January; it’s everyone’s favourite time of the year for repenting for the sins and excesses of the Christmas period.
Nevermind the fact that Dry January could actually be bad for you, going cold turkey during a particularly chilly time of the year just doesn’t seem like much fun.
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I’ve never been one for dieting – in that I’ve never been on a diet – and I don’t believe in cutting out food groups unless there’s a very real health reason, say an allergy.
But while I love being indulgent, desserts especially, I do want to eat more healthily because the benefits of a balanced diet are very real.
And as I get older, I’m more and more aware of what I put into my body and what it might mean for my overall wellbeing.
For example, I know that dairy is terrible for me. While not diagnosed as dairy intolerant, I’ve suffered from allergic reactions after drinking milk and eating cheese turns my face into a crater of breakouts.
I’m lucky in that I can still eat cheese – it affects me but I’m happy to tolerate the physical effects because I love the stuff.
But I know from reading many of the pieces on Crohn’s and Colitis (by Becky Excell, Jenna Farmer, Bryony Hopkins and others) and other conditions that for some people, keeping to a strict diet, gluten-free in this case, is extremely important.
The transition from a ‘normal’ diet to a more restrictive one is hard, especially when you have to deal with all the health issues that triggered that change in the first place.
So, is there anything that can make it easier?
Mindful Chef – a gluten and dairy-free recipe box
In November, I was contacted by Mindful Chef, a healthy recipe box delivery service, who wanted to know if I was up for a ‘staying on the wagon’ challenge for January – ie, could I eat more healthily for a month.
As I mentioned, I’m not one for dieting, but Mindful Chef intrigued me because, as well as a tagline of ‘Healthy eating made easy’, all their recipes are gluten and dairy-free and could be created within 30 minutes.
Plus, it’s backed by Andy Murray and Victoria Pendleton so the credentials certainly looked good.
I decided to start my month-long challenge in December and trail into January because, why wait? Besides, if there was ever a time of the year to try and make my diet a bit healthier, December would be it.
How Mindful Chef works
Mindful Chef has three different sizes – for one, two or four people.
You choose your box size – for one in my case – and then you choose the recipes you want to try each week.
There’s a clever filter so if you only eat fish or are vegan, you won’t have to sift through a load of meat options.
For one person, you can choose up to three recipes each week, which cost £9 each. It’s pretty expensive compared to other recipe boxes on the market, and certainly costs more than doing your own shop at the supermarket.
Bigger boxes are cheaper per portion though – £7 for two and £6 for four – and are more comparative with the alternatives on the market.
The price is inclusive of all the ingredients, which are measured out; the recipes; and the delivery, which happens on a Sunday or a Monday depending on where you live.
What I got in my Mindful Chef boxes
I eat everything and was keen to try recipes across the range so I asked Mindful Chef to surprise me.
These are the recipes I received over the course of four weeks.
Week 1: creamy chicken fricassee and broccoli rice; Vietnamese crispy pork and carrot noodles; mini portobellos and Mexican chipotle rice
Week 2: Honey and ginger salmon with rainbow slaw; chipotle pork meatballs and Mexican-style rice; Sri Lankan-style curry and broccoli rice
Week 3: roasted squash and buckwheat risotto; Thai pork meatballs in a courgetti soup; smoked salmon, poached egg and celeriac rosti
Week 4: chicken mangetout and courgetti miso ramen; steak and lettuce wraps with chipotle cream; Swedish-style pork meatballs and parsnip mash
My experience with Mindful Chef
I’m an adventurous eater (fat from frogs’ fallopian tube, wood ants and cacao mucilage were among the ingredients that made it onto my plate in 2017) but not normally an adventurous cook.
Mostly, it’s down to time – or the lack of.
And then there’s the general I-can’t-be-botheredness that comes from a long day’s work.
I almost never cook from recipes either – even though I have a big collection of recipe books, I tend to only use them for inspiration because having to precisely measure out all of the ingredients every single time is a bit of a faff.
And anyway, I like the creativity that goes with making it up as I go along.
With Mindful Chef, you do have to follow recipes, but the process is made easier because the ingredients are already measured out for you so theoretically there’s no waste.
I tried a lot of new recipes that I wouldn’t normally have chosen, and it also got me thinking about certain ingredients in a different light, but the process was far from perfect.
The good things about Mindful Chef
The first thing I noticed about Mindful Chef was the quality of the ingredients.
I’ve tried other recipe boxes before and had veg box deliveries on and off for years.
With some, you literally have to rush to eat everything within the first three days or things will start going off, even in the fridge.
It’s a nightmare because you either have a lot of waste or you end up cooking a huge amount of food and then have lots of leftovers.
With Mindful Chef, the fresh ingredients not only looked good, they could easily be kept to the end of the week – one week, I was so busy, I didn’t have a chance to cook the last recipe until the next box arrived but the vegetables were still very fresh.
The recipes also gave me a whole new appreciation for certain ingredients and introduced me to new ones.
I never cook with limes for example, and the recipes I tried showed me how it could instantly lift a dish.
Buckwheat is another ingredient I’m looking forwards to experimenting more with.
And coconut milk was surprisingly versatile for making savoury sauces when I had previously only used it in curries.
The downside of Mindful Chef
While Mindful Chef promised that all the recipes could be cooked within 30 minutes, the reality was very different.
A couple of recipes involved making sides such as courgetti, which are easy enough when you have the right equipment – spiraliser in this case – but with a relatively gadget-free kitchen, you’d end up doing a lot of precise and time-consuming chopping.
And in making sides like broccoli rice, you do end up making a lot of mess.
Compared to the one-pot wonders I tend to make during the week, the clean-up was a lot more time-consuming, and by week two, I was already cutting corners to save time and dreading it enough to pull out the pizzas from the freezer on those particularly I-can’t-be-bothered nights.
Although Mindful Chef has over 500,000 recipes, I found the experience quite repetitive at times.
In four weeks, I had meatballs three times for example – albeit cooked differently. And chipotle appeared several times.
That said, it could easily be mitigated if I chose my own recipes and it’s helpful to see how similar ingredients could be made into different dishes with just a few changes.
Another issue that applied specifically to the boxes for one was that the recipes were designed for two.
So while some of the ingredients were portioned up for one, you have to work out some for yourself.
You might get a whole butternut squash for your buckwheat risotto for instance, when you only need half.
However, it does mean that you potentially have enough food to get a second meal out of it.
Did Mindful Chef help improve my diet?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, I was getting a lot more of my five a day through Mindful Chef – the recipes were very healthy and were packed with fresh veg at every turn.
However, while some of the recipes were positively moreish, and I would definitely make them again, others made me feel like I was punishing myself a bit, which in turn made me rush out to buy chocolate brownies at lunch.
And with the abundance of chocolates and mince pies at Christmas, I was unashamedly falling off the wagon left, right and centre.
Having said that, I can see some very real benefits in certain situations.
For example, if I had to give up dairy, gluten or wanted to become a vegetarian or vegan and needed a helping hand, Mindful Chef could come in handy.
For one, you wouldn’t have to think about what you were cooking for dinner because you’ve already chosen it before the start of the week.
You also wouldn’t have to read all the labels because that’s all taken care of for you.
And if you felt like you were just eating the same old things every week, signing up for a couple of weeks can give you a nice change of pace and add some new dishes to your repertoire.
But with a maximum of five meals a week delivered, you still have quite a few meals to plan and pay for on top of what you’re already spending on Mindful Chef.
So, it all comes down to whether you’re willing to pay for the benefits.
In my case, on a lazy week when I’m feeling flush, I may just be tempted. Meanwhile, I’ll be browsing through those 500,000 recipes for ideas for dinner tonight.