Mohana Gill talks about healthy eating

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EXPOSED to the sights and sounds in Myanmar in her formative years, Mohana Gill developed an affinity to good and healthy food.

Today, the multiaward-winning author devotes her time to writing books for children to inculcate in them a love for natural foods like fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts. Her children’s books offer stories, information, fun facts and recipes that children can prepare with their parents.

She answers some questions from Thots n Tots:

Tell us about your background.

I lived in my birth country Myanmar for the first 20-odd years of my life. I attended the University of Rangoon, graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. I then joined the Department of Economics and Commerce, where I obtained a Masters of Commerce while contributing as part of the teaching faculty.

I was then offered two scholarships – one to study in England and the other for Canada. In England, I pursued a Diploma in Industrial Administration from the University of Manchester. I then obtained a Master of Business Administration from the University of Toronto in Canada.

After completing my studies, I made Malaysia my home where I proceeded to work at Universiti Malaya in the Faculty of Economics.

I retired from the university when the first of my three children was born.

When and how did you become an author?

It was in 2005. That was when all my children had completed their education and were working. They were settled in the areas that they were interested in. I thought that I really needed to do something to stimulate myself and to keep myself going. Like a lot of women, I was very interested in cooking. That has always been my forte – cooking and feeding others. So, friends started to tell me “Why don’t you write a cookbook?” I considered it but thought how boring to write a cookbook. When I looked around I saw so many cookbooks of every shape, size and subject. So, I knew I didn’t want to really do a cookbook per se.

At that stage, in our home, we ate lots of fruits and my husband was involved in the anti-ageing society. I realised that the emphasis in anti-ageing was focused on dietary supplements and beauty products to make you look younger. We are all going to age – there’s no two ways about it. I think we should all age gracefully and as healthily as we possibly can. I have wrinkles but these are the wrinkles that I’ve earned.

So, I decided that I would write a book on fruits. I wanted it to be different from other books available. I included photos of the fruits, information on the background and nutritional value, and I also had recipes. I thought it would make for interesting reading but I was not sure how it would be received by readers. I was very lucky. I won a special jury award for Fruitastic from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. After winning that award, I thought I must be doing something right, so I went on to write a book about vegetables. The result was Vegemania.

How did you get into children’s books?

After I published those books, some mothers approached me to ask for advice on how to get their children to eat fruits and vegetables. That was also when my first grandchild was born. So, I thought I would write something for children and it resulted in Hayley’s Fruitastic Garden and Hayley’s Vegemania Garden. They are fun books for children to learn about fruit and vegetables without telling them that they have to eat it. The children’s books have stories, information and recipes as well.

These are books that parents can read to their children. In fact, my latest, Hayley’s Happylicious Series, is meant for parent-child bonding time. It consists of eight books and each one has information on different types of foods (fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, pulses, teas and chocolates). The format is the same – a story about Hayley and her best friend Zac, which is full of information and facts about the foods. Within that story there are mini stories. The books can be read for their information and also used for story time. In addition, there are recipes which parents and children can prepare together. So, it’s a complete book with education, information, entertainment and fun.

Are there any perks to being an author?

I think the perk would be personal satisfaction. If you think being an author will give you the recognition that comes to a celebrity, you will be disappointed. That is not going to happen. I think for me, the most important thing is the message in the books – the importance of healthy eating. It is an initiative that I have undertaken and would like to leave as a legacy for future generations.

Why do you feel so strongly about nurturing children?

They are our future. Today, the obesity rate in children is high and we are seeing more and more people developing all kinds of diseases from a young age. The kinds of foods that our children are exposed to have a lot of additives and preservatives. They are very processed. Children who grow up eating processed and unhealthy foods are not going to be healthy.

Like everything else, we can’t completely change and improve the situation, but we can at least start a drive for change. We need to encourage healthy eating and we need to inculcate this in children.

Is it all natural food in your home?

We try. We grow a lot of vegetables in our garden and it’s all organic. But, it’s not possible for everybody to do that. When my granddaughter comes here, there is no fast food. In fact, I don’t think she’s ever eaten any fast food. She is a strict vegetarian, therefore she doesn’t take eggs or gelatin or anything like that. Her food is always home-cooked and whenever she is here, I always cook.

What is your advice to parents of fussy eaters?

I believe a little bit of food can be prepared at home without too much effort. I know that mothers today work so they don’t have time, but I think my books have simple recipes that are easy to prepare. You can even show it to your helper to ask her to prepare the dishes. The easiest thing would be to go out and eat, then you wouldn’t have the hassle of cooking, but, like everything else in life, you’ve got to put in some effort in order to get some kind of result.

With children, sometimes you have to show them the food as much as 50 times or so before they will even want to try it. You must not give up. Children are also copycats. They like to copy their parents. So, if they are at the dinner table with their parents and they find the parents are eating more fruit and vegetables, they will want to try that as well. Your home should also have more fresh fruits around such as cut carrots and cucumbers or grapes and bananas that they can snack on instead of crisps.

How many children and grandchildren do you have?

I have three sons in their 40s. My granddaughter Aheli is 10 and my grandson Ari is a year old. The Hayley character in the children’s books was inspired by Aheli.

Has being a parent and grandparent helped you in your work as an author?

Yes, it has. I often ask my granddaughter what she thinks of my books, what her friends like to do and what they like to read. At that age they all want to read the same things because that is what their friends are reading.

If you could invent something child-related what would it be?

I would invent a book with a difference, something which could call to a child to eat fruits and show illustrations of exciting things to eat and do. It would have animals in it and children from other parts of the world so that the child can learn about those cultures and fruits from other countries as well.