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