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Nadia Lim’s recipe for life

Nadia Lim is on a mission to get busy Kiwis eating in a more nutritious way. Here, Daisy Sillis discovers the My Food Bag founder’s recipe for a healthier, happier life.
My Food Bag founder Nadia Lim is on a mission to get busy Kiwis eating in a more nutritious way.

Deciding what to cook for dinner can be a headache. Add the pressure of making a meal that’s healthy, quick and that will please the entire family and you’ve got a regular nightmare. But for more than 15,000 New Zealanders, the solution to this conundrum arrives in the form of a weekly food bag created by MasterChef winner Nadia Lim and her team at My Food Bag.

Pinning Nadia down isn’t an easy task. If the 29-year-old Auckland native is not jet-setting around the globe finding inspiration for recipes, she’s experimenting with produce in the My Food Bag test kitchen. I catch up with her between flights at Auckland airport (yes, she’s an extremely busy woman) where, over a coffee and oat bran cookie, she shares her knowledge of food, explains how she juggles her many projects and reveals why she is learning to say ‘no’.

Q. You’re a trained dietician. What came first, the love of cooking or the science behind it?

A. When I was 12 my idol was The Naked Chef (Jamie Oliver) and I wanted to have my own show called ‘Food in the Nude’. Food tech was my favourite class at school and the one thing I was naturally good at. I wanted to train as a chef but my dad placed a lot of importance on university education and didn’t see it as a proper career.

Instead, I studied nutrition and dietetics at Otago University. Once I finished the five-year degree I worked at Auckland District Health Board specialising in diabetes and weight management until the MasterChef opportunity came along in 2010 and I was able to combine my scientific knowledge with my love of cooking.

Q. Where does your love of food come from?

A. My mum is Kiwi and my dad is Malaysian Chinese and those cultures are obsessed with food. Malaysian food is a fusion of Thai, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese, so growing up in Malaysia really broadened my culinary horizons. We moved from New Zealand to Malaysia when I was six years old and it was hard to find the western food I had grown accustomed to, like macaroni cheese. I’d always be in the kitchen experimenting with a wide range of cuisine.

Q. How would you describe your cooking style?

A. I’m a freestyle cook and a little lazy. Simple, fast and fresh – that’s my style in a nutshell. I don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen, so I like meals that take 15 minutes to whip up. People should spend more time eating food than cooking it.

Q. What are your kitchen staples?

A. If you have an egg in the house you have a meal. Tomatoes and avocados are a must and I always have smoked salmon in the fridge because it’s a really versatile ingredient. My pantry and fridge are stocked with lemons, herbs, berries, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil.

Q. With your own TV show, cooking projects and the My Food Bag business, you are incredibly busy. How do you safeguard your health?

A. My husband and I get up at 5.30am and have an avocado, banana, spinach and berry smoothie. It’s a great way to start your morning and I find it reassuring to know no matter what happens during the day I’ve consumed some nutrients. Sometimes life becomes hectic and I end up skipping lunch or not eating as much nutrient-dense food as I’d like to.

Q. Are there any foods you refuse to cook with?

A. I’m all about healthy eating but that doesn’t mean I believe you have to cut out certain food completely. My daily diet is low in sugar but I still have sugar in the pantry for the odd pavlova. My food philosophy isn’t about taking ingredients out of your diet, it’s about putting good food in.

I try not to use highly processed or chemically modified ingredients. A good example is using avocado oil instead of rice bran oil because extracting oil from rice isn’t natural, while avocados and olives ooze with oils. Preservatives like citric acid are OK but ones like monosodium glutamate (MSG) are dodgy. Even though I avoid some processed foods, that doesn’t mean I don’t eat any packaged foods. Not all packaged foods are highly processed. I regularly buy canned goods, boxed oats and tomato paste.

Q. What happens when food becomes highly processed?

A. Food companies extend the shelf life of products by adding preservatives like sugar and salt and removing nutrients to make the food taste good. These processed foods contain lots of empty calories. When your body doesn’t get nutrients it craves more food, which creates this strange modern conundrum where people are undernourished but also overweight. The good news is people are becoming more health-conscious and we’re remembering nature knows best. Keeping food simple is the best way to stay healthy. If nature has created something that works, why change it?

Q. If you had to eat one type of cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A. South East Asian or Latin American because they both have big flavours and they’re great social food. Latin American food is vibrant, colourful and fun – plus you can eat it with your hands. If I have people around for dinner I usually make soft tacos with slow-cooked pulled pork. It cooks for five hours but the recipe is simple. I just chuck all the ingredients into a pot in the oven then it’s ready to eat. I place it in the middle of the table with a bunch of different salads, guacamole, salsa and soft taco wraps. I cooked a meal in Rarotonga a few weeks ago and served the food on banana leaves – that’s the kind of fuss-free cooking I enjoy.

Q. Where do you find inspiration for your recipes?

A. Most of my inspiration comes from looking at fresh produce. Sometimes I have leftover fruit and vegetables from My Food Bag so I place all the produce on the kitchen bench and let the food talk to me. The celeriac might say: “Hey I’ll go really well with the cauliflower; you should roast us together.” I let the ingredients tell me what to do; it’s like a puzzle.

I travel for work a lot and it’s a great way to get inspired. But in saying that, the food scene in New Zealand has exploded over the past five years. We have some world-class restaurants and our cooking standards are just as good as countries like Italy or France.

Q. Do you ever have a disaster when coming up with new recipes?

A. I like to be creative and innovative. About one in 10 dishes won’t turn out how I imagined. There are times where I think I’ve come up with some incredible new food concoction, then it quickly becomes clear why it’s not on restaurant menus. When I was 12, I wrote a cookbook and the first recipe was a chilli and lavender milkshake. It was a total disaster! I’ve experimented with food my whole life, so now I know a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

Nadia wears Liam pantsuit, senso shoes.

Q. How do you balance your workload?

A. If I was asked this question a few years ago I wouldn’t have had an answer. I’ve only recently learnt how to balance my work. I’ve always been a ‘yes’ person. I didn’t sleep much and thought I was superwoman but reality soon hit. Overworking started to diminish my creativity. I woke up one day and decided I needed to change my lifestyle to keep my creative juices flowing.

Now I prioritise sleep. I’ve learnt that one hour before midnight is worth two in the morning. No matter how busy I am I make sure I get eight hours’ sleep. I wake up at 5.30am and start work at 6am. I love the early morning because my mind is clear and no one bothers me with phone calls and emails.

Taking a few days off every three months has also become a new rule. It allows me to regroup and organise the work I have coming up.

Exercise is also a great way to keep my mind balanced but you’ll never catch me at the gym. I’d rather be outside walking with a friend instead of jogging on a treadmill. A couple of times a week I head down to the water near my home in central Auckland and do my own boot camp with weights and a Swiss ball. Working out with a beautiful morning view is really peaceful. I passionately hate long-distance running, so you’ll never catch me training for a marathon but I find sprinting the stairs and hills surrounding my house is a great addition to my workouts.

Q. Was learning to say ‘no’ difficult?

A. Yes, but by trying to do everything for everyone I was spreading myself so thin that I wasn’t accomplishing my work to the best standard. I learnt that saying no doesn’t mean I’m letting people down. You have to prioritise what’s important and if you’re overworked, saying no is better for everyone involved.

The best way to deal with stress is to step back and put things into perspective. Missing a deadline isn’t the end of the world and in the grand scheme of things it’s not that important. Breathing is a great way to cope with stress. We don’t breathe from our stomach anymore! Another good coping mechanism is to pretend that everything is OK. Sometimes just telling yourself things are fine helps you believe it. Acting like you have control of a situation can create a great calming effect.

Q. My Food Bag has been an incredible success. How did you come up with the idea and why do you think it has taken off?

A. My business partner Cecilia Robinson is a mum and businesswoman. She hated heading home after a long day and having to come up with a recipe that was both quick and healthy. I also had a similar idea to create a food bag service a few years ago but didn’t have the confidence to pull it off. When Cecilia approached me it was the perfect time to take action.

People don’t prioritise healthy eating because they think it’s time-consuming and will take precious minutes away from their busy life. The truth is that by putting some effort into what you eat and making time to exercise you will be happier, healthier and more productive in the long run.

Q. How do you fit relationships into your schedule?

A. The small break I take every three months is something I do with my husband. Spending time with friends and family has to fit into everyday life. I’ve been guilty in the past of not seeing friends as much as I should, so now I schedule that time into my diary like it’s an important meeting because it makes me happy.

Q. Your new cookbook comes out this month; what can we expect?

A. It’s called Easy Weeknight Meals and it’s a collaboration with the My Food Bag kitchen team. It’s a seasonal recipe book and a collection of the top-rated My Food Bag recipes, like Thai chicken salad and enchiladas, which are both personal favourites. The recipes are simple, healthy and delicious and designed to be easy to cook after work. We receive requests for our recipes every day from people who live in areas where My Food Bag isn’t accessible, so until the service goes nationwide this book is the best way to keep people cooking our quick and healthy meals.

Photos: Mike Rooke

Styling by: Skye Ross

Hair and makeup by Chay Roberts

Art direction by: Olivia Wimsett

Clothing: Farmers top, Ruby pants and her own necklace

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