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.









One thought on “A Bite of School Lunch History

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  1. Love the story about Mary’s lunch.I ate my lunch in that same little school in Truemanville. Our lunch always consisted of a sandwich-don’t remember any hot food at lunch. My bread was “bought” and my friend Dorothy had “home made”. I bet Shirley had wished for home made like I did:) Aren’t we funny creatures always “wanting what is not”.


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