi-skimmed
  • 125g blueberries

In a large mixing bowl, mix together the flour, oats, cinnamon, baking powder and salt until well-combined.

Make a well in the middle and add the mashed bananas, egg yolks, milk and oil. Mix together gently with a wooden spoon until combined. Do be careful not to over mix.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks – I recommend hand whisking for an extra workout(!). Gently fold the egg whites into the muffin mix, with your blueberries and fold until everything is mixed through evenly.

They take about 25 minutes in a preheated oven (200C/Gas 6). Wait until the tops are golden and a wooden cocktail stick comes out clean.

Enjoy!

Healthy Dinner Idea #2 Parmesan Chicken with Avocado Salad

A yummy olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing really makes this salad
A yummy olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing really makes this salad

Spurred on by the warmer weather this week – though hard to believe as a gale now echoes in my chimney and the skies look dismal and grey – I turned to one of my favourite summer dishes for a quick and healthy dinner. I came across this simple recipe in a book some years ago and I credit it for giving me my love of avocados. I hated the things for years but have slowly made the transition from guacamole to whole, raw avocados via this simple, summery salad.

The Parmesan-crusted chicken may not be healthiest version of chicken breast out there but hey – at least I grilled mine instead of pan frying it. The original recipe also called for egg white to make the crust but I include the whole egg. We are fortunate enough to get eggs for free from my partner’s parents’ chickens and it would be a shame to ditch the yellow-orange yolks just because a recipe said so.

Butterfly your chicken breasts and coat with beaten egg before dipping in a Parmesan cheese and cayenne pepper mix – the cayenne adds a wonderful kick of spice and brings many health benefits like being an anti-inflammatory and digestive aid to the table. Once prepared, cook under a medium-hot grill until golden brown on each side and the thoroughly cooked (but not dry!) in the middle.

To assemble the salad, slice two avocados and place in a pretty bowl – unless there’s just two of you at home but who says you shouldn’t eat off pretty things when you aren’t entertaining? – and chop plenty of cherry tomatoes in half and put in the bowl with the avocado. The tomatoes from supermarkets are a little bit disappointing in the winter but in the summer, with fresh, local tomatoes this dish is elevated to the next level. Next is the red onion. I’m not a great fan of raw onions but can manage them in the dish because I slice them very finely into long strands so that you can almost read a newspaper through them. Balanced with the avocado, they bring a little crunch to the salad. Drizzle your salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and add fresh, torn basil before giving a good stir. Season to taste.

Serve your salad with the chicken and enjoy the thought of eating a nutritious, satisfying dinner with many health benefits. As you can see from the photo, I even added a couple of slices of grilled aubergine to mine.