How to Become a

School Cafeteria Cook

The complete career guide to be a School Cafeteria Cook: salary, job growth, employers, best schools, and education you may need to get started.

Why We Love It

  • $19,710
    Potential Avg. Salary
  • 10.9%
    Job Growth Rate
  • Growing Demand
    Job Outlook
  • Dependable Daily Workload
    Career Attribute

School cafeteria cooks prepare meals for elementary, middle, and high school students in large quantities. Generally, cafeteria cooks work off of a set menu and recipes, and they rarely—if ever—accept special order requests. They may also serve food to students during breakfast and lunch.

Recommended Schools

What is a School Cafeteria Cook?

The following job responsibilities are common for individuals in school cafeteria cook roles:

  • Prepare large quantities of food from established recipes and menus
  • Store prepared food, and serve food to students during meal times
  • Clean kitchen and working areas at beginning and end of shifts, and throughout the day
  • Ensure food preparation and handling guidelines are observed to prevent foodborne illness

A Day in the Life

School cafeteria cooks prepare food for students of elementary, middle, and high schools—both public and private. The types of foods cooked and served may vary by grade level and institution. For example, students in elementary school may have a set number of buffet options to choose from, while middle and/or high school students may have the ability to order food a la carte. In general, cafeteria cooks prepare large quantities of food before busy meal times, and serve food to students when they arrive.

Generally, school menus and recipes are created by a chef and/or nutritionist to ensure that students of different ages get balanced meals and the nutrition needed to support healthy growth. As such, school cafeteria cooks generally get to know recipes well and can create their food without too much trouble. In addition to cooking and serving responsibilities, school cafeteria cooks may also have responsibilities for food prep, cleaning the kitchen and buffet area, and stocking food when deliveries arrive.

One critical piece of the responsibilities of a school cafeteria cook is proper food preparation and handling. Because young children do not have fully developed immune systems, foodborne illnesses can be much more detrimental, and school cafeteria cooks serve as the line of defense against mistakes that lead to foodborne illness. While all cooks must take care when preparing food, school cafeteria cooks must be even more adamant to ensure the children in their care remain healthy.

Typical Work Schedule

Most school cafeteria cooks work when school is in session. If the school offers breakfast, they may start working early in the morning, but they finish shortly after lunch period ends each day. They’re generally off nights, weekends, holidays, and over seasonal breaks.

Typical Employers

School cafeteria cooks are hired by daycares as well as elementary, middle, and high schools—both public and private.

Recommended Schools

How To Become a School Cafeteria Cook

Generally, only a high school diploma is needed to work as a school cafeteria cook. However, experience working as a cook in anther facility is usually a prerequisite for securing an open position. Many school cafeteria cooks start as fast food cooks, table bussers, or dishwashers, and work their way up to prep cook, line cook, or short-order cook positions. Once gaining some experience as a cook in a restaurant, you should qualify for open positions as a school cafeteria cook.

Instead of starting in entry-level positions, some aspiring school cafeteria cooks opt to instead earn a cooking certificate from a community college or vocational school. This certificate can take the place of experience and can help job seekers find work as school cafeteria cooks as soon as they graduate. Certificate programs usually require just a few months to a year to complete and may be preferred to working in fast food or as a dishwasher for some individuals.

Because school cafeteria cooks work with children, they usually must pass a background check, and they may also have to pass a drug test. Individuals with criminal records may not qualify to work in a school, but the rules depend on the institution and the laws of the location you work in.

School Cafeteria Cook Salary Data

We’ve provided you the following to learn more about this career. The salary and growth data on this page comes from recently published Bureau of Labor Statistics data while the recommendations and editorial content are based on our research.

National Anual Salary

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High Range


National Hourly Wage

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High Range


How do School Cafeteria Cook salaries stack up to other jobs across the country? Based on the latest jobs data nationwide, School Cafeteria Cook's can make an average annual salary of $19,710, or $9 per hour. This makes it an Above Average Salary. On the lower end, they can make $17,630 or $8 per hour, perhaps when just starting out or based on the state you live in.

Salary Rankings And Facts

  • #813 Nationally for All Careers

Highest Education Among School Cafeteria Cooks

  • 0.3%   Doctorate
  • 0.8%   Masters
  • 5%   Bachelors
  • 5.8%   Associates
  • 23%   College
  • 43.9%   High School
  • 21.2%   Less than High School

Job Growth Projections and Forecast

2014 Total Jobs


2024 Est. Jobs


Job Growth Rate


Est. New Jobs


How does School Cafeteria Cook job growth stack up to other jobs across the country? By 2024, there will be a change of 343,500 jobs for a total of 3,503,200 people employed in the career nationwide. This is a 10.9% change in growth over the next ten years, giving the career a growth rate nationwide of Below Average.

Growth Rankings And Facts

  • #166 Nationally for All Careers

What Companies Employ The Most School Cafeteria Cooks

Industry Current Jobs New Jobs Needed % Increase
Elementary and secondary schools; local 133,900 10,700 11%
Special food services 124,700 5,900 6%
Full-service restaurants 124,000 -400 0%

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