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Will a Cafeteria Tray Solve All My Problems?

Four months into quarantine, a regression back to the safety of middle school dining

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Overhead photo of green cafeteria tray with various dishes in each compartment, including an apple, a salad, and a burger. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

“Do you have kids that hate when their food touches?” reads the first line of an email that popped up in my inbox this morning, advertising corrals that separate foods on a plate. I am, in fact, childless, and slightly too old to be child myself, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to delete the pitch for these bright orange plastic dividers, one holding back a small mountain of peas, the other containing a soupy plop of mixed fruit salad that will haunt me. (Like Kool-Aid jar and Kool-Aid liquid, fruit salad and plastic peel-top container should never be separated.)

I’m not a particularly picky eater, and at some point in most meals I mix my food into an unrecognizable — but delicious — pile of intermingling flavors and textures. Yet I find something about these weird plastic dividers deeply soothing. They’re a reminder that while I am neither child nor parent, I can do whatever the hell I want during this global crisis, and what I want is to eat like a baby. Suddenly, I find myself longing for the OG food-separating device, which has been putting in the work for decades: the cafeteria tray. There’s the little circular compartment for the cup of fruit (never poured out of the container, please!!), a slightly larger rectangular trough to house mashed potatoes, and another that I’d always ask the lunch cook to fill with a double portion of fish sticks — truly the greatest gastronomic invention of our time.

I can’t stop looking at cafeteria trays online. I think I’ll skip the cute vintage ones geared toward Millennials Who Picnic, and buy a couple bright red plastic trays, probably from the same supplier my middle school used. Those school lunches weren’t great, but I remember looking forward to them. I’d check the menu posted on the gym wall every morning, and when 12 o’clock came around, I walked my way down the cafeteria line, filling the tray with an intentionally mismatched hodgepodge of foods. A hamburger, canned peaches, pretzels, and a little tub of yogurt wouldn’t have ended up on the same plate at home, but on my tray they formed a (sorta) perfect meal. I knew my lunch was composed when the last outlined section was filled with a cookie or a small carton of chocolate milk.

I don’t miss school lunches, but I crave the variety and simplicity that these trays created. In my own kitchen, the two contradict: If I want variety it means more cooking, and my desire for simple dinners usually sees me making two dishes at most. I can’t remember the last time I fixed up a salad to accompany dinner, the washing of lettuce and the making of dressing feeling like entirely too much work. In the before times, shaking up a jar of oil and mustard was effortless. Now, boiling a pot of rice sometimes feels like a commitment I can not make.

Like any good internet purchase made on a whim, I’m fairly certain this one will change my life. A plastic tray, one that could drop from a rooftop and ricochet back, doesn’t leave much room for pretension. It lowers expectations that a meal will be perfect, that it’ll be complete, that one element will complement the next. Each little corral will be filled with something — even if it’s just a handful of nuts or a cup of granola. In place of chocolate milk, a gin and tonic will sit in the Drink Circle. I’ll do away with the pressure to make a “real” meal, and I’ll eat in front of the TV with my dinner balanced on my knees.

There will be no Instagram photos of my little pre-portioned scoops of tuna salad with crackers on the side, or my baked chicken with a handful of raisins and a spoonful of peanut butter. Months ago, I couldn’t snap a photo fast enough, broadcasting my pancakes, my burgers, my bread to the people of the internet. Now, I’d rather assemble my tray of mismatched snacks and leftovers, and eat my mini tray buffet in peace.