But what if people with serious kitchen cred got involved? Could those sad school lunches be turned into happy meals? To find out we invited chefs around the country to tell us what school cafeteria dishes they dreaded most as a kid. Then we asked how they'd turn those dreadful dishes into tasty treats.
Here are some of their meal makeovers.
— PIZZA THE ACTION
Quite a few chefs remember getting poor pie — unpleasantly thick crusts, tasteless cheese, you name it, they ate it. Damon Hall, chef at MoMo's, a popular hangout across from AT&T Park in San Francisco, remembers getting pizza "served atop some sort of facsimile-type bread with a ketchup-style pizza sauce, cheese left over from the war to end all wars and square pepperoni."
But with the wood-burning oven at MoMos, Hall can more than banish the ghosts of pizzas past with a pepperoni pie that starts with a freshly made crust and is topped with tomatoes (fresh) and cheese (also fresh), as well as oregano, red pepper flakes and other seasonings to kick up the taste.
— GRILL 'N THRILL
Danny Bortnick, executive chef at Firefly in Washington, D.C., used to take a sack lunch made by his mom with a sandwich of American cheese, butter and white bread. Not the most exciting selection. That was then. This is now. The sandwich has inspired a lunch item now on the menu at Firefly — the Cadillac Grilled. This grilled cheese is made with Gruyere, cheddar, bechamel sauce and garlic herb butter.
— SALISBURY STEAK GETS JAKE
Jason Berthold, executive chef and partner in San Francisco's RN74 restaurant, grew up in Michigan and remembers "many terrible school lunches." But it was the Salisbury steak that stood out. "I wanted to like it so badly because it seemed like hamburger covered in gravy, but the taste and texture of everything was completely repulsive," he said.
For a redo, he'd stay with the original concept, but introduce a few touches to add flavour. And he'd definitely use all fresh ingredients.
His recipe starts with fresh ground beef and adds minced shallots and garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard, along with egg, fresh thyme and sage, and salt and pepper. For the gravy, he'd throw in some thinly sliced cremini mushrooms and onions with more fresh herbs and seasonings held together with good beef stock.
The patties would get a quick grilling over high heat to give them a layer of smoky flavour, then would finish cooking while simmering in the gravy. Add mashed potatoes or buttered noodles and — boom! — one gastronomic nightmare eradicated.
— SPIFFY SLOPPY JOES
Roger Waysok, executive chef at South Water Kitchen in Chicago, remembers the sloppy Joes served at his school. And not in a good way. The meat sandwiches came on buns that were more sponge than bread, yet they still couldn't absorb the volume of grease that leaked out of the flavourless meat.
His version is made with ground venison and is served with maple pecan sweet potato croquettes, a huge improvement over the soggy taters served in school. The meat is cooked with caramelized onions and fresh cherries then tossed with homemade barbecue sauce. The leaner meat has less fat and more flavour, so it needs less sauce, making it less sloppy. Top with shaved red cabbage and, voila!
— A GOOD EGG
Daniel Holzman, executive chef and co-owner of The Meatball Shop restaurants in New York City and coauthor of "The Meatball Shop Cookbook," remembers being affronted by egg salad sandwiches in the lunchroom. "Soggy bread housing under-seasoned, overcooked eggs mashed with mayonnaise and old raw onions," he said.
For his reworked version, simplicity is the key. He likes a thin slice of rustic sourdough bread brushed with olive oil and lightly toasted, or a grilled slice of good potato bread. For the salad he uses hard-boiled eggs, cooled to room temperature and roughly diced, then mixed with a generous dollop of mayonnaise, a squeeze of lemon juice and a hearty pinch of salt. Instead of onions he uses chives, which add flavour without bite and also make the salad "look as beautiful as it tastes."
Can today's students expect fare this fine when they go through the cafeteria line? Probably not, though school food is getting better thanks in part to the work of culinary campaigners like California's Alice Waters and British chef Jamie Oliver. And even lackadaisical lunches have their advantages.
MoMos' Hall may not have warm memories of the pitiful pizzas of yesteryear, but they did have one salutary effect. "It was without a doubt," he says, "one of the many reasons I decided to become a chef."