Life Lessons from the Lunch Lady

Growing up, becoming a lunch lady wasn’t one of my life goals. Not that I have anything against lunch ladies, lunch men, or anyone who dedicates themselves to school food service. Honestly, anyone who chooses a career in any school deserves praise and a raise because they’re certainly not doing it for the paycheck.

But the phrase “lunch lady” stereotypically conjures up a certain image of hair nets, latex gloves, and comfortable shoes. And if you’re of a certain age or fan of classic Saturday Night Live, you may be able to sing along to Adam Sandler’s classic, “Lunch Lady Land.

Flash forward from my school days of dodging mushy, colorless vegetables and unknown meatloaf: I now work lunch duty at my son’s school. Each Friday, I help serve pizza to the starving masses of kindergarten through fifth grade kids who stream through the line.

It never crossed my mind that my volunteer time qualified me as a lunch lady until a first grader saw me outside of school one day and asked with big eyes, “Are you the lunch lady?”

And I proudly said, “Yes.”

You see, my time as a lunch lady gives me an inside peek at the school day, watching littles and not-so-littles as they spend their day away from Mom and Dad. I have the privilege of seeing how their day is going at a time when Mom and Dad are far away. And sometimes, I have the privilege of being the kind person who helps them when they need a boost.

Being a lunch lady has given me perspective on life in general, and it turns out there’s a lot to learn while you’re slinging pizza. Not surprising: there’s never enough hand sanitizer, and teachers really don’t get paid what they deserve. But what I’ve really learned from the other side of the cafeteria line goes far beyond pizza. And whether or not you’re wearing plastic gloves or comfortable shoes, these nine lessons will might make your day a little better.

1. Smiles go a long way.

Whether a kid is having a great day or a rough one, a smile never fails to connect. I have no idea what has happened in their morning or what’s ahead for their afternoon, but greeting each one with a smile automatically perks them up. They may pretend to be all grown up, but they’re still little and working to tackle the world. A simple smile helps push someone’s day along in a positive way.

2. Looking someone in the eye is always good.

We’ve got a lot of hungry kids to serve. But taking the time to make that connection and look each kid in the eye makes them more than just a slice of pizza. And they realize that. Everyone wants to be seen and acknowledged. Take the time to look someone in the eye and make a difference in their day.

3. Paying someone a compliment never hurts.

Doesn’t it make your day when someone compliments your earrings or your shoes? Kids are the same way. Whenever I acknowledge a girl’s nice dress or cool sequined shoes, or a boy’s awesome dinosaur or shark shirt, that kid lights up. I’ll often hear who gave it to them or bought it for them, or even who is picking them up after school. Some of them just stand a little taller. No matter what, the two seconds it took for me to notice something and comment on it is worth my time, every time.

4. Everyone likes to hear their name.

Along the same lines, I try hard to call each student by name—and to say their name properly. When I don’t, I apologize. Like the rest of us, kids like to know that people know who they are. It makes a difference in their day. The Starbucks baristas may mangle names, but the rest of the world needs to pause and try to get it right. We’re all individuals. It feels good to be recognized.

5. Words have impact.

I’ve encountered kids who are inconsolable because they fear that their mom or dad will be upset because they didn’t eat their lunch or had too much food left over. I’ve encountered kids who cry because Mo or Dad will be mad if they throw the food away. As parents, we work to teach our kids right from wrong. But compassion goes a long way. What you say to your children at home reverberates throughout their day. Be kind in the lessons and think through how they’ll handle things if you’re not there. Give them more positives than negatives to carry.

6. Mind your manners.

We’re all rushed, especially when there’s only so much time for lunch and an entire grade is hungry for pizza. But rather than barking orders about staying in line or not cutting in line, I’ve found that saying “please” and following it with “thank you,” gets more attention. When I talk to the kids like adults and show them respect, they give it back. They don’t all say “thank you” for their pizza, but they tend to do what I’ve asked and not grumble about it. They’re little, but they’re people and deserve to be treated like it.

7. Treat others as you’d like to be treated.

It’s the golden rule, but it’s not always how adults treat kids. We talk over them, we underestimate them, we don’t always listen. Often, we think we know best without talking to them about decisions we’ve made for them. I’ve lost count of how many kids have said, “But I told Mom that’s not what I wanted to order,” and yet they’re stuck with that lunch. They may eat it, but they’ll remember that no one listened to them.

8. A little patience never hurts.

I say again, we’re all rushed. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and we’re all juggling more than we can manage. Most of us are trying to multi-task and doing a poor job at it. Little humans are juggling their little lives, too. They have so much more going on inside of them and in their lives than we give them credit for. They don’t always pay attention or do what you ask the first time around. Big imaginations, and sometimes big worries, keep them from being focused. Take a deep breath and know what you’re asking of them will happen, even if it’s not on the timeline you imagined.

9. Sometimes it’s OK to break the rules.

Days don’t always go our way. Things happen. Kids trip on the playground. They don’t have the best day in math class. They leave lunchboxes at home. Mom and Dad forget to place their lunch order. When enough little things happen, it turns their day upside down. But when someone takes the time to help, slipping them some extra pizza and making sure that at least lunch is a positive part of their day, it can make a big difference. Be the person who finds a way to help someone, even it means breaking the rules.

I may not have pictured myself as a “lunch lady,” but the lessons I’ve learned from playing the part have been invaluable.

An Army brat who came to Texas for college and ultimately managed to make the Lone Star State her permanent home, Dawn became a mom “AMA” (advanced maternal age), giving her the opportunity to use a stroller vs. a walker as she navigates the world of motherhood. Her growing up way too fast native Texan loves all things Star Wars, Legos, dinosaurs and keeping his parents on their toes. When she’s not busy parenting the original strong-willed child, Dawn runs Tale to Tell Communications, a San Antonio-based PR and marketing agency. An award-winning writer, Dawn also contributes to San Antonio Woman, Rio Magazine and Texas Lifestyle Magazine. She and her family enjoy exploring all that San Antonio has to offer, going on adventures and playing tourist together as much as possible. Favorite Restaurant: Clementine Favorite Landmark: The beauty of the River Walk, especially La Villita Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Celebrating anything and everything with color, music and food