Personal preferences – a rant

I do not consider myself to be a fussy eater, but there are certain food stuffs that I prefer not to eat. I have developed and changed my preferences over a number of years as I have aged. I will try most things at least once before I decide if I wish to repeat the experience based on my enjoyment. I have no interest in what others think I should like. How could others possibly know what will please me?

Take shellfish as an example. I just adore the taste of the shellfish that I have tried, but I now refuse to eat it for a reason. When I was on my honeymoon, my husband and I stopped for lunch one day at a lovely little coastal cafe where I ordered a crab salad. This was the first chance I had ever had to try crab and it was delicious. Around fifteen minutes later, feeling decidedly unwell, both lunch and breakfast made a dramatic reappearance.

The incident reminded me of a similar experience a few years previously when I had disgraced myself at a friend’s house after consuming a yummy prawn curry, lovingly prepared by his mother. After the crab incident I decided that perhaps shellfish were not for me.

Most people will understand and tolerate such preferences. I have a similar issue with raspberries, once again discovered when I was presented with these delights in a pudding at a friend’s dinner party, and spent the next few hours miserably contemplating a toilet bowl. I realised that I had encountered similar issues on previous occasions and added these bright red fruits to my list of banned substances.

There are, however, less dramatic preferences that others seem unwilling to tolerate. Like many British people, I enjoy a nice cup of tea. As an aside, complicated political events mean that I am also Irish, a fact that gives me a certain amount of nostalgic pride. However, I have chosen to carry a British passport so claim that as my nationality rather than the land of my birth. I know a lot of Irish as well as British people who choose to drink their tea very strong.

I like my tea to be made with an ordinary teabag in a pot, with just a splash of milk at the bottom of a large mug before it is poured. I also like it weak. This seems to offend so many people who are convinced that, because they would not choose to drink weak tea, I cannot possibly wish to have mine served in this way.

It is such a simple request to make, to pour my tea before the leaves have had time to fully brew as that is the way I like it. Others look at me aghast and cannot believe that I could enjoy such a beverage, because they would not. Thus I am presented with a drink that I will not enjoy. Often when I am out this results in me asking for coffee, which I do like strong, and drinking tea only when at home and in control of the pot.

It is not just friends and acquaintances who refuse to allow me to indulge certain preferences that they cannot approve. When I am eating out in a fine restaurant the talented chefs will rarely cook my meat the way I like it, particularly beef. Despite the fact that I am paying for this meal, and ask that it be well done, it arrives pink and chewy, sometimes even bloody. In this instance it seems that the customer is not always right.

Now, I get that a piece of quality beef does not require a lot of cooking, and that connoisseurs believe that the animal need only to be shown the heat source briefly before being served. If that is how others choose to eat their beef then that is fine with me, I just wish that they would be as fine with my choices.

Fellow diners wrinkle their noses and decry my wish to spoil a delicacy by incinerating it. If that is how I wish to eat it then why does this annoy them? What is it to them how I wish to eat when I am not asking anyone else to do as I do? Once again, I will rarely order beef when out as I know I will not choose to consume what is presented to me. It is a shame as I enjoy a good piece of beef, but only when cooked through.

I would never claim to be an expert on food or wine, yet I know what I like. I am willing to try new dishes but, if I know from experience that I will not enjoy some supposed delicacy, then I see little point in eating it just because the rest of the world rates it highly.

I mentioned wine. I have lost count of the number of people who have turned up their noses at my choice of wine. In this area I am only too well aware that I am not an expert. When I have been out with others who know what they are doing I have been offered some delightful choices. I have also been offered sweet or paint stripping concoctions that ensured I went home half a glass short of sober.

I generally know which of my friends and acquaintances I can trust to choose my wine for me, those who will select a bottle of something that I will consider nectar. I also know those who have preferences that differ so markedly from mine that I will order my own bottle and leave them to enjoy theirs. This is not an insult to their taste as they sometimes seem to think, but simply a difference. Why do some people not understand that it is fine for individuals to enjoy different things?

When it is just me drinking, I choose what I know I will like, usually a Chardonnay. This may not be considered classy, but then nor am I. There is no need for others to turn up their noses, laugh at my choice, or mention some television show that mocks this widely derided grape. Wine is to be enjoyed, so I drink what I know I will like.

I feel frustrated when my children refuse to try new dishes. Once tried though, once given a decent chance, each of us will favour different things and this is okay. If my preferences lower your opinion of me then I can live with that. Just please don’t ask me to drink strong tea or sweet wine. And pressure me into eating shellfish at your peril.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 3

(If interested, the beginning of this saga can be read here: The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1)

When I first got together with my husband he quickly realised that, unlike him, my skills in the kitchen were limited. He mocked many of my efforts so I left it to him to produce food for us. Gradually, as I watched and learned, I picked up enough knowledge to know how to treat various foodstuffs without the need to constantly refer to my cook book. I also started to bake the occasional loaf of bread or experiment with a tasty pudding. I found that area of food production more rewarding.

With the arrival of our children I left full time work and took on the task of running our home. I was determined to feed my little daughter and then my sons well, cooking up and liquidising batches of baby food for the freezer so that I knew exactly what was being consumed. As they grew older I would allow them some of the kiddy food that they tasted at friend’s houses and adored, but I was never comfortable serving fish fingers, sausages or chicken nuggets. I always insisted on large, daily portions of vegetables; puddings were most often made up of yoghurt and fruit. Even if I had missed out on the cookery, the healthy eating lessons that my mother had passed on had been well learnt.

When my third child started school I found myself with more time on my hands and dug out my mother’s recipes for wheaten, soda and treacle bread. I would try to bake a couple of times a week, a task that was welcomed by my family as I would produce a cake, crumble or a batch of cookies while the oven was on. Somehow this period saw many successes as I relaxed into the task.

As our family grew our house seemed to shrink so we planned an extension out the back. Along with this work I chose a new, large and airy bespoke kitchen. The work on the house took six months, during which time we lived out of one room downstairs. When it was finally finished I planned a big party with all our local friends invited. Naturally, I provided a supper.

My husband and I hosted many parties and dinners around this time with the majority of the food cooked from scratch by me in my fabulous, new kitchen. I would still try out new dishes for these events, but would back them up with trusted standbys. It was only when we started being invited back, to the reciprocal parties organised by our friends, that I began to feel that my efforts were not as impressive as they had seemed to me. So many of these ladies were admirable cooks, as well as having talents in table decoration and flower arranging. I should not have judged myself against their high standards, but my confidence in my abilities was knocked.

Why the disasters started I have no idea. My cakes started to sink, my bread became doughy, my puddings were undercooked. I began to dread having to produce food for anyone other than family, who ate whatever I produced although often with bad grace. I stopped inviting people round for meals, except for my in laws. They were always presented with the same sort of offerings; even I rarely went badly wrong with a roast dinner.

There were other things happening in my life around this time of course, many of which I have blogged about previously. Perhaps it was a culmination of everything that was going on that caused me so much disquiet; perhaps it was this that was affecting the shaky results I was achieving as I persevered with the daily grind of feeding my family.

One thing that my overall experience of cooking has taught me though is the importance of introducing my children to basic food production. My daughter has responded well to this challenge, producing a variety of pasta and rice dishes recently as required. Her desire to prove that she can be trusted to look after herself has encouraged her to take note of how certain dishes are prepared.

My younger son is less interested in cooking savoury dishes, but can at least make decent cheese or tomato sauces to go on pasta; he will heat up a frozen pizza for himself if left on his own at a mealtime. His pleasure in cooking comes from the yummy cakes and cookies that he will make unsupervised; these are often requested by visiting friends.

It is my older son whose attitude towards food reminds me more of myself at his age. Although he enjoys his food, he shows little interest in feeding himself beyond hydrating a pot noodle to go with his cup of tea and numerous slices of toast. I guess it is hard to interest a recalcitrant teen in anything unless they choose to participate.

My sister first picked up the basics of cooking from my mother, and I should have been able to do the same. When the lessons were being offered, I suspect that I just wasn’t paying attention.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 2

(If interested, this saga starts here: The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1)

I moved into my first flat late in 1988. I had started work the previous summer and was eager to make the home for myself that I had been dreaming about and working towards for the past eight years. I arrived with my newly purchased bed, fridge, kettle, toaster, crockery, cutlery, pots, pans and an iron. The previous occupants had left their rather tired looking oven and washing machine. Although I had no other furniture, no curtains and no idea how to work the heating system, that first night spent in my own home felt blissful.

Over the coming months I started to gather together some of the other things that I both wanted and needed. I bought a squishy sofa, table and chairs, shelves for my many books and a cabinet to store my hi fi. I replaced the washing machine when I discovered the old one leaked, painted my bedroom and hung curtains at the windows. In the spirit of the times the decor was a mix of black, white, grey and red; to my eyes it looked fabulous.

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Having built my nest I wished to show it off so invited a few of my new friends from work round for a meal. When my parents socialised this is what they did so it seemed a perfectly natural course of action. I did not consider that I still had no experience of cooking. Having received five acceptances to my invitations I consulted a recipe book for a suitably impressive three course meal for six. Starter and pudding could be prepared in advance and I sensibly opted for something that sounded straightforward for the main course. I decided that I would roast my first chicken.

Instructions on the cellophane wrapped bird that I bought told me how many hours it needed to be cooked for. Having cleaned my flat from top to bottom, bathed and chosen what I would wear for my exciting evening, at the prescribed time I switched on the oven for the very first time. As it began to heat up black smoke gushed out, filling the flat with a noxious smell. Panicking a little I threw open all the doors and windows before frantically attempting to clean the beast as best I could. With my inadequate supplies and lack of experience (I had never cleaned an oven before) I felt impotent, but knew that I needed to try again. By the time my friends arrived the chicken was bubbling away in it’s juices and only a little smoke was puffing out the oven door. A few comments on the strange smell that permeated the now freezing flat were made, dinner was served a little later than planned, but we survived the food and an enjoyable enough evening was had by all.

Perhaps I should have learned my lesson, but I would continue to invite people round to eat, and try out new, exciting dishes on them. Most of the food that I cooked for my many dinner parties was tried for the first time on the night and never repeated. There were many close calls and disappointments that went unmentioned: the soup starter that took me five hours to prepare; the range of expensive spices that went into the only curry I have ever made from scratch and which tasted totally bland; the prime cuts of meat whose potential succulence I failed to appreciate, ending up with a jaw challenging dish that resembled biltong.

At home, alone, I was still content to live on simple fare, although I did begin to cook a little more often for myself as time went by. I’m not sure that I ever got the oven in my flat properly clean though; it was only ever used when I had people round.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1

I was seven years old when I first tried my hand at baking. My brave teacher, Mrs Dodds, who was also instrumental in encouraging me to push ahead with my love of Maths, decided to run a lesson showing how yeast reacted when added to other ingredients. I missed the end of this fascinating experiment as, for the only time in my entire school career, my parents took me out of class early. They were driving across the country to visit friends who had moved from our area to run a pub several counties away. I remember the excitement of being allowed to stand behind the bar that loomed taller than my head, before the pub opened to the public. I knew that this was distant, adult space, banned to children in those days.

My teacher had whisked my tiny little bread roll out of the oven early for me to take with me, and I nursed it’s warm crust throughout the long car journey. When I eventually ate it I remember it’s hardness and the strangeness of the taste. My mother made delicious bread regularly, but not with yeast. I ate it in the car, feeling guilty that it was too small to share. I would have liked to split it, spread on some butter and show it off. There was too much going on that day to seek attention. I nibbled on it dry, trying not to drop crumbs on my father’s car.

A year or so later I became a Brownie Guide, where we were entreated to ‘do a good turn every day’. I took this mantra seriously. We were told that giving our parents breakfast in bed would be a big treat for them; looking back I am not convinced that my parents wished to risk crumbs on the sheets and would have preferred to rise at a time of their choosing. Ever eager to please, and having recently learnt how to scramble eggs, I went through a phase of getting up early on a Sunday morning to make them a breakfast which I carefully carried to their bedroom on a tray. This ‘good turn’ came to a halt when, unbeknown to me, the clocks changed from summer to winter time and I ended up making their breakfast an hour too early. My sister heard me going through my routine and intercepted me before I disturbed our parents. I returned to the kitchen and cried hot tears of shame and frustration as I tried to keep the food warm. It was the last time I made anyone breakfast in bed.

When I moved on to grammar school I was required to study Domestic Science with a characterful teacher with the apt name of Mrs Pepper. I was truly hopeless at the subject. When we made shepherds pie I could not get the potatoes to boil soft enough to mash; how did I find this so difficult? Mrs Pepper had little time for such incompetence and I dropped the subject as soon as I was allowed.

At home I had learned to grill cheese on toast, cook eggs and heat up tinned food, but was rarely required to produce food for myself or anyone else. The only exception to this that I can remember was when my mother fainted one afternoon and had to spend a night in hospital under observation. My sister was elsewhere so I felt that I should produce dinner for my father and I. Fish had been left in the fridge, to be grilled for the evening meal. I had no idea how long to cook it for and ended up drying it out completely. We manfully chewed our way through what should have been a soft and succulent dish, but I have not attempted to cook plain fish since.

When I first moved out of the family home I lived on cereal, toast, cheese, soup, salads and fruit. With a kettle, toaster and microwave to hand I could avoid the oven and hob entirely. In a series of shared houses, with others who seemed comfortable in the kitchen, I was too embarrassed to demonstrate my lack of skill. It wasn’t until I was able to buy my first flat, at the age of twenty-four, that I began to cook hot meals from raw ingredients.

My mother had produced most of our family dinners in a scary device called a pressure cooker. She would chop up and throw in the meat, vegetables and potatoes before adding a little water and heating it all up until there was an audible whistle. The heat would then be turned down and a heavy weight put over the vent at the top. Occasionally the weight would be blown off resulting in a frightful clatter and a rush of steam. After a prescribed time the pressure cooker would be placed in the sink and cold water run over it before the weight and then lid could be removed and the food served. I have never wanted to own a pressure cooker.

All of this meant that I had not regularly observed other types of cooking first hand, and had little experience to fall back on. I had paid scant attention to what was being done in my mother’s kitchen; I had no interest in participating and learning. My mother was an advocate for healthy eating long before this became popular. I may not have picked up her cooking skills, but I had taken on board her message that processed food was bad; that fat and sugar should be avoided; that puddings other than fruit and yoghurt should be a rare treat.

For the first few months after I moved into my flat I would pop down to the local convenience store after work and buy whatever I felt like eating that night. I continued to survive largely on breakfast cereal, cheese, toast, tinned food, salad and fruit. Once I had managed to save up enough of my wages to furnish the flat, I decided that I wished to show it off and planned my first dinner party. The fact that I had little knowledge of cooking did not present itself as a problem to my naive mind. This first event set the tone for the many to come. For me, preparing the food for each of my dinner parties became a memorable, if fraught, experience.

TBC

English: A pressure cooker with a simple regul...

Eating out

After considering our options for the second week of my husband’s fortnight long break from work, we decided to stay at home but go out and about from there. The weather had turned wet and my teenage boys, being overly attached to their electronic entertainments, reluctant to commit to any ideas we suggested for days away. Add to this mix my own minor health issues and we have ended up spending the week fairly quietly. We have, however, managed to eat out locally on a couple of evenings.

I have developed a dislike of cooking so a meal out is a real treat, although eating out with teenagers can also be a challenge. By checking menus beforehand we can select a venue that offers the type of food that they are likely to be willing to try, but there are no guarantees that they will show any sort of enjoyment of the experience. I find this apparent sense of entitlement frustrating. I mean, what do I expect, gratitude?

Having determined that we would regard this week at home as a holiday, and treat ourselves accordingly, we were keen to try out some new venues. All too often we return to favourite places as we wish to celebrate an occasion and do not wish to risk disappointment over a meal that is intended to be a treat. We gain a great deal of enjoyment from eating good food but the cost of going out has made this an indulgence, albeit one that we have been allowing ourselves to do more in recent months than for many years.

Our first foray was earlier in the week when I hobbled down the tree lined drive to the Bowood Hotel to eat at their Brasserie in the company of my little family. I thought that the casual menu would suit my boys and the food did not disappoint. Service was excellent and the atmosphere relaxed and convivial; it should have been a very pleasant evening.

However, for whatever reason, my boys decided to squabble. Nothing loud or embarrassing, just jibes and unkind comments thrown at each other over the course of the evening that tarnished my enjoyment. My husband and I agreed that, if they considered this behaviour acceptable during a supposed treat, then we would leave them at home next time.

And that is what we did. Last night we decided to try out The Bridge Brasserie, a venue that had been recommended to us but which we had yet to explore for ourselves. Leaving the boys to find their own entertainments, we caught a bus into town and spent a very enjoyable few hours indulging in what turned out to be delicious and well prepared food. Service was excellent and the various dishes presented in a timely and attractive manner. I do not like being rushed when eating, but here the waiters were attentive enough to note when we were ready to move on without hovering. The ambiance of the place was friendly yet discreet; it was a very enjoyable experience.

We like the current fad adopted by good restaurants  of small portions, artfully presented, combining interesting flavours that complement each item of food on the plate. I have read reviews of other places that suggest some patrons feel short changed when charged a large tariff for a small amount of food; we prefer flavour to quantity.

The Bridge Brasserie certainly ticked all boxes for taste and presentation, but nobody could complain about portion size. This generosity did not detract from the deliciousness, merely surprised us. I could not finish my main course and skipped pudding to avoid spoiling the pleasure by overeating.

My husband would have liked to have seen a little more variety in some of the wine recommendations but, mindful of the pricing structure and clientele at which the establishment is aimed, enjoyed the drinks offered with each course. I was happy with my well chilled and tonic heavy G&T (just as I like it) followed by a fruity white wine that held up to the deliciousness of the perfectly cooked lamb.

Just as, after recent experiences, we wonder how we can provide a family holiday away from home that will suit my teenage boys, so my husband and I are now wondering at the wisdom of including them in meals out. It is important that, as parents, we expose them to different situations to enable them to pick up on social cues and learn acceptable behaviour. It is also important that we, as adults, are allowed to enjoy the experiences ourselves.

I need to mull over the best way to proceed as regards balancing family time with the enjoyment of expensive experiences, and to discuss with my boys why they sometimes behave as they do. Perhaps all we need are ground rules for participation. In the meantime, The Bridge will be added to our list of places worth considering for celebratory nights out. We will undoubtedly return.

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Not a domestic goddess

I dislike cooking. I used to take a certain satisfaction in planning, preparing and producing a meal, but that was before I was expected to do so several times a day, every day. From talking to friends I don’t believe that my family are unusual in their fussy fads, but they still drive me mad. I derive no satisfaction from feeding the complainers. It is a repetitive chore.

My husband is a connoisseur. When he eats out he prefers to pay for quality over quantity. He looks for taste, presentation and ambience in a restaurant. He will choose carefully and savour each dish. He looks for variety and imaginative flavours presented with care and precision. He never complains about the food that I put in front of him; he knows that, as an adult, if he expressed dissatisfaction then I would expect him to sort himself out. He vacuums up his meal so quickly I wonder if he bothers to taste what is going down. It serves a purpose but is not enjoyed.

My daughter wishes to be a vegetarian but is so selective in the vegetables that she will eat that this is impractical. I cook an even mix of carnivorous and vegetarian dishes each week and all are expected to partake. I will not accept a diet of pizza and pasta dressed basically. Whilst she lives at home she is expected to eat what is put down in front of her. She does so with bad grace.

My elder son wishes to eat meat in large quantities and little else. Like his father, he enjoys flavoursome dishes that offer variety. He has expensive tastes and complains bitterly about the boring food that I cook. Although I offer Indian, Chinese and Italian variations regularly he will still groan each time an English dish is presented. If the vegetables are not drowned in a sauce then he struggles to eat them.

My younger son has never outgrown his love of kiddie food. He dislikes strong flavours, sauces of any kind (other than ketchup!) and flatly refuses to eat stews, soups or salads. He would happily live on burgers, sausages, chips, pasta and pizza. If I place food that he dislikes in front of him then he will pick at it and then declare himself full, rubbing at his face as if exhausted. I know that he will be snacking on junk later.

I adore any food that I have not cooked myself; I find our daily meals tasteless. The time I have spent preparing them, knowing that over half the recipients will either complain or eat without noticing, makes the whole exercise one of necessity rather than enjoyment. I gain no satisfaction from this chore.

Of course I have tried varying our menu, experimenting with dishes in an attempt to find new meals that we can all enjoy. These are met with suspicion and are generally rejected, often unfinished. The individual members of my family have tastes that vary too radically to allow much variation from the rolling fortnightly menu that has evolved from the few successes that I have discovered over the years. Each member of my family looks forward to certain meals and will complain if they do not appear as expected.

I refuse to produce different dishes on a given night. I will vary the menu, allow for preferences and avoid any food stuff that is hated. I will not cook an entirely different meal for each person. I bake less than I once did because of failures being mocked and my skill (or lack) derided. Feedback is noted and action taken; this has led us to the current situation where I find meal production such a chore.

When we first got married, my husband and I would share the cooking. It is now rare for him to help out. I don’t blame him; it is a time consuming and thankless task. Of course, it must be done. As the stay at home mum it is my job to do it; I do not dispute that.

It would be pleasing if, from time to time, someone else did the clearing away and washing up after a meal. That too is my job. Even when I am not at home to eat, rare though this may be, I will return to find the pots and dishes that I left prepared for the family meal sitting around used and unwashed. The dishwasher is my friend; I suspect I am the only one in the house who knows how to use it.

Eating out is such a treat. It can be hard to find a venue that offers a wide enough variety of dishes to satisfy everyone, but it can be done. And how I love being able to savour a meal and then walk away from the resulting debris. Alas the cost makes this impractical too often. Perhaps it is as well to keep it special.

I cook largely from scratch using fresh and healthy ingredients. However much my family may complain, at least I can be satisfied that they are eating well; I have allowed the current situation to develop because I will not compromise on this. I will not use ready meals or takeaways on a regular basis and I insist on the consumption of a variety of vegetables and fruit each day. My children have been brought up to eat what is put in front of them. If their complaints bring me down then I may comfort myself with the fact that at least the food is eaten. Perhaps I expect too much in asking that they do not state their views so bluntly in their own home.

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Listening to our bodies

The human body is an amazing thing. It will flag up problems that need attention and self repair all but the most serious of issues with a minimum of intervention. Good health and pain free living are too easily taken for granted until we suffer their loss. Most of us will face our daily tasks, chores and entertainments assuming that we can cope with whatever treatment we give our bodies and will recover. Perhaps it is only as we age and the aches and complaints take longer to heal that we realise how much better life can be if we take good care of ourselves.

As another new week begins I will be trying to treat my body better. Last week was a lot of fun with birthdays to celebrate and parties to look forward to but the aftermath of such frivolity and high living hit me yesterday. It would seem that I need my sleep and am not good at coping with the effects of rich food and wine consumed at odd times. My body was telling me that I have not been treating it well and, as it is the only one I will ever have, I intend to listen to it.

There are those in my local friendship group who appear to socialise and party with a regularity that I do not believe I could cope with. When my body tells me to rest and recuperate it does so loudly; I suspect it is attitude as much as age. I am happy to accept the excuse that I need to give myself time to recover as I enjoy a time of solitude and reflection as I go about my daily routine. I am generally content to live repetitively and quietly with just the occasional highlight to look forward to from time to time.

My children are now home from their various school and scout trips and camps. Much as I like to see them enjoying the experiences that travel and adventure offer it felt good to have them all back and safe in their own beds. We felt rather jaded yesterday evening and welcomed the chance of an early night. This morning I awoke feeling ever so much better after a full eight hours sleep – it is quite some time since I have managed that.

Waking my children for school was not so easy. Overtired and physically weary they were not in the best of moods as they headed out to catch their bus. I do hope that they manage to stay calm through their day but suspect that this evening could be trying. They do not always react well to the effects of excessive activity and poor sleep. It doesn’t help that they will also have had to cope with an unusual diet. The fuel that we give to our bodies has a significant effect on how well we operate. The young may be more capable of a quick recovery from such treatment than their elders but they still require recovery time – a fact that they do not always seem to appreciate.

Having had one of the laziest days ever yesterday, which probably helped my mood if not the state of my house, today will be busy for me. As well as the damp and muddy clothing that the children presented to me on their return I have a sodden tent opened out on the floor of our family room to dry. There is a lot of sorting out for me to tackle but this is fine. It would seem that a quiet and ordinary life suits me better than high excitement. As the weather has returned to the cold and damp of winter, even if we are now well through March, I will not be tempted to venture far. A little hibernation this week will do me good.

Listening to our bodies and responding appropriately to physical needs requires awareness but is generally obvious and straightforward. Listening to our minds and responding appropriately to our mental health requirements can be more challenging. Accepting myself for what I am and avoiding attempts to follow a more conventional lifestyle with it’s social highlights and large group get togethers can be hard, but only because I am allowing myself to think that I should be having the sort of fun that others appear to enjoy. I have no wish to shun society but am much more comfortable meeting up with one person or a small group on an occasional basis. I need to allow myself to live a life that suits me.

What worked well last week was my night away with my husband. How fortunate I am that the person whose company I enjoy the most lives with me. A night out with him, but not too late a one, can be a social highlight that I will truly enjoy. With my friends I think I am best sticking to a walk or a coffee. Neither of these is likely to result in my body feeling as though it has been brutalised as it did yesterday. I am such a party lightweight.

For now I have much to do as I face this new week. A gentle approach to the tasks to be completed along with sparse and simple food will soon have me feeling healthy again. My body is telling me to be mindful of my needs and, on this occasion at least, I am going to do as I am told.

Health

Getting away

What do you give the man who already has everything that he wants? This week my husband celebrated his fiftieth birthday, his first half century, the arrival of his sixth decade. Knowing that it was approaching he had made it very clear that he wanted neither a party nor an expensive, surprise gift. I couldn’t let the milestone pass unmarked but, when asked, he could think of nothing that he wanted. What a fabulous situation to be in! Nevertheless, something had to be done, some token gifts offered to show that I cared. The best solution seemed to be an indulgent night away.

My husband does not like surprises so the idea was discussed in advance and plans were made together. Advice was sought from friends, facilities at hotels researched, days were booked off from work and cooperation from the children agreed. When everything was finally organised I started to feel rather excited about this short trip. He couldn’t, after all, be sent off on his own – I was going too.

We had only been away overnight, just the two of us, once before in our married life. Although it had been pleasant enough I had been too worried about my young children to fully enjoy it. I knew that they were being safely cared for, but was concerned that they would not understand why mummy had disappeared. I imagined them feeling abandoned, being concerned and worried but unable to put that into words. I envisaged them being traumatized, losing their carefree happiness and security, becoming clingy and unsure if I would be there for them when they returned from their next outing without me. I had a good imagination about these things.

This time was different. As teenagers, they were rather miffed that we were going to have fun and eat yummy food while they missed out, but having the house to themselves without us to tell them to do homework and go to bed early seemed adequate compensation. If I didn’t trust them then I might have felt some concern about the eagerness with which they embraced our plans. I like to think that they were just happy to see us doing something for ourselves. I still have a good imagination.

Getting away without the kids after so many years of holidays planned around them made me feel young again. I was able to pack a suitcase just for me. There was no need to take practical, mummy clothing or to leave something behind to make room for their things. There was no need to limit luggage so that we could carry everything when the children threw a strop and would not help. Even after I had packed all that I needed, wanted and a bit more besides, I still had room in my case. My husband looked quite bemused as he put his little overnight bag in the car and helped me with the luggage that normally suffices for at least two of us for a week. I was having fun already.

I had decided that the key requirements of the hotel were good food, a room with a view and indoor leisure facilities in case of bad weather. I also liked the idea of staying on the coast. Living in a land locked county of England I do sometimes miss being close to the sea. As a child trips to the beach were a regular occurrence as we lived within a half hour drive of a glorious stretch of sandy coastline. I love the sound of the lapping of the tide and miss the long walks along the beach that my parents insisted on when I was young.

My husband and I had booked into what I hoped would be the perfect hotel and set off for it in glorious sunshine. I was a little perturbed by the few flurries of snow in the air, but the car was warm and we could play our choice of music without complaints from the back. A couple of hours later we had reached our destination and were in high spirits. This was going to be good.

We had a little over twenty-four hours at the hotel, but seemed to pack in so many lovely experiences. Arrival day was freezing cold with a biting wind but we managed a walk on the beach, around the harbour and along the residential streets of Sandbanks (which has, by area, the fourth highest land value in the world – the house designs are stunning) before the cold drove us inside. We made good use of the hotel’s leisure facilities, braving the outdoor hot tub and warming ourselves in the sauna and steam room. My  husband likes to make use of everything available so even swam in the outdoor pool – brrrr.

Our room had a balcony on which we drank his celebratory bottle of champagne, well wrapped up against the cold, while watching the yachts from the local clubs sail by. My ever active husband had brought a book and it was good to see him spend some time relaxing while I prepared myself for dinner. We had drinks and canapes at the bar before sitting down to one of the most delicious dinners I have ever eaten. It was a fabulous day.

In the morning we stuffed ourselves silly at the breakfast buffet. With so many tempting choices it was hard not to try them all (I am so unused to hotel living). After a short rest to recover from our gluttony we packed up and headed back to the beach for a long walk along the sand and promenade. The sun was still shining but the biting wind had eased so we were able to enjoy this comfortably. When our legs grew tired we stopped at a beach side cafe for coffee; even this is an indulgence for us. Our coffees on the go are normally preprepared and carried in a flask, drunk in the shelter of the car.

We headed home feeling overfed and windblown, but also pampered and indulged. From the state of our kitchen it was clear that the children had coped well without us, eaten sensibly and seen no need to waste time clearing away or washing up. The hens had been cared for, lights switched off and doors locked. I was happy that all had gone so smoothly.

It was a lovely way to celebrate a birthday. As parents it can be too easy to forget that we are people too. Now that the children are older they do not need us to be around them all the time and the occasional taste of independence can give them (and us) the confidence to know that they can cope on their own. Perhaps one day we will do it again. I hope so.

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Staying healthy

I have a friend who believes that those who can afford to have a duty to buy the best quality meat and organic vegetables that they can find to encourage production of these types of food stuffs. This same friend takes the most varied cocktail of drugs of anyone I know in an attempt to keep herself as healthy as possible. She has many health issues and spends a great amount of her time dealing with these. She and I do not see eye to eye on many of her theories around consumption and it’s effects on the human body.

I think that our bodies are amazing. To survive we must eat and breath yet, in our modern world, both our food and our air are polluted. Thankfully we have inbuilt systems for detoxification and we seem to be able to cope with the small quantities of poison that we consume or inhale. We can assist this process by exercising regularly and by keeping our bodies well hydrated. Beyond this, a bit of common sense in what we consume seems to be enough to keep most people in a state of reasonable health.

I am not a good cook. I don’t enjoy preparing food and the meals that I produce tend to be fairly bland. This is partly down to my lack of confidence and skill in this area, and partly down to the varied tastes of my family which limits what we can eat. One of my sons likes meat and strong flavours, dislikes a wide range of vegetables, and gets bored being fed the same thing too often; my other son dislikes strong flavours and likes to know what he is eating so is often unwilling to try anything new; my daughter dislikes fish, meat, certain vegetables and salad. Trying to please everyone is a challenge as I am not willing to produce different meals at one sitting.

I use a lot of fresh ingredients and cook mainly from scratch. I do use some jars of sauce for flavour and a few of my daughters vegetarian alternatives come from a frozen packet, but most of what we eat contains only basic, recognisable foodstuffs that I have chosen and added. I do not concern myself with brands unless there is a notable difference in taste. As much of the food is mixed up together in the cooking anyway, I buy what is on offer.

The recent horse meat scandal did not disturb me too much as horse meat is probably better for us than much of the offal that goes into food from other animals. It is always a concern to hear that creatures reared for consumption are fed a variety of chemicals to promote easy health and fast weight gain, but the chemical fertilizers and sprays that promote growth in vegetables are already in the human food chain through animal feedstuffs. We are told that organic vegetables are no better for our health than the ordinary, mass produced variety and that vegetarian alternatives to meat are as full of flavourings and additives as a cheap burger or sausage. I do not dispute that these things are bad for us, only that we have to eat something and the alternatives may not actually be that much better.

What we can do if we wish to stay healthy is to exercise more. Physical exercise will make our vital organs function more efficiently, speed up digestion and help our bodies to flush the harmful chemicals out. My children may not appreciate that I send them to school on the bus rather than  driving them, which would be much cheaper, but the required walk to the bus stop and then on to school and back will help to keep them healthy (complaints about sore backs due to heavy bags of books notwithstanding).

I am fascinated by the scientific studies that have found links between what we think about our health and how healthy we are. In certain situations, participants in studies have been given placebos but told it is a curing drug and have subsequently been cured. It is obvious that not all illness can be cured in this way, but I believe it shows that attitude is vital for good health. There are times when we are ill and our bodies tell us that we need to rest; allowing a time of rest and recovery is sensible and important. However, I also believe that we can think ourselves more ill than we are. There seem to be a lot of people who, for no apparent reason, seem to come down with every bug and virus going. There are others who manage to avoid most minor illnesses or who can just keep going through the sniffles and aches. I cannot put myself inside anyone else’s head to know how they feel, but I do wonder if some are more prone to illness than others or if they just believe that they are less healthy.

I have never been one to use the mass of antiseptic sprays and wipes that are promoted for hygiene in the home apart from in the bathrooms. I think this worries my friend. She disinfects surfaces with fervour, replaces scratched items which may harbour bacteria and does all in her power to keep dirt from her home. I have a much more relaxed attitude to these things. A bit of hot water and soap plus a sensible attitude to hand washing does me. If we ingest a bit of dirt our immune systems will be strengthened. Bacteria can fight infection as well as cause it. I would rather not cover the surfaces of my kitchen with yet more chemicals.

I realise that it is easy for me to have a fairly laissez faire attitude to food and hygiene when I have the good fortune to have a robust and healthy family. Good health should never be taken for granted. Time spent working to maintain it may not always be fun, but is a worthwhile investment. I should probably also invest a bit more time in improving my cooking skills.

The Healthy Eating Pyramid, from the Harvard S...