Self care is definitely the buzzword (or words) of 2018. Perhaps the blow-out of Christmas and New Year, along with the cold and miserable weather, has got us feeling a bit fragile and in need of looking after. Or maybe it's to do with the increasing focus on mental health awareness in the media (always a good thing). Either way, embracing self care in a way that works for you could make a big difference to your daily life.
In this Instagram generation where we constantly compare ourselves to others it can be difficult to stop and listen to our own needs. The strive for perfection means that we feel guilty for not doing enough - not making and documenting a super healthy meal every day, not balancing a high-powered career with a thriving social life, not having a six pack...the list goes on. But realistically, is this all possible, and would those things necessarily make us any happier ?
I also think that it's very easy to mistake self care for giving yourself a treat. Yes, you may 'deserve' that new pair of jeans and be able to afford it, but self care isn't about stuff. It's about taking time to focus on yourself, and you don't have to spend money to do it.
Here are some ideas for self care that don't involve shopping. They may sound a bit cheesy and clichéd but nonetheless, should help you to switch off and take stock:
Self care does not have to be a reward for working hard, only allowed if and when you have completed a task. We need to look after ourselves all the time. It's not lazy to stop and take some time out for yourself. Try to check in with how you are feeling every day. Stop chasing perfection, give yourself a break, and put your feet up.
January was a long month for a lot of people. It's still cold and miserable outside, and resolutions or good intentions may have fallen by the wayside. For me, it's certainly been interesting. I started the year with a challenge of sorts: I decided to take part in Veganuary. So, how did I get on?
Why did I do Veganuary?
I only stopped eating meat in September 2017. Since I left home and started cooking for myself, the amount of meat that I ate was gradually decreasing. I just didn't feel as though I needed it, and was beginning to think more and more about the impact of eating meat on both animals and the environment. The turning point came whilst watching the film Okja with my boyfriend. We were eating beef curry at the time and I felt sick to my stomach. This coincided with a two week plant-based challenge online, and without hesitating I joined in. At the end of the fortnight, the idea of eating meat again wasn't even crossing my mind. Giving veganism a try was the next logical step, so on New Year's Day I began my journey.
How did other people react?
Mostly, people were supportive, even if they didn't really get it. There was a lot of 'oh, but cheese/bacon' etc etc, and also 'ooh, I couldn't do it myself!' Some people were confused as to what I would eat, and I had to assure them that I wasn't just going to be eating vegetables. Also, yes, I knew how I was going to get enough protein!!
There were a lot of arguments with cutting out dairy and eggs. Nobody can really deny the cruelty of the meat industry, but a lot of people either don't know about the dairy/egg industries or choose to not think about it. 'But what about free range eggs?' - 'How will you get your calcium?' I found it difficult to explain it in a way, as some people just didn't really want to know, or try to understand: 'but chickens lay eggs naturally!' It's a tough one when you are only just starting out with a vegan diet, and it made me determined to do more research so that I will have better answers next time people ask.
Occasionally I have been met with aggression towards my choice. I have to say that trying to make someone feel stupid and small because of a choice that they have made to be kinder to animals and to the planet is not cool. The idea of veganism having environmental benefits is the one that has been met with the most contention - obviously, animal cruelty is kind of a given, so maybe it's just something else to pick on instead? I'm not saying that if the whole planet went more plant based there wouldn't still be environmental issues, but there's no denying the amount of land currently used for growing animal feed. I think that this is something that I would definitely like to read more into, and an issue that is likely to come to the forefront as plant-based eating becomes more popular.
How did I get on?
I have to say, I found eating vegan for a month incredibly easy. As someone who hasn't eaten that much meat in years, and also loves cooking, it was just a good excuse to get creative in the kitchen even more that I normally do. The most surprising thing for me was that I didn't even crave cheese!
Something that was a little frustrating was the fact that a lot of veggie staples like Quorn products aren't vegan. Also, there seems to be milk powder in a lot of things unnecessarily (I'm looking at you here, cool original Doritos). That being said, there are still some great vegan and accidentally vegan products out there. Yes, some ready prepared things are more pricey, but if you are cooking from scratch with lots of fresh vegetables, beans, grains and pulses it really doesn't have to be expensive.
Eating out has been better than I thought, too. Although it still surprises me that it's 2018 and the number of veggie/vegan choices in some restaurants are pretty poor. And yes, there has been a lot of falafel! I enjoyed pizzas at Pizza Hut and Pizza Express in particular, and visited Stem and Glory in Cambridge for the first time and had the most delicious vegan lasagne ever. The Veganuary movement is definitely having an effect on the restaurant business which can only be a positive thing.
Am I carrying on?
In short, yes, I would like to carry on with veganism. A lot of people just assumed that as soon as Veganuary was over I'd be gorging on cheese and chocolate. But that kind of defeats the point in my opinion. I wasn't cutting out dairy and eggs as part of some sort of fad new year diet, so why would I just go back to eating them again?
I plan to continue to educate myself on the matter. There are some tough documentaries that I know I need to watch, and some books that I want to read. I want to look at it from all sides and make an educated decision. But my gut is telling me that eating any sort of animal product just isn't right. Even if I feel awkward asking people to eat at restaurants where there are vegan choices, or cook me vegan meals. The people that I love will respect my decision, even if they don't fully understand or agree with it, and that's what matters.
More importantly, I am not going to pressure myself into becoming the perfect Vegan overnight. Yes, I ate vegan for a month fairly easily. But there is so much more to it than that. For example, cruelty-free cosmetics, non-leather shoes and bags etc. It is still going to be a transition. I am going to use things up in my freezer that are not vegan, because I do not want to waste food. But I am not going to buy meat, eggs or dairy products. I will use up the make up and skin care that I already have, and then make sure that I replace them all with cruelty-free products when they run out.
I know that the hardcore vegan activists would say that it's not good enough to just be vegetarian, or just do some meat-free days each week, and I do get where they are coming from. But I honestly believe that doing something has to be better at doing nothing. So I would urge you to think about cutting down on meat, dairy and eggs, and having a look into the way that the industries work and the impacts on the environment. If everyone thought that they couldn't make a difference so there's no point, then nothing would ever get done! But the the truth is, we can all make a difference, and it has to start somewhere.
I'm never sure if it's a bit of a cop-out writing a whole recipe for a smoothie - really you can just chuck whatever you want in a blender! However, this one is too delicious not to share. I like making this for pudding in the evening. You can tweak it by adding in some cinnamon, or bulk it out with some oats and have it for breakfast. Feel free to leave out the protein powder and add a little more cacao if that's what you prefer.
1 frozen banana
1 scoop chocolate protein powder (I use MyProtein Vegan Blend in Chocolate Smooth)
1 tbsp cacao or cocoa powder
3 heaped tsp powdered peanut butter
2 tbsp thick yoghurt (Alpro Go On is great for this)
Milk to blend (I use Koko coconut milk or Oatly oat milk usually)
Quite simply, put all the ingredients into a blender and whizz them up! I use a NutriBullet and top up to the line with coconut milk to blend. Then enjoy :)
January may be the time of 'new year, new me' and photo upon photo of healthy salads on Instagram, but let's face it: it's still cold and dark. I don't know about you, but I'm still all about big bowls of hot food to warm me up on these brisk evenings. Chilli is perfect for this, and can be made in a big batch to keep you going for a few days.
My version isn't heavy on the tomatoes, but has all the essential spice and is packed full of veg. There are loads of different ways to serve it, which means that leftovers never have to be boring! I usually get three good sized dinners from this recipe. My favourite ways to eat it (as shown in the pictures above) are simply on it's own (often topped with some grated vegan cheese), with brown rice or grains and some garlicky greens, or with tortilla chips and home made guacamole.
1 medium sized sweet potato, peeled and cut into very small cubes
1 small red onion, diced
1/2 courgette, grated
1x 400g tin black beans, drained and rinsed
Extra veg - spinach, aubergine and mushrooms all work well
200-300ml vegetable stock
2 tsp ground cumin or crushed cumin seeds
2-3 tsp chilli puree (or chilli powder/dried chilli flakes to your taste)
1 tsp garlic paste
3 tbsp tomato puree
Fry the red onion in a splash of oil of your choice over a medium heat until it starts to soften.
Add the sweet potato and grated courgette (and any extra veg you are using, except spinach - this can be stirred in nearer the end). Fry for 5 minutes.
Add the cumin, chilli, garlic and tomato paste and cook through for 2 minutes.
Stir in the veg stock and black beans, cover the pan and simmer for 30 minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally. If you are using a casserole dish rather than a saucepan, transfer to the oven (preheated to 180C) for half an hour.
Once the sweet potato has softened and the sauce thickened, it's ready to eat. Stir in the spinach at this stage if you are using it. If the sauce is a bit runny, thicken it up with a tsp or two of cornflour mixed with a little water.
This chilli freezes well but also can be kept in the fridge for a few days after you make it. Add more chilli if you like it a bit hotter, or cool it down with some guacamole. Yum!
The end of one year/beginning of the next is a time of reflection for some, and a time of resolution for many. I don't really like the idea of typical New Year's resolutions. They always seem to be too hard to keep, so we are setting ourselves up for failure. There is far too much focus on over-exercising and detoxes which is totally unnecessary. I don't usually set any sort of resolution, but I have written some goals for 2018. You might think that this amounts to the same thing as resolutions, but I feel like goals are a more positive and achievable way to plan what you want to accomplish in the year ahead.
It is very easy, after sitting around eating chocolate all Christmas, to assume you need to suddenly go crazy on the exercise and healthy eating in January. Or you may feel like you need to set hugely ambitious career goals just because you didn't get any promotions or new job offers. But if you look back over the year, you will probably realise that you were already doing pretty well, so it might just be a case of picking up where you left off before the Christmas break. It's a good idea to reflect on how the year went, and all the positive things you achieved, before setting your goals.
If you set crazy, unrealistic goals it is going to really get you down when you don't achieve them. Goals don't have to be big, and you don't have to share them with other people. So what if someone else has decided that they want to run a marathon this year? It doesn't mean that your goal of running 10km is any less valid. If you do have a really big goal in mind, work out some smaller steps that you can take to make it happen. Ideally you want your goals to motivate you rather than make you feel inadequate.
Don't get to the end of 2018 without checking in on your goals or celebrating your achievements. This year I am starting a bullet journal, and every week this is going to include a section for gratitude/accomplishments. This can be seemingly small things that put a smile on your face, or big wins that you want to tell everyone about! It's a nice way to remind yourself that the world is still a nice place, even when you are feeling a bit down. I'm hoping it will also make me realise that I am achieving a lot more than I usually lead myself to believe.
I have written a list of 10 goals for 2018 in my new bullet journal. This sounds a lot, but they are mostly just small changes to my lifestyle that I think will have a positive impact. These include making more time to read books/spending less time aimlessly scrolling through my phone, and making more conscious decisions with the things that I eat and buy. I am excited to keep myself super organised with my bullet journal, which I will use to track habits and moods, as well as managing my time better. Plus it was a good excuse to buy a snazzy new notebook and get the coloured pens out!
So set goals if you want to set goals, but don't start off the New Year by putting yourself under too much pressure. Contrary to popular belief, it's ok to relax in January.
After Christmas, and with New Year looming, it's prime time for new gym memberships and a sudden increase in people wanting to get into, or back into, exercise. Personally, I don't think you need to repent for indulging at Christmas, but keeping fit is something that is important all year round, for both your physical and mental health.
If you want to avoid the crowds in the gym (or just don't fancy the gym at all!) then you might like to give running a go. It's free, and you can do it anywhere. I like to add running into my usual routine of lifting weights and playing netball as it gives me time to myself to let my thoughts wander, and just feels like a totally different way to exercise.
I am certainly no running expert, but here are my tips for getting started:
Plan a route, but be flexible
I use Map My Run to plan out routes. This stops me from running aimlessly, and means I can make sure I am getting in the distance that I want. Sometimes it's good to go with the flow and just run for as long as you fancy. However, when I was starting I found it useful to have specific routes. It means that you know roughly how long you have left at any point on your run, and sticking to a planned distance means you don't push yourself too hard too soon. If you find that you are really struggling you can always cut the route short, and conversely if you feel like you have more in the tank you can add a little extra distance while you're out. I find that if I have planned the route I'm more likely to slog it out and make sure I complete the full distance I've planned.
Take it slow, and build distance gradually
It's not a race, and you don't have to be running 10 miles a few weeks after starting! My first planned run was about 2km, and I struggled through that distance for a good few weeks before even thinking about adding more. If you are running a few times a week you will probably be able to up the distance sooner than if you are only running once a week, but this really doesn't matter. Keep your pace steady, walk if you need to, and don't be put off by other runners - you don't know how many years they have been running or how far into their run they are! You will find that by keeping a steady pace and gradually increasing your distance you can actually improve quite quickly.
Don't let one bad run put you off
I am not somebody who was born to run, and I don't always enjoy it. Sometimes a run seems like such a struggle, even if it's a distance you are used to. However, sometimes it just feels great. One bad run doesn't mean that they will all be bad! I'm not sure about the mythical 'runners high', but I do often genuinely enjoy running, and the feeling of accomplishment at the end. If you have a bad run, give it a few days and then try again.
Stretch and rest!
I can't say I struggle with being so addicted to running that I don't allow myself adequate rest, but it's still an important thing to point out! Let your body recover, and don't force yourself to run if you aren't feeling up to it. You don't want to run with a slight injury and make it even worse. Also, stretching afterwards is something that I haven't always been good at, but is really important. It's so tempting to finish a run and just flop down on the sofa and not move for a while, but when your legs are so stiff the next day that you're hobbling around you realise it was a terrible idea! Just spend a good ten minutes after your run gently stretching your ankles, calves, quads and hamstrings and it will make such a difference. I find that my hips get quite tight after running, so I focus some stretching on my flexors and abductors too. Foam rolling is also good if you are still a bit stiff the next day, but be warned: it's not always particularly pleasant!
Do what works for you
Most of the time I prefer to run alone, as it allows me to either collect my thoughts or just let my mind wander completely! However, if you prefer to run with a friend that's great too. It can help to be chatting as you run, to make sure you are breathing properly and keeping your pace steady. There are plenty of running groups in most areas so it's worth having a look on Facebook or asking around to see if you can find one. Listening to music can also help, either to take your mind off the running or to keep your pace.
Don't force it
If you really hate running, and just can't get into it, you don't have to do it! There are other ways to get in your cardio training. Don't force yourself to do something you really don't enjoy. Fitness is supposed to be fun. Challenging yes, but ultimately you need to be doing something that you enjoy because that is what will keep you motivated.
Live music is definitely one of my favourite things. I went to my first gig aged about 12 and haven't stopped since! I was very lucky that growing up close to Oxford meant I could go and see bands at the O2 Academy (previously The Zodiac, then Carling Academy) which is a relatively small venue with a great atmosphere. I've lost count of the bands I've seen there: Boys Like Girls, Iglu & Hartley, Kids in Glass Houses and Madina Lake to name a few! The gigs continued in Bristol at Uni, and then moving to Cambridge and having the Corn Exchange and Junction so close has been great. Plus I regularly travel to London and Birmingham for gigs as they are easy to get to.
2017 has been a particularly good year for gigs. I'm a sucker for a bit of pop punk music, so you'll probably see a bit of a theme with all the artists that I've been to see! Here are the gigs that I went to this year:
All Time Low
I realise that it's a little bit fangirl-y to go to two dates on the same tour...but hey. All Time Low have been my favourite band for almost a decade now and can always be relied on for a great live show. Cambridge Corn exchange was good because it's such a small venue so you feel close to the stage and the atmosphere was quite intimate. The academy in Brixton is one of my favourite venues and this was the last date of the tour so felt extra special. The band also added Jasey Rae and Last Young Renegade to the set list for the final night which was a cheeky bonus! I will go to see All Time Low for as long as they continue to tour. They sound amazing live, the lighting/effects are great and the banter is top notch. Plus I have a lot of respect for them - they are very aware of the age of some of the fans, and underneath the dick jokes and bra wearing is an obvious concern for the safety and well-being of the crowd. They understand that they are role models and take this seriously while still having a good time.
Wow. This gig was insane! This was the first time I had seen Twin Atlantic and they did not disappoint. The Junction is a tiny venue which meant we were super close to the stage. The energy of the band was great, particularly that of the lead singer Sam McTrusty. I thought they sounded amazing live, and I was absolutely buzzing after the show (which may or may not have something to do with Sam McTrusty putting his arm around me as he made his way through the crowd during 'No Sleep'...haha). I will definitely be going to see Twin Atlantic next time they tour, and I can't wait for the new album.
Need I say more? The kings of pop punk. How I had never seen them before I don't know. I've listened to Blink since I was about 14 so finally seeing them live at the age of 26 was pretty special. Obviously the line-up has changed but I really like Matt Skiba and think he fits in well. Boy, did those guys have a lot of energy. They raced through song after song, ranging from old-school Blink to stuff from the new album. An absolutely brilliant gig.
Worst gig: Blossoms. No offence to the band, as they played really well. It's not totally my kind of music but they are really good at what they do, and seem like genuinely nice guys. It's just a shame the the same couldn't be said about the crowd. I know that you do get the odd dickhead at a gig, but this was extreme. The crowd was largely made up of kids aged about 14 and I have to say, I have never been hit by so many bottles/half filled pint glasses (one of which was suspiciously warm) at any gig or festival EVER. It was unrelenting, and things were not just getting tossed in the air, but were being thrown hard. I actually had to shower when I got back as I was so sticky from all the fruit cider being chucked! The crowd totally ruined the gig for me unfortunately.
Special shout out: New Found Glory, for having an absolutely ridiculous amount of energy and playing 27 songs in one gig! This was the third time I've seen them and they never fail to disappoint...you definitely get your money's worth!
Coming up in 2018...
I only started lifting weights on a regular basis a year ago. It's not that I was ever against the idea, I just never really thought about it to be honest! Having played netball since the age of nine, and taken up running since moving to Cambridge, I have always been fairly sporty. But I never had the confidence or the inclination to go to the gym, let alone the weights section.
However, a couple of years ago myself and some colleagues signed up for our first Tough Mudder. We organised bodyweight circuit sessions and a weekly 10km run. It was the fittest I had been in years and I loved it! Some of us continued the circuit training for a while, but eventually it fizzled out. Then the opportunity to start going to a proper bootcamp presented itself. R.E.A.L bootcamp in Cambridge has well and truly changed my attitude to fitness, in particular weight lifting.
Let's get one thing straight: it doesn't matter what weight you start with. Don't be self conscious about starting 'light'. Actually, that's one of my favourite things about weight lifting - it's so easy to track your progress and see improvement. For example, I have worked my way up from two 8kg kettlebells to two 14kg kettlebells when squatting. Obviously you should only move up when you are ready to, and never let your form suffer for the sake of lifting heavy weights. But looking back after a few months at how much you have improved is a great feeling.
As well as tracking progress with how heavy you can lift, there are the physical changes. My muscle definition has improved fairly significantly, particularly in my arms and quads. I even grew muscles in my shoulders that I didn't know I had before! Being strong is definitely a lot more desirable these days, and I think that the (quite frankly ridiculous) stigma of having muscles as a girl is lifting. Growing up and playing sport, I have always been a bit muscly. I used to feel quite self conscious, especially if somebody commented on it. I now realise that when a guy teased that I was more muscly than him I shouldn't have felt like I was too 'manly' - he was just being a dick. I love having muscles now. Are people still worried about getting too 'big'? My muscles have grown, but I still fit into my clothes. News flash: lifting weights isn't going to turn you into the incredible hulk!
Weight lifting isn't easy, and often requires pure grit and determination. Which means that finishing a difficult workout makes you feel kick-ass. Don't make it so hard that it's unrealistic or dangerous for you to complete, but pushing yourself a reasonable amount makes you appreciate what your body can do. Like a runners high, there is a bit of a rush at the end of weights session, a feeling of triumph that you pushed through and didn't quit.
For me, lifting weights has changed the way I see myself and my body. At 26 years old I am finally happy with the skin I'm in. I am the fittest and strongest I have ever been, and my body confidence has increased tenfold. It really makes you appreciate just how awesome our bodies are and what they can achieve. Sometimes people are surprised by my strength, and now I have learned to relish it rather than feel self conscious.
Now that I'm a convert I would encourage anyone to give weights a go. Weight lifting does not discriminate. It is for anyone of any gender, body type or age. The sense of achievement when you progress and the satisfaction of finishing a tough session are unbeatable. Perhaps I'm just stubborn and competitive with myself, but I find it difficult to half-ass a weights session! I love working out in a group and with a trainer as we always support each other and celebrate achievement. The most important things are to enjoy it, go at your own pace and never compromise on form. Lifting safe outweighs lifting heavy any day.
I recently went on holiday to the Costa del Sol with my boyfriend and a group of friends. We ate a lot of good food that week! This chickpea stew is based on a starter that a couple of my friends had during our meal at Vegetariano El Calafate in Malaga one night. It was simple and hearty, which is usually the best type of food in my opinion. I have added dried chilli flakes, paprika and cinnamon to my take on it, which makes it lovely and warming. Perfect now that the evenings are starting to draw in and the temperature is dropping!
This makes enough for two portions, and is great on its own or with some crusty bread to mop up any leftover juices. You could also cook up some green veg to go with it for added goodness.
1x 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
About 300g baby potatoes
1 large carrot
1 stick celery
1/2 red onion
1 red pepper
1/2 pint vegetable stock
1/2 - 1tsp cinnamon
1 tsp paprika
1/2 - 1tsp chilli flakes or paste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp oil (I use rapeseed or olive)
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan.
Prepare the vegetables by cutting everything into small cubes/pieces.
In a cast iron casserole dish on the hob, heat the oil for a couple of minutes.
Fry the onion, potato and carrots for 5 minutes, then add the garlic, red pepper and celery. Fry for a further 2 minutes.
Add the cinnamon, paprika and chilli flakes and fry for a further minute.
Stir in the chickpeas and vegetable stock and bring to a gentle boil.
Put a lid on the dish and transfer to the oven for an hour. Check every 20 minutes and give a quick stir.
The stew is ready when the potatoes and carrots are nice and soft.
Serve in bowls with warm bread or green veg such as broccoli.
If you don't have a cast iron casserole dish you could do the whole thing in a non-stick pan on the hob, or transfer to an oven proof dish after frying.
Add the cinnamon and chilli to your own taste. I love cinnamon so I would add a whole tsp, but for a more subtle flavour just add 1/2 tsp. Same with chilli, if you don't like things spicy then maybe go for 1/2 tsp for a more gentle warming effect!
Hope you enjoy :)
I'm not trying to wish summer away, but it does seem to be getting a bit autumnal around here. It's certainly noticeably colder and darker when my alarm goes off than it was a few weeks ago. Porridge is a great breakfast for chilly mornings and the combination of cinnamon and banana is a bit of a classic (any excuse to add cinnamon to my breakfast really). I'm not fully ready to embrace autumn yet, as I'm off on my summer holiday next week (finally!!) but once I return I'll definitely be making this all through the colder months.
Half a ripe banana
3 heaped tbsp oats
5-6 tbsp milk (I use Oatly)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp ground almonds
Mash the banana and add to a small, non-stick saucepan along with the oats and milk.
Turn the hob on to a low heat and cook slowly, stirring occasionally.
Once the mixture is starting to thicken slightly, add the cinnamon and ground almonds.
Cook until the oats have softened and the porridge is nice and thick. You can add extra milk if you prefer a thinner consistency.
Spoon into a bowl and enjoy as it is or add toppings. My favourites are cacao nibs, ground cinnamon or a drizzle of honey or Choc Shot.
You can freeze the leftover half a banana to use in smoothies later on :)