Our family are a pretty healthy bunch – I think. We’re all fit – some obscenely so (you know who you are …) – and we eat what I think is a healthy balanced diet with enough treats to keep us all smiling. But when I’m being bombarded with a consistent message from the media – a message which questions at its very heart whether I am feeding my family in the right way – I do wobble a little and need to react ….
Over the summer, everything I read and everything I saw on UK television was about the evils of sugar. There was much discussion about its addictive qualities, how it is a completely unnecessary part in our diet and how it is the major cause of obesity. I didn’t think we ate that much sugar and none of us are overweight, but I’m a great believer in creating good habits and I wondered if this was an aspect of our family diet that needed a tweak or two.
So, I researched and I learned that 8 weeks of abstinence was all that was needed to re-calibrate, to quit the addiction, to set a new base line and to begin a new chapter of life with a balanced attitude to sugar.
I love a challenge – except for the type that might require me to jump from an airplane; swim through shark infested waters; spend an hour in a room full of cats (or even just one cat); ski down a black run in a blizzard (or even ski down a black run on a beautiful, sunny day) … On reflection, perhaps I only love less adrenalin fuelled challenges. So the idea of a challenge involving food that we could do as a family ticked all the boxes for me. We’ll call it an extreme food challenge. There – I feel a bit more dare devil now.
None of us eat much processed food and Hella is the only one of us who enjoys a sugary, fizzy drink. The children have always had a fruit juice in their packed lunch every day (although I now realise that this contains as much sugar as a can of something fizzy) and their lunches were always fruit heavy rather than vegetable heavy. I enjoy baking and so there are treats at home fairly often. In addition, snacks in between meals were more often sweet than savoury.
What was I hoping for?
My research suggested that once we had got through the first few weeks of desperately missing sugar, we would –
- feel energised
- most probably lose a few pounds
- have radiant and glowing skin
- no longer experience highs and lows of energy
- no longer feel that we NEEDED sugar to get us through the day.
What were the ground rules?
It took a small amount of ‘positioning’ with the rest of the family to persuade them that this challenge was both positive and workable. We agreed that this was very much an experiment and that we would all take part for a period of 8 weeks (finishing when we we flew to Thailand for a week’s holiday). During the challenge we would limit ourselves to 2 pieces of fruit a day and would quit everything else that contained sugars – both natural and refined. At the end of the 8 weeks it would be up to each of us to decide if and how we wanted to continue without sugar. The children pointed out that they may encounter situations where it would be tricky to say no to sugar – most of these involved birthday parties, special friends cooking sweet things and stuff at school … We agreed that in these situations they could make the call – they would know what was the right thing to do.
What was difficult?
Breakfast proved to be the toughest meal. Although weekday cereal has always been fairly healthy stuff, I didn’t realise that every supermarket cereal except for Shredded Wheat contained sugar. The children did a sterling job of tolerating a bowl of Shredded Wheat every morning and Finn used his 2 portions of fruit (strawberries and raspberries) to ensure that he completely drowned out the taste (or lack of it) of the cereal. Steve and I had our normal ‘homemade-no-added sugar-muesli’ but without the dried fruits. A topping of blueberries and raspberries was essential here too.
Packed lunches for the children needed a little creativity – no fruit juice, much less fruit, no white carbs but more veggies and more protein. Once I had got my head around the change, it was easy.
Snacks in between meals for the children were a bit tough too. At the beginning of each week I filled a box in the fridge with shredded cooked chicken and I hardboiled a pan of eggs to keep chilled for a few days. With these ingredients always to hand, Hella became a complete pro at creating a tasty snack when she got home from school. Sometimes she would add a few cubes of cheese and she would ring the changes with either tomatoes, cucumber, baby carrots or red peppers. Joe and Finn rediscovered rice cakes in a big way – but their love of them goes back a long way it has to be said …
If snacks at home were tricky, snacks when we were out and about were downright impossible. Coffee shops and cafés really don’t go for anything other than sweet treats. The only way to avoid being caught short was to eat well at home and to carry a little supply of nuts at all times.
We had a couple of dinner parties during our time without sugar, and I have to admit that replacing dessert with a cheese board completely didn’t work for me. I’m not big into dessert at all, but I do look forward to something small and sweet at the end of a meal. Cheese is NOT what I want to be eating.
The timing of our challenge coincided precisely with the recent BBC series of The Great British Bake Off. It has to be said that although we have always enjoyed our family ritual of watching this together, it did at times become akin to torture this time round.
What did we miss the most?
Joe missed his beloved Just Right cereal – of which he eats huge quantities. Finn enjoys having free access to the fruit bowl so this aspect of the challenge was tough for him – as well as needing to turn down dessert when we were out for dinner. Hella was longing for a chocolate milkshake made with ice cream and whizzed up in a high speed blender. My lovely husband and I craved our little square of chocolate with a delicious coffee when dinner was done and the children were in bed. In short there wasn’t too much that we desperately missed …
What was surprising?
I was surprised by how much of our daily life seemed unchanged. It was only at the points of indulgence that we missed out and as these have always tended not to be overly frequent we didn’t really suffer too much. We have brought up our children to have a love for food and to make informed choices. I was surprised how I really didn’t like taking that decision making power away from them.
What triggered us to quit the challenge?
We were hosting a dinner party one Friday night at the end of the sixth week of our challenge when we came to a collective family decision that we would bring our experiment to an end. I was feeling niggly about another finale of cheese and biscuits and before I knew it we were all questioning whether it would be a good time to stop. We had done what we had set out to do, in that we had proved that we could lead our lives without sugar but could raise our hands and acknowledge that we didn’t feel any different without sugar and that we all actually preferred a little sweetness in our lives. Decision made.
So, I quickly baked Carrot Cakes for dessert for our dinner party that night and, to celebrate that we had made it through an entire series of The Great British Bake Off while being sugar free, I made a tray of our very favourite Chocolate Tiffin as a TV snack to accompany the series final the following night. No more tragic drooling for us…
And there’s no need to even turn on the oven for this one. You can take out your frustrations (perhaps about not having eaten sugar for weeks) on a bag of ginger nuts by bashing them to smithereens with a rolling pin and that’s the hard bit done.
Then you’ll mix your biscuit pieces into a pan of melted gooey chocolatey stuff and you’ll be left with a very sticky mixture to spread out. It will stick to a spoon; it will stick to your hands but … TOP TIP ALERT …it will NOT stick to an orange.
Bingo … and thank you to Hella for being such an able and glamorous hand model. When you’re done, use a tiny amount of washing up liquid to wash the greasiness off the orange skin and then sneak it back into the fruit bowl. Job done.
For me, the difference between a ‘fine’ tiffin and a GORGEOUS tiffin is in the quality of the chocolate. I think it has to be dark and 70% cocoa solids. Just say no to cooking chocolate – yes, it’s cheaper but you absolutely get what you pay for.
Cover the tiffin with the melted chocolate and chill in the fridge until solid. You can then cut as you please. I rather like little pieces – kind of canapé sized – but when you’ve been waiting 6 weeks for this treat, man-sized portions also work. If I’m giving these as a gift, I might trim the rough edges off – these are the cook’s treat – but otherwise rustic edges are good. Perfect with a coffee, delicious with a glass of milk … or a glass of wine. And they keep for weeks in the fridge in an airtight container – if you can resist them for that long …
And what has happened since?
To be honest, my lovely husband and I are finding some things sickeningly sweet. I have stopped adding dried fruits to my morning muesli; Hella has continued her new found habit of having a glass of milk after school rather than a chocolate milkshake; Joe is now mixing his beloved Just Right with a few handfuls of our homemade sugar free muesli and Finn’s drink of choice has become water rather than fruit squash (STOP PRESS – Finn has just told me that we have run out of fruit squash at home … so that’s why he’s choosing water!). So really, this is not a life shift – more of a life tweak.
And moving forward – will anything change for good?
I would question whether ‘sugar free’ for children is either right or realistic. Our three did a great job for 6 weeks but it was on the basis of an experiment with an end date in sight and that makes it more do-able for sure. We are now all certainly much more aware of the sugar in the foods around us and certainly for me and my lovely husband we are making more conscious decisions about which sweet things we eat and drink. If we are going to eat something sugary it needs to have earned its place on our plate rather than being part of our daily routine – I’ll probably say no to a Krispy Kreme but may well indulge in a beautiful homemade delight.
Shredded Wheat has got the big ‘heave ho’ from our weekday breakfast table but has been replaced by Weetabix – not too sugary at all. Packed lunches are still without a fruit juice – water is working just fine – and vegetables and salads are also playing a bigger part in lunchboxes than they were before the experiment. I have stopped buying fruit yoghurts and sweet crunchy bars (except for at big swim competition weekends) and I am trying to keep a supply of savoury snacks available when I can … for all of us, foods need to be easy and readily available if it’s going to work on a regular basis and for a savory bias, that requires a bit more effort.
In summary I would say that we have probably always been healthy enough but we are definitely happier with a little sugar in our lives. Tweaking our daily habits can only be good and that is the lasting message that we will take away with us. We can confirm –
- ‘quitting sugar’ didn’t leave us feeling more energized – only a balanced diet, plenty of sleep and some good exercise can sort that out
- we didn’t lose even a few pounds – once you are over 40 only the most dramatic of action can achieve that
- our skin is probably as radiant and glowing as its going to get
- highs and lows of energy seem to be closely correlated with the time we are out of bed in the morning and asleep at night
- we never NEED sugar to get us through the day but sometimes it makes things a bit more fun – especially when it’s our favourite Chocolate Tiffin.
- 220g butter
- 150g golden syrup
- 50g cocoa powder
- 100g raisins (or a mixture of any dried fruits - a few glacé cherries work well)
- 450g gingernuts
- 220g 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate (I used Lindt)
- A baking tray sized around 20 x 34 cm and about 3 cm deep - lined with baking parchment.
- Place the gingernuts in a large sealable plastic bag and bash them into small pieces with a rolling pin. You want to be able to see a few chunks rather than it being all rubble.
- Now melt the butter, golden syrup, cocoa powder and raisins gently in a large pan.
- When everything is nicely melted and mixed, pour in the crushed biscuits and mix very well.
- Tip this mixture into your prepared tin and press the mixture out into all the corners so that there are no spaces - see tip above.
- Break the chocolate into small pieces in a microwaveable bowl and melt this gently until no lumps remain when you stir the liquid chocolate. I set my microwave to the MEDIUM setting here so that there is no risk of overcooking it.
- Now spread the chocolate evenly over the top of the tiffin mixture and leave to chill in the fridge for a few hours until completely solid.
- When you are ready to cut up the tiffin, use the paper to lift it out of the tin and then use your sharpest non-serrated knife to cut it into your chosen sizes. This is best eaten straight out of the fridge.