A version of this article was first published in September 2010.
As we get ready for the new school year, I have started engaging my two boys on the topic of school lunches. Since my teenager’s palette oscillates faster than the stock market, he keeps me guessing as to what lunch he wants and how he wants it.
Eons ago, when I was in school, lunch was a simple affair. It was whatever mom packed for me. Roti rolls with fried potatoes, stuffed parathas with pickles. Mint chutney sandwiches, fried rice with vegetables, dahi rice with ginger chutney, idlis with gunpowder (spiced lentil mix), uppuma with pickles, vegetable of the day mixed with rice and yogurt. The list goes on. Now, as a mom here, I find that homemade lunches have gone international. They also need to work with cool California fall and winter temperatures, which can quickly dry out most foods.
Processed Food Nation
I have nothing against hot school lunches. It is definitely the way to go if parents are in high-stress jobs, and are strapped for time. In my case, my kids have had homemade hot lunches for many years now. I could completely relate to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a recent TV show that I would highly recommend watching. It educates us on what our kids eat at school. The only thing natural and healthy you might find in a school lunch menu is a wilted salad.
I have always believed in letting kids choose what they want, while gently introducing them to the right foods. As my older son went into elementary school, he experimented with hot school lunches for a few days in a week. After a month or two, he came back saying, “Mom can I take lunch from home? I hate that greasy pizza on Wednesdays.” My younger son was adamant about trying his school lunch, but then came back saying, “Mom, I just had a Ceasar Salad for lunch, and I am starving!”
Plan, Engage, and Involve
About a week or two before school, we start planning by making a list of snacks and foods my boys would like in their lunch menu. We prep our lunches for the week on Sunday nights. Keeping everything ready early makes weekday mornings go smooth, without a whole lot of stress. As we get ready for school, I switch on NPR, and make their lunches in a jiffy.
It is what my kids like. My 10-year-old prefers burritos, rolls, and pasta to sandwiches. My teen loves sandwiches, paninis, pasta, and rice. The great thing is he makes his own lunch and I just help with grilling meats. I make sure to alternate burritos with pasta and rolls, so that it is not boring and monotonous.
Pick your battles. I usually let my kids pick the snack, even unhealthy ones like Poptarts and chips, as long as the lunch is substantial and healthy. Most probably the snack is going to be traded for another unhealthy one anyway. Cheese sticks, fruits, vegetable sticks, nuts, and dried fruits can be some healthy alternates.
Alternating sandwiches with different spreads adds variety to a weekly menu. Using sourdough or ciabatta hard-crusted bread makes a huge difference. Plain white bread becomes soggy by afternoon, and my son says it’s only good for pasting posters on walls. If using white or wheat, I toast the bread and this makes the bread less soggy and holds the sandwich together. Bagel sandwich is another option.
I marinate chicken strips with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, crushed pepper, and garlic the night before and grill it in the morning for the sandwiches. Some days its just cold cuts. Using different kinds of cheese like fresh mozzarella, brie, and pepper jack adds variety too. Saute onions, garlic, mushrooms, and bell peppers for a vegetarian filling in sandwiches. Tandoori chicken sandwich with chutney is a great alternative.
It is good to invest in a hot soup container. Asian stores have good ones. It keeps the food warm in winters. I keep a few sauces handy like tomato, pesto and cream sauces. I cook a large quantity of pasta, cool it, add olive oil and place it in a zip-lock bag in the refrigerator. In the morning, I heat the sauce with vegetables and add a small amount of cooked pasta. It takes me under five minutes to pack this lunch.
Burritos and Rolls
These are hearty, healthy, and substantial. My 10-year-old loves burritos. I make Spanish rice with lots of vegetables, as well as black beans w/ tomatoes and garlic ahead of time. Heat the tortilla on a pan, place the hot tortilla on a piece of foil, add grated cheese, rice and beans and roll both ends inside first and then roll the whole burrito. Wrap in foil and place it in a large soup can. This burrito is warm on a cold afternoon. Make sure the black bean is thick and wet but not watery.
Pita sandwiches, roti rolls with chutney and vegetables, Kaathi rolls with tandoori chicken, paneer rolls, fajita rolls, all wrapped in foil, make for a great lunch. Make sure the chutneys are thick.
My boys are still hungry after soup, so soup is not an option for them. I prefer not to pack cold salads in winter. I do recommend warm pasta salads and couscous salads with grilled meats for winter. I pack sushi in a small cooler during summer months.
To Share or Not to Share
Most private schools don’t encourage sharing because of allergies. Middle school is where trading, sharing is in full force. I send an extra container of pasta for friends. With sandwiches, the rule is, only half a sandwich can be traded, the other has to be eaten.
It’s Cool to Take Idlis Too
Some kids feel awkward to take Indian food for lunch. When our Japanese friends bring sushi and Mexican friends bring fajitas, why not take idilis for lunch? My nephew took idlis to school and his idlis became so popular that his friends wanted to pay him for a piece of idli. My son says that his fried rice and chicken curry are also quite popular among his lunch buddies.
My goal is to make sure that my kids eat a healthy, hearty lunch at school and I can say that I have been successful so far. If you haven’t, then it’s time to give home-made, mom-made school lunch a try this fall. Wishing you all a happy and healthy lunch year at school.
Praba Iyer is a chef instructor, food writer and a judge for cooking contests. She specializes in team building classes through cooking for tech companies in the Bay Area. firstname.lastname@example.org
Rishi’s Perfect Veggie Sandwich
Like most teenagers, I can down two burritos easily. I need a lunch that fills me up. This burger buster will not only satisfy your hunger, but satisfy your tongue. Once you make this sandwich, be prepared for a rush of delightful flavors coming your way.
I loved Dutch Crunch for a sandwich like this. Then, I got braces. I use wheat bread instead. I suggest you toast the bread so that it doesn’t get soggy by lunchtime.
I use a variety of spreads for this sandwich, depending on my mood. You can spread Green (Basil) Pesto, Sun Dried Tomato Pesto (can be found at your local Trader Joe’s), good old Mayonnaise, or even Blue Cheese Dressing for the wilder ones.
My favorite filler is sautéed mushrooms, peppers, and onions. I don’t care for cucumbers, but tomato and avocado are in.
Not Too Cheesy
Sometimes I add cheese, and sometimes I don’t. If you want to add cheese, then I suggest fresh mozzarella slices to freshen up your sandwich.
Finally, spread it, stack it, seal it in Saran Wrap, and take it to school. I love this sandwich, and you will too.
Pinky Mukhi, a Bay area based author has written a children’s book, “We are One,” to help children feel comfortable eating traditional Indian foods along with their friends. Given below is the link to learn more and to purchase this book. A wonderful read for this time of year, when kids are getting ready to take out their backpacks and their lunch boxes.