Children can tour the world during lunch
By MICHELE KAYAL For the Associated Press August 6, 2012 2:52PM
A Japanese bento box and Indian Tiffin offer a multinational version of the traditional brown bag lunch. | AP Photo/Matthew Mead
Updated: September 9, 2012 6:01AM
If you — or your kid — are blanching at the thought of yet another year of day-after-day brown bagged PB&J, perhaps this is the year to mix up the lunch box offerings a bit.
Of course, that’s an easy thing to say. The typical parent is unlikely ever to fully abandon that all-American sandwich.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix things up now and then. The trick is to have something from which to draw inspiration — and we don’t mean staring blankly into the refrigerator at 7 a.m.
Our advice? Look elsewhere in the world. Wherever you look, parents every day must figure out fun and healthy ways to feed the little ones. Their answers sometimes are startlingly different than our own, but often are easily adapted. It’s a simple way to get inspired, as well as to expose kids to new cultures.
You might even turn it into a family research project. Once a week (or if that’s too much, try once a month), let the kids pick a new country and read up on what children there eat for lunch. Start at the library; there have been plenty of child-friendly books published on this very subject.
To help you start the year off right, we’ve summed up a few easy ideas.
Japanese farm workers once carried their lunches into the fields wrapped in bamboo leaves, and later in simple wooden boxes. Today, these bento boxes have evolved into edible works of art, with Japanese parents — and a growing number of Americans — shaping rice balls into hearts and stars, making meatballs into faces, and cutting vegetables into flowers. But even ordinary lunch food takes on a special quality in a bento.
“It’s not so much the type of food, but what I call “a bento state of mind,’ ” Debra Samuels, author of “My Japanese Table,” said via e-mail. “I see the concept of bento as basically a food sampler, a colorful culinary puzzle. The benefits of the bento are smaller portions and greater variety of food.”
To assemble a bento box, Samuels suggests thinking in terms of five colors or five types of food. Kid-sized vegetables such as mini-summer squash, cherry tomatoes and Persian cucumbers make great dippers for dressing. Wraps with meat and vegetables, as well as cheese quesadillas studded with red peppers also are festive.
And part of the bento philosophy is to present the items attractively, Samuels says. For instance, cut sandwiches into triangles and set them on end. Fill mini-muffin cups with a favorite shaped pastas or strawberries. Spear finger foods with fun toothpicks.
“Opening a bento box is like opening a gift,” Samuels says. “When you lift the lid, there is a big ‘Ooh!’ factor.”
In India, lunch is all about the tiffin, a lunch box made from stackable metal containers that usually are filled, then clamped together. And Anupy Singla’s tiffins are the envy of the other kids in her children’s Chicago area school. Singla, author of the recently released “Vegan Indian Cooking,” may send her children off with rice and lentils, rotis and sabzi (a dry vegetable curry), or a potato-stuffed flat bread.
“Those are the things that stay fresher during the day,” she says. Vegetables like kohlrabi and daikon (Asian radish) hold up well and complement the other flavors. Sometimes lunch is packed in a tiffin, but often Singla just puts the items in a freezable lunchbox available in many stores or online.
More Indian kid favorites include papardam, lentil wafers that can be crisped in the microwave and substituted for chips, and what Singla calls “chickpea poppers,” cooked or canned chickpeas sprinkled with salt, garam masala and oil, then roasted at 325 F for 25 minutes. Salads can take on an Indian flavor by topping them with whole beans or lentils, then dressing them with oil, lemon and a little toasted cumin seed.