Cafeteria Sloppy Joes

Cafeteria Sloppy Joes take you right back to the lunch line in school! This simple, tangy and sweet sloppy joe recipe is a family favorite!

Nostalgic recipes like this one where the food brings back childhood memories are always so much fun to make! Some other family favorites for us are Grandma’s Sunday Meatballs and Sauce or my Dad’s Eggplant Parmesan – yep, we like our Italian cooking!

mini sloppy joe sliders on a plate

Cafeteria Sloppy Joes Recipe

So what the heck are Cafeteria Sloppy Joes? It’s a retro sloppy joe recipe that dates back to when lunch ladies actually cooked and prepared food in schools. I do remember visiting my Grandma’s catholic school where she used to work and being amazed that the kids in that school were getting my Grandma’s homemade food.

Every day. So lucky for them, I only got it on Sundays when we visited her in downtown Chicago, which wasn’t too far from the suburb that we lived, but still it seems really far to me.

This simple ground beef recipe can be put together in just about 20 minutes, or made ahead of time and warmed up in the microwave. Our boys like to add cheese to their sliders too!

How To Make Sloppy Joes

Start by cooking onion and garlic in a large skillet with olive oil. This sloppy joe recipe does have a decent amount of onion, but it does get cooked down until nice and sweet and caramelized. The onion adds so much favor to the ground beef, you definitely don’t want to cut back on that.

Add ground beef to the skillet and brown with the onions and garlic. Season the ground beef with salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne pepper, brown sugar and chili powder. Now stir in the ketchup, yep, ketchup instead of tomato sauce.

Ground beef filling for sloppy joe recipe

Ketchup is thicker than tomato sauce so it makes this sloppy joe recipe super thick and tangy, along with a splash of apple cider vinegar. So you’ve got that sweet and tangy flavor from the brown sugar and vinegar – it’s the perfect combination.

Just let the ground beef mixture simmer for about 5 minutes and then you can start piling onto slider buns or full size buns if you choose.

Cafeteria Sloppy Joes on a plate with tater tots

What Sides Go Best With Sloppy Joes?

Obviously french fries or tater tots like we have here but also there’s so many other options! We’ll list a few here but you can also head over to our Side Dish Menu and check out the rest!

Sloppy Joe sliders on a plate with tater tots

Can You Make Sloppy Joes Ahead Of Time?

Yep, absolutely. You can make this ground beef recipe a day or two ahead of time and just reheat it on the stove top or in the microwave. We like to make a double batch of these sloppy joes and have it at the ready for easy meals during the week!

Keep this sloppy joe recipe covered in the refrigerator and  it’ll last up to 4 days, if it actually lasts that long!

Can You Substitute Ground Turkey In This Recipe?

Definitely. You can even use ground chicken or a combination of different meats. Adding some ground pork to the ground beef mixture will add a delicious, bacony flavor that’s out of this world.

But if you’re looking to save some calories, you can totally swap out turkey or chicken. 

Cafeteria Sloppy Joes being held in hand

Looking For More Easy Dinner Recipes?

Sloppy Joe sliders on a plate with tater tots

Cafeteria Sloppy Joes

  • Author: Dan
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Yield: 6 Servings 1x

Cafeteria Sloppy Joes take you right back to the lunch line in school! This perfectly sweet and tangy, easy to make ground beef recipe is a family favorite!



  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 1/4 pounds ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/21 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Fresh black pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup ketchup 
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water


  1. Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes to soften, then add the ground beef and cook while breaking up into crumbles as it cooks. Drain any drippings from the skillet, then add the garlic and cook a minute longer.
  2. Season the beef and onions with cumin, salt, pepper, chili powder, brown sugar and cayenne pepper. Stir to combine and the pour in the ketchup, apple cider vinegar and water.
  3. Bring the sloppy joes to a simmer for 7-8 minutes to thicken the sauce and then serve on buns.
  • Category: Dinner
  • Method: Stove Top
  • Cuisine: American

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