Lunchables Aren’t the Only Ready-To-Eat Option for Kids

The evolution of the school lunch packed in a convenient plastic tray.

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Lunchables in store fridge case
Photo: The Image Party (Shutterstock)

As a parent of a picky eater, I know how hard it is to convince a child to eat something they’re unfamiliar with. Saying “It’s healthy for you!” has no meaning to a five-year-old who was raised on milk and crackers. Instead, it takes a bit of diligence, time, creativity, and possibly a few white lies. (No, I haven’t done this at all…)

On an almost daily basis, like many parents, I struggle. I want my kids to eat well, yet I don’t always have time to ensure that they get the appropriate amount of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Enter Lunchables, the all-in-one lunch pack that came to America in 1988.

For decades, Lunchables have been the solution for busy parents—in particular, working mothers between the ages of 25 to 49—and a product that kids (supposedly) love. According to The Atlantic, as of 2018, Lunchables had an 84% market share in the category of “combination lunches.” How did Lunchables come to dominate the school lunch market, anyway? The answer, as you might have guessed, lies primarily in marketing.

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The evolution of the prepackaged school lunch

Lunchables, produced by Oscar Mayer and owned by Kraft Heinz, were initially conceived as a way to use up extra bologna but ended up creating a new food category for children. The company claims that its compartmental design was inspired by Japanese bento boxes, but it was actually based on the TV dinner tray. The brand has managed to stay so successful over years because its flagship product has remained virtually unchanged: it’s the same meat-cheese-cracker combo it always has been. Beyond that, though, Lunchables has churned out more ready-to-eat lunch combos than one could possibly imagine.

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From breakfast to pizzas to cinnamon rolls to nachos, Lunchables have undergone several decades of innovation. The boxes have changed in design but have mostly retained that bright yellow exterior, and each product conveys that it delivers both convenience and fun, all in a neat little package.

The benefits of Lunchables

Lunchables have never been marketed primarily as a “healthy” lunch option for kids. Instead, what it has focused on—and continues to do so—is the time-saving aspect. For you busy parents, it’s much easier to place a Lunchable in your child’s backpack than to make lunch yourself, because saving those precious few minutes every morning can mean the difference between arriving to school on time and arriving late (to say nothing of the time it takes to grocery shop for all the elements of a homemade lunch in advance).

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As for kids, the joy of a Lunchable isn’t necessarily the food itself, but rather the autonomy it provides. With its modular design, it invites kids to build their own edible creations. This simple yet brilliant concept plays to the needs of the parent and the desires of the child all at once.

Lunchables criticism

Okay, we know they’re fun. But what about Lunchables’ nutritional value?

Experts have pointed out that it’s not the healthiest option for kids. After all, Lunchables do not have the recommended servings of fruits, vegetables, fiber, and dairy that children need for their growing bodies. Some have raised concerns about its sodium content as well.

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In the early 90s, after the product was criticized as a “nutritional disaster,” a Kraft Heinz spokesperson responded, “This is not some big corporate plot to fatten up kids. This is what kids want. There are very few kids out there who will eat rice cakes and tofu.”

Though the “rice cakes and tofu” example is by now a rather outdated jab at health-conscious food choices, the fact that Lunchables continue to be such a popular product does, in some ways, prove that “this is what kids want.” Or is it simply what parents buy?

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Kids become adults nostalgic for Lunchables

The first and most important point is that every component of Pizza Lunchables sucks.” wrote John Carruthers for The Takeout, reflecting upon the Lunchable Pizzas of his youth. The dough is somehow flabby and undercooked, yet crumbly… The pepperoni is somehow way too oily AND disgustingly crumbly… The sauce is disgustingly sweet.” Further conversation on Twitter yielded many more stories and memories of this low-caliber yet quintessential part of the average American child’s diet.

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It’s safe to say that Lunchables remains a cultural phenomenon, a source of nostalgia for many. Recalling memories from our youth—even when they’re not always cheery or when the ham was a little slimy—can elicit a warm, sentimental feeling. The same marketing that once jumped off the shelves to appeal to kids is now, 34 years later, beckoning millennial parents to give their children the same lunchroom experience they enjoyed as kids.

The best Lunchables alternatives

If you’re sick of giving your kids Lunchable after Lunchable like I am, I don’t blame you. There are other alternatives; they just don’t have the same name recognition. In my research, I found no shortage of attempts to beat the competition, but to no avail. For example, Little Spoon is an organic meal subscription service that will bring much healthier options right to your door. But with a $5.99 per meal price tag, I’m afraid it just won’t do for my budget, especially in this high inflation environment that we’re in right now.

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Here are some other cost-effective options that can be found at a local Kroger, Target, Safeway, or Walmart, all of which are nearly identical to the classic Lunchable and many of which have creative offshoots like Lunchables do. I’ve listed the typical price for a turkey-and-cheese combo.

As with Lunchables, I can’t guarantee that they are the “healthiest” choice, but they are guaranteed to save you the time and effort it takes to pack your child’s lunch, especially if they’re going on a field trip. It’s all part of the calculus of being a parent.

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