Recently, I heard my coworker talk about ordering her kid’s elementary school lunches online. One of the cafeteria’s options was sushi—that’s right, sushi. Not to sound like one of those “back in my day” people, but back in my day, times were much simpler. There was only one option, and heaven help you if you didn’t like reheated piles of chemical mush (or the leftover form, chemical mush on a bun).
But when I think back to cafeteria fare, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic about the perfect scoop of instant mashed potatoes or the canned ravioli. Like kickball or blistered hands from the monkey bars, they represent childhood—albeit at its most processed.
Pizza squares wrapped in plastic wrap and sprinkled with burnt cheese and little bits of meat-like stuff—Bacon bits? Chopped-up pepperoni?—is as ubiquitous to the cafeteria as the grizzled lunch lady who served them.
When I was a part of the public school system, grapes and the occasional peach cube coated in sugary syrup fulfilled the fruit portion of a balanced meal. In fact, I can’t remember actual fruit accompanying any of the lunches.
At my school, these usually came in deformed dinosaur form, which made them more fun to chuck at fellow students, but didn’t help their taste.
The fries didn’t start out soggy, but they sure got that way by the time you reached the cafeteria table, thanks to the fruit cocktail juice or any other liquid side dish spilling over. The fries at the top of the small heap were usually salvageable, but only if you ate them right away.
Turkey Dinner (for Lunch)
Inexplicably, this was one of the more popular meals. Turkey shreds mixed with gelatinous gravy served over instant mashed potatoes (or a piece of white bread if budget funds were low that month)—makes for a sad Thanksgiving meal, but a decent cafeteria lunch!
Happy were the days that included tater tots. Unfortunately, they often went the way of French fries (read: soggy city).
It didn’t matter if the entrée was spaghetti or a sandwich; a white roll was always plopped on lunch trays. Come to think of it, mashed potato scoops often came with the spaghetti and rolls, too. Nothing like a plate of white carbs to spike kids’ blood sugar right before they go back to class!
When it came to vegetables, canned green beans were the preferred side. Anything beat the shriveled peas or the iceberg salad with watery Ranch dressing.
I had no recollection of eating this until I saw it in context—a meat cutlet covered in brown sauce on a plastic tray. (And look, there’s the regulation roll!)
Sometimes we “lucked out” and got spaghetti with meat sauce. More often, it was canned ravioli, imitation Chef Boyardee-style. I enjoyed ravioli day, but since everyone else acted disgusted by them, I did, too. Though eating my entire portion was probably a giveaway ...
Sloppy Joe Day always came right before Spaghetti and Meat Sauce Day. Coincidence?
Half-Frozen Chocolate Milk
Beverage choice usually came down to red (whole) or blue (low-fat) milk, but every once in a while, there was also brown (chocolate)! Either way, most were still icy from the frigid refrigerator temperatures.
These must’ve been cheaper than regular shells because they were used for almost everything, from “Taco Salad” (ground beef, neon-orange nacho cheese, and iceberg lettuce) to the much-maligned “Tuna Surprise.”
Looking at the food of my childhood makes me feel more nauseated than nostalgic. I can’t believe they fed this to children! It’s a wonder we’re not mutated monsters with all the processed food we ingested. And since I started this sounding like an old grump, I might as well end it that way, too—kids don’t know how lucky they have it today!