There will always be something nostalgic about the foods we ate as children in the school cafeteria. Memories of rows of collapsible tables, the murmurs of playground dramas buzzing in your ears and that glorious break from the school day to sit and eat your favorite lunch items are enough to get any former student craving cafeteria food, no matter their age.
Were you a pizza-person? Do you daydream of crispy chicken nuggets dipped in ketchup you pumped from a gallon-sized container? Does your salad not taste the same if it isn't topped with tangy vinaigrette and served in a paper cup?
Bob Mulvihill is owner of Kitchen Spaces in Des Moines, Iowa, a business that offers affordable commercial kitchens for rent along with a small space for classes, meetings and events. Inspired by nostalgia and a hankering for a childhood favorite, Mulvihill found a way to elevate his business and offer the community a taste of the past by adding a menu of his own to Kitchen Spaces: one that celebrates school lunches from his childhood.
"Thursdays aren't very busy at Kitchen Spaces so it [started as] a way to fill empty kitchen time and make money," says Mulvihill, "It was the pizza I was nostalgic for. I happened upon a cookbook [with old USDA school lunch recipes] and it was the first thing I searched for. I didn't expect it to be such a hit."
The cookbook Mulvihill "happened upon" was a simple PDF file of a 1988 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) cookbook with easy-to-follow steps for re-creating cafeteria-style meals. Mulvihill and his team were providing lunches for those affected by COVID and were in need of large-scale recipes, so the vintage collection was a perfect fit.
According to Jessica Bolger, communications contractor for the food and nutrition service of the USDA, the recipe book, the 1988 edition of Quantity Recipes for School Food Service, has been updated and re-named several times to reflect the latest science and dietary standards.
"In 1995 there was Tool Kit for Healthy School Meals and in 2006 there was USDA Recipes for Child Nutrition Programs and Schools," Bolger tells Yahoo Life. "And, a list of the recipes from 2006-2015 [can be found on the USDA website.]"
The version of the cookbook Mulvihill uses features recipes all made from scratch, just like the cafeteria food he remembers from his youth.
"I went to a small rural school with a tiny kitchen that had great food," says Mulvihill. "I remember the rectangle pizza well — it was everybody's favorite. It had ground beef or square chunks of pepperoni, depending on the year."
"In grade school, my memories of lunch were just fun," he continues. "We would get into trouble a lot for being too loud and then the lights would go off and the teachers and even the principal sometimes would yell at us ... we had a lot of good food though: chicken-fried steak, sloppy Joe's, weiner winks — I wish I had kept a school menu."
Mulvihill is not alone in vivid memories of the lunchroom that go beyond just the simplicity of the food on the plate: what people remember most about cafeteria dining is the atmosphere and the joy of a simpler time.
"I was so picky in elementary school and would always bring lunch except on Tuesdays, which was pasta day," shares Julia Vilmann, who lives in North Carolina. "You had a choice of sauce or butter and they always had Kraft parmesan cheese to put on top. I only liked plain pasta with cheese, so I got to special-order it totally plain, no butter."
"The table would have all the little styrofoam cups lined up, half marked 'S' [for sauce] and half marked 'B' [for butter] but then to the side was always mine, marked 'P,' Vilmann recalls. "Every Tuesday all the lunch ladies knew I was plain pasta girl."
Just like Vilmann's love of a specific brand of parmesan cheese, when it comes to getting the recreation of these dishes right, specific and sometimes non-traditional ingredients make all the difference: Ingredients like milk powder, a form of evaporated milk that has a longer shelf life, doesn't need refrigeration and is cheaper to ship compared to regular milk.
"There was a huge glut of milk and cheese powder in the ’80s," Mulvihill explains. "The federal government would buy dairy products at an above-market price to support dairy farmers which led to the huge inventory of milk and cheese powder [in school kitchens]."
"I think using it in recipes was a way to use up the backlog, add a cheap filler and make school food healthier," he adds.
Since the ’80s, the USDA has changed school lunch guidelines many times. An update shared by the organization in February 2022 reports that post-pandemic, the goal of the USDA is to help schools build better school lunch programs with new nutritional standards for students. Changes have been made to things like the types of milk offered in schools, a push for more whole grain ingredients and an upcoming decrease in the amount of sodium that can be in school lunches. This is the first time the guidelines have been updated since 2012.
"Nutritious school meals give America's children the foundation for successful healthy lives," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says in the report, adding that USDA research shows that most school-aged children receive their healthiest meals of the day at school.
While the price of milk powder has risen over the years, Mulvihill swears it's a necessity for his copycat pizza, explaining the milk powder helps to give the pizza that specific "cardboard-like taste" kids used to complain about but now fondly remember.
Currently, pizza is the star of the school lunch-style show at Kitchen Spaces, along with cake made from the same ’80s cookbook, cinnamon rolls and cookies from frozen dough. As the nostalgia-inducing offerings have become more popular, Mulvihill has made plans to play with other lunchroom and childhood favorites.
"The menu of food we make rotates," he explains. "For March we have St. Patrick's Day food, then we will go back to pizza, then onto the next thing — the original recipe of McDonald's fries. McDonald's changed how their fries were cooked in 1990, losing much of the golden flavor so we are going to try bringing that taste back."
If you're craving a square slice of cardboard pizza of your own but don't live in Des Moines, Mulvihill shares tips for bringing school lunches to life in your own kitchen.
"There are lots of videos for them on YouTube that are good," he says, recommending an All Recipes video short that walks through a school pizza recipe. "The pourable crust (crust you pour from a mixing bowl and spread across a baking sheet) is the most authentic."
Mulvihill urges at-home chefs to follow the recipe without variation and shares some tips to get it just right the first time.
"Make sure crust is spread evenly and don't allow it to get too thick in the middle," he says. "It's a two-part process, cook crust then cook the rest of the pizza."
"For the sauce, use minced or onion powder when it calls for dehydrated onions," he adds. "The sauce tastes like it needs sugar compared to your usual pizza sauce but don't be tempted to add it. If you're seeking authenticity, it tastes fine without it."
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