There is nothing else like it. Merry folk in animal print onesies and high visibility vests united by common cause camaraderie, all carousing on cardboard boxes on a bitterly cauld November night and shouting ‘one more tune!’


It’s been a week since I unleashed my inner DJ at the Rock Trust’s Big Sleep Out – yet I am still buzzing.

The Sleep Out does not claim to recreate homelessness – what it does is to drum up awareness by people giving just one night, sleeping on cardboard, on a cold concrete surface, struggling with the noises of the city and coping the next day with barely any sleep.

I was so thrilled to be out of the house on a Friday night after dark (new mum alert) and overly excited to don the thermals for the silent disco that I rushed to get in a pint. After two sips I…

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Do you know how many community cafés are in Edinburgh? The number changes constantly as cafés open and close, but at the time of writing, there are 50 open and running within the Edinburgh Communit…

Source: The Edinburgh Community Café Network

Energy balance is the term used to describe the energy we consume in our food and drinks in relation to the energy we expend. Energy is measured in calories and if we consume more than we ‘burn’ th…

Source: Energy In Versus Energy Out

Herbs and spices have a traditional history of use around the world, with strong roles in cultural heritage, and in the appreciation of food and its links to health.  Spices are the seeds, fruits, …

Source: Spice Up Your Life

Herbs and spices have a traditional history of use around the world, with strong roles in cultural heritage, and in the appreciation of food and its links to health.  Spices are the seeds, fruits, roots, bark, berries or vegetables that for centuries have been used for flavouring, colouring or preserving foods. They have long been used along with ingredients which are particularly susceptible to spoiling in warmer climates due to their antimicrobial properties. Spices have also been used historically for uses such as medicinal and religious ritual and in beautifying cosmetics or perfumery.

Spices and aromatics fall into specific groups, consisting of, flowers (capers or cloves), berries (allspice, juniper, pepper, sansho or Sichuan pepper, sumac), seeds (anise, caraway, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel… this list is very long), fruits (cardamom, cayenne, chillies, citrus peel, star anise, tamarind, vanilla beans), kernels (nutmeg), roots (horseradish, liquorice, wasabi), rhizomes (galangal, ginger, turmeric), leaves (basil, bay, coriander, curry, kaffir), arils (mace, saffron), bark (cinnamon, cassia), and sap (asafoetida).

Historically, spices have played an important role in health, adding healing or comforting properties to medicine. Even today, the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-clotting, anti-carcinogenic properties of herbs and spices are of particular interest; however, studies show that improvements are often modest when compared to pharmacological medicines. Furthermore, researchers identify and extract bioactive constituents from herbs and spices then administer these as medicines and any health benefits do not necessarily translate over to adding spices or herbs to our dietary cuisine. Foods are eaten in combinations in unmeasured quantities under social, not medical conditions; therefore, it is a real challenge to prove whether herbs or spices really do have specific health benefits.

My colleagues and I are all food and health development workers at Edinburgh Community Food. We feel that giving explicit recommendations of any single food group or culinary ingredients would be remiss unless discussing its place within a healthy balanced diet. However, we do all feel that herbs and spices can be used in recipes to partially or wholly replace less desirable ingredients such as salt, sugar and added saturated fats, for example, marinades and dressings, stir-fry dishes, soups, casseroles and curries and, ever-more-popular (and healthy) Mediterranean-style cooking.

All spices are more aromatic when crushed or ground and to release their fragrance and full flavour, it is best to do this as you use them. Some spices may be used whole, or you can grind by hand with a mortar and pestle, use an electric spice mill or coffee grinder. However, if you don’t have the equipment to grind yourself, don’t be put off, just purchase ground in small quantities (for freshness) replacing them as you use them.  Whether whole or ground, keep them in airtight glass, plastic or tin containers in a dark, cool place, away from light, heat or moisture to prolong their aroma and flavour.

All of the staff at Edinburgh Community Food are pretty keen on cooking with spices and a quick office poll reveals that a ‘basic spice collection would probably include cumin, coriander, chilli, Chinese 5 spices, fennel, ginger, paprika, and turmeric. Nonetheless, remember our tastes are individual and spice is a personal journey of the discovery of flavour. We suggest starting off with buying specific spices for selected dishes, then slowly increasing  your collection while simultaneously deciding what you like and how to marry them with other ingredients. Cooking and eating must be about enjoyment and gastronomic pleasure as well as health: spices, herbs and aromatics can play a central role in all of these.

This article was written for The Speaker Paper, Edinburgh. June 2016.

Energy balance is the term used to describe the energy we consume in our food and drinks in relation to the energy we expend. Energy is measured in calories and if we consume more than we ‘burn’ then we will be in positive energy balance and, over time, we will gain weight. Conversely, if we ‘burn’ more energy than we consume, we will be in negative energy balance and, over time, we will lose weight. It sounds incredibly easy, so why do so many of us get it wrong?

Unfortunately, in today’s so-called ‘obesogenic environment’, each side of the energy balance scale is too easily tipped one way or the other. This is largely blamed on modern urban environments. On one side of the scale, there is the increased availability of calorie-dense foods and drinks —due mainly to a rise in restaurants, takeaways, and convenience foods. On the other side of the sale cars are preferred over walking; lifts and escalators over stairs and, of course, there’s the workplace —where sedentary jobs have replaced — energy consuming — physical labour. It’s no wonder that many of us consume more energy than we expend without even realising it.

One thing we at ECF are often asked is, “how many calories do I need to eat each day?” Is there a definitive amount that we can advise people to consume? The short answer is no. Daily calorie requirements are based on many aspects, and no two people are the same across all of these factors. If we all followed exactly the same diet and calorie intake as each other, some of us would gain weight while others would lose some.  Genetics play a small part but more significant are gender and body composition. Lean body tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue, therefore, requires more energy. Men generally have a greater percentage of lean body mass than women and, therefore, require more energy. Physical activity can increase lean body mass which too can lead to requiring more energy. This is where weight bearing exercise and increasing our muscle mass can be really beneficial when it comes to energy balance. It’s also worth remembering that the rules differ for children who are in energy balance when the energy in and out supports natural growth without promoting excess weight gain.

Dietary guidelines broadly recommend a daily intake ~ 2,500 calories for men and ~2,000 calories for women. But these figures are general and there are many factors that should be taken into account when assessing personal needs in maintaining a healthy body weight. One thing often forgotten is that these guidelines for calorie requirements are coupled with physical activity guidelines. Adults aged 19-64 should try to be active daily and include at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week along with two or more days per week of strength exercises. Only then does the 2,500/2,000 number fit.

To do this, you don’t need to count every calorie, but be more mindful of the calorie content of the foods and drinks that you consume. Drinks are particularly important and although the obvious culprits are sugar-sweetened drinks, others such as fruit juices or milky coffees can also increase our daily calorie intake, especially as they all now come in larger sizes.

Your energy in and out doesn’t have to balance every day. It’s about having a balance over time (weeks and months) that will help you stay at a healthy weight for the long term. We could think of energy balance as “lifestyle budgeting” where if we know we’re going to be consuming lots of high-calorie food, then we might eat fewer calories during the days before. Or, we could increase our physical activity level for the few days prior or after to burn off that extra energy.

Knowing the calorie content of foods can be a useful tool and this is stated on the packaging in the nutrition label under the “Energy” heading. But take care, the manufacture’s idea of “one portion” may differ from yours, and there could be many more calories in the portion you serve yourself.  Often restaurants and takeaways publish energy information on their menus or websites although this can sometimes be tricky to find so don’t be shy about asking them.

Preparing your own food and increasing your fruit and vegetable intake can help reduce the energy we consume. Thinking about what we’re eating in relation to our whole diet. While eating starchy foods should make up a third of our overall diet, where possible, we could go for slow-burning wholegrain or wholemeal varieties. These release energy gradually which can reduce between-meal-snacking. The same can be said for fruits and vegetables, eat more and eat it complete (don’t juice). Again, the nutrients and energy will be released slowly while the fibre will keep us sustained.

If you are gaining weight, or if you find your clothes are getting tighter, then you’re consuming more calories than your body requires. Therefore, to prevent further weight gain, you need to either cut your energy intake or increase your energy output by ‘burning’ calories via physical activity, preferably both. It’s much easier to nudge both sides of the energy balance scale rather than significantly change one.

This article was written for The Speaker Paper, Edinburgh, April 2016.

Do you know how many community cafés are in Edinburgh? The number changes constantly as cafés open and close, but at the time of writing, there are 50 open and running within the Edinburgh Community Café Network. Some of these cafés are well established and have been running for years while others are only open if and when they have volunteers to run them.

The Community Café Network is supported by Edinburgh Community Food and aims to raise awareness of all the community cafés in Edinburgh, striving to bring the different cafés together in an effort to increase the community café brand. As a network, we aim to share skills, training and knowledge as well as try to increase the impact the different cafés have within their various communities.

A community café usually will address issues around sustainability, community cohesion and inclusion. It may be a revenue earner for its community, offer training opportunities, and/or be a focal point for centre users and local people. Many cafés are situated within community centres operating within a hub that serves the local community. Some are housed in churches, where they serve the local congregation and wider community. Others are contained within sports clubs or leisure centres and offer refreshments to those taking part in activities as well as their chaperones. Ultimately all community cafés strive to provide a clean, welcoming and safe environment for a wide range of community groups. They offer food and drinks at affordable prices in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere; ultimately they are sociable places that are absolutely inclusive helping reduce isolation. While some cafés provide this for the communities in their immediate geographic location, others operate as a hub for specific groups who travel to its location.

Autism Initiatives is a UK-wide charity that has two cafés in Edinburgh. The Café on the Corner helps support adults on the Autism Spectrum. They not only raise awareness of Autism but by creating occupational placements they help those on the spectrum improve confidence and learn new skills within a work environment. Their other café is set in the Braid Hills which along with serving food and drinks, The Hermitage is a centre which includes a dance studio, therapy room and even a 12 hole golf course. They have developed activities which provide a focus for adults with autism as well as the local and wider community.

The Hub Grub Café is an excellent example of a café operating within a community centre that is providing support for local people. This café serves its public from Monday to Friday as well as running a lunch club, providing older adults with transport to the centre followed by lunch. The Restalrig Lochend Community Hub offers an incredibly wide array of services to all of the differing members of the East of Edinburgh.

The Broomhouse Café Training Project is used as a café facility for people from the local and wider communities; they provide meals during lunch clubs which provide nutritious two-course meals to groups who would otherwise be susceptible to isolation and loneliness. They not only run the café within the centre (which itself runs around 10 community projects for local older adults, young people and carers) they also runs the Crescent Kitchen, a training kitchen which offers outside catering as well as in-house buffets.

Many of our community cafés promote healthier eating and 10 have successfully achieved the NHS HealthyLiving Award.  Furthermore, 20 cafés have received NHS training in being Breastfeeding Friendly. Some of these cafés are even hosting mums2mums peer support meetings. If you want to know more about which cafés have achieved these awards, go to the website, twitter or Facebook pages.

Cafés are all staffed in different ways. Some have paid managers as well as volunteers, while others will run solely on volunteers. Volunteering itself comes in varying levels of knowledge and abilities. In most cafés, volunteers are central to the running of the enterprise and in return, cafés can provide volunteers with experience for a CV or developing new skills.

As there are 50 cafés running in Edinburgh at the moment, it is impossible to mention them all on here.  If you want to find a café near you or find out what different cafés have on offer then have a look on the network’s website on Twitter @EdinComCafeNet and on Facebook Edinburgh Community Cafes

However, if you’re not online look out for our Edinburgh Community Café Coffee Cup window sticker which all of our cafés display proudly.

This article was written for The Speaker Paper, Edinburgh, February 2016.