6 of the Best Lessons I Learned in the High School Cafeteria

6 of the Best Lessons I Learned in the High School Cafeteria

Looking to improve your school lunch? Try these pro tips.

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High school cafeteria with students eating
Photo: Dmytro Zinkevych (Shutterstock)

Back-to-school season means a return to routine after the laissez-faire summer months, and fixed in the center of that routine is school lunch, students’ precious 45-minute respite from getting their brains back up to full operational capacity.

If you brought your own meals to school like I did, that meant a rotating cast of sandwiches, gummies, cookies, and veggies wedged tightly into a tiny box every weekday. But every once in a while, I’d be handed a $5 bill and thrown headfirst into the Wild West of the lunch line.

Over the years, I learned the secrets on both sides of the table: how to keep your homemade lunch fresh and tasty, and how to transform the typical cafeteria fodder into decadent treats. Maybe future generations can learn from the intel below.

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Plain pizza? Try ranch

Plain pizza? Try ranch

slice of pizza dipped into cup of ranch
Photo: xhico (Shutterstock)

Friday was pizza day at my high school, and it was undoubtably the most popular dish. Even lunch-packers like me made sure to bring cash for a pair of plain slices. But no matter how much the average high schooler loves pizza, the lack of variety wore me down over the course of a few months. The solution? Ranch dressing.

The condiment was readily available in single-service cups on the utensils bar, adjacent to the ketchup and mustard. Most days it went untouched. But on Fridays, I’d be lucky to get more than one portion, since insiders understood that generously drizzling the Hidden Valley all over these bland slices was an instant upgrade. The result was an herby, creamy punch to spice up the salty, cheesy pizza, and once you try it, you’ll never be disappointed by mediocre pizza again.

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Undercookies are better than overcookies

Undercookies are better than overcookies

Surface of underbaked chocolate chip cookie
Photo: inajeep / Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to cafeteria desserts, there’s nothing more iconic than the chocolate chip cookie. But picking the right cookie from the lunch line is harder than it seems. You only have a few seconds to choose your fighter before getting shuffled along down the line toward the napkin dispenser.

The best cookies are slightly underbaked. When you reach out, avoid any deep brown hues—that’s how you end up with a textural nightmare that’s overly crunchy and dry. You want that beige-colored center with a tanned outer rim, which signifies a crispy bite followed by a gooey, chewy mouthfeel. You won’t regret it.

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DIY Auntie Anne’s pretzels

DIY Auntie Anne’s pretzels

Auntie Anne's pretzel
Photo: John Phelan / Wikimedia Commons

Soft pretzels are a great a la cart side dish in the high school cafeteria. But what if you could upgrade them from second fiddle to a full-blown shopping mall delicacy a la Wetzel’s Pretzels or Auntie Anne’s? For an overall enriched experience, simply spread a few packets of butter on a hot pretzel and let it sink in before eating.

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Leave the condiments at home

Leave the condiments at home

ham and cheese sandwich on white background
Photo: Eskymaks (Shutterstock)

When packing my own sandwich for lunch, I’d think twice about spreading mayo or mustard onto the bread. My sandwich, I reasoned, would likely sit for hours in my lunch box, growing steadily soggier as the spreads soaked into the bread. Instead of eating a mushy mess, I kept the sandwich unadorned and opted for cafeteria condiments. They’re fresher, and my parents saved a few bucks on Hellmann’s.

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Skip the ice pack

Skip the ice pack

Lunch box with sandwich, grapes, and drink
Photo: Chatham172 (Shutterstock)

Ice packs take up a whopping amount of space in a lunch box. My most ingenious realization was that I could freeze my lunch drink (whether a water bottle or juice) and let it function as the ice pack to keep the other foods cool. Sure, I was occasionally left with a slushy by lunchtime, but most of the time it melted in my favor. As a reward, I saved space for an extra snack or second drink.

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Share your lunchtime lessons

Share your lunchtime lessons

teens in lunch room chatting
Photo: LightField Studios (Shutterstock)

I learned most of the hacks on this list from classmates and friends. Kids have a seemingly innate talent for finding unique ways to enjoy the limited food options in cafeterias. So keep an eye on what others are doing and swap methods when you see something interesting. Even if it seems gross—I was initially hesitant to put ranch on pizza—it’s worth a shot. You might end up with a food hack you carry all your life. 

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