Mar 31, 2020

CoronaChronicles - Entry #2

I'm mostly an indoors person even before the lockdown started. I prefer being at home than roam around in the city. I prefer home-cooked food than eating in a restaurant. I prefer solitude than being in a crowd. So I have no complaints about staying at home. Of course, things are different whenever I travel. I like to explore the new town/village/city than stay in a hotel room/resort. I like to explore the local food, local markets and even the grocery stores in a new place.

Cooking is something I truly enjoy but I don't do the other household chores like washing dishes, sweeping, mopping etc, thanks to my house-help who's been so supportive and reliable for the past 11 years. We have asked her not to come because of the lockdown. 

For the past 10 days, I have also been managing these other chores. This experience has helped me realize a few things. Firstly, I'm extremely grateful to my house-help for taking care of these chores on a daily basis.

On days she used to take leave, I would feel bogged down by the overflowing sink, filled with dishes to be washed. I used to think that I hate doing dishes but I have now realized that's not the case. In the past few days, I've been doing the dishes 3-4 times a day. Clearing up a few dishes spread over multiple times in a day is a far easier task than tackling all of them once. 

Sweeping the house is such a good workout activity, especially if I sit on my toes and sweep the floors. Mopping is also a good workout for the arms and shoulders. Our grandmothers managed all tasks by themselves, without any house-help. I'm sure I can manage too, during this unprecedented situation.

I have always been vigilant about food wastage. Careful planning, making lists of stocked up ingredients, eating leftovers for the next meal, cooking the right quantity for my family - all have become habits over the past years. This practice has come in so handy during this lockdown when supplies are limited.

I have managed to figure out a routine during weekdays that enable me to accomplish all that needs to be done at home, at work and for myself. Kickstarting the day with a 30-40 min Yoga practice gives me enough energy to handle all the tasks. I certainly don't want to wear the superwoman hat, taking all the load on myself. Prioritization, delegation and accepting the fact that not every day is the same - these are what's keeping me sane. As I write this post, there is a pile of laundry in front of me that needs to be folded. It can wait. 
To be continued.

Mar 25, 2020

CoronaChronicles - Entry #1

Mar 11th 2020, 9:30 AM - It's exactly 2 weeks back but feels like such a long time ago. I left home to head to my office. As I was walking down the road, I noticed a few people wearing masks but the roads were lined up with busy morning traffic as usual. I came across news about a person visiting Bangalore from US who was tested Covid19 positive. It was news of concern but I didn't realize the huge changes that would happen in a span of 2 weeks. Anyway, coming back to that morning, I booked an Uber and was waiting for the cab to arrive at my pickup spot. After around 15 minutes of wait time, the cab arrived. Amidst the continuous honking, I heard the music playing from the cab driver's earphones and I recognized the tune instantly - "thooliyile aada vandha" from Chinna Thambi. "OMG, how long has it been since I heard this album! Must be at least a couple of decades", I wondered. The magic of Illayaraaja just took me to the memorable times of the 80s and I was tapping my legs happily. The songs from the album played one after another in Kannada. Language doesn't matter when there is nostalgia and soulful music. For a change, I actually enjoyed the whole trip without bothering about the traffic, honking, irresponsible driving etc.  I reached my office, attended a meeting and then returned home in the afternoon. 

From that afternoon, I haven't stepped out of my apartment, except for a couple of visits to the supermarket next door.  These 2 weeks seem like a month and March seems to be never-ending - 6 more days to go. Amidst the panic and chaos, I try to push myself to see the positive side of things and keep myself occupied with productive activities. 

My immediate family members are with me but I'm concerned about the well-being of my other family members living in different cities and countries.

I start off my day on a positive note, practice Yoga for 40-45 minutes, cook breakfast and lunch, sit down to focus on my work, have lunch, play with my daughter for some time, back to kitchen to make a quick evening snack and then dinner. There are enough and more work to focus on within my home, now that we have asked our house-help not to come. Doing dishes 3-4 times a day, folding clothes, putting the washed clothes out for drying, sweeping, mopping and the list goes on. By the end of the day, I'm extremely tired, both mentally and physically. I'm grateful that I have a roof to live under, enough supplies to cook and eat healthy meals. But there are also times when I'm worried about what's happening all over the world and quite concerned when things would return to normal. 

I also question myself, "What's normal? Were we leading normal lives before?" 

Maybe, Mother Earth wanted a break from us humans. Maybe, she is telling us, "Enna aattam aadineenga ellaarum? konjam adangunga".

To be continued.

Mar 14, 2020

How to increase weight in children?

The one frequent question I get as a blog comment and Instagram DM is "Which health drink should I buy for my kid? He/she is underweight"

Through this article, I want to share my perspectives as the mother of an 8-year old daughter. I'm neither a pediatrician nor a nutritionist. 

My daughter has been underweight all these years, but taller as compared to children of her age. She was born underweight as well.

First and foremost, weight is just ONE growth parameter of a child. We need to consider all other parameters such as height, activity level, immunity and overall well being. How active the child is throughout the day? Does he/she catch a cold/fever frequently? Is the weight increasing slowly or is it stagnant for a long time?

One of the important factors that determine a child's weight is genetics. So if you or your spouse were underweight during your childhood, your kid might follow a similar growth pattern.
The other thing to consider is that kids have certain growth spurts, during which they tend to put on some weight. This especially happens during pre-puberty years. So if your child is underweight around 7-8 years, do believe that they will catch up during these periods of growth spurts. If the kid is already overweight, then there is a higher chance that he/she might exceed their normal weight range. It then becomes inconvenient for the kid to carry around that extra weight. As they turn 12-13, they become extremely conscious of their weight and start skipping their meals or turn to stress eating.

Kids don't need any of the packaged health drinks from the market. Let's change our perspective first. Growing up in 80s and 90s, most of us who are now parents presume that we need to buy some brand or the other by default - Horlicks, Boost, Bournvita, Pediasure, Complan etc. Let me reiterate this again - Kids don't need any of these drinks to put on weight or increase height. These drinks are loaded with sugar and other unwanted synthetic ingredients. 

Buying a packaged drink and mixing it with milk might be an easier, convenient option but definitely NOT the right choice for our kids' health. As parents, let's search for natural, homemade solutions. In order for this to happen, we need to put in that little extra effort (menakkedal in Tamil). 

If you are a parent with young kids (< 5 years old), the thing to focus on is NOT to pick the most expensive, health drink from the market BUT on inculcating healthy eating habits in your kids. Here are a few ideas:
  1. Set an example. Young kids love to emulate their parents. They may not listen to what you say, but they are observing you. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Include more salads in your diet. Eat a wholesome, homemade, fresh meal.
  2. Don't get fixated on their height and weight. Stop comparing your child's weight with other kids in your neighborhood. Stop discussing these topics during birthday parties or get-togethers. Ignore if anyone passes snide remarks on your child's weight. I know it is difficult but it is very much required for your mental peace.
  3. Prepare your child's meal by yourself, if possible. Make sure to include a variety of vegetables and greens when you plan a meal for your family. 
  4. Stock up on fresh fruits once every 3-4 days. Make sure that they are visible on the kitchen counter. Serve freshly cut fruits for mid-morning and evening snack. Make fresh fruit juice, lemonade or smoothies, especially during summer. Fruits and vegetables will ensure they get their daily dose of vitamins and minerals, which will improve their immunity.
  5. Plan for three wholesome meals for your child. Jot down a list of foods that your kid loves. The daily menu doesn't have to include ONLY your kids' favorites but mix and match in such a way that your child's favorites feature now and then. If your child loves pasta, include it in the menu once a week, with homemade pasta sauce and a lot of veggies. The same goes for noodles. 
  6. If your child drinks plain milk without a fuss, continue the same. If he/she doesn't like milk, please don't force-feed it or mix unwanted health drink powders to it. Milk IS NOT THE MOST important food for your child. Let's change this commonly held opinion. The nutrition required for kids are available in a wide variety of cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. There are plenty of plant-based sources that are rich in calcium and protein.
  7. There are a variety of healthy drinks that one can make at home - multigrain health mix porridge, sprouted ragi porridge, boiled rice porridge, badam milk, mixed nuts kheer, moong dal kheer (made with jaggery and coconut milk). You can try out many such options (plenty of recipes available online) and figure out what your child prefers. As I said earlier, these require a little bit of effort which we need to invest for the sake of our child's health. Do we want to outsource this crucial responsibility to a profit-focused corporation?

Mar 11, 2020

Best sources of Soluble Fibre

I had earlier compiled a list of foods that are high in total dietary fibre, based on the Indian Food Composition Tables (IFCT 2017). Do take a look at the list if you haven't seen it earlier.

In this post, I wanted to write specifically about the importance of Soluble Fibre and its food sources.

Soluble Fibre, as the name suggests is soluble in water and turns into a gel-like substance. It binds with the cholesterol particles and helps to flush them out of the body, thereby reducing the risk of the onset of heart disease. Soluble fibre also helps to avoid sudden spikes in blood glucose levels. It prevents us from overeating, thereby aiding in weight management. It also helps in regular bowel movements and prevents constipation.

If you do a Google search for the best sources of soluble fibre, the top results will most likely indicate Oats/Oatmeal. Though oats are a good source of soluble fibre, it is NOT a local grain (in India). Most of the packaged quick-cooking oats brands that are easily available in supermarkets and online grocery stores are highly processed to the extent that the fibre is mostly stripped off.

According to the Indian Dietetic Association, 30 gm of total dietary fibre per day is recommended. I couldn't find any details on RDA specific to soluble fibre though. As per this source, soluble fibre contribution needs to be around 1/4th OR 7-8 gms per day.

Here is the list of top plant-based sources that are rich in Soluble Fibre.

Soluble Fiber
(gm per 100 gms)
Bajra (Kambu)2.34
Samai (little millet)2.27
Bulgur wheat2.25
Varagu (Kodo millet)2.11

Field bean5.25
Black gram whole4.94
Black gram dal4.35
Red gram whole3.15

Green leafy veg
Curry leaves3.02
Agathi leaves2.6
Drumstick leaves2.1
Methi leaves1.7
Bathua greens1.68
Beet greens1.43

Broad beans2.03
Lotus root1.84
Onion, stalk1.45
Sweet potato1.4
Carrot, orange1.37
Raw mango1.34
Cluster beans1.28
Peas, fresh1.28
Colocasia (Arbi)1.2

Bael fruit3
Custard apple1.93
Raisins, golden1.53
Guava, white1.45
Wood apple1.44

Condiments & Spices
Methi seeds19.92
Poppy seeds11.06
Coriander seeds9.54
Cumin seeds4.62
Long pepper4.57
Mustard seeds3.47
Ajwain (Omum)3.38

Nuts & Seeds
Linseeds (Flaxseed)4.33
Sesame seeds3.5
Sunflower seeds2.29

  1. Barley and millet varieties are a good source of soluble fibre. They are also packed with various vitamins and minerals. Including at least one millet variety a day will help us get a good amount of soluble fibre in our daily diet.
  2. Most legumes and pulses contain good amount of soluble fibre, along with required protein. Mix and match various millets and legumes over a period of a month. 
  3. As you can see, most of the local Indian fruits and vegetables are rich in soluble fibre. We don't need imported veggies to whip up an exotic salad, in order to meet our fibre requirement.
  4. Having done similar analysis to find out foods rich in calcium, iron, folate etc, I just can't help but wonder at this nutrient dense greens - "curry leaves". Including this green on a daily basis offer tremendous health benefits. No wonder, most of our South Indian recipes are never complete without a sprig of curry leaves. If you have been picking the leaves and keeping them aside on your plate, please refrain from doing that anymore. Chew the leaves to get the complete benefit of this powerful greens.
  5. Flaxseeds and sesame seeds are also high in soluble fibre, apart from the fact that flaxseeds are rich in Omega 3 - alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) and sesame seeds are rich in calcium and iron
  6. Last but not the least, methi seeds (vendhayam) is super rich in soluble fibre - around 20gm per 100 gm. It is generally advised to soak a tsp of methi seeds overnight and eat the soaked seeds + water the next morning for the best results. But if you find it bitter, you could add methi seeds to your daily dishes as much as possible - a tsp in dal/kadhi/sambhar/vathakuzhambu/morkuzhambu. 
If you have checked out my earlier posts on foods rich in calcium, iron, folates etc, I'm sure you would notice that there are many ingredients that keep repeating in each list. This gives us a clear indication that we don't really need to focus on individual nutrients per se BUT focus on ensuring a balanced diet rich in whole grains, legumes, local vegetables, fruits, green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds, along with spices. 

Mar 10, 2020

Privacy - where to draw the line?

The year was 2000. I created my first email ID, sitting at an Internet browsing center, having paid Rs.50 per hour. That weekend, we had a distant relative visiting our home. My dad tells this uncle, "She has a new email address". The uncle asks me, "Give me your email ID. I will make a note of it". As he pulls up a small notepad from his pocket, I announced my email ID to him. He was shocked that I had revealed my name in my email ID. He sternly advises me, "You should never expose your personal details in your email ID. Keep it generic and cryptic". I just nodded my head and didn't pay much attention to his advice.

The year is 2020. A few days back, I was watching a YouTube video where a vlogger was unboxing some stuff from an Amazon package. Her physical address was clearly visible on the bill stuck to the front of the package. Either she forgot to mask the information while editing the video or she didn't really mind if her address is now publicly visible to anyone. 

Coincidentally, on the very same day, I was casually browsing through Netflix and stumbled upon this movie - "The circle". What caught my attention was the fact that Emma Watson is the lead. I didn't know anything about this movie or the book it is based upon. The movie kept me hooked for the most part. I didn't quite like the ending though. There were many loose threads that weren't explained well. Anyway, the story concept is something that intrigued me. In the movie, Mae (played by Emma Watson) chooses to wear a video camera ALL THE TIME and share her day with everyone, under the term "going transparent". I don't want to reveal too much about the movie. Do give it a watch.

There are several vloggers on YouTube who share every little detail about their lives - their homes, jogging tracks, locality, places they visit frequently etc. Youtube has become an effective monetization medium for such vloggers but at what cost, is something I wonder. The family members, including their kids are being shown in such vlogs. Kids' school buses, timings, school locations, tuition locations etc are shared without any hesitation. Who is responsible for these young kids' privacy and security?

This question of where to draw the line when it comes to privacy is something each of us needs to ask ourselves. There is no right answer and it is up to each of us to decide how much of our personal lives we are willing to share AFTER clearly understanding the repercussions. Are we okay with involving our little kids in our journey to become an influencer? Are we fine with sharing so many personal details, just so that our subscriber count crosses 100K? 

YouTube is just ONE medium where we are divulging so much of our personal lives knowingly by carrying a video camera around ALL THE TIME. This phrase "Data is the new oil" isn't just a fad. It is mind-boggling how much personal data is being collected by many of the apps that we use daily. Our home address, where we are currently, what we eat daily, which restaurants we frequent, the trips we take, where we go for evening walks, at what speed we walk/jog, our heart rates, our sleep routines, how much exercise we do, what groceries we buy on a weekly/monthly basis, what veggies/fruits do we eat, what packaged foods we buy frequently, how much expenses we make on our credit card, where do we save, how much money/time do we spend on entertainment - the list goes on and on. Agreed, all this info is dispersed across many servers and owned by many apps. This data is being used to personalize our experiences and auto-recommend products/services that would be most relevant for us.  But there are also possibilities where the intentions may not be ethical and our data could be used for reasons solely tied to the brands' growth strategy.

The intent of this post is to share my thoughts on this topic and not to debate about the various benefits technology offers in exchange for our data. As a first step, let us at least be aware of the various gadgets/apps we use on a daily basis and the kind of information we voluntarily share.

Feb 20, 2020

5 lessons from Elevate app on creating an engaging product

One of the common work-related challenges that I face in my professional responsibilities (irrespective of B2B / B2C, startup/established organization, mobile app/web product etc) is how to make a product more engaging so that the adoption and retention rates are high. 

What motivates a user to try out a software product? What's required to sustain the same motivation for a longer time? As a product manager, what do I need to do to enable both? 

Over the past 6 months, I've been using this mobile app called Elevate and I'm loving it. Except for a few days, I have been maintaining a solid streak of using this app daily. What makes me come back to this app every single day? Why am I loving it? Let me try to jot down the answers to these questions from a "user" POV and capture the key lessons from a product management perspective.

I came across this app through an Instagram Sponsored Post. I don't remember the exact phrase used in the ad, but something on the lines of being a "trainer for your brain". This was the external trigger but there was already an internal trigger running in my mind. I was grappling with these questions - Why am I becoming so dependent on the calculator on my phone/laptop for silly calculations? What happened to my mental arithmetic capabilities that helped me a great deal during school and college? I shouldn't be taking my mobile phone out for simple calculations like 18*12 ! This was the first and foremost factor that motivated me to install this app in the first place. 

Though the product is extremely engaging, there is also one more solid reason why I use this app every day. My 8-year old daughter loves the app and she sits beside me while I'm playing. She encourages me to do better and whenever I get a High score, she gives me a high-five. And she reprimands me as well when I lose all my lives 🙂 Even on days when I forget to play, she reminds me and we sit together to play.

Lesson 1: External triggers will ONLY resonate IF there is already an internal trigger/push.

Every day, the free version displays 3 different games pertaining to Reading, Writing, Speaking and Math skills. And you don't get to see the 3 games upfront. When you open the app and start your training, the three games reveal themselves one after another. No two days are the same. The app provides a wide variety of games and there is an element of surprise to find out which games are part of a day's training. The app doesn't reveal all the games available to a free user in one go. As the user crosses certain milestones, new games are unlocked slowly and steadily. Each game has different music, varied sets of elements and pictorial representations, so you don't feel a sense of monotony.

Lesson 2: Provide scope for variety and surprise the user with new content. For gaming or social media apps, this is easier to accomplish, but we can still think of ways to make the experience more engaging for mundane apps as well. Why does business software need to be static and boring?

As you play the three games in a given day's training session, the app rewards you with Good Job, Great Job and Excellent Job, depending on your performance. And the visual representation of this scoring is done with the help of a hexagon. The fact that the hexagon gets completed ONLY if you get an Excellent Job is such a fascinating trigger. The need for completion/closure pushes you to play the same game until you hit the Excellent Job, thereby completing the hexagon. The visual elements typically used in similar gamified applications are a CIRCLE or a PROGRESS BAR, but for some reason, I find the use of a hexagon to be unique in this case. I don't remember the number of points I score in a given game, but if I hit the full hexagon mark, it gives me a sense of achievement.

Lesson 3: Human need for accomplishment/achievement can be such a powerful motivating factor. When deciding on the gamification strategy, it is not about the number of badges or scoring structure. The main objective should be to think through how we can get a user to experience a sense of achievement at the end of a session/workflow.

The app provides interesting insights into your growth across varied skills. As a person who loves interpreting charts and graphs, I do spend some time going through my Performance charts every single day. It gives me interesting comparisons of my levels relative to other Elevate users. It doesn't bombard me with too many metrics but only the most relevant ones. Though I use the app every single day, I spend a max of 15 minutes per day, which includes my training session as well as the time I look through the Performance charts. I don't like playing addictive games as they consume so much time and attention. After the Farmville experience back in 2010, I consciously stay away from gaming both on my phone and my laptop 🙂

Lesson 4: Products that require high engagement needn't necessarily take up all of a user's time. Social media apps can also be better designed so that a user can spend 10-15 min per day and yet feel motivated to come back to the app every single day. Of course, that may never be prioritized by the current social media behemoths who monetize users' data and attention.

Elevate delivers on the promise of being a trainer for my brain. I do feel a sense of improvement in my writing, reading and Math skills ever since I started using the app. I'm more conscious of the choice of words I use while writing my blog posts. I'm more accurate while doing simple mental Math calculations. I'm able to grasp the meaning and context better while reading. These are in fact the desired outcomes of any user who signs up for Elevate. It is not about the badges, scores or streak days BUT more about whether the app delivers value.

Lesson 5: As Product Managers, we tend to focus more on the metrics (DAUs, MAUs, event tracking, workflows etc) but it is more important to measure whether the user feels a sense of progress. As Kathy Sierra says, "Upgrade your user, not your product. Don't build better cameras, build better photographers"

Any Elevate fans reading this? 🙂 What do you love about this app?

Feb 10, 2020

Book Review: When coffee and kale compete by Alan Klement

As a product enthusiast, I have been exploring the concept of Jobs-to-be-done framework and its applications in building products customers love. The popular milkshake example by Clayton Christensen was such an "aha" moment when I read about it a few years back. I had jotted down a few thoughts on the same topic. Intercom's e-book on Jobs-to-be-done is a fantastic resource to understand this theory in detail. A few people that I have found to be sharing interesting perspectives on JTBD are Kathy Sierra, Samuel Hulick, Ryan Singer, Des Traynor, Paul Adams and Alan Klement. Kathy Sierra's Badass: Making users awesome is such an interesting book that I read a few years back. That reminds me, I should revisit it soon.

I recently finished reading this book on JTBD / Customer Jobs theory written by Alan Klement titled "When coffee and kale compete" (available on Kindle Unlimited).

If you are unfamiliar with the Jobs concept, the author takes the time to explain the need and context of why this theory is important in today's context. So this book could be the first step for anyone stepping into the world of JTBD. He explains the concepts along with relevant case studies of how various organizations have been applying this framework to create value.

The basic shift in the way we talk about "value creation" is summed up in this sentence
"Instead of attaching value to what products are, value should attach to what products do for customers."

In today's age of Creative Destruction, where new innovations disrupt the sales of incumbent ones and go on to replace them, Customer Jobs theory helps us to understand why customers buy a product to complete a Job to be Done. It is also imperative to not just focus on customers' needs and expectations of today but also create new systems that help customers make progress.

The author emphasizes on approaching Jobs as a way towards making progress. The basic premise that Self-betterment is a core human behavior helps us to unravel this idea "jobs-as-a-measure-of-progress" in a structured way. It makes sense across all use cases, irrespective of B2C or B2B.
What's the desire every customer has to improve themselves and their life situations?
How customers imagine their lives being better when they have the right solution?
"We can't build the products of tomorrow when we limit ourselves to the needs and expectations associated with the products of today. Instead, we should focus on what never changes for customers: their desire for progress."

The author defines JTBD as
"A Job to be Done is the process a consumer goes through whenever she aims to transform her existing life-situation into a preferred one, but cannot because there are constraints that stop her."

The few key principles behind Customer Jobs theory are
  • Favor progress over outcomes and goals
  • Customers need to feel successful at every touchpoint between themselves and your business
  • Design your product to deliver customers an ongoing feeling of progress
  • Focus on delivering emotional progress and not focus solely on functionality

The case studies are quite detailed and showcase how the Jobs theory can be used across a wide set of use-cases. The chapters that talk about the four forces of progress - pushes, pulls, inertia and anxieties were quite insightful. Pushes and pulls are part of demand generation, whereas inertias and anxieties lead to demand reduction.

A few questions I had jotted down that I plan to use for my work:
What's the business situation that prompts customers to take action?
What are the struggles/aspirations that push customers to take action? => helps us to unravel the motivation for change
What are the events that influenced the customer to take action?
What does progress mean for our customers? Not just in terms of functionality, but also emotional progress.
How does his transformed life look like, after he has adopted our platform?
What other solutions have they tried? Is it a single solution or a combination of different solutions?
What did they like or don't like about these solutions tried? => helps us to unravel what they value.
From which budget will our product take money from? => competition is a zero-sum game
What are those triggering events that would push the customers move from the solution tried to a new one?

This book has loads of insights and questions that would make you stop and ponder. If you are an innovator, product manager, product marketer or startup founder, I'm sure you would have plenty of takeaways. I highly recommend that you check out this book.

Feb 9, 2020

FAQs on Millets

In 2014, I wrote an article on how to incorporate millets in your daily meals. Whenever someone asks me about millets, I point them to this article. It's been 6 years and so much has changed (for the better) with respect to millets - increased awareness, easy availability, tons of recipes online and proven effectiveness towards various health issues. I've been wanting to write a follow-up article to address a few questions that I get repeatedly on millets. I have compiled the answers below for quick reference. If you prefer a video version, I have made one (basic phone recording though). Or if you prefer the written word, continue further :-)

(1) How to buy millets?
When you buy, make sure you select the unpolished variety. Many supermarkets have polished varieties that are pristine white in colour, especially varagu(kodo millet), saamai (little millet) and kudiraivali (barnyard millet). 
Varagu is pale brown in color, saamai is pale cream-ish in color. Kudiraivali has tiny black spots on each grain. Thinai (foxtail millet) looks slightly yellowish. 

(2) How to plan and buy millets?
My suggestion would be not to overstock all varieties since I have noticed tiny black bugs infesting most of these grains after 2-3 months. For a family of 3-4, I recommend buying 2-3 varieties of 1/2 kg each.

I classify millets into two categories:
  1. Ragi (finger millet)/Kambu (pearl millet)/Solam (sorghum/jowar) - more suited for breakfast/tiffin items
  1. Thinai/saamai/kudiraivali/varagu/panivaragu - can be used for both breakfast and lunch
So I usually stock up 1 variety from the first category and 2 from the second category. This would last me for around 2 months, post which I would rotate the grains. This way, we get a variety of nutrients from these millets without any wastage.

(3) When to eat millets?
I typically include millets for breakfast and lunch. I don't prefer them for dinner as they are quite filling and take time to digest.
If you are new to millets, plan 2-3 meals per week where you use ONE variety of millet in your main meal. Take it slow. Observe how your body is able to absorb - whether you feel comfortable or not. Gradually increase the type of millets used and the frequency. After a year or so, you can plan for 1 meal a day based on a variety of millets.

(4) Can we mix 2-3 millets in a single meal?
Usually, it is recommended not to mix multiple grains in a single meal. But my answer is it depends on each individual's digestive capacity. If you find combining millets to be on the heavier side, avoid it. There are no hard and fast rules here, try and experiment with what works for you.
If millets are dry roasted and ground, it should be okay to include as a mixed millet sathumaavu kanji / porridge.

(5) Can we eat millets in all seasons?
Yes, definitely. A few points to keep in mind. Some of the millets tend to be heat-inducing IF consumed in large quantities.
Kambu/Ragi/Thinai - supposed to be heat-generating. So if you include either of them in summers, include cooling foods such as water-based vegetables, buttermilk and shallots along with your meal.
Solam - a summer grain. Can be easily consumed for breakfast in the form of idli, dosa, oothappam or paniyarams.
Ragi  - best suited during monsoon and season shifts. It helps to control mucus formation. 
Saamai - good for all seasons. Easy to digest. 
Kudiraivali - good for all seasons but since it is high in fibre, drink enough water.

I hope you find these pointers helpful. If there are any further questions, do let me know in the comments below.

Tang Orange Drink Review

Summer is nearing. And who else to remind this than a powdered flavored drink! The sponsored ad I came across this morning pushed me to write this down. Do note the tone of the message used. 

Adding Tang to water will help us in meeting the required 8 glasses to keep us hydrated. Wait a minute. Isn't this the same brand that was called out as misleading by ASCI in their May 2019 recommendations? Yet, the same tone continues. What's the point of regulations then?

Coming to the product, the first ingredient is sugar and 94% of the serving is nothing but sugar. Each recommended serving contains nearly 5 tsp of sugar (to be added to 200 ml of water). Artificial food colors are being added. And the actual orange fruit powder is only 0.8%. Where's the goodness of fruit here?

Let's look at the much highlighted Vitamin C - 24mg per serving, which pales in comparison to real natural foods.

100gm of gooseberry contains 252mg of vitamin C.
100gm of guava contains 220mg of vitamin C
100gm of green capsicum contains 123 mg of vitamin C
100gm of orange contains 43mg of vitamin C.

Water is all that we need to hydrate ourselves. Not sugar-loaded color powder.

Jan 30, 2020

Sugar free diet muesli review

The most common reasons that have led to the increasing adoption of breakfast cereals in India is that they are easy to make, quick, instant and convenient. Many of us prefer muesli for breakfast as the "perceived health factor" is higher. We might even choose the sugar-free version.

Muesli is typically made with grains, nuts and dry fruits in the proportion of 80:10:10. Let's look at the ingredients list of 3 popular diet/unsweetened muesli brands.

Baggry's no added sugar - diet muesli doesn't contain any nuts or dry fruits. Rolled oats and wheat flakes are the primary ingredients but the dietary fiber is only 3 gm per 30 gm serving. This is because the two ingredients are so highly processed that they are stripped off most of the fiber. Also, there are a couple of antioxidants that might increase the shelf life of the pack but what they do to our body needs to be understood.

Kellogg's muesli no added sugar contains a mix of grains with wheat and corn contributing to 40%. The dietary fiber here is only 2 gm per 40 gm serving. Do note that sulphite is added to dry fruits to maintain color. Sulphites are a trigger of asthma attacks.

Soulfull's diet millet muesli contains only 10% ragi. It contains unwanted ingredients in the form of stabilizer, palm oil and antioxidants. No nuts or dry fruits present. Though the brand claims that it contains 50% rolled oats, the dietary fiber is only 2.8gm per 30 gm serving.

In all these 3 brands, the sucrose value might be 0 but what about other forms of sugar - glucose, fructose, dextrose etc?
Highly processed, super expensive, low fiber, unwanted synthetic ingredients. Is this what we want to consume for the sake of convenience?

What's the alternative, you might ask? I have a super quick, filling, healthy and local recipe. 5 min is all it takes to fix this bowl of breakfast.
1/2 cup of organic red poha - wash and sprinkle water on it. Let it rest for 2 min.
Meanwhile, chop 2 bananas and an apple.
To the soaked poha, add grated coconut, 1 TSP of organic jaggery powder. Mix well, add chopped fruits, raisins, soaked chopped almonds and cashews. Filling and healthy no-cook breakfast. You can also add crushed, roasted peanuts.

Jan 24, 2020

How to reduce expenses through Home Budget Planning

As I mentioned in an earlier post, "Lifestyle" is a topic I wanted to write more about. The lifestyle we choose dictates multiple areas of our lives - our health, our food choices, clothing, weekend activities, our hobbies, where we live, where we work, how long we work, what BS are we ready to tolerate etc.  In the Tamil movie "Velaikkaaran" (Sivakarthikeyan one), there is an amazing scene where the hero would wonder how the expenses of his family have suddenly increased ever since his income increased. The following scenes where a salesman sells a stabilizer for an LED TV and how the hero thinks about past conversations about our mindsets are just brilliant. Here's that particular scene if you haven't watched it. What I'm trying to convey here is well narrated in this scene.

The rigor with which we focus on increasing our income is so high, but most of the middle and upper-middle-class families don't seem to have the same rigor when it comes to reducing expenses. I'm saying this, purely out of my observations. I'd be so glad if this wasn't the case.

Financial planners and personal finance-related thought leaders even go to the extent of saying "Stop thinking about expenses, think about investments". Choosing the right Investment portfolio is extremely important for securing our future, but at the same time, our future lifestyle depends on our present choices. I heard this quote many years back and has stuck with me - 
"Luxury once sampled becomes a necessity".

My point is that if we put some thought into what our current lifestyle is and how our expenses add up, we can plan out a strategy to cut down our expenses so that we can make better choices in terms of our job/career/life in general.

Do we really need Netflix?
Do we really need to take Uber/Ola every single day?
Do we really need to have that fancy meal costing Rs.2000 per person?
Do we really need expensive branded clothing to show who we are?

Only when we are aware of our monthly expenses, we can ask such questions and decide for ourselves. Given the numerous temptations, sales and discount offers running almost every week on every single e-commerce app, we can easily succumb to such deals on things we don't really need. And as our expenses keep rising, we try to increase our income, fight for that pay raise/promotion, accept all possible ridiculous work hours, take loads of stress etc.

Let's assume, you are convinced with my rationale so far and want to reduce your expenses. Here's a plan I suggest:

  1. Open a Google spreadsheet or excel. List down the broad categories of expenses. Add/update the categories listed below as per your family's requirements. Once you have listed them down, mark each of them under two categories - Fixed (F) and Variable (V)
    1. Annual
      1. Term Life Insurance Premium (F)
      2. Medical Insurance Premium (F)
      3. School Fees (F) 
      4. Car Insurance Premium (F)
      5. Locker Rent (F)
      6. Streaming services (Amazon Prime/Hotstar) (F)
    2. Monthly
      1. House rent (F)
      2. Maintenance (F)
      3. Electricity Bill (V)
      4. Water Bill (V)
      5. Househelp / Maid salary (F)
      6. Cook salary (F)
      7. Internet Bill (F)
      8. Mobile Bill (F)
      9. Landline Bill (F)
      10. DTH Connection (F)
      11. Streaming services (Netflix, Google music etc) (F)
      12. Milk (V)
      13. Newspaper (F)
      14. Groceries (V)
      15. Fruits & Vegetables (V)
      16. Eating Out (restaurants/order-ins) (V)
      17. Car cleaning service (F)
      18. Fuel charges (V)
      19. Commute expenses (Ola/Uber) (V)
      20. Gym membership / Yoga classes (F)
      21. Library subscription (F)
      22. Entertainment (movies, events) (V)
      23. Household item purchases (V)
      24. Personal care purchases (clothing, shoes, accessories) (V)
  2. Sit down with your spouse, look through past 6-month or 12-month credit card statements and other bills. Add approximate values for each month under the identified categories. Don't worry if you don't have the exact numbers. It is okay to start with some approximate figures for now.
  3. For those listed under the variable category, take an average of 6-month/12-month values. For eg, your monthly groceries average to around Rs.8000. Eating out expenses average to around Rs.5000 etc.

  4. Create another worksheet for Budget Planning - Variable Expenses.  Copy the expenses analysis sheet with ONLY the variable categories and the average values calculated. So now you have all the variable expense headers and the average values for the past 6/12 months.
  5. For the next month (say Feb 2020), think of a plan on which categories you can possibly reduce your expenses and how much you can reduce it. For eg, if your eating out expenses average is Rs.5000, see if you can bring it down to Rs.4000 in Feb 2020. Do this exercise for all variable categories and commit to a number before the beginning of the month. That's your Feb variable expenses budget.
  6. Collate all the daily cash expenses quickly in a notepad or an app. Once every week, sit down, look through your credit card transactions, cash expenses and update the expenses incurred under each category. For eg, the Budget for eating out expenses is set to Rs.4000. At the end of Week 1, you realize you have already spent Rs.2000. For the next 3 weeks, you would be more careful in not exceeding the remaining Rs.2000. 
  7. Do this work diligently every week. It doesn't take a lot of time if most of your transactions are via credit card. 
  8. At the end of the month, see if you have remained within the budget or exceeded the budget. If you have exceeded, identify the categories where you have exceeded the most. If required, adjust the budget to a reasonable limit for the subsequent month.
  9. Repeat steps 5 to 8 every month. Set a budget/spending limit for each variable category, track your expenses and analyze how the expenses fared at the end of the month.
  10. Regarding fixed expenses, for some categories, it is a binary decision. Should we need it or not? For eg, we decided to stop buying newspapers. So that category is no longer relevant to us. We take a monthly subscription for Netflix and renew it for a month once every 3 months. From my personal experience, it is easier to cut down variable expenses THAN fixed expenses.
Hope this approach is helpful to some of you. 

Many financial planners compute retirement corpus based on your current monthly expenses and then using inflation as a measure, they forecast a lumpsum amount needed by the time you turn 60. When I went to a personal finance workshop, the amount predicted by the instructors was a huge figure. They then go onto share about how much our income levels need to rise to save this amount. I felt quite perplexed at the end of the workshop. If our monthly expenditure is the key factor that determines this retirement corpus, why not simply reduce this value, keep our needs simple and not spend on extravagant/unnecessary stuff?

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