Adventures in School Lunch

by Wendy Copley on March 15, 2011

Tuesday, I ate school lunch for the first time in well over twenty years.

When I was a kid, I ate school lunch — what we called “hot lunch” — every day. My school had a full kitchen and lunches were prepared on site. Some of the foods obviously came from cans but other things were made from scratch by the ladies who worked in the kitchen. I have pretty neutral memories about eating hot lunch as a kid. Some things — like the canned peas and spinach — were gross. Other things — like the home made pizza and Peanut Butter Pixies (a dessert kind of like a peanut butter cup) — were delicious. And I was always baffled by the canned pears, which we never ate at home.

There were other things besides the food that I liked about eating hot lunch too. The smell of fresh-baked bread wafting up the stairs from the cafeteria as we lined up to go downstairs for lunch. The cool divided lunch trays. The facts about U.S. presidents and jokes on the back of the milk cartons (“You are what you eat” “In that case, call me ‘Pizza'”). The time one of my friends stuffed an entire canned pear in her mouth and then started laughing and turned as red as any person I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been curious about Wyatt’s weekly school lunches since he started eating them at the beginning of the school year. I’ve asked him lots of questions about them, but it’s hard to get much info out of my tight-lipped six-year-old. The few things I did know were:

  • His school doesn’t have a kitchen so the food is brought in from a centralized kitchen for his school district.
  • Everything in the lunch is disposable.
  • “Mom! I love eating school lunch! Everything they give us is junk!”

Since I had to go to the school to give him medication at lunch time on Tuesday, I decided to jump on the opportunity to eat school lunch with him so I could see it for myself. Based on the information I had from Wyatt (see comment re: junk, above) and the lunches that Mrs. Q featured on her site, Fed Up With Lunch, my expectations for the meal were pretty low.

This is what I had:

My School Lunch

There were three entrees to choose from: cheese-filled bread sticks with marinara for dipping, a beef soft taco, and a chicken Ceasar salad. I chose the bread sticks which were the day’s vegetarian option. The sides were a tangerine and blueberry waffle grahams. Every lunch includes a choice of white or chocolate milk. I chose chocolate milk, along with every kid who walked through the line.

Inside of the cheese stick

Here’s the inside of one of the bread sticks. It looks gross, but it was actually very tasty. The bread was warm and seemed to be freshly made. The marinara sauce was also very good and tasted fresh and tangy. Because of the way they were packaged (nothing printed on the wrappers) I suspect that these items weren’t purchased but were made in the central kitchen.

Maybe it was because I came in with extremely low expectations, but over all, I was surprised by how edible my lunch was. I liked my entree, my tangerine was fantastic and my chocolate milk was exactly what you expect from chocolate milk. The only thing I didn’t care for were the waffle grahams. (More on those below.)

My son's lunch

Wyatt chose the beef soft taco for his entree. The rest of his lunch was the same as mine.

The first thing he ate were the blueberry waffle grahams. Waffle grahams in various flavors appear on the school lunch menu several times per week and until today, I’ve never known exactly what they are.

Blueberry Waffle Graham

Despite being labeled as whole grain and “super wholesome” on the package, they are basically just a cookie. The ingredients list starts off like this: whole wheat flour (yay!), sugar, soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, natural blueberry flavor bits (which have their own list of crap ingredients, none of which are “blueberry”)… You get the idea.

Blueberry waffle grahams

I didn’t have time to eat my waffle grahams in the cafeteria, but I pocketed them and tried them at home. They were so sweet that I couldn’t take more than a few bites.

My son eats his taco

After the waffle grahams, Wyatt ate the beef soft taco. Despite a valiant effort to open it himself, he ended up asking me to open the package for him. I noticed his teacher opened packages for some of the other school lunch eaters too. Wyatt liked his taco and said it was good. I didn’t get a taste so I can’t comment, but check out how long that ingredients list on the package is. Yikes!

He also asked me to help get his tangerine started for him, so I punctured the peel and tore out a little chunk of it so he could peel the rest himself. His teacher did the same for the some of the other kids too. The bell rang before he had time to finish peeling it though so it ended up in the trash.You might notice that that means he didn’t eat any fruit or vegetables for lunch.

Once the bell rang, the kids all jumped up, threw away their trash and zipped right out of the cafeteria. They moved so fast that I barely even realized what was happening. I can tell you this though: no one — not one kid that I saw — finished their lunches. They were all eating when the bell rang and then they stopped in their tracks and threw what was left away.

Some other thoughts:

  • The kids are in the cafeteria for exactly twenty minutes.  If you bring your lunch, you can sit right down at your class’s table and eat, but if you buy your lunch you need to go through the line to get your lunch and then find a seat before you can dig in. I’ve always suspected that time was tight for lunch, but now that I’ve done it myself, I’ll tell you that twenty minutes is not enough time for lunch! I’m a competent adult who can peel my own fruit and open all my lunch packaging myself and I only had time to eat my tangerine and 1 1/2 bread sticks in the time allotted. Wyatt ate his cookies and most of his taco. We chatted with the people around us a little bit, but we were mostly eating the whole time and neither of us could finish our lunches. Though I feel like the lunches I pack are already well-suited for quick eating, going forward I will definitely be keeping the short lunch period in mind as I pack Wyatt’s lunch!
  • The packaging! Oh my goodness — the packaging! This was the part of school lunch that I was most bothered by. I’m sure that making the whole lunch disposable makes things easier — particularly when the school doesn’t have any food prep or clean-up facilities — but it’s shocking to see how much waste these lunches generate. There was someone going around and collecting the cardboard trays that we used to bring our food to the table, so I suspect that these are reused or recycled, but everything else went right into the trash.
  • Wyatt’s lunch cost $2.00. As an adult, I paid $3.00 for my lunch. The quality of the ingredients in the food was admittedly low, but I think this is a good price for what we got. Could the food be better? I could definitely be much better and it should be made with real, whole foods! Could it have been worse? Absolutely. I’d still like to see significantly more (any?) fruits and veggies going in the kids’ mouths and significantly fewer processed foods in the cardboard boxes, but for $2 I think the food at least tasted OK.
  • The cafeteria line was not what I expected at all. We used to push our trays along a long metal counter with lunch ladies serving food from a steam table on the other side of a glass partition. At Wyatt’s school, there are two serving boxes — one hot and one cold — that are each about 3 feet long. Kids choose the items they want from the boxes and they can take food or not. Wyatt’s teacher helped the kids, prompting them to take their fruit and milk and keeping them from choosing multiple entrees.
  • OMG! I found the recipe for Peanut Butter Pixies on the USDA web site!
  • Everyone was happy I was in the cafeteria. The kids at the table were excited to talk to me, Wyatt’s friends from other classes and the principal came over to say hi and the woman who is in charge of the cafeteria came out to introduce herself and chat with me for a few minutes. I really enjoyed talking to her. She obviously really loves the children and she urged me to come back for lunch often. I was actually a little embarrassed by all the attention.
  • Best of all, Wyatt was happy I came to have lunch with him. He was so proud to be the expert on school lunch and show me how everything worked in the cafeteria. It was also nice to see him in his element. I tried not to be too bossy and mom-ish and interfere with his normal lunch-time activities so I could get a real feel for how this part of his day works and I think it worked!

I’m so happy I took the time to go to Wyatt’s school and eat lunch there. I still strongly prefer to pack his lunches myself and I don’t have any delusions about the quality of the food he’s being served at school, but I don’t think I’ll feel quite so guilty about that weekly school lunch day going forward.

Have you ever had a lunch date with your child at his school? How was the lunch? Is it something you’d like to try?

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  • Pappy

    I always used to love canned pears and they were my favorite canned fruit when I was a kid. We had them all the time. I don’t recall having them that often when you were a kid, but when we did, they were almost always served with cottage cheese and maybe Miracle Whip. I think this is a case where your mother did not have them as part of her early life and therefore did not continue them into our marriage and your childhood. You can serve them to me any time when we visit. Pappy

  • Lyndsay

    Peanut Butter Pixies are a “Meat Alternate”?! Yikes.

  • Ha! You noticed that too? I’m guessing that it’s because of the peanut butter, but you think that they wouldn’t just ignore the nearly 2 lbs of powdered sugar.

  • AKD

    Wendy, great post. I love that you went and had lunch with him. So interesting! I also have pretty good memories of school lunch — our cafeteria made honey butter to go with corn bread and the honey butter was to die for. I also discovered canned corn at school and I used to eat everyone else’s who would give it up.
    The other day I noticed a co-worker had printed out a receipt for an online order for school lunch for the month ahead. (Her kid goes to school in Orinda.) Does Wyatt’s school have this option? My head was spinning at the idea that you would have to plan it out in advance and then remember which days they were supposed to eat hot lunch. Does Wyatt take cash to school, or lunch tickets, or ?

  • He has an online account and I purchase credit for him every few months. When he goes through the line all he has to do is give the lunch lady a little card that she scans. His teacher holds all the cards for the kids so they don’t get lost.

    I think this system is great. Wyatt doesn’t need to carry cash to school and we never have to dig it up for him on hectic mornings when I need him to eat lunch at school because our morning is so hectic.

  • Shannon @ BentoLunch.net

    I grew up in Canada, so the idea of elementary school cafeterias is interesting to me. Most elementary schools (at least 20+ years ago) did not have cafeterias at all, everyone brought lunch from home. In theory, the menu doesn’t sound bad, although the packaging in the pictures makes me want to cry.

    It’s funny though, we thought about moving our kids to the neighborhood school this year. While they were OK with the change (in the end, it didn’t happen), F did make me promise I wouldn’t make her eat the food. ;o)

  • Grace Shannon

    We like the online lunch account at our school district, too. Our company lets you see what the kids have bought with their card. I use the feature as a jumping-off point for talking to my kids about what they eat at school, since they can be tight-lipped like Wyatt and since they eat school lunches a whole lot.

  • I theory, our company let’s you see that too, but whenever I check it says “school lunch” so it’s not very helpful.

  • Trysha

    I remember chicken nugget day (with mashed potatoes and rolls) were always very popular days when I was in school. Of course, pizza day was too.
    I try to pack lunches as often as I can.
    Part of the reason is that they get more time to eat. We moved in November and the old school had 25 minutes for lunch, but it was a much larger school. They boys get 20 minutes to eat.
    I do admire how efficient the cafeteria is. When you consider how many kids get served in such a short amount of time, its a well-oiled machine. (Both schools we’ve been at have a full cafeteria…I do like going to pay for lunches in advance on Oriental Chicken day. It does smell wonderful.)

    One thing our schools did different this year is recess before lunch. The kids ate better, they weren’t rushing to go play and the nurse had less kids upchucking chocolate milk. I fully support recess before lunch.

  • Tracy

    They sound like Bosco Sticks. Here’s a list of ingrediants, and always be aware that flour is starch which converts to sugar in the body…
    INGREDIENTS:
    Crust: Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamine
    mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Water, Whole-wheat flour,
    Sugar, Corn oil, Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (soybean
    oil, cottonseed oil, vegetable glycerides) Salt, Yeast, and
    Enzyme. Cheese: Part skim mozzarella cheese (part skim milk,
    cheese cultures, salt, enzyme). Sauce: Water, Tomato paste,
    Sugar, Modified food starch, Salt, Spice, Romano cheese
    ([pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes], cultured
    nonfat dry milk, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, whey,
    sodium citrate, salt).
    Child Nutrition Contribution Contains Milk, Wheat.

  • Blech. Is “Bosco Sticks” a brand name?

  • Vicki

    Just did it myself today actually. But I brought lunch in. I love going to have lunch with her and she LOVES it too!! Her friends always want to sit with us. It’s so cute. 🙂 I try to do it once a month!!

  • Plume

    This was an interesting read. I didn’t grow up in the States, so this gives me great insight as to how school lunches work (something I’ve been wondering about). My school had a full kitchen and most of the meals were prepared there from scratch. Some things were canned, sure, but for the most part wasn’t so bad. We did the whole metal, divided trays on the metal counter too, with the lunch ladies serving us. (This post brought back some memories!) I do find it odd that they only get 20 mins. for lunch. I don’t know about now, but back then we had about 45 or 50, I believe. It was a medium-sized private school though, so I don’t know if size has to do with it. And that’s pretty cool that you’re able to go and have lunch with him! I hope that when my son gets to be of school age he won’t find it uncool if I want to go join him lunch.

  • RookieMom Whitney

    I feel like I should arrange for you to come have lunch at Julian’s school to see if the Berkeley School lunches measure up to the hype! He’s never bought one, and my friend, a veteran mom at the school advised me that they don’t have enough time to wait for their hot lunch and then eat it, much like you experienced.

  • Karolien

    To be honest, this post (and Mrs. Q’s blog too) kinda “shocks” me in a way…because this is not what school lunch looks like where i live (i live in Belgium, Europe) . To begin with i always had school lunch on a plate, with silverware and a glass. Eating your lunch from a cardboard platter, with plastic knifes, it just doesn’t really seem right to me (and to think of all the waste !). The foods are also totally different: i always had meat / fish / chicken with potatoes, rice, pasta,…and 1 / 2 veggies (hot or cold), and a choice of soup. Desserts were fruit, yoghurt…we could always go back for more food if we wanted, but the lunch ladies always checked if we ate all our veggies first (because, well as a child Brussels sprouts aren’t the most yummy veggies in the world lol !).
    The lunches were freshly made in the kitchen at my school. Back then, as kids we didn’t always like / appreciate our lunches, but when i compare it to what you are showing here (and Mrs. Q’s posts), i realize i have been very blessed and lucky to have a nice decent lunch with everything i needed as a child to be healthy !
    Just the thought of having to eat these packaged foods and cookies and milk as a “hot lunch”, it’s so different from what i used to….and i really does look like junk food to me.
    To think that a lot of children have to rely on school lunch as their only warm meal of the day, this really makes me sad !

  • Miracle Whip??? I’m hoping you mean Cool Whip.

  • I think recess before lunch is simultaneously obvious and brilliant and I’d love to see it implemented at my kid’s school.

  • I’m terribly curious about the Berkeley school lunches Whitney. Especially after having eaten this lunch. Do you know if the kids use real dishes, silverware, etc.?

  • Megansandry

    I teach first grade (in Iowa) and can tell you confidently that school lunch at my tiny rural school is actually pretty rad this year. We still have hot lunch (served on divided trays) which is the main dish and sometimes a side if it’s a hot vegetable. Then…we have a salad bar! Each day there is lettuce, cheese, and baby carrots and then other things are rotated: cherry tomatoes; oranges, bananas, or apples sliced and ready to eat; ham or diced chicken; radishes; cucumbers…it is SO great. The kids choose what they want from the cute, brightly colored salad bar and because they get to choose (and they have to eat what they take) they are eating more fresh fruits and veggies than ever before.

  • Lpickering1078

    I really enjoyed this post 🙂 It’s nice when parents get a chance to see what school lunches are like. And thank you for sharing that peanut butter pixie recipe! I remember those from when I was little! I used to go around collecting them from anyone who was didn’t want theirs or were allergic to peanut butter.

    I am in high school so it’s a bit different (though I can say that in elementary school and middle school we had the metal counter with the lunch ladies serving food). We have at least 8 different lines with different kinds of food (pizza, subs, wraps, tacos, daily specials, sandwiches, paninis, etc.) and we don’t have packaging (for the most part) like in your pictures, some of it’s fresh and some frozen. We do get quite a few fruit and vegetable choices that can be considered a side (which is included in the price) with the junkie food costing extra but there aren’t many kids that choose to put them on their plate unfortunately. Our school has been trying to change some menu items (like fries) with healthier options but these “healthier options” aren’t very good. And 20 min is definitely crazy! We get 30 min here and even with that (especially on days where they have the popular foods like those cheese filled bread you had) there’s never enough time to finish lunch. Some teachers let us eat in class though so we can finish so that’s nice but I can’t imagine how they expect kids to eat in 20 min.

  • I think it’s kinda ridiculous to serve all this packaged crap and call it “lunch”. They should at least provide silverware. How uncivilized!

  • Jenifer

    At my children’s old public school it was very common and welcomed for parents to come to lunch everyday. I loved that. Now I am able to go to lunch but at the new school it’s not a “regular practice” so I just don’t do it that often.
    Also the hot lunch at school was in fact hot food cooked there. Much better than everything coming in a processed package. I’m not saying that normal school lunches are all that great- but atleast the tacos are made with meat that day and placed on a tortilla for the kids to eat then not filled with so much preservatives to expand shelf life.

    .
    0p-p0

  • Schoolstar

    Wendy, your grandma worked in a school cafeteria for a while. They used to get lost of government surpluss food. Once they got a whole case of two pound cans of prunes. Not one kid would put a prune in their mouth, so Mom did some research and found a brownie recipe that used prunes to make them moist. They could not keep the browinies on the counter. Kids and staff alike were eating them right and left. Finally the word leaked out that she was using the prunes in the brownies and that was the end. No one would eat them once they knew about the prunes. Keep in mind this was the 70’s. I think prunes had a bad rep back then.

  • Pingback: The Week in Bentos: March 14-18, 2011 | Wendolonia()

  • Martha

    Hi Wendy, great article. What a difference to school lunches here in Switzerland! We live in a small village, but it is pretty standard that kids come home for lunch every day. In our village they have a lunch service on Friday that is prepared on the day and includes soup, salad, some type of meat and veg and a dessert. They kids have a hour and a half for lunch. It costs about $9, but includes child care until the afternoon session of school begins. Interesting to compare the different systems. I grew up with what sounds like a very similar system to yours and found this system really hard to get used to. It is especially hard for working moms, because it means you either have to help from a babysitter, neighbor, or other, or you have to race home form work to be there in time to meet the kids and then race to get something on the table.

  • I’m finally going through my RSS feeder tonight — So cool! Such an interesting experience, right? It changes your view, doesn’t it? THANKS for sharing.

  • Clschuen

    Yes, I have and my experience wasn’t as poitive. First the teachers don’t go anywhere near the lunchroom. It is run by the lunch nazi’s as I dubbed them. The children are not allowed to talk. There is no help with opening anything. The fresh fruit is usually so green it is inedible and is thrown away whole. There is not even as much time as you had to eat. Even the packed lunches need to stand in line so they will sit in the “proper” place since they have assigned seats. The food is barely edible. It is contracted out and is the cheapest of the cheap. Every month they give a kick back to the school district. A portion of how much they are able to come in under federal budget. blech!

  • That sounds *really* awful! It’s amazing to me how much lunches can differ from one school to the next.

  • Thanks for this insight into school lunches. We just posted a link on our Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/LaptopLunches. Keep up the great bento lunches!

  • Anonymous

    So funny! That was the first thing I noticed on that recipe! I remember eating these as a kid too.

  • I’m so glad it’s not just me. I was shocked at how little eating time is provided at lunch and how often my daughter came home with half her food because she didn’t have “time” to eat it. I just assumed it was because she was chatting too much. Luckily, the kids are allowed to eat a snack in their class (at their own pace) so now I pack a bigger snack and a smaller lunch. There are only a few things on our school lunch menu that my daughter will eat (and she is NOT a picky eater). Most of the items are too saucy or cheesy – she prefers plain protein and fruit and veggies, so mostly I pack her lunch. What an interesting day you had at school – loved hearing your observations.

  • Wendy,

    Thanks for your inspiring blog. I enjoy all of your content, and used it as a jumping off place for my own adult lunches.

    I’ve been thinking that the school lunches look a LOT like the lunches that are served by meals on wheels or in senior centers/nursing homes/assisted living centers. Do you know if there is any movement to improve the lunches in those institutions? My grandparents are getting up there, and it has been on my mind more lately…

    Cheers,
    Amy

  • Lisasaridis

    WOW…I have been wondering how school lunch worked…and now I understand how my very fidgety/social/nosy kiddo manages to bring home most of his lunch every.single.day. I think recess before lunch is a great idea and I wonder if it is something we could lobby for?
    This is such a great post on many levels, mostly in giving me the idea for a school lunch date with Andrew. I’ll have to brave the cafeteria food, for sure.

  • Lisa — You should do it! It’s really fascinating and you will be happily welcomed in the cafeteria. I’m amazed that the kids manage to get *any* food in their mouths in such a short period of time.

  • Venia

    LOL, I think he really did mean Miracle Whip. My Mother’s “Pear Salad” was canned pear halves on iceberg lettuce leaves with a dollop of “Duke’s Mayonaise” and a sprinling of “Rat Cheese”, aka cheddar ; )

  • Elisa

    School lunches have certainly changed over the years. All 5 of my children have eaten in the school cafeterias.  From my stepson (now 41 y.o) to my youngest (11 y.o.) — the cafeteria’s went from fully equipped cooking from scratch, delicious to prepackaged junk food.  My 4 older children had the privilege of eating “grandma style cooking”, enjoying 2nd helpings too.  Plenty of time to eat slowly, finish the entire meal, and still socialize!  Unfortunately my yonger son has neither of those.  Its a rush to sit, eat, and no talking allowed!

  • CRAFTYONE2011

    I’m a “lunch lady” in Maryland. Our lunches are not packaged. We offer salad, fresh fruit and canned fruit with every lunch. We also have vegetarian options. Everybody should try a school lunch. It really isn’t gross, or mystery meat or processed. We get a bum wrap from the media.

  • Craftyone2011

    I work in a high school cafeteria. The kids get 30 minutes for lunch. We serve 400 lunches in an hour. We offer salad, fresh fruit, chocolate skim milk and one percent white milk with every lunch. We have vegetarian options everyday. We have so many healthy options for the kids but the media seems to give us a bum wrap. Go to your child’s school and try the lunch. I think you will be pleasantly surprise.

  • Craftyone2011

    I forgot to mention a lot of our kids are low income, therefore get either a few or reduced breakfast and lunch. It’s a nice feeling knowing that you can help out rather it be serving them a healthy meal or a friendly smile.

  • I think the people who work in school cafeterias are doing a bang up job with the ingredients and equipment they’re given. My grandma was a lunch lady for years and she worked hard to make tasty meals for the kids at her school.  It sounds to me like you’re doing the same good work and the kids at your school are lucky to have you there!

  • JD

    Okay I hate the idea of fruit ending up in the trash because the child didn’t have time to eat it. Why can’t they take it home?

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