How to embrace junk food in a healthy way with Susan Jane White

    Jane White

    Are you familiar with Susan Jane White? If not, you should be. We at Easy Food are absolutely in love with her fresh, funky and totally achievable approach to healthy and wholesome eating.

    S. J. White embraces the foods we all love – from banoffee and brownies to milkshakes and cake – and revamps them to eliminate much of the refined sugars, wheat and dairy that have become worrisome pillars of the Western diet. As a student, Susan Jane was relying on the staples that many Irish students turn to when the funds are low and the cravings constant – toast, take-outs, cereal and more toast. Throw in plenty of caffeine and a lack of sleep for good measure, and before she knew it, Susan Jane found herself in the hospital with a serious immune disorder. After countless rounds of medications and treatments from a stream of doctors who couldn’t quite pinpoint the source of her body’s shut-down, Susan Jane made the decision to take her health into her own hands. She consulted with a doctor and embarked on a food pilgrimage that helped her discover how closely linked her energy levels were to the food she ate. She cut out all processed foods and her mood, health and indomitable sense of humour returned in full force. Susan Jane is a regular columnist for the Sunday Independent and featured on Jamie Oliver’s FoodTube YouTube channel, as well as the author of two must-read cookbooks, The Extra Virgin Kitchen and The Virtuous Tart.


    How would you describe your cooking ethos?

    I take the hell out of healthy.

    What first inspired you to adopt this mega-wholesome, listen-to-your body way of cooking and eating?

    Looking like Quasimodo… and feeling like a

    rescue dog.

    What are the differences between how Ireland eats now, compared to 10/20 years ago?

    Twenty years ago, pesto wasn’t available in Irish supermarkets. It was a different age on the culinary charts! Life BP – Before Pesto – was probably more nourishing. There was less junk food available, and certainly less aggressive marketing tactics assaulting us when we watched telly. Today, 66% of Irish adults are either obese or clinically overweight. Looks like we have abdicated responsibility for our diet to unscrupulous food manufacturers who market us products that, well, end up making us fat and miserable. I used to think convenience foods made my life easier – until I became very ill. Now I realise that smart people make time to cook. Smart people embrace cooking as an adventure, a love affair. Smart people pay the grocer, not the doctor. 

    What changes do you predict for Ireland’s eating habits in the future?

    I think the next generation will look at the dismembered parts of animals packaged in supermarkets as utterly contemptuous and inappropriate. (Close your eyes, and think about it. Weird, right?!) There will always be a place for our local butcher. But having to pass the meat isle full of severed animal flesh will probably be unacceptable in 20 years time. I’m empathetic with that view.

    I am also hugely hopeful that our government will beef up and do what’s right for our health and our small artisans. Ireland could become one of the world’s greatest exporters of top quality dairy, meat, freshly-milled whole grains and artisanal products. But we can’t do it from the bottom up. We need government backing and financial support to jumpstart this vision into gear.


    Have you had any experiences where steadfast processed-food-addicts are converted to this healthier way of eating and cooking?

    All the time. It’s easy to dismiss healthy food in cafés, as very often it tastes awful. That’s why I wrote my cookbooks – I am a junk food veteran! I want to turn your sugar cravings into a nutritional hit without sacrificing taste. I want to eat badass noodles and feel like a ballet dancer afterwards, rather than a constipated rhino. I’ve made it my profession – sort of like Paul Daniels in an apron, magically hiding things.

    What would you advise to homecooks who are looking to make similar changes to the way they feed themselves and their families?

    Easy! Start with one recipe a week. If you can, make a batch of flapjacks on Sunday to last you through the week. Make a full-flavoured vegetable curry and freeze leftovers in portions for super busy nights. And a batch of PMT brownies to rock your daughter’s week (find a cookery demo of these on my YouTube channel). Embrace Instagram and follow healthy authors like Amy Chaplin, My First Mess, Green Kitchen Stories, The Ghost on my Back, and Dagmar’s Kitchen. It’s like a support network for your New Year’s resolutions! Tune into your Instagram feed every day for visual inspiration and encouragement. Mine is filled with creative images from people I admire, on the same wholesome, positive vibe.

    What have been the biggest benefits to yourself and your family from cooking healthily at home?

    We don’t neck preservatives and artificial chemicals. And everything tastes unimaginably better! We also really enjoy the time together. So what if you make a mess in the kitchen. Clean it tomorrow! Cooking at home is important to my physical and mental health.


    How is this nutritious cooking different from “healthy” food trends that have been on the rise in recent years? 

    Imagine a space where cravings don’t control your every thought, and where energy belts through your veins. This is not a fad for me. It’s a way of life, and doesn’t demand rigid principles. I’m not telling people to give up wheat, sugar and dairy. That would be bonkers. But replacing bread, pasta, croissants and junk with super-nutritious suppers will pay dividends. Huge dividends.

    I’m not saying wheat and dairy are unhealthy. The quantity we consume is definitely unhealthy, even pathological (breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, snacks all seem to have wheat, sugar and dairy, right?). By acknowledging our obsession with these foods, we will naturally reduce our reliance upon them and will open up our eyes to a fabulous fleet of wholesome grains, beans, flours and multicoloured rice that we would not otherwise be exposed to. It’s the opposite of restrictive – it’s incredibly liberating! (Bizarre, eh?!) That’s what my cookbooks do; they open up this world of exciting new ingredients. It’s important for homecooks to branch away from the standard, refined cooking products that have been the go-to for so many years, from refined sugars to processed flours.

    What advice do you have for novice “conscious shoppers” on learning about, looking for and sourcing new ingredients?

    That novice shopper was me, 10 years ago. I used to think that only boring people had time to cook. Turns out, smarter people make time to cook. When I first started eating this way, I tiptoed around health food stores with a mixture of confusion and nervous elation, like an ornithologist sighting a new species of bird. I was busy mourning for Diet Cola Girl. “Jaysus, I could buy a bottle of wine for the price of that stuff,” or “I can’t afford that weirdo flour, it’s three times the price of normal white stuff!” But it’s helpful to remember that, first, we form habits. And then, habits form us. What habits do you want to nourish? Eventually I realised there is nothing restrictive about healthy eating. It’s the opposite. It’s so liberating – a way to escape the shackles of processed food and the excesses of the Wheat-Sugar-Dairy merry-go-round. There are legions of grains, flours and funky beans to experiment with in place of boring pasta and bread. It’s the most thrilling adventure you’re missing!


    Have you had any kitchen disasters when experimenting with new recipes? And if so, what did you learn and how did you recover?

    All. The. Time. It’s great craic. Every disaster, you learn something new. Think of ingredients as friends. They have personalities, and you have to get to know what makes them sing, or what makes them shy. Just like real life, you can burn them from time to time, but then you learn your boundaries! I would say it’s useful to buy an oven thermometer and a timer. I find a Lisa Hannigan album is always a good antidote to disasters; I think of her music like plasters for sore nerves.

    What staples do you always have on hand?

    Chilli. It’s a defibrillator for any boring dish (or house guest). 


    This interview is from the February 2016 edition of Easy Food.