There will always be something nostalgic about the foods we ate as kids in the school cafeteria. The memories of rows of folding tables, the whispers of playground drama buzzing in your ears, and that glorious break from the school day to sit down and eat your favorite lunch items are enough to satisfy any craving old student. of cafeteria food, regardless of age.
Were you a pizza maker? Do you dream of crispy chicken nuggets dipped in ketchup that you pumped into a gallon-sized container? Doesn’t your salad taste the same if it’s not drizzled with a tangy dressing and served in a paper cup?
Bob Mulvihill owns Kitchen Spaces in Des Moines, Iowa, a company that offers affordable commercial kitchens for rent as well as a small space for classes, meetings and events. Inspired by nostalgia and a longing for a childhood favourite, Mulvihill found a way to elevate his business and give the community a taste of the past by adding his own menu to Kitchen Spaces: a menu that celebrates the school lunches of his childhood.
“Thursdays aren’t very busy at Kitchen Spaces, so [started as] a way to fill empty kitchen time and earn money,” says Mulvihill, “it was the pizza I was nostalgic about. I came across a cookbook [with old USDA school lunch recipes] and that’s the first thing I looked for. I didn’t expect it to be such a success.”
The Mulvihill cookbook “has arrived” was a simple PDF of a 1988 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) cookbook with easy-to-follow steps for recreating cafeteria-style meals. Mulvihill and his team were providing lunches to people affected by COVID and needed recipes at scale, so the vintage collection was a perfect fit.
According to Jessica Bolger, communications contractor for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, the cookbook, the 1988 edition of Quantity recipes for school catering, has been updated and renamed several times to reflect the latest scientific and dietary standards.
“In 1995 there was Healthy School Meals Toolkit and in 2006 there was USDA Recipes for Child Nutrition Programs and Schools,” Bolger tells Yahoo Life. “And, a list of recipes from 2006-2015 [can be found on the USDA website.]”
The version of the cookbook that Mulvihill uses features ready-made recipes from scratch, much like the cafeteria food he remembers from his youth.
“I went to a small rural school with a small kitchen where the food was very good,” says Mulvihill. “I remember the rectangular pizza well, it was everyone’s favourite. It contained ground beef or square pieces of pepperoni, depending on the year. »
“In elementary school, my lunch memories were just fun,” he continues. “We had a lot of problems because we were too loud and then the lights would go out and the teachers and even the principal would sometimes yell at us…we had a lot of good food though: chicken fried steak, sloppy Joe’s, Weiner does a wink – I wish I had kept a school menu.”
Mulvihill isn’t alone in having vivid memories of the dining room that go beyond the simplicity of the food on the plate: What people remember most about cafeteria meals is the atmosphere and the joy of a simpler moment.
“I was so picky in elementary school and always brought lunch except Tuesday, 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 the plain pasta with cheese so I had to order it all plain, no butter .”
“The table would have all the little polystyrene cups lined up, half marked ‘S’ [for sauce] and half marked ‘B’ [for butter] but next to it was always mine, marked “P,” recalls Vilmann. “Every Tuesday, all the ladies at lunch knew I was a simple pasta girl.”
Much like Vilmann’s love for a specific brand of Parmesan cheese, when it comes to recreating these dishes correctly, specific and sometimes non-traditional ingredients make all the difference: ingredients like powdered milk, a form of milk evaporated which has a longer shelf life, does not need refrigeration and is cheaper to ship than regular milk.
“There was a huge glut of milk and cheese powder in the 80s,” says Mulvihill. “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 deplete the backlog, add cheap filler, and make school food healthier,” he adds.
Since the 1980s, the USDA has repeatedly changed school lunch guidelines. An update shared by the organization in February 2022 reports that post-pandemic, the USDA’s goal is to help schools develop better school lunch programs with new nutrition 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 American children the foundation for a healthy and successful life,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the report, adding that USDA research shows that most children in school-age children receive their healthiest meals of the day at school.
While the price of powdered milk has risen over the years, Mulvihill swears it’s a necessity for his hearty pizza, explaining that powdered milk helps give pizza that specific “cardboard taste” that children complained but remembered fondly now.
Currently, pizza is the star of the school lunch-style show at Kitchen Spaces, with cakes made from the same ’80s cookbook, cinnamon rolls and cookies made from frozen dough. As nostalgic offerings have become more popular, Mulvihill has planned to play around with other dining room and childhood favorites.
“The menu of dishes we prepare rotates,” he explains. “For March we have food for St. Patrick’s Day, then we’ll be back to pizza, then to the next thing – the original McDonald’s fries recipe. McDonald’s changed the way their fries were cooked in 1990, losing a lot of the golden flavor so we’ll try to bring that flavor back.”
If you’re craving a square slice of cardboard pizza but don’t live in Des Moines, Mulvihill shares tips for bringing school lunches to life in your own kitchen.
“There are a lot of videos for them on YouTube that are good,” he says, recommending an All Recipes short video that features a school pizza recipe. “Pouring crust (crust you pour out of a mixing bowl and spread on a baking sheet) is the most authentic.”
Mulvihill urges home chefs to follow the recipe without variation and shares some tips for getting it right the first time.
“Make sure the crust is evenly distributed and don’t let it get too thick in the middle,” he says. “It’s a two-part process, bake the crust and then bake the rest of the pizza.”
“For the sauce, use minced or powdered onion when you need dehydrated onions,” he adds. “The sauce tastes like it needs more sugar than your regular pizza sauce, but don’t be tempted to add any. If you’re looking for authenticity, it tastes good without it.”
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