This Old School Cafeteria Pizza recipe captures the essence of all that was good in the school cafeterias of our youth. (Cafeteria ladies not included.)
What's the Story Behind this Recipe?
The fall of 2018 marked a real Mama Milestone for me. After 28 years of recording the first day of school with a photo each year, and then sending my girls off to preschool, and kindergarten, and grade school, and middle school, and finally high school (times five!) - I faced my baby's first day of Senior year - and my last "1st Day of School."
At that time all but the youngest had gone off to college, but as anyone who has ever done so will tell you, sending a child off to college is an entirely different experience from packing them off to first grade. Anyway, this rite of passage got me reminiscing, and as I got online to update Em's lunch account, I got to thinking about the cafeteria ladies and the school lunches of my childhood.
Back in the Day, School Pizza was Great!
I grew up in Northeast Portland and attended the same elementary school from kindergarten through the eighth grade. In that time, I figure I ate nearly 1500 meals in our basement cafeteria. More than two-thirds were "hot lunches."
I was one of those kids who got hot lunch almost every day. Both my parents worked outside our home and mom wasn't the lunch-packing sort, so until I got old enough to where my mom would let me pack my own lunch, I was most often in the hot lunch line.
Most days, the actual food served for hot lunch wasn't all that awesome, but ever so often, it was great. I mean, truly Good. My favorite was Chili & Maple Bar Day (I'll get to that here on the blog someday - you're gonna love it!), and my second favorite was Pizza Day.
In fact, square school pizza was my first pizza. You see, back when I started grade school, we didn't go in for any of that fancy ethnic cooking like Pizza or Lasagna or Tacos at our house. We were a chili-mac, roast beef, chip-beef-on-rice kind of family back then.
Oh sure, by the time I hit my tweens, my mom had finally decided that she'd give the pizza at Amalfi's a try, and from then on we had it at least once a month. But even though I have had countless amazing, hand-tossed, artisan-created, wood-fired, rustic pizzas since those long-ago days, a slice of old school cafeteria pizza now and again is a comfortable, reassuring memory.
It's also a super easy, economical way to feed a ton of people!
Three Essential Elements of School Cafeteria Pizza
To recreate the unique flavor blend that is School Cafeteria Pizza, you need three basic elements:
1. Pourable Crust
The pourable crust is arguably the most critical piece of the cafeteria pizza puzzle, because it gives school pizza its unique texture and bite. Every source I could find for pourable pizza crust made enough dough for at least eight full-size sheet pans. I did some some tinkering though, and was able to adjust the recipe down so that it is just right for a single half-sheet pan.
2. Pizza Topping Sauce
School pizza in 1970s Portland always came topped with a thick, meaty, tomato-based sauce; almost like a Bolognese sauce. (There were no vegetarian options: your option was to eat the pizza or not.)
As usual, the topping sauce in this recipe is presented as a Ia jumping-off point. If you want to use your own topping sauce, or make it vegetarian, or add a stew of other ingredients to it, by all means - go for it!
3. Copycat Government Cheese
Back in the day, school pizza was blanketed in a golden brick of mystery known as Government Cheese. Government cheese was ubiquitous in the cafeteria of my youth; it was found in grilled cheese sandwiches, lasagna, mac-n-cheese, and of course, pizza.
If you have never experienced government cheese in all its glorious goldenness, you don't know what you are missing. Rumored to have been created from the tears of Midwest dairy farmers, this “pasteurized process American cheese product” wedges in on the dubious side of the cheese wheel, somewhere between Velveeta and Kraft Singles.
I don't have access to government cheese these days; however, I've created a blend that comes pretty close and gives this cafeteria pizza recipe its authentic, old school flavor.
Cafeteria Pizza Ingredients
- Quick rise yeast: Use quick rise yeast for this recipe. Regular yeast does not work fast enough.
- Flour: Use all-purpose flour.
- Instant dry milk: Dry milk is indispensable to this recipe. In breads, Dry milk not creates a smoother, more mellow flavor, a more tender texture, and a higher rise.
- Sugar: Use plain white sugar.
- Hot water: Water should be about 110-115° F | 55° C; hot enough to activated the yeast when it is mixed with the flour, etc. Do not get the water too hot, or it will kill the yeast.
- Cornmeal: The cornmeal functions as a lift to allow air to flow under the crust without sealing to the parchment or pan. You can use white or yellow cornmeal.
- Ground Beef: Use lean ground beef.
- Italian sausage: To recreate school pizza, use a mild Italian sausage. If you prefer your pizza spicier, use a spicy Italian sausage instead.
- Onion: For the best flavor, use a yellow onion.
- American cheese: American cheese is essential to this mix. It is that orange, processed stuff that now most often gets wrapped in individual plastic sheets and sold at a premium. You can buy a block, or a block of unwrapped slices, in the cheese section of most grocery stores.
- Cheddar: Use any good-quality medium cheddar; we recommend using Tillamook.
- Mozzarella: Use a full-fat mozzarella. Low-moisture mozzarella doesn't melt as well (or taste as good).
How to Make this Recipe for School Pizza
Preheat oven to 475°F (245°C) (conventional), or 425°F (220°C) (convection)
Line a 20" x 13.5" half-sheet pan with parchment paper. Spray with cooking spray and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal. Tilt the pan back and forth to distribute corn meal evenly.
Combine yeast, flour, dry milk, sugar, and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
Combine oil and warm water in a large measuring cup or mixing bowl, and then pour the liquid into flour mixture and stir thoroughly for about 5 minutes. The dough will be very sticky.
Pour the dough mixture from bowl onto prepared pan and spread evenly using a spatula. Set dough in pan aside to rest for 20-30 minutes.
Put the pizza dough pan in the preheated oven and pre-bake until crust is set:
- Conventional oven: 475°F (245°C) for 10 minutes
- Convection oven: 425°F (220°C) for 7 minutes
Remove from oven and set aside until Pizza Topping has cooled slightly.
Prepare the pizza topping while the pizza crust is "resting." In large skillet, combine chopped onion, mild Italian sausage, and ground beef and cooked over medium-high heat until meat is thoroughly browned and onion is soft and translucent.
Add tomato paste, water, brown sugar, and dried herbs. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes. The mixture is done when it is no longer runny.
Allow topping to cool slightly before spreading it on pizza.
Combine three grated cheeses in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Assemble & Bake
Carefully spread the Pizza Topping over the pre-baked Pizza Crust. Top evenly with Cheese Blend.
Return pizza to hot oven and bake until cheese is melted and topping is heated through:
- Conventional oven: 475°F (245°C) for 10-15 minutes
- Convection oven: 425°F (220°C) for 5 minutes
- Flour: Bread flour will also work.
- Instant dry milk: If you don't have dry milk, you can substitute warmed regular milk (110-115° F | 55° C) for the hot water.
- Sugar: You can substitute honey for the sugar in the bread dough.
- Ground Beef: You can sub in ground turkey, or even ground chicken, but the outcome will not be quite as robust.
- Italian sausage: If you prefer your pizza spicier, use a spicy Italian sausage instead.
- Onion: Red or sweet onions will also work.
Like any pizza, the choices are practically limitless when it comes to topping a school lunch pizza. You can go traditional and add pepperoni or peppers; or zhuzh it up with caramelized onions or a sprinkling of roasted Brussels sprouts. The important thing is to incorporate whatever you use into the sauce, because that saucy center is what makes it old-school pizza.
I recommend using a 13x18 baking sheet (half sheet pan) for this recipe. It also bakes up nicely in two quarter sheet pans (9x13). A pizza cutter is also helpful, but not necessary.
Homemade school pizza stores like any other pizza. According to the USDA, leftover pizza will last in the fridge for up to 4 days. Wrap and refrigerate within 2 hours of taking it out of the oven.
This school pizza recipe can also be frozen. To do this, prebake the crust as directed, and then add the toppings and cheese. Allow the pizza to cool completely, and then cover with plastic wrap. Wrap a second time in aluminum foil, and put in the freezer.
When ready to eat, bake as directed, adjusting the time as needed. The pizza is done when the cheese is fully melted and the crust is warm and golden brown.
Store-bought crust: If you don't want to make the pourable dough, you can use refrigerated pizza dough. You can find this in the freezer section, or at the grocery store deli or pizza counter. (If you have a Winco, the pizza section there sells raw dough.)
Air-fryer Reheating: We find that the best way to reheat school pizza (or any pizza for that matter) is in an air fryer. Preheat the air-fryer to 390°-400°F (200°-204°C), and then air-fry individual servings for 3-4 minutes each.
If you want to recreate old school Cheese Pizza, just leave out the meat and double the tomato sauce and spices to create the sauce. It really is as simple as that.
How to Serve School Pizza
Allow the cooked pizza to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting. Like any cheesy, saucy dish (i.e., lasagna, eggplant parm, etc.) the ingredients need a little time to set.
Since school pizza is usually something you make for a crowd, the easiest way to serve it is straight from the pan. First cut with a pizza cutter, ulu, or sharp knife, and serve it up with a spatula.
For the ultimate retro experience, serve it on school lunch trays, with fruit salad and a carton of milk on the side.
Want More Free Recipes?
Subscribe to our newsletter to get family-friendly recipes and cozy living ideas in your inbox each week!
Find us sharing more inspiration on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.
Old School Cafeteria Pizza
Pourable Pizza Crust
- 1 pound ground beef
- ½ pound mild Italian sausage
- 1 large onion chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 cup water
- 6-8 ounces tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
- 4 ounces American cheese grated
- 4 ounces Tillamook medium cheddar cheese grated
- 4 ounces mozzarella cheese grated
- Preheat oven:• Conventional oven: 475° F [245° C]• Convection oven: 425° F [220° C]
- Line a half-sheet pan with parchment paper. [Half Sheet Pan = approx. 20" x 13.5".] Spray with cooking spray and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal. Tilt the pan back and forth to distribute corn meal evenly.
- Combine yeast, flour, dry milk, sugar, and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
- Combine oil and warm water, and then pour into flour mixture and stir thoroughly for about 5 minutes. Mixture will be very sticky.
- Pour mixture from bowl onto prepared pan and spread evenly using a spatula. Set dough in pan aside to rest for 20-30 minutes.
- Put the pizza dough pan in the oven and pre-bake until crust is set: • Conventional oven: 475° F for 10 minutes• Convection oven: 425° F for 7 minutesRemove from oven and set aside until Pizza Topping has cooled slightly.
- Prepare the pizza topping while the pizza crust is "resting." In large skillet, combine chopped onion, mild Italian sausage, and ground beef and cooked over medium-high heat until meat is thoroughly browned and onion is soft and translucent.
- Add tomato paste, water, brown sugar, and dried herbs. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes. The mixture is done when it is no longer runny.
- Allow topping to cool slightly before spreading it on pizza.
- Combine three grated cheeses in a medium bowl.
- Carefully spread the Pizza Topping over the pre-baked Pizza Crust.
- Top evenly with Cheese Blend.
- Return pizza to hot oven and bake until cheese is melted and topping is heated through:• Conventional oven: 475° F for 10-15 minutes• Convection oven: 425° F for 5 minutes
This website provides approximate nutrition information for convenience and as a courtesy only. You are solely responsible for ensuring that any nutritional information provided is accurate, complete, and useful.
Thank you for visiting the Good Hearted Woman. Remember to bookmark this site, and come back soon!
Do you use white or yellow corn meal?
Either one will do. It just works to keep the crust from sticking.
OMG! I love you! 💕
When I was growing up, I only ever ate school lunch when they had one of two things: pizza or sloppy Joe’s (which come to think of it, are similar). I have such fond memories of that school pizza. I did not have a good time at school and that pizza was a true comfort food for me. And, I’ve thought of it from time to time, wishing I could have it again.
And, you’ve done it! This is it! This is exactly what my school lunch pizza was like! Amazing! I can’t thank you enough for this recipe.
I happened to come across this page and knew I had to make it immediately. So,I did have to change it slightly. I didn’t have Italian sausage, so I didn’t use it. (I don’t think my school used it. I remember it just being hamburger.). And, I didn’t have any American cheese, so I used 4 Oz. of shredded Monterey Jack instead. Next time, I’ll definitely use the American cheese and I’ll probably try the Italian sausage, too.
But, even with the small changes, it was perfect! It was like I was back in school, in the cafeteria, eating my favorite school time comfort food.
Thank you again! Now, I have to investigate your site and see what other goodies you have to share!
Jeff, you made my day!!! Thank you so much for circling back to share your experience with the recipe, and for taking the time to genuinely lift my spirits in the process.
Poetry Jones says
I’d love to try this great sounding recipe, but ... what is a “half sheet pan”?
Oh my gosh! I grew up in Woodburn and I remember looking forward to Pizza days. I've actually been on the hunt to collect all the Lunch Lady recipes and have been printing and saving them. I'm making this for my kids this weekend. Please share more recipes from school lunch.
Thank you, Renée! 🙂
Thank, Josie! I hope the kiddos enjoy the pizza!
You had it good. Our pizza day involved pre-packaged mini pizzas which I can only describe as "rehydrated glop." Funny thing is, I can recall it to this day: A soft crust with the taste and consistency of mattress foam, a kind of orangey sauce, and a quasi-cheese that got stuck in one's throat. I distinctly remember receiving a slice of actual Tombstone pizza one day and going "What sorcery is this?!" because all I'd ever known was that blasted Pi-R-Squared.
Oddly enough, these days I have a craving for rehydrated glop. 🙂
I get ya, Nick. It’s remarkable sometimes; the memories and images that our food memories call up, and the comfort that a simple, familiar meal can bring.
Tyler B says
How about the hot roll recipe? They were about two by two and three inches tall? Pretty sure that was the same dough they used for weiner rolls and bierocks (lots of Eastern Europeans in SE Kansas). I have a US Army recipe for hot rolls somewhere, makes a whole LOT of rolls. We always had good hot lunches, except maybe for the baked chicken legs. Now I want a hotel of chili, stick of cheese and a cinnamon roll - with chocolate milk (in retrospect, that last part makes me gag).
One of my grade school lunch ladies is still kicking (she's in her 90s), but she's tight with the recipes. Still. WHY???
Oh, I remember those hot rolls! I'll make a note to look into them. Beirocks weren't a school lunch thing in my part of the world, but I'm so glad you mentioned them: I'd love to a post on them. I can definitely see them being a fond school lunch memory.
I grew up in CT and went to school in the 50's and 60's. My siblings and classmates still fondly remember the our schools' "Pizza Day" as a favorite. Bottom line ... Old School Cafeteria Pizza is a national treasure spanning our nation coast to coast! Within the last week or so, two of my brothers were reminiscing about school pizza, and I did a bit of web searching and found your site and recipe.
I've not tried it yet, but will soon, probably this weekend. I'll let you know how it goes. I've a couple questions: 1) How much does the 3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour weigh the way you measure? There's such a great variation between the 120 grams/cup on the bag label and the way home cooks measure. 2) Would you share the link to, or a scanned image of, the crust recipe for the "8 full sheet pans?" I'm interested in the directions for the "commercial sized" batch that a cafeteria worker would have used. My maternal grandmother was a pastry cook in a Connecticut public shool.
Great question. I weigh all my ingredients when I cook, and use a 120 gram cup for all- purpose flour.
As for the 8-sheet crust recipe, it was in a school cafeteria cookbook, and I have no idea where you could access it.
Thanks for your prompt reply. I'll have to do some checking with local libraries and see if they have some of that type cookbook. I hope to find the time this weekend to try your recipe.
Brian Garner says
Do you drain the grease after cooking the meat and onions?
I usually use very low-fat meat, so I don't; however, if I was using a higher-fat meat, I definitely would.
Thanks fo the question, Brian: I've made a note to go back and detail this point in the instructions.
Kimberly Crystal Wimberley says
I love pizza day I also loved hamburger day does anyone have the recipe for the soybean burger recipe or if you can order them online
Renée ♥ says
I think ours were a bulgur-burger as opposed to a soy burger. Ive been thinking of working on a recipe for them. They have a really pleasant, unique flavor, and extend the ground meat by at least 25%. I'll reply again here if and when I post a recipe.
I went to Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland in the 60s. I wasn't a fan of the school pizza, but I'm going to try it again! I have a question. I have been looking for the recipe for the old school weiner wraps. Do you have the recipe? The Pillsbury crescent rolls are not getting it! Lol thank you!
Renée ♥ says
I don't have the weiner wrap recipe, but that's a great idea to pursue! I do know that at my school, the lunch ladies made homemade bread dough for our weiner wraps. If you're not a bread baker, you might want to try using Rhodes rolls.
Arliss Wallace says
Hi Renee, We live in the Oak Grove Oregon area, south of Milwaukie. Our school district is planning on tearing down our current building that used to house the neighborhood elementary school to build it for use as our New Urban High School. There is a plan to have a celebration for previous students prior to the tear down and those “kids” are talking about the square pan pizza they remember so fondly. I tried to contact those I thought may have the old recipe to no avail. Then, I googled and up popped your recipe. I wanted to ask if you’d mind if we share your creation/recipe with those at the event. They would be very appreciative! Thank you!
Renée ♥ says
Thanks so much for asking, Arliss. By all means, please share the recipe! If you could attach a simple credit to the blog, that would be great.
They recently tore down my high school for a full remodel [Madison in NE Portland]. It's sad to see all that history go, but those old buildings really do need a serious update. Best of luck with your celebration!