September means changing leaves and the return to school. If you’re a parent, grandparent, or caregiver, you may be packing lunchboxes once again, and traditional heritage diets—eating patterns from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Mediterranean—provide the perfect blueprint for a healthy and balanced meal.


A photo project by Reuters and the AP documented school lunches from around the world, which look a bit different from the standard American cafeteria fare. These meals included an omelet with vegetable soup and fruit in Spain; salad bowls with barley, homemade bread, and beans in Singapore; flatbread, a turnip dish, and mangoes in India; and rice, soup, tofu, and vegetables in Indonesia. 

When lunches are based on traditional recipes and heritage ingredients, they are balanced meals filled with fruit, vegetables, and whole grains—all important components of the Mediterranean Diet, the Latin American Diet, the Asian Diet, and the African Heritage Diet. 

Whether or not you’re going back to school, now is a great time to give your lunch a makeover. Here are ideas inspired by traditions around the world.


Soups, whether packed in a thermos to keep warm, or reheated at lunch time, are a great choice! This Chicken Tortilla Soup is a dish inspired by Latin American flavors, and one that kids will love. Try packing the whole grain tortilla strips in a separate container, so that they can crumble them into their own soup at lunch time for a crunchy topping. With chicken, beans, and tomatoes, it’s also filled with fiber and protein.

African Peanut Soup

African Peanut Soup is a rich vegetarian soup, but it’s thickened with crunchy natural peanut butter instead of cream. The blend of flavors—tomatoes, peanuts, cilantro—is irresistible! Try making a double batch and freezing portions for an easy grab-and-go lunch throughout the week.

This Curried Sweet Potato and Millet Soup combines sweet potatoes with the whole grain millet. Millet has a rich history throughout India, often found in roti and chapati flat breads. It provides protein, fiber, magnesium, and is an excellent source (20% or more of recommended daily value) of manganese, a trace mineral that when combined with other essential vitamins can promote bone and brain health. In this soup, the mild curry taste of the millet and sweet potato is complemented with orange, and a hint of sweetness from maple syrup. 


Salad is the lunchtime staple we never tire of! Use your favorite greens, grains, beans„ cheeses, and nuts in different combinations to make delicious, creative salads for lunch. 


Fruit and dried fruit can add great flavor to salads, like in this Mediterranean-inspired Arugula Salad with Chicken, Dates, and Buckwheat Crumble. Or, try this Barley, Pineapple, and Jicama Salad with Avocado, for a contrast of sweetness, crunch, and hearty whole grains. This salad has a base of Chinese black rice, with segments of orange and avocado and toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch. 

If you’re packing a lunch for kids,tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots are kid-friendly additions. As Jennifer Anderson, RD, of Kids Eat in Color suggests, using a mini cookie cutter to make fun shapes out of fruits and vegetables might encourage your child to eat more of them! 


Boxes and Picnics

What’s more fun than a portable picnic? Try packing a lunchbox (or better yet, a fun bento box) with chopped up fruit, vegetables, whole grain crackers, dips, and/or a few cubes of traditional cheese. Kids and adults alike will love the opportunity to enjoy an assortment of foods at lunchtime! 

In our Make Every Day Mediterranean e-book, we provide ideas for picnic-style lunches, including a meze plate inspired by Middle Eastern foods, and a Spanish Picnic with Romesco sauce, fresh veggies, and Marcona almonds.

When in Doubt, Leftovers!

The easiest way to pack a satisfying, healthy lunch: save some dinner from the night before! If you’re cooking for two, make a recipe with four servings, and you’ll each have a portion for lunch the next day. If you’re wondering where to get started, check out our recipe collection for healthy recipes from the Mediterranean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. With a global selection to choose from, you’ll never get bored!


Watermelon, peaches, citrus, berries

In most traditional diets, fruit is the dessert or snack of choice. For something quick, pack a whole apple or orange. When you have more time, a fruit salad with a mix of chopped fruits—and maybe some chopped, fresh herbs like mint or basil—is delicious. For a more filling snack, pair the fruit with plain Greek yogurt. 

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