Back in the day, we didn’t really think much about nutrition. Well, at least I didn't. I was too preoccupied with cable television and AOL and MTV's TRL. And my parents seemed too tired and too busy working to give my lunches all that much thought. It’s not that they didn’t care, of course, it's just that they didn’t realize that so many companies were duping them into buying school lunches they thought were healthy... but totally weren’t. My parents didn't have a constant stream of information at their fingertips, like I do now that I'm a mom. And nutritional labels were just starting to become a thing, so no one really understood how to read them. Most folks, or at least my parents, just ate what they wanted to eat. It was a simpler time, though certainly not necessarily a healthier one.
As a kid, I recall having what I now know was one of the most unhealthy diets of all time. My lunches usually consisted of a box of Lunchables (usually the pizza variety, since ham and turkey weren’t my thing) or a bag of chips (like Doritos or Cheetos), plus a Handi-Snack (for... protein?), a juice (maybe a Capri Sun or a Squeeze-It). And the piece de resistance? You guessed it: a Little Debbie zebra cake.
Honestly, it’s a miracle I made it past elementary school eating the way I did. My mother was an immigrant from Central America though, and she didn't have these types of convenience foods where she previously lived. So, she indulged by letting me indulge. So with that in mind, ready to go down school cafeteria memory lane?
Bologna & Cheese Sandwiches
We all took some version of this sandwich to school at some point as kids, right? Oscar Mayer bologna was a major food staple when I was a kid, even though it contained things like “mechanically separated chicken” and about six different ingredients that start with the word “sodium.”
To make matters worse, these sandwiches were usually made with white bread, mayonnaise, and American Kraft singles. Lettuce? No way.
Granola bars were one of my favorite random snacks to find in my lunch box. I didn’t get them often (we were partial to Little Debbie cakes, thank you ver much), but when I did, I thought, “Hey! Something good for me!” Except, well, no.
Unless you make these bad boys yourself, you're consuming a you-know-what ton of sugar, which won’t exactly help you feel great at the end of the day.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches aren’t exactly the worst, but they probably were when I was a kid. Each tablespoon of Smuckers grape jam contains a whopping 13 grams of sugar (and you know you probably used at least two to three spoonfuls, be honest). Add some peanut butter (with added sugar), slap it on some white bread, and, well, that's not exactly the healthiest meal in the world.
These days? Try a thin layer of all-natural peanut butter (sans sweeteners) plus low-sugar preserves on whole wheat and you’ll do a bit better.
This was like a ham and cheese (or turkey and cheese) sandwich, but with crackers. Maybe that’s better than the white bread, right? Wrong. These things are chock-full of preservatives and fat and are basically the worst thing you could feed a child. But man were they tasty.
Oh, these deceptive sweets claim to be “healthy” and low in fat. But are they any good? Just read any label and you’ll soon be putting them back on the shelf where they belong. They now claim to be free of partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, but my guess is that wasn’t the case back then.
Gummy Fruit Snacks
Fruit snacks were everywhere in the '90s. Gushers. Fruit By The Foot. Fruit Roll-Ups. They all seemed to make the vague claim that they were made with fruit and, as a result, “good” for us. But at the end of the day, these were and are not sufficient substitutes for a banana or a bunch of grapes or some strawberries. Not even close.
Honestly, most yogurt is sugary. They are often sweetened and also include fruit to mix in, adding to the sugar content. But do you recall extra-sugary yogurts like Trix Yogurt or YoCrunch with sprinkles? Totally unnecessary. Just give the kid an apple.
I’m guilty of giving these to my own toddler when I’m short on time, but I do realize these aren’t what you’d call “healthy.” These things are chock full of, you guessed it, sugar!
Does anyone else recall a mac-n-cheese concoction mixed with mystery beef served in the school cafeteria? Yeah, apparently school officials thought this was a healthy option for children. It wasn’t. And it was pretty gross, too.