What to pack in the lunch box? It’s a question many parents with school-going children worry about. Here are a few suggestions

“You’re watching videos at 6 ‘o clock in the morning?” I could sense the disapproval in the husband’s voice. “Yes, yes, ‘how to make khati roll, street style’. Don’t disturb me, please,” and I turned back to the monitor. A lady with long, manicured fingers was crumbling paneer. In a soothing voice, she was telling me that this nutritious roll will have kids asking for more. I, personally, was only aiming for an emptied-out lunchbox; ‘asking for more’ seemed a bit far-fetched. Because, for the last decade, I’ve fretted every single school-day about what to pack for lunch. Bread, I’m told, is boring; curd rice is a complete no-no; idli, dosa, upma — forget it; clearly, the ten/ fifteen minutes I set aside to pack lunch are no longer enough.

“Mornings are a nightmare,” Malini, mum of eight and ten-year-old kids tells me. “My younger one dislikes simple lunches with a passion. He seems to think a five-star buffet is the only way to eat, and wants small quantities of half-a-dozen things. I agree, variety is interesting, but I’m just not able to pander to that, and at the same time, see that the ratio of carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins is met with.”

Schools too, she says, bung a spoke in the wheel, by insisting that lunches have to be non-messy, preferably finger food that can be polished off in 15 minutes. And to cater for those 15 minutes, Malini and parents like her, spend many times that wondering what to do.

Help is, of course, at hand. There are books by famous chefs written exclusively for childrens’ lunch boxes; there are booklets every vernacular magazine hand out just before the start of the school year.

Net advice

As for the Internet, it’s positively bristling with advice on what to pack for your child. “Go with a theme and surprise them”; “utilise leftovers”; “use cutter shapes while making sandwiches”… the ideas are endless. Sharada, mum of two boys, one of whom is a picky eater, says she is part of a closed Facebook group (Think Inside the Lunch Box). “We share photos and recipes for things such as hummus, muffins, discuss where to source ingredients, which lunch boxes are the best (stainless steel incidentally wins; it’s not glam, but it’s dishwasher friendly, safe and lasts forever).” With some planning (Sharada shops with lunch on her mind) she’s able to quickly put together “one heavy portion — sandwiches, rice or noodles and then some fruit and vegetable, besides a snack.”

Planning ahead is the key, agrees Monique, mum of two kids. “In my mind, I know what I’m going to make the next morning; but I don’t use leftovers, I rustle up everything afresh.” Lunches, in her schooldays, were very different she says. “We made no demands, and happily ate traditional food, usually rice and a vegetable. Now, I make smilies, French fries, aloo parathas and cheese toast.” But the problem, Malini says, is not so much as what you send them, but what other kids bring to the lunch-table.

Spoons are drawn

“After all the time and effort, my older daughter has the gall to bring back her parathas uneaten, saying she shared her friend’s pasta,” says Malini. “I really think packing lunch boxes has become a competition. I know mums who take cooking lessons for just this purpose. Others have live-in cooks, who chop and stir and boil from the crack of dawn; and then a sumptuous lunch is delivered piping hot to school at lunchtime. Naturally, anything I send looks sad in comparison.”

And that is where uniform school lunches help, says Usha, mum of eight-year-old Akshita. “My daughter kept coming back hungry from school and we decided — after checking out the school lunches — to have her eat there. The menu is varied and served hot, plus they’re given fruits everyday. She enjoys it better than what I hastily put together early in the morning.” But when your child’s school does not do lunches, you’ve little choice but wake up early in the morning, and search YouTube for ‘how to make interesting lunches’ videos. Good luck!

BOX OF SURPRISES

* Go the Bento way, the Japanese method of packing small quantities of different foods in a compartmentalised box; it’s visually very appealing for children.

* Include a lot of colour; try red (tomatoes), yellow (egg), green (spinach/broccoli), white (rice). Not only are the colours eye-catching, small portions are also child-friendly and offer them a whole range of textures and flavours!

* Try ‘makeovers’. Even the humble idli can be jazzed up by packing red (podi) and green (chutney) idlis.

* Dice fruits, vegetables; add a dip, chat masala; spice it up!

* Freeze a carton of juice and pop it in; it stays cool until lunchtime, even in summer.

* Do remember children have smaller appetites than big people; giant lunches will, naturally, remain unfinished or be fed to the school cat.