Cultural differences

Fostering healthy eating habits

12:46 PM

One of my regular reader suggested in the comment section that I should write a post about my making sure Ishita eats healthy and promoting healthy habits in my child, and since this morning I had no other idea of topics and was about to…ahem…do a noodle review, I figured out I might as well share my view on the topic now.
First thing first, there is some strong cultural aspects at play here, the way I see meals and dealing with a fussy toddler is I am aware not exactly popular in India.
From interacting with a lot of desi moms I came to know that a kid skipping a meal is seen as far more of a big deal than it is in Switzerland where I grew up. I have a lot of my friends who report having to cajole their kids into eating, or resort to cooking a different meal for them to eat if they reject the main dish of the day, or turn the vegetables into something that looks more like a junk food item to bribe their child into eating something. or take them outside to feed them while they are on the swing, or turn on the TV to distract them so they can jam the vegetables in their mouth without them suspecting.
I didn’t grew up with this pattern, like all kids back home, I was to sit at the dinning table, my mom cooked one meal to feed the family and it was this or nothing else, and the only thing that changed between the children’s plate and the parents’ plate was the size of the portion, we could whine all we wanted there was simply no way the vegetable casserole would turn into French fries or pasta if that wasn’t the menu of the day, rather we had the choice to or eat or go hungry until the next meal (and yes we did try going hungry…not worth it) The amount we were supposed to eat was of course age appropriate, and the memories I have are those of a 4-5 year old who had to finish the content of her plate before exiting the table. My mom said that before that she introduced veggies but never forced me to finish them, because toddlerhood is that time were kids are discovering taste and what their affinities are. That said, just because we had some affinities to chocolate and potatoes didn’t mean that was the only food we had on the plate. As a tot apparently the signal that I was done eating was when I started fidgeting, playing with the food or simply had my mind somewhere else, so my mom would take the plate away, and the meal was call quit until the next one, and it wasn’t the end of the world if I ate only two spoons of potato puree and half a French bean before loosing focus.
Our dinning table was in the kitchen, we had a big more formal one in the living room, but that was for special meals and parties, granted our flat was probably bigger than what you can find in India or even in more modern buildings in Switzerland the idea was that daily meals were a casual, cosy affair in the kitchen, WITHOUT TV, the TV time in my house was strictly regulated, the TV was never on unless we were watching something specific, and food in front of the TV was not permitted, unless it was a fruit from the fruit bowl my mom conveniently placed on the shelf of the entertainment unit, and that was to be had at snack time after school, or early in the morning on weekends which were the only two time slot my sister and I were even allowed in front of the TV. Meal time and TV never mixed in my family…EVER. Food was to be respected and savoured at the table, where discussions on every topic was encouraged, the advantage being that back in the days, even dual income families like mine still had time to sit together, blessed be the syndicate association strictly regulating work hours in every field. The school system even today still permit kids to go back home to eat as the lunch break for kids is about 2 hours, the catch is that school finishes later in the afternoon, but home cooked food is on the menu for most even today in a faster paced time where dual income is more of a norm than it was back in my childhood, parents make sure to leave already cooked food in the fridge to be reheated by whoever comes home first for lunch (adults get about 1 to 1.5 hour break at meal time too).

Now of course living in India I can’t replicate that whole model, DH works insane long hour, can’t come back home for lunch, and often all meals are just eaten with Ishi and I, what I do however do, is insist on her being seated at the dinning table away from the TV, on occasion it is on, but she doesn’t watch it while eating anyway. For years DH and I did without a dinning table, due to space constraints, so we ended up eating at the coffee table in front of the TV…the WORST mistake in my life, once you get used to eat in front of the idiot box it is though to break the habit. I did, because to be frank the concept wasn’t deep rooted in me, DH still has issues with it, and frequently eat while watching the new on TV…sigh
Sitting specially at one spot for meal is one thing, but i also apply the same logic my mom applied cooking only one meal, not giving any options, Ishi being a 3 year old can eat all we do, and that is exactly what ends up on her plate, in smaller quantities, and possibly cut in small pieces for ease of handling, if the fare is a continental one. I don’t discriminate, we cook all kind of cuisine. Of course like all 3 years old she has her preferences, and if she had her way she would eat pasta, fries and danone vanilla yogurt at every meal. It just doesn’t fly with me. Kids take several trial before liking a food anyway, so if you give up after one unsuccessful attempt that considerably limit what they will like to eat and make it challenging to put the right nutrition in their system. And no I don;t like the idea of milk powder drinks coming as a substitute, not after the age of two, beside Ishi seems to have a slight lactose intolerance, we give her fortified soy milk in the morning and at night and that is it, the rest of the day it’s water, and food, period.
Now, of course she still fusses over food, and yes green vegetables are evil, and she picks them out of her plate, unless it is broccoli which she loves, and I ignore her, if she doesn’t want to eat them, then be it, she’ll feel hungrier at the next meal, no biggie, but when she asks for yogurt instead of finishing her rice and vegetables, this is not going to happen, she threw fits over that, ended up in her room without food until the next planned meal or snack, and she understood quick that tantrums will not get me to soften on that issue. When I first introduced her to moon sprouts as the one shown in the tiffin picture the other day she hated them, she now loves them, at first cherry tomatoes were just ok, now she loves them. There are days she will have nothing to do with chicken, but if she is hungry she will eat it, so based on this, there will be a day when beans will fly, peas gulped down, and curry leaves won’t be plucked out of a poha dish.

There are two things I don’t like: cooking for the dustbin, and disguising food as junk food…the first one is a necessary evil at the time, and sadly some food do end up in the dustbin, but I am careful about quantities so the amount is small. The second is something I don’t do, it teaches nothing to the kid, other than the fact that it’s ok to eat your vegetables in a cutlet form and that you can dispense yourself with the hassle of peeling and cutting them to cook them in a more natural way, and it gives one the taste for oily fare…FAIL Call me crazy or even barbaric if you want, I feel happier if Ishita eats 4-5 nuts, and a broccoli floret and calls it a meal than seeing her wolf down something fried in which vegetables or protein or vitamin has been sneaked in. the first one at least developed her taste buds for the natural, and no toddler will ever starve themselves to death if they don’t see starchy stuff on their plate at all time…survival instinct runs deep in all species, give it some credit, your kids are smart and will eat anything if they have to.
Giving in to your kids at the dinning table and letting them eat only what they like or are used to is the best way to end up with a grown up with picky eating habits and a possibly dysfunctional diet. I’m going to brag a little her, but I grew up being put in front of a wide array of food I had to eat, my mom also refused to limit herself to the same few dishes, she would try new recipes all the time, from all type of cuisine. DH on the other hand grew up being the last kid in a desi family, putting him in the position of family pet, so that when he didn’t like one thing, his mom would immediately whip up something else just for him. As a grown up he is now extremely wary of trying new things or new textures, his vegetables need to have potatoes in, and swim in a tomato gravy, he can’t eat rice without it being dripping wet with or curd or gravy, he even finds pasta too dry for his taste, and trying some of the new “exotic” veggies you find in the market is out of question. In the continental fare he only likes dishes where...yup the food comes in a wet sauce. He doesn’t like South Indian food because it doesn’t come in a gravy and is vastly potato deficient, and the sandwiches and other more fast-food-ish fares need to come with enough tomato ketchup on the side. before knowing me he didn’t eat  fruits, he now prefers them for breakfast to anything, and a sizable amount of our grocery budget goes toward buying fresh fruits and nuts as we are three avid consumer (Ishi LOVES most fruits).

Healthy eating habits does indeed start early in childhood, and should be encouraged, and now I guess it is easy to understand why I don’t like Ishi’s school enforcing a set menu to serve that purpose but then ask us to put French fires in the box as part of the initiative. I have nothing against an occasional treat of French fries, far from it, comfort food has it’s purpose too, and beside, a handful of fries on a plate along with a protein serving and a generous amount of veggies isn’t evil. But putting it as a snack in a school meal? Definitely not!


  1. Anonymous3:10 AM

    Why not try zuchini or squash fries instead of the potato kind?

  2. Nope, that is exactly what I explained up, using other vegetables to make fries teaches her nothing exept that fried food is the only way to eat vegetables, to me this is the equivalent of turning regular food into something that looks like a junk food item to bribe them into eating the food they would otherwise refuse...As I said, potato french fries aren't evil, they should not be the main food on a plate or in a tiffin box, and they should definitely not be an everyday thing. I'd rather teach that everything in moderation is fine, than fry other vegetables and pass them as healthy food.

  3. Navya2:58 PM


    Thanks for addressing this !

    Growing up with a mindset where I was expected to finish everything on my plate or choose to stay hungry till the next meal , I find this approach of giving her the option to choose to eat very refreshing. You are right, no kid will starve to prove a point, even if he/she does - that starving can go on only for so long :D
    It is line with the way I grew up , today I will willingly try new dishes as my mom had the philosophy that I could not choose what I wanted to eat unless I cooked for it myself - if she/someone else had cooked for me, then it was my courtesy to eat everything on my plate.
    This philosophy is what I shall try for my own son when he grows up !

  4. Yeah my mom said the same, if you want something else cook it. And of course I could not cook until I was close to being a teenager and by then the spirit of pre-teen rebellion set in so of course I was not going to cook because that would have been giving in to my mom's rule so I prefered eating the regular meals and then snack in school :-)
    My mom was very clear about how we should respect food who cooked it too.
    I think it is very important to teach kids to eat a variety of food as they grow up, you never know where the future would take them. Look at me, I'm Swiss and I now live in India. If I had been in a picky eater I would probably have had a though time getting adjusted here.

  5. Hélène3:14 PM

    I was brought up like you but used a slightly different approach with my 2 children. My concern was to ensure that children had balanced meals but never force feed them.
    I ensured they had at least a taste of all foods in their plate and like you almost never presented them with fried foods.

    However I remember around 2 at one point the eldest wanted only cheese and cherries for breakfast, so we gave it to her, and after a while she came back to more common tastes. The youngest was always picky and around 2 would only eat fruit and "flan au caramel" at night. I was worried but the doctor told me it was OK because she needed mostly milk at that stage but it would be better to present her with yoghurt wich we did.

    It turns out the youngest has a sweet tooth and if she is left alone will eat all the sweet things in the house (unlike the eldest), but now she is a teenager she eats everything that is presented to her including curries and my weirdest culinary experiments. I have always explained to them since their childhood why it is important to eat this or this food, use herbs and spices and so on, but the real key I think to have your kids eating veggies is to love veggies yourself :)

  6. Yeah I'm not forcing Ishita to eat, but there is no substitute for what is on the plate, she can ask all she wants, if the vegetables on her plate aren't gone it's not going to turn into a fruit yogurt or anything she may ask for.

    I love veggies and salads here, so Ishi will grow up liking these. She loves fruit but interestingly doesn't have a sweet tooth, she isn't that crazy about cakes, muffins or even candies, when we offer her some she usually nibbles on it and then leave it. She isn't crazy about fried food either. She loves cheese it seems, and this is a snack she asks for often enough.

  7. Chase1:35 AM

    Our focus now is definitely trying to keep everything on our plates natural and not processed. We're not 100% but we're getting better and we are all feeling much much better while doing it. It's worth those initial sacrifices.

  8. I am trying more and more to go by the principle that if my grand ma could not replicate the stuff in her kitchen it's not worth buying, that said there are days when nothing else but Junk food will do :-) as long as these days are happening on occasion and not daily fine. While veggie sin India are still cheap enogh, fruits and nuts aren't, but DH and I rather go without something else than cut our budget on good food stuff, we eat out less and less for a start, what we don't spend on restaurant bills can go on spending a bit more on groceries.


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