A mother to two fussy eaters, Neeti Sarin has known the toils of packing nutritious and tasty food for her boys, day in and day out, when they were in school. That gave impetus to her wanting to make things easy for other mothers, by cooking nutritious yet tasty home-style food for schoolchildren. With that, Sarin started Tiffin’s Etc. in 1994.
What started off as an experiment with birthday parties, school seminars and workshops, eventually led Sarin to preparing daily lunch for students at Vasant Valley School (VVS) in south Delhi. Her food found favour and soon she was packing meals for all the 1,200 school students at VVS. With growing demand, Sarin had to shift her venture from her own kitchen to a bigger plot in Vasant Kunj. She now caters to eight educational institutions, including Shriram Millennium School in Faridabad and OPG World School in Dwarka.
In 2015, after a six-year stint at Godrej, Anuj, her younger son, quit his job to join hands with Neeti. While Anuj takes care of the day-to-day operations now, free of the daily running of the venture, Neeti, 60, devotes more time to scouting for new recipes and innovating the old. They now serve over 4,000 tiffins every day across Delhi. In their kitchen, 200 kg of vegetables, 100 kg rice and 200 litres dal is prepared daily.
Deciding on the menu is challenging, she says, for the older students, especially girls, tend to skip breakfast. “When I gave them sprouts, they did not eat it, but when I made sprouts bhel, that was a big hit. Children like crispy things. A little mix and match gives it a twist, and food becomes interesting,” she says. Items like falafel with hummus and matar kulcha were thus added to the menu and atta was substituted to make breads instead of maida. “We have to make different menus for seniors and juniors, unless it’s rajma chawal, which is loved by all. Essentially, junior kids enjoy the rice-roti-sabzi combination, they can even savour vermicelli or poha, but the senior kids won’t touch these,” says Anuj.
Atta pasta or Thai curry feature once a month and is an instant hit, empanadas with Mexican rice and salsa has recently been added to the menu. “But I make sure to put in a lot of vegetables with freshly-made sauces. We make the dips ourselves, be it hummus, salsa, ketchup or hung curd,” says Neeti. On their foreign travels, mother and son are always on the lookout for child-friendly dishes to be added to their menus. There is a gap of about 45 days before a dish is repeated, to do away with boredom and monotony.
When a new dish is served for the first time, a trip to the school is a must to witness the students’ reactions. Teachers give feedback every day. Parents, too, are quite involved in school activities these days, say the Sarins. “A recent contract was approved by a parent body and not the school. We were on a month-long probation — a parent would taste our food every day,” Anuj says.
Parents and school authorities are also more conscious about what they want their wards to eat or avoid. “Earlier, parents demanded items like cheese, juices and ketchup. But now, even sweets are a no-no as they are made using refined sugar,” says Anuj. The occasional rasgulla or gulab jamun, however, still feature on festival days.
Over time, the Sarins shifted to a buffet system from packaged meals, which was time-consuming, environment unfriendly and costlier. Meals are now served hot and fresh, students come in for second and third helpings, there’s less wastage and better consumption. “We train our cooks, which takes about six months to a year. It’s easier to outsource the cooking, but then the cooks don’t understand that bina masala, bina mirch ka bhi khana tasty ho sakta hai (tasty food can be prepared without using too many spices),” says Neeti.