What Was The Best School Lunch?

The school cafeteria, lunch time. It is shocking in retrospect that they only fed us once during the school day. That is a long time to go without food. You could feed yourself at breakfast or get a lazily composed breakfast sandwich in the beginning of the school day if you got there before school started. Then you had to wait until you got home to eat again. Nowadays, with the access to food at your fingertips, we can easily get a meal in. But as a kid, you had no choice. Today we are looking at the best and the worst school lunches available in the United States.

But before that, a bit more about school lunches. If you were a resident of Boston or Philadelphia, you were lucky as they were the first places in the country to offer school lunches. The feds actually didn’t step up until the Great Depression, where people were in poor financial shape, and school lunches were offered as a solution to feed the starving masses of children.

In 1946, the permanent National School Lunch Program was instituted. Currently, the program offers free or reduced lunches to millions of children that can’t afford to eat.

I went to school in New England, so your mileage may vary throughout this article on what was and wasn’t offered throughout the country. When I think back on those lunches, I am amazed at what the government was feeding kids, and what they are currently serving today.

Cheese filled breadsticks. Frozen hockey pucks of chicken parts served on a bun that never expires. What looks akin to a can of expired canned dog food from the game Fallout being slopped on a plate with anemic-looking tasteless mashed potatoes and calling it “Turkey Feast”.

The nutritional content of school lunches has come under fire lately. We are setting kids up to have terrible eating habits moving forward. “Hey kid, eat this slop, you’ll love it. And when you are an adult and decide to visit another country, you’ll be a picky little twerp who is wondering where the nearest Burger King is so you can eat something familiar.”

The Top 5 School Lunches

In the end, there was a couple of school lunches I absolutely looked forward to despite the terrible quality and nutritional content. Let’s count down the top five school lunches:

5. “Asian Chicken”

Now, I do not know what this dish was formally called. It was either “Asian chicken” or “orange chicken” or “Chinese”, something to that effect. I think we would only get it maybe once a quarter if we were lucky. Essentially a hyper-sweet version of General Tso’s Chicken, in a breading that I assume was supposed to be crispy but kind of just slid off your molars when you chewed. The main ingredient of the sauce had to be sugar. The chicken balls were convincingly un-chicken. A texture much like alternative plant-based meats from the grocery store. The sauce was a neon hue, how could you hate that?

It was served with rice that looked like a pile of dried worms from a bag of bird feed, awful dry flavorless rice that you could throw at a wall and it would burst apart mid-air as if you threw a handful of gravel.

4. Turkey Feast

In retrospect, this was absolutely abominable. There is no lie though, I got excited for this.

What was essentially cat food was plopped alongside a ice cream scooper of reconstituted flavorless mashed potatoes that would convince you food was made of rain-soaked ground newspaper.

Nowadays, when I visit my family and feed their dogs, I open their wet food and remark to myself how similar it looked to the turkey feast we were fed in school. Some chunks of turkey here and there, a shredded bit mixed in the sauce. No doubt I was sopping this up with the awful slightly sweet white biscuit they threw on the lunch tray.

3. Chicken Patty

This was my favorite. A hockey puck of compressed ground-up chicken parts pushed in a disc, and breaded in some fashion. They were juicy, and served on a dry white bun that would survive a nuclear apocalypse.

I ate these for 10 years until I started junior year before I became aware of a way to upgrade this item. My chubby bearded friend Jeff would pull the side salad off the lunch cart on his way to pay. Who the hell gets the salad? Wilted green and a ring of wet tasteless tomato. No dressing , What a waste.

No, this dude had it figured out. Jeff would take the top bun off, invert the salad dish and plop it on top of the chicken disc. Then he would squirt mayonnaise on it, close it, and he now had the deluxe version of the chicken patty, To this day one of the most eye opening culinary upgrades I ever experienced.

2. Baked Potato

Growing up a Slav, potatoes were the most important food around. Their versatility is unmatched. I don’t know anyone who hates potatoes. Carnivores and vegans both exhibit delight at the sight of potatoes. Indians mix them in their curry, Jewish people make a pancake out of them.

What is better than a potato?

So imagine the delight on my cherubic face when the baked potato was on the menu. Sour cream, freeze-dried scallions, and a neon red “bacon bit” that we threw on top of the potato as if we thought we were eating something special.

You know what I found out painfully late? Those bacon bits are not even meat. It’s soy and flavored with artificial smoke. It’s shelf stable, won’t go bad even after opening the container. This whole time the vegetarians at my school could have enjoyed these tasty morsels of might-be meat atop their potato, an assortment of colors to excite the youthful mind of the children who skipped to the lunch line.

1. Taco Day

I’m a sucker for ethnic food. My friends want to eat at the newest hip burger bar or fancy restaurant. That’s all a waste of money. You can get a big portion of something seasoned well and price appropriate if you start searching through your local ethnic places. Thai, halal, Indian, bodegas. They are all magician their own right.

I often think of the children of these families from another country when they come to the States and try their ethnicity food in a sloppy pallid American version. I would hate to think about a Mexican kid having to eat what they were trying to pass off as tacos during school lunch.

I remember a neon yellow corn shell with dry seasoned beef that was like corrugated cardboard. They slopped on some cheese if I recall, another neon food. Didn’t realize we were eating foods from a Blade Runner comic book at the time.

My school must have been loaded, because when you checked out, you got access to a massive community vat of daisy sour cream. Free reign caused the container to be quite gross when you got to it. There was somehow ground beef, cheese, lettuce, salsa in there. The handle of the scoop was probably a germ nightmare.

My knowledge of Mexican food up to this point was Taco Bell and whatever the hell this abomination was. But being 15 in the school lunch room during taco day was exciting.

The salsa was weirdly pumped with sugar. If you’ve had real salsa, looking back on this stuff was akin to eating candy with tomatoes mixed in.

The Four Worst School Lunches

We can’t talk about the best without mentioning the worst. Let’s quickly run down my bottom four school lunches:

4. Cheeseburger

I still remember the distinctly non-meat texture of this item, with balls of cartilage that would be impossible to chew. You had a decision to make, to swallow or spit out?

3. “Steak” Sandwich

It wasn’t a steak sandwich but wasn’t a Philly cheese steak. Just a gross white bun with “steak” thin enough to see through, drier than a sheet of paper.

2. Meat Sauce Pasta

Another disturbingly sweet item, the sauce was sugar laden garbage mixed with dog food and served on overcooked pasta.

1. Galaxy Pizza

They say all pizza is good. Cold pizza, hot pizza, thick pizza, thin pizza, red pizza, white pizza. The pizza they served us in school was called “galaxy pizza”. It was a disc of pizza with ridges as if it was pushed out of a tart tin. The sauce was syrup, and there was a unsettlingly thick layer of white cheese that would slide off like a layer of mud. The cheese wasn’t browned, simply white goop that had orange lines of saturated fat flowing off.

The End

There you have it, the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

In reminiscing on these foods, I did some research and found that other states seemingly have amazing school lunches. I’ve seen pictures of buffalo chicken wraps, chili cheese burritos, teriyaki chicken, and goulash. These items looked like actual food.

I’m scared to know what additives, trans fats, and microplastics are flowing through my veins from the school lunches I ate growing up. But anyways, excuse me while I cook a chicken patty tonight, deluxe style. While I eat, what was your favorite school lunch? What about your least favorite? Let me know below.

A Person Holding Chicken Sandwiches

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