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Thinking out of the tiffin box
The health minister's demand that schools do away with junk food from their canteens should spur parents to think beyond biscuits and bread-jam while packing children's lunch dabbas.
Mummies and daddies are facing a looming challenge as schools are about to reopen. What to pack in junior's dabba? Junk food, always an easy option, is now out of the question. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Union minister for health, wants schools to do away with junk food from their canteens. In a letter to Human Resources Development minister Kapil Sibal in April, Azad pointed out that lifestyle diseases, like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, have shown tremendous increase in the past couple of decades. "These diseases have a positive correlation with sedentary lifestyles and consumption of unhealthy food, " he wrote, and requested that the letter be circulated among schools and universities across the country to encourage children to follow a healthy diet.
Schools are of course, doing their bit. Timetables of snack plans, in-house dieticians to draw up diet charts, orientations on healthy food and even recipes for lazy parents.
Strangely, I find that parents, especially those in the fizzy drinks and crunchy food category, are more annoyed than grateful for Azad's initiative. "What do we give them?" is their peeve now. You can sense a pride in their voice about the fact that their kids don't like 'healthy, but boring food', but prefer pastries, chips, cookies and, above all, Maggi.
My three-year-old son Rehaan recently joined playschool. By day three, Rehaan had figured out that the dabba was indeed, an exciting part of his day and a great reason to go to school. On day two, I began to peek into other dabbas. They were all attractive and varied in shape, size and design from phone-shaped boxes to tiffins decorated with 3D imagery. Some had multiple layers, matching cutlery and matching water bottles. But what was inside the dabbas wasn't as desirable. Chivda, chips, French fries, biscuits, Kellogg's Chocos. Maggi, bread-jam, Maggi, bread-cheese, farsan, potato smileys, Kurkure, Maggi, cheese balls, Little Hearts, Oreo cookies. The only things that were free of preservatives and smelt of home were the occasional idlis and chapati rolls.
For as long as I can remember, going to school for me was always about 'What's in my dabba?' My mother worked but my dabba never reflected that. I never had biscuits or bread-jam in mine. Some days, there were idlis smothered in molagapodi or dosas stuffed with potato filling. At other times, there was the fluffy cabbage upma (one of my mom's top five tiffin items) or poha speckled with coconut or sev and coriander or stuffed uttapams. There was tomato rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice and curd rice with grated carrots or bits of cucumber. My favourite was sabudana khichdi and I loved eating the potato bits first.
I meet more parents now than ever before, at school, in parks, cafes, at brunch, in parking lots, elevators and bookshops. We start to chat and they often talk about dabbas being one of their biggest woes. When they whine that their kids don't eat breakfast, I ask them what they ate. They mumble something about a glass of milk or cereal or cornflakes. Then I ask them if food makes them happy? They look at me like I inquired about their sex life.
I realised why there was an entire generation of children that 'don't do food'. It's because there is an entire generation of parents who think poha and parathas are boring and who have begun to believe that carbs are bad and energy bars are bars of energy and cartons which say "no preservatives" actually mean them. If you don't have a passionate relationship with food, there is no way your child will have one. So if you want your child to eat well, it's time to start your affair with food. And you don't need a Union health minister to tell you that.
On day one of school, Rehaan had hummus with cucumber and carrot sticks. Everyone turned to look at him scooping out his hummus. I wasn't trying to show off. There was hummus left over from Sunday dinner, and I figured why not make a dabba out of it? I am not a gourmet cook and usually Rehaan gets upma, dosa, uttapam, chila, idli (in its various avatars), poha, sabudana khichdi, aloo and sprout chaat. Sometimes, he gets home-baked muffins and cookies.
Recently, film-maker Shekhar Kapur also voiced his concerns on Twitter about the alarming proportions of junk food in children's dabbas, spurring a large number of parents to respond.
There are mothers who moan about sending healthy tiffin boxes, only to have them back uneaten as their kids are more interested in their friends' junk food dabbas. Junk-food mommies are often found lobbying for 'easy snacks', much to the frustration of school authorities. "My daughter's school has a set snack list for the dabba so that the kids don't kill each other for their tiffins during break time, and most of the moms are always pestering the teachers to include 'simple' snacks like biscuits and chips, " says Manasi Vaidya, an author and mother. "One time they had pasta in the snack list and the teacher nearly got mauled. "
It's not as though one has to wake up at 5 am to prepare a dabba. You can always outsource. Or just be intelligent and Nigella about it. A baked cake is dabba for four days. Cookies (the homemade, preservative-free variety) can go on for a week. Idli and dosa batter are the most versatile things to have in your fridge. Hummus and tsatsiki are great with lavash or vegetable sticks and can be used as sandwich spreads. And there is no end to the goodies you can add to an upma or a paratha - spinach, carrots, sprouts, peppers and so on. All you need is the visual excitement of colour and kids are hooked.
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