Cafeteria food might conjure images of mystery meat or tuna surprise, but one lunch lady is only singing its praises after losing 100 lbs. by eating her own school’s meals for a year.
Tammy McRae weighed 265 lbs. at the beginning of the 2015 school year at Carver Elementary School in Baytown, Texas. One year later, she’s down to 165 lbs. after swapping her fast food runs for eating the same breakfasts and lunches as the students.
“I feel so alive,” McRae, 47, tells PEOPLE, adding that now as a size 12, she no longer has to struggle to fit into movie theater seats, roller coaster rides or airplane seat belts.
McRae wasn’t overweight growing up or in early adulthood but gained almost 70 lbs. when she was pregnant with her second child, now 18. Weighing 199 lbs. when her son was born, “I didn’t stop eating,” and within four months she was tipping the scales at 286 lbs. “I gained 87 lbs. after he was born,” she says.
With a toddler daughter at home, the stay-at-home mom “probably had some postpartum depression” and says she was eating constantly. “I had no goals, no control over food. Food was my comfort.”
Over the years, she managed to lose about 20 lbs., but then the scale got stuck at 265 lbs.
In 2011, McRae went back to work, getting a job as a cafeteria dishwasher in her local school district. She also started taking classes at the community college.
“I was on a ‘find myself’ journey,” she says.
She quickly rose through the ranks, and last year was promoted to cafeteria manager at Carver.
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On the first day in her new position in 2015, an unpleasant encounter with a parent turned into a life-changing moment.
“I recognized the parent’s attitude: ‘You’re a fat, stupid cafeteria lady,'” she says. “I’m supposed to be this child’s nutrition manager, and I don’t look like nutrition personnel. I should look better. I should feel better.”
Right then she resolved, “I’m not going to live my life being fat.”
Knowing the meals she served were required to meet nutritional standards and included whole wheat, fresh fruits and vegetables while limiting such ingredients as salt and sugar, she decided to eat exactly what the students did.
Soon she was eating such cafeteria dishes as breakfast pizza with turkey sausage on a whole-wheat crust instead of a typical breakfast of fast food sausage, egg and cheese biscuits and two to three bowls of sugary cereals. For lunch, she swapped out fast food burgers, fries and soft drinks for school options like a turkey hot dog with carrots, a piece of whole fruit and 1 percent milk, or nacho salad made with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, chips and salsa.
For dinner, she’d usually prepare one of the school’s breakfast or lunch recipes at home. As a side benefit, her husband even ended up losing about 30 lbs.
Now McRae wants to lead by example for the 720 students she serves, showing that they, too, can achieve their own goals.
“It may not be food. It may be school work or behavior,” she says. “They know it can be done.”