Choosing Snacks Wisely : From One Mamma to Another

A snack can be a bag of chips, a fruit or a bowl of nuts. With more of us finding it hard to manage cooking our major meals, we have delegated the snack department to supermarkets which sport rows and rows of heavily processed snacks that are high in salt, sugar, unhealthy oils and other, far more complex ingredients, that have no business being in the food we eat! Since most of us don’t even realise the snacks we eat, it is time we pay attention to those silent fillers.

Let’s hear more about snacks and how we can choose snacks for our children from a Mamma of an adorable three-year old from Chennai.

Hi Hamsika, tell us about yourself and your family.

Hi, I am Hamsika, a working mother. I live in Chennai, India with my husband Lalith , our 3-year-old daughter Naabhya and my parents-in-law.

What are Naabhya’s meals like? Tell us a little about how you plan and prepare these meals.

Naabhya has a very regular meal pattern. I don’t prepare anything specifically for her. She eats the menu of the day at home.

Breakfast – A glass of porridge and a banana – I should mention here that the porridge powder is made from multi grains such as black urad dal, moong dal, roasted gram, wheat, sago, peanuts, almonds and cashews. When Naabhya turned two, I started adding millets such as fox tail, horse gram and pearl millet. This is prepared with milk and jaggery and is a wholesome breakfast.

Mid-Morning Snack at School – I usually pack biscuits or fruits, boiled vegetables and nuts.

Lunch – Rice with ghee and vegetable with an option of Rasam or Dal or Spinach and definitely a cup of curd.  

Evening Snack – Banana chips or Peanuts or Puffed rice or Papad with a glass of seasonal fruit juice or tender coconut. I would like to mention that in our family, we use gingelly oil for our regular cooking and prefer either groundnut oil or refined oil for fried snacks.

Dinner – I usually give her options – Roti, Dosa, Pasta or Poha and give her what she asks for. I also offer her a glass of milk before bed.

When I was a kid my grandma used to give me lunch before I rushed to school. She wouldn’t mind compromising on the last spoon of food, but not on the  ghee and curd which I believe are important to making the meal wholesome. So, I hold on to this for Naabhya. One specific thing that I have followed since she was a baby is I don’t give her white sugar. Instead, I replace with jaggery or palm sugar.

How do you define snacks and how big a role do they play in Naabhya’s daily life?

Snack for me is a simple quick  food, very easy to prepare and less messy to eat. Snacking helped me bring in the “eating by herself” habit with Naabhya. I usually choose something dry and easy to pick, so she can have it by herself. She has two parts for snacks in a day, her mid morning snack which is at school and thankfully, they have a set pattern. The evening snack is where she eats what she likes and it is between her juice and dinner.

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What kind of snacks do you offer Naabhya?

I usually buy biscuits made from a local bakery, carrot cake or banana walnut cake, homemade fries (வடகம் in Tamil, पापड़ in Hindi) masala peanuts, puffed rice, roasted gram(chickpeas gram) banana chips, peanut & jaggery chikki, rusk, popcorn or nuts.

Tell us about the snacks you definitely stay clear of and WHY?

I would say no to any snack that is vacuum sealed like chips, fries that have a lot of salt and oil and anything with artificial colour and sugar like gems, jelly etc. I also say no to aerated drinks and flavoured, colourful drinks and prefer fresh juice or tender coconut to it.

I am completely open to store-bought snacks as long as they are freshly made and have a very short shelf life.

Everywhere around us, we find heavily processed snacks that are high in corn fructose syrup, sodium and oil. How do you choose snacks from all these options? 

Snacking can be healthy if we make a little effort. My husband snacks more than me but ever since Naabhya has started eating, we both choose snacks with a lot more care. Children learn a lot from us! We always make sure to have a couple of options of what she likes (that are also healthier) at home. It is very easy to buy something off the shelf but takes a little more effort and planning to make something simple at home.

As parents, how do you create awareness in Naabhya on snacks and how to choose wisely?

We simply don’t introduce them to her in the first place. We took it as a task not to buy the heavily processed snacks, so now she knows the real taste and doesn’t like the salty or sugary stuff. There are mothers who tell me, “Oh!! Sad you are not giving her anything” but trust me she wouldn’t say no to cup of ghee dripping badam halwa from her grandmother or  freshly made murukku (twisted gram flour crisps that are popular in South India) from a local store.

A request to share with us three simple and healthy snacks that you make at home?

Puffed rice : You get plain puffed rice in the store and I just roast it in a heated pan and add salt and chilli powder to taste. You can also add a garlic pod for flavour.

Roasted Gram Laddus : You can dry roast one cup roasted gram, grind it along with one cup of jaggery in the mixer. Then, transfer the mixture to a tray and add ghee and make small laddus. They can be stored in an airtight container. This laddu works very well when Naabhya has a cold since it helps remove phlegm.

Raw banana chips : Just heat oil in a pan and fry the sliced raw banana and add salt and spice.

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Can you share a note to other Mammas on the importance of choosing healthy snacks and some tips on how  to make it possible in their busy schedules?

Snacks can actually play an important role in managing kids hunger. Always give a small quantity so that the snack does not become their meal. I find that the young kids derive great satisfaction in finishing their bowl of snack. I have also observed that avoiding artificial flavours and preservatives have a lot of impact on their behaviour. A snack can be as simple as a roasted papad from the tava and does not have to be anything fancy.

I also generally follow the traditional method when it come to food because it is already tested by our ancestors.

Making Peas Pulav

Peas Pilaf or Pulav is an aromatic rice made using a variety of spices and green peas. It is a wonderful multi-step activity that helps young children in sequencing and organising steps and coordinating their fine motor movements. The control required in spooning rice and peas, pouring water and calculating when to close the water dispenser are simple challenges that make the activity exciting. Not to mention, the aromatic spices are a treat to the olfactory and gustatory senses.

Who is this for?

I would begin around 22- 24 months

Things Required

  • 1 medium sized bowls (½ cup shelled green peas)
  • 1 medium bowl (1 cup long-grain basmati rice)
  • 1 pitcher (water)
  • 1 small bowl (2 tbsp ghee or soft butter)
  • 1 small bowl (2 – 3 cloves)
  • 1 small bowl (cumin seeds)
  • 1 small bowl (salt to taste)
  • 1 mixing ladle
  • 1 spoon
  • 1 rice cooker

Preparation

I generally do not recommend pre-measuring water in a cup because walking up and down to fetch water and learning when to close and open the water-dispenser challenges young children’s judgement and developing gross motor coordination. I also do not prefer to crowd the pulav with too many spices especially when young children are smelling, tasting and mixing.

Slicing onions are a wonderful step that can be added to the recipe. Onions can be sliced by the adult since they are tough roots. However, the tears that come while slicing onions, the spicy taste and aromatic smell of onions are all wonderful experiences to offer young children who can assist in discarding the skin, washing the onion, etc.

As always, you are the best judge of what works for your child in your kitchen!

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Let’s go and make peas pulao for dinner.” Introduce all the ingredients at the table.

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Let the child touch and feel the tough peas, the washed rice and smell the spices and ghee.

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Show the child to spoon the rice into the cooker.

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Move the peas to the front and the empty rice bowl to the back to give better access to the child. Show the child to spoon the peas into the cooker. 

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Once they have been transferred, mix the two well.

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Show the child to measure two cups of water and pour into the cooker. Let the child pour however they can.

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Transfer the cumin, cloves and the salt into the cooker.

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Bring the ghee bowl closer to the cooker and pour it into the cooker.

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Mix all the ingredients well.

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The child can carry it to the plug source and the adult can plug it in. Involve the child in putting the used items away or for wash. Once the rice is done, take in the aroma and warmth of the pulao.

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Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “Let’s go and make peas pulao for dinner.”
  • Introduce all the ingredients at the table. Let the child touch and feel the tough peas, the washed rice and smell the spices and ghee.
  • Show the child to spoon the rice into the cooker.
  • Move the peas to the front and the empty rice bowl to the back to give better access to the child. 
  • Show the child to spoon the peas into the cooker. 
  • Show the child to spoon the peas into the cooker.
  • Once they have been transferred, mix the two well.
  • Show the child to measure two cups of water and pour into the cooker. Let the child pour however they can.
  • Transfer the cumin, cloves and the salt into the cooker.
  • Bring the ghee bowl closer to the cooker and pour it into the cooker.
  • Mix all the ingredients well.
  • The child can carry it to the plug source and the adult can plug it in.
  • Involve the child in putting the used items away or for wash.
  • Once the rice is done, take in the aroma and warmth of the pulao.

Note

Since the recipe calls for several small bowls, as you finish transferring, you can tell the child that the bowl is empty and move it to the side. Washing Rice and Shelling Peas are separate activities which can be viewed here. 

Shelling Peas

There is something delicious and sweet about fresh, juicy peas that frozen peas can never offer. Shelling peas may seem futile for many adults, but the young child absolutely enjoys the challenge. There is enough stimulation to hold their attention and refine their fine motor skills, not to mention the sheer joy in discovering tiny peas hiding in each pod. 

Who is this for?

I would begin around 22 – 24 months 

Things Required

  • 2 small bowls – one for the pea pods and one for the peas
  • 1 plate – to save the pods for later use
  • Access to more pea pods in case child wants to shell more

Preparation

Sometimes, the pods come along with the stalk. In that case, we need to show the child to pull the stalk along the seam before we shell them open. I have used peas without the stalk in this. I generally prefer to use firm and plump pods because these are easier for the young hands to break open.

As always, you are the best judge of what works well in your kitchen for your child!

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Remember, we bought some fresh snap peas in the market? Let’s shell them.” Introduce everything at the table, else tell the child what we need and gather them together.

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Show the child the seam that runs along the pod on both sides.

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Place the pod on the table to give more support (for the child). Using the support of the non-dominant hand near the opening, press thumb of dominant hand into the seam to create an opening. 

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Use both thumbs  in widening the opening.

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Point to the peas in the pod.

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Child and you can pull each pea out and place in the bowl for the peas.

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Show the child to put the used pods in the compost or save them for later. Let the child press and open the pod however they can. Alternatively, you can give support by creating the first opening for very young children. 

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Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash. 

Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “Remember, we bought some fresh snap peas in the market? Let’s shell them.”
  • Introduce everything at the table, else tell the child what we need and gather them together.
  • Show the child the seam that runs along the pod on both sides.
  • Place pod on the table to give more support (for the child)
  • Using the support of the non-dominant hand near the opening, press thumb of dominant hand into the seam to create an opening.
  • Use both thumbs  in widening the opening.
  • Point to the peas in the pod.
  • Child and you can pull each pea out and place in the bowl for the peas.
  • Show the child to put the used pods in the compost or save them for later.
  • Let the child press and open the pod however they can. Alternatively, you can give support by creating the first opening for very young children.
  • Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash. 

Share a Meal with your Child

What is a Meal? 

A meal is a coming together of a group of people, sharing their day with each other, valuing each other’s presence, being grateful for the food that they are eating and leaving everything else to just be there for one another! A meal is so much more than eating; a meal implies a family! 

In the book Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan says, “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilisation: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences and arguing without offending.

When a meal carries so much value, why is it that children, who are learning what it means to be a family, have little to no experience of eating as a family?

The Real Struggle behind Eating

With young children, eating is a continuous and isolated activity that is done at a different time from the rest of the family. It always begins with a parent taking a spoonful of food to the child’s mouth and ends with the child turning their face away. This is when desperation and impatience set in and to somehow navigate this trying time, we devise techniques and strategies to ‘trick’ our children into eating. 

The first is to try and distract them with a toy or two, or point to different things in the room and feed them without their conscious involvement. If this doesn’t work, we resort to the Ipad technique and while the child is completely engrossed in the visuals, we quickly sneak in one too many spoonfuls. If neither of these work, we resort to threats! Now, threats always come in varying degrees of intensity, from denying them access to their favourite toy to telling them that they will be left behind while the rest of the family goes to the park. The other technique is chasing them around the house while they distractedly run from one object to another with no recollection of having eaten. If none of these work, we resort to pleading, “Please have just one more spoonful for me” or “See, I am sad now that you are not eating.” After much coaxing, cajoling, tears and threats, our children finish one bowl of rice only for us to realise that the same techniques have to be tried again, in exactly a few hours!

While these techniques that we employ may temporarily do the trick and even seem harmless at the moment, they leave lasting impressions. If we want our children to value meal-time as family time, eat more consciously and develop a holistic relationship with food, we need to first have a place for them at the table and share our meals with them!

A family table with a one year old and two six-year olds.

Share a Meal with your Child – Why?

  • Being Valued 

Having a place at the table communicates to children that they are an integral part of the family and that their presence is valued. Families must make the effort to eat at least one meal a day together. Regardless of the age of the child, we can seek participation at the table. Even a six month old can nibble on a piece of fruit while being a part of the table. By having a place at the table, we communicate to the child that meal-time is family time.

  • An Opportunity to Imitate & Imbibe 

At the table, children get to watch how different members of their family (& friends) eat, how they pass around food, and take turns serving. Eating by themselves at the table also gives them the opportunity to watch other members and practice repeatedly. It is important to remember that children learn purely by observation and repetition! So, the more effort we take to eat together, the more opportunities for them to observe and learn.

  • Seeing Food as a Whole 

Children often eat without ever knowing what they are eating. In chasing and running from one room to the other and watching the Ipad whilst completely unaware of what is going into their mouth, children never get to actually see food on a plate. At the table, they get to see rice and beans, roti and dal, the various eating utensils and cutlery all come together as a whole. Meal-time is also when we can give them tiny tastes of the different dishes and let them experience the variety of our culture.

  • Learning the Art of Conversation 

It is important for children to be part of the conversations that happen at the table. While eating, we can show them how to acknowledge the effort and love that has gone into cooking. As children grow older, they will also begin to participate and contribute, thus becoming grateful for the food and each others contribution. At the table is also where we can draw attention to the different dishes and the ingredients that have gone into it. Involve them and acknowledge their response whether it is a coo, a babble, a nod or a phrase. This elevates the experience of eating and makes it joyful and something to look forward to. 

We must help children create a healthy association with food and cultivate a love for it. When eating comes with conversations, a place at the table, an opportunity to taste different dishes, it becomes much more than a dreaded affair that ends in tears. By sharing a meal with our children, we not only show them what it means to be a family, but also give them the freedom to take food to their mouth! We respect and value their presence and gradually, they begin to associate food with family time, conversations and an opportunity to feed themselves.