Every school cafeteria offers a familiar scene. As lunchboxes open, eyes dart from one child to the next, and then comes the classic question: what ‘cha got?
School lunches draw up memories even years later of what was traded, of special items brought from home with a note from mom and dad, of the weird combos only a kid would request, of sandwiches with the crusts cut off and, of course, of what you would buy with your lunch money.
Kelly Simmons built an entire business based off of the cookies she used to buy for lunch.
The owner of Aunt Kelly’s Cookies, featured in Baltimore’s Child’s December 2021 issue, was inspired by Linden’s butter crunch cookies—which she grew up buying for 35 cents a pack at her Baltimore City elementary school. In recreating that recipe with her grandmother, Simmons was able to recall memories of the two of them baking together when she was just 5 years old.
There’s no doubt food creates strong memories, but what is it about school lunches that forges an even stronger bond?
School Lunch Memories
“It’s funny how we all—no matter which school we attended or how long ago that was—have fairly fond memories of school lunch,” writes Catherine Toth Fox, a former decade-long newspaper reporter and current editor of HAWAI’I Magazine in her blog, The Cat Dish.
She fondly remembers the freshly baked bread she would get with almost every lunch—and how she would make trades just to get an extra roll.
Part of the allure of lunchtime could be owed to its social and cultural ties. Everyone can tell when you grew up based on what your mom packed in your lunch. Popular school lunch fads over the years include pizza and PB&J in the 1960s; snack-based items such as Fruit Roll-Ups, Lunchables and Dunkaroos in the ‘80s and ‘90s and more organic brands such as Stonyfield Farms in the 2000s.
Of course, popularity also varies by area. In Philadelphia, some children were noshing on Italian hoagies, Utz chips, Huggies and butterscotch krimpets for lunch.
“There was creamed dried beef on white toast, and “Sloppy Joes”… and there were always breaded fish sticks on Fridays,” writes Kristina M. Victoreen in her Philly blog.
The Evolution of the School Lunch
The first official school-day lunches came about in the late 19th century. Philadelphia and Boston were the first major U.S. cities to have a school lunch program. Before then, children would often to go home for midday meals with their families.
Bon Appetit references a Culinary Institute of America food anthropologist who named pickles as the “addictive junk food” of that time period.
Though there was federal support for these meal programs, a big shift occurred in 1946, when President Harry Truman’s National School Lunch Act made that a more permanent commitment. The Child Nutrition Act in 1966 added subsidies for low-income families.
The early focus was on nutrition, but standards relaxed by the ‘70s, when even candy counted as nutritious under minimum requirements, and by the ‘80s ketchup was considered a school-approved vegetable and fast food appeared in cafeterias in the ‘90s.
The Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 revamped nutrition standards for the first time in about 30 years, pushing whole grains, fruits, vegetables and protein.
Apart from health, as early as the 1940s, anthropologist Margaret Mead encouraged food choice and an expansion of cultural options. Since then, schools have gotten rather creative with their choices.
The Washingtonian published an article in 2016 about the best school lunches in town. Holton-Arms School, a private all-girls elementary and high school in Bethesda made the list with catered meals such as Brazilian-style slow-roasted pork, kimchee and bibimbap.
Turning Kids on to Brown Bag Lunch Again
Getting kids to eat healthy can be a challenge, especially in a packed lunch from home. It would be easy to just throw in a sugary fruit snack or fan-favorites like chicken nuggets to appease kids.
But Michelle Demeule-Hayes MS, RD, LDN, director of Center for Nutritional Rehabilitation at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, has some ideas of what parents can—and should— include.
“Packing lunches is a great way to provide a balanced and complete meal for your child. Many school-age children are often not getting enough calcium, vitamin D, potassium, iron and fiber, “ she says. “We recommend that parents aim to include these nutrients along with adequate protein in their child’s lunch to ensure they receive enough energy until the next meal or snack.
Some examples are:
• Protein (nut butter, cheese sticks, hard-boiled eggs, lean deli meat or jerky, tuna fish or roasted chickpeas or other
• Fruit and/or veggie (whole or cut apples, berries, melons, no sugar added fruit pouches or cups, mini cucumber, roasted or grilled veggies
• Whole grains (whole wheat pita or tortilla, whole wheat bread, brown rice for a rice/protein bowl with beans and
veggies and cheese)
• Dairy (low fat or fat-free milk, cheese, Greek yogurt)
Demeule-Hayes also lists myplate.org as a helpful guide. She notes that if kids are resistant to trying these foods, some ways to make the process fun are:
• Involve them at every stage—Let them choose between several options and allow them to prep with you (cutting fruit or separating portions into baggies, depending on age).
• Get creative with packaging—Your kids can pick out their favorite characters or designs for their lunch box or bag, and parents can use decorative items such as a Thermos to encourage them to eat leftovers.
Local Spotlight: Harlem Park Elementary School, Baltimore City
What’s your favorite school lunch?
My favorite food for lunch is pizza. I like pizza because it’s really cheesy. — A’dove, 3rd
My favorite food to eat is hot dogs. — Jordyn, 1st.
My favorite food for lunch is pizza because it is so good. — Khloe, K
My favorite food is mac and cheese. — Rai’lyn, 1st.