The History of School Lunch

Mid-Morning Lunch

A hot mid-morning lunch in school. Ashwood Plantations, South Carolina, May 1939.
Source: Library of Congress

School lunch has evolved quite a bit over the last century. Serving a standard lunch to school children started, in both Europe and the United States, with private organizations who were interested in child welfare. It was not a nationwide event, but rather something that took place in individual states and cities over an extended period of time. At the turn of the 20th century, concern over malnutrition in children inspired philanthropic groups to provide balanced meals to students during their lunch hour. At that time, the midday meal was considered the main meal of the day. Most families worked and went to school near the home, so they were afforded the luxury of breaking for a meal at their own dining table. Children either ate at home with their families, or packed a lunch if they attended a school that was too far away. Boarding school students ate formal meals in the dining hall with their fellow classmates.

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Walt Disney’s Family Recipe for Cold Lemon Pie

Walt Disney

Publicity photo of Walt Disney. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite being one of the most famous names in history, when it came to food, Walt Disney was a man of simple tastes. Thanks to all of the hardworking historians at Disney his diet has been well documented. His daughter Diane described him as having a “hash house/lunch wagon” appetite, a result of eating frugally in those types of establishments long before marrying her mother, Lillian. Even after building his empire, Walt’s favorite foods remained the same. Of his eating habits his wife Lillian recalled, “Walt ate very simply. He liked basic foods. He loved chili. For breakfast he’d have eggs, toast, fruit juice, and an occasional sausage. Lunch was usually just a sandwich, milk, coffee … he always wanted coffee for lunch. Sometimes his secretary would call me and tell me what he had for lunch, because when he didn’t like the dinner, he often used the excuse that he had had it for lunch.”

In 1934 Walt contributed a recipe to the February issue of Better Homes & Gardens, proof that he wasn’t ashamed of his fondness for standard American fare. According to the article, Macaroni Mickey Mousse, a baked macaroni and cheese dish, was his meal of choice when he invited guests for dinner in his Hollywood home. The article also includes a quaint story behind the inspiration for Mickey Mouse. Apparently while working for a commercial artist in Kansas City, Walt encountered mice in the workroom. He would often share bits of cheese with them and one evening a very brave mouse climbed onto his drawing board, giving him a closer look at the rascal that would one day become his most famous cartoon.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse drawing, photographed by Harris & Ewing, 1931. Source: Library of Congress

After his studio was up and running, Walt remained dedicated to providing affordable food to all of his employees. The commissary at the studio served simple, quality food available at cost. Walt usually ate his work lunch in The Coral Room, a dining area adjunct to the commissary, or at his desk. His favorite lunch was a mixture of two kinds of canned chili – bean-heavy Dennison’s and meat-heavy Gebhardt’s. In his Burbank office there was a kitchen just off of the conference room.

Occasionally he would serve lunch, beginning with a glass of V-8 tomato juice, to his guests in the conference room. He is even rumored to have brought his favorite canned foods along while traveling, so that he could enjoy his favorites no matter where he found himself.

The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco contains a list that reveals how simple Walt’s taste in food really was. Walt wrote the list himself for the family’s live-in housekeeper and cook, Thelma Howard, likely to serve as a reminder when she was making the family meals. He would often grumble his disappointment when she cooked anything he wasn’t fond of.

Walt Disney’s Favorites

Chicken Fry Cube Stake [sic]
Roast Lamb with Potatoes & Gravy 

Pan-Fried Chicken with Potatoes & Gravy 

Roast Chicken with Dressing & Gravy 

Spam and Eggs with Biscuits & Honey 

Oyster Stew with Crackers & Cheese 

Breaded Veal Cutlets with Bread & Gravy 

Chasens [sic] Chili & Beans

NOTE: Only one vegetable with meals — corn, canned peas, leaf spinach, stewed tomatoes, etc.


Carrot & Raisans [sic]

Tomato and Cucumber 

Chefs Salad


Jello [sic] — All flavors with pieces of fruit

Diet Custards 

Pinaple [sic] — Fresh or Canned 

Fruit — Fresh or Canned

Lillian Disney also recalled Walt’s modest taste (and fussy temper!) when it came to dessert. “He didn’t like cake. One time Thelma made a whipped cream cake and Walt was complaining about it. I got so put out that I picked up a piece of the whipped cream and threw it at him. It hit him right in the face. And he picked up some whipped cream and threw it at me. Then we started throwing it back and forth at each other and Bob and Sharon — I remember they were having dinner with us — looked at each other wondering what on earth was going on. I remember that I got some whipped cream on the wallpaper …it left a grease mark and I had to change it.”

Disney did have some desserts that he enjoyed. In May 2001 Walt’s daughter Diane told Walt Disney World Chef Mary Schaefer that Thelma prepared a dessert every night. While he wasn’t a huge fan of sweets he did have a few favorites, including custards, red Jell-O with fruit, baked apples, bread pudding, lemon snow pudding, gingerbread and cookies made with crunchy chow mein noodles and melted butterscotch. Apparently Walt’s very favorite treat was pie – he was partial to boysenberry, apple, and lemon with graham cracker crust.

When Mamie and Ike Eisenhower put together Five-star Favorites: Recipes from Friends of Mamie and Ike, a cookbook of recipes from their famous friends, the Disney family submitted a lemon pie recipe. Walt’s first grandson, Christopher, was also fond of this dessert and was given the honor of naming it. As a young child, it was only natural that he named the pie after himself. It’s creamy and refreshing, perfect for a lazy late summer evening. Here it is, a Disney family recipe for Cold Lemon Pie!

Walt DIsney's Lemon Pie

Get the Recipe

Cold Lemon Pie

Walt DIsney's Lemon Pie

Prepare cold lemon pie like Walt Disney. Learn more at The History Kitchen blog.



  • Filling Ingredients:
  • 4 eggs, separated 

  • ½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice 

  • ½ cup water 

  • 1 tbsp unflavored gelatin 

  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 1/4 tsp salt 

  • 1 tbsp grated lemon peel 

  • Crust Ingredients:
  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 6 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
  • Optional Toppings:
  • whipped cream

  • grated nutmeg


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter and press them evenly into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie pan.
  2. Bake the crust for 10 to 12 minutes or until browned. Remove from oven and allow the crust to cool completely.
  3. Meanwhile, in small bowl, beat together the egg yolks, lemon juice and water until just combined. Set aside.
  4. In the top of a double boiler, combine ½ cup of the sugar with the salt and the gelatin. Add the egg yolk mixture and mix until well combined. Cook, over boiling water, stirring constantly until the gelatin has dissolved and the mixture has thickened.
  5. Remove the top pan from the double boiler and stir in the lemon peel.
  6. Fill a large mixing bowl with ice water and place pan containing the topping into the bowl. Be careful that none of the water splashes into the pan. Allow to sit for 20 minutes, or until the mixture is thick enough to create a mound when dropped from a spoon.
  7. While the filling cools, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Slowly add the remaining ½ cup of sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition.
  8. Once the filling has cooled, gently fold it into the whipped egg whites until just combined. Place the filling into the pie crust and top with nutmeg, if desired. Chill for several hours, or until it has set up enough to slice. Top with whipped cream before serving, if desired.


You will also need: 9 inch pie pan, mixing bowls, double boiler, hand or stand mixer

Recipe Source: Five-star Favorites: Recipes from Friends of Mamie and Ike. New York: Golden, 1974. Print.

Yield: One 9 inch pie, 6-8 servings

Research Sources

Anderson, Paul. “Macaroni Mickey Mousse” – Disney History Institute.” Disney History Institute. Disney History Institute, 13 Nov. 2009. Web. 26 June 2015.

Five-star Favorites: Recipes from Friends of Mamie and Ike. New York: Golden, 1974. Print.

Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.

Korkis, Jim. “Eating Like Walt Disney.” Mouse Planet. N.p., 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 June 2015.

Kurtti, Jeff. “The Wonderful World of WALT: Walt’s Favorite Foods.” Disney Blogs. Disney, 11 June 2012. Web. 26 June 2015.

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976. Print.

Meet the Author

Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.

Don’t Miss “Walt Disney” on American Experience

Walt Disney on American Experience

American Cakes Throughout History

American Cake History

If you grew up in America, chances are you have a favorite type of cake. From Red Velvet Cake to Hummingbird Cake to Pineapple Upside Down Cake, America has a love affair with these sweet, crumbly baked treats. No one knew more on the subject of American cakes than my late friend, food historian Gil Marks. Gil spent several years uncovering the stories behind some of our favorite desserts, including many that are only recognizable in certain regions of the United States. The effort was a labor of love. For over a year he contributed to my website,, sharing the history he’d learned along with historically accurate American cake recipes. He also compiled a cookbook manuscript featuring these and many other recipes. It is my hope, along with his family and friends, that Gil’s American Cakes cookbook will eventually be published. The American food history research Gil gathered is truly invaluable.

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Thomas Jefferson, Asparagus and American Independence

Thomas Jefferson Portrait

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

In addition to drafting the Declaration of Independence and playing a pivotal role in the formation of the United States, Thomas Jefferson has a firmly rooted presence in American food history. A naturally curious and creative individual, Jefferson embraced the relationship between garden and table. His Virginia plantation at Monticello was a place of horticultural creativity and ingenuity; his gardens were home to a number of unique (what would now be considered heirloom) vegetables and fruits. As Minister to France, Jefferson learned a great deal about French cuisine and cooking methods, often recording recipes in his own hand. While in Washington, he became know for hosting the finest dinners the President’s House had ever seen. Jefferson’s Monticello kitchen blended Southern Virginian cooking styles with Continental cuisine; the meals also reflected the African cooking influences of his enslaved staff. Jefferson made an important impact on the national culinary consciousness, combining food traditions from the Old World and the New World to create a new and uniquely American approach to cooking.

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What Artist Paul Gauguin Ate in Tahiti

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin Wearing a Breton Jacket, 1891. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Artist Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was a self-described “barbarian,” a tortured and gifted soul who was never able to settle into the life that 19th century Parisian society expected of him. At the age of 35 he left a career as a stock broker to pursue his passion, painting. He consequentially suffered periods of poverty and family discord, yet his fateful choice resulted in some of the most influential paintings of all time. Throughout his artistic journey, he was continually pulled towards a more primitive lifestyle. Ever wandering, he traveled across the world in search of artistic inspiration. As a food writer, I am always interested in the foods that fueled gifted artists like Gauguin; cooking a meal inspired by the man allows us a more visceral way to meditate on his life and work. Gauguin painted images of food throughout his life, and he dreamed of living in a tropical paradise where he could “live on fish and fruit.” Gauguin’s wanderlust eventually led him to exotic locations where he enjoyed simple, local tribal foods, as evidenced by his journal entries.

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Audrey Hepburn: Iconic Actress and Home Cook

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn, 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Audrey Hepburn is a biographer’s dream and nightmare simultaneously. No other film actress was so revered – inspired and inspiring- both for her on-screen appearances and for her passionate, off-screen crusade. She remains so beloved that virtually no one has a bad word to say about her. The worst thing she ever did, it seems, was forget to mention Patricia Neal at the 1964 Oscars. She left no lurid secrets or closet cruelties to be exposed. Beneath her kind, warm surface lay more kindness and warmth to the core.”

- Barry Paris, biographer and author of Audrey Hepburn (1996)

Many words come to mind when one hears the name Audrey Hepburn – elegant, beautiful, sophisticated, chic, and classic, just to name a few. From the moment she first appeared on the big screen, Audrey captivated audiences with her charm. Her appeal continues to inspire audiences even today, years after her passing. We know her as the star of films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday and Funny Face, but beneath her celebrity exterior she was a true humanitarian. Like the little black dresses she wore so well, Audrey Hepburn will never go out of style.

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Why We Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby

Mint Juleps

Photo Credit: Tori Avey,

It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.

- J. Soule Smith, The Mint Julep: The Very Dream of Drinks, 1949

The mint julep, a cocktail made from a mixture of bourbon, powdered sugar, water and mint, is often associated with horse racing. It has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby for almost a century; according to the website of the annual event, nearly 120,000 juleps are sold at Churchill Downs over the two-day race period. Like most recipes that come from the South, mint juleps have a long and often debated history. It’s widely believed that the name of the drink comes from the Persian word gulab and the Arab word julab, both of which translate to “rosewater.” The term julep was also used to refer to any type of syrupy mixed drink taken with medicine. As early as 1784, mint juleps were prescribed to soothe aching stomachs and help patients who had difficulty swallowing. A legend claims that the mint julep arrived in America when a man was searching near the Mississippi River for water to add to his bourbon. When he saw mint growing wild, he decided to drop a few leaves into his libation—ta da! Mint julep. This is almost certainly a wives’ tale, or as my friend Gil Marks called it, a bubbe meise; most historians agree that the mint julep was developed within Virginia high society during the late 1700s or early 1800s

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Are There Cancer Fighting Foods?

Cancer Fighting Foods

We are what we eat. Though we may not give it much thought on a day-to-day basis, the foods we put into our bodies have a huge effect on our overall health. In recent years, more attention has been paid to nutrition as a means to help prevent illness, and in some cases to support healing. Though it might seem tempting to dismiss diets like gluten free, paleo, macrobiotic and raw as mere fads, they have provided physical relief and supported healing for many individuals. Every body is different, and it can take years of trial and error to find the foods that best suit you as an individual. In the case of a major illness like cancer, there is no silver bullet or magical cure that food can provide. However, a healthy diet is a vitally important part of any healing process. Certain foods have proven nutritional benefits that may help support healing in the fight against cancer.

In our lifetime, most of us will be touched by cancer in some way. Whether we experience it personally or alongside a loved one, this is a battle we are all vested in winning. Food can be looked at as one important part of a comprehensive plan to fight back against this disease. I have compiled this list of foods to share their healing benefits, with a focus on their historical medicinal use. Because each body is unique and every illness has its own challenges, a nutritional plan to support the healing process should be carefully planned in coordination with a physician.


Ancient Greek Olympic athletes ate raw garlic to boost their strength and stamina. Long seen as a curative remedy, garlic has been utilized as a natural medicine throughout history, for epidemics ranging from typhus to cholera to dysentery. It’s a great source of antioxidants and it also has anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that eating garlic may help to lower risk of certain cancers; it has also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Some substances found in garlic are believed to slow the growth of cancer cells, particularly in the lungs and breasts. A study in San Francisco determined that the risk of pancreatic cancer was significantly lower, around 54 percent, in folks who consumed garlic regularly as opposed to those who ate it occasionally. I’d say those odds are worth a bit of bad breath.


Turmeric has been used medicinally for over 4,500 years, but only recently has it attracted attention for its natural healing properties. Around 500 BCE it emerged as an important part of Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of natural healing that is still practiced today. Among other things, inhaling fumes from burning turmeric was said to alleviate congestion, turmeric juice helped to heal wounds and bruises, and turmeric paste was applied to all sorts of skin conditions – from smallpox and chicken pox to blemishes and shingles. Curcumin, the healing substance that supplies turmeric’s vibrant color and powerful antioxidant advantages, has been shown to protect healthy cells, particularly those found in the colon, from cancer-causing agents. A 2011 study at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center discovered curcumin’s unique ability to differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells. Furthermore, it was able to create cell death, known as apoptosis, in cancerous cells while boosting the health of normal cells. Combining turmeric with black pepper may amplify the nutritional benefits. More on turmeric here, including several recipes to try.


Tomatoes originated in South America; the earliest varieties were small and yellow. The Aztecs of Central America were the first to consume the fleshy fruit and often combined them with peppers to make an early form of salsa. Tomatoes arrived in Spain during the early 1500s and soon after they made their way to Italy. Italians immediately noticed a resemblance to the psychotropic mandrake and belladonna plants and deemed tomatoes a toxic food. This misconception led to tomatoes being used as a mere ornamental plant for some time. Generations of Europeans missed out on tomatoes as a food item. It took over 100 years for the tomato to first appear in an Italian cookbook, and it was not taken seriously as food item until the mid 1800s. More than just a tasty fruit, tomatoes contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. Recent studies suggest that lycopene may slow the development of prostate cancer by directly disturbing the enzymes that cause cell tissue growth. Some evidence has shown that the body absorbs lycopene more effectively through processed tomato foods such as sauces, pasteurized tomato soups and ketchup. Adding oil to heated and crushed tomato dishes can also help with lycopene’s absorption into the bloodstream.

Fermented Cabbage

Cabbage was first cultivated over 6,000 years ago. Despite its humble reputation as a cruciferous vegetable, it has appeared in Greek mythology and medieval literature as a symbol of wisdom. While most cruciferous vegetables have cancer-fighting properties, cabbage is unique in that it is most often consumed in the form of sauerkraut. The production of enzymes, vitamins and probiotics created through fermentation aid the body in digestion. Evidence suggests that certain probiotic strains contribute to the microbial balance in your digestive system, which reduces inflammation and supports the immune system.


Every time I read about the health benefits of chocolate, I get happy. Our history with chocolate stretches all the way back to Pre-Columbian times, when the Maya and Olmec civilizations discovered a way to extract chocolate’s rich and complex flavor through fermentation and roasting. Kings and nobles indulged in rich and spicy drinks made from cacao, cornmeal and chilies. For a while now we’ve been hearing that dark chocolate is good for us (in moderation, of course). It has only very recently been studied for possible cancer-fighting properties. Scientists have observed that cocoa contains proanthocyanidins (also known as condensed tannins) that may help to slow the development of certain cancers, particularly those found in the lungs. Further studies are needed to confirm just how much potential chocolate has as a cancer fighter, but so far lab results are looking positive. Note that certain varieties of chocolate have recently been flagged for containing lead and cadmium, so choose your chocolate carefully.

These are just a few of the natural foods that are being studied in the fight against cancer. It’s important to keep in mind that in the medical community, discoveries happen all the time and prevailing wisdom can change. Likewise, each body is different and the foods that support one person’s healing might not be as helpful to another. It’s always best to seek the help of a physician in creating a comprehensive nutritional plan.

If you’re in search of dishes that incorporate some of these formidable nourishing foods, check out the recipes below.


Toum recipe

Toum Recipe – Middle Eastern Garlic Sauce

Vegan Lentil Cauliflower Tacos recipe

Vegan Lentil Cauliflower Tacos Recipe

Roasted Tomato Sauce recipe

Roasted Tomato Sauce Recipe

How to Ferment Cabbage and Make Sauerkraut

How to Ferment Cabbage and Make Sauerkraut

Dark Chocolate Fruit Candies recipe

Dark Chocolate Fruit Candies Recipe

Research Sources

Béliveau, Richard, and Denis Gingras. Foods to Fight Cancer: Essential Foods to Help Prevent Cancer. New York: DK Pub., 2007. Print.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Garlic and Cancer Prevention. National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Web. March 31 2015.

Madison, Deborah. Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2007. Print.

O’Leary, Bill. How much lead is in your chocolate? Washington Post, Feb. 11 2015. Web.

Petrovska, Biljana Bauer and Cekovska, Svetlana (2010). Extracts from the history and medicinal properties of garlic. Pharmacognosy Review, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Web, March 31 2015.

Varona, Verne. Nature’s Cancer-fighting Foods: Prevent and Reverse the Most Common Forms of Cancer Using the Proven Power of Great Food and Easy Recipes. Paramus, NJ: Reward, 2001. Print.

Meet the Author

Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.

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