We all know the iconic American school lunch: a classic white-bread sandwich, a slice of pizza, a PB&J, or even an enviable Lunchables packed alongside an exciting snack (Doritos or Gushers?) and a tasty beverage (maybe a Capri Sun or Hi-C). But some of us, especially those with immigrant parents, also know that school lunches can include cultural cuisines — much to the "curiosity" of our classmates.
To start a conversation around "cultural" school lunches, how our peers' reactions affected us, and the mainstream popularity of these foods today, I asked members of the BuzzFeed Community to share their school lunch experience and current feelings about that same dish, including whether or not they (would) pack it for their child's lunch. Here's what they said:
1."I'm half Japanese, and I remember my dad making me ramen for lunch. He'd make the broth early in the morning and add the noodles, char siu, green onions, fish cakes, etc., into a thermos. When I'd open it for lunch, my classmates would always comment or ask, 'What's that smell?' The first few times, I was embarrassed. But when lunch was that good, I stopped caring. It's funny how trendy ramen is now!"
2."Slavic immigrant kid here. My mom was one of the OG organic folk. As an immigrant family, we ate healthy, though on a budget. I vividly remember being embarrassed and borderline jealous of the American kids with brand-name snacks, like Oreos or PB&Js on Wonder Bread. Buying lunch? Almost unheard of. Maybe once per term, we were allowed to buy a pizza. I ended up befriending mostly other immigrant students — especially Asians — and learned I was one of the lucky, culture-appreciating kids with brave taste buds. I got to trade small bits and pieces of my lunches for theirs, and we all got to experience wild and daring flavors, which translated to adulthood."
"If I could go back, I'd probably slap my younger self upside the head for complaining, respectfully. 😂"
3."My mother, a native of France, lived through World War II and Nazi occupation, so food was precious to her. She was also a great cook! Throughout fifth and sixth grade, my classmates attempted to bully me for my lunch. My mother told me they were jealous and had never starved, and I became angry at them. One day, I brought kidney stew for lunch, and they reported me for 'lying' about my lunch and 'trying to gross everyone out.' I was sent to the principal, who called my mother. We lived across the street from the school, so she was in the principal's office in five minutes. She then coldly and loudly explained that I was eating leftover kidney stew from the previous evening and did not lie."
4."I'm South Indian, so I eat a lot of really delicious foods that some people consider weird. Once, in sixth grade, I sat with a group of friends while eating my favorite food: fried plantains and onions with rice. One boy asked me what I was eating, and since I didn't know what plantains were, I told him I was eating fried bananas with onions (that's what it looked like to me). He scrunched his nose and looked me up and down disapprovingly. My heart broke that day. I hated that someone thought my favorite dish was something to be disgusted by. I never told my family, but I never did take that dish to school again."
5."I'm of Japanese descent, and kids were always disgusted by sushi and the fact that I ate raw fish. However, when I was in high school — as if by magic — sushi and sashimi suddenly became cool. I still find it bizarre that a food everyone made fun of when I was younger is so popular now, but I wouldn't hesitate to pack traditional foods (Japanese or any other) for my child's lunch."
6."From kindergarten to seventh grade, my abuela packed my lunch. (My family is from Spain and Cuba.) While most of my meals weren't outrageous, they weren't the regular PB&J sandwiches or Lunchables. There was one thing, though, that was like an orange soup. Some sort of animal fat made it greasy. I can't remember much about it except that it was orange from coagulated fats, smelled strong, and tasted amazing. Of course, I didn't win any friends by opening a unicorn Lisa Frank thermos full of this pungent, strange soup. I've begged my mom to help me figure it out, but we don't know what it was. I would give anything to taste Abuela's cooking one more day."
"I don't have kids, so it's easy for me to be an armchair quarterback, but I think food diversity is great. I also think there's a lot of processed food out there. I can't judge anyone who packs that for their kids; I don't know their circumstances.
"But if I had the opportunity, I would continue sharing different foods. Food is a human necessity, and it's a great way to learn about one another. I also loved visiting my friends' houses and trying foods from their cultures. I still make the bitter melon soup my Taiwanese friend's mom made when it was hot outside, and my Arab friend brings over a gorgeous, spiced rice-and-lamb dish every Nochebuena."
7."I'm Jewish, and my family kept kosher for Passover, meaning that most 'normal' foods were off-limits for that week. Now, I've always loved matzo ball soup — it's a traditional Passover dish — and in second grade, I was excited to have packed some in a thermos to eat at school. But when I started eating it, my tablemates remarked that it looked gross and I was eating mush. For the rest of that week, I told my mom I only wanted to have matzo cracker sandwiches, but I didn't tell her why."
8."I transferred from a diverse school with a prominent Vietnamese population to a school where my sisters and I were the only Asian people. The first time I brought Vietnamese food (bánh giò, a steamed rice cake with fish sauce) for lunch, kids gagged and said I was eating 'dog meat.' It made me realize that blending in as much as possible was the only way to survive, so I began to reject everything that represented my Vietnamese identity. I spoke less Vietnamese at home and grew embarrassed by my culture. My family was poor, so buying two different types of food wasn't always an option. Still, whenever she could, my mom would get us sandwiches and Lunchables for lunch; if she couldn't, she'd have us come home during lunch so we wouldn't have to endure the teasing. However, I must say that going home for lunch was my favorite; I could enjoy delicious, smelly Vietnamese foods, including my favorite dish, thịt hho mắm ruốc (pork cooked in shrimp paste)."
9."When I was 4, my family moved from Japan to the US, and my elementary school only had a handful of Asian students. My mom would pack me rice balls with kelp, pickled plum, or dried fish flakes wrapped with nori (seaweed) for lunch. I loved it, but my classmates always said, 'Ew, you eat seaweed,' 'That smells/looks weird,' or 'Are you eating sushi?' Even the lunch mom (a supervising adult) would make comments. It was especially hurtful that she let the other kids bully me. I'd try to hide my food in my lunch bag and eat little pieces so no one would see, but kids would physically take my lunch out to show everyone. After I told my mom what was happening, she would pack me sandwiches, but I was a picky eater. I didn't like sandwiches, so most days, I just didn't eat until I got home."
10."I am Indian and grew up in a largely white, Southern town. I was always made fun of in elementary school for eating curry and roti (flatbread) for lunch; some people even held their noses. In fifth grade, a group of girls spread a rumor that I kissed a boy who said I 'tasted like curry.' (Lilly, if you're reading this, fuck you.) It was especially untrue because I grew up with strict parents and would never have kissed anyone. Anyway, I started packing my own lunch — mostly sandwiches and 'American' stuff — after that. Then, in eighth grade, I moved to a town with a large Indian population. That's when I realized it's OK to be proud of my identity; I didn't have to hide my 'Indianness' as I always wanted to in my old town. I still never brought curry to school, but I did begin to heal."
11."Growing up, I had many different food experiences. My dad is Hawaiian and my mom is white; they met in Korea. I thought everyone ate Spam, kimchi, sushi, etc. Now, I went to a predominantly white elementary school. No one really sat with me at lunch — I was an odd kid — so there was no one around to comment on my food. However, we had to bring in a family dish for the class during a unit on different cultures in third grade. I asked my mom to make Korean kimbap (rice, vegetables, egg, and fish or meat wrapped in seaweed). As it turned out, the differences between these 'family dishes' meant seeing whose mom used cream of celery soup in their tuna noodle casserole and whose used cream of mushroom. Needless to say, it went over terribly when my mom brought in kimbap. The kids were repulsed; even the teacher couldn't hide her disgust. I felt terrible. My mom worked hard to make all the ingredients and spent a lot of time putting it together, for no one to eat it."
12."I come from an Italian American family and went to elementary school in the '60s. Back then, all the kids ate bologna sandwiches on white bread. My mom packed me capocollo or Calabrese salami on Italian bread. All the kids were like, 'What's that?' Of course, I told my family, and they all laughed."
13."I was born in Chile, where avocados are a major export and eaten daily. My loving mother would pack me avocado sandwiches for lunch, and the look on the other kids' faces when they saw my green sandwich was utter disgust. (Mind you, this was in the early to mid-'90s, so avocado toast was not yet a thing.) Most kids didn't even know what an avocado was then. Now I'm sure many of those same kids are taking pics of their $17 avocado toast at brunch and posting them online. It's trendy. Go figure."
"That pretty much goes for everything you ever got teased for. Wait long enough, and it'll be cool."
14."My parents are both from Lebanon, and we have a dish called kousa. It's stuffed squash with rice, meat, and pine nuts. My mom packed me kousa and pita bread for lunch in third grade, and I still remember kids saying, 'Oh my gosh! Ew! What is that? Looks gross!' I didn't tell my family, but I did feel hit for being different from the rest. However, I did finish my lunch!"
15."My mother is from Italy and always made me an antipasto for lunch. It was soppressata, capocollo, prosciutto, mozzarella fresca, peppers, artichoke hearts, Castelvetrano olives, roasted tomatoes and peppers, marinated mushrooms, and oil and vinegar. As soon as you opened the container, you could smell it from 20 feet away. The kids at school would comment on being able to smell the vinegar, but it didn't impact me much."
"I would pack it for my son if he were old enough to attend school."
16."I grew up in California, but the mentality and level of acceptance are different now from what they were back then. My worst experience was on a public bus, not at school. My grandmother had bottled jars of her homemade miso — something really laborious to do. While on the bus, this homeless dude walked away, saying he doesn't sit next to people 'who carry shit.' It took a long time for me to process that. I obviously didn't tell my grandmother what he said, but it's hurtful, and I still feel angry."
"I packed my kid different ethnic lunches, including Mexican, Italian, Thai, and Korean. We still live in California, and I am so glad he grew up in a time that was culturally and socially different from mine."
17."Throughout elementary school, my Bosnian mom packed me cabbage rolls for lunch. They were usually leftovers from a big dinner party, meaning I'd have them for at least a week. I love cabbage rolls, but I remember being mortified when opening my lunch box. I went to an ethnically diverse school, but kids would still point and laugh. Anytime I knew I had cabbage rolls for lunch, I ate alone outside. I'm from Canada, so that meant a lot of cold winter lunches on my lonesome."
18."My parents are from Calabria, Italy. Every year, we would make homemade soppressata and sausage. It was a big treat for me, and my mother would occasionally make me a sandwich for lunch. One day, a classmate asked me what I was eating. I told him it was salami. He responded, 'That doesn't look like any salami I've ever seen.' I was deeply hurt and embarrassed; that may have been the last time I asked my mom for a soppressata lunch. It's important to remember that I went to a Catholic school in the '80s; most of the kids were upper middle class and brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch."
"In addition, most supermarkets didn't have the 'ethnic variety' we have today."
19."I was in elementary school when I was first criticized for my lunch: Italian wedding soup! My mother made the best Italian wedding soup, with teeny, tiny meatballs. A classmate who sat near me started going on about the smell and the meatballs. I clearly remember his words: 'Your lunch smells like dog food!' I remember his name, too. This occurred in the '50s. At first I felt bad about my lunch, but after telling my mom, who reassured me, I didn't care. He was of Irish descent and always stuffed potato chips into his pickle-and-cheese sandwiches on white bread during lunch."
Did any of these stories resonate with you? What did you normally eat for lunch during school? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
Note: Some responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.