Lunch Boxes: Are They Worth The Headache?

Posted: January 15, 2014

School lunch boxes cause parents so much stress! What does a child really want? Tips on how to make lunch boxes interesting, and a recipe! 

By Lavanya Donthamshetty

Ask any mum what the most stressful job of her day is and I bet, 9 times out of 10, she’d say ‘packing my child’s lunch box‘. Ever since my son started full-time school, I have spent countless hours planning and preparing his lunch box, time that could have been used to watch paint dry or the green grass grow. To show how much he appreciated my efforts, he always used to reward me in kind – by bringing back a sample of his lunch for me to taste and savour. During one memorable week, he even decided I deserved it better and helpfully planted it in different parts of his room, for me to go on a treasure hunt and come across a sandwich here, an apple there, and bless him anew for the fun and nourishment.

Which is why, the next school he went into was one that provided a hot lunch, student-teacher ratio be damned.

Last week, a friend of mine nearly created a riot on WhatsApp when she posed a very innocent question “would you like a test meal plan for a week, neatly split into days / mealtimes?” If that doesn’t tell you how desperate mums are for someone to take over the complicated matter of meal planning, I don’t know what does. 

There are gazillions of child-friendly recipe websites and downloadable lunch planners out there and more are joining their ranks daily. One American mum got herself featured in Huffington Post no less for the amazing miniature works of art she makes out of her child’s meals. There’s a “fun” lunch-planning app available, which allows you and your finicky child to plan his (or her) noon meal together. There’s even a lunchbox service that has come up in Chennai, which, for a fee, delivers a three-course nutritionist-designed / chef-prepared lunchbox to your home before your child leaves for school! Amazing, isn’t it?

Or, is it? Does this all seem like too much of a hoo-ha over something that isn’t that big a deal? What do our children really think of our Herculean efforts?

As one, every mum I spoke to told me that their child has never rewarded them by polishing off their noon meal and bringing home an empty lunch box. Like me, they were sure that if they ever saw a clean dabba in their child’s lunch bag, they will conclude that the offspring had simply dumped the contents into the nearest bin. “Bell rang before I could finish” still ranks as the main reason spouted by the young, followed closely by “it was too much, I couldn’t possibly eat all of it”.

What about the menu? Every child prefers something easy and quick to eat and mother of two girls, Delilah M., agrees wholeheartedly. Being a “sensible mum” (her words!), she sends small portions of different items in separate boxes but still never sees an empty box in the evening. Writer Baisali Chatterjee-Dutt tries to entice her two boys with “guaranteed crowd pleasers” such as brownies, cakes, mixed nuts and still makes sure the portion sizes are more suited to a child two years younger than her own. Mindful of the schools’ “no junk food” policy, some mums like Indubala Nair in Ohio, are resorting to the Japanese Bento box method to add some interest to their regular fare, sending their children healthy food cloaked as pandas or a scene from ‘Brave’.

Even children that eat well at home don’t eat well during the school lunch hours. Popular food blogger Monika Manchanda’s son, who takes a great interest in his mum’s baking activities, will declare himself full after eating three pieces of garlic bread – if it comes out of his lunch box! As a general rule of thumb, mums pack a third of their child’s regular lunch portion for the school lunch boxes. “And I spend 15 minutes to prep and 10 minutes to pack – that’s it!” says Subhashree, a Hyderabad-based mum-of-two firmly.

Humour me – close your eyes and tell me quickly, what were the contents of your school lunchbox on a regular day? Mine featured either curd rice and vegetables or rasam rice and vegetables. Very rarely, chapati and kootu. I had a classmate who brought curd rice and mango pickle every day. Now, if I try to sell the idea of curd rice and vegetables as a daily lunch option to my son, he will openly laugh in my face!

Didn’t we grow up just fine on curd rice and pickles? Are we pandering too much to our children or is it just a sign of the times that we need to furnish our children with meals that are as well thought out as a Beethoven aria? I am reasonably certain that the relation between the efforts put into these edible art lunchboxes and how much our actually children eat, is inversely proportional. But I don’t think any of us dare to test that theory, lest our children even eat less than what they do currently.

And that is just how our dratted kids want us!

Calzone

Calzone, or pocket pizza as I tell my daughter, is a child-friendly dish. They can hold it in their hands and not get any goop on their fingers, which, as any parent knows, is a big win. You can sneak in any vegetables you want and con your child into eating more vegetables than they normally do. And of course, they make a filling and tasty meal, so what’s not to like about a calzone, really?

You’d need:

Some basic pizza dough

Mixed vegetables (onions, tomatoes, carrots, spinach, peas, cauliflower, beans) – 1 cup (this is an awesome way to use up leftover vegetables!)

Melted butter – 2 tbsp

Method:

Preheat your oven to 220°C. Line a baking tray with some parchment paper and keep aside, ready for use.

Now the next step is very much like rolling out chapatis: Roll the dough into a long log and divide it into smaller balls. Flatten a dough ball slightly with your palm and roll it into a circle.

Repeat with all the dough balls.

Make the filling: sauté the onions first and then slowly add all the other vegetables one by one and cook al dente. Check salt and spices, garnish with coriander leaves (or basil, if you so prefer.) Let it cool.

Scoop out a generous portion of the vegetable filling in the bottom half of the dough circle. Fold into a semi-circle shape and press the edges to seal it in. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Transfer the calzone on to the lined baking tray. Brush them with melted butter.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, till the crust becomes golden. It is advisable that at the half-way point, you rotate the baking tray, thereby spreading the heat evenly across.

Take off the oven and serve!

These also freeze well! Transfer them to a freezer bag once you finish making them. When you want to bake them, get them out, defrost them, brush with melted butter and bake.

*Photo credit: sheri chen (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.) 

Mother, writer, foodie, margarita lover, Lavanya is the exception to the rule that women are

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Comments

9 Comments


  1. Somethings that my daughter loves are baby paranthas, baby poories and fruits… I am usually rewarded (touchwood… thousand times) by an empty tiffin box…. For baby paranthas and baby poories… I just roll out the plain parantha and use a small (1/2 inch radius) lid for cutting out the paranthas and poories… She has been wanting to carry curd rice but I have been sidestepping because I am not sure if she (3 years old) will eat that without making a mess.

    • Lavanya Donthamshetty -

      Parathas are a favourite with most children, I think. Mine love them too. And my 5 year old l Ioves baby versions of regular food – so we have baby dosa, baby idlies…. Over the weekend I ended up making baby dosa pizza! !!! The horror!

  2. Srividya Srivathsan -

    I still continue my lunch box planning and packing for both my 22 yr old and my 11 yr old. Not withstanding that we are living in the UK, my children still love to take rice (Curd, lemon, tamarind, paneer) and the traditional idli molagapodi everytime for lunch. Despite my best efforts to try and introduce sandwich, it was a huge failure. As a mother I strongly feel food habits need to start really eary to ensure that children appreciate and enjoy the food. Although it is tiresome and a challenge, especially in winters, waking at 5 am to get lunch boxes ready for the family is the best satisfaction I get as a mother – knowing that they are all taken care of. Depsite my work colleagues telling me to let go this is one thing I just cant let go off….to me it is a gratifying being a wife and a mother, just like how my mother did..

    • Lavanya Donthamshetty -

      Waking up at 5 am to make lunch for your kids, Srividya? There you go, skewing my stats! 😉

  3. The recipe sounds cool. Will try!

  4. I totally agree with you Lavanya! We do make a big deal about packed lunch. We grew up eating simple food and we did turn out okay. Also, how much of a choice or say did we have? We just need to tap on the one type of food our kids enjoy eating and try to be versatile with the same.Since Parathas are my daughter fav food. I practically make Parathas with every vegetable I can use including avocados and broccoli. However, I think she deserves a hot lunch. So when she gets back from school she has a healthy portion of vegetables along with hot dal and rice. Dinner is skimpy with just a dosa or some
    soup and bread.

  5. Aww.. I pair with srividhya, my 7 year old runs way far from pizzas and sandwiches, he savours south Indian food rather..He would be happy if a pack a full course S.I meal, but end up home, saying that the trashman came and he couldn’t eat up.. so, what i pack for him is, rice+poriyal(stir fry),without coconut+scrambled egg, and he is happy.. I dont believe that lunch box is the only place for a balanced diet.. as lakshmi says, they can have veggies for breakfast or dinner..

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