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What does "school lunch" mean in American English? Is it ambiguous between a lunch provided by a school and a lunch prepared at home like a bag lunch?

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A school lunch can either be:

  • a lunch prepared and served in the school cafeteria, or
  • a lunch prepared at home and taken to school to be eaten there.

When I hear the term "school lunch," I typically think of the former meaning first. However, as was stated in a comment by @userr2684291, the latter meaning is still valid. (Just because a phrase usually means one thing doesn't mean it never means another.) Here are a couple quotes that use the term in this way:

When I was in the second grade, my mom packed my school lunch every day in a brown paper bag. (Aegina Angeliades, My Skin Don't Fit, 2014)

If you need fresh ideas for making healthy school lunches, leftovers can save the day. (VegKitchen website)


As a footnote, you should remember that any two-word term like "school lunch" may have more than one meaning. Moreover, when you say "in American English," you should know that regionalisms may and often do apply.

Hotdish and a frappe for lunch, anyone?

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    +1 In my kids' (Midwestern American) school, the terms hot lunch and cold lunch are used to distinguish between school-provided and sent-from-home meals (even if those adjectives don't always match the actual meals); I assume this is because school lunch is ambiguous. – 1006a Jun 23 '17 at 16:19
  • Where I'm from on the East Coast (US), hot lunch and cold lunch both refer to lunch provided by the school - the former is something that is actually hot and the latter is usually a (cold) sandwich. – Mixolydian Mar 15 at 16:08
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I'm not American but "school lunch" is a meal, typically in the middle or beginning of the school day, provided to students at school. That's what Wikipedia says.

Your second description "lunch prepared at home like a bag lunch" is actually a "packed lunch" (or bag lunch in North America) - a lunch prepared at home and carried to be eaten somewhere else, such as school, a workplace, or at an outing. As says Wikipedia.

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    If you google pack a school lunch, you'll find a large number of results – mainly American websites containing that or similar phrases. For example, here's an article from NBCnews.com titled Tips to help pack the perfect school lunch; or this one from WashingtonPost.com titled Packing a school lunch, Trabocchi style. – userr2684291 Jun 22 '17 at 12:44
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    @userr2684291 Now, that's still a packed lunch that will be consumed at a school lunch. In Russia it's the same "школьный обед" - you can pack it and bring with you or eat at school what they give you. it all depends on the context. – SovereignSun Jun 22 '17 at 12:49
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    I don't see what the Russian term has to do with anything. I don't think it depends on the context at all. There are numerous websites calling it "school lunch". The phrase, "consumed at a school lunch" doesn't look grammatical, anyway. – userr2684291 Jun 22 '17 at 12:58
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    @P.E.Dant The fact that it's not English and is therefore immaterial to the discussion. As though I'm supposed to somehow be enlightened by it or something? Or the coincidence that Russian speakers use some kind of equivalent (which isn't one at all, because I believe the first word there is an adjective, not a noun, for starters). But as long as you're glad to've learned about it! – userr2684291 Jun 22 '17 at 21:21
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    Thank you! When I am next in Zagreb, the list of my opportunities to make a fool of myself in the local language will be smaller by one—although I should hope no-one will be expecting me to brown-bag it. – P. E. Dant Jun 22 '17 at 21:56
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School lunch is the meal eaten at school.

Now here in this sentence it doesn't say anything if the lunch is provided by the school authority or prepared at some other place with the objective of eating it at school.

Home made school lunch

So the school lunch is the typical lunch that is packed at home to be eaten at school, or provided by the school itself to be eaten at lunch break at the school.

Lunch on a tray with compartments

It's estimated that 30.6 million students in the US get their lunches in the school cafeteria versus bringing it from home. (Source).

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    For me, in London,, 1957 to 1970, it was "school dinner", served by a "dinner lady". – Michael Harvey Sep 6 '18 at 14:44
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    There is a story (related by Tom Shields, who collects unusual occurrences in Scotland) of a councillor meeting a school "dinner lady" who says that "we've the homies, the dinnies and the packies" and thinks the dinner lady is being rude until she explains that the homies go home for lunch, the dinnies have school dinner, and the packies bring a packed lunch. – Owain Mar 4 at 20:31
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To add on to the other answers: "School lunch" is ambiguous. It could be provided by the school for the midday meal, or one that you bring with you to eat at school. Without context, you don't know for sure which is meant, or even if there is any relevant difference.

In addition, "school lunch" (commonly "lunchtime") can also be the time period during which students normally eat the midday meal, and then go play or talk or whatever else they are permitted to do during that break time. Example:

Mister Potter. As you have been told, school lunch is for eating or playing with your friends. It is not for drawing magic circles and transforming your fellow students into newts. We are not that kind of school.

Again, context is important to understand which is meant.

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