Out of the box

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 12, 2018

Grub-a-dub-dub: Making lunches appetising is a big challenge for both parents and schools. Photo: S James   -  The Hindu

Meatloaf or sloppy joes. Chapatis with bhaji. Or street-style Delhi chaat. No matter the grub, school lunch from another’s dabba always tastes better

Every time I watched a teeny-bopper movie or read an Archie comic as a child, I was consumed by envy.

Not for the senior prom, or the trendy clothes, or even the neat, orderly streets of small-town America — but for those school lunches. For the vast school cafeterias with their offerings of technicoloured pizzas, sandwiches stuffed with indeterminate pink meats, and great wodges of pie.

I mean, here were my friends and I, lined up along benches in our prim convent school, opening our aluminium tiffin boxes and being confronted with — ummm — a spoonful of doodhi(bottle gourd) bhaji, three cold chapatis and maybe a mutton dish in a greyish gravy that had managed to ooze onto everything else.

Of course, our poor mums tried. They worked overtime to cook, pack boxes and get those bright plastic baskets to us by 12.40pm every single school day. They tried to pep up the meals by slipping in a Cadbury’s Chocolate Éclair or an orange boiled sweet in its twist of cellophane. And of course, we did our own bit by trading and swapping. A spoonful of Rupal’s vegetable pickle in exchange for some mango. A bite of Crystal’s sausage in exchange for a spoonful of keema.

Still, it was difficult to make the lukewarm contents of those little dabbas appetising. My brother’s school offered hot lunch to the children who wanted it. But, if the whispered conversations outside the school gate were any indication, it was not a happy option. “The rice is so bad because they buy it from the farm of the Marathi teacher,” mothers would hiss. “Fat, fat grains. And chapatis like leather.”

Which was why it seemed so unfair that there were children in other corners of the world who were allowed to choose their poison day after day. They could heap their plates with greasy fries, cheesy pastas and cookies. Hot dogs, fizzy drinks and all the other stuff that we got once a month as a treat.

So it came as a huge surprise to find that memories of “school lunch” send equally violent shivers down the backs of those who grew up on meatloaf and sloppy joes. Or, in the case of British schoolchildren, stodgy puddings and bakes. Clearly, the endless parades of Salisbury steaks with sides of boiled carrot and peas have damaged many psyches — and given birth to a bunch of black jokes.

“What’s the worst thing about eating school lunch? The food!”

“What do you call someone who eats school lunch everyday? Starving!”

This, mind you, was before the healthniks entered the fray in countries like the US and Australia. Some years ago, strict norms about fats and sodium content were put in place. Suddenly, cheese became low-fat, meat became lean, bread became wholegrain, fruits compulsory, and the children sulkier. And school lunch became an even bigger problem.

When my children came along, I worried about the tricky business of school lunch. So I was hugely relieved when my daughters got admission into a Mumbai school that is as famous for its lunch as for its academic achievements.

The school has a kitchen run by a large team of gimlet-eyed mothers — who make sure the tomatoes are scrubbed, that the diet is balanced and that mountains of chapati are rolled before the lunch bell rings. Better still, they produce an amazing variety of dishes.

There’s the hugely popular Sindhi curry with aloo tuks. There’s a delicious Delhi chaat. There’s the more controversial Mexican fare. There’s the evergreen kung pao potatoes. There’s the oh-no-not-again theplas and parathas. I’ve sampled the noodles, the pasta, the idlis, the pav bhaji and enjoyed them all.

On hot days the children are given nimbu pani and mint coolers. On special days they get strawberries dipped in chocolate sauce or chocolate balls. For heaven’s sake, the school has even published its own cookbook.

Reasons enough to rejoice, right?


My ingrate girls and their friends grumble and groan. They crib about the quesadilla, and the lunch mums who insist that they eat their paneer makhanwala. They say the dahi is too thick and the salsa too thin. They whine about the frankies and refuse to try the chikoo milkshake.

Instead — and this is what destroys me — they envy the children who get home lunch.

The first time I heard this, I gasped and goggled. Then I delivered a pungent lecture peppered with words like “finicky” and “spoilt”. Then, finally, I started to wonder whether the problem lies not with the food but with the concept of a school lunch.

Maybe children are put off by the vast quantities of food being consumed together. Maybe it’s the clatter of cutlery. Maybe they find it difficult to eat according to a timetable.

Or maybe it’s just so much more fun to grouch about the food than eat it.

Sindhi kadhi

(From the Bombay International School — 50 Years of Special Recipes cookbook. A rare dish that’s a favourite with children

from Std I to XII)

2 tomatoes, puréed

1 cup bhindi

1/4 cup guvar (cluster beans)

1 drumstick

3 tbsp coriander

1/4 cup besan

1/2 tsp methi seeds

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp ginger, grated

1 green chilli

4-6 kokum

5 curry leaves

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp red chilli powder

Pinch of hing

2 tbsp oil



1. Cook the bhindi, guvar, kokum and drumstick in a pan with 1 and 1/2 cups of water. Keep aside.

2. Heat the oil. Add mustard and methi seeds and when they sputter, add the cumin seeds, curry leaves, green chilli, ginger and hing. Add besan and roast for five minutes on a low flame.

3. Add tomato purée and cook for a few minutes.

4. Add turmeric, red chilli powder, salt and the vegetables with their water.

5. Boil and simmer on a low flame for 10 minutes.

6. Garnish with coriander.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Strange Haunting of Model High School and The Shy Supergirl

Published on June 30, 2017

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