Archana Saraf’s daughters Annora, 7, and Aanya, 3, love planning their birthday parties, but they know the rules—no expensive décor, only home-made food and no branded merchandise. For her last birthday, Annora’s cake was baked by her mother and the sisters decorated it with multicoloured candies. “Project return gift” had begun two weeks before the birthday. Annora gave bookmarks she had designed, printed on colourful paper. “You have to be consistent about pointing your children in the right direction,” says Saraf, a marketing executive.
Annora’s school Tridha introduced Saraf and her husband to the concept of encouraging a simple lifestyle for their girls. This included staying away from processed foods, expensive, flashy toys and extravagant birthday bashes; and building a connect with nature.
This decade-old school in Mumbai promotes the philosophy of anthroposophy. It encourages the understanding of a person and his or her place in the universe, laying emphasis on activities such as gardening, adopting an environment-friendly lifestyle and shunning processed foods. “A regular part of the activity plan for children at our school includes gardening, carpentry and learning to cook so that children can get a better understanding of nature and their relationship with it,” says Sejal Poladia, Tridha’s spokesperson.
Grounded: Preschoolers at Ida, Gurgaon, at the school’s vegetable patch. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
“At Tridha, we followed simple practices, such as parents taking turns to bring home-cooked lunch for their child’s class, so that children would not eat processed or packaged food. (These) were easy-to-follow ideas and made a real impact. For the last couple of years, there is just no question of packaged or processed foods in our life,” says Saraf, who moved to Bangalore in December 2007.
Her beliefs were reinforced when she attended a workshop conducted by the Bangalore-based Bhoomi Network. This non-profit organization trains schools and parents on sustainable living, stressing healthy eating practices and inexpensive lifestyles.
Seetha Ananthasivan, director, Bhoomi Network, says the challenge lies in changing the mindsets of children and their parents. “Children become dependent on processed food and drinks. We have to explain to parents and children why they should avoid these. It’s important for schools to take responsibility, along with parents, about what the next generation is consuming,” says Ananthasivan.
Step By Step Nursery School, a preschool in New Delhi’s Panchsheel Park, gives parents a healthy tiffin plan, complete with recipes, which has been designed by nutritionist Shikha Sharma and revamped by dietician Nita Mehta. Children are expected to carry food items indicated on the menu for particular days, from baked namak paras and sprouts chaat to moong dal chila. Processed foods such as instant noodles are a no-no.
The School, Chennai, under Krishnamurti Foundation India has been advocating the concept of “no processed foods for children” since its inception nearly four decades ago. This school, like Step By Step, gives guidelines to parents on diet regulations and discourages parents from sending snack boxes with chips, refined flour-based items or chocolates. “We provide a simple morning snack such as fruit, lunch, and an evening snack that includes milk or juice or buttermilk,” says Sumitra Gautama, a coordinator at The School. She says they even include Indian food items such as kozhukattai, dhokla, medhu vadai and sevai in the meal plan. “We want to introduce children to healthy Indian snacks that might soon be forgotten. Our guidelines have influenced our parent body and they cooperate by sending home-made sweets such as groundnut or sesame balls as birthday treats,” she says.
The School sources organically grown rice and vegetables required through the year. Students also visit farms around the city at least twice a week so they can connect with nature and see that a simple life on a farm can be fun too.
Yet, as Gautama points out, countering the influence of commercialization on a child’s life outside the school is a tough task. Rishal Sawhney, co-founder of Ida, a new preschool-cum-daycare centre in Gurgaon, has found a way around this, especially as far as inculcating healthy habits is concerned. “Just making the food healthy is not enough. We tried understanding what makes processed food so attractive to children and figured it’s a lot about the packaging. So we put smileys on the healthy food to make it look attractive for children and they are ready to try anything.”
He advises parents to try this at home too. Ida has a small garden patch where preschoolers learn the names of fruits and vegetables that are grown locally and help the gardener tend to plants, so that their interaction with nature starts early.
Ishita Bose Sarkar, a teacher at Bangalore’s Prakriya (which calls itself The Green Wisdom School), says her school has always been oriented towards environment-friendly practices. “For example, we don’t allow children to carry drinks in tetra paks to school. But to make the child understand why we discourage it, we had a workshop where we taught them to read the nutrition labels on packages and told them what’s good and what’s not,” she says.
But schools and teachers can do little about the lavish birthday parties parents throw for their little ones. “The good news is that parents are more informed now than ever before. An increasing number of them understand that the most expensive toy does not replace an evening of fun, games and wholesome home-cooked food,” says Sarkar.