• A lot of love is packed into school lunchboxes every day. Along with questionable other stuff. (Vanessa Loring from Pexels)Source: Vanessa Loring from Pexels
Every second-generation Aussie knows that their mum was the original Instagramable lunchbox maker. Just don't tell the other kids.
Bron Maxabella

2 Jun 2021 - 11:39 AM  UPDATED 3 Jun 2021 - 1:18 PM

--- StreamThe Cook Up with Adam Liaw free on SBS On Demand or catch the series weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm. ---


There's a hotly-contested battle happening in the school yard but it's likely the kids don't even know about it. Yep, we're talking about competitive lunchboxing.

Across social media, parents are sharing the colourful, nutritious, lovingly-prepared lunches they're packing into schoolbags. From bento boxes with tiny heart-shaped watermelon pieces, to flaky homemade veggie sausage rolls, modern lunchboxes bring serious bragging rights.

The thing is: as every kid of migrants knows, any mama/emak/anne/mami/haha/mueter/madjka/aiti, etc in Australia could easily win the lunchbox game. They're just not posting about it.

The original lunchbox champions

"The first time I remember noticing and understanding that my lunch was culturally different from other kids was in Grade three when I had some onirigi and osembe," recalls Yumi Stynes, broadcaster, writer and sometime guest on The Cook Up with Adam Liaw. "Some of the kids screamed in terror at the sight of the black seaweed. When you think about it, not many school lunchbox ingredients are pitch black like that! "

Filled rice balls (onigiri)

Onigiri are best eaten on the day they are made, however, leftovers are great pan-fried the next day. Avoid wrapping the rice in the nori too early or it will become soggy. This doesn’t affect the flavour though, and, in fact, triggers memories for many Japanese people of their packed school lunches of these rice balls.

It's ironic then, that these days wrapping things in nori is an essential component of lunchboxing. In fact, the best lunchboxes look remarkably similar to the lunches that many second-generation Australians felt ostracised them back in the playground of the seventies and eighties.

"Some of the kids screamed in terror at the sight of the black seaweed."

"I did start to kind of shield what I was eating from curious eyes, so I didn't have to go through the drama of explaining and justifying myself," Yumi explains.

Yumi Styles, Adam Liaw, Benjamin Law

However she also recalls that her initial reaction was "Wow, you mean you live your life without this deliciousness?", and only later felt different. 

Born foodies

It's a feeling chef and restaurateur Joe Vargetto is very familiar with. The owner of Melbourne's Mister Bianco and Massi and author of Siciliano is the son of Sicilian migrants and he remembers being picked on because of his lunches. It was food that was traditional to his family, but very foreign to his classmates.

"I grew up in Sandringham [in Melbourne]," says Joe. "So a lot of the kids were, you know, Smith, Jones, Stuart, Davies, Scott - all from either English or Scottish or Irish background. I was the only Italian."

The lunches his working mother would pack in his green plastic lunchbox were always leftovers from dinner the night before - "foreign" food that wasn't widely known back then. He reckons his lunches would illicit equal-parts fascination and fear in his classmates, which is probably why they picked on him. 

"There was no malice in it, but they noticed how different the food was that I was bringing in and were sure to let me know," says Joe. He was clearly a foodie right from the start, though. "They got canteen orders, and I thought, well, 'doesn't your mother love you? Why do you get canteen orders?'" he recalls.

Definitely homemade

Give Joe leftover pasta dishes or meatballs served with fermented vegetables, fresh tomatoes from the garden and homemade salami any day. It wasn't gourmet all week, however. Mrs Vargetto would bake once a week on Mondays and so the bread she used to pack to mop up his pasta sauce would get progressively staler as the week wore on. "By Friday it was kinda green," Joe recalls. "But she'd just scrub off the little penicillin that was growing around the side of it..."

"They got canteen orders, and I thought, well, 'doesn't your mother love you? Why do you get canteen orders?'"

Unlike Joe, plenty of other second-generation kids were quite envious of the canteen orders and food packed in their classmates' lunchboxes. Though not for long...

"I remember biting into my friend’s Vegemite sandwich and scrunching my face," recalls Farah Celjo, SBS Food managing editor and weekly contributor to The Cook Up. "I never enjoyed it or understood why something that looked like chocolate didn’t taste like it, blasphemy for some I know."

Multicultural picnic

Once her Vegemite sandwich envy was taken care of, Farah remembers sharing out the contents of her lunches. For many of the kids she went to school with, this was probably their first taste of Bosnian food.

In fact, while food sharing is outlawed in modern schools due to allergies, back in the day playgrounds were a regular multicultural picnic. And there was plenty to go around. "Most of my friends would laugh at just how much food could fit into one lunchbox or into multiple Tupperware containers in my schoolbag," Farah laughs. "Thanks Tetris-packing mama!"

"Most of my friends would laugh at just how much food could fit into one lunchbox."

That said, Farah does remember feeling slightly 'other' when opening up her lunchbox. "I remember I wanted what I didn’t seem to have in my own lunchbox... It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy or want the containers of goulash, stuffed cabbage rolls or pita that mama had spent the evening before preparing; it was more about what everyone else had and why it didn’t smell like mine when I opened it up."

Farah now uses her anti vegemite powers for good as managing editor of SBS Food.


I still remember my mother rolling out her homemade pastry onto cotton sheets, begging us not to touch or step on them. Pita was my lunchbox food and burek was the meaty winner that mum would often serve with chopped potato because she knew what a spud fiend I was. This recipe is also great with store-bought filo sheets if you're on a time crunch and kajmak (clotted cream), ajvar (capsicum relish) and plenty of cracked pepper are all screaming for a piece of this pie.

Sogan dolma (Stuffed onions)

This savoury recipe uses the natural sweetness of onions to encase a savoury mince and rice filling. 

Next generation

Yumi's classmates were also suspicious of her 'fishy' smelling lunches. They complained about the smell, but it didn't bother her too much. However, the smell factor is something she would probably consider when packing her own kids' lunchboxes these days.

She tries to pack food that's as natural as possible, citing a baby quke as the perfect lunchbox food. "They go into the lunchbox looking exactly like they did growing on the vine," she says. "Nothing has been done to it and little packaging was used. This is ideal to me."

"She'd just scrub off the little penicillin that was growing around the side of it..."

Her kids also love edamame in the shell and packets of French Fries chips. Growing up, Yumi was also lucky enough to get French Fries packed for recess. "They are a salty, potatoey, oily bomb of delicious flavour!" she enthuses. "I remember when I was a kid my mum used to put a handful in glad wrap, and I lost one of my first teeth munging down on it like a starving lamb."

Low-fuss lunchbox gold

Her son and daughter also love the mini Cheeseymite scrolls from Baker's Delight. "I keep a dozen in the freezer at all times so I can take one out and pop it in the lunchbox with no stress," says Yumi.

That's the secret to packing a lunchbox that ethnic mothers have always known. Low-fuss nutrition that fills kids up is the way to go. In fact, Yumi admits that she's not adverse to sharing her kids' lunchboxes on her Instagram handle ZeroFucksCooking. However, rather than seeing her images as competitive lunchboxing entries, she thinks of them more as a service to other parents. 

"I hope to give other home cooks some ideas to get through this (literally) daily grind of having to make lunches," she explains. "No shame, no competition. And I never do anything particularly fussy. Anything that can live in the freezer so you never run out is lunchbox gold."

Lunchbox loving
Braised meatball banh mi

Xiu mai is a great example of a Vietnamese play on Chinese and French food influences. Meat dumplings (meatballs) are braised in a tomato sauce, then piled into a crispy banh mi with all the trimmings.

Savoury semolina cake

This savoury cake is spongy, crispy on the edges and replete with the textures of the vegetables. It is light and satisfying, easy to make and takes care of itself in the oven. 

Easy steamed pork buns

Pork buns are an essential part of dim sum, and I’m a little bit obsessed with them.  My version isn’t authentic, but it’s a great way to make a simple version at home.

Pizza rustica with olive oil pastry

Pizza rustica is like a hybrid between a pastry and a calzone, with an unleavened olive oil pastry-like dough encasing anything your heart desires. In this case, a classic spinach and ricotta filling.

Chicken teriyaki sushi sandwiches
Spinach, feta and pine nut parcels

These triangular pasties are based on a Lebanese speciality called fatayer, and use soft bread dough, rather than pastry, to enclose the filling. I like frozen spinach for this recipe – it’s very easy to use and actually produces a less watery mixture.

Spinach and cheese pastry (Spanokopita)

This classic Greek pastry comes in many shapes and sizes - pies, spirals, and in this recipe, triangles. Little triangles make them perfect for vegetarian-friendly party nibbles.

Lamb pitas

An easy and satisfying Greek meal to make at home. And because it's so simple, it can be yours any night of the week. 

Vegie fritters with cucumber hummus

These versatile, vegetarian-friendly fritters are deliciously crisp and enriched with the salty, umami edge of feta.