Those School Days. Whenever I sit down and reminisce about them I am transported back into the world of polishing shoes at night, biology dissection lessons that I for some vague reason loved, that one time a really good looking young professor came to teach in an all girls’ school, running around the corridors, that annual day for which we practiced for months, those much dreaded quizzes and all of us waiting for the recess bell to strike so that we could take out those lunch boxes and finally get some much deserved rest. Most days the goodies in the lunch box were consumed much before the lunch hour.
Each year when the time came to progress to the next grade mum would take me to choose a new lunch box. Getting to choose that one box made me feel very grown up, very adult. My name and grade were written on it with a permanent marker and the lunch box was shown off to all on the first day of the class. Next came what would go into it. There were of course the favourites like the grated cucumber and carrot sandwich, parantha (Indian flatbread) with jam and vegetable poha (beaten rice with veggies) amongst many others that weren't rated that high. But to be honest I don’t remember a single lunch that I disliked. Perhaps it was to do with the fact that back then we had limited choices. There was also an occasional slice of homemade cake that was given as a special treat. And yes, noodles, which were a favourite with all of us.
Sharing our lunchboxes was what lunch breaks were made of. A dear friend’s lunch box was my favourite for her mum always sent homemade dosas with spicy red chutney. Food was what brought us all together at school. Food was how we understood our differences and similarities.
Move to April, when Sara began taking lunch to school. After we got past the challenge of getting all of the princess lunch boxes and water bottles ever manufactured the bigger challenge was staring me in my face; what to put in her lunchbox (she takes two snack boxes; a lighter one for the 15 minute break and a heavier one for the 30 minute break) so that it comes back empty like mine always did and also so that she remembers her lunch time as fondly as I do and makes beautiful memories around it.
Interestingly, what has helped me the most is getting her into the kitchen and letting her make “important decisions” like choosing what she’d like and letting her “make” her lunch every day. And now she loves it and helps me “cook” all her meals. Letting her take this decision has helped reducing her anxiety of what will be there in her lunch box the next day and become less resistant to new foods. It is usually something really small like choosing which vegetable or fruit would she like in her box or letting her choose between two fillings or wanting to take her carrots sliced or cubed. She once “made her own recipe” for a sandwich filling and that till date is her favorite. She is obviously very proud of her creation and makes it a point to remind me that the recipe is hers each time I make it for her lunchbox.
Helping me make her favourite whole wheat pasta salad with broccoli & feta for her lunch box
Of course it doesn't mean that I give her only what she decides to like! Each time I want to introduce her to a new food (Read: food she instantly said no to without even tasting) I pack it along with a current favorite. Makes me one happy mamma when I see a “new food” doing the vanishing act.
I also noticed that ever since we started planning and making the lunch boxes together it is helping her to make better choices. We've been talking about where her fruits and veggies come from, how brown bread is better for her tummy and fresh juice is so much tastier than the packed one (the difference between good food and the not so good food) When she is helping me decide the options she also learns (without me being preachy) what she needs to put into her body to be able to study/run/swim/do ballet/paint and build houses for fairies (With a third of a child's food intake for the day being consumed at school it is important that food in your child's lunch box provides the much needed vitamins and minerals for energy and growth).
Need to add: That occasional store bought chocolate custard or pretzels are still very much part of our lunches and a little indulgence/ cheating is and should be part of childhood, agree? Us parents too). Along the way she is also learning that a lot of work and love goes into preparing each meal and did I mention her lunchboxes comes empty each day and leaves me beaming?
We also like to shop for her lunch together. Sara loves grocery shopping so much so that on our recent vacation she asked me if the grocery store guy was missing her & me! Yes, that is the kind of love I am talking about. It just makes her so much more willing to eat what she “bought” from her very own grocery list.
Do you ask your little one to “help” you fix her/his lunch? I’d love to hear your views on this and if you don’t then give it a try and let me know how it went.
Here are some ideas to get you and your kids into making lunches together (All done under supervision & with assistance).
Tasks that they can do
Making it easy
A pictorial checklist with items under each head like whole grain, dairy, fruits, veggies and snack will encourage them to ascertain their independence and also understand that they need one thing from each of the above groups in their lunch box.
Make good nutrition convenient for them by having snacks, fruits, veggies, proteins in designated boxes in the fridge. That is all they need to put together their lunch and you could take charge of the one big carbohydrate and the hot items that they will need to refuel their minds at school.
9 years and above
Setup a lunch making area where they can find everything they are going to need (lunch boxes, bottles, cutlery, napkins, zip-lock bags, foil, chopping board, knives, etc.). Also helps them learn the value of being organized.
Please note: A part of this story was originally written for BBC Good Food by moi.