Inga Dirziute sends her burly builder partner off to work each day with a kiss and a packed lunch.
Each day, Robert sits down and, as workmates to his left and right tuck into hot sausage butties and ham sandwiches the size of doorsteps, he opens a box of salad, fruit and nuts.
To the uninitiated, it doesn’t look enough to sustain a rabbit. There’s no calorie-packed cake, no sausage roll, nor a slice of quiche to keep him going. There isn’t even any bread.
Not one single item in that carefully packed tuck box has been baked, boiled, grilled or fried. It is raw. It’s the same story for their children, David, seven, and Kameja, five. Everything in their school packed lunches is raw, too.
The Dirziute family live entirely on uncooked food.
Before they leave for school, it’s raw food for breakfast. When they get home, mum Inga is busily preparing an uncooked family tea.
Inga’s Deepcar kitchen has no microwave or even a toaster. There is a built-in oven redundant for two years and hob which lies untouched for months on end. It’s used only on occasional wintry days when she might cook potatoes or brown rice for the kids as a rare treat.
It sounds like salad days for a reluctant cook and meagre pickings for her unfortunate family.
But you couldn’t be more wrong. Inga claims she feeds her partner and children on nutrient-rich vegan superfood.
“Raw food is live food; cooked food is dead food,” smiles Inga, from Lithuanian blonde.
Her mantra isn’t designed to cover up the fact that she either can’t, or won’t, cook.
The 25 year old believes that a carefully structured vegan diet of totally uncooked food is the very best thing to feed her family on. She is so passionate about nutrition she spent £4,500 of the family savings on a trip to Atlanta, Georgia, for a month-long a raw food ‘cookery’ course to learn about innovative ways of making meals from only grains, pulses, nuts, organic fruit and vegetables, honey and specialist ‘superfood’ extracts.
Yet two years ago, her family were keen carnivores who loved nothing better than to light the barbecue twice a week and sizzle beef, pork, lamb and chicken.
What spurred Inga to make such a radical change to the family diet and bin her casserole pots and her cooking pans was seeing them suffer from recurring illnesses.
Both Robert and David had recurring flu and chest infections: “David was on one antibiotic after another and ended up with asthma. I knew something wasn’t working and I wanted to help them.
“We didn’t live a very healthy lifestyle but I remembered how my grandmother in Lithuania had treated my coughs and colds with natural remedies and healing herbs,” she says.
“Grannie lived to be over 100. She taught me lots of natural plant remedies but I had all-but forgotten them. I did some research online and in the process found out about the connection between eating meat and respiratory problems.”
Inga first decided the family should give up meat.
“Robert and the children loved it. I was less keen, having been a vegetarian as a child. I found it left me feeling so tired after eating,” she explains.
“But after a few months of going without it, Robert’s health improved, David no longer needed his inhaler or antibiotics and everyone had loads more energy.”
However, Inga decided even more dietary change would be beneficial. Out went all dairy products and in came more and more raw food.
“We were still feeling a little bloated after eating,” says Inga, who moved to the UK in 2004. “I I had heard about raw food diets and how the enzymes in the food helped with digestion and left you with so much more energy than cooked foods. Plus raw fruit and vegetables have far more nutrients in them than cooked ones.
“At first I thought it was cruel to deny children hot meals, cakes, bread, plus the pasta and barbecues they loved, but then I discovered that there were ways of replicating the tastes and textures of many of their favourite foods.”
She found recipes online and started experimenting - not always to great effect. But spurred on by seeing her family’s health improve, she decided to spend £4,500 to attend a raw food academy in Atlanta. Some might say her zeal borders on obsessive. Not Inga.
“I felt I had to invest in my family’s future,” she says.
She came back from the USA to ditch most of her kitchen appliances and set forth on the family’s new food regime.
Out went breakfast cereal and toast; the kids start the day with granola mum makes from sprouting buckwheat, with a splash of ‘milk’ made from soaked almonds.
Their packed lunches include salads with creamy dressings that have never seen even a drop of mayo, plus mum’s version of cheese sandwiches.
Cheese is easy, says Inga; just soak cashew and macadamia nuts overnight and puree them to a creamy paste.
For more taste, she adds natural bacteria she buys from an online health store, along with some £50 of nutrients and supplements each month. She makes bread replacement with ground sweetcorn, linseed and Thai coconut flesh.
“Everything I make is raw. I prepare soaked grains and pulses, and also use a dehydrator to create interesting bread-like textures and vegetable wraps. I puree nuts to make creamy bases for puddings and add sweeteners such as dates and honey,” says the non-dairy Delia who has also devised her own version of cupcakes and flapjacks. She even makes chocolate from pre-dried raw cacao beans and organic coconut butter, sweetened with local honey.
When her sweet tooth kicks in, a bad habit she pretty much kicked by doing a ten-day juice- only cleanse, she soothes the craving with the Inga equivalent of Angel Delight; a mousse she whips up in an instant from avocado, natural sweetener Agave, lemon, carob and cacao beans.
Amazingly, her children try and find they enjoy, most of what she puts in front of them. Kameja can be a typical faddy five-year-old at times and an added problem is she doesn’t like nuts or seeds and still hankers for a McDonalds. So Inga ensures she gets a balance of proteins and carbs by whizzing up smoothies containing the things Kameja dislikes, disguised with pineapple and banana for sweetness.
It seems there is nothing she can’t replace; she makes the children unbaked, non-dairy birthday cakes. She’s even found a way of replicating an uncooked version of her children’s all-time favourite - pizza. Although the kids still consider the best treat of all is a real one from the local takeaway.
Eating well to feel the clear benefits
Inga’s raw food regime sounds as incredibly time-consuming - and expensive - as it does healthy.
But she insists it’s not the case. She spends £40 a week on organic fruit, vegetables and specialist ingredients at Crookesmoor health food store Beanies and £20 a week on essentials at Morrisons. Add on the monthly online health store bill for her ‘superfoods’ and she’s feeding a family of four for just over £70 a week.
She does most of her food preparation one day a week, soaking beans, nuts and pulses, whizzing up salsas and sauces that will keep for several days and making fillings for flans and cheesecakes from Irish moss soaked until it turns gelatinous.
She whips a spectacular-looking strawberry cheesecake out of the fridge.
I’ve tried her tasty ‘cream cheese’ on some deliciously nutty, nicely chewy ‘crackers’, a creamy coleslaw blended with hummus, plus mushrooms marinated in olive oil and tamari, an organic form of soy sauce - all delicious and, amazingly, very filling, but make room for a slice of dessert. Well, she’s gone to so much trouble with the moss.
It’s delicious; the base is soft and coconutty, the topping a creamy, set consistency containing processed cashew nuts, lemon, yeast flakes. It is strange pale green. The moss? “No, tumeric and lime,” she says.
“The best part about this dessert is it’s guilt-free,” she grins. “There is no dairy fat in it and no sugar. It’s like eating a piece of medicine!”
Inga enthuses about the positive effects raw food has had on her family.
“We don’t feel tired all the time, and our immune systems are much stronger; we haven’t been to the doctor in ages and David’s asthma is virtually non-existent. His doctor is happy for him not to have an inhaler,” she says.
“I used to get very bad acne and terrible hormonal mood swings, but not any more. And Robert’s workmates who laughed at his raw lunch stopped when he found he had enough energy to work all day long without any snacks, and lost over 11 kilos in weight” she says.
There are fringe benefits, too: “Our relationship is so much better because we’re not tired and moody with each other - and the children don’t fight with each other any more. They are calmer and I’m sure it’s because of the food they eat,” she says.
“None of us miss our old diet. We love what we eat and what it is doing to us.”
Having turned around her family’s health, Inga plans to do the same for Sheffielders. She is opening her own vegan cafe, Pure on Raw, on October 18 at 244-246 Shalesmoor.
“I want to show customers that not only is raw food nutritious and amazingly good for you, but it also tastes great,” she says.
Inga believes everyone would benefit from trying her way of eating.
“It’s good for people who want to lose weight or eat less carbohydrates. People with allergies don’t have worry about whether food contains gluten, sugar, wheat, or eggs,” she explains.
The cafe, which will also have a takeaway service, will be open from breakfast until late afternoon serving juices, raw vegan burgers, wraps, cakes, cheesecake-style desserts and salads.
The cafe could well be an instant hit; the local vegan and vegetarian population are already following its progress on Facebook.