For all of elementary and middle school, and most of high school, I ate school lunch in the cafeteria. School lunch is a touchy issue. There's a lot of negative feelings toward it and a general disappointment with the American public school lunch system — a lot of it is processed, and operating budgets are tiny.
The lunches I ate growing up weren't exactly stellar, but guess what? No permanent scars. In fact, I have quite fond memories and learned a lot from eating in the cafeteria every day.
Why School Lunch?
My parents bought us school lunch mainly out of convenience. My mother was a teacher at the same school, and thus got a free hot lunch. Since she didn't have to pack a lunch for herself or for my father, she decided my sister and I would just get hot lunch too. I'm sure it made getting out the door every morning a lot easier!
What was the food like? Since it was a small school that had just started a few years ago, the cafeteria was mainly staffed by volunteer moms. They tried their best to cook a lot of the food themselves, but as the school got larger, frozen, processed foods inevitably made their way onto the menu.
Chicken nuggets, corn dogs, waffle fries, nachos with ground beef and cheese sauce, and chicken patties were some of my personal favorites. And don't even get me started on the excitement among the kids when it was chocolate milk day! Yes, not healthy at all, although they did try their best with canned fruit and iceberg lettuce salads.
There were also definitely items I did not like. Tofu with meat sauce, I'm looking at you!
What I Learned from Eating School Lunch
Overall, I loved eating in the cafeteria. I enjoyed the ritual of picking up the styrofoam five-compartment tray, learned to politely say thank you to the people serving (being nice also gave you a better shot at seconds), and mastered the use of the disposable spork.
I was also exposed to a lot of different foods in the cafeteria. Since I mainly ate Chinese food at home, school lunch was where I first ate chicken-fried steak, fudgesicles, and macaroni and cheese with — gasp — ham mixed in! They obviously weren't the best versions of those dishes, but to me, it was such a welcome change from the foods I ate outside of school. The cafeteria was essentially my lens for American food.
It was also fun to either whine with friends about the cafeteria foods we didn't like, or try to rush to the cafeteria early on the days we liked the food. In high school, I had friends who worked shifts in the kitchen for pocket change, and for most of them, it was their very first job. In fact, they still fondly recall the hours they spent scrubbing pots and sweeping floors, probably because it meant they could skip a little class.
I'm glad to see all the school lunch reforms going on and all the progress made in providing healthy foods for kids. I'm sure what kids are eating now is probably much better than what I ate, and that's encouraging to me as a parent.
But I don't have any hard feelings whatsoever that my parents had me eat school lunch. I think my love of food and my career choice has a large part to do with eating school lunch as a kid, and I'll forever be grateful for all the time I spent on those long, hard cafeteria benches.