How to Enjoy Healthy and Happy Family Cooking

We are losing our traditional and healthy food habits to modern conveniences, says author Sharmila Ribeiro, whose book on family cooking is a wonderful guide for both children and adults

By Amrita Gracias

How to Enjoy Healthy and Happy Family Cooking

There is a growing trend towards clean and fresh cooking that focuses on involving both children and adults in healthy eating practices. When Sharmila Ribeiro realised that the key to her family’s health was steering away from junk and embracing fruits and vegetables, she went one step ahead. She wrote a cookbook.

Everyday Love – A Mother’s Guide to Healthy Cooking by Sharmila is a family cookbook with over 170 interesting recipes for ‘happy, healthy family cooking.’ The book was one of the winners at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2017 in the ‘family cookbook’ category.

Sharmila spoke to ParentCircle on what inspired her to start healthy cooking, teaching her children to eat nutritious food and easy alternatives to unhealthy foods. Excerpts from an interview:

Q. Tell us what got you interested in cooking nutritious food and what inspired you to change the way you eat

A. Being an agricultural economist by profession, I used to travel often for work and really didn’t focus enough on what my children were eating. Although our dinners usually consisted of the regular dhal, roti and sabji, I never put much thought into what went into my children's lunchboxes. My family never made a fuss to eat but they were fussy eaters! My two older sons suffered from asthma and other allergies. My youngest son just wasn’t eating any fruits or vegetables and although he was otherwise healthy, he was falling sick with a cold and cough, every other week. I wanted to ensure he ate his veggies and fruits but knew I couldn’t force him. So, I resolved to use healthy ingredients in interesting ways. For instance, he didn’t eat bananas; so, I would give them to him in a banana muffin. Or I would make a spinach soup. That’s how I started. The change didn’t happen overnight; in fact, it was a process that took about four or five years.

Q. How did the book come about?

A. I experimented with various ingredients and began to document my recipes. I got interested in nutrition and I did three online courses to learn more about it. My consciousness about what my family was eating was so much more improved and I wanted to share this with other parents.

How to Enjoy Healthy and Happy Family Cooking

Q. Tell us a little about the book

A. My book is for families and aims to provide parents with a range of different recipes that appeals to all. It was written keeping children in mind because they need to start eating healthy from a young age. Otherwise, they tend to veer towards junk food. Parents don’t feed such food to kids intentionally. But often, we just tend to indulge them out of convenience.

Q. How and why have unhealthy foods become so common?

A. We are losing our traditional food habits to modern conveniences. Most of our traditional foods are good but the junk that is in all the processed food that some families buy regularly, is bad for health. It was a bit of a shocker to me! For instance, a small carton of a 300 ml packaged mango drink has about 45 grams of sugar. The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for sugar is only six teaspoons or 25 grams a day. Often, a child will consume a glass or two, but it’s just excess sugar and has no nutrition value. When you begin to understand what really goes into the stuff you put in your stomach every day, you realise that it’s not worth it.

I really want people to understand what goes into these foods we purchase off the shelf, especially those without labels like Indian sweets and snacks. We can perhaps indulge in these foods occasionally, for instance, when we travel or when you want to take a break from cooking.

How to Enjoy Healthy and Happy Family Cooking

Q. How has the change transformed your family?

A. To me, the biggest gain is the transformation of my family’s health. Even my paediatrician commented that I don’t bring my boys as often as I used to before! We just eat healthy. My kids loved to eat burgers or fried chicken outside all the time. So, I started making them all at home. In fact, when we recently ate at a fried chicken restaurant while we were travelling, my kids said that they’d never eat there again. They didn’t find it exciting anymore because we just have a better option at home! 

We haven’t gone to the extent of avoiding maida or sugar in our diet. We’ve found our middle ground. We still enjoy our desserts! Because we take the time and effort to make these foods at home, we don’t find the need to eat out any more. It just takes a bit of effort to make a healthy change to your diet. Don’t make it a stressful experience. I’d say my proudest moment is when I see my son eat bowls of vegetables on his own!

Q. Can you give us a few examples of some popular foods that are unhealthy?

A. A classic example is sugar content in fizzy drinks. My son would get a sugar high after he consumed an aerated drink. Another example is candies and sticky sweet treats. When you eat them regularly, they absolutely ruin your teeth. Deep fried foods lead to weight gain. Many kids these days do not get much physical activity. It’s important to educate our children about healthy and unhealthy foods so that they are aware of what is good for them. I taught my kids to read labels on packaged foods and drinks. If one of them insisted on a juice, I’d ask him to read the label to see if he really needed that much sugar.

Q. How we can start eating healthy?

A. Start cooking in new and interesting ways so that your family has various options and are more inclined to eat something that is interesting and tasty. For example, if your child refuses to eat a specific vegetable in a regular Indian dish, try putting it in a pizza or even in a Chinese stir fry.

How to Enjoy Healthy and Happy Family Cooking
Sharmila Ribeiro

Q. How can parents deal with fussy eaters?

A. Most children are not fussy eaters. Just like us, they have their own preferences. Kids tend to react negatively when you insist that something is good for them. We just need to take the time to find out what they like. I have learnt from my journey to keep trying new things until my kids developed a taste for a food item or ingredient. For instance, they never liked beetroot. So, added it in muffins and cutlets. And now instead of French fries, they love oven-baked beetroot, sweet potato and carrots! Healthy food can be tasty too. You just need to change your mindset and get a bit creative instead!

Dips and spreads are a great way to get kids to eat their vegetables. List out the colours of the rainbow and pick fruits and vegetables in each colour that your child can eat. Or, list out all the fruits and vegetables you can think of from A to Z. Get your little ones involved in the cooking. It makes them more interested in what they are eating. It also makes them independent and helps build other skills as well.

Q. Tell us about some healthy alternatives to common foods that children like

A. Homemade granola bars are a great alternative to cookies. They are very nutritious and can keep your children going for hours. Pasta is also considered unhealthy. But if you include lots of veggies and protein sources, and cut down on the cheese, oil and butter, it becomes a healthy food. You can even make a pizza from scratch by kneading your own dough, adding home-made tomato sauce and vegetables. Instead of just cheese, you could add a bit of grated paneer too! Once your kids eat tasty wholesome food, they most certainly won’t want junk food again.

Q. What's your advice to parents about making a change?

A. You can cook everything kids enjoy eating, at home and make it healthier. And that is really an act of love! Food preferences are entirely learnt. Educating your child about health and nutritious food is as important as schooling. Teach your kids to eat healthy from a young age. And the best way to do that is to set an example yourself!