Genuinely, I never expected to write this much about sugar – or lack of it. But it seems to now be a Thing That People Know About Me that I don’t, for the most part, eat sugar; although it’ll be a year in June, there’s an on-going sense of curiosity from others and (I guess related to increasing news coverage) questions about how it all works, and why. Across my office, at least three other colleagues have started the process of ditching the stuff – though I’m pretty sure Sherri had more to do with that than I did.
In fact, Sherri and I were having a conversation about this the other day, and the question we agreed we both hear which prompted this post – and that I didn’t mention in my last – is “but what do you eat instead?”. ‘Instead’ is a curious addition, isn’t it? I think it’s probably the first thing I thought when I first started considering quitting sugar, and it’s so telling. Telling that we are so used to eating so much of it, that it’s not a case of getting rid of something unnecessary but of replacing something essential.
I think there are two elements to the ‘instead’, too. It’s ‘instead of cake etc’, yes, definitely. Fully half of each sugar-free cookbook I’ve ever so much as glanced through is packed with alternatives to classic desserts and sweet snacks. I think the people writing them mostly know you’d be better off not replacing them at all, but take the pragmatic view that in a world filled with biscuits, better to have something barely sweetened with a little rice malt syrup and coconut than nothing at all. And there’s probably something in that (though I’d still recommend keeping the habit of eating sweet things to a minimum). And the other part is ‘instead of breakfast cereal etc’.
Breakfast is, I think the hardest meal to imagine in a post-sugar world. Toast and jam. Cereal. Granola. Honey (in, near or on practically anything). Fruit, yogurt and fruit yogurt. But it’s actually one of the most delicious meals you can have after quitting. I’m pretty much obsessed with breakfast, as anyone who follows me on Instagram will know, and I regularly have brinner (frankly, if I had access to facilities that allowed me to make toast and poach eggs at work I’d probably have it for every meal). But once I started thinking about sharing what kinds of things I have for breakfast, just in case that’s helpful, I thought I might as well do a sort of menu for each day of the week, with a few suggestions for each meal. If you’re right at the beginning of a sugar quitting process, I hope it will come in useful. Then I also have some tips to share about having a sugar-free birthday.
Note: I am low-fructose and like to make stuff from scratch, but I’m not a JERF obsessive. I use some processed stuff and spend less money in the week before payday. I work long hours and enjoy a kitchen shortcut. Also, I have a four-and-a-half-year-old to get out of the front door every morning, and it’s only thanks to the fact that I have a husband who is far more of a morning person than I am that I manage to eat at all.
- Quick nut butter porridge (above) – 30g Ready Brek, 150ml almond milk heated for 2mins in the microwave and 1/2 tsp chia seeds, stirred together. A dollop of peanut, almond or cashew butter on top, plus some strawberries or raspberries.
- Avocado toast – exactly as it sounds. Half an avocado mashed onto two slices.
- Fancy avocado toast (below)– the above, but with goats’ cheese and raspberries on top, popped under the grill for a couple of minutes.
- Nut butter crumpets (above) – Usually with a handful of raspberries, a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds or a sliced strawberry on top.
- Poached eggs and veggies (above) – the above was actually a birthday breakfast from my lovely husband, including fennel, courgettes and mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and crumpets with smoked salmon and poached eggs. We use silicon poachers, hence the perfect egg-boob-shape.
- Veggie omelette – whatever your favourites are, two eggs and a 20g block of cheese, fried gently and finished off under the grill.
- Pancakes (above) – yes, really. I use Nigella’s recipes for American pancakes (minus the totally unnecessary spoonful of sugar) or ricotta hotcakes. I also use GF self-raising flour, because it keeps the fluffiness and prevents accidentally chewy pancakes. I top with a small squirt of rice malt syrup, a smear of nut butter and fresh berries; my husband and daughter usually add a little maple syrup too.
- Buying lunch – it’s generally best to try not to buy lunch, for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is expense. But if I do have to I tend to go to Pret or the Japan Centre; Pret has recently started listing the sugar content of everything, which is ace, and the Japan Centre has started doing tonkotsu ramen which is fatty and meaty and noodley joy. (You might find my Eating Out on IQS post helpful here….)
- Stir-fry, stir-fry and a side of stir-fry – I’m a bit obsessed with throwing everything that’s about to go soggy into a wok full of coconut oil, chilli, garlic and ginger. A splash of tamari, and the basis of any meal is done. I could probably get shares in Amoy Straight-to-Wok udon noodles. I can’t really think of a better way to get your 5+-a-day in than stir frying, and it’s dead easy to pop in the microwave at work. This is also the perfect side-dish for my most common lunch which is…
- Leftovers – well, obviously. Roast chicken, baked salmon, slow-cooker stews etc.
- Chicken soup – about once every other week I make a roast chicken. If they’re on offer, I make two together, in the oven with a bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice and some whole, peeled garlic cloves (plus some rosemary if we happen to have any). Afterwards the juices and the carcass go into a saucepan with a couple of kettles of boiling water and I simmer the lot for 3-4 hours before straining it. There’s always loads more stock than I can use in a couple of days, so I freeze the rest, as well as some freezer bags of shredded chicken if there’s enough left over. This is about the only domestic goddess-like thing that I do, ever, and it’s totally worth it. Because I’m obsessed with chicken soup in all its forms. A pack of ready noodles (see? I told you I could have shares) and some random bits of veg and the job is done.
- Everything slow-cooker – a load of (usually less-sugary) root veg, some protein or other and some sort of flavouring. Could be tinned tomatoes, could be coconut milk and curry paste, could be stock. Could be chicken, fish or the cheaper cuts of red meat. Could include potatoes for bulk, could be designed to be eaten with cous cous or rice.
You’ll have noticed I tend to batch cook and make extra helpings. I look for large pieces of fish or meat that will last for several days. We also get through a prodigious quantity of eggs as a household, since they’re a quick, cheap, adaptable and easy source of fat and protein that are delicious at any time of day.
I also don’t really go in for sweet substitutes on the whole – you can go far on cheese, some very dark chocolate and, every couple of weeks, a stack of pancakes – but I do rather rate this salty, chewy, nutty bark from the IQS recipe list. Also, I had a surfeit of squishy looking pears that my daughter hadn’t finished and whipped up this pear and almond upside-down cake which was moist and moreish.
And now… to birthdays. I recently celebrated mine, and it was very lovely indeed. One of the things that made it really wonderful was having friends and colleagues at work who were incredibly kind and thoughtful. On the day itself, instead of surprising me with a cake, I was brought three immense blocks of cheese – with candles! – and a heap of crackers. It ended up being both treat and lunch, and nearly made me cry as it was such a nice gesture.
A few days later, my gorgeous friend Christina did make me a cake – which she was prepared to try to make with glucose only until I told her that it was her kind gesture and she should do it as she pleased. Said cake was absolutely 100% worth the deviation from my low-sugar life. Partly because the generosity of a friend always tastes amazing (especially a friend who is well on her way to being a baking professional) but also because if you give up sugar but stop appreciating when someone makes you a delicious orange, polenta and pistachio cake, then you have given up too much.
The (additional, metaphorical) icing on that cake was that because I knew a gorgeous slice of home-made affection was coming my way, I didn’t feel the need to symbolically over-indulge on our amazing night out at Bob Bob Ricard, which I’ll write about soon.
So, I guess paradoxically, my best tip for having a sugar-free birthday is to accept that some sugar might happen. It doesn’t have to. If the snacks are on you, then a savoury treat disappears just as fast as a cake in an office (possibly faster, due to the novelty). If you don’t want it, then you don’t have to have it. But if you do, it’s not a reason to berate yourself or the opening to go off-track. It’s been almost a year, so for me it’s becoming more and more like second nature to avoid derailing myself; it might well be harder if you’re still breaking the habit. I’m not saying you should feel obliged to eat sugar just because other people expect you to – and if my amazing birthday cheeseboard is proof of anything, it’s that you can set different expectations by being honest with others about yourself – but if you want to eat something sugary (and I did want to) then so be it. Give yourself permission, and you’ll find it actually gets easier to just have what you want: no more and no less.
I’m always open to a tip or two myself, so if you have any great low-sugar meals or birthday ideas, let’s hear ’em.