Dejunk your kitchen

Give 2018 a healthy-eating start

A little over five years ago, I started a journey that changed my life and that of my family. I had recently given up my full-time job as a rural development professional. My youngest son, Nikhil, was hardly eating any vegetables and no fruit and had a cold every other week. (My older two sons had frequent bouts of asthma and other allergies). Until then, I had planned regular dal-chawal- subzi or dosa-sambar dinners… but I really wasn’t paying attention to what the kids were eating for school lunches or snacks. Those were dictated by convenience rather than by nutrition.

At that time, I barely thought about what we needed to eat. We cooked regular traditional food from India and all over the world. I baked my kids’ birthday cakes. But we had bottles of squash, gummy bears, packets of biscuits and instant noodles. I gave out chocolates at parties as return gifts. I hadn’t read a single label. If the kids liked something, I bought it — not to intentionally feed them junk food, but indulgently and with love. Or sometimes for pure convenience.

How it all began

And so when the realisation hit, I started to read about what was good to feed my kids (and did some online courses in nutrition to learn more). With my background in agricultural economics, and my knowledge of simple rural food habits, I knew I needed to go back to the basics. So I decided to dejunk my household and cook most food from scratch. Slowly, I stopped buying most processed or packaged food. We made our own peanut butter, mayonnaise, jams, cold drinks, cookies, granola bars, muesli, breads, pizzas. I started to cook lots of different-coloured vegetables and wholegrains in new and interesting ways. I began to plan, shop and prep over the weekend.

The results were tremendous. Over 2-3 years, Nikhil was eating close to 30 vegetables, all 3 boys were much healthier, and their asthmatic attacks were down to a minimum. Our medical bills dropped drastically too. What I learned was not so much about what the good food is; that’s common sense and a part of our traditional eating habits. What I learned is just how bad the bad stuff is.

The lowdown on junk food

Junk food has little or no nutrition and is high in sugar, fat and salt. Sugar is added to everything, even to salty food. The World Health Organization recommends reducing intake of added sugar to 6 teaspoons (25g) per day, ideally, and our National Institute of Nutrition recommends 2-3 tablespoons (30-45g) of visible fat per day. What many of us don’t realise is that 300ml of a mango fruit drink can have up to 45g of sugar and that a 100g pack of cream/jam biscuits contains 34g of sugar and 19g of fat (mostly hydrogenated oils or bad fats). Yes, chips, sugary drinks, biscuits and instant noodles are junk — but so are our much-loved Indian mixtures, deep-fried snacks and fried sugary sweets. So also puffs, biscuits, cakes from local bakeries… or a white bread-and-jam sandwich. When you cook and bake at home, you know what you are putting into your food and you can control the sugar and fat that goes into it. So my main learning was — say ‘No to Junk Food’. The food companies (whether they are making in India, China or in the US) are motivated by short-term profit at the cost of the long-term health of our kids (and us). Notice how junk food advertising is largely targeted at children. Unlike many western countries, in India, we still cook most of our meals from scratch. But when it comes to snacks, drinks and treats… we are heading down the same path.

So how do you know what’s junk and what’s not? Read the labels. Watch out for serving size (do the math): total calories (energy), sugars, fat, sodium and additives. The labels at least tell you what’s in the food. What’s worse is all the readymade junk food that is not labelled — again, many of our Indian snacks and sweets.

So how do you dejunk your kitchen?

All I did was start with small steps.

Let’s eat more veggies and fruit in new and different ways — fruit smoothies, pumpkin muffins, spinach tikkis, beetroot cake and more.

Let’s reduce our sugar consumption — I keep a teaspoon (5 gram) measure in my sugar jar, and wherever possible, I substitute white sugar with jaggery or honey. But that doesn’t mean we can eat a lot of those either.

Let’s make at least half our baked grains whole — I substitute maida with atta in most baked goods. For daily consumption, I stock red rice and a variety of millets.

Let’s stop deep-frying at home — I started cooking with a range of good-quality (cold-pressed or unrefined) fats based on the type of cuisine (ghee, butter, coconut/groundnut/mustard/sesame/olive oil).

Let’s make homemade fast food — Stove-top pizza, bean burgers, oven roasted sweet potato and carrot fries. We’ve reduced the frequency of visits to fast-food restaurants to a couple of times a year, by consensus.

Let’s make our drinks at home. This is a big small step. Instead of buying juices, fizzy or fruity cold drinks, we make homemade lime juice, fruit and vegetable juices, iced tea, banana or mango smoothies, milk shakes, buttermilk, lassi or we bottle fresh coconut water (which is better than any sports drink) and bring it home to chill.

Let’s stock up on nutritious snacks — homemade dips and spreads, roasted gram, makhana, crackers and cheese, yoghurt, spiced paneer cubes, eggs, boiled chole or sundal, roasted peanuts or nuts, fresh or dried fruit, puffed rice mixtures, popcorn, chikki with jaggery, homemade granola bars etc.

Let’s say No to store-bought treats (biscuits and candies) made with refined flour, hydrogenated fat and sugar, and covered in layers of plastic packaging — I bake nutrient-dense treats (like oat cookies or banana bread) once a week and I add nuts and seeds to whatever I am making. I’ve gone back to traditional Indian sweets (til laddoos, kheer) and fruit-based puddings.

No more sugar-coated breakfast cereal The kids slowly started eating overnight oats (not instant) or ragi porridge, homemade muesli and even jhangora kheer for breakfast.

Let’s reduce buying processed meats with preservatives, additives and food colouring. Instead of buying sausages and cold cuts filled with preservatives, I make a tasty roast chicken instead.

Let’s step away from our comfort zone of food and bring in items from international cuisines and other parts of India, if tasty and healthy. So Middle Eastern spreads like hummus and baba ganoush, Chinese vegetable stir-fries and steamed snacks became part of our weekly diet.

Sharmila Ribeiro is the author of Everyday Love – A Mother’s Guide to Healthy Cooking for Kids, and a national winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in the category of Family Cookbooks for 2018.

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 9:15:34 PM |

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