Chicken Soup: delicious healer, wise teacher

My daughter is not generally a fussy eater. In order to maintain this, when I notice her turning her nose up at certain foods, I try to mix things up a little and get her involved in the whole food provision process. Last time this happened was early in the year when we were both on holidays. I noticed some resistance to my usual no-fuss dinners, and thought I’d take the break as an opportunity to try something different. A week or so beforehand I had been unwell, and a lovely human had brought me chicken soup to make me feel better. I asked my dear progeny if she would like to help make chicken soup, and – being a fan of both chicken and soup – she eagerly agreed. We spent some time looking at recipes online, chose a a good one and worked out what ingredients we would need. We trundled down to the shops, and daughter took great delight in going off on her own to find ingredients in the supermarket (she is a big girl, after all). When we got home, my helper washed veggies and lugged the big pot out of the cupboard, then went off to play while I did the dangerous sharp and hot bits. She would reappear occasionally to steal some bits of carrot and dry noodles and to have a stir, and we would tell each other how good it all smelled. At last, it was ready. There was heaps. I filled old takeaway containers and tupperware and lined them up on the bench to cool – and there was still enough in the pot for dinner and lunch the next day. It was a balmy evening and we sat outside on the back step to eat. The soup was delicious and all was idyllic… until, after a few mouthfuls, daughter spoke.

“I don’t really like this.”

Needless to say, I was a bit sad. All that effort! All that excitement! All that soup!!

She had a good try and managed to get through half a bowl (mainly by eating the noodles), but I’m not a fan of forcing the poor thing to eat stuff she genuinely doesn’t like, so I eventually relented and made her a vegemite sandwich.

The lesson I took away from this little episode was about expectation. We form expectations about all kinds of things, big and small. But life so rarely delivers on them – and it’s easy to be left feeling deflated, disappointed and/or pissed off. I know some people who try to avoid all expectation as a way of practising detachment, but that doesn’t work for me. I end up expecting myself to not have expectations (oh, the irony!), and getting frustrated when I inevitably fail. Instead, I try to acknowledge and manage my expectations. They aren’t always realistic, and if (when!) something falls short, I am able to see that maybe the problem was with my expectation, rather than an error or shortcoming of the person/event/food involved. This isn’t a mechanism to enable self-blame. Instead, it’s a way of keeping things in perspective, and of taking ownership of what’s going on in my head rather than externalising responsibility.

This is one of those life lessons I have learned repeatedly, and will continue to forget and learn again and again. Like my chicken soups, the lesson is slightly different each time. And, if I’m lucky, the end products of both will be increasingly delicious.

Pizza: one of my one true loves; or Diets can go die

I saw a post on a certain social media site this morning. It was a photograph of a delicious looking breakfast – egg, hollandaise, avocado, toast. Probably bacon. The caption was something along the lines of “Cheat’s breakfast before diet week”.

That got me thinking.

About a year ago, one of my besties and I were cuddled up on an outdoor couch at a party. We were toasting our toes, having a giggle and talking about how we’d been making a series of unhealthy and irresponsible life decisions. We happened to be tipsy and mildly stoned at the time, which explains the ridiculous idea we came up with: we would ditch our heady, wild lifestyles and start training for a marathon. After the hangover, we spoke again and both decided that, actually, it wasn’t such a bad idea to have that goal to work towards. We looked at routes and distances and motivational training apps. Well, I did. My friend just started jogging regularly.

12 or so months later, that wonderful and inspiring human has just signed up to run a marathon. I have not. This has also got me thinking.

I have had a few minor health issues lately. Nothing serious, just the odd twinge in my back, lower energy levels, increased susceptibility to colds – all things that come from not caring for my body. I’ve become pretty good at mental and emotional health management over the last couple of years, but I have allowed my corporeal health to fall a little by the wayside. Until very recently. I had an epiphany of sorts a few months ago: I am never going to be a health freak. I like food and alcohol too much, and I lack the discipline to exercise every day. However, I realised, I don’t have to become Jane Fonda in order to improve my overall health and fitness (although, I admit, my hair is showing some eagerness to take that path…). The real lightening bolt came when the thought occurred to me that the tiniest change – going for a run once a fortnight – would be an improvement. It would be manageable, realistic, and maintainable. And it would be difficult to not find time for. So I went home and downloaded Zombies, Run! and then faffed around for a few more weeks, and THEN… went for a run. It was awful. I thought I was going to have an actual heart attack – and I hadn’t even run the whole way, I had walked substantial chunks of it. I was horrified at how hard it was, and how shit I felt after. And that’s what made me realise I had to keep doing it. I’ve kept at it, running the same 3km loop a few times a fortnight, and it’s slowly getting easier. I actually ran the whole way last time. My goal at the moment is to run on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday on the weeks my daughter is at her dad’s house.

Today is Saturday. My daughter is at her dad’s house. I did not go for a run.

I slept in this morning and woke around 11. I stayed in bed for another hour, just being comfy and thinking about things. I thought about going for a run. I thought about stuff that’s been going on at work. I thought about uni. I thought about the leftover pizza in my fridge. I decided to make the healthy choice – by not going for a run, and staying home to eat cold pizza instead.

Now, this is not the obviously healthy choice. But I like to see health holistically. Today I chose to stay home and treat myself – to eat and do whatever I felt like eating and doing. Totally guilt-free. Totally wonderful. Totally good for me. So when I saw the post about a “cheat’s breakfast”, I felt really sad for that person. It’s not cheating to enjoy yourself. It’s not cheating to indulge in ‘unhealthy’ stuff now and again. Healthy living is about making choices that give your life balance, and that fill you with joy. Jogging does not fill me with joy – but you know what does? The knowledge that I will soon be able to keep up with my daughter as she races along on her scooter; the feeling that I am finally caring for this poor old body that (for the most part) uncomplainingly carries me through life; and the understanding that I don’t have to feel bad when I take the unhealthy option. But the thing that brought me the most joy today was noticing that my marathon-running friend spent her Saturday at home baking choc-chip cookies. Now THAT’s what I call balance.

Play with your food!

Something it is easy to forget, especially if we’re not around kids much, is that each of us had to learn to eat. And the way small humans learn is through play. Have you ever seen a baby eating? It’s a messy, fun business. Stuff gets smooshed everywhere – it is fondled, mashed, rubbed and slopped. It is tasted, spat out, tasted again, smeared around a bit, licked up and ‘shared’ with anyone/thing nearby. It is generally played with. If you compare the volume of food kids go through with the volume they actually consume, you will see a very big difference. We all have a baby photo of ourselves with a vegemite beard or an upturned bowl of spaghetti as a hat. We all learned to eat by playing with our food.

Sadly, at some point along the way, this behaviour becomes unacceptable. “Don’t play with your food!” becomes a common refrain – we have to sit still and eat up and suddenly become serious at mealtimes. Part of this is practical – when it’s getting towards 8pm on a weeknight and my daughter is walking carrot stick legs around her plate, dancing them in and out of a tomato sauce lake, trying to avoid the broccoli-gator… well, I confess, I have been known to demand she “JUST EAT IT!!” However, another part of this change is the process of ‘growing up’, where the expectation seems to be that the older we get, the less fun things should be.

This unspoken social rule is, I think, just dumb.

I have heaps of fun playing with food, as today’s photo proves, but it occurred to me recently that most of the childish fun I have is when I’m around children. Why should it be that way? What is it about ‘growing up’ that makes us embarrassed to have fun? I don’t have the answer. Luckily enough, I don’t have much shame either. So I decided to start having fun again.

I took myself to the beach a few weeks ago. Usually I would sit on the sand and just let the view and the sound of the waves relax me, but this time I thought “ Bugger it. I’m going to have a swim.” Summer hasn’t quite arrived in Melbourne yet, but I was lucky enough to catch a bright, clear day. The sun and sand were hot. The water was not. It still carried the chill of the Antarctic winter, but I didn’t care. I waded in up to my neck and bobbed around, happy as a clam. After a bit, when my extremities were nicely numbed, I paddled in and sat on the sand in the shallower, slightly warmer, water – still up to my neck – and let the ocean rock me. The beach I was at is categorically not a surf beach. The ‘waves’ – if you could call them that – don’t break, or even crest. The water just swells and dips in wide, restless wrinkles. It is lovely.

So I sat on the sand and swayed with the ocean, letting it wobble me around until – I kid you not – I was laughing out loud. The occasional jogger trotting past probably thought I was a madwoman, cackling at the sea. But it was just so much fun! And had I been 20 years younger, it would have been seen as perfectly normal behaviour.

I didn’t get out for some time, and it wasn’t until I stood up that I realised my teeth were chattering. Actually chattering. So I ran up the sand, wrapped a towel around my shoulders and threw myself down on the blanket. I was going to make a sandcastle, but instead I fell asleep. I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.

Since then I’ve made an effort to enjoy things in a more childlike way. I’ve been in those spinny, twirly machine things in playgrounds, the ones that make kids actually spew (we used to call them ‘sick machines’, I don’t know the official name, but wow… crazy fun!). I’ve had my face painted. I’ve been so engrossed in a game or story that I’ve missed the bus stop. I sing Disney songs out loud to myself and instead of walking, I sometimes skip. The more I relax into these kinds of things, the more natural it becomes. I would highly recommend diving right into your second (or third) childhood. Life is short, it might as well be fun. So grab a kite. Play with lego. Laugh at farts. And above all, PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD!!

Comfort Food

I must confess, I am a comfort eater.

When stressed out or upset, in the throes of PMS, or just plain bored I can eat an inordinate amount of chocolate, doughnuts, or any other delight full of sugar and grease. I have eaten half my weight in peanut m&ms, and not batted an eyelid. I once melted butter, mixed in brown sugar, called it ‘caramel’ and ate it on a slice of bread. I have been known to literally eat a spoonful of sugar to cheer myself up – good ol’ Mary Poppins was not wrong. I have a snickers bar in my pocket right now. True story. I acknowledge that carbohydrates and saturated fat are not a healthy way of dealing with difficult situations. I have also come to accept the fact that this is a coping mechanism I am not ready to relinquish just yet.

This week saw ‘R U OK Day’ providing a national reminder to enquire meaningfully as to how the people around us are coping with life. Although geared specifically towards suicide prevention, asking with genuine care how someone is going can open real conversations about mental and emotional health; it can provide a space for people to speak out before things reach crisis point. It’s important to remember that answering ‘no’ to the question ‘are you ok?’ is not a sign of weakness.

This week, I didn’t go out of my way to ask others ‘R U OK?’. I do this in the course of my everyday interactions with people, and my intuition often allows me to know the answer without needing to ask. Instead, I turned the question inward and asked it of myself. And the answer was, quite simply, no.

Lately, despite consuming vast amounts of rum n raisin chocolate, I have not really been ok.

I have been physically, mentally and emotionally stretched, further than at just about any other point in my life. I am a mother-wife-daughter-sister-colleague-student-writer-friend, and I often feel that I fall short of expectations in all of these roles. I can’t seem to manage one without letting the others slide. But let me be very clear – I’m talking about my own expectations here. This is not about how I am seen from the outside, by my wonderful and amazing network of family and friends, with their rather generous opinions of me. Rather, it is about how I perceive myself, what I expect of myself. And I expect a lot.

But don’t worry! Being able to admit (to myself, let alone to you, my adoring public!) to not-ok-ness is a huge step forward. Acknowledging the fact that I often feel overwhelmed, swamped, all at sea, completely scattered and amply less-able than I used to be is, for me, an important step in the road back to sanity. Some days I am not ok. But I always know that I will be. And that is such an important distinction. Because when someone loses their confidence in the future, their conviction that things will get better, that is when we need to worry.

A couple of months ago, I started seeing a psychologist. This is something I haven’t exactly kept a secret, but it’s not something I have broadly advertised, either… until now, I guess! I felt that things around me were spiralling out of control, that I was losing my grip and my ability to cope, and that this had the potential to seriously impact important aspects of my life – my family, study, work and friendships.

I am a firm believer in taking responsibility for my choices. I don’t like to indulge in self-pity or wallow in regret. I realised that in this, as in all things, I had a choice – not about the circumstances I was experiencing, but about how I reacted to them. I could passively watch my life unravel, becoming a victim of circumstance, or I could take steps to understand what was going on, to carefully deconstruct my life and piece it back together in a manageable way. I chose the latter, and booked myself in to see a psychologist. His name is Woolfie – he is a softly spoken German who looks a little like John Malkovich. Whatever stereotype you are imagining, you’re probably not far wrong. Seeing Woolfie isn’t easy. He doesn’t shy away from questions I hesitate to ask myself. We explore the mysteries of my subconscious using a metaphorical landscape – my inner cynic rolls her eyes at how corny it all is, but I know it’s doing me good, so I just give her the finger, placate her with the promise of malteasers, and push on.

So I guess that, after all, I am ok. Not great; not terrible. Ok. I’m firmly on the middle ground where things could go either way, depending on the moment. But actually, I’m more than ok – in the sense that I am on my way to a better way of being. I’m looking after myself (apart from my little sugar addiction… one little step at a time!), and that in turn will allow me to continue looking after those around me. In recent times I have well and truly bitten off more life than I can chew – but that doesn’t mean I’m choking. Instead I’m spitting it all out and starting over. And while I sort through the slimy, semi-masticated, uglyfood mess of my inner self, I take comfort in the delicious, hearty, warm and cosy sustenance afforded by the wonderful people around me… and also the confectionary aisle.

Gluten Free

I am so thankful that I don’t have any food allergies or sensitivities. I have had my fair share of health issues, but none of them have ever been around food – which is great, because I do love food. What’s more, I love gluten. I have the greatest pity for one of my closest friends, a coeliac, who has been craving a Vegemite sandwich for the last ten years. So, obviously, I have little to no experience in creating GF food of any kind. A recent attempt to make gluten free pancakes was one one of the ugliest delights our kitchen has ever encountered – as is attested by today’s featured image. Gross, right? … wrong. This little baby, with a splash of maple syrup, actually made a very tasty brunch, and the circumtances surrounding its creation only added to the charm.

A friend, J, had reached crisis point, and we had offered her a bed so she could get some respite from her daily cares. J, being the sweetheart that she is, arrived the previous evening prepared to cook up a storm. Along with her small son and all his accoutrements, she bore several bags of groceries and proceeded to make a most delicious, very attractive, and totally gluten free dinner. The following morning J wanted to make pancakes for breakfast – and nobody was complaining. Now, when there are children in a household, things take longer. This is just a fact of life. The creation of these pancakes turned to be quite a long process indeed. But it was totally worth it.
I was up with our 4 year old at the usual time of around 7am. My hubby had a recording & filming session that day, so he was up and about too. J’s son is not yet 1 so, needless to say, he and his mama rose bright and early. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend, who share our home, were soundly sleeping. Well, considering the activity around them, their sleep-in may not have been too sound, but that’s beside the point. We decided to get the kids breakfast before embarking on the great GF pancake adventure. Pretty soon there was yoghurt and squished fruit all over (and I mean ALL over!) the kitchen – meal time is play time when there’s yoghurt involved, after all. While hubby set up the garage and yard in preparation for the day’s productivities, the kiddies swamped around in their breakfast, J started mixing batter, and I made (and spilled) coffees and teas. We cut a classy figure, J and I – dressing gown clad, baby’s brekkie kisses smeared on faces and shoulders, hair stylishly mussed – gorgeous!
We were expecting visitors, I should add – the other half of hubby’s newly-formed music duo, and the friend who was going to film them recording a song for their upcoming fundraising campaign. I had planned to be all organised – a wonder woman and super mum – but then I realised it was Saturday morning and I should just give myself a freaking break. So I lowered my expectations of myself, accepted the fact that the house was going to be a mess, and chose to revel in each moment as it came.
There was a knock at the door, it was the lovely lady L – the duo’s second member – whom I had never met before. She must have been quite shocked to be greeted by me in my morning glamour – weilding a coffee pot, wild-eyed and hair askew, but she was very polite about the whole affair. With my small daughter clinging to my dressing gown reins, I led L through the house – deftly sidestepping childrens toys and yoghurt puddles as we went. In the yard, hubby had created a lovely nook for their clip, and I left them to finish setting up. Inside, our darling friend had been distracted from pancake duty by two adorable and sticky children, the elder of whom had added a generous helping of sand to the steadily growing mess in the kitchen. On the bench was a large mixing bowl of greyish goop that, I realised to my internal dismay, was the pancake mix. On a plate nearby was a clump of the goop – a partly charred, partly mushy, wholly disgusting looking blob. In the frypan was another, which looked headed for the same fate. As J valiantly attempted to mop yoghurt off the walls, floor and offspring, I took over her post at the stove and began battling buckwheat. After several attempts and using a variety of different methods, J and I managed to prevail, and produced a stack of delicious, if degenerate looking, GF pancakes.
By this time it was after 11am. Our videographer friend was running conveniently late, so we set up brunch outside – pancakes with maple syrup, fruit salad, yoghurt and enough coffee to make the morning’s crazy fade into oblivion. It was lovely. We got to know L a bit better, we finally gifted J with her birthday present (it had been sitting in a cupboard for a couple of months), and the rare Melbourne sun actually shone on us for a few moments.
As we sat, chatting and laughing in the sunshine, with the chooks pecking around, J painting my daughter’s toenails, and the sudden warmth making the grass steam, I felt enormously glad. Glad for good friends and good food. Glad for our home and health. Glad for the opportunity to make the choices that led me to that moment.
And so, so glad that I can eat regular pancakes any time I damn well please.