School Lunches — 1948 (Tuna and Cream Cheese Sandwiches)

School Lunches — 1948 (Tuna and Cream Cheese Sandwiches)

We have come to the time of year in the northwest when the bounties of summer are being harvested and preserved. My green beans and tomatoes have been canned, the peppers have been roasted and put in the freezer, the peaches and pears are in jars lining the pantry shelves and the local grain has been harvested. Just around the corner, the apples will be ready to pick and process into applesauce and pie filling, the onions and potatoes are ready to be dug, the pumpkins are turning orange and the county fair has come and gone. Our blissful daytime temperatures are in the 80s with our nighttime temps flirting with freezing and the children have gone back to school (although school in 2020 looks somewhat non-traditional).

Early in my elementary career, schools across America began experimenting with school lunch or hot lunch as we called it. Today school lunch is as American as apple pie, but up until then, generations of children brought their lunches from home. While reading from an old cookbook — Watkins Cook Book 1948, I discovered some advice, albeit dated, for packing a child’s lunch box.

The Lunch Box

Throughout most of the twentieth century, cookbooks were seen as a way of educating housewives on food safety, nutrition and technique. If the cookbook was sponsored by a food production company, one would also find nouveau recipes and methods for using their products. Watkins Cook Book 1948 is one of these cookbooks. Intertwined in the advice and advertising we can catch a glimpse of how lunches might have been prepared and what American school children might have been eating post WWII:

  • A lunch should be packed in a well-ventilated, sanitary container to protect the food and to keep it compact and odorless upon opening (is that possible with a tuna fish sandwich?). Waxed paper should be used to wrap all food, and covered jelly glasses (remember those in our grandmothers’ cupboard) are excellent to use for baked beans, vegetable salad, applesauce, baked apple or for a pudding. Highly-seasoned and rich foods should not be placed in a lunch box.
  • Milk in some form should be included in the daily school lunch — either plain milk, malted milk, or hot or cold Watkins Cocoa, which may be carried in a pint milk bottle or in a thermos bottle, using a straw for drinking. Fresh fruit in season is appetizing and healthful.
  • Hard cooked eggs, cooked 30 minutes (yes the book says 30 minutes), are as digestible as soft-boiled. Peeled, wrapped in a lettuce or cabbage leaf and waxed paper, they will make an appetizing salad. Cooked vegetables as a salad add a note of interest to a box lunch. Raw carrot sticks or celery sticks made crisp in cold water, dried and wrapped in waxed paper make a tasty accompaniment to a meat sandwich. Do not pack hot creamed meat, fish and poultry dishes as the food may sour when kept warm for several hours.
  • The lunch box should contain sandwiches, a raw vegetable, a relish, fruit, pudding, cookies and a beverage (More on a complete school lunch below).
  • If sandwiches are to be kept a long time, do not use lettuce or other salad greens. Use a mayonnaise dressing as the oil will not soak into the bread.
  • For making sandwiches in quantities, wrap them in a napkin dipped in hot water and wrung dry. Or wrap in waxed paper and fasten with a rubber band.

Sandwich Fillings

Watkins Cook Book 1948 offers the following suggestions for sandwich fillings. I wonder how popular or even practical some of these suggestions were back then, however, a #7 on wheat toast sounds pretty good.

A Compete School Lunch with Advertising

Extending the suggestions for sandwich filling, Watkins Cook Book 1948 lists ten ideas for complete school lunches (mixed with a little advertising). I wonder about the feasibility of these lunches as they seem quite labor intensive and unrealistic. However my mother-in-law packed her children’s lunches with sandwiches made from homemade bread well into the 70s…then she would go out and milk the cows (No kidding!) It also seems like a lot of food for a child.

Tuna and Cream Cheese Sandwiches

school lunch 001Most of the time when I took a cold lunch or sack lunch to school, it contained a tuna sandwich on store-bought white bread and that wasn’t bad. I actually liked them especially with potato chips placed under the top slice of bread just before eating. It makes me hungry just thinking about it. A number of years ago I purchased a cookbook that I often refer to — Cooking from Quilt Country 1989 by Marcia Adams — featuring Amish and Mennonite recipes. This book contains a recipe for a tuna salad containing cream cheese, toasted pecans and lemon juice. I served these sandwiches at a women’s luncheon a few years ago (I used two cans of tuna as it seemed like there was too much dressing for just the one can). The ladies enjoyed the sandwiches and many asked for a copy of the recipe. Thankfully the tuna fish sandwich is not obsolete, it has just had a makeover. Enjoy!

Tuna and Cream Cheese Sandwiches - 1989

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print


  • 1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise

  • 1 (7 oz) can tuna, well drained (or two cans if you like)
  • 1/2 cup chopped ripe black olives
  • 1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

  • 12 slices white bread
  • Softened butter


  1. In a medium mixer bowl, combine the cream cheese, lemon juice and mayonnaise; blend well.
  2. Fold in tuna, olives, pecans and seasonings. Chill filling for several hours.
  3. Spread filling on lightly buttered bread. Garnish with lettuce if desired.

Recipe Compliments of Cooking From Quilt Country 1989