Nostalgic School Cafeteria Foods Every Southerner Remembers

School Lunch Tray
Photo: Getty Image / kcline

There are two types of people in the world. There are those who spent their school years eating lunches packed from home (picky eaters with no sense of adventure, if you ask me) and those who bravely spun the roulette wheel of cafeteria food. As a 13-year school lunch veteran, checking the printed lunch menu on our refrigerator door was a nightly ritual I relished almost as much as laying my outfit out before bed.

Though I sometimes envied the Lunchables, snack-size chip bags, and cut strawberries wielded by the lunchbox and paper bag crowd and there were certainly more misses than hits when it came to my school cafeteria's menu, it was all worth it for those few special jackpots. Square pizza, chicken nuggets, little cups of vanilla ice cream—these are the meals of my childhood and the stuff of pure nostalgia. Keep reading for 12 beloved Southern school lunch items we still crave today.

01 of 12

Ice Cream Sandwiches

Ice Cream Sandwich
Getty Images / Jamie Grill

You can't beat the classic pairing of vanilla ice cream and melt-in-your mouth chocolate biscuit cookies. At my elementary school, ice cream sandwiches were a luxury only to be enjoyed on our weekly "treat days." Nine times out of ten, my treat of choice was an ice cream sandwich.

02 of 12

Strawberry Milk

Strawberry Milk
Getty Images / Jamie Grill

Tiny cartons filled with bubblegum pink strawberry milk will forever be a calling card for school lunches. Did it taste like strawberries? No. Did we still love it? You better believe it. Plus, unlike regular and chocolate milk, it was nearly impossible to find in grocery stores, which only added to the appeal.

03 of 12

Coca-Cola Cake

Peanut-Cola Cake
Photo: Ian Bagwell; Prop Styling: Annette Joseph; Food Styling: Cynthia Groseclose

Is there anything more Southern than a slice of chocolatey Coca-Cola cake? The origins of the tasty treat are a little murky, but the cake's position at the top of our cafeteria dessert pyramid is certainly not.

04 of 12

Rectangle Pizza

School Lunch Tray Pizza
Getty Images / EzumeImages

The shape of the pizza is important here. Not only was it a novelty, but rectangle pizza fit perfectly into the entrée compartment of our segmented school lunch trays. Even if the sauce did taste a little like ketchup, we still rejoiced when pizza Fridays came around each week.

05 of 12


Getty Images / Juanmonino

No taste is more indicative of my formative years than the cheesy, meaty crunch of a Crispito. Akin to a taquito, rolled taco, or flauta, the Crispito consists of a flour tortilla filled with ground beef, then deep fried until crispy, greasy, and the perfect shade of bright orange. The delicacy is so revered in at schools across Alabama that when an ingredient shortage caused Tyson to stop producing the item in 2021, the beloved dish began trending on social media. Lucky for future generations of Southerners, Crispitos made a triumphant return to lunch trays across the state in early 2022.

06 of 12

Ice Cream Cups with Wooden Spoons

Wooden Ice Cream Spoon
Amazon / Gmark

Ice cream plays second fiddle to the utensil you use to eat it in this lunchroom favorite. There's truly nothing like licking that paper lid, then shoveling that tiny tongue depressor into a child-sized serving of vanilla or chocolate ice cream.

07 of 12

Corn Dogs

Corn dogs
Getty Images / EasyBuy4u

Like the Coca-Cola cake, there's some discussion as to whether the corn dog originated in the South. Some contend that it got its start at the Texas State Fair in 1942, while others claim Springfield, Illinois is its birthplace. Either way, we love anything deep-fried and cornbread battered. Getting to eat something on a stick was also a draw.

08 of 12


Courtesy of Yoo-hoo

Yoo-hoo may have gotten its start in New Jersey, but there's no denying Southerners affinity for the nostalgic chocolate drink. Essentially a better version of chocolate milk (that doesn't have to stay refrigerated), Yoo-hoos are a lunchroom favorite. Bonus points if your cafeteria carried them in bottles, not boxes, so you got to hear the infamous pop when unscrewing the cap!

09 of 12

Country-Fried Steak

Country Fried Steak
Southern Living

Served with mashed potatoes and drowned in brown gravy, country-fried steak is a certified Southern comfort food our cafeterias were all about. The accompaniment of canned green beans may not have been our first choice, but it was a small sacrifice for crunchy steak and creamy potatoes.

10 of 12

Taco Salad

Taco Salad
Getty Images / RichLegg

This lunch looked a little different depending on your school district. Whether the base was tortilla chips, Fritos, or a crunchy taco bowl, we loved the customizable component of Taco Salad Day. The yellow-orange nacho ballpark cheese was also a hit.

11 of 12

Italian Dunkers

Cheese breadsticks
Getty Images / StephanieFrey

Also known as pizza sticks, it felt sinfully good to eat the equivalent of cheesy bread as a main course at lunch. Ours were served with a side of marinara and stuffed with ooey, gooey, cheese pull-perfect mozzarella.

12 of 12

Fried Okra

Fried okra
Getty Images / CherylEDavis

It's common knowledge that Southerners have their own definition of the term "vegetable." As a result, fried okra was a regular suspect in school cafeterias. OK, so it wasn't always exactly crispy or golden brown, but we'd take it any day over lifeless boiled broccoli or steamed carrots.

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