Banish the Lunch Box Blues

It’s that time of year again.

The smoldering hot summer days have given way to cooler, rainy weather that sends soft breezes to caress, not sear, my cheeks. Apples are making an appearance in my CSA box as stone fruit dwindle. And all across the nation, in kitchens everywhere, moms and dads are scrambling for novel ideas to perk up their kids’ lunch boxes.


Smiley face onigiri (rice balls) in a bento lunch box. Photo courtesy of 21MA on

Isaac is not of school-going age yet so I’ve yet to plunge into this conundrum. However, every time my husband grouses about making his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for his school lunches from the time he was wee high, I cringe. (I can’t decide which tale is more pathetic: this or the story of how every summer was spent picking the gazillion oranges in his childhood backyard).

American kids go to school on average 180 days a year, so a PBJ sandwich a day, every day, adds up to a very boring lunch box routine.

It makes me realize how lucky I was. I didn’t grow up in the U.S. but my mom did pack my school lunches for me every day. And now I regret all the I-don’t-want-to-eat-what’s-in-my-Tupperware tantrums I pulled on her. I grew up in Singapore but my parents are Indonesian so my mom used to pack me a variety of weird (at least by my friends’ standards) lunches: omelet sandwiches, fried turmeric chicken and rice, risoles, etc. Occasionally, I would find something close to normal like a ham and cheese sandwich in there.

My mom was, and is, a fabulous cook and my present-day self is sure all my school lunches were absolutely tasty. But what I wouldn’t give to devour what my friends were buying in the tuckshop—steaming bowls of fishball noodles in broth, char kway teow (fried wide rice noodles), nasi lemak (coconut rice with fish or chicken), chili-soaked fish cakes; oh, how I coveted those fish cakes.

Anyway, chili-soaked fish cakes aside, I’m here with suggestions for globalizing your child’s lunchbox with links to recipes around the WWW. So let’s think outside the (lunch) box … ahem … and here we go.

An aside: All these foods are finger friendly, taste just as good cold or warm, and can be made ahead. Plus, you can enlist an older child’s help with shaping, rolling or crimping.

JAPAN: Onigiri (Rice balls)

Rice balls are easy to make and can be formed into so many fun shapes.

Photo courtesy:

ENGLAND: Cornish Pasties

If you’re not a dough person (I’m not!), use store-bought pastry instead.

Photo courtesy:

INDIA: Aloo Paratha (Potato-Stuffed Flatbread)

A unique vegetarian all-in-one meal, your kid will have fun tearing and dunking the tasty bread into the yogurt dip.

Photo courtesy: The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

GREECE: Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

You can make dolmades the night before and save leftovers for lunch.

Photo courtesy:

The Culinary Linguist (Check out the step-by-step  dolmades rolling tutorial with pictures)

Kitchen Daily


Homemade Chicken Soup for the Soul (and a Sick Toddler)

Encouraging poor sicky Isaac to eat so he can regain his strength is a cinch with Oma's chicken soup

As I’m typing this, my little man is napping, something he usually deigns to do. On any given day, it takes all my energy and an earful of crying to get him to go down for just 45 minutes. Today, he has been sleeping the deep yet uneasy slumber of a sick toddler for an hour and counting.

We were up most of last night, nursing a 103 degree Farenheit-plus temperature which only a dose of ibuprofen and a whole lot of lovin’ could temper. I didn’t have the heart to leave him lying solo and miserable so I brought him to bed with us. Unfortunately, he tossed and turned, unsure if he wanted to sleep bum up in the air, face buried in pillow, or head toward the foot of the bed. At one point, he accepted an invitation to a midnight rave and danced around the bed before slumping down next to my face on my pillow. Needless to say, we woke up a very sleep-deprived family.

My only consolation is that my folks are visiting and my mom is taking charge of the kitchen. And she, like all grandmas, makes the perfect cure-all: chicken soup. The comforting power of chicken soup is legendary in all cultures, and its ability to heal, magical. Isaac loves his Oma’s rendition of chicken soup and will gulp down bowls-full whether he is in the pink of health or not.

So while he is still sleeping, my mom and I hunker down in the kitchen. We chop carrots, celery and cabbage while bone-in chicken and green onions simmer in a steaming broth laced with nutmeg. The vegetables soon find their way into the pot, a large one containing enough sustenance for the whole family to partake in at dinnertime. On this grey and gloomy almost-fall day, we could all do with a little physical and spiritual nourishment.

Oma’s Chicken Soup

Bone-in chicken parts add flavor and depth (not to mention, extra nutrients) to the soup. Feel free to use chicken breast instead and do toss in any vegetables you might have lying around in your fridge. Interesting pasta shapes will intrigue your sick little one enough to try some soup.

Time: 1 hour (20 minutes active)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

2 whole chicken leg quarters
3 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon fried shallots
1 whole nutmeg, or a few sprinkles of ground nutmeg
4 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
½ green small cabbage, cored and chopped into 1-1/2 inch squares
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar

Green onions for garnish
Fried shallots for garnish
Cooked white rice for serving

In a large pot, combine the chicken and 10 cups of water over medium heat. Add the green onions, fried shallots, and nutmeg.

Cover and simmer until the chicken is almost cooked through, about 20 minutes, skimming the scum off regularly. Remove the chicken from the pot and scrape the meat off the bone. Chop into bite-sized pieces. Return the chicken and bones to the pot.

Add the carrots and celery and cook until tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes.

Add salt and sugar.

Remove the bones and nutmeg. Add the cabbage and turn off the heat.

To serve, scoop rice into individual bowls and spoon the soup over. Garnish with green onions and fried shallots.

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Reflections on the Moon Festival

Today is the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. Everyone (okay, not everyone) of Chinese descent around the world will celebrate the Moon festival, also known widely as the Mid Autmn Festival or as I know it, the Lantern Festival.

The Moon Festival is rich with legend and symbolism.

I wish I could tell you I was captivated by the legend of the Moon Goddess Chang’e (or Chang-O) as a little girl growing up in Singapore. Nor could I say that on this one night of the Moon Festival, I gazed longingly at the full moon, hoping that she would grant my wish. In fact, I didn’t even know she existed until my late teens.

The egg yolk in the mooncake represents the moon; Photo by:

I wish I could say I’ve always enjoyed eating mooncakes, creamy-smooth pastes of azuki bean or lotus seed wrapped in a delicate pastry shell. Made in molds carved with auspicious Chinese characters or filigree flowers, I now regard them as artworks. Growing up, I didn’t care for the sticky, sweet filling, and especially not the salty, golden yolk often hiding within.

However, I can tell you one thing that I looked forward to every year—parading around the neighborhood with my very own lantern (there’s a reason why I call it the Lantern Festival!). Before festival day, my parents would take us to the market to buy cellophane lanterns: our choice of butterfly, dragon, rabbit, goldfish, rooster—you name the animal, they had it.


A menagerie on sale in Singapore's Chinatown; Photo by

See here or here for more examples.

On the evening of the Lantern Festival, I’d hold out my goldfish (or butterfly or rabbit) as my dad lit a candle and carefully placed it inside. (Yes, it was a naked flame and a total fire hazard. I’m convinced many a poor child burnt a hole in their lantern, or even caught their whole entire lantern on fire!). Then I’d skip outside beyond our gate and join the neighborhood children parading up and down the street like little fireflies darting around the inky night.

This year, I tried desperately to find a cellophane lantern for Isaac and for nostalgia’s sake. I’m guessing these fire hazards aren’t allowed in the U.S. (go figure!), either that or I’m just not “in the know.”

Rather than despairing, I decided to teach him the meaning behind the festival. A gorgeous picture book “Thanking the Moon–Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival” by Grace Lin (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) came to the rescue.

“Thanking the Moon” is one of several picture books Lin has written based on her own family adventures

Created in vivid, larger-than-life goache colors, the book depicts a Chinese American family heading to a moonlit meadow for a nighttime moon-viewing picnic (something we never did when I was a child). Along the way, we learn about symbolism in all things round–the full moon symbolizes harmony and wholeness, round pomelos and grapes and paper lanterns are unpacked; the young narrator pours round cups of tea, and everyone nibbles on soft, sweet mooncakes. As the glowing moon watches over them, the family makes silent wishes and enjoys the family togetherness important during so many Chinese holidays. In the back of the book, Lin explains the meaning behind the festival and its significance.

My childhood memories of pretty, crinkly cellophane lanterns will forever be with me but for my son to miss out on them may not be such a loss after all. At least I won’t have to worry about him burning himself. But I’m hoping that as Isaac gets older, he understands the importance of spending the holidays with family and sends silent wishes to Chang’e as she looks down upon us mere mortals on this special day.