Back to school season can trigger a flood of nostalgia, but a fair share of bad memories too. For instance, unless you exclusively ate packed lunches in elementary school (or were educated in another country, perhaps), you probably recall some truly awful cafeteria food. Some of it still appeals—tater tots are never not delicious, and a good old PB&J sandwich always hits the spot. But a lot of other school lunch staples were highly suspect. And yet, looking back at them is a funny thing.
The mere act of recollecting can make you crave (or at least feel unwarranted fondness for) even truly appalling items. In most cases, it’s probably best to leave them in the past, but it is possible to recreate—and more importantly, to elevate—all your old lunch room favorites, and even make the stuff you hated appealing to your adult taste buds.
There are two keys to crafting grown-up versions of cafeteria food you’ll get excited about:
1. Use higher quality ingredients.
The cliche of terrible school lunches has endured since at least the 1990s, but it’s based on real and persistent issues; providing healthy school lunches that kids will actually want to eat is still a struggle. Most schools source lunch ingredients from huge suppliers as a matter of convenience and cost-efficiency, and the food often comes precooked and frozen, needing only to be reheated (and inevitably dried out). Luckily, you can choose fresher, better quality meat, dairy, and produce, potentially from local farmers to boot, for yourself. And you can make as many components from scratch as you want, thus avoiding reconstituted potatoes and canned fruit cocktail.
2. Make healthier meals.
Using better-quality ingredients will automatically make the meal better for you, but it’s also about balance. Your plate needn’t be entirely beige. You don’t have to serve carbs with more carbs. Your spaghetti sauce shouldn’t be so loaded with sugar that its only flavor is sweet. Your fruit doesn’t have to drown in goopy syrup, and your vegetables don’t have to be cooked to death. It could be fun, though, to invest in compartmentalized cafeteria-style trays to serve everything in (they’re also good for TV dinner cosplay). And feel free to buy a little carton of chocolate milk for authenticity’s sake—but don’t serve it half-frozen unless you were into that icy dairy slush.
Whether school cafeteria food was something you anticipated as eagerly as a new Trapper Keeper or you still shudder to recall the horrors of the hot lunch tray, these recipes prove that you can go back again, in a sense. But don’t worry; these are all much better than what you remember.
Homemade sloppy joes may not look significantly more appealing than their cafeteria counterparts, but they taste way better (as in, actually beefy, and there’s more to the sauce than pure sweetness). They do still pair beautifully with tots, though—but add another veggie like roasted broccoli (that hasn’t turned to mush and is properly seasoned) too. Get our Sloppy Joes recipe.
The rectangle pizza served at school wasn’t really good, and yet it was the best. This recipe aims to replicate its pleasures: soft, slightly sweet crust; red sauce; and a chewy mantle of skim-milk cheese. You could probably get away with store-bought Pillsbury crust stretched into shape, but either way, sprinkle liberally with pepperoni (or sausage crumbles if you prefer, or add olives, peppers, and other veggies if you want to get farther away from the original). Rather than serve it with soggy crinkle-cut fries and watery canned corn (that always tasted vaguely smoky to me and made me picture an errant cigarette butt dropped into the vat of vegetables), pair it with a fresh, vibrant, veggie-packed salad instead. Get the recipe.
You don’t really need a recipe for hot dogs (although you could try spiral-cutting them for a change); this is more about the classic combination of hot dogs and baked beans, and the quality of each. Our school served pale pink, totally soft, skinless “Polish dogs” that were fatter than usual and had a terribly overwhelming stench (and I wasn’t that picky; I would eat Esskay hot dogs straight from the package as a child—like, uncooked and ice cold—but never could bring myself to finish a sweaty Polish dog at school). You should definitely buy nicer tube meat than your school probably served, and pair them with these beans, which will be toothsome yet tender instead of mealy, with a savory, thick sauce, not a runny orange puddle that tastes mostly sweet. Make your own buns too if you want extra credit. Get our Slow Cooker Baked Beans recipe.
Most of us loved ingesting breaded nuggets of mechanically separated chicken as kids, but now that we know what they’re really made of, we’re generally not so jazzed to eat them. Luckily, making your own baked chicken nuggets from pieces of unadulterated breast meat is easy, way healthier, and tastes even better, but they’re still perfect for dunking in all your favorite sauces. And you can serve them with something far more appealing than mushy peas and carrots at home. Get our Baked Chicken Breast Nuggets recipe.
Steamed cheeseburgers are a big thing in Connecticut (and at White Castle), and they may in fact be delicious, though they also have their detractors. The sad steamed burgers we got at school were definitely gross. The thin gray patties were probably mostly soy instead of beef (and better for it, considering the quality of meat generally used), and ours never even came with cheese, just a squirt of ketchup. Talk about adding insult, right?
Try using your Instant Pot to make steamed burgers that’ll be far better, and pile on the cheese and other toppings as you please. These do kind of cry out for potatoes, and it’s a fact that frozen fries perform better, so consider taking it easy and buying a bag of crinkle-cuts, but cook them until they’re actually crisp. Get the recipe.
At our school, this Thanksgiving-lite pastiche of a lunch would come in the form of a spongy slab of turkey with gristly streaks, dark meat attached to white in a way it definitely wasn’t in nature, with a rind that peeled off in one piece (which I guess would count as moderately processed). This was nestled next to a perfect sphere of gluey mashed potatoes and both were covered in wan, shiny gravy, with a square of squishy white bread off to the side. There were probably some carrot coins too, but it was hard to tear your eyes away from the meat.
Slices of plain, otherwise-untouched roasted turkey and homemade mashed potatoes and gravy are clearly miles ahead, but you don’t even have to ditch the bread, because open-faced hot turkey sandwiches are great once in a while. This recipe combines turkey tenderloins and jarred gravy in a slow cooker, which sounds like a good compromise, but we’d still advocate for making the potatoes from scratch. Serve with green beans that still have some snap, or roasted carrots that still have flavor. Get the recipe.
The tuna in our grade school cafeteria was (still is?) a homogeneous fish paste with plenty of mayonnaise and probably extra salt and sugar, but not too much else. You can make a chunkier version with good oil-packed tuna and flavorful add-ins like fennel, garlic, and lemon zest. But as with your homemade mashed potatoes, you can still serve this with an ice cream scoop—and on hamburger buns—to honor the original iteration if you’re so inclined. Get our Grown-Up Tuna Salad recipe.
BBQ Baby Back Pork Ribs (instead of Riblets)
I loved getting the school lunch calendar and perusing it for “pizza” (and vainly hoping for some new wonders to appear as well), but nothing made my spirits plummet like the word “riblets”—which were similar to, but even worse than, the McRib: dry, lumpy/grainy, gray-brown “meat” of unknown origin molded into vaguely rib-shaped pieces with fake grill marks. They were usually simply plopped forlornly into one section of a Styrofoam tray, with barbecue sauce in another compartment for dipping, and a piece of bread or dinner roll sitting next to that. If for some reason you want to pay homage to the worst school lunch ever, get thee some soy-based riblets from the freezer section and a bottle of barbecue sauce and call it a day.
Presumably, though, my school was intending to approximate actual riblets, which are simply smaller morsels trimmed off a rack of regular pork ribs. If that’s the scenario you also prefer, just make a regular rack of barbecue ribs—or if you can find real riblets (or have a butcher who will cut them for you), use them in this recipe instead. Alternatively, bridge the gap between the two options and go for a copycat McRib recipe made with real meat! Being a grown-up is all about making your own decisions, for better or for worse. Get our Easy BBQ Baby Back Pork Ribs.
Vegan Key Lime Ice Cream (instead of Sherbet)
As someone born with an overactive sweet tooth and intense predilection for chocolate, I was constantly disappointed by the dessert options in elementary school: slimy peach slices, watery applesauce, or worst of all, tiny little plastic cups of neon green lime sherbet. Apparently, other schools got actual ice cream in those cardboard-lidded cups with flat wooden spoons—probably not that great either, but automatically better than our cellophane-shrouded fruity sherbet and plastic sporks. This looks like an idealized version of that hauntingly inferior “treat” I always traded or trashed. The color is all natural, as is the flavor, and I’d happily eat this anytime, not just after a cafeteria-inspired dinner. Get the recipe.
Related Video: School Lunch Revolutionary
Header image courtesy of Mike Flippo/Shutterstock.