Jan 21, 2019

Why cooking is an essential skill for all?

Recently, I came across an email campaign by Zomato titled "No cooking January". What the hell, I wondered. Are they urging people to order in all their meals for a MONTH? The email says "This month you can do more of what you like the most – stay in bed, catch an extra snooze or two, watch your favourite shows and binge on all the food you crave."

What a perfect recipe for weight gain and loss of health, that too being prescribed for a month like January when people usually make fitness resolutions!

I vividly remember this conversation that happened a couple of years back at a friend's home. It was a varamahalakshmi pooja day and many women from our apartment were at her place, including me. The friend enquired me about my cooking and then turned to another lady and said, "Anu loves cooking. I have tasted her aviyal, it was yum". The lady then looked at me in disbelief, "What? You like cooking?" in a disgusted tone. I confidently responded, "Yes, I do. What about you?" She casually replied, "No, I don't enjoy cooking. I don't have time for it. I'm an engineer". No kidding, this was her exact reply. "I'm an engineer too", I replied in a calm tone.

Firstly, sly remarks about someone's passions and interests is so uncool. Even if you don't have similar interests, you don't have to voice out your opinion so direct in front of someone's face.

Now wait, what's the connection between the "No Cooking January" and this incident? I can hear you asking.

More and more people, especially those who are breaking the glass ceiling and "going places" demean cooking as a drudgery, bore, time-consuming chore etc. They embrace frequent ordering in, takeaways, ready-to-eat processed foods etc. They are the target audience for such "no cooking" campaigns by food delivery companies. 

It is perfectly okay to order in/eat out 1-2 times a month when we are unwell, tired or want to take a break. But if the frequency increases to say, 3-4 times a week, then we should be concerned.

There has been a shift in our mindset towards exercise and fitness over the past 4-5 years. Many of us have taken up either running, gym, pilates, swimming, Yoga etc. We invest atleast 30-45 minutes everyday in engaging in such forms of exercise. The same rigor and commitment is required towards what we EAT as well. Food and nutrition contributes to a significant percentage towards our well-being. Let's not get into a debate on what the exact percentage is. Some say, it is 70%, 75%, 80% etc. 

Here are my 2-cents on why I believe cooking is an essential skill for all, irrespective of gender, educational qualification, job title, salary, perks etc.
  1. It is high time we take complete responsibility towards our daily food intake. Outsourcing to food corporations, restaurants or food delivery startups is a recipe for disaster. I have written enough about packaged foods, its ingredients and how we are being fooled by attractive health related claims. With restaurants, the problems are even more harder to identify, as we don't know what goes into making our food - the quality of the ingredients, hygiene of the staff, packing materials used. We can get food at a cheaper price if we order from food delivery providers like Swiggy, Zomato etc, but no one really knows about the quality.
  2. We don't need an elaborate 3-4 course meal every single day. Let's keep our food expectations simple enough. A simple breakfast and lunch menu can be prepared in 45-50 minutes. We have enough gadgets (mixer, food processor, chopper, blender etc) to make the process of cooking faster. "Where there is a will, there is a way" - if we decide that we will ONLY eat home-cooked foods as much as possible, then we will figure out ways to sort out the challenges.
  3. I find cooking to be therapeutic and provides a good break from gadgets/devices etc. The more we do with our hands, the more our minds are engaged. Be it any skill like painting, crocheting, knitting etc. Cooking provides the similar meditative feel. If you are connected 24/7 to your smart phone and other devices, cooking provides the perfect way to unwind and digital detox every single day.
  4. If we can't afford to spend that 45-50 min everyday, then it is time we analyze how we are spending our time on a daily basis. Are we taking up more commitments? Are we being super busy but not really productive? Are we prioritizing wrong tasks?
  5. If you are like the person above who simply hates cooking and just can't afford to spend time in the kitchen, then hire a househelp to manage cooking at home. It is still homecooked food with quality ingredients, much better than ordering in.
    Last but not the least, let's stop stereotyping women who love to cook are traditional and homely, and women who hate being in the kitchen are modern and ambitious. Please, this is so ridiculous. The media and ads portray such nonsense.
    I cook because I like to take control of my health and my family's health.

Jan 10, 2019

Book Review: Notes for Healthy Kids by Rujuta Diwekar

Ever since Rujuta announced this book, I've been eagerly awaiting its launch. Having read all her previous books, I resonate with her approach towards nutrition, fitness and health. Though I may not agree with every single tip/guideline that she shares in her books, I totally subscribe to her underlying philosophy of eating local, seasonal and traditional foods.

A few months back, I was at a book store and was skimming through another popular book on kids nutrition written by another celebrity nutritionist. I knew this book wasn't my type when I came across a strict calorie-based approach and suggesting 2 rotis for lunch, 150 ml of milk for after-school drink etc, all measured to the T. We are raising children, not robots.

Coming to "Notes for Healthy Kids", Rujuta in her trademark style describes the various factors that are impacting the health of today's children. And parents alone cannot be blamed for it. It is a systemic failure due to poor regulations, biased policies and lack of efforts from the Government.

The book gives equal importance to nutrition, exercise, physical activity and sleep. Apart from addressing parents on the importance of each of these aspects, there are also chapters that elderly kids and teens can read and relate to. Rujuta has also shared some interesting anecdotes from her interactions with her clients. The one on oats noodles with veggies cracked me up. And I was so happy to see her calling out the amounts of sugar and other artificial ingredients in packaged "health drinks" like Horlicks, Bournvita etc. Something that most Indian mothers and grandmothers believe to be quintessential in a child's diet. Towards the end of the book, Rujuta has listed down all packaged foods and she advises not to exceed 1-2 times a month. This includes packaged cheese cubes, yes, the ones which go into the snack box every single day. 

Here are three important key take-aways for me from this book.
  • Rujuta shares 4 important "food fundas" for parents, out of which I'm following 3 of them. I have eliminated most junk foods from my daughter's diet, cook local, seasonal and traditional foods for her and don't talk to her about individual nutrients like protein, calcium, iron etc. I feed her according to her appetite. When she says enough, I stop. I have never force fed her. We eat simple dinners before 8PM on most days. So far, so good. The area I need to work on are
    • HOW my daughter eats. Rujuta recommends the three S's of eating right - sit, switch off, senses. I need to follow this important rule as well. 
  • Ninety minutes of free play every single day. Given that we live in an apartment with limited outdoor space, she is bored to play in the same place everyday. I'll have to figure out something to encourage her to step outdoors and play often.
  • Stay active and help around. Involving kids with chores and tasks at home is extremely important to enable them to become more self reliant and independent. Now that my daughter is 7, I should involve her more often in various tasks at home.
The book also gives food guidelines based on different age groups, specific health situations and ailments, which can be a handy reference.

Overall, I loved reading this book and I would highly recommend it to all parents. 

Dec 31, 2018

2018 in review

Keeping up with the habit of reviewing the year gone by, here's how my 2018 went. 
I started off 2018 with a few intentions. I didn't want to label them as resolutions or goals as they sound too restrictive. 

As always, I wanted to try a few things which I've never done before. 2018 was the year when I ran my first 5K and 10K runs - 5K millet awareness run in Jan and 10K Pinkathon run in Feb. I didn't do any special trainings for the marathon as the regular yoga practice kept me more agile. My Yoga teacher taught me to concentrate on my breathing during the run and also a few stretches to do before and after the run. These helped tremendously and I completed both the runs without much tiredness or exhaustion and was able to recover quickly. Though I enjoyed the runs, I'm not planning to register for them anymore. Yes, it gives a sense of accomplishment but looking at the tangible (registration fees, petrol expenses to drive to and from the far-off marathon locations) and intangible costs (the daunting amount of plastic waste each marathon generates), I don't think they are worth it. If I want to set and achieve running goals, I might as well run around the lake nearby my apartment.

In 2017, I started to write detailed posts on ingredients of various packaged foods. Many readers appreciated the efforts and some of them even messaged me saying that they have stopped buying such packaged foods after reading my posts. I continued with reviewing more packaged foods in 2018 and analyzed over 25+ products in my blog. 2018 also brought me a few opportunities to speak to parents/communities on what goes in packaged foods. I enjoyed preparing and delivering the talks as they combine my two favorite interest areas - public speaking and nutrition. The most memorable talk was the one I gave at Bhoomi College to students pursuing a programme on sustainable living.

The no-junk-food birthday party continued this year and though it was a FLOP, I'm glad I stuck to my beliefs. I continued the same practice for Halloween celebrations as well. For most festivals this year, I prepared traditional sweets and savories. I want my daughter to be aware of various Indian festivals and I plan to continue celebrating all festivals with the same traditions that my grandmothers used to follow.

This year, husband and I went for a couple of workshops together - First, a water colour painting workshop. We both had fun teasing each other on how our painting skills are so pathetic 😉 Then we went for a minimalism workshop, a topic that is of interest to both of us. This workshop introduced me to Durgesh Nandini, who practices minimalism and zero waste among various other things. I find her ideas very inspirational and easy to connect to. Call it serendipity, I bumped into her again in the zero waste meetup in Chennai. I visited her minimalistic home and we chatted for 2 hours on various topics. I returned home with a lot of inspirations and ideas to work in 2019.

I rarely take part in any activity being organized in my apartment. Though I want to, the timings are just not working out. This year, I participated in a poetry reading session and it was truly enjoyable. I read a few poems of mine and it was so interesting to hear poetry written by others.

After repeated failed attempts to get my voter registration done, I FINALLY managed to get my voter ID card this year and I voted for the first time in Karnataka assembly elections. This milestone needs to be tracked in my review.

On the professional front, I took up a consulting assignment to identify and define a minimum viable product for a particular area in the education space. It gave me good exposure to understand the current challenges students face in showcasing their capabilities and becoming job-ready. 

This year, D moved to 1st grade, which means an early school start time and 3 boxes (breakfast, snack, lunch) to be packed by 6:45AM. This has been a big challenge for me, since I'm a slow starter in the mornings. So my weekdays begin at 5-5:15AM and I finish cooking breakfast and lunch by 7AM, send her off to school by 7:15 and head straight to Yoga class. After Yoga, my work begins immediately after a quick breakfast. Since the weekday mornings have become so rushed, I decided to take it easy on weekends and I stopped my weekend breakfast catering work that I used to offer to my apartment neighbours.

Though I had set a goal of reading 50 books this year, I managed to finish only 16 and a few are in progress.

1. Keepers of the Kalachakra by Ashwin Sanghi
2. The Big Switch by John Thomas
3. The girl who chose by Devdutt Pattanaik
4. When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi
5. Naattu Marundhu Kadai by Dr. G Sivaraman
6. So you want to know about economics by Roopa Pai
7. You can achieve more by Shiv Khera
8. Aayiram Sooriyan Aayiram Chandiran Oru Bhoomi by M.Senthamizhan
9. Job Be Damned by Rishi Piparaiya
10. So good they can’t ignore you by Cal Newport
11. The fault in our stars by John Greene
12. Amma - Jayalalitha's memoir by Vaasanthi
13.When she went away by Andaleeb Wajid
14.Ikigai by Hector Garcia
15.The Great Smog of India by Siddharth Singh
16.Unavu yuddham by S.Ramakrishnan

We did 3 long weekend trips this year - Coimbatore, Ooty and Pondicherry. And frequent visits to Chennai. Other than these, we couldn't do much of traveling. 

Tried out 20+ new recipes, didn't track the count accurately. I guess it is not needed either, as long as I have the spark to try out new recipes.

It isn't all productive as it might sound. You want to know how I wasted my time this year? I binge-watched the series - The Middle, Castle, Young Sheldon, Zindagi gulzar hai and Humsafar. I'm a human! ;-)

So that's my long review of 2018. 

Let me share my intentions for 2019 - being mindful of my time and energy, minimize things at home and consciously reduce waste, invest more time doing deep work and consciously improve my focus and attention. Other focus areas like eating healthy, Yoga, staying active, no compromise on sleep will continue in 2019.

Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and peaceful New Year 2019!! 

Dec 30, 2018

Book Review: Ramayana vs Mahabharata by Devdutt Patnaik

The title of this book leads one to believe that it attempts to show how different the 2 epics are from one another. As one reads the book however, it becomes clear that the intention of the book is two fold. It brings out the similarities as well as the differences. This is also evident from how the book is structured, its grouped into 8 sections with multiple chapters and the title of each chapter begins with "Both".

For example, "Both are family disputes over property". If you have the faintest recollection of the 2 epics, you might be able to guess what this is referring to. In the Ramayana, Bharat's mother Kaikeyi convinces Dasharatha to make Rama go into exile, which he accepts willingly. In the Mahabharata, the Kauravas trick the Pandavas to do the same through an act of gambling. 

The author show other parts of the epics that relate to the same theme. For example, in the Ramayana, the family dispute also occurs between Vali & Sugriva, who are brothers. Vali overpowers Sugriva by might and banishes him from the kingdom. Ravana also does the same with his half-brother, Kubera before establishing his rule over Lanka. The latter is usually not covered in many renditions of the epic, and thus the book also educates the reader on less known facts.

There are references into local folk retellings of both the epics. For example, in the chapter "Both have secret stories of vengeance", the author draws out a retelling that shows how Surpanakha (Ravaana's sister) is the mastermind and seeks out Rama with the intention of causing Ravana's downfall. In the case of the Mahabharata, there is another retelling that shows how Bhishma kill Shakuni's father & brothers, and that's the reason why Shakuni ensures the Pandavas & Kauravas never became friends. 

These retellings lend a darker theme to both these epics and educate the reader about how the world is clearly divided into black or white, hero vs villain. The most popular renditions of the Mahabharata show Bhishma to be a noble warrior. These retellings bring out his character flaws. 

There are also references to Greek mythologies & other religions like Judaism, Buddhism & Christianity to draw out both similarities & differences. This gives the reader a wider perspective & also brings in credibility into the author's vast knowledge of the subject at hand.

Its important to note that this book is more like a summary and does not elaborate the details in a story like mode. Hence, this caters more to the advanced reader. By no means is this book an introduction to the two great epics. If one is new to either one, the reader would be lost in a sea of facts, and not find much interest in reading through this book. 

This book is a treat for all those have read multiple versions of the Ramayana & Mahabharata, including the author's own versions (Sita & Jaya). Since both these epics are usually read independently, this book is unique and gives insight into how they are related and intertwined. 

P.S. The book was sent to me by Flipkart as part of their "bloggers initiative". The review is my honest and unbiased feedback on the book.

Dec 19, 2018

Parle Nutricrunch Biscuits Review

A few days back, there was a contest hosted in Instagram where many food bloggers were creating "innovative" and "healthy" recipes using Parle biscuits - halwa, burfi, laddoos etc. Why would we want to mess with traditional recipes, I wondered. Most of the biscuits shown in the contest photos were from the newly launched Nutricrunch brand. 

I started reading up about this brand to understand how it is being positioned. Quoting from LiveMint article,

The company’s new brand is focused more on consumers who consciously opt for healthy offerings, rather than those who choose health once in a while because of price-based promotions. Nutricrunch’s range will include products such as digestive cookies, low-sugar cream crackers, digestive Marie biscuits, etc. Some variants will include indigenous ingredients such as jowar. The range will also include products that target lifestyle issues such as weight management, sugar and cholesterol management and nutrient deficiency.

It is clear that the brand wants to be positioned under "health biscuits & cookies" segment. As a conscious consumer, it is our responsibility to examine and evaluate if the brand's offerings are true to this positioning.

Let's talk about 2 products under the Nutricrunch brand in this post.

1.Nutricrunch Digestive

I had earlier analyzed two popular digestive biscuits - McVities and Brittania Nutrichoice Digestive Zero. If you haven't read my analysis, please do check them out.

The front label claims of Nutricrunch Digestive are as follows:
High Fibre, Source of iron, zero cholesterol, vitamins & minerals
Contains Jowar: Rich in antioxidants and Low GI

Now how do we validate these claims? Simply turn to the back of the pack and check the ingredients list and nutrition facts table.

Wheat flour (40%), Refined palm oil, whole wheat flour (19%), Sugar, Sorghum flour (5%), Wheat bran (4.4%), Wheat fibre (1.2%), Milk solids, Malt extract, Raising agents (503(ii), 500(ii)), Iodised salt, invert sugar syrup, vitamins & minerals (0.2%), emulsifier of vegetable origin (di-acetyl tartaric acid ester of mono and di-glycerides)
Contains Added Flavours (artificial flavoring substances - cereal, milk, vanilla)

1.The very first ingredient is Maida which constitutes 40%. Whole wheat flour is ONLY 19%. Yes, it contains jowar but the percentage is so measly (5%). With 40% maida and 15% sugar, claiming it as "low GI" is the ultimate comedy! There are no regulations in our country and brands can claim whatever they want. It is our responsibility as consumers to ensure that these brands don't do comedy using us (Play that classic vadivelu line in your head)

2.100 gm of these biscuits contain 14.8 gm OR nearly 4 tsp of sugar AND 20 gm OR 5 tsp of unhealthy fats. Though the sugar levels are low compared to Parle-G, the unhealthy fats are quite high.

3.Does the brand really contain high fibre as it claims? Not really. 100 gm of these biscuits contain ONLY 6 gm of dietary fibre. 

4.There are also other unwanted ingredients in the form of raising agents, invert syrup, emulsifier, artificial flavours etc.

As I keep reiterating, digestive biscuits are as unhealthy as a regular Marie biscuit. Why pay a premium to buy the same maida, palm oil and sugar combo?

Let's get to the second product
2.Nutricrunch - Honey and Oats
Ah, if "oats" is mentioned on the pack, namma makkal (our people) would grab it like a superstar FDFS ticket, isn't it? ;-)

Let's see how much "goodness of honey and oats" is actually present in this pack.

Wheat flour (37.8%), Refined palm oil, whole wheat flour (18.9%), Sugar, Wheat bran (4.9%),
Oats (3.8%), invert sugar syrup, Wheat fibre (1%), Honey (1%), Raising agents (503(ii), 500(ii)), Iodised salt, vitamins & minerals (0.2%), emulsifier of vegetable origin (di-acetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and di-glycerides)
Contains Added Flavours (artificial flavoring substances - cereal, honey, vanilla)

1.Do you see the similarity between the two ingredients lists? Were you able to spot oats and honey in this list? What goodness would you get with such a low percentage - oats 3.8% and honey 1%?  The predominant ingredient is indeed maida (37.8%).

2.The sweetness is NOT from honey as you might have thought, but from sugar and invert sugar syrup. 100 gm of these biscuits contains 18.7gm of sugar (close to 5 tsp of sugar). And let's not forget the unhealthy fats from refined palm oil - 19.2 gm of total fats per 100 gms of biscuits.

3.One might have also thought that this brand might contain high fibre because of oats. No, it contains only 6gm of dietary fibre per 100 gms.

Biscuits are never healthy, irrespective of their name or positioning. Let's stop this habit of having biscuits with tea/coffee.

If you are concerned about your health, stop searching for new products in the supermarket. Get into the habit of cooking at home. Eat wholesome meals, you wouldn't need such unhealthy fillers/snacks to munch on in the first place.

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