Kids are back in school, which means their summer diet of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Mountain Dew is giving way to ... black bean burgers and hummus? What the what? In our day, school lunches were composed of compressed mystery meat, gubment cheese and sugar. We'd have laughed the lunch lady right out of the cafeteria if she'd offered us a "Crafty Chicken Salad Wrap" or "Fresh Fruit." The only use we had for "crafty" was figuring out how to buy nothing but chips and Little Debbies without the lunch lady insisting we eat some meat, and fruit came from a can, the way God and the superintendent intended.
But not everything has changed: An unofficial poll of the two kids who live in our house reveals that with but a few exceptions, the cafeteria food is "disgusting." The difference, though, is the exceptions. Hamburgers and nachos are the only halfway-edible entrées, they say. Quite a switcheroo from our day, when nachos were middling and the school's idea of a hamburger was like something off You Can't Do That On Television.
With that, we present our Top Five and Bottom Five School Cafeteria Lunches From The Good Ol' Days.
5. Pancakes, eggs and sausage. It was a rare treat when the school menu offered "Breakfast For Lunch." And it was incredible how much syrup those pancakes could absorb. The meal proved educational, too: Through an accidental discovery on these flimsy Styrofoam plates, we first learned how much better breakfast sausage tastes with maple-flavored syrup.
4. Taco Bell combo burritos. By the time we got to high school, the fast-food companies had extended their empires into school cafeterias. Taco Tuesday was always a highlight of the week, and we secretly still sometimes crave the mix of bean-mash, grade-D ground beef and sodium that constitutes the gut-busting combo burrito.
3. Corn dogs with green beans and fruit cocktail in heavy cling syrup. Every elementary class had one weird kid who'd combine seemingly incompatible foods into a bizarre mess. Ours had Ryan, who swore that the school's canned green beans tasted awesome as a garnish on the corn dog. We thought he was crazy -- until we tried it. If we didn't have the dough for a Little Debbie snack, the canned fruit cocktail was syrupy enough to stand in for dessert.
2. Chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans. We begged Mom to recreate this meal for years until she finally relented. Our adult palates probably would have loved her made-from-scratch version. But to a third-grader used to spork-tender, straight-from-the-freezer meat patties and reconstituted gravy and potatoes, the steak -- which actually required a knife to cut! -- just couldn't compare to what we thought was the real thing, and she never made it again.
1. Pizza and pudding. Every Friday was "Pizza/Pudding" day in first grade. Seeing this on the school lunch calendar for the first time was disturbing, as we were certain that the cafeteria ladies had created a pizza-flavored pudding in some horribly misguided attempt to combine two great tastes. Thankfully, it was simply a slice of pepperoni pizza with a side dish of vanilla pudding. It was by far the least nutritious meal served the entire week -- so, of course, it was the most popular with kids and visiting parents. To this day, the smell of pepperoni pizza (especially that from Little Caesar's, which we suspect was the lowest bidder for our elementary school) makes us crave vanilla pudding, and vice-versa.
5. Salisbury steak. The gelatinous brown gravy that tasted like, well, brown, wasn't enough to cover the taste of the fabled "mystery meat" or distract us from the chunks of tendon and cartilage. Just the smell was enough to trigger our gag reflex. Thanks, lunch lady -- we're not hungry anymore, and we didn't even have a bite.
4. Macaroni and cheese. There are few things grosser than cold mac 'n' cheese, especially when it's cheap and bulk-bought, with the rubbery pasta and a sheen of sticky cheez sauce sweating grease.
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3. Peanut butter and jelly. Look, lunch lady, if we wanted a PB&J, we'd have had our mom make it with Mrs. Baird's, Jif and Smuckers -- not that gritty generic peanut butter and weird stale bread.
2. Cheese pizza. Someone once said that pizza is like sex -- even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. That person clearly didn't go to a public elementary school, where the idea of pizza was a square, soggy, limp crust, bland sauce and stringy anonymous white cheese served at room temperature. A few pepperoni slices would have gone a long way toward adding some flavor. Better yet, order delivery. You can get kids of any age to accomplish anything if you promise them a pizza party.
1. Cheeseburger and tater tots. What could make a lukewarm gray patty (which may very well have contained traces of meat), shiny yellow "cheese" and a stale bun even less appetizing? How about a pink slice of tomato, limp iceberg lettuce and floppy dill-pickle disks? As if that weren't a big enough slap in the face to kids whose touchstone burger came in a Happy Meal, the school didn't even have the decency to serve them with the burger's natural mate, French fries.