Serving in the Delhi-NCR region, the 60-year-old’s business whips up delicious, well-balanced meals for the world’s pickiest eaters: children.
What to pack in kids’ tiffin boxes have confused mothers for ages. If you live in Delhi/NCR, that is something that can be easily solved. How? Entrepreneur Neeti Sarin’s Tiffin’s Etc has been successfully operating here for three decades now. Tiffin’s Etc packs lunch boxes for schoolchildren that cater to all the nutritional needs of a child while also appeasing their tiny taste buds.
Three decades of keeping fussy boys and girls happy at dining rooms is no mean feat. Ask mothers and they would agree on what an uphill task that is. Then how does Tiffin’s Etc achieve it? Neeti Sarin’s mantra is simple.
“Children love tasty food,” she says. “So, whatever healthy recipes you come up with, you just have to make sure it is according to the child’s palate. And, that is where the true challenge lies. If you pack broccoli in your child’s lunch box, there is a strong chance it will either get thrown out or it will come back uneaten. The trick is to ensure that meals are balanced, exciting, well-presented and tasty,” Neeti adds.
Well, you just have to trust her with this because she has dabbled with the subject for quite a while, even before Tiffin’s Etc was launched. “I had two young kids who had very different food preferences. With every meal, I had the challenge to ensure that both of them are fed the right nutrients in fun and innovative ways,” she explains when asked about her motivation behind starting a catering business. “Soon after that, I became a regular contributor to parenting magazines where my forte was to write on topics such as 'how to make regular food interesting for children?',” she says. Soon enough, she realised that she could connect with children over food and that is how her business began.
While children’s overexposure to and easy availability of junk food is a worrying factor now, it was not so bad in the 90s when Neeti started the venture. Then what prompted her to focus on child nutrition? Neeti says the battle was never against junk food alone; the idea was to ensure the children’s nutritional needs are met while they are at school. “In 1990, even though junk food was not very prevalent, the awareness about right foods and their importance for growing children was also very low. Luckily, I came from a family where my father was a doctor and. later. when I married a doctor, I received the right exposure from them. I leveraged that knowledge to create more awareness and create the right recipes for kids,” she says.
Neeti says she has always realised the importance of including locally grown ingredients like millets in our diet and is pleased to see the concept gaining cadence amongst parents and school authorities now. “We are now going back from processed foods back to our roots,” she says.
Neeti knows the taste of the food is what appeals to children. She also knows nutrition cannot be overlooked. Nutritious food that is tasty for children is not always easy to cook up. How does she achieve it? Neeti explains: “We know that if we serve lauki or tori as a sabzi, it will never get eaten by the children. However, since children need the greens, we serve pav bhaji which is made with lauki, carrots, kaddu (pumpkin), cabbage, peas, and potatoes.”
Other examples include swapping out an unhealthy item with a healthy one. “We serve bedvi poori instead of the regular poori. A bedvi poori has a lining of urad dal inside. Children love it,” Neeti adds.
In order to successfully play up its ubiquity, commercially available tomato ketchup is laced with the highest level of preservatives. “We have eliminated tomato ketchup from all our schools. We make fresh tomato chutney and provide that in the meals. We now get requests from parents for its recipe as children demand it at home also,” Neeti explains.
And it is as much a feast for the eye as it is for the belly, “The presentation is another important aspect that is often overlooked when it comes to children. Good presentation appeals to their palates in the same way as it does for adults,” Neeti says, adding that they have a nutritionist on board who helps them plans well-balanced meals and menus.
Neeti’s job is certainly not easy. But having a process in place is half the battle won. Tiffin’s Etc works very closely with the schools they cater to. Right now they have schools like Vasant Valley School, Sriram Millennium School, Made Easy Pre School, Saksham Pre School and Presidium School as clients. She says the school food committee gives them feedback from children on a daily basis. “Apart from that, we take consolidated feedback every month and plan for the menu for the next month. The menu is always kept balanced to take care of the nutrition, and two days in a month is allocated to world cuisines (Thai, Burmese, Italian, Continental, Oriental). We ensure the menu should is exciting,” she elaborates.
Neeti also knows that the best way to kill an appetite is by serving the same dish repetitively. “Once we have a menu plan, it undergoes a check from our company nutritionist who approves it for its overall nutritional richness. Then, it is sent to the food committee in the school for their feedback and approval,” she says.
One thing Neeti is not really concerned about is competition. The obvious reason is their own quality. The school food industry is extremely fragmented, she says. “There are all kinds of players providing school food – restaurants, party caterers, office food catering companies etc. Other than these, there are handful of organised players like us who cater only school food,” she adds. She is also pleased to note that there aren’t many entry barriers to this industry, with increasing awareness on child nutrition, the schools and parents are beginning to ask the right questions when it comes to choosing a meals provider.
The success of Tiffin’s Etc has prompted this 60-year-old entrepreneur to give back to the society. As part of their CSR activity, the company has been providing food to CanSupport--a cancer support organisation, once a month, for the last 10 years. They also provide daily meals at a subsidised rate to an NGO supporting children from slums.
Neeti who likes to read books the old-fashioned way (“no Kindle, please!”) also loves spending time with her grandchildren. As for the future of Tiffin’s Etc, they are looking forward to tying up with more educational institutes that keep the child in the centre of all decisions to keep their catering business going strong.