Biryani in a thermos. Kebab and naan tightly wrapped in aluminum foil. Yes, I was that kid. My mom made sure I was always fed nutritious meals and that meant good old home cooking – desi style. While I got stares from friends eating their limp bologna sandwiches and preservative rich processed foods back then, I am happy now to have had those less popular options.
Today, as a parent myself, I worry daily about what to feed my six-year-old son for lunch. The worst feeling is when your child brings home a half-eaten lunch and you know they went hungry for the rest of the day. My issue has always been lack of time and ideas.
Just before my son started attending school full time, I asked other parents what they packed their children. One of the first responses I received was from a co-worker – and her answer was sushi. I was surprised, but it made sense. Sushi is a great lunch; easy to pack, easy to serve and keeps well for a few hours in an insulated sack.
This got me thinking, could I get away with packing desi food in my kids lunchbox? Ethnic food opens some doors and keeps it interesting. Plus encouraging culture through food is a good idea to help encourage your roots or expand horizons through new foods from new cultures.
I knew I would have to think outside of the box because my six-year-old wouldn’t want to eat straight leftovers. I would have to make it interesting. Looking at what made sushi a hit with my co-worker’s children, I came up with some guidelines for our lunchbox:
Bite sized, little is good
I’m not one to cut shapes and create works of art with my kid’s lunch, but a simple cookie cutter or just basic shapes cut with a knife can do wonders.
Just as primary colours attract the little ones when it comes to their toys, food is no exception. Food that looks drab and plain will be boring. Add in those colours and their eyes will brighten when they crack open that lunch box lid. Plus, eating colours is good way to get those nutrients in.
Eat with your hands
Some parents might cringe, but in South Asian households, eating with your hands at every meal is the norm. With proper hygiene and hand washing before and after, there is nothing wrong with getting your hands involved – and kids love it!
Construct & build
Blocks and Lego are classic childhood toys, so using that same idea with food works well too. Every time my son helps me cook, he devours what he makes because he was involved. Constructing his meals, or part of it at lunch will help him feel involved in the process.
Aside from guidelines, it’s equally important to have the right tools and common ingredients.
Here’s what I found most helpful:
I bought a great set of reusable containers in order to cut down waste with plastic bags, etc. The containers I recommend are the ones with the snap lids because kids can close them easily and that will prevent leaks from any unfinished foods. Also make sure they can nest, that way you can put smaller containers inside larger ones and still be able to close the lids; saving you space. I also purchased a small colourful thermos to pack a hot lunch at least once a week. The lid has a separate compartment that stores a foldable spoon, which I thought was smart.
Variety of breads
Instead of a loaf of bread for sandwiches every day, I buy at least 3 different varieties each week to keep things interesting. This week I bought whole-wheat naan, whole-wheat bagels and mini croissants.
Quick fruits and vegetables
Just like breads, I try to change the variety each week. Aim for something you can throw into a lunchbox raw and requires little prep. This week I went for baby carrots, mini cucumbers, grapes, raspberries, baby spinach and baby romaine. Best advice I’ve received when shopping for fruits and vegetables: don’t plan your meal and shop for your produce before getting to the store, go to the grocery store and see which produce looks the best and plan based on only the best available.
With the right tools at hand to make lunch prep quick and relatively easy, I am now ready to create a multitude of meals using the previous night’s dinner as a key ingredient. Here are a few of my most popular options:
Hummus, naan & baby carrot
Hummus is a favourite in my home; we have it readily available all the time. Rounding it out with some vegetables makes it great for the lunch box. I cut one whole-wheat pita into triangles and put a quarter cup of hummus in a separate container. I laid the pita triangles on a bed of baby spinach and romaine. In another container I had some baby carrots and raspberries.
Croissant & cheese with fresh spinach and grapes
This is an easy and loved lunch because it’s creamy, filling and fun to eat. The croissant is small and shaped already so all I need to do was slice and fill with a spread of butter, slice of fresh cheese and layer of baby spinach and romaine. Not really an ethnic lunch, but one of my son’s favourites! He loves how “fancy” they look with the grape toppers secured with a toothpick. I got him to help assemble the sandwiches the night before. Add in a side of crispy cucumbers and chickpeas for added nutrients.
Tandoori chicken on a whole-wheat bagel
I make roasted chicken at least once a week for dinner. The marinade changes weekly from Jamaican Jerk to Portuguese peri-peri to South Asian Tandoori. This week I made a tandoori chicken and the leftovers were shredded for lunch the next day. The chicken itself was very tasty so just a spread of butter on both sides of a whole-wheat bagel was all that was needed. After topping one side with the shredded chicken I seasoned with a little salt and pepper and then added layer of baby spinach and baby romaine. As a side, sliced cucumber and gala apple.
For more stories and great ideas from Salima click here.