Now that my kid is in preschool, packing her lunch makes me all nostalgic. As I slather Nutella over sliced banana and gingerly coat them with organic rolled oats, I long for the days of chocolate milk and rectangle pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and string cheese. School lunch is something of a competition these days, and I find myself in the middle of a bento box war. I miss the simple days, so I asked moms to throw it back and share what their school lunches were like as kids.
Growing up, I lived with my sister and single mom. We wore secondhand clothes and got free lunch at school. We ate lunch in the classroom, and I remember a cold salad that I never touched and a hot packet covered with foil that, after lunch, we hoarded in balls in our desks. When my mom married my stepdad, she was able to be a stay-at-home mom and pack our lunches. Mom was on Weight Watchers, so lunches were always healthy. My "treat" was miniature pretzels and my apple juice came poured from a jug into a reusable Tupperware cup that a cafeteria worker once investigated because it looked like beer. Ah, the '80s.
School lunch (whether served or packed) seems to be a pretty vivid memory for moms of any age. I cordially invite you to take a stroll down Lunchable Lane:
"Starting at 8 or 9, we made our own lunches (we had a working mom and dad got us to the bus stop ). We helped mom with the grocery list and what we wanted, either peanut butter and jelly or turkey/ham sandwich, an apple/orange, a sugary drink (because Sunny D was awesome), and a treat: homemade cookies, brownies, or Fruit by the Foot."
"What I wanted was Lunchables. What I got was healthy and boring. I do remember at home my mom would make me 'Apple Smiles,' which are made of two apples slices and mini marshmallows for teeth, stuck on with peanut butter."
"I had either peanut butter and jelly or cheese. I wanted to buy a cookie, but I had to use my own money! Pudding cups were the bomb! I also remember trading chips!"
"As number four of five kids, my mom almost never (ever!) made me a sack lunch. I remember being jealous of the kids who brought lunches from home that had Fruit Roll-Ups, Squeeze-It drinks, and Hostess cakes.
I always ate from the cafeteria. School lunches haven't changed much in the last 25 years. Fish sticks, chicken nuggets, some sort of generic casserole. Sides were always green beans, Jell-o, fries, etc., but back then, I wasn't allowed to choose. It was just put on my tray, and I ate whatever I was given."
"For some reason, I remember cheese zombies for hot lunch. They were triangle-shaped and sort of like a cheese only calzone. Not fancy.
I made my own lunches starting in second grade — lots of PB&J on whole wheat bread (I would have killed for white Wonder bread). We always had Fruit Roll-Ups or Fruit by the Foot, and we put the stickers on the lunch table. I'm sure the custodian loved that. And I had the mini Ritz peanut butter or cheese sandwich crackers."
"I distinctly remember a funny-shaped pizza that we called 'speedboat pizza.'"
"I had homemade lunches: PB&J, juice box, and some form of snack. My mom used to put notes in my lunch box, until about 8th grade. I remember being jealous of the kids that got hot lunch. Believe it or not, my own 5 year old wants to get hot lunch now because his friends get tray lunch. But really... who wants fish nuggets? I sure don't.
In junior high, I started getting school lunches (because I was just 'too cool' to bring my lunch). We had cheeseburgers, salad bar, something that looked like pizza (it dripped, like legit dripped grease on you), and the French fries were always mushy."
"I had the standard 1950s lunch. Metal lunch box with Thermos, that didn't actually keep anything cold, in the lid. Sandwich on white bread — bologna or PB&J (wrapped in waxed paper — my mom had mad skills), milk (warm by lunchtime), and an apple. Every single day."
"In elementary school, I remember Lunchables, specifically the nacho chips with salsa but avoiding the 'cheese.' I started bringing money for school lunch in middle school. My mom worked there and kept tabs when I didn't go buy lunch and pocketed my cash (as my older siblings taught me to). In high school, I remember 'bagel day' was a big deal. Pizza and chicken were always options, and you were forced to take a milk carton even if you couldn't drink it in elementary. As someone with a milk allergy, I found this practice ridiculous and wasteful."
"It was school lunches for me. I liked them, though. Always a fruit and veggie with milk. Texas had good school lunches back then."
"I remember feeling so privileged to get free hot lunches as an immigrant kid... until I actually had to eat it! Some of the school lunches were so foul and nasty. They definitely don't cater to foreign palates, and why wouldn't all schools serve a hot bowl of healthy pho to kids everyday?"
"For 13 years of school, I did not once take a packed lunch. My siblings and I always ate the school lunch, which I actually liked. My mom's thought was they provided a good, hot lunch so there was no reason we needed to bring our own."
"I always bought lunch at school. I remember in elementary school, the best lunch was chili. It always came with cinnamon rolls and was always on a Friday."
"Cream cheese and jelly sandwiches! Maybe fruit? And sometimes yogurt."
"Mine were yummy. Chinese chow mein, loaded pizza, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and full state fair sized plates of fries in junior high."
"My poor mom! She packed my lunch I would say 90 percent of my life, and I'm not a sandwich eater! What I remember most are the few PB&Js, tomato soup in a thermos, and meat and cheese roll ups. She always packed fruit and something sweet for dessert!"
"I mostly packed a lunch to take with me, but when they served something I liked at school (pizza, tacos, Mexican pizza, steak sub were my favorites) I would buy lunch. My lunches in elementary school were bologna and cheese with mayo on white bread, a juice box, (Ecto Cooler!!!!) and sides. We would get Little Debbie Snack cakes for dessert, but only one (so if it was a two pack, we had to split it up). I loved Fudge Rounds the best. My mom was friends with a guy who worked for Little Debbie, and he would give us boxes all the time."