Woolly Wonderland: It’s woolly wonderful!

I love this time of year, especially since I now have a 3-year-old who is essentially experiencing his first Christmas. Christmas lights; Christmas trees; Christmas carols and songs; nativity plays and parties; and of course a most fabulous Christmas jumper, hand-crafted by my very talented mum.

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But – and it’s a very big but now – I have felt festively challenged in the jumper department owing to my eight month bump which will not accommodate anything ‘non-maternity’ anymore.

So I was thrilled to be invited to Woolly Wonderland at Westfield Stratford last Wednesday. I literally dropped all plans and waddled to join the jolly team outside John Lewis, sewing fingers at the ready.

Now it helps that as I become more expectant I feel an overwhelming need to sew things. So to be able to create my own Christmas jumper, without the frustration of a pair of knitting needles, in the company of some lovely ladies (and a few gorgeous kids), was my idea of festive and nesting heaven.

The event is all in aid of Save the Children. With this Friday, 13th December, being designated Christmas jumper day (all festive woolly wearers are asked to donate a pound or more to Save the Children). So if you fancy something different to trudging around the shops and want some ideas for your own masterpiece, I would encourage you to head on down to Woolly Wonderland to find out more. The team will get you set up with everything you need to get started.

Admittedly I only managed to sew on two of Rudolph’s eyes in an hour but after another couple of evenings sewing on the couch, my Christmas woolly was all ready for our first visit to see the big man in red!

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The finished article!

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Karen Laing is a pre and post natal exercise specialist and journalist. Karen teaches Pilates (including pregnancy specific classes) in Epping, Essex and London and blogs about fitness, women’s health and wellbeing at http://www.alittlefitter.com.
Karen co-directs Fit School with her husband Chris. They run fitness classes, ladies only training camps and Pilates classes in Epping and Essex.
TWITTER: @fitschoolessex
FACEBOOK: ccfitschool
WEBSITE: http://www.alittlefitter.com

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How to be happy

Have you ever had a few grumpy days? So grumpy that you feel as if there must be some sort of wiring malfunction inside your brain? Or perhaps a collection of ‘issues to deal with’ mount up and distract you from all the positive things in your life?

Several studies are pointing to gratitude and thankfulness as key factors in how happy and even how healthy we are.

A 2009 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) examined blood flow in the brain when participants had grateful feelings (Zahn et al, 2009). Those participants who were more grateful had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, the area of the brain responsible for managing stress levels and essential bodily functions like eating and sleeping.

Another study, back in 2003, asked young adults to keep journals (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). One section kept happy, thankful, grateful thoughts in their journals, whilst the others kept journals of things that annoyed them. And guess what … the thankful journal keepers reported more feelings of determination, enthusiasm and energy compared to the others.

The same researchers did a later study on adults and found that even a weekly gratitude journal was enough to have a noticeable effect on mood, exercise patterns and a reduction in physical ailments.

So … when it comes to down days, perhaps we all need to be a little more grateful.

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How can you be a little more thankful?

Last year, we decided to keep a ‘thankfulness’ jar in our family. We started it on January 1st and when something good happens, in work, or at home, we write it down and pop it in the jar. Admittedly we haven’t always been great at remembering but we plan to get them all out at new year and say a huge thank you for the great things that have happened in 2013.

But when it comes to me and my rambling, busy brain, the best moment of the day is when I get on my knees, stare at my sleeping son, and give thanks for each and every lovely thing that has happened during my day. Yes, sh*t happens. And yes, it gets to me (I’m a sensitive soul) but whether you call it counting your blessings, acknowledging the good stuff, meditating or praying it is scientifically proven to make you happy.

Karen Laing is a pre and post natal exercise specialist and journalist. Karen teaches Pilates (including pregnancy specific classes) in Epping, Essex and London and blogs about fitness, women’s health and wellbeing at http://www.alittlefitter.com.
Karen co-directs Fit School with her husband Chris. They run fitness classes, ladies only training camps and Pilates classes in Epping and Essex.
TWITTER: @fitschoolessex
FACEBOOK: ccfitschool
WEBSITE: http://www.alittlefitter.com

Courgette and Egg Bake

I’ve realised that we are well into courgette season and whilst this great, Laing staple, was posted on our Fit School newsletter, it didn’t make it into my blog. I’ve been making and eating this a lot during my early months of pregnancy when I needed tasty, easy to digest recipes. So here it is:

Every year, in August, courgette production in the Fit School family allotment (actually it’s my mum and dad’s but they’re part of the picture) goes bumper! So we have a wealth of courgette recipes to handle the glut. From courgette pasta (it makes a fab pregnancy friendly carbonara), to courgette muffins great for kids and our all time favourite, Courgette and Egg Bake, taken from the Primal Blueprint cookbook.

Ingredients:
1kg courgettes, grated
3 large free range eggs
200g ground sausage meat, bacon, sausages or beef mince
1 onion, chopped or grated
Parmesan or pecorino cheese to taste

Method:

  • Pre-heat oven to 180/GM4.
  • Cook the chopped onion in a pan with some olive oil for 5 minutes or until soft and tranlucent.
  • Add the grated courgette to the pan and cook for another 10 minutes.
  • Drain the courgette and onion mix in a large colander.
  • Meanwhile brown the sausage/bacon in the pan (chopped).
  • Add the drained courgettes and onions to the pan and pour into a greased, oven proof dish (around 20cm square).
  • Beat the eggs and mix into the courgette and sausage mix.
  • Grate the cheese over the top and pop in the oven for around 35-40 minutes.

Super easy slow cooker ham

THIS is a speedy one. I’ve had more requests for easy, nutritious recipes. And I know a few of you (like me) love dinners you can just leave to do their thing in the slow cooker.

I made this on a Thursday, significant because we have an often stressful turnaround from getting Isaac back from my mum’s, dinner on the table and eaten, and me out of the house by 6.30 to go and teach Pilates. This meal was stress free and Isaac’s first ever ham eating experience (he’s never touched it before).

METHOD:

Get a piece of gammon (I used free-range smoked from the butcher but unsmoked is probably less salty). A £5 piece is enough for a good dinner and plenty for sandwiches and snacks the next day too.

Turn on the slow cooker and pop in an onion, quartered (no need to peel the sticky layers off), a cup of water, a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme (optional) and your gammon. Pop a couple of teaspoons of honey on the ham. Put the lid on and leave it for at least  5 hours or until it’s very soft when you press the meat.

Take out the meat and leave it to rest on a plate under some foil until you’re ready to eat.

I served it with sweet potato wedges (scrubbed, cut into wedges, drizzled with olive oil and cooked at 200/GM6 for 45 minutes), french beans and nanny’s apricot and tamarind chutney.

The great thing about the slow cooked ham is that it shreds rather than slices, which makes it easy for toddlers to eat.

(Sorry no pictures but we ate it all)!

Green lentil and root vegetable soup

This is a super speedy, family friendly soup, suitable for even the most novice of domestic goddesses. The only appliance you’ll need (in addition to a hob) is some kind of blender. I use a stick blender for soups to save on washing up but a standard blender or food processor would work fine too.

I’ll be honest, this is a complete leftovers soup based on bits and bobs I had left in my fridge and inspired by the half a tin of green lentils I had leftover from the quinoa salad I’d made on Wednesday!

INGREDIENTS:

  • Half a tin of pre-cooked green lentils (no doubt it would work fine with a whole tin or cooked dried lentils too)
  • Half a swede, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 small parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 small cloves of garlic
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • Stick of celery (optional – I used this since I only had one small onion left in the bowl)
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 litre water
  • 4 tsp vegetable bouillon or other stock (chicken would be nice too)
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • salt and pepper

METHOD:

Start by roasting the parsnips and garlic, this is an optional step but takes little effort and adds a flavour punch. Just pop the chopped parsnips (I chopped mine into 1/2 cm rounds to make them cook quicker) in a roasting tin with some olive oil. Then crush the garlic cloves, skin on, with the back of a knife or wooden spoon and add to the parsnips. Pop them in the oven at 200C/GM6 whilst you do the rest.

Now pop some oil in a large saucepan and add the chopped onion and celery, let them cook over a medium heat until they soften and the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes).

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Then add the rest of the ingredients. The swede, carrots, lentils, water, stock and cumin (if you don’t have pre-cooked lentils I’d suggest you cook them with the onions, celery and water for ten minutes before adding the remaining ingredients). Bring them all to the boil and let them simmer for around 15 minutes or until the swede and carrots are soft enough to blend.

Finally add the roasted parsnip pieces and remove the skins from the garlic before popping them in to the mixture too. Give it a final taste and season then blend it and serve.

I served mine with a swirl of chilli oil, salt and pepper but left Isaac’s plain. This soup got a big yes vote from Isaac too because of all the sweet vegetable ingredients, he lapped the soup up without stopping for the toast and butter soldiers!

Here he is giving it the vote of approval: “Mmmmmm … nice!”

 

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Toasted Coconut Shortbread Hearts

It’s never too late for a Valentine themed biscuit and given we had friends over for dinner on Friday, in the middle of my sugar fast, I had to come up with something quick!

I first created these biscuits a few months ago, when I discovered raw coconut sugar. Raw coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut blossom. It is processed at very low temperatures (hence it’s a raw ingredient) which means it retains all of its nutrients including magnesium, potassium, zinc, B vitamins and amino acids. It also has a low glycaemic index of 35 (similar to skimmed milk), so won’t create the sugar spikes in your body that traditionally processed sugars will. I love it because unlike processed sugar replacements, you can use it in baking and it tastes really sweet so you don’t need so much.

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The obvious (when you come to buy it) downside to coconut sugar is the price tag. But I roughly totted up the cost of my scrummy shortbreads and 24 biscuits, the equivalent of two packets of high street biscuits, cost under £2, similar to a packet of high end supermarket brand, luxury nibbles.

I’ve also packed these biscuits full of almonds to help combat the refined flour that I’ve added. You could try an alternative but for this recipe, the biscuits are so crumbly and short that you need a little gluten to hold them together.

INGREDIENTS (I’ve used cups mainly since I made it up and of course, baked them with Isaac):

  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened dessicated coconut
  • 1/2 cup raw coconut sugar
  • 1/2 cup ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 4oz unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg (to taste)

Pre-heat oven to 150/GM3

Start by toasting the coconut. Tip the coconut into a flat, baking or roasting dish (metallic) and spread evenly. Toast in the oven for around 5 minutes. You’ll need to keep checking since it will suddenly turn. You’re looking for a light golden colour rather than brow.

In a large bowl mix the remaining dry ingredients together and give them a good stir. Add the toasted and cooled coconut and finally the butter, diced.

Work the butter into the dry ingredients as if you were making scones or pastry. Go lightly, rubbing the fat in until it’s incorporated, then you’ll be able to create soft balls of dough. The dough will seem really soft and unworkable but if you stick with small cutters you’ll be fine!

Watch out at this point if you’re cooking with children. They will want to eat the lot!

Roll out each ball of dough to about half a cm and cut out biscuits. Re-rolling is more a question of squidging the stray bits together!

Bake for 10-15 minutes (depending on thickness) until golden underneath and leave to cool.

Best eaten on the same day but will store in an airtight container (they just go a bit soft).

These would be brilliant served with thick, greek yoghurt and griddled pineapple for a no sugar dessert.

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Carrot and raisin muffins (sugar free)

I’m going sugar free for 40 days of Lent (this is just day two). The trouble is, I love baking and don’t want to miss out on baking with my boy. We love creating sugar free recipes together and I was happy to test out a couple from my all time favourite mum recipe book, The Top 100 Finger Foods for Babies and Toddlers by nutritionist Christine Bailey.

These muffins contain lots of raisins, so they were sure to get the Isaac vote. The recipe also uses pineapple as a sweetener rather than banana, so if you’re not a banana fan then it’s a great alternative. They are also higher in protein than the average muffin and contain no dairy since they’re made with oil, not butter.

Isaac loved mixing the wet ingredients with his floury, carroty mixture. We all got very sticky but had lots of fun in the process.

Verdict? They taste better for a day in a lock tight tub – it brings out the flavours. They work really well for breakfast with a couple of boiled eggs, or with a coffee. They aren’t crumbly like most DIY baby finger foods so make great on the go snacks. We shared them with a few of Isaac’s buddies and they all liked them too!

So here’s the recipe:

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 100ml light olive oil
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 115g wholemeal self-raising flour
  • 115g self-raising flour
  • a pinch of cinnamon (I used more)
  • 2 carrots, peeled and grated
  • 4 tbsp raisins (allow more for little fingers)
  • 2 tbsp dessicated coconut
  • 115g tinned, crushed pineapple, drained

Mix together oil and eggs.

In a separate bowl mix all the dry ingredients.

Combine the wet with dry and then add carrots and pineapple. Mix until just combined (muffins can’t take too much mixing).

Spoon mixture into a muffin tin (or loaf tin for speed) and cook for 20 minutes at 180 or GM4.

I also added vanilla extract and think they’d work quite well with walnuts too.

I’d love to know how you get on, do share your pictures and opinions.

 

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Watercress soup

HERE’S a quick one. A few of you have been asking about watercress soup. So I gave it a try yesterday. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I’d been expecting a lovely green, smooth soup, instead I got an orange soup with little green bits!

This version is very garlicky but is really easy to do with a stick blender and/or a mini processor. It takes around 20 minutes all in but you can be doing other stuff whilst it simmers.

Watercress Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium onion chopped
  • 1 medium carrot chopped
  • 1 sticky of celery chopped (celery leaves too if you have them)
  • 3 large or 5 small cloves of garlic
  • 1 handful/bag of watercress (chunky stalks removed)
  • Chicken/vegetable stock cube/tub or bouillon

Cook the onions on a low heat with a few tbsp of olive oil until translucent.

Add garlic, celery and carrot to pan and cook for a further five minutes, or until soft.

Add 3 cups of water/stock and simmer for 10 minutes.

Blend soup until very smooth.

Add watercress, bring to boil then immediately turn off.

Blend soup again and serve!

We had ours with a few scallops and prawns on top. Just because that’s the way we roll!

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A Fit School Christmas – after the party

What a night! After a lot of planning and preparation, our first health and fitness evening was a lot of fun and a real success.

I loved Rochele’s crazy Zumba party. Rochele ‘I had a baby eight weeks ago so need to take it easy,’ who proceeded to exude energy only slightly greater than that of our youngest participant, Maya (21 months) who had no intention of going to sleep so Zumba’d in her PJs.

It was also fantastic to meet some new faces and to see so much willing participation in our taster classes and talks.

I know a lot of you made a massive effort to get there last night. Taking annual leave; arriving direct from hospital visits; leaving five day old babies at home; bringing sleeping tots when babysitters weren’t available; bringing husbands to look after babies; and above all, just coming. Then there were those of you who couldn’t make it but still donated money and good wishes. The list goes on. I always endeavour to support new ventures and events, so support is something that means a great deal to me.

Now we’ve done one, it will be easier to do more. So watch out for Fit School roadshow 2013. We’re comin’ at ya’!

 

 

 

A Fit School Christmas – the line up (so far) …

We’re getting very excited at Fit School HQ. Not only about our first, official event next Friday (Friday, 23rd November, 7-10pm) but also about the prospect of launching our first courses, in Essex, in the new year.

Here’s the latest line up for next Friday’s healthy extravaganza so you can decide what you want to do and when to sample our finest mince pies and mulled wine!

See you next week!

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