Creative Uses for Cafeteria Trays | Child Holding Lunch Tray

7 Creative Uses for Stainless Steel Cafeteria Trays

By Dr. Manasa Mantravadi



Time to Read: 8 min

Stainless Steel Cafeteria Trays

Cafeteria trays – those familiar, rectangular companions of lunchtime routines. But did you know they can hold a wealth of possibilities beyond simply carrying food? With a little imagination, a school cafeteria's supply of trays can transform into versatile tools that support learning, creativity, and fun across a wide range of subjects. Let's explore how we can give these everyday items a whole new purpose in the classroom!

About Ahimsa

Founded by a pediatrician and mom of three

Stainless steel is the only kid-friendly material recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics 

We are guided by a Scientific Advisory Council comprised of environmental and medical experts, guiding us in creating the safest products, following the latest science and promoting policy to protect human health and our planet

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Math Manipulatives Station

Imagine a group of students huddled together, their cafeteria tray transformed into a mini-math workshop.  Colorful counters spill into compartments, some sorted by color, others forming neat rows to represent numbers. Base ten blocks click together within the outlined sections of the tray, visually demonstrating the concept of tens and ones. A pair of dice rattle and roll, their landing spot determining the next equation to be solved.

That's the power of cafeteria trays as math manipulatives stations. They give those sometimes abstract math concepts a physical form to be manipulated and explored.  Whether students are working individually to reinforce skills or collaborating in groups to tackle new problems, the portability of these trays allows for flexible, hands-on math learning anywhere in the classroom.

Science Experiments

Cafeteria trays aren't just for lunchtime; they make fantastic science labs in miniature! Their raised edges are perfect for containing experiments, especially those that might get a bit messy. Here are a few ideas to spark scientific inquiry:

  • Water Displacement: Fill a compartment with water, then let students predict and measure how much the water level rises when they submerge objects of different shapes and sizes. This is a hands-on exploration of volume and displacement.
  • Mini Ecosystems: A cafeteria tray can become the base for a thriving ecosystem! Fill a compartment with soil, add small plants, and include some insects for observation. Students can monitor the interactions within their contained environment.
  • Mixing Ingredients: Whether exploring states of matter with simple mixtures like "oobleck" or observing the bubbly results of a vinegar and baking soda reaction, cafeteria trays help contain the excitement of discovery while minimizing the mess.

The beauty of these tray-based experiments is their adaptability. They can easily be scaled to suit various learning levels and topics, fostering curiosity and scientific thinking while keeping those inevitable spills in check.

Art and Craft Central

Cafeteria trays shine as portable art studios! Their compartments naturally encourage the organization of paints, brushes, and other supplies. This helps create focused workspaces where students can unleash their creativity without worrying about runaway glitter or stray paint splatters.  Imagine a tray filled with vibrant watercolors or modeling clay with shaping tools at the ready.  The tray sets boundaries, encouraging focused exploration of materials and minimizing the chance of those colorful creations ending up on the floor or wandering over onto someone else's work.

Miniature Story Scenes

Cafeteria trays offer a unique stage for students to bring the stories they read to life! After a class reading session or individual exploration of a book, a simple tray can become a three-dimensional setting for reimagining key scenes and characters.

Encourage students to tap into their creativity and resourcefulness. Construction paper can transform into rolling hills or a stormy sea when taped to the back of the tray. Hand-drawn figures on popsicle sticks become the brave adventurers of the story. Natural materials like small stones, leaves, or sticks add depth and texture to the setting. For younger kids, ready-made figurines or playdough creations can populate their tray-based story worlds.

These miniature scenes go beyond simple crafts. They encourage visualization, critical analysis of stories, and promote collaboration as students discuss the details of their scene, the choices they've made to represent characters, and how it reflects a particular moment within the narrative. Turning cafeteria trays into literary stages offers a multisensory way to delve deeper into the world of books.

Portable Playdough Station

The smooth, flat surface and compartments of a cafeteria tray make it an ideal playdough playground. A dedicated tray stocked with playdough, rolling pins, cookie cutters, and other shaping tools creates a self-contained sensory station that's easily movable around the classroom.

Playdough is a fantastic medium for fostering fine motor skills, encouraging open-ended creativity, and providing a calming, tactile experience. The designated space and organized tools that a tray provides can help students focus on the joy of molding and creating. Plus, the raised edges of the tray minimize the cleanup required when those colorful creations occasionally venture beyond the workspace. It's a win-win for both students and teachers.

Cafeteria Tray Races

It's time to inject a burst of active fun into the classroom with cafeteria tray races! This simple yet engaging activity requires minimal setup and fosters teamwork, coordination, and plenty of giggles. To play, simply gather a few lightweight objects like bean bags, crumpled paper balls, or small stuffed animals.

Organize students into teams and set up a simple course—it could be across the classroom or incorporate a hallway loop. Each team member takes a turn balancing their cafeteria tray with the object on top, racing against the clock or other teams in a relay format.

This twist on the classic egg-and-spoon race encourages students to practice balance, focus, and coordination with an added dose of friendly competition. It's also a wonderful way to break up the day with a bit of physical activity and laughter.

Musical Instruments

It's time to turn the classroom into a symphony of unconventional sounds! Cafeteria trays, with a little rhythmic creativity, make surprisingly fun musical instruments.

Encourage students to explore different ways to create sound with their trays. Drumming with their fingers or tapping with pencils produces a percussive rhythm. Experimenting with striking the tray at different angles and with varying levels of intensity creates a range of tones. Scraping objects like rulers or coins along the surface adds interesting textures to their musical creations.

For younger children, this is a fantastic introduction to rhythm, tempo, and exploring different sounds. Older students can challenge themselves to create simple melodies or coordinate rhythms with their classmates to form a cafeteria tray band!


Cafeteria trays may seem like ordinary objects, but look a little closer and you'll find a wealth of possibilities for hands-on learning and imaginative reuse. By thinking outside the lunchroom, teachers can unlock the potential of these simple tools and transform them into resources that support a wide variety of educational experiences.

Remember, Ahimsa's stainless steel trays are particularly well-suited for these creative classroom adventures. They're exceptionally durable, toxin-free, and made to last – ensuring that they can withstand the excitement and creativity that comes with years of learning and play.

Shop Ahimsa Schools today for cafeteria trays and more.

Dr. Manasa Mantravadi

Dr. Manasa Mantravadi

Dr. Manasa Mantravadi is a board-certified pediatrician whose dedication to children’s health drove her to launch Ahimsa, the world's first colorful stainless steel dishes for kids. She was motivated by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ findings on harmful chemicals in plastic affecting children's well-being. Ahimsa has gained widespread recognition and been featured in media outlets such as Parents Magazine, the Today Show, The Oprah Magazine, and more.

Dr. Mantravadi received the esteemed “Physician Mentor of the Year” award at Indiana University School of Medicine in 2019. She was also named a Forbes Next 1000 Entrepreneur in 2021, with her inspiring story showcased on Good Morning America. She serves on the Council for Environmental Health and Climate Change and the Council for School Health at The American Academy of Pediatrics. She represents Ahimsa as a U.S. industry stakeholder on the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for the Global Plastics Treaty, led by the United Nations Environment Program. Dr. Mantravadi leads Ahimsa's social impact program, The Conscious Cafeteria Project, to reduce carbon emissions and safeguard student health as part of a national pilot of the Clinton Global Initiative.

She is dedicated to educating and empowering people to make healthier, more environmentally friendly choices at mealtime. Her mission remains to advocate for the health of all children and the one planet we will leave behind for them through real policy change within our food system.

Mealtime Essentials for Your Home

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I use stainless steel instead of plastic? Is stainless steel better for health?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report in July 2018 suggesting ways that families can limit exposure to certain chemicals at mealtime, including “the use of alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.” The report explained that “…some additives are put directly in foods, while “indirect” additives may include chemicals from plastic, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard”. Further, “Children are more sensitive to chemical exposures because they eat and drink more, relative to body weight, than adults do, and are still growing and developing.” While stainless steel items meet the recommendation to avoid plastic products in children, Ahimsa® products have the obvious advantage of not breaking like glass.

Is stainless steel better for the environment than plastic?

According to the Steel Recycling Institute, steel can be recycled over and over and over again without losing its integrity and requires less energy to recycle than to make anew. Most plastic unfortunately ends up in landfills and it is estimated to take 700 years to decompose. Our special coloring process that allows Ahimsa® products to be fully metal is environmentally friendly, so it does not produce toxic run-off into the ecosystem.

Will Ahimsa products break or peel?

No. Our steel is durable, so it won’t break or shatter with everyday use, like glass. And it won’t peel, like other colored stainless steel products you’ve seen. We use a special process that allows the colors to naturally occur in the metal.

Which Ahimsa products are best for my little one(s)?

Our products are meant to last, you can use Ahimsa at ages 1, 8 and 18! We thoughtfully design our products to be safe for little ones and our planet while reducing consumption. Once your child outgrows the Starting Solids Set  and can use regular cups and utensils, the training cup is the perfect size rinse cup in the bathroom, the infant spoon doubles as a tea stirrer and the bowl is great for snacks or as an additional compartment to our modular divided plate. Our plates are great for any age as they encourage choosing a variety of healthy foods at each meal and help visualize portion sizes easily. It’s the lasting beauty of stainless steel - grows with your child and reduces waste.

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