Getting a child to eat healthy is not easy.

First, there’s that tsunami of high-fat, high-sodium, preservative-laden packaged food. You can try to keep it out of your house, but the tide inevitably washes in to school or the house of a friend whose parents are easier with forbidden goods than you are.

Second, are you going to deny your child the pleasures of life? No, of course not, but I am all for limiting these desires. It’s all right to dish out a paratha with butter or allow a pizza now and then, but these calorie bombs must not be everyday food. The Indian body type is prone to storing fat, so it is not a bad idea to allow some acclimatization to health early in life.

Unhealthy food is easy to get addicted to. It’s like a drug, literally. Getting used to healthy food, however, is far more difficult because the human brain appears hardwired to fattening food, a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days. Fatty foods were scarce when we were primitive, and when they entered our systems, the brain learnt to release chemicals, such as dopamine, that made us feel good—an incentive to get more.

In short, we are up against thousands of years of evolution.

Somewhere in the recesses of our brains, that feel-good feeling survives; and it is easier to trigger off than ever. High-calorie food is now freely available, and we are more sedentary than ever, and that includes our children. They do not run as free as they used to, especially in India, a land of shrinking spaces and security in an age of those wretched screens, which also create dopamine spikes.

I spent most of my childhood, teenage years and young-adult life tubby and unathletic, and I do not want my child to follow suit. I want her to realize how important it is to balance health with those dopamine hits. Her mother believes I am overdoing the healthy thing—and perhaps I am—but I would rather the eight-year-old knows these facts of life.

Obviously, I am not going to get her acquainted with chemistry, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, but we are trying to keep a light but firm touch on her tiffin box and home meals.

The key is to make good, healthy food an adventure and to make it taste good. You cannot lecture an eight-year- old or force her to eat what she does not want to.

So it was with us. For example, in her early years, like her friends, her eyes lit up when she got French fries—those flavourless, deep-fried potato sticks laden with lard and carbs. She liked chocolate, and she liked pizza. No surprise there. She still likes these, but, I suspect, not as much, and she has taken to self-rationing.

There were two reasons for this turnaround. First, as she grew older, she sensed the link—and of course we brainwashed her as much as possible—between eating healthy and her ability to swim fast. Now, she’s no Dawn Fraser—and I’m no Mark Spitz, not even Virdhawal Khade—but she’s improved by leaps and bounds, to the extent that I struggle to outpace her. On a swimming day, she does 50 laps or 1.25km.

Second, we regularly offered her substitutes to processed food, and she took to many, such as strawberries, apples, mangoes and bananas—the last is now her go-to food when she wants a quick bite or wants to quell that last bit of hunger before sleeping.

Cooking in our house is a daily family activity and she keenly watches what appa and mama are up to. One day, my daughter showed me a delightful little cookbook—Bookworms And Jellybellies by Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam—and asked, “Appa, can we try the carrot fries?" She rummaged through our supplies and searched the kitchen garden for ingredients, put it all together and viola, our version of carrot fries. The sweet potato fries evolved from there.

As for French fries, she has stopped asking for them.

Pizza is only once a week when her grandmother buys her one on their date night. At home, she likes to help her mother put together healthy “bread pizza". From three times a week, “unhealthy" tiffin is now down to once a week. The demands for chips and chocolate biscuits are half-hearted or absent. It takes some forethought to keep her school lunches and snacks interesting, but it appears to be working.

Every now and then though, the wrapper of a chocolate bar pops up inside the lunch box. It was someone’s birthday or someone brought a pack of chocolates to class.

You can’t win them all—nor should you.

Grilled carrots with rosemary and sesame

Serves 4

Ingredients

12 medium-sized carrots, cut into fries

2-3 tsp black and white sesame seeds

1 sprig rosemary, roughly torn

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp Kashmiri mirch or Berbere spice

1 tsp coriander powder

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt to taste

Method

Cover an oven grill tray with foil and mix all the ingredients together. Place in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for 30-40 minutes until lightly brown.

Grilled sweet potato with rosemary and pepper

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into medium slices

1 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp pepper, freshly ground

1 sprig rosemary, roughly torn

Salt to taste

Method

Mix all the ingredients. Scatter over an oven grill tray covered with foil and grill at 200 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes until brown.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

@samar11

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