Archive for the Cooking Category

Review: Tesco Diets

Posted in Cooking, diets, exercise, Fitness, General, health, opinion, reviews on July 27, 2011 by Jim St Ruth

Continuing my quest to lose some body fat, two weeks ago I thought I would stump up the £28 for an eight week membership of Tesco Diets.

My aims were simple:

  • Track my calorie intake for eight weeks.
  • Lose body fat.
  • To cook some new recipes (given in the Tesco Diets diet plans).
  • Be more conscious about what I’m eating so that when I come off the diet plan I’ll be more aware of what combinations and quantities of foods constitute over eating/ consuming more calories than I burn.
  • Use the calorie tracking to spot areas of my diet where I can easily, and healthily, cut calories and support my fat loss.
  • To do this in as simple and as hassle free a way as I can – there’s no point in making this a chore.
  • To come up with/ use the meal plan to cook main evening meals that are healthy for me and my partner.

Those are pretty simple aims and when I joined Tesco Diets I was initially very impressed. They offer a wide variety of diet plans, from low GI to mediterranean and low-fat diets, even offering specialist diets for people with diabetes. My first issue came when I was looking through the sample meal plans – a breakfast loaded with fruit and other sugars on a low GI plan isn’t good, and certainly isn’t low GI.

When you sign up, you enter your sex, height, weight – all the obvious things that you’d expect for a dieting tool. Then you set your preferences for imperial or metric weights for you and meal ingredients and as well as being able to say whether you’re diabetic, wheat intolerant or vegetarian, you can also exclude some foods from the meal plans that you simply don’t like. For me, this was eggs, and I was really excited about a system that let me say that; I wouldn’t have to go through and remove scrambled eggs from the meals. The meal plans are created automatically, but you can change both the ingredients and the actual meals themselves. Tesco Diets provides a reasonably long list of meals, and you can search for ingredients to build your own recipes, save them as favourites and get easy access to them at any time – and all the while it tracks your total calorie intake, alongside carbs, proteins and fats. You can also change your diet at any time, and create new meal plans whenever you want.

In these respects, Tesco Diets is extremely interesting for anyone wanting to shed some pounds and, along with the ability to monitor your fruit and veg, calcium and water intake, the focus on eating healthily seems spot on. That you can set aside an alcohol allowance for the week makes it even better; you don’t have to go without the foods you like. Then, as well as a weekly weigh-in and feedback from a Tesco Diets Mentor once a week, there’s a user forum to ask questions and get support from people. If you have a family, or even if there’s just two of you to cook for, you can select to have easily scalable meals in your meal plan, plus budget meals for those of us who need to watch their pennies – like me.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I certainly thought it did… However, beneath an exciting and motivating exterior there are a number of big problems with Tesco Diets that the team either doesn’t seem to want to address, don’t know what to do about, or simply just don’t understand.

Firstly, the meal plans regularly too me over the recommended calorie and fat intakes for a day, and brought me in under the recommended intake for protein. When I spoke to a mentor about this, I was told that things should even out over the course of the week, but I couldn’t help but feel that they should have put more attention into providing recipes and plans that made you follow your intake budgets.

Then, looking at the details of the meal plans, it became apparent that there was often a good 15 – 20 minutes of cooking and preparation for lunches. This is simply idiotic. few people, whether working, looking after the kids, or simply those lucky enough to have the freedom to do what they want, want to spend that amount of time cooking every day. The meals themselves have simple enough recipes to follow, but have items like and orange or an apple tacked on the end because the recipes themselves don’t provide you with your 5-a-day; so the nutritional aspects of the diets feel tacked on. The recipes themselves are a mixture of quite interesting to… to be honest, completely awful and it seems that the people writing the recipes have no idea how to cook.

One recipes for a stew-like meal required a tin of tomatoes to be simmered with herbs and onions for twenty minutes before doing anything with this sauce… why? No meat had been added, so why would you do something like that? Certainly the development of flavours wasn’t a consideration.

My next steps was to say, hands up and be honest, what am I really looking to use Tesco Diets for? I decided on forgetting about new recipe ideas and simply use the system to put in my own meals, track my calorie, protein and fat intake and look for areas where I lower the quantities of carbs and fat that I’m eating. I’m taking medication that has the side effect of weight gain but, although I’m active and healthy enough to have a steady weight, actually weight loss is pretty hard for me.

So, I stripped out all the meal plan suggestions and put in meals of my own; everything for a simple breakfast, salads for lunch and a healthy home cooked dinner, to more convenience foods and ‘throw in the over’ meals like fish fingers, chips and peas. You can easily search for ingredients to build up the components of your meals, but it soon became obvious that actually finding the products I eat wouldn’t be easy.

One of the appeals of Tesco Diets is that it includes both brand and non-brand foods. I don’t regularly shop at a big name supermarket (£1.20 for a whole cucumber, Sainsbury’s? Honestly?), but I do once a fortnight or so for food that I can’t easily get anywhere else without paying for a bus ride that would cancel out any savings I make by not simply dropping into Sainsbury’s. Tesco Diets lists generic brand, but also food from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and M&S amongst others… however, the foods they list are very incomplete, and this is frustrating in the case of Tesco products because the Tesco grocery site holds all the nutritional information for their own products.

After spending a week and a half searching for rough calorie, fat and protein-alikes for food like petit pois, Tesco Salt and Vinegar Crisps, and other obvious  things, I left a message on the forum asking why Tesco Diets doesn’t simply have the data from the Tesco groceries website? The reply state d that if I wanted any specific item added then I should just email one of the nutritionists and ask for it to be added… which kind of defeats the point for me. It seems I can either track things roughly in real time if I go on a Big Supermarket website and search for an item, or I an wait up to twelve hours or them to add last night’s dinner to their database.

For £30 I don’t expect to have to do that. I expect it to already be there… especially since Tesco already have the information for their own products..

It was suggested that, because of my problems finding items and tracking them, that I could switch to the Totals diet, which was completely customisable… and then Ryvita Crackerbreads vanished from the database. The system is so buggy – and so slow – that it seems the content of the database changes according to what diet you’re on. When this is something as obviously diet-friendly as Ryvita, that’s a big problem.

Then came the issue of Preferences. I set measurements for my weight and body to imperial, but my measurements for food to metric. People tend to use one system or the other, and a lot of people (including me) find measurements in their unfavoured system baffling. For me, I weigh food in grams and kilograms and find ounces and pounds confusing, but I always weight myself in pounds or stone, and measure my waist in inches… a little strange, that combination, I admit, but Tesco Diets doesn’t care. It lets you chose whatever you want… except that it doesn’t work.

Some foods were given in grams, as I requested, but no matter what I did some were still given in ounces. I’ve got a set of electronic metric kitchen scales at home, so I have to work things out in my head. This isn’t a big problem, but why give you the chance to set a preference if it doesn’t make any difference. The response from the team basically restated the problem, without realising that it was a problem. That’s no good. Neither is giving food quantities occasionally in ‘portions’.

Tesco Diets still has much to offer the dieter and I’m happy that some people have had great success with the system, but I wanted something that was simple to use for my money and Tesco Diets is just too filled with niggles for me to use. I changed to the Totals diet plan and was presented with things in calories, grams of fat and protein, and a points system that looked superficially similar to Weight Watcher… but on changing to the Totals plan I wasn’t given easy access to information about what that points system meant, or even how many points I was allowed.

There are a number of other niggles to the system, but I’ve covered the main points that were a bother or an annoyance to me. There are many plus sides to the system too, but for me it hasn’t had enough time spent on developing it. I expect those things just to be done right for my cash and, although I’ve fed back my concerns to the Tesco Diets team, I’m not paying for them to have a think and make the changes; they should already me there after having the site set up for a reasonable amount of time.

I cancelled my account, knowing that they don’t give refunds.

I did get one very useful thing from it though: I don’t regularly consume more calories than I burn.

I’ll just forget the calorie counting, pick up the exercise some more, track what I’m eating this week and eat less of it next week. That seems to be the best way forward… it’s just a pity that it cost me £28 in having that concept confirmed.


Oriental Cooking: Ingredients Cheat Sheet

Posted in Cooking on November 7, 2010 by Jim St Ruth

click on the above image to open the full sized version in a new tab/window

Meal Idea: Chicken and Prawn Nasi Goreng

Posted in Cooking on November 7, 2010 by Jim St Ruth

This is a really quick and simple meal to cook – minimal preparation and only ten minutes stood at the cooker. It’s a nice and spicy dish, and you can easily vary the spiciness.

‘Nasi goreng’ simply means fried rice in Indonesian and Malay, so rice is obviously the main ingredient to the dish, and it’s traditionally a left-overs dish. There’s aren’t many ingredients, but it’s pretty healthy and tasty too – and there’s an alternative to the recipe that I use discussed below, depending on just how easy you want this to be.

It’s a really tasty dish, with lots of protein, carbs and around 2 of your 5-a-day.

Serves 2.


  • 3/4 mug of rice – long grain or basmati
  • 1 white onion – diced
  • 2 spring onions, chopped (optional, but adds a bit more to the taste and texture)
  • 2 chicken breasts, cubed (either uncooked or cooked)
  • 14 prawns – enough for 7 each, depending on how hungry you are
  • 1 pepper – chopped as fine as you like, use yellow or red if green peppers are a bit too bitter for you
  • 1 desert spoon of red chilli paste from a jar

Or, make your own paste. A good mix for a sauce with a bit of kick and depth is:

  • 2 level tsp pre-chopped chilli paste from a jar
  • 1 tsp chopped lemon grass from a jar
  • 1 desert spoon of light soy sauce
  • 1 desert spoon of fish sauce
  • 1 good squirt of garlic puree (2 or 3 inches worth)
  • 1 heaped tsp of chilli and shrimp powder (local supermarkets in ethnically diverse areas are your best bet for this)

Mix the above together for your sauce and don’t be afraid to dip your finger in to taste-test… but wash your fingers afterwards. You don’t want to get accidental chilli eyes.

Also, the rice will absorb some of the spiciness, so having it a little too spicy at this point is not necessarily a bad thing.


  • Rice: Pop the rice in a saucepan and put a lot of hot water in – this isn’t like cooking rice for a curry. In that situation you’d want 2 parts water for 1 part rice, then cover and simmer; this allows all the starch that covers the rice to sink to the bottom of the pan as the rice is cooking, and you don’t end up with stiky rice. For fried rice, however, just fill up the pan and cook for around 13-15 minutes.
  • When the rice is cooked, drain using a strainer, then sit the strainer on top of the pan for stability and leave under a running cold tap as you prep the veg. This will rinse the starch from the rice. Empty the saucepan of water every minute or so if you like, this will speed up the rinsing.
  • Leave the rice, drained, to one side until you’re ready for it.
  • Heat up a little oil in the bottom of a large frying pan; the rice is going in there eventually, so you need to make sure your pan is big enough.
  • Fry off the onions until they’re soft, then add the chopped pepper. Cook for a couple of minutes until the pepper softens.
  • Add the sauce and mix it the contents of the pan together; give it 30 – 60 seconds to cook through.
  • Un-cooked chicken – add this now and cook till it looks done. The chicken is cubed, so won’t take long to cook. It will continue to cook as you add the other ingredients, but if you want to make sure just cut open a piece in the pan and see if it’s cooked through.
  • Add the prawns and cook till both sides look pink.
  • Pre-cooked chicken – add this as soon as the prawns look pink. You’re only reheating the chicken if it’s pre-cooked, and you don’t want to over cook the prawns.
  • Add the drained rice and stir through till the rice is hot.
  • Serve!

Meal Idea: Jerk Cod and Prawns

Posted in Cooking on October 27, 2010 by Jim St Ruth

No photo, I’m afraid… will try better next time!

I’ve undertaken most of the cooking at home, as I’m not working it gives my partner more time to do his own thing whilst I’m cooking. I’m approaching 35 and both of us have been trying to look after ourselves much more; but exercise is obviously only part of the equation. Since we started eating more healthily, I’ve noticed a definate improvement in my health – more energy, better sleeping habits and a much better resistance to colds.

Here’s the general meal plan for the week, which on top of the exercise helps to ensure plenty of fruit and veg, protein, and it keeps our saturated fat under control.

  1. 2 x chicken meals
  2. 3 x fish meals
  3. 1 x red meat meal
  4. 1 x meat free meal

I plan our meals a month or two in advance, which helps keep the cost of shopping under control – and helps plan frozen leftovers into our diet for those days when I really can’t be bothered to cook. One of the hardest, yet most fun parts of the meal plan is finding a diverse range of meals that we like, and where we can use the main ingredients for other things. Again, helping on cost and helping to stop our main meals from getting too repetetive.

Living right next to Rusholme and Fallowfield helps – there are plenty of cheaper supermarkets to buy most of the shopping at, with a great range of herbs and spices to go with them… and a bigger supermarket for a few of the things that the smaller supermarkets in Rusholme don’t stock.

So, here’s one of the fish meals that we’re both fond of :

Jerk cod and prawns with carrots and mashed sweet potato.

  1. Take a couple of sweet potatoes, peel them and chop into about 3cm chunks – just small enough so that you don’t have to boil the sweet potatoes for too long.
  2. Start boiling the chopped sweet potatoes – they’ll take around ten minutes to soften.
  3. Chop a large carrot, place in a microwaveable tub (those tubs from chinese takeaways are ideal). Add a little water and get ready to microwave them as soon as you start frying the cod – they take 7 minutes to get soft, but not squishy.
  4. Frozen prawns – cheaper and larger prawns can me found at smaller supermarkets. These don’t need too long to defrost, just 10 – 15 minutes in in a bowl of cold water should do the trick.
  5. Cod stakes – 1 each. Tesco do some great frozen cod steaks in their Low GI range, they’re pretty cheap too. Cook them from frozen, so that by the time they’re cooked they’re flaky but don’t fall apart in the pan.
  6. Find some jerk spices – you can get these at larger supermarkets – and put approx 1 x desert spoon per cod steak in a little oil in the pan.
  7. Fry the cod on a high heat and turn regularly, using a fork to tell when the insides are unfrozen.
  8. While the cod is frying, drain the sweet potatoes and mash them with some butter or spread, adding ground pepper to taste.
  9. Take the cod steaks out and add the prawns to the pan. There should still be a little oil and some already fried jerk spices in the bottom of the pan. Don’t be afraid to add more if you need to, but the spices tend to be hot and a lot of flavour will have been picked up by the oil and the fish.
  10. Wait until the prawns are pink on one side and then turn them over. Because prawns are pretty small, once the whole surface is pink, they’re done – they don’t need very long at all, and it’s very easy to over cook them.
  11. Everything should be ready now, and because the prawns take only a minute, the cod should still be hot.
  12. Serve!

In writing this, I was concious that a lot of people know how to cook, so you’ll know a lot of the information above. When I started cooking, though, I didn’t have much of a clue and, although I’m more confident than I was, I still appreciate thinking through a simple step-by-step plan before I start. Cooking’s generally not hard, and the above idea certainly isn’t, but that extra detail might help those of you who, like me, want to try different ideas whilst building up a bit more confidence.