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favorite school cafeteria food for a party

i'm throwing a housewarming and decided to make the menu a throwback to the food we loved that was served in our school cafeterias as kids.

is there anything else you'd like to add? thanks!

and, as a guest, would you enjoy these eats at a party?

- sloppy joes
- u-shaped pizzas
- quesadillas
- grilled cheese
- pb & j
- chicken nuggets
- fish sticks
- corn dogs
- american chop suey
- mac n cheese
- french fries
- cupcakes
- brownies
- spiked fruit punch / iced tea
- jello shots

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  1. Yeast Cinnamon Rolls with Icing!!
    Chocolate - Cooked Pudding
    Tapioca - Cooked Pudding
    Meat Loaf
    Chicken Pot Pies

    1. Sound fun! Depending on the age of your crowd, I would switch out the quesadillas for tacos. Schools did not serve quesadillas when I was young (and I am in my early 30's), but maybe they became popular more recently.
      In our elementary school the weekly menu was always the following:
      Monday- hamburgers
      Tuesday- chicken nuggets
      Wednesday- tacos
      Thursday- chicken fried steak
      Friday- pizza or fish sticks (during lent)

      1. Growing up in the New York City public school system in the 70s and 80s, here are my fond memories:

        Jamaican beef patty (called turnovers)
        Pizza rolls
        crinkle cut fries
        beef ravioli (Chef Boyardee style)
        fish sticks
        hot dogs with baked beans
        stuffed grape leaves (believe it or not)

        As a guest, I probably would like more of a gourmet/twist version of some of those foods you list. For example, grilled cheese sandwich was made with toasted Wonder bread with American cheese (unbuttered). Today, I would probably prefer it buttered with a better cheese. I'd also like real mac and cheese versus the Kraft stuff I grew up with.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Miss Needle

          For hot dogs with baked beans, are you talking about weiners and beans?? That's what I'd suggest.


          1. re: Miss Needle

            yes, pizza rolls, I think it was an eggroll wrapper filled with pizza ingredients, I think it was the only I ever ate from the cafeteria!

          2. don't forget the tater tots! one of my girlfriends who can't cook to save her life brought these to a bbq the other weekend (along with her toaster oven funnily enough) and they were one of the most popular snacks. go figure.

            1. See Jane and Michael Stern's book, "Square Meals." Of course the school cafeteria food they talk about was theirs and mine, from the '40s and '50s, when weiners were always served with kraut and never as a hot dog (much less corn dogs!), and pizza wasn't even on the horizon, not to mention tacos or quesadillas. Their recipe for School Cafeteria Macaroni & Cheese calls for real cheese, and butter instead of Parkay, but the method of preparation is more or less the same as for the blue-box stuff: combine the cooked pasta with butter and hot milk, stir in the cheese, then bake it. Very different from the creamy kind, but good in its way.

              My favorite cafeteria dish was something they called Marietta, made with browned ground beef, tomatoes, onions, kidney beans and cooked macaroni, finished by stirring in a good amount of government cheese and then baking it in those giant flat rectangular pans. Not only did I love it, but as it's the sort of thing many kids hate on sight I could easily score several extra helpings...

              2 Replies
              1. re: Will Owen

                that last thing sounds like a rendition of american chop suey. i found a good recipe off of http://www.elise.com/recipes/

                1. re: Will Owen

                  i'm in my early 20's and we were still getting hotdogs with kraut and mashed potatoes for school lunches in the 90's. it was my favorite meal, i liked to mix the yellow mustard packets into the kraut and potatoes and eat it all on top of the hot dog. the other favorite was breakfast for lunch. we would barter for sausage links, haha.

                  i second anyone who said tater tots. also for dessert we had jack and jill ice cream bars, like chocolate and strawberry éclairs, dixie cups, popsicles etc. it might be cool to get an assortment and let people pick their faves.

                2. My elementary school made a great warm gingerbread cake with a (horrid) lemon sauce. Improve the sauce and that would be killer.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: weezycom

                    Lemon strikes me as all wrong for gingerbread - citrus just doesn't work here, what were they thinking? I'm sure it wasn't a real cook who came up with this, but a Nutritionist.

                    Apples, pears, and stone fruit of any kind are wonderful with it, though. An apricot or peach sauce would be great, and if you got some whipped cream in there it'd be transcendental. Trust me on this.

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      Haven't you had the english gingersnap sandwich cookies filled with lemon creme? It's actually a very nice combo.

                      1. re: weezycom

                        I guess a lemon CREAM wouldn't be bad - I was just thinking about what kind of "lemon sauce" you'd encounter in a cafeteria and figuring on lemon extract, citric acid, sugar and water...gag. Sort of like a failed cheap lemon pie. But a nice strong lemon curd beat into some crème fraiche would be...well, I think I could eat that on an old tennis shoe!

                  2. I don't know what U shaped pizzas are... we were of the English Muffin Pizza crowd on Long Island in the 70's.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Jennalynn

                      I was wondering that, too. I am intrigued by U shaped pizza. I grew up near Cape Cod. Our school pizzas were square slices cut from sheet pans.

                      1. re: manraysky

                        here's a stouffer's frozen pizza version. they call it "french bread pizza" if that helps.


                    2. What the %^$&? No pigs in a blanket? Or as they're called in my neck of the woods: Pronto Pups--Lil' Smokies rapped in Pillsbury Croissant dough.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Nikiforos

                        Oh, I loved the pigs in the blanket (but we called them weiner winks where I grew-up). Good finger food. Can't forget the cartons of milk, especially chocolate!

                        1. re: Nikiforos

                          I was scrolling / reading to see if anyone else said this - my school called them 'wiener wraps'; we also had cheese wraps, the same thing with cheese instead of a hot dog...

                        2. I loved mashed potatoes and gravy (has to be in that round, ice cream scoop shape) and rice w/ chicken gravy, rice in the same ice cream cone shape. Oven fried chicken, chicken fried steak, canned corn.

                          1. don't forget the veggie soup to go with the grilled cheese sandwiches... always my favorite

                            1. We also had a lot of Chili, canned fruit, and these little peanut butter and chocolate squares that everyone always loved.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: adventuresinbaking

                                ooh i love it! keep the ideas coming! i'm def sprucing everything up - like real mac n cheese, fancy grilled cheese sandwiches, and grown-up american chop suey. :)

                                i was a child of the nyc public school system of the '80s... the ravioli and beef patties! ahh.

                                u-shaped pizzas were these huge, burnt cheese pizzas in the shape of a really big "U". i think it's referred to as submarine shape or something of that sort. anyway, it was great.

                                tater tots - how could i forget that.

                                canned fruit!!

                                1. re: Linda

                                  If you really want to evoke the era, I recommend the following: as soon as your guest are settled at the table and ready to tuck into their meals, amble along behind them, while chomping on a rectangular slice of pizza, folded in half so it can be held in one hand, freeing the other to smack the innocent diners on the back of their necks (if your name is Raymond Speed, so much the better). Then single out the most innocenty of the bunch and steal his chocolate milk.

                                  1. re: Nikiforos

                                    yes yes yes the rectangle school pizza WAS THE BOMB.
                                    little cartons of milk.

                              2. Definitely mini pizzas, fish sticks, grilled cheese.

                                I know it sounds wierd, and maybe only at my school, but our no. 1 cafeteria hit was sheppards pie!
                                or whatever they call it when it's made with beef. For a party maybe you could make it in little ramekins.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Marianna215

                                  mine too! it was endearingly called "Sheppie." ugh.

                                2. Dixie cups of chocolate ice cream, "strawberry shortcake" and "chocolate eclair" ice cream bars!!

                                  I also second the recs for tater tots and chocolate milk in the little cartons!

                                  1. I can't claim to be an expert, because I didn't eat school lunch most of the time, but I remember that where I grew up burritos were deep fat fried and the mashed potatoes camed smothered in cheddar cheese. That and they cut the pizza with sissors, which grossed everyone out for some reason. So much for healthy lunch : ). In junior high all entrees (many of which were fried) came with a side of french fries. And the extra-curricular groups sold candy, chips and soda.

                                    We also always had a "salad bar" with iceburg lettuce, kidney and garbonzo beans, fake bacon bits, croutons and lots of ranch dressing.

                                    Oh - and don't forget the chocolate milk and if you can find it strawberry milk.

                                    1. Wait, there's more! Canned peach halves on flavor-free white sheet cake! Near-crystalline ice cream in little cups with tiny wooden paddles to eat it with! Meat loaf you could use for doorstops! "Hot roast beef sandwiches": canned beef in dark, seriously fake gravy over watery mashed potatoes on a slice of balloon bread! Baked "French fries" that managed to be both overcooked and raw in the middle...HOW DID THEY DO THAT?? I really did like most of the cafeteria's offerings, including their ever-inventive ways with canned chicken, but some things are best left far, far behind.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Will Owen

                                        Those goofy little ice creams paddles!

                                        1. re: Nikiforos

                                          Given the rocky frozenness of that cheap ice cream, I think we should be glad they hadn't given us plastic! As it was, I broke mine the first or second time I used one - it was in second grade, and I burst into tears, thinking I'd broken something I was going to have to return. Mrs. Connerton reassured me and gave me another one, but I did get seriously laughed at.

                                      2. Salisbury Steak! (oval hamburger patties in brown gravy)
                                        Spaghetti casserole, topped with a half-inch of horrible/wonderful orange cheese
                                        oval hash browns

                                        I love this idea for nostalgic party food. And it would be SO COOL if you served it all in divided plastic trays... From Army Surplus? Ebay? Or at least serve the little cartons of milk...

                                        Please let us know how it goes!

                                        1. I remember tuna fish sandwiches-one side wheat the other white, slathered with margarine and lots of relish, big oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate cookies, but the best were the fish sticks.

                                          1. How fun!

                                            So much already mentioned...

                                            Tomato soup w/ the grilled cheeses.
                                            Open-faced turkey or brisket sandwiches
                                            Tuna-noodle casserole
                                            Chicken/Turkey Divan
                                            Spaghetti and Meatballs w/ powdered parmesan
                                            Ants on a Log
                                            Lemon Bars

                                            Juicy Juice and Kool-Aid

                                            1. cinnamon crumb coffee cake squares

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: paprkutr

                                                I grew up in the Midwest, so YMMV, but we always had Americanized goulash, made with elbow macaroni, ground beef, and tomato sauce. You could update this by making the sauce better (more authentically Hungarian) but keeping the ground beef for the school lunch vibe.

                                                Also, here's an idea for the grilled cheese. I make a goat cheese spread for cheese trays with equal parts goat cheese and cream cheese with plenty of chopped parsley, a little tarragon, and some scallions and garlic. Process in a food processor and thin with a little milk, if necessary. It's basically homemade mild garlic and herb goat cheese. This would make a good grilled cheese filling.

                                              2. Linda

                                                This sounds like a really cool idea. If you have time, maybe you can call a couple of local schools and find out what they have.

                                                The one thing I will suggest that must be on the menu is the fish sticks. Not only did every school caf have them, but they'd make a nice appetizer/finger food snack with a tartar sauce dip.

                                                Maybe you could try something along the lines of tuna/salmon/egg salad sandwiches. You'd have to wrap them in plastic wrap though.

                                                Good luck

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Davwud

                                                  How fun! If you wrap the sandwiches suggested above be sure to put a little post-it with an encouraging note on it.

                                                  Also, they sell jamaican beef patties at Costco.

                                                  Can you order red plastic trays from somewhere for the guests to prop their food on?

                                                2. Cool idea, how about Peanut butter balls, or we had a really moist Chocolate cake, with prunes in it....yes prunes, and it was awesome!

                                                  1. Oh, how cafeteria food varies across the country. My favorite cafeteria meal through 13 years of public school was lasagna, second favorite was chicken gumbo, with the Monday-standard red beans, rice, and cornbread a close competitor. And our high school cafeteria made killer scratch yeast rolls (I still use Mrs. Triche's recipe). We never had cupcakes that I can remember, but we did have the much-loved "no-bake" cookie: cook together butter, sugar, and cocoa until bubbly, add peanut butter, stir in quick oats & chopped peanuts. Cool slightly in the pot, then spoon out onto waxed paper.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                                      Those No-Bake Cookies were a favorite of mine too. I still make them today for a comforting treat.

                                                      1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                                        And how it's changed too.

                                                        I remember that in school, my favourite was meat pie and french fries with gravy. Now, at the school I work at the Thursday special is jerk chicken with rice and beans.
                                                        I'd never even heard of that when I was a kid. It's pretty spicy too for high school students.


                                                        1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                                          O man! can't forget the yeast rolls and the no-bakes!!! We always had bread and butter sandwiches too

                                                          So my favorite was: Country fried steak mashed potatos yeast rolls and can't forget the mixed veggies!! I would open up the roll, put the steak and potato and eat it like a sandwhich... I could be the last person out of line and be the first ready for seconds...
                                                          (my mom would have died if she would have known my eating habbits)

                                                        2. can you imagine how good homemade gussied up tater tots would be! maybe with a homemade ketchup!

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: relizabeth

                                                            just add Tabasco to catchup mmm mmmm good!, did anu of you ever get the hot dogs in bbq sauce with onions?,or tamale pie...also good stuff!

                                                            1. re: Nikiforos

                                                              mmmm, chalupas. I was of the generation where they turned into 'chalupas'. My first two years they had been called taco boats.

                                                              Oh, not quite school lunch, but sold at all my school games - a bag of fritos cut open along the long side, chili spooned in and topped with cheese and onions. We called them 'pork bellies'.

                                                              1. re: Meredith

                                                                Taco Boats! That makes sense: our chalupas had these little sail-looking toothpicks stinking into them--a hold-over from the Taco Boat days!

                                                            2. Chili Mac, salisbury steak, yeast rolls with little pats of butter on paper squares, ice cream sandwiches and canned veggies...green beans, corn and succotash! Oh, and my schol made a killer vegetable soup.

                                                              1. Wow. A lot of you have better memories for, and of, your school lunches. As best I can recall, I hated almost everything.

                                                                I vote rectangular pizza and orange ice cream push-ups/ nutty buddies. Those are the only fond memories I can dredge up.

                                                                Our school lunches were horrid. Even the peanut butter was some kind of cheap fake peanut butter....dark and oily and dank-tasting...I have no idea what the deal was. Anybody else have the same peanut butter?

                                                                1. Definately agree with the rectangle-shaped pizza. However, before this, our school had something called "pizza buns"...which were just old Kaiser rolls, halved, and cooked with sauce & mozzerella. Both were good, though.

                                                                  Some of my other favorites...

                                                                  Italian hoagies, served in a plastic bag, with loads of onions & vinegar (hope your gym class isn't after lunch, though).

                                                                  Cheesesteaks or cheesburgers, served in those foil-like bags (apparently, to keep them warm--but that really never worked well).

                                                                  Soft pretzels.

                                                                  Soggy crinkle-cut fries.

                                                                  1. Our caf had poutine and "hot chicken" sandwiches (for those non-Canadians among you, that's a sandwich made with shredded roast chicken and white bread, covered with BBQ gravy), falafel pitas, and little platters or dried out celery & carrot stick with Kraft ranch dressing.

                                                                    Oh, and Rice Krispies squares, of course.

                                                                    1. We had pizza burgers, they were gross, but I could see making a good one. Also, the goulash was huge as well as the tuna noodle casserole. It was all about the ice cream scoop used to dole them out. The rolls with the butter already inside of them were also big. Lasagna was big as well. And the favorite "mixed vegetables"

                                                                      1. When I first saw this subject in the list of new topics, I thought to myself I'll have to say Wednesday-lunch sloppy joes. And there it was on the top of your list!

                                                                        It's a cute idea for a party, although many of those foods I swore I'd never eat ever again.

                                                                        1. Wow - you had jello shots in school? Now that's my idea of an education - in indulgence! Lol. You could also include jello desserts/salads. Our grade school cafeteria relied on Sunshine Salad, Perfection Salad, and other jello dishes that incorporated ground carrots, celery, fruit bits and what-have-you. Also for dessert was the infamous cinnamon apple slice, with a Maraschino cherry plopped in the middle. When they got really fancy, it was chocolate cake batter baked in cake ice cream cups.

                                                                          Will Owen's dish he describes sounds a lot like Johnny Marzetti. There was also a concoction they made that had instant mashed potatoes as the base, canned corn, and a tomato/ground beef mixture on top. Anyone remember what that was called?

                                                                          It would be great if you could get some of those divided trays. And don't forget the tokens for milk! (I wonder when that practice died out!)

                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                          1. re: Seldomsated

                                                                            I never saw a milk token. Our caf went "digital" by the late 80s--early 90s. No money changed hands, you had a declining balance plastic lunch card that the lunch ladies swiped for you.