One Mixed Up Lunch Box
navigating the minefield of preferences
This week, our school district started up again.
Backpacks and school supplies were bought, pens and pencils, technology updated, thumb drives and phones sorted out, textbooks purchased as needed, workbooks and folders selected, wardrobes selected – oh my, my .. my!
My daughter is an admitted school supplies fanatic and she takes a very long hard look at her supply list before going shopping – making a list and checking it twice before stepping into the store.
And while I’m with her, I’m mentally making a list and checking it twice – a different kind of a list: her school lunches!!
I bet these two words strike terror in the hearts of many parents, as it often does in mine too. My 8th grader (yikes..) has never really liked pre-made school lunches, and has actually been a reasonably easy to please child when it comes to meal times. But we struggle with different issues. Our issues have more to do with how other kids perceive her meals and dealing with lunchroom bullies, versus making sure my kid eats everything I pack her!
What an odd problem to have - the lunchroom bullies.
The fact that bullies exist is, in itself a problem but when such individuals spew their in-sensitivities into a place of comfort, at meal-time – I have a problem with that.
Where do these ideas and opinions come from?
What makes kids less tolerant of others and their lives?
Why do they get a pass at being disrespectful of others?
Why is it acceptable that one lunch is great while everything else is not?
Do these kids parents know that their budding PETA activist, honor-roll maintaining, sweet blue eyed angel is being an opinionated brat to his or her classmate? I doubt that adults even know and wonder if it even registers.
(And PS, I don’t give a rats behind about a hormonal teenagers’ opinions because - I have one of those too, and she knows better because I insist she remains respectful at all times.)
I reminisce about peaceful meal times, more harmonious lunches with classmates choosing between different cuisines from our friends home. My lunch came in a three tiered steel container, at room temp., as mom had cooked it several hours before and a dabbawala, a lunch-box carrier, bicycled it over to my school exactly when I was ready for our lunch break. We sat in groups of our choices, on the floor, sometimes with floor mats, sharing each others' meals, laughing, giggling as convent school girls would. It continued for many years in college and beyond. My husband also has similar memories.
The commonality about all of this is that we grew up sharing our meals with our friends. Lunch came from home and we ate together because that is what friends did – break bread together, regardless of religion or regional affiliation, regardless of personal belief or parental or political drama, regardless of class or status boundaries. Given that we grew up in a country with as diverse a culinary tradition as ours, I am quite happy to say that India is far better, respectful and responsive to what it means to eat lunch with friends. This has set me up with a different ethic, an inclusive one and it keeps meal times forever fresh and tasty.
But the lunchrooms in the US seem to have less and less to do with lunchtime camaraderie and more to do with ‘feeding the herd’.
So, we get stuck with the same problem: How does one get children to appreciate ethnically diverse cuisines if they are routinely offered middle-of-the-road meals that do not challenge or tempt the tastebuds, does not spark their curiosity – either culinary, socio-economic or even political?
I don’t know how you folks are managing it, but a few years ago, I decided I was going to find a way to beat the rhetoric about diversity and actually see if we can practice it. We decided with our taste buds, that I was going to make an effort to diversify my daughters’ lunch choices so that she would enjoy different cuisines and also become an example to others: Flavor has NO regional or ethnic boundary NOR restriction. Only people & their passports do.
My daughter has liked home cooked food always and it used to make my mornings a little tricky at the mere prospect of it. However, once I got over the anxiety, we have never looked back. The food is tasty, I am assured of the quality, I know she enjoys eating it and always comes home telling me how much everyone envies her lunch-box.
We are big fans of warm lunches and therefore it became important for me to find a way to feed my daughter a warm lunch that I was not dropping off at school in the middle of the day. For starters I invested in a good 'thermos', as lunch hours change over the course of the middle-school and the 'Thermos' brand only keeps food warm for 4-5 hours. The investment of $50 towards a 3 tiered bento-box has worked its weight in gold as it keeps food warm up to 7 hours! My daughters' lunches always includes a starch, a protein & a vegetable, with fruit, perhaps a treat (home made muffins, brownies or chocolate, never sugar-based candy). As an Indian family living in the US, I include traditional meals as well as non traditional meals during the week, so that it is always fresh and new. On most groggy mornings, it takes me about 30 minutes to make her lunch fresh, each morning, with seldom only a nominal amount of prep. work the day before. And I drive her to school each morning, mind you, though in my PJ's (shhh..)
The great part is that in the process of fixing her meals, mine are ready for me whenever I get hungry and I am not reaching for snacks in the middle of the day, or making lame excuses for a poor lunch choice. My pressure cooker is very useful to getting rice and daal pre-cooked in a matter of minutes while I prep the veggies. I keep a few things on hand at all times in the fridge to make mornings easier:
Grilled Meat or Marinating Meat (so that it cooks well)
Assortment of stir-fry friendly vegetables, fresh or frozen
Some of her meals look like this:
Steamed rice, a quick daal (lentil preparation) and a quick salad of raw vegetables or Indian spiced vegetables.
Edamame rice pilaf, or Mixed Vegetable Khitchidi, Greek Yogurt, raw vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes, or bread-and-butter / dill pickles)
Bean curd noodles, Asian stir-fried vegetables and spicy grilled chicken chunks.
Fresh salad, pita chips and grilled chicken, store-bought hummus & dressing on the side.
Brie Cheese, black olives, crackers, grapes, red bell pepper and assortment of veggies.
Tamari spiced ginger-garlic shrimp, rice noodles, sauteed Asian vegetables.
Tortilla chips, store-bought salsa, home made taco-flavored warm grilled chicken, black-beans / pinto beans.
For a few days when I need to make some meals ahead of time, here are my other go-to-items.
Mixed vegetable soup (like Minestrone, make ahead), cheese and crackers (make ahead).
Egg salad with celery, crackers, grapes or apple slices. (boil eggs the night before)
Paratha's stuffed with vegetables, served with a side of Greek Yogurt with salt and pepper (make paratha's a night before).
Home made chicken-noodle soup (make ahead).
Toaster Sandwiches (make stuffing ahead of time)
Chicken Waldorf salad with walnuts and grapes, crackers and perhaps some cheese (grill chicken the night before).
Other soups, like Tomato Yakhni Shorba
Home-made Mac and Cheese, Angel-hair pasta, PBJ sandwiches with a variety of fixings, and such are often on the menu too, and are actually rather easy to make from scratch. These are my fall-backs when we are looking for quick comfort foods and I am yet to go to the grocery store :)
I sometimes post my lunchbox pics on Instagram: @currycravings.. see if it inspires you to change out from the lunch box worries. Also look for other simple recipes through out the site or find them in my many cookbooks!
And if you have some cool-beans ideas about lunches, please share. I am sure that both me and my readers would love to have some relief from the ho-hum cold sandwiches.