Here are four practical steps to ensure that you stay strong, smart and sensible with food. I am calling them four food habits of healthy kids:
1. Nothing out of a packet for breakfast
This means no packaged cereals (including oats), no juices, breads, noodles, etc. Not only are they low on nutrition, they are, in fact, harmful for your health. The low quality-high quantity sugar (mostly HFCS or corn syrup), chemical preservatives, emulsifiers, etc., hamper the growth of your body and mind. They also don't pass any of the tests mentioned above.
So what can you eat? Oh, there are so many good options - tasty and healthy; one of the benefits of living in an ancient and evolved food culture like ours. Poha, upma, idli, dosa, wada, thepla, khakra, paratha, jolpan, siddu, missi roti and many more from the treasure trove of diverse Indian breakfasts with their even more diverse accompaniments. They are prepared fresh, eaten hot and are in tune with the season and even genetically compliant. They fuel you in the right way for the long hours of school ahead and don't drain you or make you dull like packaged foods will invariably do. As they say, well begun is half done.
If you go to school early and don't feel like or have time for a full breakfast, a glass of milk (not Tetra Pak) or a fresh fruit along with a handful of dry fruits will also do.
Can you think of five breakfast ideas that meet the grandmom test, local name and versatility rules, and which support your health, economy and ecology?
2. No plastic dabbas or bottles in schools
Now, of course, our wannabe giri doesn't just stop at adopting the cheap cereal - and - packaged milk or packaged juices over the priceless diverse array of Indian breakfasts and meals. It extends itself to cheap cutlery too, right from the infant stage. Walk into any 5-star, and you will find an awkward-looking maid feeding a little baby from a garish plastic dabba and spoon. First of all, once you grow up and even now, speak up for the rights of all those who are unable to speak for themselves, especially within your home, school and society. And secondly, know that plastic is not a great material - it may have some very unique applications in some areas of life, but with food, none whatsoever.
And we don't just stop at plastic dabbas and bottles, we even have cling film that chipkaos to the food we eat, and aluminium foil that wraps itself around rotis and sandwiches. Basically, we do really cheap things to appear rich or even neat. In the process, we impoverish our diverse microbiome ecosystem (gut-friendly bacteria) and immune response, and contaminate our bodies with toxic agents like the xenoestrogens (chemical compounds similar to the estrogen hormone which confuse the body) in plastic which leach into your food. Together with aluminium that interferes with the absorption of important minerals like zinc, plastic blunts our testosterone, growth hormones and insulin response. All in all, we start looking rounder and get weaker instead of leaner and stronger as we grow. Our hormones are all messed up even before they have had the chance to strike that right balance.
So what can you use?
In all ancient cultures, when the baby turns around six months old and goes from an exclusive diet of mother's milk to also eating what mother nature has to offer, there is a ceremony. Typically, in this ceremony, depending on the region you come from, your mama or nani or another designated close relative gifts the baby silverware. Usually a small plate, bowl and a glass. This time-honoured tradition is not just an occasion to celebrate the baby reaching a milestone, but also to ensure protection from viral and bacterial infections, as silver has been used to fight infections long before antibiotics were discovered.
Of course, silver is a one-time, expensive investment, but it does prove itself to be economical in the long run, as it leads to: a) building an asset (precious metals typically appreciate in value) b) building memories, as the silverware will invariably have the family name carved on it, and maybe even a unique design to boot c) prevent illnesses and protection against use of antibiotics (you all know their ill effects, right? Especially related to loss of friendly gut bacteria). Incidentally, this is also the age when diversity of friendly bacteria starts building up.
Eating fresh, seasonal and regional food in non-toxic material like silver, kansa or even steel and glass, helps in building and nurturing a diverse gut bacteria ecosystem. Loss of diversity in the microbiota, especially in little kids, is also positively associated with incidences of Type 1 diabetes, autism, asthma, obesity, slower brain and cognitive development and language skills - the list is endless.
3. No gadgets while eating
All human beings are born with the ability to self-terminate the act of eating. Not just humans, all animals and birds, all living beings, in fact, instinctively know how much to eat at a time. When you were an infant, no matter what, you would not drink a drop of milk more than you needed. Even when you started having solid food, it was really tough for your parents to overfeed you as you would throw up anything extra. So why, then, by the time you became an adolescent, and later an adult, did how much food to eat and where to stop become a big task or something that someone else, a dietitian for example, has to tell you? Because we are now distracted when we eat and no longer listen to the signals from the stomach. Deep down, in the gut, in the stomach, there's a brain, sharper and braver than the one in your head, and it speaks to you when you are silent. So tune in and practise listening when you are eating, that's when it speaks the loudest. If you are on a gadget - whether it's the phone, iPad or TV - all that you do is end up consuming much more than you need. And now you already know food can also consume you, so stay careful with that relationship and don't let it turn toxic.
There's a hormone called leptin that gets released once the stomach is full. If you are distracted, you will not notice or pay attention to the signal of leptin. And then, instead of stopping at the right place, you will either overeat or under-eat, or eat just to get some dominating adult who has made stuffing you the main aim of their life off your back.
Let them get a life and, in the meanwhile, you focus all your senses on eating. In my view, this is meditation for children - eating with all our senses.
And if your mommy or anybody tells you that for finishing everything on your plate you will get fifteen minutes of extra TV, hold one hand over your heart and vigorously shake the other by holding it in front of your face and say, 'No, no dear, don't be so cheap. Gadget is not a gift.'
4. No chocolates or ice creams post dinner
This should be simple enough, but it's not quite. First of all, you do know that post sunset digestion slows down, and this isn't exactly the time to load your system with some mass-produced, industrialised product, be it chocolate, ice cream or even that store-bought cupcake. Take a break, and do a quick reality check. Do you even love what you are eating or are you eating it because it's a cool thing to do, comes with a toy or the face of your favourite cartoon character, or is endorsed by a celeb you love? I mean, figure out - is this actual love for what you are eating or is this manipulation by the food industry? Or are you being manipulated by your parent? Is it a treat to finish everything on your plate or a compensation for not making your favourite sabzi or some other kind of trade-off? Because if it is, your parent is just being weak. Firstly, you should know that appetite changes every day and you don't have to finish everything that's laid out. Secondly, it's ok, sometimes a favourite thing is cooked, sometimes not; you don't have to be compensated for the natural workings of the kitchen and then be called a spoilt brat behind your back. You get the drift?
You don't need me to say this, but there really is nothing healthy about a cola, ice cream, chocolate post a meal, especially post dinner. You land up having them either because someone has preyed on your childlike judgement, or because it's a part of the meal deal, like it's free with a pizza or burger. Dinner is the last meal before sleep, and good quality of sleep is critical to all parameters of growth - emotional, intellectual and physical; you don't want to mess with that. So ensure that dinners are meals that help you get into a steady state - both mentally and physically. It must have a repetitive value, something like dal-chawal or khichdi or roti-sabzi type: wholesome, flavoured and spiced just right. So that it allows for a good quality of the other repetitive, critical act of uninterrupted, undisturbed sleep.
Your need to have these stimulants is also the highest when you are fed a steady diet of variety for dinner - aaj pav bhaji, kal pasta, parso Chinese. So, also spend some time figuring out what are the triggers for wanting these stimulants, and you will discover that post a meal of khichdi or just dal-rice-ghee or a roti/bhakri-sabzi and chaas, you feel at your lightest and most content, and least interested in a chocolate, ice cream, etc. The key, of course, is to observe yourself, and for that, the gadget should be switched off, as we have already learnt.
Stimulants are best limited to once a month or even less, and have them before 6 p.m. so that they don't come in the way of your sleep. Same thing with variety - finish before 6 p.m. so that the excesses of just one kind of taste in that meal don't keep you awake with thirst or gastric disturbances in the night. And always eat these meals in a way that allows you to have your repetitive and valuable dinner and sleep on time.
If you are hungry post dinner, a glass of milk with freshly powdered nuts, kesar and sugar or jaggery is a great meal, which allows you to have something sweet but doesn't stimulate you or disturb the natural hormonal cycle and leave you with disturbed sleep.
Excerpted with permission of Westland from 'Notes For Healthy Kids' by Rujuta Diwekar. Order your copy here.
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