The Butternut squash a filo pie from Proud Italian Cook. Made here with mushrooms and pearl barley for some extra zhoosh.

Dieting on Delicious Food

It happens in our mid to late twenties these days. We look at ourselves and think “Man, this could use some tuning up,” after which we get a gym membership, try all the machines and don’t return for a long time. We also make a half-arsed attempt at Denying ourselves things we love to eat. For a lot of people, that’s where it stops. For a lot of other people, like myself, it gradually gets better until we achieve our goals. For a select few, this instantly turns into a complete change of lifestyle, sometimes going off in the other extreme and burning people out.

I think part of the problem is that we consider eating healthily to be Denying ourselves something. Here’s the thing: You don’t have to feel like you’re losing out on delicious food just because you’re on a diet.

On that note, though: What the hell is wrong with denying yourself stuff? Some people get really defensive when even the concept of not having everything you want all the time is brought up. I propose that it’s good for you to go without a bit. You don’t NEED a packet of crisps every lunch just like you don’t NEED an iPhone 5 when you have an iPhone 4 that works. Once you go without for a bit, you might find that you don’t mind so much.

I’m no paragon of healthy living. I have days when there is nothing I can think of but pizza, take-outs, chocolate and crisps. Some days I give in, and I have the odd chocolate bar and fish supper (aka: Fish & Chips) but it’s the exception, and I find that I want it less and less as I have less of it. It took me about eight years to get to this stage, though, from where I was when I decided it was time to switch it up.

A few disclaimers:

  • By “dieting” I mean making an effort to eat healthily, not necessarily for the purpose of losing weight, though that is often the purpose of a “diet”.
  • As long as you are not endangering yourself through your eating habits, I don’t care what you look like. Whatever decision you make about how to treat your body is fine by me. I love all my friends’ bodies, from the cuddly to the rock-hard to the ones who would be blown over by a stiff breeze.
  • If you have an aversion to vegetables, I can’t help you. Have a triple decker bacon burger and enjoy your CHD.

Absurdly, I have made an effort to slim down twice in the past year. Once, for the short film Judas Goat (which we hope will turn into a web series) because I was playing a character that would suit a slimmer frame. The second time is right now, as I’m gearing up for LA, aka: The sixpack capital of the world. I feel slightly insecure about it and want to look my best. So shoot me.

I give myself a certain net amount of calories, based on normal daily needs. The beauty of this system instead of eating the same amount no matter what I do is that if I really want another meal or some snacks, or some more indulgent food, I can go for a run or hop on the bike and whack off some calories. Double benefit: I get exercise, and I get to eat more delicious food!

Now, about the food!

Some general rules: Carbs and meat are bloody full of calories. Unless you’re a professional athlete or a body builder, you don’t need anywhere near the amount of carbs and protein most of us shove down our gobs. I feel like pointing out now that I’m not a proponent of no-carb diets, but cutting down on them will cut down on the biggest calorie offender while leaving more of your “budget” open to veg, which has almost no calories and is stuffed with vitamins and other important things.

 

With a bit of a cornstarch-thickened sauce, it's almost like a chinese take-out.
With a bit of a cornstarch-thickened sauce, it’s almost like a chinese take-out!

I’ve heard a lot of fitness experts say that half the food on your plate should be vegetables, and that’s a good rule to go by. Broccoli, spinach, kale, mushrooms (I love me some chestnut mushrooms), bell peppers, onions and butternut squash are staples of my diet and I always keep them around. If you have enough veg around at all times, it’s easy-peasy to chop them up, chuck them in the frying pan and giving them a good sear. Maybe pour some egg on that, or some beans, and you’ve got a really nutritious, super-fast meal that probably took you less time than it would take to wait for the pizza to finish. Make a sauce for it (mix in some cornstarch with a bit of water, then add that to a bigger bit of water, then add spices or sauces to taste and add to the veg when cooked) and you’ve got a chinese take-out style dinner on your hands. Again: Doesn’t take long.

Soups are also nutritious and super-easy. Soften a bunch of vegetables in the pot with a bit of oil, pour stock over to just about cover, boil it for a while, then smoosh it with a handheld mixer. To make it filling, make sure you have some potatoes, squash or grains in it. Pearl Barley is beautiful in soups and keeps you going forever. Any starchy veg or grains should be used in moderation, though: Carbs and all that. Beans are also great in soups. Nom noms.

You should really check out Hairy Dieters from BBC. These two dudes, The Hairy Bikers, have been making delicious British food for several years. They decided they needed to get fitter and did a series where they made lower-calorie versions of the most popular unhealthy food in the UK. The focus on their show was to create recipes that feel and taste like their full-fat, indulgent counterparts but doesn’t have nearly the same amount of calories.

Their sweet and sour chicken, skinny beef lasagne and pea and feta omelette are the ones I’ve done so far, but I keep doing them over and over because they’re so delicious. I tend to add some extra veg to the omelette just to give some extra spark. Some broccoli, onions, maybe mushrooms. You get the idea. Don’t go crazy, though, or it will just sit on top of the omelette and not cook. I’ll also often use Quorn (or similar) instead of meat for mine, because I prefer to cut down on animal products. They also have a book out, that’s also available in the US, which I have and absolutely recommend.

 

The Butternut squash a filo pie from Proud Italian Cook. Made here with mushrooms and pearl barley for some extra zhoosh.
Butternut squash filo pie from Proud Italian Cook, made with mushrooms and pearl barley.

Proud Italian Cook is one of my favourite food bloggers right now. I found her looking for a recipe for timpano (from the mouth-watering finale to Big Night), but stuck around when I saw her Kale Made Three Ways post.

I make the butternut squash, kale and filo pie a lot. I usually make it without the meat, like she does, but I also add some pearl barley for a bit of extra chewiness and heft. I’ve also started doing it with water between the layers of filo instead of butter or oil, and it works great. It’s filling, especially with the pearl barley, and though it takes a long time to make, it’s massive and can feed a lot of people, or two people for several days.

She keeps coming up with delicious and healthy recipes and I keep seeing stuff I want to make myself. Next on my list is her faux spaghetti, where she replaces the pasta with courgette (aka: Zucchini) sliced with a julienne peeler. This is a great way of reducing carbs.

PIZZA!!

A pizza made with butternut squash, kale and FILO DOUGH?! WHAT?!
A pizza made with butternut squash, kale and FILO DOUGH?! WHAT?!

I smeggin’ loooooove me some pizza. But it’s got the double whammy of flour and cheese! How could it possibly be healthy?! Well, it can’t. Not without basically making it not a pizza. Pizzas are inherently indulgant, and quite rightly so. However, there are ways of making a pizza less unhealthy. You can go a bit crazy, like I sometimes do, and create weird un-pizza pizzas like the one in the photo above. It is a pizza, in that its basic layers are dough, sauce, stuff, cheese, but the stuff is butternut squash, kale and broccoli. It actually tastes amazing, is full of things that are good for you and the dough is – by a small margin – less heavy than a regular pizza. I also skimp a bit on the cheese, though the creamy texture of the butternut squash makes up for it.

Or you can go down the traditional route of making your pizzas Italian style. Basically just make a pizza, but a thinner crust, and with just torn mozzarella on top instead of covering the whole thing in a thick blanket of cheese. Trust me, the flavours pop and you’ll feel nice and full.

sauce, olives, basil, onions, mozzarella. Simple as.
sauce, olives, basil, onions, mozzarella. Simple as.

So there’s some ideas for you. The main thing is to make sure you know what you’re shoving into yourself. That’s much, much, much easier when you make your food yourself from scratch. Most of the time, that’s what I do. Granted, I’m a lay-about, but there are tons of ways of making food really quickly as well without it being hideously time consuming. Also, if you do make something that’s time consuming, just make tons of it and eat the left overs tomorrow.

If you have any great, healthy recipes yourself, post them in the comments! I’d love to see what you like making, because as you can probably guess by now: I’m a bit obsessed with food.