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Thanksgiving meal a delicious, time-honored school cafeteria tradition


Thanksgiving meal a delicious, time-honored school cafeteria tradition

Tammy Parks, a School Nutrition assistant at Carrollton Upper Elementary School, celebrates the completion of pans of dressing central to the Thanksgiving meal.

Generations share this common school memory

Debra Thomas and Tonya McCubbin, School Nutrition assistants at Carrollton High School, incorporate the final ingredients in the dressing mixture.

All elementary schoolchildren learn about the stories of Pilgrims and Native Americans holding the inaugural Thanksgiving observance in 1621, but the first Thanksgiving meal of the year that resonates with them is the one they experienced in the school cafeteria. 

This special lunchroom meal is as ubiquitous as a yellow school bus, yet is esteemed by schoolchildren and adults alike who consider it a time-honored entitlement. Students of every age have fond memories of enjoying turkey with gravy, dressing (here in the South), green beans, dessert, and a boxed milk before heading back to classrooms to place their heads on their desks to take a short nap.

Laura Malmquist, director of School Nutrition for Carrollton City Schools, said although it is hard work to produce such a highly-anticipated meal, to her and her staff, it is all worth it. 

"It is so gratifying to see the smiling faces of students and staff as they come through the line and hear their comments about how excited they are for turkey and dressing with all the trimmings," she said. 

And while she also admitted today's school Thanksgiving meal is healthier than the ones of past memories, it is no less gobbled up. Why?  

"It's the extra love that goes into the meal prep," said Malmquist matter-of-factly. 

Malmquist, who has been with the system for 25 years, said there has been a Thanksgiving meal as long as she and her long-time employees can remember.  

"The only time we have not offered it was last year because of the logistics with classroom service put in place as a COVID safety measure," she said. 

Three friends making memories and satisfying tummies at CUES.

This year's cafeteria meal was served over two days – Nov. 16 for Carrollton Upper Elementary and Carrollton High School; and Nov. 17 for Carrollton Elementary and Carrollton Junior High. The menu included turkey, dressing, gravy, rolls, green beans, sweet potato soufflé, cookies, and cranberry sauce. Malmquist also had other options for students who didn't want to partake in the holiday meal. 

To understand the scope of this annual district-wide endeavor, learning the volume in pounds is eye-opening: Turkey - 1,800 pounds; dressing - 5,150 servings; gravy - 3,000 servings; rolls – 4,800; green beans - 99 gallons; sweet potato souffle - 146 pans; cookies - 5,100; and cranberry sauce - 11 gallons. 

"The preparation for this meal takes lots of extra hours," said Malmquist. "Staff starts prepping a week or so ahead to have everything ready in time."  

While food service is hard work all the time, seasoned School Nutrition employees are truly thankful of the progress made in the Thanksgiving meal prep of today.  

"They used to have to cook whole turkeys – imagine 30 to 40 turkeys – at each school and then had to slice them and pull the meat off the bones," said Malmquist. 

Mistakes in menu planning also would happen on occasion, she said, citing the example of making 20 gallons of gravy the first year they offered it, when in actuality they only needed four. 

"Jane Raburn (a long-time School Nutrition assistant) remembers making sweet potato soufflé and turning on the huge mixer that’s more than five feet tall," said Malmquist. "The potatoes shot out of the mixer and all over the kitchen.  They laughed together and then started cleaning everything – including the ceiling, floors and their clothes." 

Malmquist said the generous spirit of the holiday trickles up all the way to the top, with administrators, teachers and others joining in to help serve the meal. 

Nostalgia also lures back adults who look forward to enjoying the meal with their own children and grandchildren, too. But this has been halted temporarily as long as COVID safety precautions and supply chain challenges are still in place.

One recipe shared at any Thanksgiving gathering is the dressing. Malmquist said the district's recipe was developed years ago and has been used every year with the exception of minor adjustments from time to time. Per a request, she is sharing both the food service version as well as a home conversion.  

Carrollton City Schools
Cornbread Dressing

Serves 1,000


72 lbs. + 8 oz. cornbread

35 lbs. bread crumbs, dry, grated, plain

 5 lbs. margarine

20 lbs. onion, raw

30 lbs. celery, raw

1-1/4 cup poultry seasoning

1/3 cup + 4 tsp. black pepper

15 gal. chicken broth, low sodium 

Combine cornbread and bread crumbs in a mixing bowl. Add poultry seasoning and black pepper. In a pan, melt margarine and add celery and onions. Sauté until tender. Add to cornbread mixture. Add chicken broth. Portion mixture into 2 steam table pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes until set. Serve hot. 

Carrollton City Schools
Cornbread Dressing

Home Version 


3 cups cornbread

2 cups bread crumbs, dry, grated, plain

1 tbsp. margarine

1/4 cup onion, raw

1/4 cup celery, raw

1 tsp. poultry seasoning

1/2 tsp. black pepper

4 cups chicken broth 

Combine cornbread and bread crumbs in a mixing bowl. Add poultry seasoning and black pepper. In a small pan, melt margarine and add celery and onions. Sauté until tender. Add to cornbread mixture. Add chicken broth. Mix well. Pour into a greased 9x13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes until set. Serve hot. Enjoy!