Poor '90s parents. Sure, few of us know what we're doing as parents in general, but back then so many parents had no clue what "healthy" meant beyond the terms "fat free" and "whole wheat." The '90s food market was filled with products that were so unwholesome and unhealthy, it was almost sinister. For us kids, however, it was a glorious time. The kinds of things '90s parents let their kids eat that no parent would today were exactly the things my siblings and I enjoyed often and with great relish.
The snack cabinet in my house didn't look like my friends', but it wasn't because my mom was any kind of health nut. It was just because buying snacks for us wasn't on the forefront of her mind. She was the kind of shopper who went into the store for exactly what she needed to cook us dinner and make our lunches. If she happened to remember some Fruit Rollups and Lay's chips, we were super happy. Then again, if we were out and saw a package of gummy snacks and said "Mom? Can we?" she'd always oblige. There was never any thought of looking at the ingredients or worry about the amount of sugar. We were good "real food" eaters, too. We ate our dinners, we didn't ask for special meals, and we even went for seconds.
With my own children, I'm constantly worried about balancing their snacks with their "growing food" (i.e. the healthy foods that make up their meals). I try to make their snack foods "healthy," but I'm not a fanatic. My kids eat a whole range of garbage, from salty pretzels, Pirate's Booty, store-bought cookies (organic though!), chocolate bars, Nutella, regular white pasta, and whatever other crap we buy as treats during the day. Yes, it is a huge departure from the foods of my '90s childhood, and I am certainly not a crusader for healthy eating.
But whenever I go down the road of feeling bad about what my kids have eaten on a particularly sugary or starchy day, I think back to what a typical day looked like for me in the '90s as a kid. The kinds of foods we ate back then were way worse than what my kids eat now, and I seem to have turned out just fine.
On the handful of days when my mom splurged and got my brother and I Lunchables for school, it felt like bells were ringing and birds were singing. Lunchable Days were the best days. I couldn't wait to tear into the little plastic compartments and have a picnic with my little tray of tiny processed foods. True, I was always hungry after eating a Lunchable but I also was the envy of everyone at my lunch table and the process of eating a Lunchable far outweighed the practical aspects of having one.
I don't think I have seen one of these prepackaged lunches in years.
Cheetos are something that I eat with my husband or friends in secret when our kids aren't looking or after they are asleep. Me and my secret bag of Cheetos are like parents in the '90s smoking weed in the garage after the kids were in bed. My children have no idea what a Cheeto is, and I don't think their friends do either.
Junk Food Oatmeal
Remember Oatmeal Swirlers? It was oatmeal that came with a squeezy pack of jelly that you could decorate the top of your oatmeal with. My brother loved these things when we were kids, but that was because he just would eat the jelly and consider breakfast accomplished.
My kids actually sometimes eat McCann's Irish Oatmeal (the instant kind, obviously) in Maple Brown Sugar flavor. Other moms reading this will probably want to tie me to a horse-drawn carriage and drag me by the legs through the streets until I beg for mercy, and that's fine. I get that my children are eating about a cup of sugar every morning, but I would like these other moms to think for a moment how much worse it could be. After all, my boys could just be eating a squeeze pack of who-the-heck-knows-what chemicals disguised as "jam" and calling it breakfast.
Snacks Involving Cookies With Icing As A Regular Thing In Your Lunchbox
It wasn't considered anything at all to throw some Dunkaroos into our lunchbox as the "treat," as long as we finished the wholesome meal of our Lunchables followed by those Cheetos. Honstly, what were Dunkaroos but cookies with icing to dunk them into? Kids these days are lucky if they get an oatmeal raisin cookie in their lunch, what with all the fear about too much refined sugar and regular sugar and dreaded carbs in their diets. My own children occasionally get an old-fashioned Hershey's Kiss in their lunch, but I only show that much restraint because I know that after school they're going to visit the ice cream man or have a brownie.
Fruit Snacks (Because They Were Healthy)
Ha! Back in the '90s, parents thought fruit snacks and similar gummy snacks (Shark Bites, anyone?) were part of a balanced diet. Honestly, can you blame them? Most if not all were advertised to have been made with "real fruit." The real fruit in fruit snacks were as real as the plastic packaging was biodegradable (yeah, it wasn't).
My brother and I ate fruit snacks first thing in the morning after breakfast, just because. Even after we brushed our teeth, we could still feel the gummy fruit snack stickiness clinging to our gum line. The toothbrush was no match for the gelatinous fruit snack. Today, I barely see parents springing for the Annie's brand organic version of fruit snacks, unless it is at a birthday party. Fruit snacks are basically considered candy, and are therefore a super duper special treat among parents today.
I still wake up some mornings dreaming of that Pop-Tart-in-the-toaster smell of my childhood. There is nothing like a toasted Pop-Tart with its crispy edges and the hard candy frosting that you can peel off and eat first before tackling the salty pastry underneath. Because I associate them with the comforts of my childhood, I ate a fair amount of Pop Tarts during both of my pregnancies, and I didn't discriminate between day or night. Pop Tarts became an "anytime I damn well felt like it" food, that didn't make me want to vomit, so it became high on my desirable foods list.
I would gladly buy my boys a homemade pastry from a local coffee shop almost any day of the week, but I do draw the line at packaged breakfast pastries and snacks. Most of my peers would agree, too. But do I feel bad that my children will most likely never know the smell of burning Pop Tart icing in the toaster in the morning? Maybe a little.
Cheese In A Can
Parents who really, really loved their children in the '90s sent them camp care-packages that included squeeze cheese in a can and Ritz crackers. We knew the kids in our cabin with parents who would send the squeeze cheese and when their care-packages arrived we would crowd around them in anticipation. Once the camper opened her package, we would all clamor to take turns tipping our heads back and filling our mouths with the salty, tangy flavor of squeezable cheese.
I cannot imagine the joy that squeezable cheese would give my children if I ever were to share this invention with them. However, I'm afraid if I ever expose them to The Dark Side of Cheese, they would never want to come back to the world of organic string cheese and sensible Horizon Organic cheddar cheese singles.
Sugary Cereals First Thing In The Morning
From Rice Crispy Treats cereal to Oreo O's, '90s parents were loading up their littles with enough sugar to keep them agitated and bouncing off the walls until it was time to come home from school.
When my kids pass the sugar cereals in our local food store (which is so conveniently placed at their eye level), my oldest asks if he can have "the fun looking cereal" with his favorite cartoon character on it. Of course I feel bad for saying no, so I've come up with a pretty decent solution that seems to be working for him: I tell him that is "vacation cereal" because a few times, on vacation, we've found that only those brands of sugary cereals have been the ones available at breakfast. So after a few times of him asking and me saying no, he now says, "Oh! That's where we can get vacation cereal!"