I always thought French food must be singularly unhealthy. After all, it seems to use an awful lot of butter and cream – and to be rather heavy-handed on the weird ingredient front (frogs legs, duck fat, blue cheeses and suchlike).

But then I watched a video countdown of the best diets in the world. Screened on SBS last week, the rather perky presenters (Kate Quilton & Jimmy Doherty) showcased typical weekly food shopping and family meals in 50 countries around the globe.

Iceland came out on top overall. They have a really clean environment, eat loads of fish and a dairy product called skyr – which sounds rather like yoghurt, but is exceptionally low in fat and high in calcium and protein. Italy, with its Mediterranean diet (my favourite), came in at second place; the Marshall Islands (in the South Pacific), with its high levels of type 2 diabetes, came in last.

My understanding of French food as inherently unhealthy led me to anticipate that France would be somewhere down the bottom of the list too. Not so. In fact the French seem to have a significantly healthier lifestyle than we do here in Australia. Not what I’d have expected, given our abundance of sunshine, fresh produce, sunshine and enthusiasm for outdoor living. But there you go: we ranked 38/50, whereas France came up as very commendable 8/50!

Since I’m generally pretty suspicious of information presented on TV, I hunted around for some more data on the pros and cons of French food. I found some commentary on high levels of saturated fat and possible under-reporting of coronary heart disease related deaths, but the bulk of what I found supported the notion that the French lifestyle is a positive one.

A recent good food study conducted by Oxfam concluded the same thing. It ranked 125 countries according to the quality of their food, its affordability and availability – and on the prevalence of diet-related health issues. On this food index, Australia was ranked eighth – with the race to the bottom won by Chad. France came in at second place.
oxfam comparisonWhilst this was interesting, it didn’t tell me what the French are doing that we’re not. As author Mireille Guiliano asks: “…they eat as they like and they don’t get fat. Porquoi?”

Why is it so, indeed? Considering that key ingredients of French food include butter, speck, duck fat and cheese, it sounds implausible. What is it about the French diet and lifestyle that has resulted in France being relatively high on the preferred diet list and low on the international overweight index?

Well, firstly, it’s very flavoursome food. It’s also very filling – which makes it easier to be mindful of what you eat and to not overindulge. They also tend not to snack between meals and to include walking as part of their lifestyle. Add to this that the French have traditionally made an art out of food preparation and eating. It’s something they take seriously, finding pleasure in relaxing over their meals rather than rushing through them or eating them on autopilot whilst busy with other things – in the car, at work, or in front of the TV/computer.

The past couple of decades has, however, seen this lifestyle starting to fall foul of la restauration rapide épidémie (the fast food epidemic). According to some research, this shift is resulting in a reduction in the number of people maintaining the tradition of two or three sit down meals a day. Even so, it seems the French are still getting things more right than not, with the average body mass index remaining pretty much the same over the past 40 years.

So where to from here for our household? My take-home message from all this was to try to make our lifestyle a little more French, whilst retaining key elements of my favourite eating style (the Mediterranean diet). My new plan is to get retro: go back to taking time to plan the meals for the week, increase our fish and blue cheese (!) intake, use lots of veggies every day and exile fast food / ready meals / snacks (for the most part).

With this in mind, I conducted a mini-audit of our fridge/freezer and pantry yesterday and found a preponderance of fresh food (yoghurt, cheese, eggs, fruit and veg), as well as tinned/dry staples (tuna, lentils, rice, pasta). It looks like my plan won’t really result in much extra shopping – or in that much of a lifestyle change – although cutting back on red meat and eating more fish probably won’t sit too well with the meatosaurus of the family. Perhaps he won’t notice if I wear a beret when I’m cooking… he’ll be too busy laughing 🙂

How about you? What’s your favourite food style?

A friend recently suggested that I launch a Reddit IAmA as a way to make information about my memoir on hip replacements more widely available. Probably, like me, you already know that Reddit is a social news and sharing website. Perhaps you also use it from time to time. If so – or if you aren’t a Reddit-er, then perhaps your first question would also the same as mine: wtf is an IAmA?
reddit ama
Essentially an r/IAmA (I Am A… Ask Me Anything!) is a forum in which to host an online interview session. The interviewee (or Original Poster / OP) puts their topic up on Reddit, with an invitation to the community to literally ask them anything. Anything. On or off topic. It’s up to the OP as to whether they answer all the questions – there’s no obligation, but answering the questions is what generates interest.

‘All you need’, my friend said, ‘is to have a topic that’s uncommon, but central to your life, and that you know a metric crap-ton about. You have that. If you do it well, a r/IAmA might spark interest in the Reddit community and prompt questions (and answers) that might actually prove useful to people – and generate interest in your book.’

Well, since my crap-ton is indeed metric, it sounded plausible – so I decided to look into it. First step was, of course, to finally sign up to Reddit (instead of simply piggy-backing on Himself’s account) and then look into their requirements for launching an AMA.

Hunting around online I came across the reddit: the ask me anything guide, which is very useful. Those that know about such things indicate that the trick is to plan ahead, to talk to the moderators about scheduling the launch of the AMA and, most importantly, to frame the headline so that it’s both brief and compelling. Right.

This is about when I figured out that I’m a bit of a wuss and can’t quite commit to actually doing it… so, instead, I’ll put it out here and see what happens 🙂
nikanddogs_22jun16

Hi , I’m Nik Macdougall.

I fell off a 100 foot cliff and had 9 hip replacements over 35 years. AMA 🙂

When I was about nine or ten years old, my maternal grandparents came to live with us for a while. Grandad was poorly and Gran needed help, so my bedroom became theirs and my kid brother and I shared his very large room. It was no big deal for the two of us – and having the grandparents around was fun.

Perhaps that’s when I first took on board the idea that multigenerational households are a logical way of life for families. Clearly I’m not alone in thinking so. According to the City Futures Research Centre, more and more Australian families are choosing to live this way. For some families this includes adult children who either continue to live at home or move back in for a while, and/or ageing parents or grandparents who move in with their children rather than entering an aged-care facility.

This shift could be happening for any number of reasons, but it seems to me that it’s at least partly a practical response to increasing societal pressures. The job market is uncertain and very mobile, house prices, childcare and living expenses continue to climb whilst wages remain static or, at best, creep up gradually. We’re all living longer, but may not have anticipated the sharp cost increases or our continued longevity. The result in many cases is that superannuation/pension schemes may not provide an adequate income to last the distance.

There are any number of pluses to multigenerational households, such as shared expenses, assistance with child-care and transport, shared cooking and shopping duties, company and conversation, and being able to keep an eye on one’s ageing parents. It also provides ongoing training for children, adults and older people in getting along together, and can narrow the generation gap through sharing.

However, adult children often feel that parents never quite view them as having grown up, which can result in ongoing conflict. Ageing parents moving in with a family may also experience this roadblock. Other issues that could arise are differing needs for quiet, privacy, special diets, personality conflicts, mobility assistance, sharing of chores, and clarifying financial arrangements – to name just a few. If not addressed up front and managed on an ongoing basis, any or all of these things can result in a household imploding.

Whilst I acknowledge that it’s not something everyone might want to do, I believe that the positives of multigenerational households far outweigh the negatives. But it does require ongoing mindful engagement from all parties. As long as the group communicates respectfully, plans and remains flexible, most things can be worked out.

Last year our household grew by three cats, four chicken, a number of quail – and an adult child and her partner. After 11 months they were ecstatic to finally move into their own house – and we were pretty happy to not longer have the noisy (!) chickens in the front yard. But the four of us managed to work around each other pretty well all year, having talked about how to manage issues in advance. It can work 🙂

chickens and mollypup_dec2014

A friend contacted me this week to ask how to get hold of a print copy of my recently published book, Girdle of Bones. Since it’s supposed to be available on Amazon, I went hunting to see if I could locate it for her.

My interwebs hunt was no more successful than hers. Whilst I did find the eBook version (and some great reviews – thanks, folks), I too failed to find the print version. Much frustration and a follow up with Amazon solved the mystery. They’ve tucked it away on their direct print site, making it a tad had to find. If you’re interested, you can track it down here.

Anyhow, in the process of hunting for Girdle of Bones, I happened across an interesting blog on the same subject (joint replacement). It was put together by Steve Blanchard, a retired engineer and photography enthusiast living in Berkshire (Massachusetts), to record his joint replacement journey.

Steve’s blog presents a detailed account of the nuts and bolts of total hip replacement surgery. It’s a first-hand account from the perspective  of someone who has had both hips replaced, and his experience overlaps with my own in many respects. I imagine that he found the process of keeping the blog and updating his progress cathartic – it certainly was for me when I documented my own story.

The way Steve imparts his information show’s the difference in our story-telling outlook. I came to mine from a sociological perspective, embedding the information in a memoir format. Steve’s engineering background has informed his, making it more detailed and analytical. This includes the way he discusses everything from why one might have a hip replacement to pre- and post-operative issues, exercise and pain management.

For anyone about to embark on surgery and wanting some specific, detailed information on the joint replacement experience, I’d suggest that it’s well worth taking the time to have a look at Steve’s blog and following his journey. The information has been well thought out and Steve has been very generous in sharing so much detail.

steve blanchard hipblog

A friend of mine (in her mid twenties) recently confessed that when she left home a few years ago she had absolutely no idea how to cook. Growing up in the US, she’d thought that food ‘made from scratch’ involved packet / instant meals, rehydrated and heated. A meal made from individual fresh ingredients was virtually unheard of. ‘Geez, most of the fresh stuff – vegetables in particular – were a mystery to me the first time I saw them in a store.. I’ve learned pretty much everything I know since moving to Australia, especially in the last year.’

Although on one level I found this astounding – my own experience having been so very different – it also resonated with what I hear from other young (and not-so-young) people I meet. Namely that planning meals, shopping for ingredients, and then making even fairly basic food is not part of their worldview. They acknowledge the reality of the concept, but haven’t the skill set to engage with it on a practical level.

Processed foods, generally loaded with sugars and fats, are relatively inexpensive. Sadly, Australia is following the US trend and fast food outlets are becoming increasingly more accessible than stores selling fresh food. The result is that the combination of convenience, instant satisfaction (sugar high) and not having to plan makes them easy solution for many people.

And that’s what basic food preparation is about at its core. It’s not magic, it’s just planning – and experience.

I think it’s super important to provide our kids with the skills to feed themselves nutritious food made from scratch – and on a budget, since the trend in food prices is always on the rise. So here are some basic tips from when my kids were young:

  • I encouraged them to experiment in the kitchen. We started small, baking cookies together. It was fun – and everyone got to eat the results, which they found very satisfying.
  • From quite early on they started to help with basic food prep for dinner (grating carrots, cracking eggs into a bowl and whisking them, etc.). It entertained them and gave them the first stepping stones to managing in the kitchen independently.
  • Praise worked wonders. I found that it built keen kitchen-helpers and – in the long run – very capable cooks.
  • Show by example that making meals from fresh ingredients can be fun, easy and affordable.
  • Recipes need to be simple to start with – not too many ingredients or too many steps, otherwise it’s simply too daunting.
  • Create a recipe folder for each kid and each time they make something, print the recipe and add it to their file for future use. Boychilde recently told me that he still has his recipe file and continues to use it, 20+ years after we started it together. I’m pretty sure DaughterDearest does too  🙂

Having kids in the kitchen is messy and you could definitely do it more quickly and efficiently without their ‘help’ – at least to start with. But in due course they’ll start to pick up skills, knowledge and confidence. They’ll be able to start cooking meals occasionally and make decisions about grocery planning and what constitutes a balanced meal.

It’s skill building for their future – and it’s no small thing.

helping in the kitchen