Recently, a friend texted about a piece of homemade fudge that had come back uneaten in the lunch box of her 13-year-old son. “I asked him why he didn’t eat it,” my friend Sudeshna Shome Ghosh wrote. “His response was, ‘How could I? I didn’t know what it was.’” My friend rolled her eyes (you can now do that thanks to an updated emoticon app), I LOL’d and that was the end of it.
The conversation brought back dabba memories, of going to school and opening my stainless steel lunch box in the afternoon, hours after it was packed, wondering about its contents. With the mother being a fabulous cook, the dabba was usually crammed with theplas folded in half with a dibbi of mango pickle, jeera rice with caramelized onion and curd, or rotis that miraculously stayed soft so that they could be torn with two fingers and eaten with sabji . There was lunchbox envy, where I coveted my classmates’ tiffins because they brought food that wasn’t familiar to me. I yearned for cucumber sandwiches, after re-reading Enid Blyton books, even though the white bread would be curling up at the edges by afternoon. I even wanted the dabba that held cold, clammy Maggi noodles, something that I now wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. But at that time, it was as exciting as moringa leaves are now to chefs.
Now there are plenty of cookery books, blogs and Instagram accounts with innovative lunch box ideas, all just a Google search away. Blogger and nutritionist Nandita Iyer, better known as Saffron Trail online, has simple, healthy ideas, which include vegetable peanut noodles, pita pocket pizza sandwiches, and puliyogare or tamarind rice. Lulu Loves Bombay blogs about travel, her children, and food. Her sweet potato discs sound like a lovely addition to the dabba , as do her methi thepla and mango chunda. Sanjeeta KK’s blog, Lite Bite, has a Lunchbox Bites section with some handy tips and recipes such as for muthiyas and wholegrain chillas.
On Instagram, Lunch Box Dad, Beau Coffran’s mealtime hacks include rocket ships from bread and cheese, and Spider-Man lunches with berries; while bleary-eyed parents may not be keen to wake up and make food art, it’s a fun account to follow. Grace Hall’s Eats Amazing blog focuses on Bento-style lunches for her son and follows themes such as Halloween, rainbows, and gardens. Her #PackedLunchLove Project has creative boxes that, she promises, take just a few minutes to prepare and are a visual feast. A few years ago, graphic designer and illustrator David Laferriere’s innovative sandwich bag art went viral. He’s made over 1,800 sandwich bag drawings with monsters and kites.
And when in doubt, return to the library.
Apart from the usual cluster of recipe books, check out Karen Le Billon’s French Kids Eat Everything , a charming account of a family, with two picky-eater children, that moves from the USA to France and discovers how the French government and the school system strengthen food education. Then there’s Chris Butterworth’s Lunchbox: The Story of Your Food , illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti. A picture book, it takes young readers on a journey from farm to fork, getting them to think: where did the food in my lunchbox come from? It’s a lovely way of engaging children with farmers who grow our food and get them curious about what they are eating.
Mommy Go Lightly, a.k.a. journalist and author Lalita Iyer, writes lovingly about dabbas on her blog, “Food is intuitive,” she writes about packing her son Re’s lunch box. “At least that’s how it should be. Try different things and figure out what works for your child. My tip is, make it visually exciting. Make it look good. All you need is colours.” Pretty much all my mommy and daddy friends gave me tips like that when I talked to them about the art of dabba packing: fruits and dry fruits in small Tupperware boxes to snack on in the bus; use leftovers innovatively.
Shinibali Mitra Saigal, who packs food for her nine-year-old daughter said, “Mine doesn’t like anything soggy, squidgy or leaky. My daughter claims that thanks to me, she had to eat pickled strawberries, which taste vile.” When I asked her what she meant, she added, “According to her, the pickle in an airtight container leaked and ran into the strawberry in a different compartment. So that makes it pickled strawberry and an excuse not to finish her lunch box.”
Ghosh wakes up ten minutes earlier in the morning to make extra sandwiches for her son’s friends. “According to my son, none of them want to share the fruits I pack,” she said, with a sigh. “But he’s telling me that, and well, he hates fruits. So…”
Looking back, we can appreciate that one person who woke up at the crack of dawn to toil away in the kitchen to prepare fresh lunchboxes for the family. I regret the dabbas that I brought back home uneaten, even the alu methi, which really doesn’t do itself any favours when cold. Okay, maybe not the alu methi.
The author writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru.