A Bite of School Lunch History

An image from early 1900’s of children eating school lunch in Britain 

As long as children have attended school farther than their little legs could carry them home for a mid day meal, the school lunch has existed.

The quality and quantity of lunches has varied over the years and both creativity and lack of creativity have made those lunches memorable for most school children.

When I asked Mary, aged 88, to remember her school lunches, she thought for a while. She remembered the one room schoolhouse in Nova Scotia with the pot bellied wood stove to keep them warm in the winter.

“We carried a glass bottle of stew and there would be a pot of water warming on the stove where we could heat our lunch.” She went on to explain that she also had a memory of sandwiches.

“Ours were made from home-baked bread and I was jealous of my cousin Shirley who had sandwiches made from store bought bread.”

She remembered her green metal lunch box with the two handles on top.

Children sometimes brought ingredients for a stew from home and the teacher would put them all in a pot to simmer while teaching.

I remember my school lunches from the 1960’s of bologna or peanut butter and jam sandwiches with big clumps of hard butter. An apple, and a cookie rounded out those lunches packed in waxed paper, neatly folded on the top and put in a brown lunch bag.

In the new millennium, lunches have changed in North America, and vary from ready prepared foods to a movement towards very carefully made, nutritious meals.

Lunch boxes are covered with images of cartoon images that promote popular culture.


School Lunch as a status symbol

Repeatedly, when I asked others about what they ate for school lunches, the topic of “what others ate,” was raised.

Kris, a friend of German background was sent to school with liverwurst and beetroot sandwiches on brown bread. She remembers being mocked by the others who had white bread, with peanut butter or cheese slices on their sandwiches.

Helen, raised in Prince Edward Island, came from a large family and remembers being teased for bringing sardine sandwiches for lunch.

“Beans” was the nickname for a little guy who simply brought a can of beans to school and ate it cold from the can.

Children have a long tradition of trading food. It seems that “The grass is always greener on the other side of the street,” applies to school lunches as well.

It has long been a childhood custom to hide food that embarrasses or throw it in the garbage.

In the book “Home Baking” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, school lunch bread is mentioned. The cylindrical loaves baked in apple juice cans were the most frequently cooked loaves by the author’s mother.

“They were our regular sandwich bread. While other kids had peanut butter and jam sandwiches made with slices of soft “boughten” bread, we had thicker round sandwiches filled with peanut butter, lettuce, and mayonnaise, or with cheese and lettuce. The firm, moist even crumb of my mother’s bread held its own and never softened into sludge or mush. At the time, we wished we had white bread sandwiches like everyone else. Only later did we realize how lucky we were.”         

Kids from a school on Kingston Rd. near Highland Creek (in Toronto, Ontario) eat lunch in 1908 

Lobster for Lunch? 

There was a time on the east coast of both Canada and the United States when lobster was so plentiful that it was often the cheapest meat available. The children who took lobster and crab meat in their rolls and sandwiches were considered to be “too poor” to have a sandwich made with bologna or others fillings. Often the lobsters had washed ashore, offering a different taste from our live cooked luxury lobster now.

Residential Schools in Canada

Much has been written about the food served to the children in the residential schools for our indigenous children. From 1880 to 1996, many indigenous children were required to attend residential schools. Although the care they received varied, much evidence indicates that the children were malnourished, poorly fed and some children were the subjects of dietary experiments. Many adults raised in residential schools, have reported accounts of hunger, and the poor quality and monotony of the food they were served.

The American Woman’s Cookbook- The Lunch Box chapter 

An entire chapter is devoted to The Lunch Box in the American Women’s Cookbook, first published in 1938. This cookbook demonstrates the move towards a more scientific approach to cooking. Although this chapter is not focused only on school lunches, it demonstrates what was considered to be a nutritious and interesting boxed lunch.

The opening sentence for the chapter, The Lunch Box states: “As much care is needed in selecting and preparing the food for the lunch box as for the other meals served to the family.”

Menu Suggestions include the following:

Peanut Butter , Bacon and Lettuce Sandwiches,  Cauliflowerlets,  Carrot Sticks,                 Hard Cooked Egg,  Gingerbread,  Grapes,  Milk

Oven Baked Beans, Catchup,  Boston Brown Bread Sandwiches with Cream Cheese Filling , Cole Slaw, Applesauce, Milk

In a paragraph about packing the lunch it is suggested that food should all be wrapped separately in waxed paper and if possible packed in the order that the food will be eaten. Those were examples of lunches prepared with time and care.

School Lunches in other countries

There are countries that have a tradition of including the noon meal as part of the school day. Countries such as India, England, France and Finland have a history of providing lunch programs for all school children. Since 1879, all children in France, have been fed a hot meal for lunch that includes foods designed to give them an appreciation of traditional foods and proper table manners. In Finland, school lunch for all children has been provided since 1947 and they have a formula for plating the food that states that one half of the dish must be filled with vegetables, one quarter a starch and one quarter a meat or protein replacement. In many ways feeding the children together ensures uniform nutrition for at least one meal a day, and takes away the status in foods for children, introducing them to foods they may otherwise never try.

England has had lunch programs for many years. Ruth, who was raised in England remembers as a young child, walking 10 minutes from her school to a large dining room to eat a hot lunch. She has less than enthusiastic memories of her boarding school lunches from the time she was eleven, consisting of such food as fish, potatoes, peas, and a pudding.

An Old Green Lunch Pail

In my workshop is a small green metal lunch pail with two top handles. It is full of nails and screws that date back to the 1940’s. That must have been my mother’s green lunch pail. I think of all the meals packed by the loving hands of my grandmother. Since writing these words on my blog, I plan to retrieve that lunch pail, empty the nails, wash off the dirt. The chipped paint I will leave as a reminder of the many lunches that travelled in that little box.

It will now be used as a lunch pail again.








Sherbrooke Village – N.S. Jailhouse dining.

I was visiting Historic Sherbrooke Village in Nova Scotia to experience tastes of the past, so imagine my surprise when I was led to the town jailhouse for a cooking experience.


We walked from the Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia of today and into yesteryear almost without noticing. Part of the village has been spared modernization and Historic Sherbrooke Village has been created. Man has lived on this land along the St. Mary’s River since our Mi’kmaq nation; and was also settled by the French and eventually by the English who named the town Sherbrooke in 1815.

Sherbrooke Village 

In 1969, the Sherbrooke Village restoration project and part of the village was preserved to give us all the privilege of visiting the town as though it were the 1860’s.  Those were the days of sailing ships trading between Britain and the West Indies as well as farming, fishing, cutting and milling timber. In 1861, a gold rush hit the area and the opening of 19 mining companies caused a boom.

There are 80 buildings in the historic part of the village, with 25 open to visitors. It takes little imagination to return to history, as the costumed visitors and interpretive staff bring the village to life. The Hands on History program allows visitors of all ages to wear clothing like those of the 1860’s while visiting Sherbrooke. Hundreds of costumes are available in all sizes to be worn by the visitors. The class system was very much evident in the clothing style differences.

The author dressed for the Hands on History program by Durba Smith and Phyllis Jack


“It feels different, the minute you put the big hooped dress on,” said one visitor participating in the program. As I put on my costume, I immediately stepped into history.

Visitors can explore the blacksmith and printing shop, drug store, clothier, pottery studio, general store, woodworking shop and even an Ambrotype photography studio. Farm animals, gardens and the sawmill help us to learn about how the townsfolk  provided for each other.


The Jailhouse in Sherbrooke from the 1800’s to 1968

Karen Pye played the part of the jailer’s wife the day I visited the jailhouse in my big hooped skirt. She was busy cooking cinnamon buns and taught me about the jailer’s family and the interesting house that was used as a jail in Sherbrooke until 1968. From the outside the large, frame house looked like any other. Some bedrooms were turned into cells, barred windows and all, but the family lived in the same house as the prisoners. Many of those spending time behind bars were mischief makers who had ridden their horses through the town or were found drunk in the ditch. This was a Temperance town and alcohol use was not looked upon kindly. The jailer was paid a meagre salary so earned extra cash by working at the saw mill, gold mine or lumber camp. As well as cooking for the prisoners and her family, the jailer’s wife would sew to earn an extra income. The family and prisoners ate the same food prepared in the kitchen by the jailer’s wife.

The jailer’s diet back in the 1860’s consisted of such food as bread, stews, fish, soups, hodge podge (a mixture of garden vegetables cooked with cream) and cooked garden vegetables.  Sugar and molasses cookies, ginger cake and occasionally cinnamon buns are examples of the sweets served at the jailer’s home. Of course, preserves were made to allow fruit and vegetables to be used year round.

Karen whipped up the cinammon buns with the ease of an expert. As she mixed, she recited the amounts, although I know the jailer’s wife of the past was using tea cups to measure and could do it with her eyes closed.

“Measure 4 cups of flour, and mix in 2/3 of a cup of shortening with two knives,” Karen told me while demonstrating. She added a dash of salt, 2 fresh eggs and 1 cup of buttermilk, beating until  the dough was smooth.  Of course the cast iron wood stove was heating all the while. The jailer’s wife would have been proud of her stove.

When all of the ingredients were beaten to a smooth consistency, she would pat the dough into a square and use her rolling pin to even the top. She covered the whole surface with butter that she had churned the day before, sprinkled the surface with brown sugar and topped it all with cinnamon. Karen then rolled the dough up lengthwise and ended up with a long roll. She carefully cut pieces and placed each one on a baking sheet.

“How do you know the temperature of the oven?” I asked her. She told me that she would put her hand inside the oven and if she could hold it there and count slowly to seven it would be the right temperature for cinnamon buns. A slightly lower temperature was used for bread and she could regulate the temperature by opening the oven door a crack.

While the buns were spreading their irresistible odour throughout the house, we greeted visitors with Scotch cakes. Later Karen was busy making butter. She explained that the once the milk and cream were separated, the cream was skimmed off the top and put in a butter churner. Family members often took turns beating the cream to butter with the wooden paddle that was pushed up and down.

Karen Pye Churning Butter 

Not a bad deal being a lawbreaker in the 1860’s with tastes that came from that kitchen.

After all the work at the jailhouse, I went down to the Sherbrooke Village Tea Room for a lunch reminiscent of the meals that would have been served in the past. Fish cakes, baked beans, home baked bread, gingerbread, and many more traditional dishes were served. Afternoon tea is also served in the tea room. Although the eatery is now modernized inside, an old photo shows that building was once a hotel and restaurant and it looked much the same in days of old. To bring the tastes home to cook in my kitchen, I picked up a collection of hand printed recipes held together by a string. The print shop on site prints each page by hand and they are sold at the gift shop.

Nova Scotia’s Historic Sherbrooke remains as a living piece of history – a gift so we will all remember how much work went into cooking and living in the past.

For information-www.sherbrookevillage.novascotia.ca


The Sherbrooke Hotel – then and now, tasty, home cooked meals are served reminding us of tastes of the past  



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