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HOW TO UNPROCESS YOUR LIFE by Rob Hobson

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Scientists are deeply concerned about the possible long-term effects of ultra-processed foods on our children — many of whom eat far too many crisps, sweets, pizzas and biscuits.

A study, published in 2021, found that British children got on average 60 per cent of their calories from ultra-processed foods (UPFs). For some, the total is as high as 80 per cent. And there are growing worries that the younger children start on these foods, the greater the chance they will be affected by chronic diseases when they grow up.

As an award-winning nutritionist, I have researched the evils of UPFs and my new book, Unprocess Your Life, exclusively serialised by the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, is packed with recipes and ideas to help you painlessly reduce your intake of processed foods.

I know it can be hard to wean youngsters off junk food. Children of all ages are particularly influenced by peer pressure and advertising on social media, and can quickly develop a preference for foods high in salt, saturated fat and sugar. In turn, these can stimulate addictive pathways in their young brains.

For many years I worked with the NHS, helping to reform school meal menus, and I learned a lot about the clever ways the food industry works to tempt children to buy and eat more processed food.

Rob Hobson (pictured) is an award-winning nutritionist who has extensively researched the evils of ultra-processed foods. His new book, Unprocess Your Life, is packed with recipes and ideas to help you painlessly reduce your intake of processed foods

My advice is to take things slowly and to gradually shrink the percentage of UPFs in your child’s diet. Aim to cut them back to two portions a day. Then try to aim for one day a week free of UPFs.

Don’t do everything at once and don’t nag — slowly make changes to the foods you buy and the dishes you cook.

This might mean ‘forgetting’ to buy their favourite UPF breakfast cereal and offering eggs or porridge instead, or hunting for better alternatives with shorter ingredients lists (like natural cereal bars in place of cake bars).

Try batch-cooking some realistic alternatives (such as granola to sprinkle on plain yoghurt), buying real crisps (made from potato, oil and salt) rather than highly flavoured puffed snacks, and offering water in place of fizzy drinks.

I warn against overdoing the messaging or demonising certain foods and, instead, focus on what is good to eat rather than what should be avoided.

With teenagers, it can help to try to find a ‘driver’ they can relate to — perhaps clearer skin, better sleep, improved gym performance or mood. Make a plan and aim to get everyone in your family involved in choosing foods that will excite them.

It’s a good idea to teach older children a few basic dishes that they can cook any time of day, then it’s up to you to keep those ingredients in stock (see the following recipes).

Keep an eye on social media, too. When a TikTok recipe for an omelette folded in a flour tortilla became a viral sensation, I adapted the recipe into a homemade version — and when I work with teens, they all recognise it and love to cook it for themselves.

And be aware of when in the day your children are most likely to be hungry and therefore receptive to home-cooked healthy food — banana bread is perfect for when they get home from school.

FAMILY FAVOURITES WITHOUT ANY OF THE ADDITIVES 

Fish fingers and Cajun wedges

Most parents have fed their kids fish fingers at some point because they are quick to prepare. But these homemade ones can be prepared in batches and frozen, making them just as convenient. Adding grated Parmesan gives the breadcrumbs a savoury flavour that works well with the fish. If your kids don’t fancy spiced wedges, try a little salt or dried mixed herbs to flavour them instead.

SERVES 4

  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 85g wholemeal breadcrumbs
  • 25g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 5 tbsp wholemeal flour
  • 400g skinless white fish (such as cod or haddock), sliced into 12 strips each, 2-3cm thick and 10-12cm long
  • Sea salt and black pepper

FOR THE WEDGES

  • 3 medium baking potatoes, each cut into 8 wedges lengthways
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp smoked paprika

Preheat oven to 200c/180c fan/Gas 6. Lightly brush two non-stick baking sheets with a little oil.

Start by making the wedges. Lay them out on one baking sheet, then drizzle over the oil and toss with your hands to coat. Place spices and a good pinch of salt in a small bowl and mix to combine. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the wedges, then bake in the oven for 30 minutes until golden brown and tender.

Now prepare the fish fingers. Place the beaten egg in a shallow dish. Combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, lemon zest and oregano in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and combine well. Transfer breadcrumb mixture to a plate and set another up with flour.

Dip the fish strips one at a time into the flour and shake off any excess, then dip into the egg and finally the breadcrumbs, making sure they are well coated. Place on the other baking sheet, transfer to the oven and cook for 20 minutes until golden brown.

Serve with the wedges and peas.

FOOD TIP: These fish fingers can be frozen before cooking and stored in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Bashed seeded chicken with creamed corn

Breaded chicken always goes down well with children, but shop-bought nuggets and other varieties can vary in quality. These foods are often made using bits of chicken, while cheaper brands fill them out with soy protein isolate. Shop-bought breaded chicken items also often contain modified starches and stabilisers such as sodium acid pyrophosphate 28 (E450) and sodium tripolyphosphate (E451). These breaded chicken breasts have been made using wholemeal flour and seeds to improve their nutrient content.

SERVES 4

  • 4 skinless chicken breasts
  • 4 thick slices of wholemeal bread (about 300g)
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp mixed seeds, toasted
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Wholemeal flour
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt

FOR THE CREAMED CORN

  • 325g tin sweetcorn (no added sugar or salt), drained
  • 2 tbsp single cream
  • 20g Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Place the chicken breasts between two pieces of cling film and bash with a rolling pin or heavy-based saucepan until they are about 1cm thick.

Make the breadcrumbs by placing the bread, garlic and seeds in a food processor with a good pinch of salt and blitzing into fairly fine crumbs.

Place the beaten eggs in a shallow bowl and both the wholemeal flour and breadcrumbs on separate plates.

One at a time, dip the chicken breasts into the flour and shake off any excess. Next, dip the floured chicken into the egg and then into the breadcrumbs to cover completely. Set aside on a baking sheet until ready to cook.

Prepare the creamed corn. Place the sweetcorn in a small saucepan with the cream and heat through for 2 minutes.

Take the pan off the heat and then use a stick blender to blitz the corn into a semi-smooth consistency. Add the Parmesan and a small pinch of salt and stir gently.

Set a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and add the oil. Once hot, add the breaded chicken to the pan and cook for 3 minutes on each side until crisp and golden.

Reheat the creamed corn. Slice up the breaded chicken and serve with the creamed corn and slices of cucumber and halved cherry tomatoes.

Halloumi, sweet potato and cherry tomato skewers

These skewers are brightly coloured and sweet, which is appealing to kids, not to mention the fact you can pick them up and eat them with your hands. Halloumi is a rich source of calcium, important for growing bones and teeth. Try making them with your kids to help get them interested in new foods. If you don’t like halloumi, then paneer cheese also works well.

SERVES 4 (MAKES 8 SMALL SKEWERS)

  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 16 bite-sized chunks
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 x 250g packet of halloumi, cut into 16 bite-sized chunks
  • 16 cherry tomatoes

FOR THE MARINADE

  • 1 tbsp honey
  • Zest and juice of ½ lime
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 200c/180c fan/Gas 6 and soak 8 small wooden skewers in water.

Place the sweet potato on a baking tray and drizzle with the oil, then use your hands to turn and coat them in the oil. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes, or until tender, but not too soft. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Prepare the marinade by adding all the ingredients to a small bowl and whisking to combine.

Preheat the grill to medium.

Thread each skewer with 2 cubes of sweet potato, 2 cubes of halloumi and 2 cherry tomatoes. Brush the marinade over both sides of the skewers, then grill for 5 minutes until the halloumi has started to brown. Turn the skewers once during cooking.

Serve the skewers on their own or with couscous, salad leaves and cucumber slices.

Tomato ketchup

Aside from the tomatoes, the key ingredients in ketchup are vinegar, sugar and spices such as cloves and allspice. This is simple to replicate at home and you get much richer-tasting ketchup, not at all like the bright red Tommy K you buy from the shop. In my version, the added sugar is replaced by honey.

MAKES ENOUGH TO FILL A 500ML BOTTLE

  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2kg plum tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 100ml water
  • 150ml apple cider vinegar
  • 4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 tsp honey
  • Pinch of sea salt

Put the onions, tomatoes, garlic, tomato puree, water and a good pinch of salt into a large saucepan set over a medium heat. Cook for 45 minutes until the mixture has reduced to a pulp, stirring occasionally.

While the tomatoes are cooking, pour the vinegar into a small saucepan with the allspice and bay leaf. Simmer over a low heat for 10 minutes, then take off the heat and set to one side.

Blitz the tomato mixture with a stick blender until smooth, then strain through a fine mesh sieve into a clean pan, leaving the tomato skins and seeds behind. Press the back of a spoon around the sieve to help push through as much of the mixture as possible.

Pour the vinegar mixture into the pan with the tomatoes and remove the bay leaf, then add the honey and a pinch of salt.

Set the pan over a medium heat and cook until the sauce has reduced to a thick, ketchup consistency.

Pour the mixture through a funnel into a sterilised bottle or jar. Seal and cool completely before storing in the fridge. Homemade ketchup will last for about 3 weeks in the fridge.

Egg and red pepper muffins with guacamole

These bites are perfect for little hands as they can be eaten without cutlery. The spinach is optional for fussy eaters, but you can substitute it with grated courgette. Most kids like guacamole and the healthy fat content makes it energy dense. You can buy ready-made fresh guacamole without preservatives but most guacamole dips found in jars or squeezy bottles contain long lists of ingredients, including modified starches, preservatives and stabilisers such as xanthan gum.

MAKES 6

  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing
  • ½ onion, finely diced
  • ½ red pepper, finely diced
  • 100g baby leaf spinach (optional)
  • 5 large eggs
  • Sea salt

FOR THE GUACAMOLE

  • 2 ripe avocados
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • ¼ onion, finely diced
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
  • Handful of coriander (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190c/170c fan/Gas 5. Grease 6 holes of a muffin tin with a little olive oil.

Set a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and add the oil. Once hot, add the onion and red pepper and fry for 5 minutes until softened then transfer to a plate.

If you are using spinach, then add this to the pan and cover, then cook for 1–2 minutes so it wilts.

Tip the spinach onto kitchen paper to drain, then chop. Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt.

Divide the vegetables evenly between the muffin holes then pour over the egg mixture.

Place the muffin tin in the oven and bake for 15 minutes until the egg has set. Remove from the oven and leave to cool while you make the guacamole. Scoop the avocado flesh into a bowl, add the lime juice and crush with a fork. Add the onion, tomatoes and, if using, coriander and fold together.

Serve the muffins warm or at room temperature with guacamole.

If you are not serving straight away, then sit one of the avocado stones in the guacamole to keep it fresh.

Chicken tikka masala

This is one of the nation’s favourite curries ordered in restaurants and takeaways. Chicken tikka masala is also a popular ready meal, both frozen and fresh. Making your own from scratch means you can improve the nutritional content and quality of the curry.

The cucumber salad is traditionally called kachumber, although this is simplified here. Dried spices give a nicer taste than shop-bought pastes, which are often loaded with salt and can taste a tad synthetic as they are thickened with modified starches and gums.

SERVES 4

  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2.5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp chilli powder, cayenne pepper, or dried chillies
  • 1 tsp each ground turmeric, cumin and coriander
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • 8 large skinless and boneless chicken thighs (about 1kg) 
  • 500g tomato passata
  • 100ml double cream
  • Sea salt
  • Coriander leaves, to garnish

FOR THE SALAD

  • 1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and sliced into half-moons
  • 1 red onion, finely diced
  • 2 tomatoes, deseeded and diced
  • Handful of coriander, chopped
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lime

Heat the oil in a large deep-sided nonstick frying pan set over a medium heat.

Add the onion and red pepper, then cook for 5 minutes until softened.

Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the spices (use less chilli or cayenne if you prefer less heat) and cook for 1 minute until they become fragrant, then add the tomato puree and cook for a further minute.

Add the chicken thighs and stir to coat in the marinade.

Cook for 3–4 minutes to seal the meat, then add the passata and 100ml water.

Simmer gently for 15 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Meanwhile, prepare the salad by adding all the ingredients to a bowl and combining well. Season with a little salt then put in the fridge until ready to serve.

Take the curry off the heat and stir in the cream. Taste and season with salt and garnish with coriander leaves.

Serve with brown rice, wholemeal pitta bread and the cucumber salad

Chocolate ice cream

Have you ever wondered why manufactured ice cream and frozen yoghurt turns to a foamy slime rather than melting?

This is because of the way it is manufactured and the fact that it contains ingredients such as guar gum, locust bean gum, alginate, carrageenan and xanthan gum, all used to replace more expensive ingredients and to prolong shelf life. My version has none of these chemical nasties.

It is also free from added sugars as the bananas have sufficient sweetness.

SERVES 4

  • 6–8 very ripe bananas (about 800g), cut into chunks and frozen
  • 50ml milk (or dairy-free alternative)
  • 3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp smooth nut butter (buy a brand with no palm oil or sugar added)

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse to break down the frozen bananas. Scrape down the sides of the food processor, then blitz for 1–2 minutes until completely smooth. Serve immediately or transfer to an airtight container and freeze.

Unprocess Your Life by Rob Hobson (HarperCollins Publishers, £18.99). To order a copy for £17.09, go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25. Promotional price valid until 21/01/2024.

For further information, visit robhobson.co.uk or Instagram @ robhobsonnutritionist



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