Category Archives: Cooking

My tips and recipes for the cook who wants to feed their family real food.

How I Made Some New Habits Stick, in January

Habits Update Jan 2016

Last month I was writing about habits over at and trying out various ways to change my habits — not just for a day or two, but for the whole month.

I had varying degrees of success and I learned a thing or two. I thought I’d share them here.

picture of Asian Zoodle Salad Jar from


Habits I Was Trying To Develop In January

  • Taking a new medication every morning (Routine? Ugh!)
  • Writing fiction regularly, to a goal of 10K words a month.
  • Reading a spiritual meditation every day.
  • Tracking my food intake.

Things That Went Well


I wrote about this at the start of the month. I had taken part in a study once that used this technique to make habits stick, so I knew it ought to be powerful, but I don’t think I really believed I could make it work so well.

But I did.

Now, every morning when I wake up, I roll over and take the medicine that’s sitting next to my bed. (My incentive to remember this is actually pretty perfect: it has to be take on an empty stomach, so if I don’t stick to this, my first coffee is delayed by every minute I waste. Aargh!)

My 30-day challenge for January was to read a spiritual meditation every morning. I anchored that habit to “the moment my son gets in the shower”.


Logging My Words

I have had a love-hate relationship with logging in the past. When I set daily goals for my writing, all it did was make me feel terrible. Partly because I was setting ‘best of all possible worlds’ numbers. And partly because I’m not built to write consistently every day.

Realizing this, I settled on 10,000 words of fiction a month, early last year, and made that my goal.

Logging the words (especially on a day when the writing is going slowly) really helps me to feel like I’m making progress.

Unexpected Bonus

My fitness trainer, sick of hearing me whine about how I can’t lose weight, made me promise to log my food intake. He promised he wouldn’t judge me: that we were just going to use what I wrote down as data. (He made me sign something because I was making such terrible faces at him).

And when I thought about it, I knew, from logging my words, that I could use the data to help me feel better. So I did. And I went from losing no weight (or gaining) to losing a pound a week two weeks in a row! (Trust me, for me, this is huge).

The simple act of recording and quantifying a thing is a powerful way to take misconception and emotion out of the equation.

  • Setting a reasonable goal (323 words a day or 1300-ish calories) and trying to meet it MOST days, is manageable.
  • Tracking it, over a month or more, lets you see that you are neither as awesome nor as awful as you suspect you are, on any given day. And that’s OK. Because “consistent” is what will win the race.

Make It Friction Free

Everything that worked to make my habits stick, was based on my lifelong pursuit of laziness efficiency.

If I have to prepare a lot of stuff before I start on The Thing, I’ll never get to The Thing. So I try my best to have a smooth entry into every task.

My medicine

…lives by my bed and my lovely husband brings me a glass of water every day when he gets his first coffee. If I had to get up and go downstairs, find my meds wherever I dumped them yesterday, find my slippers because the kitchen floor is cold, get water, then take the pill, I would not get it right every day.

Spiritual Meditation

My book of spiritual meditations is sitting next to the bed with a hairpin marking the page of the next meditation (because I always have hairpins lying around). As soon as I hear the shower turn on, I grab the book. It takes very little time to read, but having it on my bedside table, and anchored to a specific action is what makes this habit work.

If I had to search for the book every day, my son would be out of the shower and demanding breakfast before I’d even picked it up. If I tried to find a time every day to squeeze it in, I’d end up scrambling to read the meditation as I fell asleep every night, which wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

Fiction Writing

I keep all the notes for my novel in the same notebook I use as my journal and my list-maker and my ‘taking notes while on the phone’ book. This saves me from having to find the right book either when I want to make notes, or when I want to find them again.

I number all the pages and, from time to time, go through and add to the “table of contents” that I create in the back few pages of the book. This helps me scan through the ToC and find out where my latest brilliant idea is, for the next part of the novel. I also have a list of scenes that I know I want to write soon, right in Scrivener. They’re brainstormed and ready to go, which helps me figure out what to write each time I sit down.


Food, ah food. How I love it. But one of the reasons I eat badly is also the reason I hate logging food: I don’t plan ahead.

If I’m scrambling for lunch when I’m already hungry, then whatever is to hand is what goes in my mouth. Lots of it. Then I have to figure out how much I ate and how to log that (I use MyFitnessPal, which is good because it has a massive database of food, but bad because you have to find the foods, then figure out how to quantify your portion, then do it again for every component of a recipe…)

In January I took my doctor’s advice (a lovely woman who struggles with all the same issues I do!), and started making up salad jars. It’s an easy portion-control method and means I always have something to grab. It almost doesn’t matter what I put in there, because of the built-in portion control aspect.

I pick one recipe a week, shop for the small quantities you need to fill four 16 oz mason jars, then spend a little while on Sunday or Monday, making up lunches for the week ahead. (I like this Spicy Peanut Zoodle Recipe and her Chicken and Spinach salad jars with grapes and a mustard-thyme dressing. I know I’m a year or two behind on the Mason Jar Salad trend, but I’m here now. Let’s party!) Even making up your own dressing and chopping veg doesn’t seem so bad when you do it once and feed yourself four times. And I LOVE all the freshness and crunch. I especially love being able to open the fridge and eat instantly (mmm, fooooooood).

The other thing (and why I went off on this rant in the first place) is that if I eat the same thing every day (or rotate a few receipes over a few weeks) I can log the ‘meal’ in MyFitnessPal once and I never have to enter in all those individual ingredients again. I just select “Asian Zoodle Jar” from the “My Recipes” tab, and it’s done.

See? Friction Free.

It doesn’t work for every meal or every situation, but batch-cooking makes it easier to prepare healthy meals and log them. (I know, rocket science, right? Reinventing the wheel, sure. Discovering things for yourself: sometimes essential!)

What I’m Still Working On


Our routine goes way out of whack at the weekends. I need to develop different anchors for the some of the habits at weekends.

Also, I get embarrassed about logging my food. I don’t know why, but I do. Any suggestions for getting over that?

This Month’s 30-day Challenge

This month I’m trying to relax for 15 minutes a day, with something unrelated to housework or reading/writing (I’m mostly doing meditation, exercise, knitting, and musical things so far).

I don’t have a good way to trigger this. I’m thinking maybe ‘after lunch’, but that’s kind of nebulous. I do need to take a little sanity break midday, but I haven’t found a good way to anchor it yet. Do you have any ideas for me?

Next month I’ll be back to talk about my Relaxation Challenge and about the Permission To Write theme I’m writing about all month long at the StoryADay blog.

Blue Riband

So, I’m gearing up to write this big climactic series of scenes in my novel. They’re set at a country faire, the kind where people enter jams and cakes and flower arrangements and knitted layettes into contests and are judged under tents by ladies in hats and men in clerical frocks.

Apparently I’m a little bit Method in my writing because I’ve been obsessively doing this for the past few days:


Cake, sliced

After a few false starts, I now honestly think I could give Mrs Pattmore a run for her money….


Lemon Water In the Morning

I keep running across articles about the health benefits of drinking lemon water on ye Internets, so you know, it must be true:

lemon water pitcher

While I’m extremely skeptical of their ‘scientific’ content, there are a few points I can’t argue with:

  • It’s pretty
  • It encourages me to drink more water, when I have a pitcher of the stuff on my desk.
  • It keeps my coffee intake lower.
  • Drinking more water discourages me from mindless snacking AND makes my skin look fab-u-lous – something I need to think about with That Big Birthday staring down at me from the calendar.
  • It’s really tasty.
  • It does seem to be helping me lose weight (possibly because of the points above, more than any other reason).


I don’t have a lemon press and wouldn’t want to have to clean a juicer every day, so here’s how I prepare my lemon water, in case you want to follow my healthy example:

  1. Wash a whole lemon and slice it as thinly as you can 1
  2. Drop the slices into a half-gallon pitcher – the prettier the better: you’ll be more likely to keep it around.
  3. Chuck ice cubes on top of the lemons until the pitcher is about half full.
  4. Slowly fill the pitcher with water.
  5. While you’re waiting for the pitcher to fill, wash your chopping board and knife and then give your knife a quick sharpen so that tomorrow’s lemon slices will be paper thin tomorrow. 2
  6. Grab a glass and your pitcher, head to your desk et voila, healthy sugar-free water that will taste better and better with every glass.

I do refill my pitcher if I get through it, and the second batch is lemony from the get-go.

So that’s my advice: slice, drink and be merry!

  1. Thin slices mean more of the lemon’s flesh is exposed. More surface area means more of the lemony goodness. Discard seeds that fall out as you’re slicing. Do this in a beam of sunlight for added happiness.
  2. There is nothing quite as therapeutic as starting your day by slowly torturing a fruit with a razor-sharp knife. It really gets the frustrations out.

Frugal Flapjacks (cereal bars – not pancakes) Recipe

When I was back in Scotland this summer I rediscovered several things I had completely forgotten about. One of these things was, oh joy, Flapjacks.

Flapjacks are not, as in the US, pancakes, but rather a gooey cereal bar consisting mostly of butter and golden syrup and oats, cut into squares and served almost anywhere you can get a cup of coffee or tea. They might have stuff in them (dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, lemon, spices, anything you can imagine, really) or they might have stuff drizzled on top (icing, chocolate, sticky stuff of all descriptions), or they might come gratuitously naked (it is Europe, after all). In any form however – as long as the baker has included the right amount of gooeyness – they are universally delicious.

Since we’ve been back I’ve fallen into the trap of buying bags of factory-made, individually-portioned, never-go-stale snacks for the boys. This, in spite of the fact that I love to cook, I prefer to feed them real food 1, I don’t like to encourage the deforestation of the rainforest 2, I like to be frugal where I can 3, and I have major guilt about waste 4.

So, thanks to the magic of the Internet I was able to find a few recipes for UK-style flapjacks to set me on the right path. I made a trial batch. The boys’ eyes spun around in their heads several times and I had to hide the rest of the batch (in the freezer, in case you’re coming over), which I took to mean that they wouldn’t mind finding these tucked into their lunch boxes from time to time.  So I made another batch today while waiting in for a dishwasher repair man who, it turns out, isn’t coming. Again. 5

And, because I know you’ll ask, here’s today’s version.

(It is very caramel-y, not overpoweringly sweet6.)



  • 4 oz butter (I like salted)
  • 1/2 cup soft brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Golden Syrup (can be hard to find in the US, but makes all the difference to the taste)
  • 1 3/4 cups Old-fashioned/Rolled oats
  • 1/3 cup chopped dried dates (taster’s note: you could definitely use more if you really like dates)


1. Preheat oven to 300 F. Line a 7×9 or 8×10 pan with baking parchment and butter (you can go more eco-friendly by avoiding the parchment, but you’ll have to butter the pan generously and it might be a bit more difficult to get the flapjacks out). I used a ceramic pan and the edges did not burn.

2. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan or in a large bowl in the microwave, being careful not to burn.

3. Stir in the oats and the dates until coated with the buttery mixture. You can add spices at this point if you wish. I know how much you Americans love your cinnamon…

4. Slop the whole lot into the prepared dish, flatten it out, and bake for 30 minutes. Cooking time may have to be adjusted if you are a, using a smaller pan; b, using a metal pan – watch out for charred edges. You’ll know the flapjacks are ready when the oats look toasty, there is no evidence of bubbling liquid at the edges and your house starts to smell so good that the squirrels are tapping impatiently on the windows.

5. Pull out of the oven and allow to cool slowly. When it is still slightly warm and soft, pull the whole thing out onto a chopping board. Slice the big flapjack into 12 little square flapjacks and allow to cool the rest of the way.

Julie's Date Flapjacks

You can store these in the freezer and they’ll last quite a long time. A frozen flapjack, pulled out and tucked into a lunchbox, should be perfect for eating at lunch or snack time. And honestly, if you have strong teeth, you can treat yourself to one with just a few minutes notice…




I’m currently using cling film/plastic wrap to wrap them, but will soon be investing in some Wrap-n-Mat pouches to hold them (I already like their sandwich wrappers but only 50% of my children will eat sandwiches…)



Convenience food is so pervasive where I live that I think people lose confidence in their ability to make something delicious without setting aside great amounts of time or effort. I also think people lose sight of how much money you can save with a little effort. These flapjacks are an awesome illustration of both these issues. The prep work takes almost no time. They bake quickly and it’s hard to screw them up, unless you put too little mix in too big a pan and end up with paving stones, instead of flapjacks. But you have to try pretty hard to get them wrong.

In terms of cost, I worked it out for you. Even allowing for the exotic Golden Syrup (which was far and away the most expensive single item, but which will last through 21 batches of these babies), these flapjacks came out to $0.17 per serving (assuming you can eat only one at a time and call that a serving). My little pre-packaged snack packs cost $0.50 each.

If I served a snack like this to both of my children every day for a year, the pre-packaged snacks would cost me $365. The home-made snack would cost me $124.

Holey moley. Quite apart from the fact that I just blew hundreds of dollars on snacks for the boys alone (ha!), at least the home-made version saves me $241 7

So go forth: cook good food for your little ones … and treat yourself to something nice with the savings ;)



  2. Thank you, cute Lego exhibit at the Philly Zoo a couple of years ago, for ruining Oreos for me, forever – or until someone can convince Nabisco to stop using Palm Oil
  3. More money for gadgets!
  4. Six packets generate one cardboard box and six foil packets worth of waste. If I were any kind of mathematician (and if it weren’t trash day) I’d break down one of those boxes and some of those packages and give you measurements and area and volume. But you get the picture.
  5. His loss. He’d have got a flapjack if he had turned up. I, however, can hand-wash dishes for the rest of my life with no such suffering
  6. And yes, I did fall off the low-carb wagon, thanks for noticing
  7. Or as I like to think of it, the first half of an iPhone 5…

Fun Food For Kids – Dinner Bricks

I like to feed my kids real food as much as possible – rather than something processed and canned and overpriced — so I like to cook for them.

Back when they were babies I cooked everything for them. But when they were hungry, there was no time for  waiting around for chopping, steaming, pureeing.

One of my friends introduced me to the genius idea of making batches of steamed, pureed vegetables, freezing them in iceblock trays and then tipping them out and quickly zapping one or two whenever I needed them.

Fast-forward six years. My kids are still hungry NOW! (with the exclamation mark).

Last month when I was cooking up some pasta for lunch, I realised (ka-pow!) that I could make a huge batch and freeze some individual portions for later. But how to store them? I dont’ have much freezer space so lumpy bagfuls of unidentified frozen dinner tend to get buried and forgotten and quickly fill up the freezer. I’ve toyed with squeezing the storage bags flat, but even at that, they end up slipping and sliding and causing a slippery, pointy avalanche whenever I open the freezer; plus I run into the problem of reheating them quickly inside their plastic prisons which, I’m assured, is not the most healthy option. (mmm, melted plastic).

Enter The Dinner Brick

While an icecube tray would no longer fill the stomachs of my growing lads, I realized I had, in my pantry, a nine-portion mini-loaf pan.

Dinner brick pan

I lined the pans one at a time with cling film 1, dolloped in a three quarters of a cup full of pasta and meat sauce, wrapped up each portion and shoved the whole pan into the top of the freezer.

When they came out: bricks of nutritious goodness ready for the zapping.

(Sorry I didn’t take any pictures.  We just polished off the last one at lunch time)

Updated: I took a picture of the next batch!


The Fun Part

When I first pulled one of my little packets out of the freezer I was being hounded by a hungry six year old.

“What can I have? What will you make me?” he repeated.

Losing patience I slapped one of my nutritional super-packets down on the quartz surface where it made a KLONK loud enough to silence the boy for a moment.

“That.” I said. “A dinner brick.”


Admittedly, I did have to endure about five minutes of wailing about how he didn’t want a brick for dinner while I defrosted and reheated said item, but when he was finally presented with a steaming plate of pasta and meat sauce (liberally dusted with grated parmesan), his face lit up, and he dashed off to tell his brother that he was getting to eat a Dinner Brick, like it was the most exciting thing in thing in the world. 2


I’m planning on making more batches of Dinner Bricks in different flavors and contents, so that the journey of discovery can continue! I’m thinking mini shepherd’s pies, next…

And so, I give you: the Dinner Brick. Use it well.

  1. I know, still plastic, but easy to get the food out of after freezing
  2. there was something very sci-fi about putting a solid rectangle into a box, pressing a button and being rewarded with a plate of real food!

Best Chocolate Buttercream Icing EVER

(as defined by my seven year-old son, so you know it’s good!)

This is a delicious, rich dark chocolate butter-cream frosting recipe, with hints of orange. Perfect for icing an 9×13 cake or 8″ or 9″ round layer cake.
Rich and chocolatey. No eggs in the mixture, but firm enough to spread.  Substitute vanilla essence or other fruit flavoring if you don’t want the Cointreau/alcohol.

Julie's Birthday Cake

Julie’s Orange Chocolate Icing


3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
4oz salted butter, softened
1/2 cup Dark Hershey’s cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp Cointreau


1. Pile all ingredient into a bowl and beat until smooth.

2. Eat.

(This much icing will more than ice the middle, top and sides of an 8″ double-layer sponge cake.

chopped salad

Chopped Salad Will Save My Life

I’ve never been a fan of salads.

It could have something to do with growing up in a country where a salad consisted of a few limp lettuce leaves, a slice of tomato and spoonful of Salad Cream. Salads were only ever served in the summers (which were notoriously short. Sort of regarded as a day here and there, rather than a proper season), and even the one dressing available is still marketed as “pourable sunshine” because the taste of it inevitably reminds us of those summer salads of childhood.

The introduction of the exotic ‘vinaigrette’ dressing some time during the 80s made salads a little more palatable, but still, i couldn’t get excited about them, but still never something I was likely to choose over a big plate of pasta and meat sauce or something with chips.

There is no denying, however, that a big salad is a great way to get in your 5-a-day if, you know, looking after your body is something that’s important to you. Which it is to me.

It’s also a lot of food-in-the-mouth time for the amount of calories it contains, if that sort of thing is important to you. Which, sadly, it is to me. (Sometimes).

So I’ve been experimenting with chopped salads and I’m actually, GASP, enjoying them.

What is a Chopped Salad?

Can you guess? Yup, salad. All chopped up.

The thing I like is that you just pick foods that you like, dump them on a big chopping board, get a big cook’s knife and start whacking away at it.

As you chop, things spread out on the board, so you corral them with the knife and scoop them back in to the center, mixing as you go.

It’s entirely up to you what to put in: if you like iceberg lettuce’s crunch, throw some in. If you like spicy mustard greens or spinach’s iron boost, use those as well/instead. Toss in peppers or don’t. Any type of onion, or go pure. Want nuts? Go nuts!

Today’s Chopped Salad

chopped saladToday I used iceberg lettuce, because that’s what I had. I added a spring onion, some shredded carrots, some slivered almonds and flax seed, a couple of slices of deli ham and turkey.

Then I threw them all into a big bowl and gave them a final toss with my latest favourite salad dressing: 1 tbsp salad cream and a dollop of Scotch Bonnet sauce (thanks to Neil & Fiona for turning me on to scotch bonnet sauce) 1

Oh, and then I threw on a handful of Cranberry Trail mix on top for occasional sweetness and crunch. 2


With all that healthy goodness in there, how could this salad not help save my life?!

More on Chopped Salads:

Jamie Oliver salads:

Tracy Porter’s All-American Airhead Chopped Salad video about how to make a chopped salad

  1. The size of the dollop depends entirely on how far I want the top of my head to blow off on any given day.
  2. I’m a big fan of texture.

Better Breakfasts – Southwestern Scrambled Eggs

My Better Breakfast quest continues. Mr Kellog may have had a point (we do need more fiber in our diets) but his cereals just don’t cut it as a morning meal for me. The carbs burn off and leave me hungry. The sugar makes me sluggish. I need protein! I need ‘no hunger’ breakfast recipes. I also need to lose weight. So here’s my latest Better Breakfast Recipe:

Eggs make a good breakfast food: they are quick-cooking, protein-packed and satisfying. But I get really, really sick of the taste of eggs.
So I came up with this scrambled egg recipe. You’d barely know there were any eggs involved, but you get 1-2 servings of veggies and all the protein you can handle before noon!

Mmm, steamin' scrambled eggsINGREDIENTS

1 tbsp butter (you can use a low fat alternative if you like, but I’m using a little butter. It’s natural and tastes good and satisfies my body’s need for a little fat)

1 egg, scrambled or two egg whites if you’re watching cholesterol/fat  (buy free-range eggs. They taste better, although that might just be the absence of guilt…)

Spash of milk

1/4 cup salsa (I use organic, medium or hot. Your taste may vary)

1 big handful of baby spinach, washed (if you don’t like spinach, throw in some other soft, quick-cooking veggie for added virtue)

1/2 cup black beans, rinsed (I used organic black soy beans which I bought by accident, and really liked)

A few shavings of Parmesan cheese  (because I love that umami taste. Use a potato peeler to shave a few thin slivers off the block)


Heat your butter (or wimpy non-fat cooking spray) in your frying-pan/skillet of choice. I use a small, thin non-stick omlette pan. Medium heat, don’t let the butter burn.

Mix an egg with a splash of milk. Pour into pan. Allow to cook for a minute, until you can see that it’s starting to firm up at the edges.

Turn the heat up and stir like crazy until the egg is mostly cooked, but still looks kinda moist.

Toss in the spinach, stir until it starts to wilt.

Throw in the salsa and black beans, give it all a stir and allow to cook through.

Serve on a nice side plate, with shavings of Parmesan arranged artfully on top. Get yourself a cloth napkin and some water in a crystal wine glass.

Sit down and enjoy.


mmm, soy beans(Prep: 2 mins; cook: 3 mins; eat: 2-3 mins) 8 minutes


Protein from eggs, cheese and beans, 1-2 servings of veggies with associated fiber, vegetarian (though no vegan, obviously), small portion, enough fat to tell your body to stop whining for it.

WW Points: 6ish

Feed Four in the Family — Overlapping Meals

With me trying to eat healthily and watch my portions, Kev eating low-carb and the boys being 6 and 4, feeding the whole family can get a bit complex. Especially when everyone wants to eat exactly when they’re hungry, not a moment before or after.

I know I shouldn’t do it, but last night I made a multi-part meal — the kind my sister will be very familiar with (she has a carnivorous husband, a vegetarian teenage daughter, a son who doesn’t eat anything that isn’t bland, a chocoholic and a fourth child who is, I think a bit more catholic in her tastes than anyone else). I know I shouldn’t start dividing up our meals, but this one didn’t seem like too much hassle.

I started a batch of potatoes boiling, threw some meatballs in the microwave for the boys, and thawed the frozen sea scallops.

Meanwhile I grated some Parmesan and made a batch of Guy Kawasaki’s Teriyaki Sauce (see? This is why it’s useful to buy real food. If you don’t have a particular bottled sauce, you can just whip it up from five ingredients that you do have).

I threw some frozen peas and corn into a pot for me (the sole vegetable eater), then set to work searing the scallops.

2nd: Course Raisin-Caper Scallops

This isn't my picture. We ate ours too fast. And they weren't this pretty.

picture credit

Don’t tell Kev, but there was some sugar in that Teriyaki recipe. A small price to pay, I feel for the lovely, crunchy seared coating on the scallops.

So, to recap, dinner was:

  • The boys: garlic mashed potatoes, meatballs, Parmesan
  • Kev: Scallops (a lot).
  • Me: Scallops (a couple), garlic mashed potatoes (a little too much if I’m honest), peas and sweetcorn.

Overlapping ingredients. This is probably the key to my future family cooking schedule.

Oh yeah, and I’m glad Angus liked the potatoes and meatballs because I think he’ll be taking them to school for lunch tomorrow, in a food flask!


Round, frozen, hard, white.
Watery now, shedding your ice.
Patting, drying, there-there.
(Heating butter, adding garlic, a dash of oil.)
Take a teriyaki bath, there you go. Scrubba dubba.
Time to come out now!
Lift you, Sea Scallops, gently out of your tub.
Thrust you into the searing, flashing, firework pan.
Scorch your edges.
Throw some acid on top.
Press you into the hot metal until you squeal.
Grab you with shiny tongs and turn your unharmed side down — to the point of the burn.
There there, now. All done.
Cradle you, lay you down.
Admire you.
Devour you.