The Fast Days Cookbook author Laura Herring shares her top 10 guidelines for making the 5:2 diet work for you
The 5:2 diet is very simple and that’s a big part of its popularity and success, but a few rules – or signposts – will help make everything a bit more enjoyable and easy to slot seamlessly into your lifestyle.
1. Get organised
If you remember only one rule, then this should be it. No one wants to be caught out come 1.15 p.m. after a dull finance meeting that overran, hungry at the sandwich shop. In one moment of weakness, you can derail your whole day. So, PLAN AHEAD. Know exactly what you will be eating and when, so you don’t find yourself running through various food options and getting even hungrier while you work out how many calories your favourite sushi box has.
And if you even suspect you might get the afternoon munchies, then pack a snack. You don’t have to eat it, but it’s there just in case. A majority of the recipes in this book can be packed up and taken with you in your bag so you only need to unpack your picnic come lunchtime or snack bag with the (herbal) tea run.
2. Make sure you have the right tools for the task
Getting organised also means investing in all the right kit – you don’t need a lot, but make sure you have a good set of scales to weigh things out so you get exactly the right number of calories, and also decent lunchboxes and soup flasks so you can take your meals with you. I like those glass boxes you can get now; they’re heavier, but they just seem better for you and your food than warm plastic.
3. Don’t eat depressing food
As I’ve already mentioned, just because you are eating fewer calories, does not mean you should be wasting those calories on flavourless, soulless foods. Make each calorie work hard to earn its place. If you enjoy eating, then you should also enjoy eating on your fast days. Don’t suddenly stop eating real foods. Just learn how to get more bang for your calorie buck by balancing flavour and textures, and introducing a range of ingredients to keep mealtimes interesting. It will make you feel like you’ve eaten something really substantial.
4. Figure out what works for you
And by this, I mean how you spread your calories throughout the day and what days are best for fasting. Give a few options a try: maybe you can get by on only a small lunch and save most of your calories for dinner time, or maybe you really need a solid meal in the middle of the day, but can have a snack in the evening. Maybe Tuesday is a busy day when you’re on your feet until you collapse on the sofa at 8 p.m.; if so, it’s probably not the best day to reduce what you eat.
Make the diet fit into your lifestyle, not the other way round. And remember, lots of the recipes in my book are designed to work with the other people in your life too, so there’s no need to eat alone – just add some rice or pasta, or a baked potato or some crusty bread, and they will get all the calories they need, so you can all enjoy the same meal at the same time. It makes the whole diet day much more pleasant – as well as more realistic.
5. Don’t blow all the good work on non-fast days
One of the huge and lasting benefits of all those fast days is that you will become much more aware of when you are actually hungry even on non-fast days, instead of when you just fancy a snack or think it might be a good idea to have just a little bite to eat while you wait for dinner to cook. Having said that, one of the very best things about the 5:2 is that you know the next day you can eat what you want. Except that, if what you want is a family-sized pizza with extra cheese, then you won’t be seeing the weight loss you hoped for. Just be sensible – you know what you should be eating.
6. Avoid the oil
As soon as you start getting out the pans, you’ll probably also be thinking about using oils or other fats to cook with. When you’re making meals on the 5:2, piling up fresh ingredients is your best bet. But when you do cook – because sometimes you really need a hot meal – then steaming is the most obvious choice. (You can use a steamer, or make little foil parcels with a splash of some kind of liquid in the oven.)
You’ll also find some of the recipes in my book ‘fry’ things in water. Obviously, this is not the most delicious way of cooking your onions, but if those ‘fried’ onions are part of a stew or larger dish that is packed with other delicious flavours, then you really won’t notice – well, certainly not enough to make it worth blowing a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon of olive oil. Occasionally it makes sense to commit a few kitchen crimes.
7. Learn what ingredients give you more bang for your culinary buck
As you increase your intake of fresh vegetables, think about reducing your refined carbs, which as we all know cause blood-sugar spikes and ultimately leave you feeling hungry and tired again sooner. Opt for slow-release carbs, wholegrains, and lean proteins. It’s also important to think about how to balance what’s on your plate. So, as well as the above, aim for an interesting mix of textures – something smooth with something crunchy; a combination of flavours to keep your taste buds interested – and think about using lots of low-cal fresh herbs instead of regular salad leaves, adding a bit of chopped chilli or a grating of fresh ginger or lime zest to give you a flavour boost.
Also, treat yourself with something that seems just too luxurious for a diet day. Prawns (shrimp) feature a lot in this book for that reason (just make sure they are responsibly sourced). They feel like a special treat, but are surprisingly low in calories while being a good protein source, and you don’t need many to feel like you’ve enjoyed something more suited to a feast day.
A grating of Parmesan cheese is another surprisingly good diet day companion as it has such a strong flavour you only need the tiniest amount, but it feels so un-diety. And obviously keep an eye out for hidden calories, like milk in tea – opt for black tea and coffee or even better, herbal or fresh mint.
8. Stock up your store cupboard
As we know, being unprepared is not a 5:2 dieter’s friend. So that you are never caught hungry, keep some essentials on standby – tinned tomatoes can be quickly made into a Basic Tomato Sauce to serve with a little fresh fish, or to which you can add some spices and an egg to turn it into Shakshuka, or leave out the egg and have Bloody Mary Soup, or you can spread it on flatbreads to make pizzas or use it in the Cannellini Bean & Chorizo Stew.
A few tins of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), a packet of quinoa, some prawns (shrimp) in the freezer, fresh herbs – coriander (cilantro), mint, basil – a box of eggs (a loyal 5:2 ally!), lemons and limes, some fresh ginger, harissa paste, chillies and lots of dried spices – cumin, coriander, turmeric and ginger – are my go-tos. Think strong flavours with few calories that you can add to most dishes to quickly boost their flavour profile.
9. Get to know your calories
This one is a bit boring, but once you have a rough idea of what’s what, then you will be well on your way to constructing your own diet day meals and will know in a flash what you should avoid and what you can add more of. Read the backs of packets and use online resources so you start to understand where those calories add up. Know what a teaspoon and tablespoon of those ingredients you use a lot of contain so you don’t have to keep looking them up.
10. Plan long term
Batch cook, freeze and make ahead. These are all helpful when you’re dieting so you don’t find yourself wandering the supermarket aisles on the way home from work eyeing up the 2-4-1 deals on ice cream. Plenty of the recipes in this book are designed to make in larger batches to freeze for a later date, or to make ahead and finish off just before eating. Make sure you have all the right storage equipment and portion everything out carefully – and label and date them. There’s nothing worse than defrosting a mystery block of something to discover that it’s cherry pie filling and not a spicy tomato sauce.