At her heaviest, Anna Van Dyken couldn't get down on the floor to play with her young son Ethan because she couldn't get back up again. She couldn't walk across the road to play in the park, or kick a ball with him, couldn't do any number of normal family activities. She weighed 143 kilograms.
Coming from a big Italian family, she had always showed love through food, spoiling Ethan and her husband Rodney with rich, creamy pasta dishes, with homemade cakes and sweets. It was just what she did.
In 2012, Ethan was in year five, running at the school's cross-country event. All the other children had long finished and there was no sign of Ethan.
"I was waiting for him to come around the corner and 15 minutes later he finally did, and it wasn't until I saw the sheer horror and the look on his face, and he said to me, 'Mum, don't you ever make me do that again', that I thought, what have I done?" says Anna.
Ethan was 10, and he weighed 80kg. Rodney was also obese and had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes.
"How had I let us all get to the point where our health was so poor?" Anna asked herself. "I knew I had to do something for me to change and educate myself, before I could pass that knowledge and that learning on to the family."
Four days after the cross-country event Anna walked into her local Weight Watchers meeting. The weight-loss program has recently rebranded itself as WW, focusing on wellness as well as weight loss.
WW started in 1963 in the United States; the first meeting attracted 400 people. The first Australian meeting was in 1969 in Sydney. Now, there are more than five million members world-wide.
Anna had tried WW before in the months leading up to her wedding. She liked the philosophy, and this time she was determined to get her life, and her family's life, in order. For her it started with the food but she knew, the good Italian that she is, that she didn't want to go without.
"WW helped educate me about portion sizes and how much fat you actually need in a diet and what a treat food actually is ... I took it all back home to the boys and we changed our whole approach to food."
Nine months after the day she started, Rodney had lost 35kg, Ethan had lost 16kg and she had lost 32kg. Ethan competed in the cross-country the next year. On November 19, 2016, the day before her nonna's birthday, Anna hit her goal weight. She had lost 70kg.
She's documented her transformation and put all her recipes and clever weight-loss hacks together in a book, 50% weight loss, 100% healthier. She wants other everyday mums who are struggling with their weight, and all the emotional complications that come with that, to know they are worth the effort. That there is no shame in putting yourself first.
"If you've started, or are planning to start your own wellness journey, always remember you are stronger than you think and more capable than you realise," she says. "Take each day as it comes and try to find as much joy as you can."
- 50% weight loss, 100% healthier: 120+ recipes I created to lose weight and keep it off, by Anna Van Dyken. Macmillan, $36.99.
Homemade potato waffle
Just like a big ol' hash brown in waffle form ... yes, please. Super filling and super easy, savoury waffles have become a favourite all-in-one dish in our house. At the photoshoot, I served them a couple of extras - a dollop of light sour cream and a sprinkle of chives (see tips) - and they were amazing.
200g reduced carb potato
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 egg white, lightly beaten
20g grated mozzarella cheese
20g diced honey leg ham
1/2 cup baby spinach leaves
1/4 red onion, diced
1/2 tsp mixed herbs
1. Grate potato and place in a clean kitchen cloth. Squeeze out excess moisture. Combine potato, egg, egg white, mozzarella, ham, spinach, onion and herbs in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Preheat waffle maker on high heat. Once hot, lightly spray with oil and add batter to make one waffle. Cook for five minutes or until golden and cooked through.
3. Serve with sour cream and chives, if you like.
Find low-carb potatoes in the fresh produce section of the supermarket in packets.
You can check the SmartPoints of the light sour cream using your WW app.
Apple and rhubarb tea cake
This gorgeous show-stopping cake has such a light, moist texture, it is just a delight to serve and enjoy at any time. The crunch of the demerara sugar on top makes it extra special, so be sure to not skip that ingredient.
225g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup golden or white caster sugar
1 tbsp finely grated orange zest
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup pure cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
225g pink lady apple, peeled and chopped
225g rhubarb, chopped
1 tbsp demerara sugar
1. Preheat oven to 180C.
2. Lightly spray a 25cm round springform tin with oil and line base and side with baking paper.
3. Reserve one tablespoon of flour. Sift remaining flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt into a large bowl. Stir through caster sugar, orange and lemon zest.
4. Whisk egg, cream and vanilla in a jug until well combined.
5. Reserve one tablespoon each of apple and rhubarb. Add half the cream mixture to our mixture and gently fold to combine.
6. Stir in half the remaining apple and rhubarb, then fold in remaining cream mixture, apple and rhubarb. Combine reserved flour, apple and rhubarb in a small bowl.
7. Pour batter into prepared tin and smooth surface with a spatula. Scatter top with reserved apple and rhubarb mixture and sprinkle with demerara sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
8. Set cake aside in tin to cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool.
Portuguese chicken burrito bowl
Burrito bowls are one of my family's favourite takeaway meals. This one leaves you feeling great, rather than heavy. The seasoning here has a little bit of spice but not too much; just enough to wake the tastebuds.
100g skinless chicken breast
1 tsp Portuguese seasoning
1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
1/3 cup cooked basmati rice
1/4 small avocado, sliced
1/3 cup drained and rinsed canned corn kernels
1/3 cup drained and rinsed canned red kidney beans
1/3 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
lime wedges, to serve
1. Rub chicken with seasoning. Heat a non-stick chargrill pan over medium heat. Cook chicken for five minutes each side or until golden and cooked through. Thinly slice chicken.
2. Place lettuce in a serving bowl. Top with rice, avocado, corn, beans, tomatoes and chicken. Serve with lime wedges.
Mac and cheese bake with roasted tomatoes
The one thing I refuse to do is miss out on foods that I love - I just like to make healthier versions of them. For me, mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Topping this off with beautiful ripe roasted tomatoes makes this simple dish a little bit posh.
3 tomatoes, sliced
2 tsp dried oregano
250g dried macaroni or other small pasta
1 onion, finely chopped
150g short-cut bacon, fat trimmed, diced
1 garlic clove, grated
100g grated mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
100g 99% fat-free plain yoghurt
oregano leaves, to garnish
1. Preheat oven to 180C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Place tomato slices on prepared tray, sprinkle with dried oregano and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large saucepan of boiling salted water, following packet instructions, or until just tender. Drain. Set aside to cool slightly.
3. Heat a medium non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Cook onion and bacon, stirring, for five to six minutes or until golden. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for one to two minutes or until bacon is crisp. Cool.
4. Combine cooked pasta, mozzarella, 2 tablespoons parmesan, eggs and yoghurt in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in cooled bacon mixture.
5. Transfer mixture into a 2.5 litre (10-cup) capacity baking dish. Top with roasted tomatoes and sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden. Serve sprinkled with oregano.
Anna's tip: If you use wholemeal pasta then this recipe is 3 SmartPoints on Purple.