Walking through the lunch line in a high school cafeteria, you’re greeted by an array of hot and cold meal options to fuel up for the rest of the school day. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: pizza, burgers, french fries, and chicken tenders are staple entrees at many high school cafeterias across the country.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the typical foods you’ll find in high school cafeterias, from hot lunch entrees to sides, drinks, and desserts. We’ll also look at factors that influence school menus, nutritional considerations, and how school lunches have evolved over time to meet changing guidelines and student tastes.

Popular Hot Lunch Entrees


Pizza is a staple in high school cafeterias across the country. It’s a crowd favorite that appeals to students of all ages. Most schools offer a variety of pizza options, including cheese, pepperoni, and veggie toppings. Some schools even offer specialty pizzas like BBQ chicken or buffalo chicken.

Pizza is a convenient and delicious option for students who are looking for a quick and satisfying lunch.

Burgers and Chicken Sandwiches

Burgers and chicken sandwiches are another popular choice among high school students. These classic American favorites are often served with a side of fries or a salad. Many schools offer a variety of toppings and condiments, allowing students to customize their sandwiches to their liking.

Whether it’s a juicy burger or a crispy chicken sandwich, these hot lunch entrees are sure to satisfy even the hungriest of students.

Pasta Dishes

Pasta dishes like spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and Alfredo are also commonly found in high school cafeterias. These comfort foods are often served with a side of garlic bread or a Caesar salad. Pasta dishes are a popular choice because they are filling and can be easily customized with different sauces and toppings.

Students can enjoy a warm and hearty meal that will keep them energized throughout the day.

Mexican Foods like Burritos and Nachos

Mexican foods like burritos and nachos have gained popularity in high school cafeterias in recent years. These flavorful and satisfying dishes offer a taste of Mexican cuisine. Burritos are often filled with a variety of ingredients such as rice, beans, cheese, and meat.

Nachos are typically served with melted cheese, salsa, and guacamole. These Mexican favorites provide students with a tasty and filling lunch option.

Go-To Side Dishes

When it comes to side dishes in high school cafeterias, there are a few staples that are commonly found on the menu. These side dishes are often popular among students and provide a tasty addition to their main meal.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the go-to side dishes you can expect to find in high school cafeterias.

French Fries

French fries are a classic and beloved side dish that can be found in high school cafeterias across the country. They are typically served hot and crispy, and their salty flavor is a favorite among students.

French fries are often paired with burgers, chicken tenders, or other main dishes, and they add a satisfying crunch to the meal.

Tater Tots

Another popular side dish that can often be found in high school cafeterias is tater tots. These bite-sized potato treats are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, making them a perfect accompaniment to a main course.

Tater tots are often served with sandwiches, wraps, or as a side to a hot lunch entree.

Fruit and Vegetable Options

High school cafeterias also strive to offer healthier side dish options, including a variety of fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas are commonly available, providing students with a nutritious and refreshing side option.

In addition to whole fruits, many cafeterias also offer vegetable sides such as steamed broccoli, mixed salad greens, or carrot sticks.

Chips, Pretzels, and Crackers

For those looking for a snack-like side dish, high school cafeterias often provide options like chips, pretzels, and crackers. While these may not be the healthiest choices, they can be a popular option for students who are craving something salty or crunchy.

Cafeterias may offer a variety of flavors and brands to cater to different tastes.

It’s worth noting that high school cafeterias are increasingly focusing on providing healthier and more diverse menu options for students. Many schools are implementing initiatives to include more nutritious choices and incorporate local and organic ingredients into their meals.

If you’re interested in learning more about these efforts, you can visit websites like www.fns.usda.gov/nslp for information on the National School Lunch Program.



Water is an essential beverage that is typically available in high school cafeterias. It is a healthy and hydrating option for students. Drinking water throughout the day helps to maintain proper bodily functions and can improve concentration and focus.

Many schools encourage students to drink water by providing water fountains or water bottle filling stations.


Milk is another common beverage served in high school cafeterias. It is a good source of calcium, protein, and other essential nutrients. Milk options may include regular milk, low-fat milk, or flavored milk such as chocolate or strawberry.

It is important for students to consume milk as part of a balanced diet to support their overall growth and development.

Juice and Fruit Drinks

Juice and fruit drinks are also typically available in high school cafeterias. These beverages offer a variety of flavors and can be a good source of vitamin C. However, it is important to note that some fruit drinks may contain added sugars and may not provide the same nutritional benefits as whole fruits.

It is recommended to choose 100% fruit juice or eat whole fruits whenever possible.


Soda, on the other hand, is a beverage that is often discouraged in high school cafeterias due to its high sugar content and lack of nutritional value. Regular consumption of soda can contribute to weight gain and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Schools may prioritize healthier beverage options and limit the availability of soda in order to promote the overall well-being of students.

For more information on healthy beverage choices for high school students, you can visit www.choosemyplate.gov/beverages.

Snacks and Desserts


In high school cafeterias, cookies are a popular snack option among students. These delicious treats come in various flavors such as chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and peanut butter. They are often freshly baked and served warm, making them even more enticing.

Cookies are a great way to satisfy a sweet tooth or provide a quick energy boost during a long school day. Some schools may even offer healthier alternatives like whole-grain or gluten-free cookies to cater to different dietary needs.

Cookies can be enjoyed on their own or paired with a glass of milk for a classic combination.

Ice Cream

Ice cream is another beloved dessert that can be found in high school cafeterias. Whether in cups or cones, students can choose from a variety of flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, or even more exotic options like mint chocolate chip or cookies and cream.

Ice cream is a refreshing treat, especially on hot days, and can be enjoyed as a standalone dessert or as an accompaniment to other dishes like brownies or pie. Some schools may also offer healthier alternatives like frozen yogurt or dairy-free options to cater to different dietary preferences.


Pudding is a creamy and indulgent dessert that is often served in high school cafeterias. It comes in different flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, or even fruity variations like banana or strawberry.

Pudding can be enjoyed on its own or paired with toppings like whipped cream or sprinkles for added fun and flavor. It provides a sweet and satisfying treat that is loved by many students. Additionally, some schools may offer healthier versions of pudding made with low-fat milk or sugar substitutes.

Fruit Snacks

For those looking for a healthier option, fruit snacks can often be found in high school cafeterias. These snacks are made from real fruit and provide a convenient and portable way to enjoy a sweet and nutritious treat.

Fruit snacks can come in various forms such as dried fruit, fruit leather, or even fruit cups. They are a great source of vitamins and fiber, and can be a refreshing alternative to traditional sugary desserts.

Some schools may also offer fresh fruit options like sliced apples, oranges, or grapes as a healthier snack choice.

Factors Influencing School Cafeteria Menus

Nutrition Standards and Guidelines

One of the main factors influencing the food served in high school cafeterias is the nutrition standards and guidelines set by the government or local authorities. These guidelines aim to ensure that students are provided with healthy and balanced meals that meet their nutritional needs.

They often include recommendations for the amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins that should be served. Schools are encouraged to limit the amount of unhealthy foods, such as sugary drinks and snacks, and instead offer healthier alternatives.

Cost and Budget Considerations

Another important factor that affects the food choices in school cafeterias is the cost and budget considerations. Schools often have limited budgets for their food services, which may restrict the variety and quality of ingredients that can be used.

This can lead to a reliance on processed or pre-packaged foods, which are often cheaper and easier to store. However, some schools have found creative ways to work within their budgets while still offering nutritious and delicious meals to students.

Student Taste Preferences

Student taste preferences also play a significant role in determining the foods served in high school cafeterias. Schools aim to provide meals that students will enjoy and actually want to eat. They often conduct surveys or hold taste testing sessions to gather feedback and incorporate student preferences into their menus.

This helps to ensure that the food served is appealing and encourages students to make healthier choices.

Ease of Preparation and Service

The ease of preparation and service is another factor that influences the food selection in school cafeterias. With limited time and resources, schools need to choose foods that can be easily prepared and served to a large number of students.

This may result in the inclusion of pre-packaged or pre-cooked items that can be quickly heated or assembled. However, some schools have started to focus on scratch cooking and using fresh ingredients to provide healthier and more flavorful meals.

The Evolution of School Lunch Menus

Early Days: Basic, Affordable Meals

In the early days of school lunch programs, the focus was primarily on providing basic and affordable meals to students. These meals typically consisted of simple dishes such as meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and vegetables.

The emphasis was on providing students with a filling meal that would give them the energy they needed to get through the school day.

During this time, the menus were often limited in variety and lacked the nutritional value that is now prioritized. The goal was to provide meals that were cost-effective and could be prepared in large quantities to feed a large number of students.

New Nutrition Standards in Recent Decades

In recent decades, there has been a shift towards implementing new nutrition standards in school lunch menus. This change was driven by the recognition of the importance of providing students with healthy and balanced meals.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has played a significant role in guiding these changes. They have implemented guidelines that aim to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins in school lunches.

These guidelines also aim to limit the amount of added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats in the meals.

These new standards have led to the inclusion of more diverse and nutritious options in school cafeterias. Students now have the opportunity to choose from a range of options such as salads, whole grain wraps, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Meeting Diverse Student Needs and Preferences

Today, school lunch menus strive to meet the diverse needs and preferences of students. Schools recognize that students have different dietary requirements, cultural backgrounds, and taste preferences. As a result, they have started to offer a wider variety of options to cater to these needs.

Vegetarian and vegan options are becoming more common, as well as gluten-free and dairy-free alternatives. Schools are also exploring different cooking methods, such as steaming and grilling, to provide healthier alternatives to fried foods.

Additionally, school lunch programs are incorporating feedback from students and involving them in the decision-making process. This ensures that the menus are appealing and enjoyable for the students, increasing the likelihood that they will choose healthier options.

It’s important to note that while significant progress has been made in improving school lunch menus, there is still work to be done. Many schools are still facing challenges in sourcing fresh and locally produced ingredients, as well as dealing with budget constraints.

However, efforts are being made to continue evolving school lunch menus to provide students with nutritious and delicious meals.


From pizza and burgers to snacks and soda, high school cafeterias offer up a diverse menu aimed at pleasing students’ appetites and providing convenient, affordable meals. While trends and nutrition standards have changed school lunches over time, certain kid-friendly foods remain go-to options.

When passing through the lunch line, students can always count on those familiar cafeteria staples being there to fuel up for the rest of the school day.

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