Tuesday, September 3, 2013

top ten Tuesday: school lunches.

Even though it’s been several years since I’ve experienced that special excitement/dread that comes with going back to school, being married to a teacher means that I’ll always be aware of the back to school season and everything that goes with it: school supply shopping (do you miss school supply shopping? I DO!), setting up your locker (or in James’s case, his classroom), and, of course, the return to school lunches.

School lunches have kind of a bad reputation, and I’m sure some schools deserve it. I went to Arlington Public Schools from kindergarten until I graduated, and honestly? Our school lunches were really not that bad. Admittedly, there were some lunches that were downright terrible (I’m looking at YOU, biscuits with tuna and pea gravy), but on the whole, Arlington did a pretty good job.

Maybe the lunches tasted as good as they did because my grandma Sheila was a lunch lady throughout my entire Arlington career. Grandma Sheila is the friendliest lady, and her cheeriness filled the whole lunchroom. Grandma’s post was at the dishwashing window, and kids would bring their dishes right to her. Grandma would greet each and every one of them by name: and there were hundreds. She was everyone’s favorite lunch lady, and I’m lucky enough to have her as my grandma.
I had some good times in that lunchroom, especially as my time there came to an end. During my junior year, my good friend Bob and I established what we called “the loser table.” Every lunch room has a “cool kid” table – even well into high school, and you know it’s true. Bob and I were not part of the cool kid ranks, and we were 100% ok with it: so we established a table of our very own. We started off small: about four of us staked our lunch table claim there every day. By the time I graduated the following year, our loser table had exploded into a group of at least 20. And yes, we were much bigger than the cool kid table.

So even if the food wasn’t great, I knew I could look forward to sitting with my friends and an enthusiastic hello from my grandma. When the food was good, well, then the day couldn’t get much better! For this top ten Tuesday, I’d like to present to you my top ten school lunches!

Italian Dunkers
Italian Dunkers were my hands-down, absolute favorite… and they are the simplest/probably least nutritious thing that the school ever served. They’re just toasted hot dog buns with melted mozzarella cheese and garlic butter (with spaghetti sauce for dipping). That’s it. They were a new addition the menu within the last couple of years of my high school career. At school, you had the option to “double plate”: to pay for two meals and get twice the food. The only time I ever double plated was on Italian Dunker day. Over spring break of my freshman year of college, I paid a visit to my old high school to eat lunch with my sister. Of course, it was Italian Dunker day.

French toast and sausage
This may seem like a weird thing for a school to serve for lunch, but it was delicious. The French toast was always really thin, but it was dipped in the perfect buttery/cinnamony mixture. The sausage could be a hit or a miss – the sausage with crispy edges was best – but the French toast was never disappointing.

hot dogs and macaroni and cheese
To this day, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese are two of my favorite foods. Yes, I have the culinary preferences of a five year old. Arlington served hot dogs as the main dish, macaroni and cheese on the side – none of this “hot dog pieces cut up in macaroni and cheese” nonsense. In my many years of hot dog eating, I have yet to come across a better hot dog than those served at Arlington. I’m not sure what made them so good, but they just were – they were a little pinker and saltier than normal hot dogs, if that tells you anything. The macaroni and cheese was something else, too – the cheese sauce was super watery and a strange shade of yellow, but still delicious. It’s hard to go wrong with macaroni and cheese.

chicken strips/chicken Os
The chicken strips in the Arlington lunch room were a lot like the chicken strips you can find in those little rotating warmer cases at gas stations, but I loved them. Chicken Os were made of the same chickeny stuff, but as their title suggests, they were shaped like Os. As for me? I love processed chicken of any kind, so the goofy shape is just an added bonus.

sub sandwiches
The sub sandwiches came on the same buns as the hot dogs, and let me tell you, they were great buns. The subs came with bologna, salami, cheese, and lettuce – simple perfection. The only downer to sub day was that they came with baked beans. Yeesh. In high school, we could opt out of the daily vegetable, but not in elementary school. In elementary school, there was usually a monitor roaming the aisles to make sure that everyone tried their peas or mixed vegetables or what have you. That’s when I learned the fine art of sneaking unwanted vegetables into a napkin and/or making a dent in my beans to make it look as though I’d had a bite. It’s amazing how clever you think you are when you’re in first grade.

pepperoni pizza
My school’s pepperoni pizza was served not in triangles, but in gigantic squares. It had tons of delicious melty mozzarella cheese and little teeny pepperoni cubes. Pepperoni pizza day also meant that there were brownies for dessert, and let me tell you, the school brownies were simply amazing. They were less “brownie” and more “flattened cupcake” in flavor and texture, which was probably why I liked them. (And they NEVER had nuts.) Pepperoni pizza day is not to be confused with fiesta pizza day – it was a bizarre concoction with taco meat and cheddar cheese on that same giant dough square. Fiesta pizza day did have a silver lining: we had brownies for dessert on those days, too.

I have to tell you: I don’t like chili. Why, then, did I include it on my top ten list? Because of all the delightful sides that came with it. Whenever we had chili, there would also be trays of bologna, cheese, and salami – aka, the makings of one of my other favorites, a sub sandwich. (Alas, there were no hot dog buns, so I made do with the ever present white bread.) It wasn’t just the cold cuts galore that made chili day a good one – there were cinnamon rolls for dessert. Heavenly.

wiener winks
I swear to you, the school actually called them wiener winks. Wiener winks are a variation on what most people call pigs in a blanket. These were the delicious school hot dogs wrapped in a piece of bread (weird) and cheese and baked. The result was a crispy piece of bread with melted cheese and a well-done hot dog. It was all tasty and wonderful, as long as you didn’t eat the rock hard bread crust.

tomato soup and grilled cheese
The tomato soup situation is a lot like chili: I don’t like the main dish, but I love the sandwiches that go with it. In this case, it was the grilled cheese. The school’s grilled cheese sandwiches came in halves, and they were crunchy and wonderful – I haven’t had a grilled cheese quite like them since. I – because I was quite possibly born in a barn – ripped off the crusts and only ate the middles, mostly because the crusts were amazingly crunchy and could break your teeth. Yes, I did this even during my senior year. I also hate to think about just how MANY grilled cheeses I ate on tomato soup day. Let’s just say it was a lot. Lucky for me, everyone at my table was just as fond of grilled cheese day as I was, so no one batted an eye.

My all-time favorite meal day was smorgasbord day: it was at the end of the year, and the lunch ladies were trying to get rid of all the leftovers before summer. Smorgasbord day could be rough if you were one of the last grades to eat: all the good stuff would be gone, and you’d be stuck with pizza burgers. However, the older you got, the sooner you ate, and the seniors always got first choice. Better yet? They’d let you have THREE different things! It was always hard to choose, but you’d better believe that there was always a hot dog and some chicken Os on my plate at the end of every school year.


Those, my friends, are my ten favorite school lunches. There were some good ones that I just couldn’t squeeze in – hot ham and cheese day, Polish sausage day, spaghetti day – and all of these meals leave me a little hungry for the good old cafeteria. 


  1. Calla, your Grandma is the best! You are right-everyone loved her because she truly loved each & every child. I have never heard her say a derogatory word about anyone-shild or adult! You left out tatertot hotdish & every bar that you could imagine. I went to have lunch with your darling cousins when they moved to Brookings. Let me say, prison food is better than what those kids were served. Needless to say, thaey take their lunches from home. Keep on writing-I love it!

    1. I was never a big fan of tatertot hotdish, but Arlington's bar selection was amazing! It's too bad that Brookings school food isn't good; I think we really lucked out in Arlington - plus, what fun to get to see Grandma Sheila every day!! :)