Maintaining a calorie deficit is no joke. Between July 2015 and June 2016 I was consuming no more than between 1200-1400 calories a day while attempting to shed (what became) 24kg of weight. There were, obviously, exceptions to this rule – though surprisingly, I didn’t surpass my calorie allowance on my birthday or Christmas – but the majority of my days were in significant deficit, all faithfully tracked on MyFitnessPal.
There are people who will disagree, but eating this way is actually quite exhausting. It makes work of what should be instinctive, turns meals into maths, and I found it very difficult to cook from my extensive cookbook collection simply because the calorie counts weren’t there, and sometimes it was too tiring and daunting to run it through MyFitnessPal’s recipe calculator only to discover it was well beyond my daily limit: the after-work conundrum of what to cook was magnified. On the other hand, I did need to eat with a very prescribed calorie limit in order to lose the weight I wanted to lose. This problem led to me buying up a lot of healthy-eating orientated cookbooks, the kind which are actually aimed at dieters and so will print the nutritional values on the recipe pages as a matter of course. (It also led me to multiple clean eating cookbooks. Enough said on that phase). While in this phase, desperately seeking inspiration, I found ‘Greedy Girl’s Diet’ in a charity shop and, after a bit of anxious leafing, was drawn in by the promise of quick meals where the hard work of calorie counting had been done for me.
I’d heard of Nadia Sawalha, the author of the book, but mostly know her as a winner of Celebrity Masterchef, and didn’t realise she was an actress (having acted in EastEnders, that perennial soap classic) and broadcaster prior to this. Notwithstanding popular cliches to the contrary, the cover of the book (see above), and it’s title and subtitle, really do say everything about what it will offer: a slim, happy Sawalha beaming, dressed in a (reasonably slinky) Little Black Dress, propped on the kitchen counter, whisking up what looks to be cupcakes, and the promise that you can ‘eat yourself slim with gorgeous, guilt-free food’. So this book is really, definitely, absolutely, unequivocally, aimed at women, then.
The introduction confirms it – in ‘My Secret’ Sawalha covers her dieting history, basically a potted history of “starving, bingeing, starving, bingeing and then starving and bingeing all over again, to no avail” and following every touted ‘miracle solution’ to the problem of an imperfect body, which, she verifies, have not worked for her. My own weight loss history is different – I have gained significant amounts of weight twice in my life as follows: I enter a stressful period of my life, eat to comfort myself, and then one day wake up loathing myself. I couldn’t entirely relate, but I think aspects of this story will resonate for most women. It was only when Sawalha realised she should be nourishing, not punishing, her body, that her approach to eating began to change. She also writes in a separate section about her relationship with exercise, characterised by dread, laziness and fear, and how she realised that, in order to start exercising, she would have to…start exercising. When I was very overweight, walking into the gym full of toned, ab-flashing women who were so expert on the machines made me tense and trembley, so yes, I could relate to this!
Moving on from the confessional, sisterly tone – you will like it or not, but you don’t have to read it either way – and on to the recipes, there are three sections: Come on, Break that Fast, which covers both quick weekday breakfasts and recipes more suited to weekends; Let’s Do Lunch, meals I characterise as slightly lighter and quicker, and Delicious Dinner.
Personally I found the breakfast section the least inspiring. There are some nice recipe in there – I liked the berry pancakes, wide-awake seed bars and buckwheat pancakes – but most of them were not to my taste (scrambled egg and smoked trout, egg and bacon tomato pots) or weren’t really recipes, but more ideas (avocado toast, boiled eggs and soldiers, almond butter crumpets – literally just toasted crumpets and almond butter, but the recipe takes up a full page!). However, when it comes to breakfast I am one of those people who is very tied to a routine of eating the same things on a daily basis, punctuated by the occasional weekend variation, so for me, personally, this wasn’t so much of an issue. If you’re struggling to break out of a cereal and toast rut, however, other books may be better.
Things did look up when it came to lunch. There’s a decent range of soups, which is important to me in almost any book, not just diet ones, because soup is what I typically take to work with me on a daily basis. Some of the recipes worked very well and were flavourful and filling, as advertised; the leek and potato soup, however, was miserably thin and could only really serve four if the four you were serving are very young children with tiny appetites (in fact its watery texture and pallid colour made me think of gruel, the Victorian invalid/workhouse staple). It didn’t fuel me at all and reminded me of ‘traditional’ diet food (the kind that sends you straight to the biscuit tin). However, the hearty Italian soup and the Marvellous minestrone (superlatives are common throughout the book) were brightly flavoured and kept me going for hours, so I can forgive the vichyssoise blip. Other lunch ideas were more suitable for someone who is lucky enough to work from home, such as the Lamb and Hummus pitta (I cooked it on a weekend), but, that being said, it was one of those punchy, filling dishes so full of flavour and texture that it truly belied the idea of diet food. It uses only 100g lean lamb for a recipe serving four but it was truly enough.
As with the breakfast recipes, the salad recipes were not really up my street, although the two I did try- chicken and avocado and beetroot and potato – were good enough. My boyfriend particularly raved about the chicken and avocado salad, which contains bacon (I do not really like chicken but I did like the dressing and avocado). The nice thing about this diet book is that you’re totally allowed to be eating bacon, chorizo, potatoes and cream – just used very moderately.
Most of the lunch recipes can be pulled together fairly snappily; the more time-consuming ones are appropriately under the heading of ‘Family Sunday Lunch’, albeit a small family; the recipes largely serve four. Most of them, again, were solid and definitely suitable for sharing, although the vegetarian comfort pie, a dish of stewed celery topped with mashed potatoes without butter, did not tempt me. It sounded a surprisingly austere and traditional note of deprivation and seemed quite old-fashioned amidst the pork meatballs and za’atar chicken and chicken tagine, so appetising and very delicious.
The Delicious Dinner chapter similarly includes different themes, including of course family-orientated recipes (serving four), such as Sinless Spaghetti Bolognaise (the twist is the use of turkey mince and addition of mushrooms) and Creamy Chicken Curry in a Hurry, a somewhat old-fashioned and unchallenging curry recipe which Sawalha admits is not one she would serve to guests. Based on korma paste, I imagine it’s a dish even the pickiest of children would eat. There’s also a chicken shawarma recipe which surprised me with its inclusion of gum mastic in the ingredients: despite the rise and rise of Middle Eastern food in the UK, this is still not something you can buy in standard supermarkets. Slightly fancier recipes are included in the ‘Dinner Party Goddess’ sub-section, including my stand-out dish of the book, the Prawn and Chorizo Rice Pot, which stretches 70g of chorizo among four diners in a way which will leave everyone satisfied. This dish is quick, it is utterly delicious, it combines my favourite things of prawn and chorizo and it clocks in at 367 calories per serving: I have made it many times and my boyfriend loves it, too. Finally, there’s a sub-section on ‘Dinner for Two’, which is always helpful for me given that typically I am serving just two. This section included such pleasing dinners as Coconut, Prawn and Mangetout Curry (Sawalha’s healthier remake of a takeaway dish, apparently!) and Lemony Risotto. The portions were generous and satisfying – in fact, the Tandoori Chicken recipe resulted in more chicken than I could eat, though this might speak more to my slightly reluctant relationship with chicken than anything else.
On the whole this is a very ‘accessible’ cookbook, by which I mean virtually every ingredient, with maybe two exceptions throughout the entire book, could be bought in a bog-standard supermarket; many of the ingredients could be ‘sourced’ from a corner shop or petrol station outlet if that’s all you had. However, sometimes this impulse to make things approachable rather than authentic does go too far, as when Sawalha calls for tinned crabmeat for her chilli, crab and lemon spaghetti. In fairness she does suggest using fresh rather than tinned in the head note, and do follow her advice: the tinned variety was an absolute abomination. It tasted like the smell of cat food. I am really not ‘above’ tinned fish – I am rather fond of tinned salmon, especially eaten with cut up fresh tomatoes and chips, as served in my grandparents’ home – but tinned crab just does not taste very nice. It would have served the book better if Sawalha had just acknowledged that this recipe should be made with a fresh, slightly more expensive shellfish.
My main quibble with a number of the recipes is that, for all that this is a diet book, Sawalha actually uses much more oil than would actually be needed – I’ve cut the oil asked for by as much as a third in her recipes and did not feel that they suffered. I was also not hugely delighted by the reliance on artificial ‘light’ products (such as light butter, light cream) in some recipes, but this was admittedly limited and understandable, given the publication’s raison d’etre.
Is this a must-have cookbook? I’m not so sure. Has it produced a series of solid meals, some of them outright delicious, which enabled me to stick to a restricted calorie plan without feeling deprived? Yes, most definitely. All diets require some element of balancing out, and this cookbook would help with that even if you’re not quite calorie counting on a regular basis. The recipes are accessible and the ingredients easy to get hold of. It is not a groundbreaking tome, but it is, barring exceptions, a reliable source for weeknight dinners, some of them very delicous and some reasonably unremarkable but good enough to eat. Whether that’s enough to give it a place on your bookshelf depends entirely on your priorities.
A full round-up of every recipe I cooked from the book will be posted soon.