Sunday, September 5, 2021

Around the Kitchen Table: Grade School Lunch Memories + #Giveaway

MOLLY MACRAE: Brand new pencils,

Brand new books,

Brand new teachers’ smiling looks!

Brand new crayons,

Brand new paste,

Brand new lunch box . . . 

School lunches often get a bad rap, and “Lunch lady” is a stereotype in so many school stories and jokes. Do your memories fall in line with that? Mine show how lucky we were as kids. More often than not, my siblings and friends and I walked home for lunch. Even in the depths of Midwestern winters. (We had a teacher who called kids creampuffs if they didn’t walk home on the worst days. How cruel is that?)

But how lucky we were that our moms were home to feed us. We had leftovers, or sandwiches made from leftovers (gristly piece of meat on bread, anyone?), and sometimes little round omelets (I loved those omelets). My biggest secret though, on the days we ate in the school lunchroom, was wishing for a lunchbox instead of a brown paper bag. And a thermos! Nope, never had one.

So let’s go back to grade school. Did you eat in a cafeteria? Can you remember the smell of school spaghetti and Friday fish? Did you have a lunchbox? Did you drop your thermos only to hear the glass inside shatter? Did you have fun sitting with friends and then get to run around outside? What grade school lunchtime memories do you have?

What was your favorite part of 
lunchtime in grade school?

Food, friends, fun or . . . ?


MADDIE DAY: I love this topic, Molly! My favorite lunchbox was red plaid, just like in your picture. But my siblings and I always had tickets to buy milk to go with our lunch, so we never brought a thermos. (My mom probably knew how quickly it would break.) And we didn't live close enough to walk home for lunch (even though it was southern California, where the only weather presenting a problem was September with 105 degrees and 100% smog). I was third of four kids with a mother who was determined to make us self-sufficient in the kitchen as soon as we were tall enough to see over the counter. I usually made my own peanut butter-and-lettuce sandwich - hey, don't judge, it's delicious! Add in a pear or an orange and a couple of Girl Scout cookies and I was good to go.

Edith/Maddie second from left. A year or two before school age

Unlike my sisters and brothers, I was NOT a picky eater, so I loved buying lunch in the cafeteria. Cost might have been a factor in our family, so it wasn't a regular thing. But give me that flat slab of "Salisbury steak" with gravy and a scoop of mashed potatoes - yum. A little pocket of applesauce. Maybe a slice of boysenberry pie. It was a long, long time ago, and I truly don't remember what they offered on other days. I don't think I'll ever forget the smell of the school cafeteria.

Yes, and we always had a good long recess outdoors after lunch. Swinging on the bars, running out to the far fence where the walnut trees grew, playing kickball. Sigh.


PEG COCHRAN: I went to a private Catholic school until sixth grade I can't remember if I had a lunch box or not but I do remember my mother making me bologna sandwiches over and over again. And I hated bologna sandwiches but didn't have the nerve to tell her! (I still do.) And, worst of all, the nuns made us finish all our lunch no matter what. I also remember that we said the "Catholic Grace" before the meal--sometimes in English and sometimes in French. So recess afterwards was definitely the best part when we were let loose to run around for a bit. When I transferred to a public school for 7th grade, I sometimes bought my lunch. What I remember most are the squares of white cake. The first day they just had frosting. Leftovers on the second day had frosting and chocolate chips and by the third day, the leftovers had frosting, chocolate chips and coconut.

🍋 🌿 🍒

LESLIE KARST: I was lucky enough to inherit my oldest brother's Roy Rogers lunch box, which--being the horse-crazy gal I was--I adored! (Yes, I still have it.)

My mom, who went back to school get her master's degree when my little sister started kindergarten, would pack all our school lunches for the week on Sunday night: individually wrapped bologna sandwiches on white bread which would go into the freezer, potato chips in wax bags (yes, they were always stale by Friday, but I still loved them!), apples, and cookies in wax bags (also stale but delicious).

But once a month we got to eat in the cafeteria, and I'd spend ages poring over the next month's cafeteria calendar deciding which day to go: Hot dogs? Pizza? Creamed beef with canned string beans? I loved them all!

🐴 🍏 🍕

LUCY BURDETTE: Leslie, you are too cool with the Roy Rogers lunchbox! My mother had four kids plus she worked, and my dad commuted an hour plus each way to Manhattan, so nobody was packing lunch. We ate at the cafeteria and that seemed fine.

Back in middle school, or maybe it was late grade school, our school was being rehabilitated and we had to go to another school and share split sessions. That meant that half the kids arrived very early (could it have been 6 AM?) and left by noon. The other kids attended from noon to five. My sister and I were in the early bird shift. And my mother hated getting up early. But she wanted us to eat well before we went to school. One of the things she fixed ahead of time for our breakfast was sloppy Joes. We were on our own for heating them up to eat at 5:30. They were delicious!

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MARY JANE MAFFINI: I love this topic, Molly! Lunch was absolutely my favorite subject in school. In grade school (we called it Elementary) I lived a block from the school but everyone in the school walked home for lunch. I don't remember any accommodation for children to eat at school, regardless of weather. Almost all the moms were at home in the fifties. We always had a hot lunch in the cold weather and my dad also came home from work for his hot lunch. My mother was an excellent cook, but of course, my preferred meal would be beans and wieners or grilled cheese sandwiches. The walk home and back was an important time to socialize with other kids, although in winter with our woolen mittens and heavy cotton padded snowsuits, we were usually cold and wet going back. I love the film "A Christmas Story" although it's an earlier era, we still had the bulky gear and the challenges of snow and occasionally falling into it.

Even in high school (beyond the scope here but ...) we walked home, a half hour each way. That left us a half-hour to eat and be out the door. I went to a Catholic girls school and we were not permitted to go anywhere except home at lunch, especially not to restaurants. I always enjoyed bending that rule.

Years later, I made lunches for my own girls, every day. One daughter (who shall remain nameless) always complained that my lunches were not as good as her friend's. The friend's dad (a firefighter) apparently always provided chocolate milk, chocolate bars and soft and chewy chocolate chip cookies. If he included sandwiches, I assumed they were filled with M & M's.

Although I don't remember specifics, no doubt I criticized my poor mum's meals at the time. Now, of course, I have nothing but happy memories of school day lunches.

🍋 🌿 🍒

Leslie and Twiggy -- 3d grade

LESLIE BUDEWITZ: Eat your hearts out, sisters. I had a "Julia" lunchbox. And I still have it, and the Thermos, though I wasn’t brave enough to unpack half the back end of the garage to reach the box where it’s safely stashed to take a picture.

Another Catholic school kid here, but from what I remember, our cafeteria lunches weren’t any better or worse than the public school kids’. The only difference was that I lived too far to walk home for lunch. (Walk to and from, yes, but not for lunch.) Was it Marty Wanner who convinced me that the scoop of rice was dead maggots? Though I can’t blame him for the idea of flipping the cooked peas over our shoulders with a spoon so they splatted on the cafeteria walls, which were the exact same shade of horrid green. And on what planet was fried baloney actually decent? Friday Fish Sticks and squares of cheese pizza were fun, but usually I took a lunch. Some years it was cool to have a box – and Julia WAS cool – and some years, brown bags were cool. Who decides these things? It sure wasn’t me, never cool for a minutes Sandwiches or soups – that’s where that Thermos came in handy, even if we bought milk for a quarter. An apple or orange segments in a little baggie. My mother’s homemade cookies. And occasionally, for a treat, a little bag of Fritos. Trades happened, though I doubt I participated, not because of that cool thing, but nobody could offer anything that beat my mom’s cookies.

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TINA KASHIAN: Great topic! I fondly remember school lunch in grade school. I had a Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox. We ate in the cafeteria, then had recess on the playground. We always looked forward to playing outside. When it rained, we had to stay indoors. As for my lunch, my mother packed me hummus and pita at a time when hummus was not well known. It caused some stress for me. Finally, I asked for peanut butter and jelly. I have two girls now and we make their lunch. Sometimes, they make their own. They prefer peanut butter and jelly and never want to change. There is something to be said about a routine.  


MAYA CORRIGAN: Like Molly and MJ, I walked home for lunch. I lived about 1/3 mile from school in Queens, NY, and walked with friends whose houses were twice as far. I was happy to be the first one to peel off. Our school had no cafeteria, so everyone within a mile of school was required to have lunch at home. Others who lived farther but were near a city bus route were also required to go home. The remaining few kids ate bag lunches in the auditorium. They had a longer recess than the walkers, but we fit in a lot of socializing on the way between home and school. As you can tell from the uniform and obediently folded hands in my first-grade class picture, there were nuns involved.

My mom always cooked a balanced meal for dinner, but lunch either came from a can--Campbell soup, Heinz baked beans--or between two slices of bread. I remember ham, bologna, tuna fish, lettuce and tomato, and BLT sandwiches. So my midday meal had more variety than box lunches. I still enjoy BLTs and tuna salad sandwiches, though I've given up my other childhood favorite: baked beans on toast.


Photos from our younger years!
Click here to learn more about us &
the books we write as Cleo Coyle.

CLEO COYLE: Great topic, Molly! My husband and I attended different public schools in the Pittsburgh area, but we both had a blast during our lunch periods. Marc looked forward to seeing his friends from other grades. I was a chunky monkey (foodie-in-training!), so any meal break was a happy part of my day. And it was during these lunch hours that I got my start as a storyteller, entertaining my cafeteria tablemates with seriously odd tales. 

The giant mouse 🐁 on the moon 🌙, who gobbled up astronauts foolish enough to rocket there, went over big. Maybe not as big as Pizza Bagel Day or the apple crisp, but definitely more palatable than the canned green beans, cooked until every last molecule of living nutrition was boiled out of them (one of my early encounters with culinary crime). Then again, the food wasn’t all bad. Our lunch ladies also served a favorite Western Pennsylvania nosh (one so good that Marc and I still eat it to this day), the BBQ Chipped Ham Sandwich

We are such fans of this cheap eats delight we wrote it into our 14th Coffeehouse Mystery, ONCE UPON A GRIND. After moving to NYC, our pregnant amateur sleuth (Clare Cosi) craved the sandwich so badly that she sent her young husband out into the night with instructions for deli workers on how to “chip” the ham "Pittsburgh-style" on their slicers. If you’d like to learn this deli-ordering trick and get our recipe, click on the photo below, and eat with school lunch memory joy! 

Vicki Delany: I also am of the walking home for lunch generation.  I don't remember anything memorable about those lunchtimes except for one thing. My grandfather lived with us for a while. As my mom was a teacher, Grandad prepared our lunch.  Every lunchtime he opened one can of Campbell's tomato soup to serve with a rather plain sandwich of a slice of cheese on white bread sort of thing. No matter how many people were coming for lunch - whether it was just me and him, or my brother and some of our friends, maybe Mom too or Dad if he was off work for some reason - he opened one can of soup.  So somedays I got an adequate serving, and some days barely a spoonful. 

What was your favorite part of lunchtime
in grade school? Food, friends, fun or . . . ?


To be entered in this week's drawing,
join us in the comments.

Include your email address,
so we can contact the winner!

Comments Open until
Wednesday, September 8, noon Eastern


by Lucy Burdette

>> CRYPT SUZETTE by Maya Corrigan

by Maddie Day

 >> BREWED AWAKENING by Cleo Coyle

Comments Open until
Wednesday,  September 8, noon Eastern

Don't forget to include
an email address!



  1. What fun!
    Our cafeteria was shared by the grammar school (6-8 grade) and high school. It was small and we had very little lunch time. If you brought lunch there was just about enough time to eat. If you bought lunch there were two options: the regular line with wonderful (at least I thought it was) spaghetti now and then or the hall line with hamburgers, drinks, and snack like big chocolate chip cookies.
    We were convinced the burgers were nothing but a mold culture on the bun. They were so thin and tasteless that it was necessary to add catsup AND mustard in order to have any taste. Now my question is, why did we buy them?
    It wasn't unusual to be still in line for food when the bell rang.
    I don't remember what I brought to eat from home even though that was the majority of my lunches.
    libbydodd at comcast dot net

  2. When I was in grade school we went home for lunch but I don’t remember what we ate. Probably soup or sandwiches.
    sgiden at verizon(.)net

  3. Eating with friends.

  4. I had that Roy Rogers lunch box too! Loved it. Peanut butter sandiches and a piece of fruit is what I remember. In grade school we had to either eat at our desks or in the gymnasium, nocafeteria. High school we across the street to the greasy spoon, played the jukebox and ate french fries with gravy! Yum!

  5. In elementary school (first though sixth grade) I ran home for lunch. My mom usually had a sandwich or left overs from the night before ready for a quick meal since we only had an hour for lunch. I usually met two friends for the walk back to school. During the walk we shared dessert, usually cookies.
    In junior high most of my friends and I brought sandwiches from home and bought something to drink (either milk or orangeade in small wax containers). Always a fun 50 minutes.
    High school was the worst though - band with lunch. Try tooting your clarinet between bites of a sandwich. Ugh. LRJ

  6. Being an old Army brat, lunch time was the time to make new friends. As a child I was a rather picky eater. So eating in the cafeteria lunch line was only on days they had something I would like which was about once a week. Mom was a great cook and whether it was leftovers from supper the night before or a peanut butter sandwich, it was something that everyone else wanted to trade for. That didn't happen very much.

    My first memory of lunch rooms was first grade. We stood in line to wash our hands before going to the lunch room where your hands were looked at before you got went in. You were allowed all the food you wanted as long as you didn't waste it. We learned that each compartment of our tray had a number. If you wanted seconds on meat and it was in compartment one, you held up one finger and one of the lunch ladies would come around with that pot or pan and give you a little bit more.

    Fondly remember taking the fizzy tablets and getting a glass of water to make my drink or the straws that when you sipped your milk through magically turned the white milk into chocolate flavored milk.

    Lunch time was also time to rush through eating so you could go outside to play. The monkey bars were my favorite and my Mom's worst nightmare being the cause for many rips and tears.

    Thank you for the chance! Shared and hoping to be the fortunate one selected.

    Have a fabulous three day weekend!
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  7. Great question, it's very interesting to read everyone's answers. I went to a country school from kindergarten through 8th grade. Our school had free breakfast and lunch for everyone, with seconds of you wanted them, and it was really great food. It was so good that no one really brought their lunch at all back then. But, I guess there is always some food that not everyone loves and my mom said I came home from school the first week of kindergarten and told her that I wasn't going back to school at all. When she asked me why I didn't want to go back, she said I told her because they made us take a nap and eat all of our lunch and it had spinach, and I wasn't to do either! She said she argued with me for a bit and then told me "fine, don't go back, grow up to be a dummy". She said I got a funny look on my face and then told her that everyone had to go to school. Apparently I didn't ever argue about the naps or the spinach again!

  8. Elementary school lunches were quiet and quick so not often very soon. I was in a strict private school. My lunch usually consisted of a peanut butter sandwich from home and milk. In high school lunch was not as strictly regulated so I got hang out with my friends more and it allowed for more unwinding time. I usually brought lunch from home then too. cherierj(at)yahoo(dot)com

  9. In elementary school, lunches were brought from home, school lunches usually once a week. What i remember from kindergarten/first grade age was a Star Wars red plastic lunchbox. Lunch was usually PB&J or cheese sandwiches, grapes, a cookie and juice. That lunchbox was repurposed as a coupon box for my mom. startrek1976 at yahoo dot com

  10. In grade school, we usually had healthy lunches. I wasn’t a picky eater, thanks to my mother’s insistence on a well-rounded diet. I did draw the line when the school lunch included hominy. Anyone remember this? To this day, just hearing the word makes me cringe.

    1. That's so funny, Mary! I love hominy and seek it out now to include in my chili.

  11. We had pretty decent lunches in school. Of course of there was something we didn't like, we could bring lunch from home. Peanut butter and jelly was my standard, with chips and something for dessert. When we got to middle school they had a salad bar as an alternative if we didn't like the meal, so most didn't bother dragging something from home. I remember tons of complaints when they switched brands of mashed potatoes, and again when they took away the salad bowls and stuck us with these tiny, disposable paper ones. Other than that it wasn't too bad.

  12. I walked home for lunch all through elementary and high school no matter what the weather was. My mother made hot meals which were filling and tasty. I realize now that I did not appreciate this and wish that I was more aware of the lunches prepared everyday for us. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  13. My favorite memory is of the trades during lunchtime. We always looked forward to what each other’s moms packed us! Thanks for the chance.

  14. From kindergarten on I walked to and from school 4 times a day. This was the norm where I lived. My mother was home as this was in the 1950's and the lunches were prepared with love, care and were greatly enjoyed. My favorite was a tomato and noodle casserole topped with crackers. I never knew what lunch would be. It was always a delightful surprise. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  15. What was it about those red plaid lunchboxes? I remember mine so well. And I remember dropping the thermos multiple times--I hated that glass shattering sound! I don't think I ever went through the cafeteria line at school because my mother made my lunch. I don't remember much about it, but it probably contained a cream cheese and grape jelly sandwich--I loved those for years! As a matter of fact, I was thinking about that lately and had to buy the cream cheese and jelly. Yes, I have treated myself to those sandwiches a couple of times since then, and they still work for me. Ah, back to school days! mbunting(at)sbcglobal(dot)net.

    1. I'd forgotten I ate about cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Your memory stirred up one for me. Thanks for commenting, Margie. ~Maya

  16. We had to eat in the school cafeteria. You could buy a lunch or pack a lunch from home. I still remember the dreaded glass tinkling sound that sometimes occ