Unschooling our Food Journeys

by Rashmie Jaaju, Goa

Given that Pari (nearly 12 now) has been mostly unschooled (except for an year of kindergarten), she’s had choices always. Choice to eat when she’s hungry. Choice to bathe any time of the day or night! Or, not have bath when she totally didn’t feel upto it. Choice to eat pasta for all three meals. Choice to share her mind with me — the good, the bad, the ugly. Choice to quit a dance/music/any class when it started to feel dull and drab. Growing up in an environment where they have always been their own unique selves, they are finely tuned to their sensitivities — both Pari and Sufiana. They catch people’s vibes in an instant and can make out a sincere greeting over a fake one. Pari will come up to me and share her feelings of been disregarded when another adult walks past without a greeting or eye contact. She never liked to be patted on her head or pinched on her cheeks even as a 2-year old kid. And, things like complimenting somebody to just please the person or trying to make herself extra love-able is not her thing. My girls have a voice of their own. And, their fiercely thinking personas.

So, when our vegan journey started, we could have gone all out saying “you can continue eating all that you were eating before, as much as you were eating before. You have the freedom. It’s your choice”. Or, we could have said, “no you have to stop, this is the only way. We know the old ways were not right.” Honestly, both the approaches would have been lose-lose.

So, we thought how about sharing all that we read, discuss and debate — with her. Infact, why not. Why should she not understand the dynamics of food and human anatomy, nutrition and digestion. Not in an academic, textbookish sort of way. But, in a way that directly speaks to her experience, her current problems and the world around her. Why would she not want to understand why milk causes so much mucus that it clogs all channels and blocks the absorption of nutrients. Or, how it clogs the excretory system (kidneys, intestine, colon) in a way that the body has to eliminate toxins via the skin and that’s how the skin erupts into acne, boils, inflammation (as was happening with her in those days).

This is exactly where the schools fail our young generation.

Schools fail to share such basic, fundamental information and wisdom about our own bodies and the stuff that sustains us — starting with food.

What have we gained from a series of chapters titled, “digestive system”, “cardio vascular system”, “skeletal system”, “reproductive system”. As with everything else in schools, these chapters are isolated and disconnected with each other, and disconnected with the student. It doesn’t speak to them in a way that they see it in their own lives and reality — with regard to their own health. All this just boils down to a list of facts and definitions that they rote learn to vomit out onto examination papers. It’s not surprising that the education system follows this pattern of teaching subjects isolated with each other right into higher studies — at a ‘specialist level’, when doctors go on to become “heart specialists” or bone specialists or ENT, or Gynecologist. One doesn’t understand the world of the other. To the same patient, the bone guy recommends high doses of calcium while the cardio surgeon orders to stay away from calcium or it’ll calcify the arteries. What is that clue-less patient supposed to do. Ignore the bones because heart is a bigger priority? Walk on crutches? Or, stay in bed better still, eh?

So, yes. But, looking back I can’t say it was a cake-walk when we started this 100% plant-based food journey, nearly eight months back. Not with Pari. She wasn’t exactly on the same boat. I said *exactly* because it wasn’t like she was against the thought/philosophy of vegan-ism. She was very much onboard. Her heart ached when she read about the abuse and torture of animals raised for dairy and meat. One video, about the horrifying confinement of hens in tiny cages, with their wings and beaks clipped, made her cringe and cry in pain. Her love for animals was too deep to not consider plant-based foods a sensible and compassionate choice. She’d always said she’s glad to be born into a vegetarian family. And, when we all came to know not consuming meat and consuming only cow milk could cause unfathomable pain and torture to the milch animals (because the dairy system inflicts suffering at every stage), it was heart-breaking.

But then, she was only a kid of 11 and her love for certain milk-based foods was palpable — rooted in all that she’d liked over the years. There was no ghee or curd in our home any longer. At least not so much that she could eat with every single meal, every single day. Earlier, she would eat bowls full of curd and spoons-full of ghee even though I repelled at the idea. I was noticing how all that ghee and curd was already causing issues for her. She realized that herself, but the taste and habit was way too much to get over. I could see how if she continued to eat this way, she was going to go down my childhood way. Starting age 11 or so, the acne that started popping up on my face, back and shoulders became worse as I kept growing. My peace, my self-esteem, confidence and social image — everything took a battering due to that. And, similar acne were erupting on Pari’s face too. Menstrual cramps gave me shivers and made me bunk school. Similar cramps and lower back pain had already made way into Pari’s life too. These are tangible factors. Not just in the mind. The saying, you are what you eat, is worth considering.

These were early alarm signs. And, I was not going to have her suffer. Especially, when I knew what was going on, what’s the underlying reason. In my case, my parents had no clue. They couldn’t even fathom milk could be at the heart if it. But, I knew. Better still, she knew. Yes, Pari knew. When I read those books and shared the fact or figures, she would listen, question, think over it.

So, I shared information with her — bit by bit — going by her inclination.Read out paragraphs from books like ‘Milk a Silent Killer‘, ‘Become Healthy or Extinct’. Together we saw movies like “Cowspiracy‘, ‘What The Health‘. Told her to use her discretion. She was taking it all in, processing in her own time and perspective. She said she would need help from me. She’ll take it slow. She said, “I can’t say I’ll be 100% vegan on all days, like you guys. I’ll have my cold coffee once a while, at home or at Cafe Coffee Day.”

On a daily basis though, there was no ghee, no milk, no curd in our home. And, she slowly moved right onto this path. When I made fresh coconut milk, I offered her to try making cold coffee with it. She frowned, said, “no way!”. I made some, and had her taste it. She fell for it. I’m not exaggerating one bit. First time, she said, “wow, if you hadn’t said this is coconut milk-based, I wouldn’t have known.”

Then, one day, she walked into the kitchen with tears rolling down. Said, “how I used to have rice and *kadhi with potato fries…but what a life now, I can’t have it anymore — all because of you.” I said, “why don’t I make kadhi rice for lunch. And, aloo bhaja (fries) too!”
*kadhi is a curd-based (curd and begal gram flour with some delectable herbs) delicacy relished in some Indian states — Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat etc.

Still, the same yummy food! Albeit, with more innovations, subtleties, flavours and nutrition!

So, I made kadhi. And, she loved it. Relished it like she always used to. Except, she couldn’t make out that kadhi was made with coconut milk and not the usual curd.

I didn’t tell her then and there. I revealed to her later and she was shocked! But, also happy to know she could still enjoy all her favourite curd-based food without having to use the real cow-milk curd.

Similarly with many other foods. Like today, I made her all-time favourite dahi-aloo (the Rajasthani delicacy of boiled potato in a thick gravy of curd with other spices and herbs) and she couldn’t stop going ohhh and ahhh over it. Was there any curd in it, you may ask? Nope. None at all. Instead, I used thick coconut milk freshly extracted and added some lemon juice to it to get the sourness. And, any aroma of coconut milk was masked by the freshly ground coriander seeds, the fenugreek, and the crushed garlic. This is one hell of a curry, I tell you. And, so simple to make — with or without the curd!

With her, the transition has been slow but gradual. In the first 3–4 months, there were quite a few angry, snarky, screaming moments (along side the moments of pride when she’d make her pasta white sauce using almond or coconut milk and it turned out fabulous!). She’d suddenly demand cheese (not that she used to have a lot even in the pre-vegan days) or ghee or insist on milk for that white sauce pasta. We would let her indulge her taste buds, but insist she must try and not get back into the earlier routine. And, she didn’t. She’s not missing that ghee all that much as she used to in the initial days. She’s enjoying so many other varieties of food these days — much more than when her palette was overtaken by ghee or curd or cheese.

Her palette is expanding…and how!

In the last few weeks itself, she’s started to love the kinds of vegetables that I never thought she would ever touch even! Like cabbage in sambhar and dal, cultured vegetables (a mix of vegetables fermented over a week), cakes made with unusual ingredients — foxtail millet (this millet has a strong flavour), jawar (sorghum). And, cakes other than just cocoa flavoured. She’s not only been eating but also choosing to bake her own cakes with lemon and lemon zest over chocolate. The other day she jumped with joy eating a millet and dates cake. My mommy heart was blissed out!

And couple of days back, was the most beautiful day. It was my birthday. She sent me for an outing with hubby dear and stayed back to bake a cake and decorate the house for the evening get-together. A whole wheat orange cinnamon cake.And, 100% vegan. She made the frosting with cashew cream, orange juice and zest. It was finger licking good. What more could a mother ask for? What more could a die-hard vegan ask for? And, hey what more could a b’day gal ask for?

As for my other girl — nearly 4-year old Sufiana. She’d never really been initiated into the world of cow milk this far. I mean, very little. Except for the ghee. She too had started developing a taste for ghee. But, it didn’t take long before she forgot all about it. After all, she’s still breast-feeding. That’s her strongest memory of taste of food. And, specially with a no-grains start to the day, she has a strong liking for fruits — of all tastes, textures, colours. Give her a fruit and she won’t say no.

Understanding her body inside out. Literally so!

Pari has never studied a textbook on human anatomy but she now knows a ton of things about her body and food and nutrition that empowers her to take well-informed decisions. And, most importantly, she tells me that she feels more connected with her body now. Hubby and I have been doing some cleansing in the last few months, including liver, kidney, colon. Will you believe, Pari has now done colon cleanse too. I help her out with the process. She’s agreed readily because she now understands the underlying science behind how a clean, toxin-free colon is the key to thriving health.

Both Avie and I actively engage with her on topics related to food crisis around the world, food waste, GMO foods, beauty of kitchen gardens, what it means to age gracefully, how our hormones drive our health and emotions, how soils and environment play a key role in food nutrition, why pesticides in food are causing havoc on earth and health and many more subjects that directly impact today’s generation, and will do so in times to come.

Only couple of days back, she went for a movie with my mom. And, she munched on a pack of nachos with the dips that come with it. We didn’t deny her that. Once back home, late evening, she tells me, with that expression of knowing/realizing something incredible, (exactly her words) “I’m not feeling good after eating nachos — for the first time ever. Never before I’ve felt this unhealthy feeling in my stomach. Feeling gassy. Feel like having fruits, mamma. I don’t think I’ll eat nachos next time I go for a movie.”

And, on another occasion recently, after having homemade pasta (whole wheat), she came to the conclusion that too much wheat is causing her acne to flare up. She said, “I’ll not have any more pasta for the next few weeks.”

She’s also gaining lucidity about wanting to eat grains or not. More than a few times recently, she’s been wanting to skip grain-based dinner in favour of vegetable juices or just fruits. She’s observing her body and getting to know if it’s feeling full or heavy or gassy or uneasy and chooses food accordingly.

I feel this is what happens when the body and mind has had a stint with raw, organic and wholesome foods. It will respond and convey when something doesn’t feel right. It will not silently suffer. The mind won’t get disconnected with the body. And no matter the person (mind) in question is an adult or child, when you eat consciously, with joy, slowly, mindfully, and with gratitude, you cannot stay disconnected with your body. You eat — to live a life to its full potential.

Check out more of Rashmie’s writing on www.mommy-labs.com