When I was asked to write a piece on parenting, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Wait till I tell my little ones”. I pictured breaking the news and their grudgingly admiring reactions. It didn’t go exactly as planned. My son said “Huh!”, and went back to doing whatever is it that 14-year-olds always seem to be doing. My nine-year-old looked at me long and hard, and asked, her brows furrowed, “Does that mean we can tell you what to write?”
Not a great beginning. But perhaps what I am writing today will thrill their hearts. It’s on “junk food”, that much-maligned word I thought was so funny — till it acquired horrific images of parental neglect at my first interaction with my son’s teachers when he first entered school.
That was 10 years ago, and the decade has been an unfruitful exercise in trying to weigh the salts against the sugars, the trans-fats against the fats, the calories against the carbs, the cheese against the chips, and, most importantly, defining what exactly or how much exactly is junk food, with a few court judgments and many, many health studies along the way barely tilting the scales.
The latest, a few weeks ago, asked the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to curb sale of most common “High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) foods” — chips, burgers and aerated drinks — in schools and areas within 50 metres of schools.
Best of luck, I say. No, I don’t think these foods are healthy, who can? But when did eating healthy, all the time, become the defining motif of childhood? Or watching every spoonful that went into a child’s mouth the defining quality of a parent? Or counting calories become the defining obsession of school-going years?
I know parents who dictate the precise amount of chocolate their children should consume at any given time, the aerated drinks they can have or not, the cookies they are allowed or not, the “whites” (it means bread, cheese, butter, etc, etc ) they can never ever have, and the burgers and chips that are strictly regulated.
I pity my parents, who blissfully slept away summer afternoons when my cousins and I concocted foods, throwing together things that we would find hard to lay hands on these days. One whole afternoon was spent plucking a raw citrus fruit typical of Jammu and eating it with this chilly mix that left us crying for days afterwards. Once, we ran through a village stealing mangoes from any field we came across, carting bucketfuls of them home, eating them all, falling sick, and getting shouted at. At the end of it, we were made to apologise to all the people we had affronted.
I also remember those nights we binge-watched movies on rented VCRs and cherished video cassettes, eating non-stop. In the mornings, we would be as hungry, keeping no count of the pooris being piled on a joint plate. Festivals were about sweets, outings were about softies, summer afternoons were about waiting for the hawker to come around with those deathly ice golas, and no market visit was complete without a trip to the chaat stall.
My children are allowed “junk food” once a week. But that inexhaustible list actually just means burgers and pizzas, ordered from outside. I do know they get away with a lot in the middle. The depleting stock in the pantry tells a story every day, about a son who craves cookies and a daughter who thrives on soya sticks (no, they don’t have much soya). You can run the length of an argument with them, but almost each starts with my saying “no”, and each ending with her, especially her, saying “Please, one more”.
As I sneak out some peanuts or nutcrackers or bhujia for myself, I look around to catch her, especially her, eyes always upon me. When I give in and offer the same to her too… well, let’s just say she squeals in surprised delight. Every time. You can be sad that a bowl of dal isn’t greeted with as much joy, or you can just accept it as one of life’s universal truths.
Five minutes later, I ensure they balance out their snacking with some fruits. Then I look towards my father with the slow smile around his lips, and he forms the words that I, and all of us parents on this balancing rope, have been dying to tell ourselves:
No one will tell you a parent can say that. But they can. Really. It’s okay.
The story appeared in print with the headline All Things Nice