A HEALTHY diet is about far more than losing weight, and as coronavirus forces millions of people to lock themselves away from the world, it could prove invaluable for our mental health too.
While good nutrition has long been linked to a healthier mindset, experts have now revealed the simple act of cooking can make us happier too – offering a much-needed distraction and group activity inside.
"Cooking can benefit our mental health because it is a mindful activity – right the way from meal prep to making the actual dish," says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
"Provided we’re not on autopilot, when we’re cooking we’re free from distraction and fully engaged in what we’re doing."
Dr Clare Bailey, wife of TV favourite Dr Michael Mosley’s, tells Sun Online that a healthy diet can dramatically reduce stress levels and even help with sleeplessness.
"The link lies in our gut. Eighty per cent of our serotonin – our happy hormone – is produced in the gut, so the healthier the gut the more emotionally resilient we are," she explains.
Essentially she says the more relaxed and happy you're feeling, the more likely you are to enjoy a deep sleep – and in turn improve your body’s ability to fight infection.
Mental health charities have reported a surge in calls to their helplines and many people are feeling panicked by the financial insecurity, loneliness and uncertainty brought on by coronavirus and lockdown.
That's why The Sun's You're Not Alone campaign has launched a series to raise awareness of the pandemic's effect on mental wellbeing.
"Baking is a great activity to keep the kids busy and put smiles on their faces – and it's good therapy for stressed-out grown-ups, too," says baker Sarah Rainey.
Here, chefs share their recipes and tips for cheap and easy meals – from one pot wonders to three-ingredient cakes:
3-ingredient crusty loaf
- 380g self-raising flour, plus a pinch for dusting
- 100g caster sugar
- 1 x 330ml can or bottle of dark beer
Preheat the oven to 200C (fan 180C) and grease and line a standard 2lb loaf tin with a little butter and greaseproof paper.
Sift the flour into a mixing bowl, and add the sugar followed by the beer. Pour the beer in gradually so it doesn’t froth too much.
Mix everything together using a wooden spoon and transfer the dough to the tin.
Dust the top with a little flour before putting it in the oven. Bake the loaf for 45-50 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the crust on top turns golden (and you can stick a skewer down the centre of the loaf to check the inside is cooked through).
Turn it out onto a wire rack to cool.
If you can’t get your hands on a dark beer, pale ale will do just fine – or you could even use a can of low-sugar lemonade for a slightly sweet-slightly salted loaf that goes well with cheese.
Spiced cannellini beans on toast
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- ¼ teaspoon chilli flakes
- Pinch of paprika
- 400g tin plum tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon soft brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- 400g tin cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 slices of bread
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a low-medium heat. Once warm, add the garlic, fry until starting to turn golden, then add the spices and cook for a further 30 seconds.
Tip in the plum tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, vinegar and cannellini beans. Season, bring to the boil, then simmer on a medium-high heat for 15–20 minutes until slightly thickened.
Toast your bread and serve piled high with the beans, topped with a fried egg, if you like.
£1 chicken peri peri tacos
(Makes 1 portion – 4 lettuce tacos)
- 1 chicken thigh, de-boned
- 1 tsp hot smoked paprika
- 1 egg-cup of couscous
- 2 egg-cups of water
- 4 lettuce leaves
- 1 tbsp yoghurt
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Coat the chicken thigh in a mixture of paprika, a pinch of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
Pan-fry the chicken over a low-medium heat, skin-side down first, for 10–12 minutes on each side until cooked through and caramelised on the outside.
Remove from the heat and set the chicken to one side.
Add the couscous to the pan (off the heat), along with the water, and stir for a few seconds to incorporate all the pan juices, then leave the couscous to rest for a few minutes and plump up.
Slice the chicken into thin strips, then assemble your tacos by spooning some of the peri peri-infused couscous onto each lettuce leaf, placing some chicken strips on top, then drizzling with the yogurt and sprinkling over some cracked black pepper.
Super Easy One Pound Meals by Miguel Barclay’s (£8.95, Headline).
Nutritional tips for a good gut
There's no set rule when it comes to choosing what you eat each day, but Dr Bailey has shared a few simple diet tips to boost gut health and your ability to cope with stress:
- Eat a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet, rich in different coloured fruits and vegetables. This will give you the best chance of getting the wide variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients your body needs.
- Prebiotic foods act as the ‘fertiliser’ for the good bacteria and encourage them to proliferate and in time counter the effects of more harmful bacteria. Leeks, onions and garlic are all prebiotics.
- Fermented foods like kefir, miso paste, kombucha and sauerkraut all help strengthen the good bacteria in the gut, while fruit, vegetables and whole foods rich in fibre feed the gut microbiome, and allow it to thrive.
- Probiotics help the healthy growth of ‘good bacteria’. You can find probiotics in fermented foods like live yogurt, as well as kimchi and sauerkraut.
- It’s also important to try and avoid (or at least cut down) on processed foods like takeaways, as tempting as they may be during self-isolation, as these destroy the active healthy bacteria in the digestive system.
Roasted chickpeas and squash pasta
- 1 small squash or pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and chopped into walnut-sized chunks
- ½ teaspoon chilli flakes
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- Generous pinch of ground cinnamon
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 200g angel hair/vermicelli pasta
- 2 tablespoons natural yogurt
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ quantity Breadcrumb Topping with optional lemon zest, to serve
Preheat your oven to 180°C/gas mark 6.
On a large baking tray, toss together the squash, chilli flakes, fennel and cumin seeds, cinnamon, garlic and oil, then season and roast for 20 minutes, or until the squash is starting to turn golden and soft but still holding its shape.
Toss the chickpeas through and roast in the oven for a further 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, boil the pasta in salted water according to pack instructions or until tender, reserve a mug of the cooking water, then drain.
Using a potato masher, roughly crush about half the butternut squash and chickpea mixture. Add the pasta, yogurt, parsley and enough of the reserved cooking water to the tray to coat the pasta in the sauce. Adjust the seasoning, top with the breadcrumb mixture and serve.
Take One Tin by Lola Milne (Kyle Books, £14.99). Photography by Lizzie Mayson.
Slow cooker veggie soup
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: (Pre-cook 10 minutes) Auto-low 8 hours, or high 4 hours
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 celery sticks, finely chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- Sprig of tarragon, leaves finely chopped
- 2 sprigs of rosemary
- 400g can tomatoes, blended until smooth
- 900ml (11 ⁄2 pints) hot vegetable stock, for both methods
- 3 potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 325g (11oz) green dwarf beans or French or fine green beans, trimmed and chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 30g (1oz) Parmesan cheese, grated (optional
Preheat the slow cooker, if required.
Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat, add the onion, and cook for 3–4 minutes until soft.
Season with salt and pepper, then stir through the garlic and celery and cook for a further 5 minutes or until the celery is soft.
Stir in the carrots, tarragon, and rosemary and cook for a minute before transferring everything to the slow cooker. Stir in the puréed tomatoes and stock and cook on auto/low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours.
Add the potatoes for the last 15 minutes of cooking.
When the potatoes are soft, add the beans and cook for 10 minutes, or until they are cooked but retain a bite.
Taste and season, remove the rosemary, and ladle into warmed large shallow bowls. Sprinkle over the Parmesan, if using, and serve with some crusty French bread.
The Slow Cook Book by Heather Whinney (DK, £16.99)
3-ingredient chocolate souffles
- 300g chocolate spread
- 4 eggs
- 2 tbsp icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan 170C. Grease 4 small ramekins with butter or flavourless oil.
Mix one tablespoon of icing sugar into the chocolate spread. Separate the eggs and whisk the yolks into the chocolate mixture. In another bowl, whisk the whites until they form stiff peaks. Slowly fold the whites into the chocolate mixture, a little at a time, taking care not to beat out the air.
Divide between the ramekins, filling each 2/3 full. Wipe excess batter off the rims so they rise. Bake on a tray in the centre of the oven, for 15-18 minutes until fluffy and risen. Dust the remaining icing sugar over the top and serve immediately – topped, if you like, with ice cream or whipped cream.
Six Minute Showstoppers by Sarah Rainey is out on May 14th. Her first book, Three Ingredient Baking, (Michael Joseph, £12.99) is available now.
You're Not Alone
EVERY 90 minutes in the UK a life is lost to suicide.
It doesn't discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It's the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes.
And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet it's rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun launched the You're Not Alone campaign.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let's all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others… You're Not Alone.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support:
- CALM, www.thecalmzone.net, 0800 585 858
- Heads Together, www.headstogether.org.uk
- Mind, www.mind.org.uk, 0300 123 3393
- Papyrus, www.papyrus-uk.org, 0800 068 41 41
- Samaritans, www.samaritans.org, 116 123
- Movember, www.uk.movember.com
GBBO's Spanish Lemon Meringue Cake
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Bakine time: 25 minutes
- 250g digestive biscuits
- 110g unsalted butter, melted
- 5 eggs, separated
- 550g condensed milk
- juice of 5 lemons
- 75g caster sugar
- 20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin, greased, then lined (base and sides) with baking paper
Heat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/400°F/Gas 6.
Blitz the biscuits in a food processor to fine crumbs. Remove 2 tablespoons of the crumbs and set aside. Add the melted butter to the crumbs in the food processor and blitz for a few seconds more until combined.
Transfer the buttery biscuit mixture to the prepared tin and use the back of a spoon to press it down firmly and evenly all the way to the edges of the tin to give an even base.
Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Using a balloon whisk, whisk in the condensed milk until fully incorporated. Then, slowly whisk in the lemon juice until combined. Pour the mixture on top of the biscuit base.
Place the egg whites in a clean, grease-free bowl and whisk with an electric hand whisk to stiff peaks.
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Whisk in the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the mixture forms a thick and glossy meringue. Spoon the meringue on top of the lemony layer in the tin.
Sprinkle the reserved biscuit mixture on top of the meringue and bake the lemon meringue cake for about 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Leave to cool in the tin for 30 minutes, then move it to the fridge to cool completely.
When you’re ready to serve, release the cake from the tin, remove the baking paper and serve in slices.
The Great British Bake Off: The Big Book of Amazing Cakes with recipes from Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith & The Bakers, (Sphere, £20.00).
Additional reporting by Abby Wilson.
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