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I’m a key worker, get me out of here! | Food

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As I lunched on a packet of ready-buttered Soreen malt loaf, bought from a deserted WHSmith at London City Airport, I was visited again by gentle, yet nevertheless saddening end-of-the-world vibes. Not that Soreen doesn’t make a fine emergency snack: I could hurl that dark, squidgy goodness down my gullet by the yard.

The fact is that, in normal times, finding food on the go is never difficult. Airports are especially adept at removing money from my wallet, catering to my whims and lulling me into that hazy sweet spot when mealtimes are irrelevant and it seems perfectly normal to be slurping Wagamama ramen and drinking sake at 7am. Because why not? It must be dinner time somewhere.

But on this particular day at City Airport, almost everyone involved with the country’s food industry was furloughed, on very reduced hours or had been let go in the latest round of downsizings. Travelling around Britain for work during the pandemic, I’m reminded constantly of how curious and muted a land is without restaurants, bars and cafes.

Love or loathe the likes of Pret, Costa Coffee and Yo! Sushi, but their neon lights would glow as I walked along high streets, through shopping malls or to my aeroplane, signifying that human life was here and that everyday life was functioning. Lights on in a distant Pret have saved my sad soul on more than one occasion, as I’ve fallen through the door and taken the last pea and mint soup. I now often wonder if normal will ever happen again.

Perhaps not if the only people permitted to travel are individuals such as myself, who are providing “vital services”. I know, stop laughing. My family has been in light hysteria about this for weeks now. It’s almost as if they do not take seriously the notion that filming television shows for the Christmas schedule is akin to, say, performing open heart surgery or tending to the Large Hadron Collider. Yet it appears I am a vital service, so sleep easy, Britain.

I set off to Belfast with paperwork permitting me to spend meaningful time with both John Humphrys and Joe Pasquale (yes, really), while still lacking the go-ahead to visit my own father in a care home. In normal times, of a Saturday in Belfast, I’d head to Ox, Coppi or The Muddler’s Club for dinner, taking full advantage of this beautiful, burgeoning city, which, over the past decade, has grown into a prosperous, joyous place with a thriving food scene and a youthful population.

Instead, I pocketed two boxes of Graze’s chilli and lime cashews in case my Belfast hotel was legally unable to serve me dinner. On the Saturday I arrived, the Northern Irish hospitality industry was awaiting guidance to see if they could reopen in six days’ time, as had been tentatively planned. As it happened, almost the whole of the following week ticked by with landlords and restaurateurs begging for clarity as to whether they should stock pantries, fill cellars and put staff back on rota, with no word coming until, on Thursday, they were told no. It’s a similar tale wherever I go.

At Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel, it turned out that a chef was allowed to be on site, and he made me a wonderful sweet potato curry with rice and a vegan chocolate brownie. It felt like love on a tray.

“May I have a glass of red wine, too?” I asked when I placed my order.

“No alcohol is being served in the hotel,” I was reminded, very sweetly.

“But, but… I am alone, in my room,” I mewled. “What can I possibly get up to?”

But rules are rules, and I duly respected them. The following day, like a naughty child, I took matters into my own hands and bought my own supply from a WineFlair, an old-school offie I found down a side street, which had a glorious, tin can, spilled vodka and crisp packets smell. It took me right back to the 1980s, when, being the talleest of my teen friends, I’d be despatched to buy Cinzano Bianco wearing Panstik and high heels.

Now here I was, many, many years later, the restaurant critic for the Guardian, buzzing on WineFlair’s bell to be let in to buy what ended up being a warm bottle of Blossom Hill merlot. I grabbed a bag of Frazzles and a double Snickers to add to my emergency suitcase larder, too, because what I’ve learned while travelling about Britain is not to assume there will be food everywhere, and to buy willy-nilly whenever you need it.

As I tried to leave WineFlair, I realised the manager had locked the doors while I was perusing. “Stops folk robbin’,” he explained deadpan. Sometimes, as an extremely vital key worker, I just don’t get the respect.


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A taste for bite-size: the psychology of learning in smaller bursts | Fast master

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Young woman learning knitting






Short videos are good for learning, as is repeat watching.
Photograph: Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

You’d think being forced to stay at home for extended periods of time would have given us the perfect excuse to finally catch up on all the epic films we’ve put off watching for years and to whiz through the Tolstoy classics collecting dust on our bookshelves.

Instead, for many of us, this year has been marked by concentration killers such as anxiety and the stress of extreme multitasking as we juggled working from home with home schooling our kids and keeping our households safe.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that bite-size formats and short bursts of activity have proved so popular. After all, people often find it easier to absorb new information in smaller chunks – from snappy social media videos to language apps that deliver a small daily dose of easy-to-understand new words and phrases.

Learning in short bursts has a long history. Paper flashcards are thought to date to the early 19th century when the author Favell Lee Mortimer pioneered the concept. But why exactly is bite-size – or micro – learning so helpful? Is it simply because we find it increasingly difficult to focus in our new age of multitasking and distraction? Or is there something more fundamental about the human brain that comes into play?

Firstly, our brains crave novelty. “If we see something new and different, our brains get stimulated with dopamine,” says Stella Collins, chief learning officer at Stellar Labs, which creates science-based training programmes for blue-chip companies. The more visual the better, she adds, citing research from neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which found that our brains can identify an image seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

Short is sweet for tasks that require us to learn simple skills, such as rewiring a plug. But it also helps to break down more complicated tasks into more manageable parts. “A series of short videos might be a really good way to help people learn a more complex process such as making a cake,” says Collins.

Length matters because when the clock is ticking, the information being presented is more likely to be clear and unambiguous, says Jonathan Solity, director of Optima Psychology, a consultancy that creates research-based teaching programmes. However, he cautions that seeing something once isn’t usually enough. “The more often you recall something and see something, the more often your brain is persuaded that this is useful information to remember.” This is known as “spaced repetition”, and it explains why flashcard revision while cramming for exams can work for many people.

Mother teaching how to make paper crafts to her kids while working with laptop in the living room.



Learning a new skill is made easier by breaking it up into small steps. Photograph: kohei_hara/Getty Images

Collins points out that this makes shorter formats, which can be easily reread or rewatched, particularly useful: “Repeat watching is really good for learning – otherwise, if you watch a series of videos, you might remember the first and last ones but not the ones in between. Spaced repetition is really useful.”

Ray Jimenez, chief learning architect at the California-based Vignettes Learning, adds: “We learn incrementally, one piece of information at a time. We also learn recursively, repeating things until we learn them.” However, Jimenez – whose book, 3-Minute e-Learning, informs his work helping global companies condense their training programmes – draws a crucial distinction between practise and repetition, and emphasises the importance of the former. “Learning, for me, doesn’t mean retaining and memorising a concept, but doing and applying something,” he says.

He isn’t alone. “For microlearning to be effective, you need to be able to show yourself that you are actually learning. You need to be able to use what you have learned,” says Kirstie Greany, a learning consultant at Elucidat, a Brighton-based business that provides a platform for companies to create their own e-learning programmes. She has noticed a shift towards shorter content, as well as video content. She says the snappier, the better: “Less than three minutes is good.”

Experts put this year’s acceleration of these trends down to the pandemic, which is forcing people to learn new tricks in less time just to cope with our changed day-to-day lives. Tara Walsh, the director of engagement and innovation at Belfast-based Makematic, which creates educational videos, says: “Bite-sized learning right now fits in with all the other stuff people are doing. You learn something as you need it, so you don’t want it to be big and bulky.”

Solity says the reason for the mushrooming popularity of social media platforms such as TikTok, which hosts a seemingly endless array of snappy instructional videos, is because what it’s providing is “really, really useful”.

Indeed, while many people associate TikTok with dance challenges, the platform’s 60-second video format has lent itself to a wealth of bite-size how-to content – from language lessons to knitting and macramé-ing a plant holder.

As Jimenez says: “Technology is supporting the way we naturally learn.”

Explore the world of TikTok and discover the joy of learning new things in shorter bursts. What will you #LearnOnTikTok?


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Can TikTok help me teach old cats new tricks? | Fast master

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People think that cats can’t be trained. They’re wrong. Through careful coaxing and iron patience, I have drilled my cats to stop taking bites out of my mashed potato. They no longer wake me up at the crack of dawn by leaping on to my face. And thanks to my persistence, they are regular, enthusiastic users of the cat flap. Particularly at night when it’s locked and they bash their paws against it like amateur feline bongoists.

But this is where my cat-training prowess plateaued – I couldn’t manage to take things to the next level. I did buy a tedious 700-page book that promised feats such as teaching your moggy to sit. I tried random websites’ impressive-sounding tutorials on high-fiving, vaulting and convincing cats to happily don a harness and be walked like a dog. But, invariably, my cats would stray from the plan and I’d be left scouring 800 words of text for a solution. What did my efforts actually teach them? That there’s no better time to steal snacks than when your confuddled owner is staring at his or her phone or into a book. So I gave up.

Until today. Now, I am armed with the teachings of School for Cats – a series of TikTok videos, each one around 20 seconds long, making it easy to refer to while training my two beloved feline companions. There’s Mochi, a three-year-old tabby and highly strung madam. Also Poirot, an elaborately moustachioed and insanely rambunctious five-month-old kitten. They’ll be taught separately, though, because – to put it mildly – they are not the best of friends, and it’s difficult to conjure up an informative educational atmosphere in the middle of a fist fight.

Alexi and Poirot



Mochi



Quote: 'She stares balefully at me - her sad, wide eyes dripping with betrayal'



Day one of training starts well as a super-keen Poirot turns up wearing an elegant tuxedo (which, admittedly, he always does thanks to his black and white fur pattern). But I quickly learn that some of these skills might well be beyond my cats. I’d thought that “lay down” would be the ideal trick to teach a pair of cats that border on narcoleptic. However, when I try gently pushing Mochi into a lying position, she stares balefully at me – her sad, wide eyes dripping with betrayal. Poirot thinks we’re roughhousing, so uses my hand as a scratching post.

Another trick, known as “paw” or “shake”, involves getting your cat to give you a high-five by offering them a treat. However, Poirot just ends up biting my fingers until I drop the treat in pain. I move on to the tutorial over”, in which a compliant cat jumps over an owner’s foot. Mochi, being the contrary moggy that she is, instead learns how to slide under my leg.

However, when I find the right trick, I am genuinely astonished by the results. The 360-degree turn that is “spin” is a hit with both of my cats. Not only do they quickly comprehend that they’re meant to follow a treat around in a circle but, after a couple of sessions, they even start following my empty hand in the hope of being rewarded afterwards. Which is the first time I have ever managed to get my cats to do anything without food-based bribery. I mean, if I’m honest, it’s also one of the few times I’ve managed to make them respond to instructions with anything other than a sarcastic narrowing of the eyes. So it’s a double win.

What’s more, the training for a trick called sit pretty genuinely becomes one of Poirot’s favourite things in the world. Apparently, standing up on his hind legs to reach for a treat is the absolute pinnacle of exciting playtime for a kitten. Hours after one training session, my wife inadvertently points at Poirot during conversation, causing him to leap four feet into the air on to her finger. So successful it is, I’m tempted to rename the trick “fly, my pretty”, or “rocket launch”, or “TAKE COVER! INCOMING CAT!”

Alexi and Mochi



I’m chuffed. Initially, because the training exercises are a lot of fun. They’re simple to follow, easy to refer to during training and perfect for a creature that has a five-second attention span. Plus, they suit the cats.

But, eventually, I come to appreciate them for something I hadn’t anticipated. They’ve had lovely consequences for my relationship with my pets. It was fairly predictable that Poirot would take to it, given that he’s an excitable, pliable kitten. But Mochi’s response has been a revelation. She has spent the past two hours sitting next to me on the sofa, just watching me operate a Word document. She’s even begun hopping on to my lap for a snooze – something unheard of since the honeymoon period of her moving in with us. If I’d known that teaching her to spin in circles would make her this content, I’d have done it months ago.

Frankly, there’s only one small disappointment in this whole process. No matter how much I scroll, there is one thing I can’t find. Seemingly, School for Cats has no lessons on how to stop your pets playing your cat flap like a bongo.

Explore the world of TikTok and discover the joy of learning new things in shorter bursts. What will you #LearnOnTikTok?


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10 ways to maintain all-round wellbeing this winter | All together

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Senior couple enjoying playing with their grandchildren on the beach. Its cold outside so they are wrapped up warm.






Getting outdoors is the best way of blowing away the cobwebs.
Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

As we stare down the barrel of winter with the added pressure of new lockdown restrictions, there’s never been a more pertinent time to focus on our wellbeing. For many, the unprecedented nature of this year has had a negative effect both physically and mentally, but with the end of the year fast approaching and the promise of a fresh start in 2021, now is a great time to give mind, body and soul a much needed overhaul.

“This year, few of us have looked after ourselves the way we deserve to be looked after,” says personal fitness and strength trainer Matt McCormack (@mattmccormackpt). “Due to no fault of our own, we’ve neglected to give our bodies what they need, and anxiety and stress levels for many have been understandably sky-high. The temptation may be to put off making changes until the new year, but now is actually the ideal time to toughen up our bodies if we want to face the winter and life’s next chapter in the best possible shape.”

So whether your aim is to feel trimmer, stronger or happier, the time is now – and yes, whatever the weather.

1 Give booze a break
If that sounds like a ridiculous suggestion with the festive season just around the corner, you don’t have to go completely dry as a bone, but a more mindful approach to how much – and what – you’re drinking could make a huge difference to your physical and mental health. “We all know that drinking to excess isn’t great for our bodies, so implementing some small changes to your drinking habits is really beneficial,” says nutritionist and founder of LunchboxDoctor.com, Jenny Tschiesche.

“Try swapping some of your weekly alcoholic drinks for something like kombucha, which still feels special, treat-like and is very on-trend.”

When choosing a non-alcoholic drink, keep an eye out for the sugar content – check the label and choose those drinks that are green for sugar when you can. It’s also a good option to aim for some entirely alcohol-free days throughout the week, so try downloading Public Health England’s Drink Free Days app, which can be found on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

2 Keep a journal
Move over meditation, there’s a new tool in town to achieve a clearer, happier mind: writing. According to some mental health professionals, keeping a journal
is one of the best ways to release mental blocks, understand your feelings and attain your goals. You may have kept a daily gratitude list to remind yourself of things to feel thankful for, but trying a more expressive approach to writing can be a way of hacking into the deepest parts of the brain, helping us recognise our needs.

Invest in a nice notebook and aim to write for 10-15 minutes each morning. Think of how you’re feeling, what you’re worried about, someone you’re angry with, hopes for that day – and see what comes out.

Young woman sitting at home writing on note padPortrait of a young woman sitting at home writing on note pad



Keeping a journal is one of the best ways to release mental blocks. Photograph: m-imagephotography/Getty Images/iStockphoto

3 Download a fitness app
Sometimes we all need a helping hand, so why not lean on an app? Whether it’s to track your diet, plan a workout or record your daily physical activity, checking in with your phone or smartwatch is a great way to help you keep on top of your health and fitness goals – and set new ones when the time is right. “I see it all the time with my clients, especially during this time of the year,” says McCormack.

“They lose track of what they’re eating or drinking, which then spirals into bad choices and habits, quickly followed by negative thoughts. But using a fitness app is a brilliant and simple way to regain some control and keep your health and fitness in order.”

Apps such as MyFitnessPal are free to download and can help you keep an eye on what you’re eating, the number of steps you’re doing, and even make everything feel more manageable, which is often half the battle.

4 Get a flu jab
With the spread of Covid-19, it’s easy to forget that it’s also important to protect yourself against the flu – especially so if you’re in a high-risk category for coronavirus, as research has shown you’re more likely to get seriously ill if you get the flu and contract coronavirus at the same time.

The good news is that by getting a flu jab, you’ll help reduce pressure on the NHS and social care staff who may be dealing with the pandemic. Changes including social distancing, hand washing and wearing protective equipment have now been made to ensure it’s safe to get your flu jab at GP surgeries and pharmacies, so go and book one in for peace of mind.

Happy retired man talking on the phone at home.



Staying in touch with friends and loved ones can make a big difference to our wellbeing. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

5 Seek out support
Winter can be lonely. Anything from weather conditions to potential restrictions due to the pandemic could keep us from loved ones this festive season. Plus the reduced sunlight can reduce our body’s production of serotonin, potentially making us feel low and more alone.

Kate Lucey, author of Get a Grip, Love, says that right now we need to make the effort to talk to each other – but with our voices and not just a WhatsApp or text message.

“We’ve become a bit scared of phone calls,” she says. “Don’t plan it, just dial. Send a voice note if they don’t answer, and even if you have to play phone tag you’ll get there eventually. Voice action is so much more nourishing than a message.”

Conversation keeps us feeling connected so make a list of three people a day that you could contact – and make it happen. If you’re not able to get in touch with someone, or you’d just like to find out more about managing your mental health and wellbeing, head to nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters.

6 Invest in supplements
It’s that time of year when we can’t make vitamin D from sunshine. To keep your bones and muscles healthy it’s best to take a vitamin D supplement every day between October and early March. This is especially important as many of us have been indoors more than usual this spring and summer.

“The majority of us don’t get the sufficient amounts of vitamin D through our diet, and with sunlight limited at this time of year, in my opinion, we should all be supplementing,” says Tschiesche.

You can get vitamin D from most pharmacies, and supermarkets and other retailers. Just 10 micrograms a day is all you need – it’s the same for the whole family.

7 Stop smoking
Thinking of knocking smoking on the head in the new year? Why wait? By quitting now, you’ll reap the rewards almost immediately. Longer-term benefits include reducing your risk of lung problems, heart problems and various types of cancer. In the short term, if you stopped now you would be free of nicotine, finding it easier to breathe and have a pocket full of surplus cash by the time you’re singing Auld Lang Syne. Plus, you’ll have the hard bit out of the way.

“Quitting smoking is always a fantastic idea,” says Dr Catherine McCullagh, a trainee GP. “But people don’t realise that you can feel the benefits immediately. Contact your GP or pharmacist about the various options available to help you quit – often they can refer you to a smoking cessation clinic where you will receive specialist advice.”

8 Get outdoors
The great outdoors might be wet and wild right now, but a winter walk (find one near you at walkingbritain.co.uk) is the best way of blowing away the cobwebs. Fresh air has higher levels of oxygen than indoor air, so getting outdoors for a brisk 20-minute walk each day is good for your lungs, blood pressure, circulation and heart rate. Plus, more oxygen is thought to result in greater brain functioning, improving energy and concentration skills – perfect for anyone working from home.

Entice your kids out with a homemade scavenger hunt. Make a checklist of 10 things – such as acorns, feathers, yellow leaves – and head to the woods, only returning when you’ve found them all. Not close to woodland? No problem. Even a walk around the streets with a list of items to spot – a black cat, three buses, Christmas trees in windows – can turn exercise into a fun, and free, game.

9 Light a scented candle
Burning a scented candle doesn’t just achieve peak winter ambience, it can also do wonders for your wellbeing. The combination of essential oils in some aromatherapy candles – such as lavender, rose or lemon balm – can relieve anxiety and reduce stress.

And there’s more … stuffy noses and congested chests can be eased by burning peppermint or eucalyptus. Sleep can be helped by a chamomile or sandalwood candle – just remember to blow it out before your head hits the pillow – and energy may be boosted by the scent of bergamot, cinnamon or ginger.

High Angle View Of Chocolate Bar On Wax Paper



It’s been a tough year, and it’s OK to enjoy treats such as dark chocolate sometimes, just remember to have them in moderation. Photograph: Riccardo Livorni/Getty Images/EyeEm

10 Treat yourself
When it comes down to it though, 2020 has been hard enough. For long stretches of this year, we haven’t been able to enjoy a sit-down meal at a restaurant or the comforts of a Sunday roast at the pub. While it’s important for us to take care of our bodies, this winter really isn’t the time to start feeling guilty and deny ourselves a little taste of the good stuff. We’ve missed out on enough this year, thank you very much.

So have a treat and reach for the chocolate when you want to, whether it’s milk chocolate, or dark chocolate – which is generally a bit lower in calories and sugar – just enjoy. Of course, moderation is key, but as Francesco Petrarch said: “A little bit of sweetness can drown out a whole lot of bitterness.”

This advertiser content was paid for by the UK government. All together (Keep well this winter) is a government-backed initiative tasked with informing the UK about the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information, visit gov.uk/coronavirus



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