‘What do I pack in my child’s dabba today?’ is a daily worry for parents. It’s no different even if you are an accomplished chef, dishing out gourmet eats at a city restaurant. They agree that the big challenge is to make the food appealing to the eye. Nutritional and fun is the formula to crack. We followed six chefs into their kitchen to see what they do to ensure the dabba doesn’t come back empty.
‘Keep dips and spreads handy’
Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal. Pics/Datta Kumbhar
Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, founder, APB Cook Studio
Packs dabba for: Aman, 15, Natasha, 9
Dabbas are the most elaborate morning ritual and it’s complete organised chaos between 6.30 and 7.30 am. My daughter is fussy; she only likes simple finger food. So I give her grapes, cucumber sticks and carrot sticks, sometimes roasted cauliflower. I also do this pan-fried paneer with chat masala, and crumbed fried chicken where I use oats for the coating. You need to balance health and taste. They have both long and short breaks. The smaller dabba has homemade chips, gathiya, chakli with a dip, to make it appealing. Kids can afford to eat high-calorie foods. You can do lots with dips and spreads. My son eats everything, so his lunch dabba is quite elaborate. I keep it high-protein, low-carbs. Quesadillas are easy, if you’ve some chicken filling ready. We avoid multi-grain bread, and go with white bread. But since my husband bakes at home, once or twice a week, they take home-baked breads and rolls.
Trick: Try roasting marinated cauliflower for a short break snack
‘Make sure it’s a wholesome bite’
Birendra Singh. Pics/Shadab Khan
Birendra Singh, executive chef, Jimmyy’s Dhaba
Packs dabba for: Hrishita, 7, Rasina, 10
Hailing from a North Indian family, my daughters prefer to carry roti and paratha rather than poha or idli. Greens and sprouts are their least favourites; fruits, especially the exotic varieties, and raw vegetables, however, are preferred. Hrishita loves to carry one stuffed paratha. She likes the usual aloo paratha but when the stuffing is kheema, she is happy with it. We make a chicken kheema paratha and when you add raw vegetables to the lunchbox, it’s perfect.
Trick: If your kid isn’t overweight, stuffed parathas make an ideal lunch snack
‘Give in to cheese’
Sharique Baksh. Pics/Shadab Khan
Sharique Baksh, executive chef, Restaurant 29
Packs dabba for: Ariba, 8, Yuneza, 4.5
I cook for my children on my day off, which is usually a Monday. Kids love cheese. I know it is not a healthy option, but we have to work around it. My daughters don’t like peanuts, so, a peanut butter sandwich is ruled out. My younger daughter loves her Nutella sandwich with sliced bananas. My elder one has quite an appetite. So, a cheesy pasta, like a Mac-n-cheese, is a lunchbox staple. However, I often pack for them a sprout salad made of brown gram, moong dal or other lentils. We mix these with onion and tomato, and a vinaigrette made of lemon, honey and chat masala. It is sweet to taste and not spicy — just the way the kids like it. On other occasions, mooli parathas and medhu vadas with tomato chutney become lunchbox specials.
Trick: Balance a sinful sandwich spread with a healthy ingredient like banana
‘Don’t force feed’
Gaurav Gidwani. Pics/Satej Shinde
Gaurav Gidwani, executive chef, The Bar Stock Exchange
Packs dabba for: Neev, 8
Neev is a very fussy eater and force-feeding him usually backfires. If I pack some noodles, he makes sure that the vegetables are left behind while the noodles and the meat are finished. He is a meat lover and my wife and I plan his lunchbox accordingly. We also have to make sure that he is well-fed while at school. This includes the time taken to go and return from school, which is just 10 minutes away but stretches to an hour, thanks to traffic. His school is strict about food, which we think is towards the betterment of students. On Fridays, the one day they get to carry junk food, we pack whatever Neev likes — a slice or two of pizza, for instance. On other days, since vegetables are not his favourite, we try to compensate that with as much homemade meals as possible. A recurring item in his lunchbox are fried sausages with pizza seasoning and ketchup. Another dish we make is to warm leftover chapati, beat an egg over it and mix it with cheese. It is a frankie of a kind and a wholesome meal when we pack some fresh fruit as well.
Trick: See if you can agree on a cheat day to restrict junk food to pizza
‘Innovate, but within your child’s preference‘
Tushar Malkani. Pics/Datta Kumbhar
Tushar Malkani, executive chef and general manager, Kaitlyn’s Beer Garden
Packs dabba for: Avishka, 2.5
My daughter is in nursery and goes to a veg-only school. So that’s something we need to bear in mind. I try to work with variety. One thing that we do often is a Sindhi staple called kaccha aalu — it’s made of boiled and mashed yam, crumb fried, seasoned with salt and black pepper and ketchup. We stuff it in a roti roll, with a small slice of cheese, because that’s how she likes it. Ladies finger is not something that children like, so to make it appealing, I slit it in two, add a stuffing of besan, mixed with garam masala, add some ghee, ground peanuts and toss it in the pan. Then we put the same thing in a roti or a mini pao (the kind used for sliders). Children usually like the concept of rolls and buns. She is also given a health juice made of watermelon, wheat grass, haldi, pomegranate and carrot. It’s something the family drinks every morning and she takes it along with her dabba. The key is to give them what they like, but also ensure they are getting nutrition. That can only happen if you innovate within their preferences. We do variations of potato — instead of the regular fried stuff, I bake it. I also do tempura and stir fried vegetables. If it’s pasta, I ensure the sauce doesn’t have maida or cheese. Another thing we do, when she has a cold, is the gud ka roti, where we add jaggery into a roti roll — it’s an excellent antidote. I avoid multi-grain bread. Being in the industry, I’m familiar with the production methods, and I don’t think they are quite fit for a child’s consumption.”
Trick: Place healthy ingredients between mini paos
‘Make sure there is some fruit’
Irfan Pabaney. Pics/Bipin Kokat
Irfan Pabaney, chef and owner, Sassy Spoon
Packs dabba for: Aalika, 13 years
Sandwiches and frankies are what my daughter loves, so I make sure she gets a variation of those. If we do chutney at home, then I make her a coconut chutney and cheese sandwich. Else the fillings vary between cold cuts, minced chicken and mutton.
For the frankie, I shred the mutton or chicken, mix it with egg and roll it in a plain roti or a fried roti. I also do a pickled onion, where I dip them in apple cider vinegar. I find it little point in giving her roti-bhaji as half of it always comes back. She, however, loves dal-rice. In the summers, I make sure I give her some dahi too with it. Sometimes I cheat and get her food from the restaurant — usually the penne pasta cooked with sun-dried tomatoes, capers and olives. That item is particularly popular among her friends. I always make sure to put some cut fruit — not a fruit salad, as that tends to get messy. Since she plays football, we also give her dry fruit as that’s easy energy — usually walnuts and almonds. Nutrition is important, but don’t kill yourself over it. Food should be fun, not work — neither for the one preparing, nor for the one eating.
Trick: If the child plays a sport, pack some dry fruit