The ‘90s were a wild time. For a minute there, it really felt like we were living in the future. Absolutely bizarre movies and TV dominated our screens, and during commercial breaks, we were treated to advertisements for similarly unhinged packaged, highly processed foods. These were the days when fruit snacks were regarded as roughly as nutritious as fresh fruit (in my mind, at least), and sugar-laden cereal functioned as a “healthy” breakfast.
Yes, the food industry giants had us tricked into eating borderline addictive products that have probably shaved years off our lives. But putting aside the evil consequences of mixing nutrition and capitalism, we had fun. We ate our sweetened snacks, plucked out of our TV character lunchboxes, with joy and gusto.
Although some of the products we enjoyed back then are still on grocery store shelves, many of us can’t get over the dubious lists of incomprehensible-sounding ingredients on the nutrition labels now, which can make these treats less exciting than they once were. But that shouldn’t stop us from going back in time and reminiscing on what put a smile on our faces when we opened our lunchboxes in the ‘90s.
If there’s one lunchbox dessert staple I will never get enough of, it’s the Cosmic Brownie. To me, Cosmic Brownies truly represented the height of fine dining. Somewhere, deep down, I was aware that these dense, oily little packaged snacks were not as good as the brownies my mom made from scratch. But the joy of punching the little colored candies into the brownie before opening the package was so immense, I don’t think I’ll ever stop enjoying these things.
Although there are plenty of Little Debbie products that bring me back, Cosmic Brownies are the ones that I’ll always love the most. My sincere apologies to the HoHo.
Dunkaroos are another iconic dessert that took hold in the ‘90s. But for some reason, I had forgotten about these things until recently when they reappeared on store shelves. This do-it-yourself snack was both interactive and tasty. The long, thin container contained a slot for cookies, while the other side contained a super-sugary frosting to dip the cookies in. And even though it was basically just sugar on sugar, this snack was really, really good.
I remember Dunkaroos being one of the more coveted items being passed around the lunchroom. You may have been able to trade a Capri Sun for one of these bad boys, but a Hi-C just wouldn’t cut it.
What ‘90s kid’s lunchbox would be complete without the ubiquitous Lunchables tray? In my childhood home, Lunchables were certainly not an everyday occurrence. They were a special treat that would significantly brighten my lunchtime whenever I was lucky enough to convince my mom to pick one up for me from the store. When I was really young, the turkey and cheese with crackers variety was my go-to. But as I got older, I realized that the pizza ones were elite.
To be fair, I haven’t totally given up on Lunchables. If you’re hiking, floating down a river or really doing anything outdoors, they can still make a great snack. Lunchables were truly the pinnacle of lunchbox food, and I hope future generations can continue to indulge like I have for so many years.
There are few foods as openly offensive as Fruit Gushers, but for some reason, they were super popular back in my school days. Fruit snacks were common anyway, but these particular bad boys took things too far. Inside the weirdly gummy exterior was a pocket of artificially flavored liquid sugar that would, quite literally, gush into your mouth, presumably wreaking havoc on ‘90s kids’ dental health. Gushers were truly obscene, and they’re probably at least partly to blame for my generation’s slew of mental health crises. But for some reason, I never passed them up at the time.
In the ‘90s, food products were often marketed directly toward kids, and Go-Gurt was no exception. It was quite literally just a tube of yogurt with seemingly nothing special about it apart from the delivery method. Why kids couldn’t just eat yogurt with a spoon, I’ll never know, but these things were all over the lunchroom.
I think part of the idea was that it would be less messy if little ones weren’t flinging yogurt around with a spoon. But still, I remember several kids with rings of strawberry yogurt crusting around their mouths after they left the lunch room, so I’m not sure how successful that line of thought was.
I think the fact that I sometimes got SpaghettiOs for lunch speaks to my privilege because I know my mom woke up just a bit earlier to heat those soft, round noodles and sugary tomato sauce before she put the stuff in a thermos for me to take to school on cold winter days. And to her credit, I think she found the “pasta” (a very liberal use of the word) disgusting, but she gave it to me whenever I started craving it anyway.
Looking back, I really think SpaghettiOs are the worst food product on this list. I’ve tasted it since becoming an adult and was actually blown away by how unappetizing it was. Suffice it to say that I don’t have any of it stashed in my pantry these days.
Finally, the most elite drink of the ‘90s lunchbox era: SunnyD. Some may claim that Capri Suns were the best drink of the decade, but I wholeheartedly disagree. SunnyD tried to market itself as a healthier alternative to soda despite the fact that it hardly contains any real juice and is essentially just orange-flavored corn syrup. That being said, it definitely tasted better than any soda, so I don’t think I cared at the time whether it was healthy or not.
Opening my lunchbox to find one of these was truly a highlight of childhood. While I no longer partake, SunnyD will always remind me of simpler, less stressful times.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.