School lunchbox ideas from around the world: Stuffed zucchini to steamed idlis

Six parents share their go-to dishes to inspire yours, from Filipino arroz caldo to South African pampoenkoekies

Introducing different dishes into your child's lunchbox will expose them to new flavours, cuisines and cultures. Unsplash / MD Duran
Powered by automated translation

Busy parents will know it’s all too easy to slip into the same old routine when preparing their children’s lunchboxes.

While reaching for the same old snacks may be quick, taking a little time to try something different will introduce not only new flavours but also new cultures to your child’s culinary life.

With the UAE home to so many nationalities, six parents from Egypt, India, Palestine, South Africa, the Philippines and the UK share their go-to recommendations for you to try.

Stuffed zucchini, Palestine

The snacks Dana El Arabeed puts in her son's lunchbox reflect her Palestinian heritage. Photo: Dana El Arabeed

Palestinian Dana El Arabeed is a fashion and lifestyle content creator in Abu Dhabi. She is the mother of two boys – Adnan, five, and three-month-old Mohamad.

It can be enjoyed both hot and at room temperature
Dana El Arabeed, fashion and lifestyle content creator

“As a Middle Eastern family, we have a deep appreciation for stuffed dishes, such as stuffed grape leaves and stuffed chicken. Stuffed zucchini is a favourite of my son's,” says El Arabeed. “It's also a way to share our cultural heritage through food, and it reminds me of the times when my grandma used to make it for family gatherings, and I'd share it with my cousins.”

She says the dish is ideal for the school lunchbox due to its nutrition, portability, versatility, flavour and convenience. “It can be enjoyed both hot and at room temperature, making it the perfect addition to a lunchbox,” adds El Arabeed.

Arroz caldo, Philippines

Filipino blogger Abigail Caidoy cooks up comfort food arroz caldo for her children's lunchboxes. Photo: Abigail Caidoy

Filipino Abigail Caidoy is mother to Markus, 15 and Chloe, 11, and is the woman behind the Cuddles and Crumbs Instagram account and blog where she documents her life in Dubai.

“The Filipino dish arroz caldo is our ultimate comfort food,” says Caidoy. “Growing up, whenever I feel under the weather, this was the food I would always request. So naturally when I became a mother, I prepared arroz caldo when my children needed that extra comfort.”

I use a mix of rice and quinoa
Abigail Caidoy, blogger

Caidoy says her children will “happily consume arroz caldo even when I’m not around; it is one dish they don't get tired of eating”.

Fellow parents, Filipino or otherwise, will be happy to know this one-pot dish takes only 15 minutes to prepare in a pressure cooker.

“The Filipino-style congee or lugaw is made of fresh chicken or leftover roast, and the rice is flavoured with garlic, ginger, and fish sauce,” explains Caidoy. “It's a hearty meal that can be served with various toppings like boiled egg, chopped scallions, and toasted garlic.

“I use a mix of rice and quinoa, and pack it in a Thermos food flask to keep it warm.”

Turkey and cheese toasted, Egypt

Stay-at-home father Mostafa Hassan adds Egyptian staple bechamel to the lunchbox dish his daughters love. Photo: Mostafa Hassan

Egyptian stay-at-home father Mostafa Hassan has amassed a huge following on social media as the founder of ArabBaba ThatsMe, where he documents “the ups, downs and sideways of being an Arab stay-at-home baba”, while taking care of daughters Saffiya, 14, and Mackenzie, nine.

“The turkey and cheese toasted I make for my daughters includes bechamel, which is an Egyptian staple and which my mother taught me to make when I was young,” says Hassan. “It wasn’t what I used to eat all of the time because turkey was expensive in Egypt, but cheese and good fresh bread always was. As both our girls grew up, they always liked it.”

We use a multigrain bread, so the girls get protein, dairy, and some good seeds, too
Mostafa Hassan, content creator and stay-at-home dad

Hassan says the dish is a good source of energy. “Throughout the day, kids are running, playing, studying and going back and forth to classes, so they need something to keep them going. I add in some cheddar cheese through the layers, use fresh drops of sour cream and cut the sandwich into four bite-size squares.”

He also recommends adding a little cinnamon.

Above all, he says this is his lunchbox go-to because it's “easy to make. That's the biggest reason".

“The girls can choose their preferred cheese – usually mozzarella or cheddar – and we use a multigrain bread, so they get protein, dairy, and some good seeds, too," he says.

Idli and other southern delicacies, India

Indian mum Priyanka Uchil with her daughter Kyra, who enjoys South Indian dishes such as idli. Photo: Priyanka Uchil; Getty Images

Priyanka Uchil, a marketing professional who lives in Dubai, relies on a series of South Indian staples for her daughter Kyra, 7.

“Her lunchboxes are planned keeping three parameters in mind: The weather, especially during the hot summer months; gut health; and how safe a dish is to eat at room temperature,” says Uchil.

A daily snack is calcium-rich makhanas or fox nuts
Priyanka Uchil, marketing professional

Steamed idli, a savoury snack made from fermented rice, is often a go-to. With high nutritional value, idlis contain no saturated fats or cholesterol and are easy on the stomach. “Sometimes we'll prepare idli with chutney sandwich-style, or send mini dosas [savoury pancakes also made from a fermented batter of ground black lentils and rice].”

Yoghurt, a good source of probiotics, is another staple accompaniment, in the form of curd rice prepared with grated beetroot and carrots; or as a dip for fenugreek, cottage cheese or cabbage parathas.

“Her daily snack is calcium-rich, crunchy makhanas or fox nuts. All of these can be eaten hot or at room temperature, and are easy and quick to make fresh.”

Pampoenkoekies (pumpkin fritters), South Africa

Kelly Sclanders recommends traditional South African pampoenkoekies as a perfect lunchbox snack. Photo: Kelly Sclanders

Hailing from South Africa, Kelly Sclanders lives in Dubai and works as a social media manager and lifestyle blogger. Her son Leonidas is 1.

“Pampoenkoekies or pumpkin fritters is a much-loved South African dish that requires a few ingredients and is easy to make,” says Sclanders.

They don’t have a strong, overpowering taste or smell
Kelly Sclanders, social media manager

“I make this dish for my son because it is a great way to incorporate a vegetable and can be enjoyed by the whole family.

“I have also adapted it from the normal deep frying method to make it healthier. You can add toppings such as honey, cinnamon or even a decadent caramel sauce. My son loves these delicious fritters because they are light, fluffy and don’t have a strong, overpowering taste or smell.”

Sclanders says the dish can be batch-cooked and frozen.

Filled sandwiches, UK

Filled sandwiches and croissants are British mum-of-three Kaya Scott's go-to lunchbox staple. Photo: Kaya Scott; Eaters Collective / Unsplash

Brit Kaya Scott is mum to three children; Felix, 13, Arthur, 11, and Violet, 10. The freelance writer and editor of The Luxe Diary lives in Dubai.

“Being British, lunchboxes are all about sandwiches. But they don’t have to be boring,” says Scott. “We mix up the type of bread we use – so wraps, bagels, baguettes, rolls and croissants – and make sure each day there's a different filling – tuna mayo, roast chicken, pesto and mozzarella.”

Scott says sandwiches are ideal for the schoolyard as they are “easy to hold, which works because lunchtime is busy and they want to be able to eat up and then play with friends. We found that giving hot meals or food that required cutlery wasn't working as the kids just didn't have time to sit and eat it.

“Also, it looks good, and kids eat with their eyes first.”

Sandwiches can also be adapted to suit various cuisines. “Pretty much anything can go between two pieces of bread, from leftover chicken schnitzel to roast potatoes, which was a favourite of my daughter with a little mayo and pesto too. Living in the Middle East, the kids often take falafel, hummus and grated carrot in a wrap. Just wrap in foil and keep warm in a container.”

Updated: September 15, 2023, 3:24 AM