When it comes to '90s nostalgia, there are few things more unifying than lunch. Nearly all of us '90s kids, no matter what kind of school we went to, can bond over the classic cafeteria fare: cardboard-like pizzas, individually packaged burritos, chicken nuggets... And then there's the slightly more individualized yet no less unifying memories of home-packed meals. There's a guaranteed selection of things every '90s kid had in their lunchbox at some point, and that selection runs the gamut from good, to bad, to kind of questionable.
For most of my school years, I had my lunch packed nearly every day, since my mother, a school counselor, was understandably wary of just what the heck our schools were putting on our trays. The '90s were, of course, back before healthy lunch initiatives like Michelle Obama's push for better school foods. Plus, my parents got divorced when I was young, meaning shelling out anywhere from $2 to $4 for school-made lunch just wasn't feasible.
And with all my other classmates who packed lunch, packing became a kind of social circle in itself. We went through cycles of cool snacks and totally succumbed to all that kid-friendly branding that advertised the newest, trendiest things middle schoolers just had to have. Some things on this list just seemed to appear out of nowhere, like when everyone simultaneously started drawing that weird "S" in eighth grade.
Check out this list of weird and wonderful things from your '90s lunchbox and bask in your memories of the days when there was nothing better than lunch.
1. Plastic Thermos & Cup
That's right — not everything on this list is edible, and some things can even be classed as "vintage." At least, that's according to eBay, where I had to traverse to find one of the plastic Thermos-and-cup combos my mother used to use to send me everything from soup to hot chocolate. Whether you had a Thermos-brand combo or one of the many, many knockoffs, this thing became a true classic toted by nearly everyone. It had its downsides, though, like the seemingly hours-long line at the drinking fountains to rinse them out, being yelled at by teachers for clogging the drinking fountains, and constantly losing track of them if your parents packed your lunches in brown paper bags instead of an actual lunchbox.
Ahhh, the ultimate staple of '90s lunches. Unlike some of the other items on this list, Lunchables are still around, but the '90s was a glorious era of experimentation for Oscar Meyer, the company behind Lunchables. The biz released Lunchables in 1985, and us '90s kids reaped the benefits when Lunchables took off and Oscar Meyer tried to figure out how to capitalize on it. We got no-longer-available Lunchable varieties like Fun Fuel, Taco Bell tacos, and mini hot dogs. Plus, we witnessed the era of the red stick — the tiny plastic utensil perfect for smearing red pizza sauce, which was discontinued in the early 2000s.
3. Animal Crackers
Animal crackers were a staple of my lunches, mostly because they exist in that nebulous not quite dessert, yet not quite not dessert area. In the '90s, my mom would toss in one of those famous circus-themed boxes of Barnum's animal crackers, or she'd give me a handful of the cracker that was the envy of my entire lunch table: Those killer pink and white frosted animal crackers with sprinkles, which are thankfully still available.
4. Creative Yogurts
I know, I know, this category is vaguely named, but that's because it has to encompass a lot of stuff. First, the sadly discontinued Sprinkl'ins, which gave you cups of yogurt and what amounted to colored sugar to sprinkle on top. And then there was Danimals in 1994, which back then was a huge deal. Now, drinkable yogurts like kefir are everywhere, but us '90s kids liked drinkable yogurt before it was cool. And last up is Go-Gurt, the tube-shaped snack that dominated lunch trends as soon as it was introduced in 1999. Luckily most of these are still around, but they'll never taste quite as good as they did back then.
Pokémon (and Digimon, and Yu-Gi-Oh!) cards. Pogs. Contraband slap bracelets. Everything and anything tradeable was smuggled in lunchboxes to be traded during lunch and recess. Whether you needed a Blue-Eyes White Dragon or a certain pattern of slap bracelet to complete your next school dance outfit, you could find it in the cafeteria.
I am a notoriously picky eater, and yet Handi-Snacks was just one of those foods where kid-me looked at it and went, "I have no idea what's in these, but they're delicious anyway." Handi-Snacks' irresistible combo of quote-unquote "breadsticks" and "cheese dip" was a staple of '90s lunchboxes, probably since it's one of those snacks that's indefinable enough to serve as a side dish for virtually anything. Soup? Sure. Sandwiches? Sure. Pizza? Sure!
When I asked some fellow '90s kids about their fondest lunchbox memories, nearly every one of them mentioned Dunk-a-Roos, bemoaning the product's discontinuation. This puzzled me, because I've got some in my pantry right now. Turns out I hit a lucky break when I decided to move to Canada; Dunk-a-Roos are still available at virtually any grocery store here despite the beloved cracker-and-icing combo being discontinued in the U.S. in 2012. Sorry, U.S. residents — you'll have to make do with basking in fond memories of that that velvety, sprinkle-stuffed icing.
8. Pocket Change
Eventually my mother got tired of following lunch trends and started pairing my staple "main courses" with a handful of pocket change so I could buy snacks from the vending machine or from the small shop my school ended up opening in my last year of middle school. This usually resulted in me just eating a bologna sandwich and an ice cream, but, hey, I turned out OK.
9. String Cheese
You know, it occurs to me that a frankly slightly ridiculous number of these snacks are based on cheese, but let's be real: You can never have too much of it. String cheese and I were not BFFs in the '90s, because unless you kept them perfectly cool, you ended up with a hunk of hardened grossness. When string cheese was good, though, it was good, and as '90s kids the ongoing lunchtime argument was whether the plain ol' mozzarella kind was the best, or if the cheddar-and-mozza swirl was better.
10. Bologna Sandwiches
Oscar Meyer did pretty dang well taking over our childhoods. Bologna sandwiches were a constant in lunchboxes, especially on field trip days when we all needed brown paper bag lunches filled with things that wouldn't go bad if they weren't refrigerated. For divorced and single parents like my mom, bologna was a savior: It tasted good, it was cheap, and all they had to do was throw in a handful of Bugles and a Capri Sun and call it a day.
11. Your Worst Nightmare
BRACES. No, you didn't keep them in your lunchbox, but you did have to keep that gross container for your retainer and/or a toothbrush and toothpaste in your lunchbox, and then do the walk of shame to the bathroom, where you sacrificed five minutes of precious recess time to the orthodontics gods. Today's kids have to put up with this stuff too, but the horror of braces days will always take me back to the '90s.
If this list made you more sad than nostalgic (RIP Dunk-a-Roos), just remember: '90s lunches may be discontinued, but they'll always live on in our hearts.