Since the late 1990s, so much has changed concerning nutrition and what is truly “healthy.” Yes, obesity is a major epidemic, and now we see nutrition facts and calories counts all over restaurant menus. Today, you can walk into a fast food restaurant and count on your meal being 100% natural with all the cows and chickens raised humanely.
We live in a new era of nutrition — an era with changes that have specifically targeted the elementary school lunch menu. To me, this transformation is bittersweet. I’m sure the days where we left the lunch line with watery green beans, mystery meats, or syrup-infused fruit cups had us begging for something better. But it is undeniable that there were moments of culinary greatness that shaped our childhood lunch periods, and those moments will be forever missed.
“Give me some of your tots” was one of Napoleon Dynamite’s most relatable phrases. These deep-friend, bite-sized, crispy, golden nuggets of potato goodness are the side dish we couldn’t wait to indulge plain or smother in ketchup.
Even the soggy ones produced a satisfying feeling like no other and, if paired with a chicken patty, gave you fuel for optimal freeze tag performance at recess. If tots still have a warm, crispy place in your heart, see how you can transform them in unbelievable ways.
French Toast Sticks
What was better than lunch dipped in syrup? Knowing you were going to indulge in breakfast twice a day was such an immense treat, and something for which we must thank the French. Undeniably, this was one of the meals where you wish it was self-serve. Just the thought of it created a sugar rush, causing you to run out of class in anticipation that the lunch lady would serve you one extra by accident.
Italian Dunker Day. This was the day we all excitedly circled on our paper fridge menus and the meal that kept us all giddy on our way to the bus stop. No human could resist these garlicky breadsticks smothered in melted mozzarella cheese and paired with sweet marinara sauce. So what if our parents thought they had zero nutritional value? The cheese, sauce, and bread combination covered all of the basic food groups in our eyes.
Essentially, chicken patties tasted like giant chicken nuggets. Not only a safe lunch time choice, but a veteran since its first appearance in lunch rooms during the 80s. Clearly, these patties are one of the most innovative forms of a protein between buns we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. As kids, we respected the chicken patty because it never disappointed, and having it served with fries was always a plus.
Another example of potatoes being used to their optimal potential. These ones also had a psychological effect. As you ate them, you felt your stomach smile, which would directly result in a smile across your bright-eyed, chubby-cheeked face.
Smiley fries were undoubtedly magical; they possessed the power to make you happy, no matter how you played the recorder or performed on your times tables. Looking to recreate your childhood? See how you can make your own smiley fries.
Rectangle Cheese Pizza
Not just pizza, rectangle pizza. This was pizza in its most original form and commonly served on Fridays, making it the best day even more. Tough luck if you were late to the pizza line — you were then doomed to wait for what felt like days before indulging with your pals. No wonder pizza day sparked the concept of the back-cut. But the wait was so worth it, and it had us singing “Cheese please!” as we were finally served this baked quadrilateral full of flavor.
Taco day was always a fiesta. Who even cared what was in the taco meat? You could cover it in cheese, salsa, and even the sophisticated sour cream. If you wanted some more texture than what the hard corn shell provided, you could even add shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes. Commonly paired with corn niblets and “Spanish rice,” this entrée had you leaving the cafeteria completely immersed in a new culture.
Ice Cream Cups
These were the finest desserts that the cafeteria provided (unless orange creamsicle Push-up pops were present). With wooden spoon in hand, you controlled the rate at which you ate and decided if it was a particularly vanilla or chocolate day for you.
Welcome to the state fair! Who didn’t love hot dogs coated in cornbread and propped on a stick? Honestly, the only way to improve upon the hot dog was by frying them in batter, and this was never taken for granted as a child. It was also the most convenient lunch to eat while alternating bites of your baked beans and mandarin oranges. If you still can’t get enough of corndogs to this day, check out this recipe that takes them to a new level.
Mac and Cheese
Do not even pretend you didn’t crave the creamy, fluorescent orange and completely artificial cheese of this entree. It flawlessly covered the usually mushy noodles on your plastic tray, but the combination was one of ideal texture and taste. Sure, it was no culinary masterpiece, but it was a weekly staple that left us full and with enough energy to get through the dreaded arithmetic and grammar.
One usually associates spaghetti when meatballs come to mind. However, as kids, there was no better sight than three delicious meatballs smothered in marinara with melted cheese oozing out of a toasted roll. Mamma mia, we no speak Americano anymore.