Feb 24, 2017

The most important child nutrition tip for parents

Hibiscus tea
My little one teaches me something new about parenting and child nutrition almost every single day. Having grown up in a traditional South Indian household, I have noticed that the default food that is fed to toddlers and pre-schoolers is “dal rice” (paruppu saadham). It is nothing but rice and boiled thuar dal mashed together with ghee. I tried giving the same to my daughter from the time she was around a year old. She hated it completely and would make funny faces. I had tried multiple times for around a year or so but no luck. Though she is not a fussy eater, she just didn’t like it. I didn’t worry much since she was getting proteins from curd, cheese and other lentils.

When she turned 5 years, I served her the dal rice for lunch one day. She devoured it and said, “it’s yummy”. After that, it has become a regular now and dal rice features once every 3-4 days.

The lesson that this experience taught me is "Don't give up on healthy and nutritious foods. Keep trying”.

My daughter loves all kinds of fruits and when some of my friends notice it, they say “My son(or daughter) doesn’t eat any fruits. Maybe, an orange occasionally. Good to see D is eating papaya/pineapple”. I hear the same kind of response for foods like ragi idli - “My son wouldn’t like the colour”. Most of the times, we just assume that our children wouldn’t like healthy foods. Maybe, we might have tried 3-4 times and then just gave up. My only suggestion is “Don’t give up. Keep trying”.

The foods that children love when they are 2-3 years old would be completely different than the foods they love when they are 5-6 years old. For instance, D used to love ladiesfinger sabzi when she was a toddler. I remember making it almost 2-3 times a week. But now she just refuses to eat it. She used to hate potato earlier but now she loves it. Their taste patterns and preferences keep changing as they grow up and it is up to us as parents to continue to feed healthy meals as a conscious activity.

There are two ways by which you can implement this important principle of "Don’t give up. Keep trying".

Methodical approach:
1) Keep a log and track your child’s meals for a couple of weeks. Try serving different kinds of fruits, vegetables, grains and lentils. Note down which ones they loved (and asked for a second helping), the foods that they hated.
2) For the foods they hated, schedule a calendar entry to try the same after a month or so. Note down their reactions. Are there any changes in preferences? Has the acceptance rate increased? Maybe, they don’t mind trying a bite or two.

I know it sounds like a lot of work but believe me, it is not. A little extra effort goes a long way in inculcating healthy eating habits in young children.

Benefits approach:
Talking to children about the benefits of healthy foods really helps in increasing their acceptance. I remember telling D that hibiscus tea is good for the heart. Now whenever she sees a hibiscus blossomed in our balcony, she plucks it and asks me to make tea for her.

When my husband had severe cough a few months back, she advised him, "pineapple is good for your throat, abba. Eat pineapple”
When her teacher had throat infection, it seems she asked her to take “tulsi concoction” :-)

Involve children in meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking. Talk to them about different foods and their benefits in a language they can understand. Young children may not understand vitamins and minerals but will be able to relate to the body parts - “papaya is good for your eyes, dal will help you get muscles, watermelon will keep your body cool” etc.  Last but not the least, set an example by avoiding/reducing packaged, ready-to-eat foods yourself.

We are living in times where attractive packaging and advertisements of processed junk foods are luring our children away from healthy eating habits. Let’s take charge.

Hope you would try these two ways. If it works/helps a teeny tiny way, I would be thrilled to hear. Do share your experiences/comments below.

Feb 6, 2017

Will you give up choice for convenience?

A couple of days back, I was at a supermarket, shopping for groceries, when a new promotional coffee stand inside the premises caught my attention. There were 2 guys standing, along with few coffee packs lined up in front of them. Curiosity caught the better of me and I asked them what it is.

The tallest among the two (Let’s call him A) quickly responded, “Ma'am, this is Nescafe Latte. You can quickly prepare coffee when you come back from work or when you have guests. Please taste it”. Being a coffee lover, I thought why not and said, “Just a sample”.

A instructed the other person(Let’s call him B) to make one for me. B promptly emptied a sachet of coffee mix and added hot water till it reached half a cup. When I said “enough”, he stopped but A instructed him in a low voice that the coffee will taste sweet and that he needs to add more hot water for one sachet. B followed the instruction and he handed me a full cup of hot coffee.

Meanwhile, my little girl who accompanied me started moving to the other side of the store. So holding my coffee, I followed her. When I had my first sip, it tasted so sweet and bad. I couldn’t drink it anymore. I emptied in a garbage can and continued to proceed with my shopping.

This experience made me ponder over a few questions on “convenience”.
How far can the food brands take “convenience” as a promise and come up with a new line of products?
Are we ready to compromise on “choice” and give up control, just because something is quick and easy to make?
Are our taste buds so attuned to sugar (and salt) that we can eat any rubbish if it is sweet (or salty)?

Each of us prefers coffee in a certain way - strong / light, less sugar / more sugar. When you want to unwind after a long day of work, you would prepare coffee the way you like it and then sit back and relax. Even when we have guests, we ask a couple of questions before serving them - “How much sugar do you like in your coffee?”, “Do you prefer a strong or light one?”.

We would like to be in control of certain parameters, especially on beverages and foods we love. Just because something is quick to prepare, are we okay with giving up control over small but important criteria to us?

This experience also led me to think how a sample promotion campaign should be executed. If a potential customer is interested in trying out, all they need is a sample. In this case, a few sips of good coffee is all it takes to make a purchase decision. The organizers could have kept a jar of coffee mix and added, say 1/4 tsp of it to prepare 1/4 cup. Instead, they wanted to show me the sachet and emptied it completely into a cup. The experience left a bad after-taste and I walked away.

Though the marketer spoke about the “benefits”, the demonstration and the product experience failed to meet expectations. It would have helped if they had given attention to little details, from the customer point of view - what's the quantity of sample coffee to serve, how to display the sachets, how to help customers to dispose of the empty / partially empty coffee cups?

More than that, the fundamental question still lingers in my mind - Are we ready to give up our personal preferences for the sake of convenience? Are we “that” rushed for time or is it a perception that marketers try to create on us and that we willingly accept?

Jan 31, 2017

Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Book #5 of #50booksin2017

My theme for 2017 is “More focus, more outdoors, less screen time”. Keeping up with this theme, I picked up Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”. What a fascinating read it was!  It is certainly one of the best books I have read in recent times. Many of my questions and concerns on work culture, use of social media and embracing deep, meaningful work got answered through this book.

The author takes the time to explain what deep work means and why it is valuable and rare in today’s world. With many examples and personal anecdotes from his academic career, he reinforces the concept more clearly. He states that there are two core abilities needed to thrive in the new economy
1. The ability to quickly master hard things and repeat the process again and again
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.

Context switching leads to “attention residue” which hampers the performance. The author goes on to list three trends that decrease people’s ability to pursue deep work:
1. Open office spaces
2. Rise of corporate instant messaging
3. Need to maintain a social media presence

He then talks about how the “culture of connectivity” and “busyness as a proxy for productivity” are creating depth-destroying behaviors. The first part of this book is filled with precious insights that explain how shallow work can consume your entire day and work life, leaving you with feelings of dissatisfaction and lack of meaning and purpose.

In the second part, the author puts forth 4 rules to put deep work into practice:
1. Work deeply
      - Plan your deep work schedule - where you’ll work, time periods allocated for deep work, process to follow etc
      - Set ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours
      - Shut down work related thinking at the end of a set time - have a shutdown ritual, use downtime to replenish your attention
2. Embrace boredom
      - Wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Resist the urge to check smartphone whenever you have a few seconds of idle time (wait time in a queue, restaurant etc)
      - Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet
      - Practice Productive Meditation - focus your attention on a well-defined problem during times when you are occupied physically but not mentally - like walking, jogging, driving etc
3. Quit Social Media
      - Instead of adopting “any-benefit” thinking, use a craftsman approach to network tools selection. Does the use of a specific tool create substantial positive impact towards your professional/personal life?
      - Plan your leisure time. Don’t default to whatever catches your attention at that moment.
      - Include structured hobbies, exercise, enjoyment of good (in-person) company and good books
4. Drain the shallows
      - Schedule every minute of your work day. Plan the day in hourly blocks. Allow modifications/changes to the schedule but always have a plan of what you’ll do for the rest of the day
      - Treat your time with respect
      - Quantify the depth of every activity. Stick to a shallow-to-deep ratio
      - Prioritize tasks that leverage your expertise

This book needs time and attention to grab the finer details. So I wouldn’t advise a skim-through. I took the time to jot down key points that were relevant to me. I multi-task quite a bit, given the nature of my work. Upon reflection, I now realize how detrimental it has been to my productivity. I just can’t blame it on the work culture of today’s corporate environment and accept things the way they are. This book serves as a guide to get deep, meaningful work done amidst the cacophony of noise through endless communication and numerous things that demand your attention.

I would highly recommend this book to all knowledge workers of today’s economy, especially those who are extremely busy during the day, processing emails, juggling meetings and random discussions, high-speed context switching etc and at the end of the day, wondering where the time vanished.

Jan 30, 2017

The obsession with chubby kids

I might have raised this issue earlier too but it deserves a separate post. I'm just back from a Chennai trip (my home place) and as usual, the first question that's being asked by elders, even before we step into the house is related to my daughter's weight. I have heard the same question over and over again in the past 5 years and it irks me every time, when asked - "Why has the child become so thin?". By now, I should have got used to this question and should ignore their comments, but I simply couldn't put it aside in my mind. 

First of all, the father is never asked this question. Shouldn't the dad be equally responsible for his daughter's weight? Why do such questions get directed only at the mother? Many times, the question is framed in such a way that the fingers point at the mother - "How did you let her become so thin?". My temper raises a lot when being interrogated this way that I would be on the verge of blurting out - "If you are so concerned, why don't you take care of your grand-daughter for a month?". And I'm pretty sure she would be fed with loads of milk chocolates and pastries to "help" her gain weight, if they ever take up the offer.

My daughter was born under-weight. She has slowly picked up and is within the acceptable percentile. She has been making great progress with her height (my girl is a tall baby!). Her mother (yours truly) had been underweight till her 20s and now she is in the normal weight range. 

Grand-parents with such a weight-obsessed mindset don't give a hoot about how happy or healthy the child is. Neither they care about the child's better immunity nor they pay attention to her increasing height. All they care about is the number shown on the weighing scale and a rotund figure. 

Packaged health drinks manufacturers understand this obsession with many Indian parents (and grandparents). They cleverly market their malted drinks with an attractive tag-line targeted towards weight gain. They even go onto claim that babies with low weight have poor immunity. This results in young children being fed more milk and milk-based products/additives. No wonder, child obesity rates in urban Indian cities are on the rise. 

Children by nature hate the smell of cow's milk, especially babies who are fed their mother's milk. To make the cow's milk palatable, the techniques a few parents use is just appalling. Force-feeding, promising rewards / threatening with punishments, mixing high quantities of sugar, adding flavored syrups, mixing with packaged malt powders and what not. I had earlier written about why I'm okay with my child not drinking milk. Do check it out if you are interested.

To summarize:

(1) Let the child decide whether he/she wants to drink milk. Let's not force our beliefs on them
(2) High on Weight doesn't mean High on Health
(3) Low immunity is caused by malnutrition. It is not an indicator/outcome of low weight
(4) Focus more on whether the child is happy, healthy and strong (physically and emotionally). Weight is not a growth measure to be obsessed about

Jan 23, 2017

How we limited TV habit of our child

 Before I elaborate on the “discovery”, let me first state that I’m okay if my child watches TV or computer. I don’t think we can keep them out of it completely as the deprivation would lead to more anxiety and interest towards digital devices. But what matters most is the “time spent” in front of these devices. When my daughter was around 2 years old, we decided to disconnect from DTH services. I didn’t want her to watch any of the kids' channels that play the luring TV commercials of packaged junk food targeted towards children all day long.

Instead, we started buying her the Infobells DVDs - which are age-appropriate, educational and most importantly, without any commercials. When we gave her the TV time, she would be watching one of these DVDs. As months passed, she got so addicted to these DVDs. On top of it, due to her pestering, we ended up buying more new DVDs whenever we step into a toy store. Her collection of CDs were neatly arranged in CD pouches. Sometime, last year, we noticed that she would keep changing the CDs every 5-10 minutes. By then, she had learned how to insert a disc into the DVD player and how to operate the DVD remote. No amount of coaxing, pleading or shouting helped. She continued this behavior until one day, my husband hid the CD pouches deep inside a wardrobe. When she found out that her CD pouches were not on the coffee table, she screamed and cried for 10 minutes. Then she realized that there was one CD left inside the DVD player. She switched on the TV, watched for around 15 minutes and switched it off on her own. The crying stopped and she forgot about the pouches.

After a few days, she insisted on watching a different CD. So my husband and I told her that she needs to be a good girl and follow good manners, which Santa would note down in his notebook. Only if “good is more than bad”, he would reward her with the CD she wanted. We could see a noticeable difference in her, ever since we started this practice. Since she has access to only one CD at a time, she watches it for a short time and then switches it off on her own without being coaxed. And she has also started believing that if she needs access to another CD, she has to follow certain good practices - no whining, no crying for silly reasons, taking bath, eating less junk food, eating more vegetables etc. We made the reward sent through Santa. So when she is in school, Santa would come home and place the CD of her choice next to the DVD player :-)

I have read about the scarcity principle in Dr.Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence” and also have read about its extensive use in marketing and conversion optimization. But to see its effects on an important challenge of parenting is so satisfying.

The principle states that people are highly motivated by the thought that they might lose out on something. In simple terms, if the availability of something is less or limited, we tend to value it more.

The same principle can be applied to reducing our time spent online, binge-watching TV shows or any other behaviors we want to change, where excess availability is the problem.

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