Not Sad Desk Lunch

How to Pack a Tiffin Box for Lunch

July  7, 2015

As a defiant response to sad desk lunches, the Food52 team works to keep our midday meals both interesting and pretty. 

Today: Sumayya Usmani of My Tamarind Kitchen shows us how to enjoy home-cooked meals every day, even when we're desk-locked.

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When I was growing up in Pakistan, my father would come home from work nearly every afternoon for lunch. I have fond memories of him sitting down for his home-cooked, midday meal, a luxury that is no longer prevalent. Conventional lunchtimes have been replaced by quick deskside sandwiches. However, there is a simple way to bring the dining table to work: the South Asian tiffin box, a metal container with two to four layers that lock together to keep hot meals warm and fresh.

We speak so much of sustainable packaging in the kitchen today, and to my mind, a tiffin is the perfect sustainable lunchbox: It's reusable, hygienic, and compact. And though the traditional metal variety is not microwavable, it retains the warmth and freshness of a home-cooked meal so that reheating is unecessary. To me, a briefcase and tiffin in each hand is synonymous with heading to work with a carefully prepared meal enveloped in flavor, spice, and comfort. 

You could pack these spinach dumplings with chaat masala in the third layer.

In Pakistan, we traditionally store basmati rice or bread in the bottom layer, a pickle or salad in another, and a curry or lentil dish in the top. If I have a four-story tiffin, I'll sneak in a crispy vegetable fritter, as well. I use the largest lid as a plate and mop up the food with my hands. Here is some of my advice for filling a tiffin box, along with traditional Pakistani recipes my mother used to prepare for my father:

  • For the bottom layer: Usually a carbohydrate, this is the foundation for the flavor-packed foods in the middle and top layer. Try a piece of bread, basmati rice, or homemade naan.
  • For second layer: The second largest layer usually contains something refreshing like a pickle or salad. My mother used to make a kachumber salad, which directly translates to "a mix of tiny pieces," which is exactly what this salad includes—uniform dices of cucumber, tomato, cilantro, and red onion, tossed in a lemon-cumin dressing.
  • For the third layer: This is often the bulk of the meal, a protein-rich and flavor-packed dish that is eaten over the rice or scooped up with the bread. My mother always made a moong daal for this layer, with boiled lentils and garlic tempered in ghee or butter and a strong infusion of spices.
  • For the fourth and top layer: If you're lucky enough to find a towering, four-story tiffin, pack the top with something crispy to add some variety to the other dishes. Here is my mother's recipe for crispy okra covered in chaat masala, a blend of cumin, dried mango powder, and black Himalayan salt.

What do you like to fill in your own tiffin box? Tell us in the comments below!

Photo by James Ransom 

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Sumayya is a food writer and cookery teacher who grew up in Pakistan, but has now found home in Glasgow. Sumayya is passionate about sharing the flavours of her homeland with a view to highlight Pakistani cuisine as a distinct one. The author or two cookbooks: Summers Under The Tamarind Tree (Frances Lincoln) and Mountain Berries and Desert Spice (Frances Lincoln, out April 2017), her writing reminisces about food and memories growing up in Pakistan. She writes for many publications, appears on television, and co-presents BBC Kitchen Cafe weekly, on BBC Radio Scotland.


namefame April 7, 2022
Nice Blog post! Thanks for sharing this amazing post with us. Are you searching for the personalised steel lunch box and water bottle set? has a wonderful collection of Personalised steel Tiffin and bottle sets. If you want to buy best personalised gifts for your kid, niece or nephew. Order now!
Laura P. December 26, 2018
I received one as a gift for Christmas! Bottom layer: hummus, carrots and olives. Second layer: fresh pineapple and raspberries sprinkled with Tajin. Top layer: seasoned nuts and pita chips! Leftovers from our Christmas dinner.
Kim T. June 1, 2016
Any good websites for Cooking Indian food and what spices to use, I can cook everything but fail badly at Indian cooking
Bryan M. July 8, 2015
Neat! I need to get one of these, as I'm usually sitting at my desk and absent-mindedly skip lunch.
Jacen July 8, 2015
Would this work to pack multiple meals in the same container? Like a breakfast and a lunch? Is there a specific brand of these that are available in the states, some of the ones I've seen say they aren't leakproof.
Verónica L. July 8, 2015
You can pack whatever meals you'd like in these. Almost all of the metal tiffin boxes are not leak proof as they do not contain any plastic/rubber gaskets. You could look into plastic Bento style boxes as those can be leak proof. I came across this item that looks to be leak proof.
Verónica L. July 7, 2015
When I was growing up, my parents at this type of tiffin and it was mostly used by my Father for taking lunch with him to work. We would also use it when we'd picnic. Didn't know much more about it. Found one on etsy that they refer to as a pie carrier. I'm now inspired to resurrect this item and add some to my kitchen inventory too. I wonder if my mom still has hers? I'd love to use it as a "pie carrier" too.
Sumayya U. July 8, 2015
How wonderful! A pie carrier!
James July 7, 2015
I used to bring that to work a long time ago. Now I just mix everything in one box and bring and eat it while working.
Sumayya U. July 8, 2015
That sounds lovely too!