School Dinners

When I was a child there were two choices. If you lived near school you could go home for your midday meal. Otherwise you had school dinners. There was not an option to bring your own packed lunch. If you had school dinners there was one choice. You ate what you were given. One main course (dinner), one dessert (pudding). No alternatives and you absolutely had to eat what was put on your plate. I think this is why so many people of my age in Britain have bad memories of school dinners. It wasn’t that they were all terrible. I remember some nice things. Baked sponge puddings, for example. It was the complete lack of choice and the obligation to clear your plate which was the downside. We all received a bottle of milk a day (third of a pint) and this could be delightful in winter when really cold and pretty disgusting when it had been sitting outside in the crates all morning in summer sun!

Image result for 1950s school dinner menu"    CLASSROOM CALORIES All children were given a daily bottle of milk

To put this in context, World War II had only finished in 1945 and I believe rationing was still in place in the early fifties. Whether at home or in school – you ate what you were given and didn’t complain. The adults at home and in school had lived through the war and had no time for children being fussy. So we weren’t!

One of my main memories of our school dinners was lumpiness. There were lumps in the custard, the gravy, the mashed potato. One meal I remember is Spam served with mashed potato and beetroot. Then they poured the beetroot juice over your meal as if it was a sauce or a gravy. Not my favourite! I remember stews and mince of little flavour, pale in colour and with small quantities of indeterminate vegetables floating around – probably swede and turnip. These runny meat dishes were also served with the ubiquitous mashed potato and a veg, often boiled cabbage.

Also, and any post war British readers will identify with this, there were endless milk puddings. There was semolina, sago, tapioca, ground rice, rice and macaroni. All made into hot milky puddings. If you were lucky you got a spoonful of jam to stir into your pudding which turned it pink and made it a bit more palatable. Sometimes they were served with a spoonful of stewed prunes. I didn’t touch prunes for many years after I left school, they’re still not top of my list!

Today’s school dinners here in the UK are free to all children up to the age of seven and are tasty and well-balanced, Even more importantly – there are choices. We have come a long way.


An example of a week’s menu in a primary school. these menus are rotated on a four week cycle so the choices are not the same every week.

Thanks to Helena for giving me the idea for this post.

21 thoughts on “School Dinners

  1. Wheee..the ‘post comment’..portion is..viasble. Last story line..i wrote..but could not find the click here Whatever I typed..flew off into the galatc stardusts of time…for the new years story. Today though..i do have a memory here..but comparison to what all of you in great Britain..endured. Our rationing was small..compared to yours. I am going to try to send your my eldest that he might ..kind of..’baste’ the kinds of foods, and the ..rules..that were ..imposed. If we wanted to dump a food item..we did. I am thinking 1947 through 51. My joy was getting to eat..soft, white..balloon bread..with thick smears of margarine. Salty. I even would go ask for more..and..being a relatively..peaceable kid..i usually got another slice. I do remember we would buy the lardlike..white oleo/ a time when you a tiny pill of orange break open..and then..mash all over in the fake butter..until it DID..look like butter. Guessing I was about 5 years that time. Moms bread..was always better..but the school version..a newness..i ..coveted! Thanks again, ina

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  2. We were better off in the US with our hot lunches at “the big school” (grades 7-12) in the 1960s. The lunch ladies could do some good things with the government surplus provisions they were provided with. I’ve never had Sloppy Joes as good. And they made this peanut butter and chocolate slice things that were out of this world.

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  3. All so true and very descriptive, Meryl! (But actually, the beetroot gravy doesn’t sound too bad now… ) Mysterious lumps, indeterminate vegetables, grisly meat, all covered with sauce or gravy, everything boiled to death. If one could make it through the dinner, the pudding was a reward, especially the ones topped with a spoonful of jam, as you described. However, the problem was that one wasn’t allowed to drink water with the meal, only afterwards, so it was difficult to wash down the more unsavoury bits, to clean one’s plate thoroughly, while everyone else was kept waiting! My gag reflex remembers this only too well. There seemed to be a notion (at the time, or perhaps even later?) that only drinking after a meal was healthful. I think you are right, with wartime austerity and the last vestige of rationing into the early 50’s, there was little tolerance for fussy or picky eaters, not just in the home sphere.

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  4. Oh gosh yes, Meryl, it’s all so familiar. Though at my school we were allowed to drink while we ate, but at the hospital I was frequently in (for asthma) that was a definite rule which made my life so much more difficult at the time. I used to look forward to Spotted Dick – a steamed pudding – and custard (providing the custard was the normal yellow and not the disgusting pink, which think was meant to be raspberry flavour but tasted like nothing on earth… nothing good anyway!

    I used to love the little bottles of milk – I remember that more from my primary school, though.

    What used to get me (at my second school) was the day we always had spaghetti in tomato sauce. It was always straight after biology class!!

    That aside, I’ve sent you an email (it has attachments).

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  5. School dinners weren’t a thing in the New Zealand of my youth. We either went home for lunch if we lived near enough to the school, or took a packed lunch from home. The packed lunch consisted of sandwiches, a biscuit if we were lucky, and a piece of fruit. My dullest lunch was the one I took the day before my father’s fortnightly payday. It consisted only of vegemite sandwiches, because by then the household supplies were low.
    We also had school milk, though I was lucky enough to go to schools where “milk monitors” got to pick up the crates from the school gate and carry them into a shady spot in summer.

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  6. We were so lucky at our primary school, the cook a lovely lady who always had a smile on her face turned out beautifully cooked lump free tasty dinners and the puddings were gorgeous there was only 5 things l couldn’t get down , parsnips and spinach, I like both now and sago, tapioca and barley. We had a teacher who made you eat everything on your plate … no exceptions ! So on the days there was spinach and parsnips or soup with barley on I never got a pud and I would pray that sago and tapioca were the puds , and if they were the puds I sat all lunch time with the untouched pud in front of me as after throwing up after one of these I refused to even put the spoon in the bowl !

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    • What a warm, funny memory!! Sago and tapioca are rarely heard of now but were staples in post war food. Did you also have macaroni as a milk pudding? Weird to think that pasta is commonplace now but back then I didn’t even know the word. But I knew macaroni pudding and macaroni cheese. And semolina pudding? Thanks for commenting!


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    • In the 50s and 60s I’d have loved to have the option of taking a packed lunch instead of having our vile school dinners. Easier on the mums, though, not having their kids’ lunches to sort every morning! My grandchildren now choose to have school dinners rather than take sandwiches because they really like them and they get choices.


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  10. I am loving reading your descriptive memories of the 50’s and 60’s which really resonate with me. I am fairly new to this site having chanced upon it during a search for fountain pens and ink wells! I’m looking forward so much to reading more and taking trips down memory lane. Thank you for making such a wonderful window into the past available.

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