If you were to ask a group of kids what their favorite subject in school is, a good number of them will probably say lunch. And we shouldn’t be surprised; that midday break provided some respite from the otherwise stressful day of classes. The only thing that could make it even better would be to discover that our favorite lunch was on the menu in the cafeteria that day. Those were the days we would gladly skip the bagged lunch mom or dad had prepared for us and hand our cash over to the cafeteria staff in exchange for a rectangular slice of pizza.

The cafeteria food served at school is as much of a core memory to us as our lockers, school dances, exams, and bus rides home. Maybe it was because we were usually served an array of comfort food, like pizza and mashed potatoes. It did not even matter to us back then how nutritionally lacking the food might have been, nor did we care to think about the more elaborate lunches kids seemed to get around the world. We just wanted our chicken nuggets.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and revisit some of the foods that we actually miss from the days of our childhood, specifically school lunches.

1. Milk cartons

No matter what was on the menu for lunch, the one constant in our school cafeteria was the selection (or lack thereof) of beverages. Whether it was chicken nuggets, Salisbury steak, or even pizza, the drink of choice to pair with every lunch was milk. And not just a plain bottle of milk. If you went to school in the 1980s and 1990s, your best association with milk is probably those cardboard cartons.

Yes, we are talking about the cartons that were at times impossible to open. You probably had your choice between regular, chocolate, and sometimes strawberry milk. The seemingly odd pairing of milk with literally every lunch was not a bizarre isolated decision at your school; milk was legally required. The variety of nutrients found in milk led to its inclusion in school lunches, which began as a way to feed malnourished children following the Great Depression.

Legalities aside, in recent years schools have taken to reduce waste caused by all of those discarded milk cartons. Many districts are turning to milk dispensers, just as one elementary school in Harrisonburg, Virginia did in 2022 (via WWBT NBC12). The study out of that school even showed kids drinking more milk. So, the classic lunch beverage doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, though the classic carton may soon be a thing of the past.

2. Rectangle pizza

Rectangle pizza in a tray

One of the universal phenomena of school lunches, no matter where you grew up in the United States, has got to be pizza day. But students are not just served any pizza. Though your local pizza shop probably cuts its slices in triangles, when it was pizza day at school, everyone knew that triangles were out, and rectangles were in.

Rectangle-cut pizza is almost synonymous with school lunch, but no one seemed to question it growing up. There was also something about pizza day that almost made it seem like a holiday (raise your hand if pizza was exclusively served at your school on Fridays). If you are somewhat of a pizza aficionado in your adult years, it may bewilder you how you touched your school’s rectangle pizza in the first place.

Reddit is filled with rectangle pizza fans. One Redditor could not wrap their head over how a school could go an entire month without serving pizza. Another noted that pizza in the ’80s and ’90s was the "heavy hitter" of school lunches, with many Reddit users born after 2000 pointing out that it was still a popular lunch. Another hypothesized how the "classic 4×6 rectangle pizza makes it a favorite among students." They then drew the simple conclusion that "maybe it’s because it’s pizza and it’s sold to 10-year-olds."

3. French toast sticks

French toast sticks

With so much structure in our school-age years, any slight deviation from the norm felt like we were suddenly on some sort of vacation without a care in the world. We are talking about mind-bending things like snow days or running through the school hallways in the evening with no one else around. But we are also talking about simpler things, like eating breakfast for lunch.

It was truly an exciting day when the cafeteria was serving breakfast on the lunch menu, especially if it was something sweet like french toast sticks. Bonus points if your school threw a whole celebration surrounding breakfast and you got to wear your pajamas to class. Breakfast sausage served alongside four sticks of french toast assured you had yourself a solid meal.

Many schools served breakfast items like french toast sticks and sausage in the morning, as one conversation on Reddit pointed out. Others served these for both breakfast and lunch, as another Redditor commented. No matter what time of day you had breakfast foods at school, there was something magical about the french toast sticks that placed them squarely in our minds as a fond memory.

4. Chicken nuggets

Chicken nuggets

One of the most universally beloved school lunches has got to be chicken nuggets. It is a popular lunch for kids and kids at heart as well, so it is no surprise that it probably ranks high for many people’s favorite cafeteria meals. Chicken nuggets are the picky eater’s saving grace, but even more adventurous kids would probably agree that nuggets are an elite lunch. And, as the internet would suggest, adults seem to look back fondly on chicken nuggets as one of their most beloved school meals.

One Redditor noted that their all-time favorite school lunch was "chicken tendies with the mashed potatoes and country gravy." To be honest, that sounds like a lunch we would thoroughly enjoy as grown adults. Another creative Redditor shared how they would take the side of mashed potatoes and sandwich it between two nuggets. Chicken nugget day was likely a day when many of us would ditch whatever boring lunch mom or dad packed for us, let’s be honest.

5. Crinkle-cut fries

Crinkle-cut french fries


School cafeteria lunches were often not the healthiest of foods, but that hardly mattered to us as kids. As long as the food was tasty, we were game. And if the lunch happened to be fried and salty, that was even better. So when the cafeteria lunch came with a side of french fries, it was a pretty exciting day. And we are not just talking about any garden variety cut of french fries. If you were served french fries at school, odds are that they were crinkle cut.

Crinkle-cut fries are an elite style of french fry for many, including kids. One Redditor fondly remembered their school’s "perfectly cooked crinkle-cut fries," with another commenting that their school served the fries with gravy before upgrading to poutine. Another Redditor mentioned how the mere thought of crinkle-cut french fries reminded them of their school days. They are simply the ultimate school lunch side dish, beloved by anyone who bought food from the cafeteria.

6. Green eggs and ham on Dr. Seuss’ Birthday

Elementary schools make a big deal out of the smallest of holidays. Aside from the big holiday seasons, even minor occasions like Valentine’s Day was a reason to stop everything and exchange gifts with your fellow students. Another holiday that seemed to be a thing only in schools was Dr. Seuss Day, otherwise known as National Read Across America Day. Every March, schools would celebrate the famed children’s author, and in some cases "The Cat in the Hat" would even show up for story time.

The party continued in the cafeteria, where of all things, the students would be served green eggs and ham, just like the popular Dr. Seuss book. If the concept seems a bit bizarre to you, you are probably right. It is not the most appetizing-looking food, as one Redditor shared. But it was a fun way to incorporate the school’s activity that day into the lunch period, and as one Redditor pointed out, "It was awesome for kids."

Your local schools apparently were not the only place to find such a bizarre combo. The sandwich chain Subway also served a Dr. Seuss-inspired sub. Thankfully the sudden influx of green eggs only happens once a year, but if your elementary school is big into National Read Across America Day, there’s a chance the famous literary meal is served for lunch that day.

7. Ice cream cups with wooden spoons

Dessert is arguably the best part of any meal, and that argument definitely applies to school lunches. No matter what was being served for lunch, if there was ice cream involved, it was a good day. There are several different kinds of ice creams that schools have served over the years, but one that is perhaps the most nostalgic is the simple ice cream cup. But the dessert is not just iconic on its own. The reason we all remember it so well is because of the utensil it was served with.

Perhaps for the convenience of not having to stock your kitchen with plastic or metal utensils, the ice cream cups in question came with a wooden spoon. We suppose calling it a spoon is a bit generous, as it was basically a short, curved craft stick. It certainly gave the ice cream a different kind of flavor. In fact, one Redditor said the taste of the wooden spoon was "actually a more vivid memory for me than the taste of the ice cream." It is such a core memory, that another Redditor commented on a photo of the ice cream treat and said "All of a sudden I taste wood."

8. Cafeteria rolls

Yana Margulis Rubin/Getty Images

A school lunch from the cafeteria typically included a few staple items: whatever entrée was being served that day, a milk carton, and a yeast roll. No matter what was being served that day, there were a few assurances in life, and the rolls were one of them. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the rolls themselves, other than the fact that they were filling. They were your everyday dinner rolls, but that made them all the more tasty and they were the perfect accompaniment with your lunch.

The rolls that came with your lunch are one of those core memories that people still remember to this day. No matter how much time has passed, one Redditor notes that "To this day I remember the smell of yeast rolls baking in the grade school cafeteria." Another Redditor shares that the rolls at their school were so delicious, they "used to trade stuff" to get them from other kids.

9. Chicken patty sandwiches

Pizza day was a big deal in schools growing up, but another exciting day that could give it a run for its money was chicken patty day. A chicken patty sandwich from the cafeteria was an elite lunch, plain and simple. However, that is rather surprising considering the sandwich most of the time was just a chicken patty and two pieces of bread. But when you smother the patty in ketchup, it felt like you were eating at a five-star restaurant -– if a 10-year-old could describe what a five-star restaurant is like.

One Redditor noted that despite the simplicity, "I don’t know what it was about then but I loved them." Many others commented that their school usually paired the sandwiches with mashed potatoes or tater tots, with one noting that "the day was pretty awesome" when it was chicken patty day. Another Redditor even shared that chicken patty day could make a bad day at school better. That is high praise for what is essentially one giant chicken nugget.

10. Mashed potatoes in the shape of an ice cream scoop

School lunches often consisted of our favorite comfort foods: pizza, french fries, chicken nuggets, etc. So when those foods were paired with mashed potatoes, the ultimate comfort food, it was a good day. But what was so unique about school mashed potatoes was not just how amazing they tasted — it was how they were shaped. What is seared into our memory is a single scoop of mashed potatoes, almost resembling a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

One Redditor who attended school in the 1960s recalls "mashed potato in the shape of an ice cream scoop" as one of the items they remember most. The mashed potatoes were only made better if it came with gravy. And to avoid the problem of the gravy running off the edges of the rounded mashed potatoes, you always hoped that the cafeteria staff would make a little indent at the top, as another Redditor explained.

In fact, ice cream-scoop mashed potatoes seem to be a popular school meal item in the United Kingdom as well, with one Redditor on r/britishproblems reminiscing about them. It is not every day that school lunches look exactly identical around the world, but it appears that mashed potatoes are the great equalizer in our school years.