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What really goes into Stanley ka dabba…

School tiffins: Health food choices take priority as parents and schools try options to keep the lunch box interesting

Anoothi Vishal

Three-year-old Aryan Singh has just started going to Sanskriti School, Delhi. His favourite tiffin: A modest sandwich on which mom Smita draws a smiley face everyday, with ketchup. Like Smita, most parents are at a loss for interesting tiffin ideas. After all, there are challenges. The food should be nutritious, yet “look like junk food”, as a mother claims. It should be easy to handle and practical to prepare. With chips and colas now banned in almost every school canteen, parents and schools are finding ways to counter this challenge. And there is no reason why tiffins should not be fresh, healthy and imaginative meals.

The concern begins with children like Aryan who are “picky eaters”. “i was worried about what he would eat in school, especially since there are so many constraints with tiffins: the food should be dry, easy to pick up and appetizing even when cold,” points out the working mom. After several consultations, including one with Aryan’s teacher who made the smiley suggestion, Smita has resigned herself to sandwiches. “At least, he eats them. My mom gave me aloo paranthas for 12 years. Now, I’ll give sandwiches,” she laughs.

Parents try harder

Parents invariably point out the necessity of preparation while packing tiffins for their young ones. “You can’t wake up in the morning and start putting things together,” says Tarandeep, a senior marketing executive, who chats with her son every evening about lunch box choices.

Schools may have rules and some even “recommend” daily lunch options which parents can provide for their kids but, invariably, children get bored and want to deviate. The trick lies in parents using their judgement and creativity to give the child something he loves but which is nutritious at the same time.“If my son wants something like bun-tikki, I have the option of making soya tikkis and using different bread,” points out Tarandeep.

Having a chef for a mother can definitely be an advantage — even if executive chef, ITC Maurya, Manisha Bhasin tends to get branded “a paranoid mother” by her 12 year old. Bhasin, who read up a lot on nutrition, says that while children crave for pizzas and pastas (and rues that they don’t really want wholesome Indian meals), she makes sure that these are home-made. Whole wheat pasta is tossed with enough vegetables and the white sauce is made not with maida but whole wheat flour.
Similarly, if it has to be pizza or club sandwich, whole wheat or multi-grain bases and breads are
used. “I don’t use packaged cold cuts. Just some grilled chicken with a hung curd dressing or a drop of mayonnaise or cheese.” Home-made nachos (where a roti is cut up and fried) with fresh salsa and chocolate cake using 50 per cent whole wheat flour, are also popular options for her kids.
Amongst the most recommended suggestions from parents is the idea of pureeing vegetables. “Add them to everything, from rolls to rotis or as a lining for chicken sandwiches and more,” suggests Sandhya Sundaram, mother to a six-year-old.

Food and fun in school

With India sitting on a diabetes epidemic and urban children getting little exercise in apartment-homes,
schools play a big role in shaping early attitudes towards food. Tarandeep’s son’s school, KR Mangalam World School, Vikaspuri, gives a recommended lunch box schedule for the week with several daily options that parents can choose from. “The idea is that at the end of the week, a child should have eaten a balanced diet,” points out Tarandeep.

Then there is Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Lodhi Estate, which takes pride in grounding its students in Indian culture. And it does that through food too. A peep into their canteen during lunch, shows tiny tots (school meals are provided for junior kids) sitting traditionally on mats on the floor with low patras placed in front. Gleaming steel thalis are placed on these. Wholesome Indian meals, ranging from idli-sambhar to kadhi or dal-chawal to poori-subzi-kheer are served to children. This way kids also learn to enjoy diverse regional Indian flavours. In fact, report cards at the end of each session let you know about the progress in a child’s eating habits.

While creating awareness is fine, eating in school should be fun too. Schools and parents use food as a tool for bonding and to expose children to the diversity of India. Sardar Patel Vidyalaya also organizes an annual food festival. Parents participate, usually making simple regional Indian dishes and sell these at stalls at very low rates so that each child can enjoy home-cooked, authentic flavours from all across the country.

At schools like the American Embassy School in Chanakyapuri, menus inevitably turn somewhat fancier
and more Western. Still, even here in the midst of pasta in carbonara sauce, beef stroganoff and good old ham and cheese sandwiches, there is movement towards health. Organic boiled eggs, organic lettuce with croutons and buttered zucchini and red peppers are increasingly appearing as healthier sides.
Certain other schools go the extra mile and involve the kids hands-on. At some playschools and activity centres, fireless cooking is taught so that children develop an interest in the various textures, colours, smells and flavours of food. At the Yo Yo Club, Greater Kailash, for instance, kids get to assemble “sandwiches on sticks”. They are pieces of fruit, bread and cheese and the children skewer these together. Of course, sampling is half the fun.
Get them involved, let their palate evolve with different tastes and fussy eaters will be healthy epicures of the future.
(The article appeared in the Times of India monthly supplement on good food, on Saturday, June 4, 2011)

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