The year: 1994. The scene: my elementary school lunchroom. The surroundings: kids with Lunchables. Cracker-and-cheese Lunchables, taco Lunchables, waffle Lunchables, and the Lunchables to end all Lunchables — the pizza Lunchables. For a scrawny 8-year-old girl, there's a surprising amount of envy flowing through my body.
That's because my super-frugal parents don't buy me Lunchables. My mom, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, instead makes me thoughtful lunches: robust sandwiches, Asian leftovers, soups in a Thermos. But I don't care about her lovingly prepared meals or concerns about my saturated-fat intake. I want Lunchables. I want to be the cool kid; to stack crackers, and manhandle cold cuts, and decorate uncooked pizzas.
Many kids, as it turned out, felt the same way — and still do. Lunchables brings in nearly a billion dollars a year, according to Michael Moss in Salt Sugar Fat. Created by Oscar Mayer in 1988, the product rescued the bologna industry and changed the way kids lunch.
"The little trays, by transforming bologna into a product kids were suddenly clamoring for, would also … save the jobs of the Oscar Mayer workers who made the fat-laden meats that were running afoul of the public's concern for its health," writes Moss. "The trays created an entirely new category of food, one that exposed Americans, especially young kids, to the thrills of fast food that heretofore were the purview of restaurant chains like McDonald's and Burger King."
Unlike the other food fads of my youth — French Toast Crunch, String Thing, Orbitz drinks, Crispy M&Ms — Lunchables stood the test of time. And despite my adult knowledge of things like heart disease, diabetes, and so on, I found myself coveting one after reading Moss' book. Since the product and I had basically grown up together, it was like a long-lost sibling I'd never met.
I'd never get to climb the Aggro Crag — but Lunchables? That I could do. No longer was I just a girl in a cafeteria; I was a self-employed woman who could buy her own damn plastic container of childhood dreams. Although I shuddered thinking of the protracted list of septisyllabic ingredients, I just had to know how it felt to be a Lunchables kid. Not just for myself, but for all the wannabe Lunchables kids out there.
Buy some for your own 8-year-old self: Lunchables $30 for six
So I purchased two classics: turkey and cheddar with crackers and pepperoni pizza. (Since, unlike Lunchables' target market, I'm not a 50-pound child, I thought I needed two.) In the name of historical accuracy, I left them in my backpack, unrefrigerated, all day long.
At lunchtime, I peeled back the inviting yellow wrapper, feeling a shiver of joy as I finally made my dream come true. I eagerly stacked my meat and cheddar and crackers. It was surprisingly decent. I mean, the meat-cheese-cracker combo is classic; something I might serve or be served at a grown-up dinner party. The fact that all my ingredients were ready to go was just a bonus.
Then I cracked open the long-lusted-after pizza Lunchables. While cold, never-cooked pizza might not sound appealing, Moss explained: "Kids saw nothing but fun … [they] got to make their own pizza right at school, while their schoolmates looked on with envy." Although I had no schoolmates to make envious, I knew I was making my elementary-school self proud.
As I made my raw delicacy, adult questions raced through my mind. How am I supposed to spread the sauce? Why won't my fingers fit into the cheese compartment? With the amount of money and brains that went into creating this "crust," couldn't they have made it taste a little less like week-old pita bread? Clearly, I was less enthusiastic about this choice. I think there's some ancient law that states you must be under the age of 10 to enjoy uncooked pizza — although I will say that the sauce was pleasantly zesty.
After finishing, I thought about what I had accomplished. Sure, I had just consumed two-thirds of my daily recommended value of sodium and saturated fat in less than six minutes, and potentially ostracized myself from coworkers who cared about minor issues — like health, plastic waste, and animal welfare — but I had made it.
Eight-year-old me wouldn't have cared about the countries I've traveled to, the publications I've written for, or the relationships I've formed. She probably would only have two questions to determine my level of success: Do you have a dog yet? And do you get to eat Lunchables?
I'm honored I can finally say yes to the second question … even if it's a privilege I probably won't ever exercise again.