What’s In Your Dabba? Exploring The Significance Of Lunchboxes

Between spending time at home – as a child going to school and going on to spending long hours at work, we seldom think about food as more than just a functional need. Sustaining and having enough energy to get through the day become our top priorities and most often, it is a challenge to balance taste and nutrition. Hurried lunches don’t always allow one the time or opportunity to savour each bite of food or appreciate the effort that went into putting a meal together.; and dinners on weekdays are cooked to make sure bellies have been filled. The increasing demands with academics or work give little to no time to enjoy the experience of our meals and reflect on the nuances.

What is most interesting though, even in this pattern of monotony and routine, is how these dabbas represent more than just food that is meant to be eaten at a certain time of day; lunchboxes are symbolic of culture – think of the dabbawaalas in Bombay delivering thousands of packed lunches across the megalopolis or how it offered a sense of dignity to an orphaned child in Amole Gupte’s film, Stanley Ka Dabba. The idea of the humble dabba meaning more than just a meal has been explored in fascinating ways through themes that attach a sentiment. Lunchboxes also hold pockets of nostalgia and whispers of the past in ways that no other medium does, to represent a culture.

As we moved into the virtual space, sharing ideas of quick meals and meal prep got into the spotlight. As children, we remember sneaking bites of sandwiches or poking our forks into dabbas with Maggi or pancakes as friends giggled between bites. Our lunchboxes have evolved into a mirror that represent our memories of food and our discoveries as our palettes evolve. In this vein, two content creators – Sharmilee Prakash and Rekha Shivakumar – began documenting beautiful meals that they would pack for their children and husbands on Instagram, around the same time the concept of a packed lunch was metamorphosising.

Some of their earliest memories of carrying packed lunches to school as children predominantly consisted of food that was made with simple, everyday ingredients that was accessible to their mothers. “Being born and brought up in Tamil Nadu my school lunchbox menu was predominantly rice-based. Once in a while, amma would pack tiffin items like idli, poori, dosai or chapati. There used to be a separate fan base for my amma's puliodharai (tamarind rice) in school and college; my friends loved it. She would happily pack extra boxes of rice just so that I can share it with my friends,” shares Rekha Shivakumar, a Trichy native currently based in Ireland.

Sharmilee, on the other hand recalls how being a picky eater, her mother was motivated to be creative and pack dishes like mutter paneer or paneer dosas, at a time when paneer wasn’t easily available in Chennai. She also remembers sharing crowd favourites like chana masala or a vegetable curry of some kind that her mother lovingly prepared. Both, Rekha and Sharmilee, took a leaf out of this book and undertook the everyday task of coming up with creative, visually appealing lunchboxes for their children and husbands and started to document it on Instagram.

Image Credits: Sharmis Passions

Rekha is candid about how new-age parents have to work twice as harder, to ensure that their children get balanced meals while Sharmilee echoes her sentiment and shares how her daughter was also a fussy eater while also pointing out that food in these lunchboxes needed to be easy to eat. Rekha emphasises how aesthetics have had to play a key role in elevating the ‘dabba’ by saying, “Right from different fashionable lunchboxes, to adding cute little notes for kids, I mean so much has changed. In a way it is good that there is more awareness about eating different food groups for every meal; extra care is given on making kids eat, rather than only packing their favourites. The focus is more on nutritional value, so many menu ideas are available all over the internet. At the same time I feel there is also this unnecessary pressure being put on parents about packing innovative lunchboxes, packing ten different things in a box without actually being mindful about food waste or keeping in mind the appetite of their kid. Every kid is different and their likes/dislikes are different.”

Sharmilee’s lunchbox journey on social media began when her friends and relatives would be interested in knowing what kind of food she packed for her kids and figured that it could also benefit other people with children, who would possibly be racking their brain over what to feed their families every week. “I would share pictures on my friends’ group but when I started posting, many followers admitted to getting motivated as well, even if lunches were repeated. With my daughter, who is now 13, eating her favourite meal of rotis and potato sabzi has remained intact but she has also now begun to eat other vegetables.

Rekha however, is quick to point out that an after-school picture of a lunchbox is rarely shared, while also mentioning that while content creators might share these neatly packed lunchboxes on social media, she is also conscious about sharing only ideas for lunch as opposed to actual packed lunches. Another challenge that both of them face is treading the rope between what tastes good and what is good for their children. Sharmilee says, “Kids are hard to impress but once they see the food and find it appetising or attractive, they are at least willing to taste it. My daughter being a picky eater, I would roll out chapati dough and make shapes using cookie cutters to make food look attractive and impress her. I plan an entire week’s menu and make sure that it is balanced – for breakfast and dinner.”

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“Kids’ preferences change over time and they also observe so much around them. My daughter is still not very fond of fruits so I try to include them by making pancakes and adding fresh fruit purees; by trying to include few pieces of either orange, berries, pear and apples, on a rotational basis in her lunchbox; trying to include veggies, cheese or paneer in dosai, paratha, cheelas etc. As much as I want her to eat everything, I also don't want to make her lunchtime painful by packing things which she totally dislikes. Finding a balance and slowly trying to make them understand the goodness in everything is the key here,” Rekha affirms.

On the other hand, packing lunches for their respective husbands is a different ball game both women sail through pretty easily too. In Rekha’s case, her husband has been working from home ever since the pandemic, but recalls sharing his packed lunches with her followers under the hashtag #shivslunchtoday. “Lunch is just one meal a day and as long as it keeps our tummy full and keeps us going, it is absolutely fine to pack whatever you manage to cook and whatever the person likes. That's how I look at it.”

Image Credits: Rekha Shivakumar

Both women, who started documenting home-cooked lunches – Rekha in 2010 and Sharmilee around 2013 – became creators as a matter of chance. They also share the commonality of taking great pleasure in watching people appreciating and trying out the recipes and ideas that they post as they have, in their own ways, navigated the tough terrain of being a success with their children. Sharmilee offers the bribe of a delicious but light snack box to her children, containing rice puff laddoos, fryums, fruit and even deep-fried treats like gobhi manchurain. Rekha mentions that there is no shame in shying away from using a few ready-to-cook options that take the pressure off of having to cook each day.

“I usually have frozen hashbrowns, potato waffles or spring rolls stocked-up, that are usually ready after baking them in the oven for 10-13 minutes. Sometimes readymade parathas can be rolled up with jam or honey and packed in lunchboxes. Fridays are ‘Treat Day’ at school and they are allowed to carry a sweet treat like cupcakes,” she says. Sharmilee’s children particularly relish their lunches on days when the dabbas contain creamy paneer butter masala and coin parathas. She also goes the extra mile to cut out little hearts in the centre of stuffed parathas and add colour to meals through dishes like beetroot rice and bright yellow lemon rice.

As both, Rekha and Sharmilee grew up in rice-eating households, their dabbas are reminiscent of the food that resonates with their roots. Getting their children to understand their rich culinary heritage, along with influences that they picked up over time, through travelling and tasting different types of food themselves, the lunchboxes in their homes have transformed into a contemporary space for experimentation.