I ate a school lunch & lived to tell about it

Child of the 80’s

When I was in grade school we didn’t really have hot lunch. I think once a month we had the option on a Friday to get a slice of greasy pizza wrapped in foil and a can of RC Cola.

In the early 80’s that was a big deal, especially growing up in a house where junk food was limited. Obviously it made an impression because I still remember it.

By the time I got to high school, bringing my lunch was so ingrained in me that I rarely, if ever, got lunch from the cafeteria despite the large kitchen and numerous offerings. Not to mention the hamburgers looking like they were made out of rubber and the pizza always had a green tinge to it. Then there was the one time I had to go into the kitchen and noticed a box labelled “grade D but still edible.” That’s enough to make someone stop eating completely. A lot of people say that is a myth but I know I saw it. You don’t forget something like that.

Fast forward to today.

Are school lunches healthy?

As a family we eat mostly organic, real food. We avoid GMO ingredients and artificial colors and other fake ingredients.

But I have two elementary-school age children who attend a school with a full kitchen that provides school lunch and breakfast on a daily basis. They understand why we eat the way that we do and my son even has a pretty good handle on which ingredients to avoid when reading a food label. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want salisbury steak or fish sticks with their friends every once in awhile.

Schools today are making significant changes towards making healthier lunches for kids. More fruits and vegetables, whole grains, bottled water, etc. They have the best of intentions but even this “better for you” food is likely filled with sodium, chemical pesticides, sugar and artificial ingredients. The school lunch system is far from perfect, it’s merely a reflection of our nation’s problems.

Why I let my kids buy school lunches

Despite my stance that school lunches aren’t necessarily as healthy as we would like them to be, and they certainly likely contain GMOs and artificial ingredients, I do allow my kids the choice if they want it. They get a monthly allowance that allows them to choose a hot lunch around twice a week. In the past, some months they fly through their money and other times they have a lot left over at the end of the month. It all depends upon the menu.

I would prefer that my kids never wanted to eat a school lunch, but the reality is that life is full of choices. I believe that if I restrict them 100% now, that instead of learning to make better choices where food is concerned, they will learn only to want what they can’t have. They will also potentally resent us and those better choices once they are old enough to be in a position to make their own decisions.


National hot lunch week

This week was National Hot Lunch week and our school participates by inviting family members to enjoy lunch at school with their students. You don’t have to get a hot lunch, you can bring in a sack lunch if you prefer.

My son chose hot lunch and invited me to join him. At first I was mostly dreading eating the food but then I realized that I was given the opportunity to do something I wouldn’t normally get to do – actually see, feel and taste exactly what it is they are eating at school.

The lunch menu on the day I attended:

Romaine Salad
Chilled Pears
or Fruit plate

I decided to get the very same things my son did. Except he doesn’t like pears and I do, so he opted out of those so he didn’t waste food. He made it a point to tell me that the old chocolate milk brand had high fructose corn syrup in it, but that the new brand doesn’t. And yeah I went for the chocolate milk for the experience.


The food wasn’t bad. The salad was actually pretty good and the Light Italian dressing didn’t have too many questionable ingredients. The ranch dressing did, however, contain MSG and a few other alarming ingredients. The peas had a bit of an odd taste, but not a bad taste and the pears were really good although I am assuming they were packed in heavy syrup because they were very sweet.

The “fiestada” looks like a sausage pizza but it tasted like a taco. Kind of odd but my son loves it. Neither one of us finished it and he barely touched his peas. He was full after the salad and about 3/4 of the fiestada. I got through the salad, pears and peas and could barely eat 1/4 of the fiestada because I was so full. I also couldn’t finish the milk. It was a lot of food and my serving size appeared to be the same as his.

Interesting observations

I can usually tell if I had something with too many fake ingredients in it because I feel sluggish and bloated afterwards. I actually didn’t experience much of that at all after eating the school lunch.

About half the fifth grade kids (three classrooms of fifth graders) got a hot lunch, half brought their own but what was really interesting was how many of the hot lunch kids actually were eating the salad and the vegetable. So many of them had finished the fruit, salad and veggies yet left their fiestada half eaten. I watched one boy eating who had such a look on his face you would have thought the peas he was shoveling in were candy.

I left the school a little bit more comfortable with what my kids are eating when I am not around. I still wish that our country would make huge changes in our food supply, but I still felt like they are doing the best they can to provide nutritious food considering our federal government is nowhere near up to par with many of the other countries of the world who ban potentially dangerous ingredients. And in the end I also feel like my children are building the life skills that will serve them well when they are older and will be facing more difficult decisions than choosing what or where to eat.

The best is yet to come?

Next week I get to have hot lunch with my daughter.

On the menu:

Chicken nuggets
Tater tots
Baked Beans
Raspberry Sherbet
or Fruit plate

I just hope I can eat the chicken without making a face. I have to admit that I am not a fan of non-organic chicken thanks to a documentary I watched once.


  1. says

    I live in australia, and the majority of schools over here are strict on food. The lunch menu has every healthy food possible. Mid Morning snack HAS to be a fruit. And in some cases your not allowed anything that has chocolate in or nuts ( peanut butter, nutella etc) for the children who have allergies. Its interesting to see what is on offer at your school.I guess the only “bad” thing my kids school has is ice blocks for lunch. I just picture pure sugar and them last class being very hyperactive!

  2. says

    I am so glad you explained the ‘Fiestada’ … what a strange name for a decent looking item. I bet it would be easy to recreate at home, too!

    We send lunch every day – but like your kids, James has the option to eat lunch from the cafeteria. He’d rather just buy ice cream once a week, so that’s what I allow.

  3. says

    I wouldn’t mind allowing my son to get a lunch or 2 at school. But he has no desire too! I think he just doesn’t know how it works and is just afraid to try it out now? I did notice when I was there yesterday for a Breakfast with the Principal that they have a portable salad bar now at the school. I believe it’s new this year and I found that very encouraging! I’ll have to ask him about that and if he’s interested in using it.

  4. Robin (Masshole Mommy) says

    My kids buy lunch often. I think our school system goes out of their way to serve healthy food options and I really like the things on the menu.

  5. says

    I pack my kids’ lunches but they are by no means super healthy or organic. I just like to know what they are eating and our school lunches are expensive lol (I’m cheap…or poor…whatever. lol).

  6. says

    Reminds me a little of the taco pizza I loved in school, except the sausage pieces are bigger. My kids actually prefer to bring lunch from home. I was thinking I should do the lunch thing with my kids since I volunteer through lunch time anyway. Glad you survived! ;)

  7. says

    I think that is great your school participates in that. I’m very pleased with our school lunch menus, which were completely revamped. Now we have a our main meal; pizza, chicken patty, taco, rainbow trout, roasted chicken etc with all fruits veggies and choice of milk. For instance on pizza day (Wednesdays) they had green beans, fresh spinach and kiwi as their fruit veg options. Like you I give my children the choice. If kids don’t want the hot lunch they can get a PB&J or yogurt and salad. Lunches definitely have healthier option then they did when I was a child.

    • says

      If I could wave my magic wand, it would all be organic and locally sourced food. Maybe one day we will get there, but in the meantime I do think education about food is more important than restriction.

      • says

        I agree. I try to educate my entire family since I’ve learned so much in almost a year. We definitely aren’t all organic and GMO-free but one day I hope to be and one day I hope my kids choose healthier options. It is already working with Zoe who chooses fruit most of the time for her snacks. Just like all habits, teaching children healthy food habits will take time but by watching what we eat, what we choose what we cook, will one day instill the same habits so they choose healthy and not junk!

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