Re has just entered the fascinating world of the dabba. I should say school, for it sounds more politically correct and milestone-ish, but no, dabba it is. No, he is not one of those children who ‘Doesn’t do food’, much as moms these days seem to display it as a feat. Re digs food and all the credit goes to me (thank you!). The OPU will just about eat to live, although sometimes I have heard him make appropriate sounds while eating (if I am awake at that unearthly hour).
For the first two weeks of school, I hung out with Re in class (no, I didn’t choose one of those Nazi schools where they don’t let you step beyond the threshold) and watched the proceeds unfold, and was equal party to it, with my own little snack and thermos of tea. I have now been relegated to the garden area, where I have my tea under a tree and write (yes, it’s all getting very idyllic and Ruskin Bond-ish and I love it).
By day three, Re figured out that the dabba was indeed, an exciting part of his day and a great reason to go to school. Of course he was pushing it when he asked to eat his dabba within half hour of entering school, but I managed to convince him to wait for the appointed hour. “Else what will you eat when others are eating?”, I asked. He saw my point and agreed.
On day two, I began to eavesdrop on other dabbas. I always do that. Have always done it. I judge people by their dabbas. Go, judge me.
The dabbas were of course, all nice, colourful, attractive, in sizes ranging from the microscopic to the gargantuan, shapes from basic squares and circles to houses, ships, pigs, phones and butterflies. Some with 3-D images on their tops, some with multiple layers, matching cutlery and water bottles.
What was inside the dabbas left much to be desired though. Here is what I saw. Chivda. Chips. French fries. Biscuits. Kelloggs chocos. Maggi. Bread jam. Maggi. Bread-cheese. Farsan. Potato smileys. Kurkure. Maggi. Cheese balls. Little hearts. Kurmura chivda. Biscuits. And yes, the occasional idli or chapati roll or cut fruit, the only things that smelt of home.
I thought of my mother ever so fondly and how exciting she used to make my dabbas. For as long as I can remember, going to school was always about ‘What’s in my dabba?’ Mine was a working mom, but my dabba never reflected that. I never had biscuits or bread-jam in mine. Some days, there were idlis smothered in molagapodi or dosas stuffed with potato filling. At other times, there was the fluffy cabbage upma (my mom’s top 5 tiffin items, write for recipe in comments section), or poha speckled with coconut or shev and coriander, or with lots of peanuts or crispy potatoes or uttapams with stuffings of this and that. There was tomato rice and lemon rice and tamarind rice (again peanuts ruled) and curd rice with grated carrots or cucumber bits. Some days, there were even cutlets or medu vadas (mostly Saturdays, when mom was home). My favourite was still sabudana khichdi, and I loved eating the potato bits and then getting to the rest of it (shockingly, Re does the same).
My zest for the dabba continued through college, through internship, through my moving out of home and cooking for myself, till my last job and is the same even now. What I enjoyed the most about my pregnancy was the legitimisation of multiple dabbas and the fact that I could eat when I wanted, no eyebrows raised. In fact what motivates me about getting Re ready for school is what will I pack in his dabba today?
I still remember in one of my many jobs, I had a dabba partner and we ordered a dabba from this Gujarati lady, Bhavnaben who would send us hot phulkas smothered in ghee, two vegetables, a dal or kadhi, rice and papad for a measly 35 rupees. He was the only man who could match me morsel for morsel, and every afternoon, it was a race for who would get to the dabba first (there was some thrill at getting first dibs at the least perspiring chapatti or the biggest chunks of aloo).
Re and I have a similar race with our food. Sometimes, he robs me of peanuts in my lemon rice, or the crust of my dosa, sometimes it’s the crispy aloos in the sabudana khichdi or poha, sometimes it’s the dollop of butter on my aloo paratha, or the dahi.
On day one of school, Re had hummus with cucumber and carrot sticks. Everyone turned to look at him scooping out his hummus. I wasn’t trying to show off, there was leftover hummus from Sunday dinner, and I figured why not make a dabba out of it? I am not a gourmet cook and do the regular upma, dosa, uttapam, chila, idli (in its various avatars), poha and sabudana khichdi, aloo and sprout chaat. Sometimes, he gets home-baked cake or cookies.
I meet more mommies now than ever before. At school. In parks. In cafes. At brunch. In parking lots. In elevators. In bookshops. We often get chatting. And they often talk about food as being one of their biggest woes. When mothers whine that their kids don’t eat breakfast, I ask them what did you eat? They mumble something about a glass of milk or cereal or cornflakes. Then I ask them, does food make you happy? They look at me like I asked them about their sex life.
And it’s not that I wake up at 5 am and slog away in the kitchen. I am just intelligent and Nigella about it. A baked cake is dabba for four days. Cookies can go for a week. Hummus and Tsatsiki can be converted into sandwich spreads. And sandwiches are a mommy’s best friend (but you can do better than jam/cheese). Idli/dosa batter is the most versatile thing to have in your fridge. And there is no end to the goodies you can add to an upma or a paratha. Spinach. Carrots. Sprouts. Peppers. Beans. Peas.
Go figure. Food is intuitive. At least that’s how it should be. Try different things and figure out what works for your child. My tip is, make it visually exciting. Make it look good. All you need is colours. So a red and green upma with carrots and peas will score over an insipid gooey mush of a Maggi any day.
This week, we had a strawberry bonanza, so Re’s dabba has gone fruity. Every day, he gets chopped strawberries with one other fruit (it has to be a different colour, else Re says, “Where are my happy colours?”)
Which brings me to the moral of the story. If you don’t have a passionate relationship with food, there is no way your child will have one. So if you want your child to eat well, it’s time to start your affair with food. Size zero be damned. Pre-pregnancy weight be damned.
So stop whining and start cooking. If you can’t cook, surely you can think? Or read books, look up the internet, delegate, get involved. There is nothing cool about saying “I can’t cook”. For your own good, I hope the husbands can.
In any case, a Nigella mom is always sexier than a Maggi mom. And it’s never too late to start.