The untold truth of Lunchables

In the mid '80s, Oscar Mayer executives needed a product that did two things: 1. Increase the company's sales of bologna (because consumers had started to realize that bologna was the absolute worst, and no one wanted to eat it anymore even though it even had its own theme song), and 2. give moms a break in the lunch-making department (because obviously the very worst thing in the entire world was making a school lunch for your kids). 

So Oscar Mayer decided to cut lunch meats into little circles and put them in a plastic container with a hunk of bright yellow cheese and a few crackers and, voila, Lunchables were born and life was good for everyone. Oscar Mayer was selling lunch meats again, parents didn't have to make kids' lunches anymore, and kids got to pull a snazzy Lunchables from their brown paper sack instead of a sad PB&J. In fact, parents and their children loved Lunchables so much that Oscar Mayer sold 1.6 billion of the convenient lunch options in the first decade of their existence. 

You may think you know everything about these delectable little repasts, but the history of Lunchables is far more complex than just pizzas and Treatzas.

Lunchables were all about empowering kids

Do you know what's awesome? Kid power! Kids doing it for themselves! Kids being able to make their own decisions, to do it their way, and not have to eat whatever sad sandwich their parents packed for them — and Lunchables brilliantly tapped into that. 

Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, explained the genius Lunchables move like this: "…they went after the kids with an amazing marketing campaign, because they realized that the Lunchables wasn't about food. It was about empowerment for kids. And they came up with this slogan: 'All day, you gotta do what they say. But lunchtime is all yours.' And kids went nuts for it."

Lunchables weren't about wearing the clothes your parents picked out, or having to clean your room, or finishing your boring math homework — they were about taking a slab of cold crust, adding some sugary tomato sauce, a sprinkling of processed cheese, and calling it a pizza. And the best part? You got to decide if you wanted to eat that or your Airheads candy first, and when you're a kid, that's a big deal.

Lunchables were designed to look like gifts

You might think of Lunchables as a quickie solution to lunch for the kids, but a lot of thought was put in to the convenience product. Everything from the name to the way the kits were packaged was subject to intense scrutiny.

It took awhile for the team behind Lunchables to settle on a moniker for the product. They wanted the name to convey fast, fun, flexible food, and options included Snackables, Walk Meals, Crackerwiches, Mini Meals, Lunch Kits, On-Trays, Square Meals, Go-Packs, and Fun Mealz. It's hard to imagine sending your kids off to school with something that sounds as clunky as On-Tray, and hence, Lunchables was the winner.

The team also designed the packages to resemble gifts so that working mothers sending their kids off to school with Lunchables could feel good about their decision, and in the 7 a.m. rush to get everyone out the door they could hand their kid a square box that resembled a present and not feel guilty about it. Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, explained in his book, "People tend to buy out of the right side of their brain, using emotions, and so we learned over time that for moms, this was a gift for their kids, and for kids it was a badge for their classmates."

Lunchables don't score very high in the nutrition department

When Lunchables first launched, they included a yellow napkin that was later removed due to production costs. Geoffrey Bible, former CEO of Philip Morris (which was part of Lunchables' parent company Kraft), was quoted as saying, "One article said something like, 'If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item in it is the napkin.'"

In an apparent effort to squash this image, Kraft discontinued its Maxed Out Lunchables in 2009, including a cheese and ham option with 660 calories and 22 grams of fat. Those numbers earned the meal first place on a list of the "Five Worst Packaged Lunchbox Meals" by the Cancer Project at the time. 

Still, a common complaint is that Lunchables contain way too much sodium and saturated fat. Some varieties of Lunchables contain as much as 750 grams of sodium for a single serving (more than 30 percent of the daily recommended intake), while others have almost half a day's worth of the recommended saturated fat

Even when Lunchables added fruit to some of their meals, registered dietician Susan Levin wasn't overly impressed, explaining, "While I'm happy to see fruit in general on a kid's lunch tray, I feel a little bit like that is perhaps drawing in a parent more to think, 'Oh, this is good for my kid,' when in fact it is still an accompaniment to an unhealthful meal that is chock-full of chemicals and sugar."

Does any kid really want a healthy version of Lunchables?

If Lunchables are so maligned for their unhealthiness, why don't they do something about it? Well, they've tried a few times…

In the mid-2000s, Lunchables tried to swap yogurt for candy in some of their meals, but since no one wants yogurt instead of candy, the line was discontinued due to weak sales. Shocker. Another failed attempt to healthify the product involved the addition of fresh apple slices and carrots, but those didn't pan out because the fresh produce didn't ship or store well — and let's be honest, kids were probably quite happy about that.

As of July 2019, Lunchables does have a line of organic kits, with no artificial preservatives, flavors, or colors, but there are a whopping two options there and they're both pizza, so don't even think about getting your hands on a classic ham and American cheese organic Lunchables. 

And if we need further proof that healthy Lunchables aren't going anywhere fast, there have even been all-natural Lunchables alternatives that brands have tried to roll out that aren't nearly as successful as their nutritionally bankrupt counterparts.

There's a line of Lunchables for millenials called Brunchables

You can almost envision the think tank meeting that came up with this brilliant marketing idea: "Hey dudes, do you know what's on fleek AF, and would be totally lit at Coachella, and all the bruhs would post on the 'gram? Lunchables… But for BRUNCH. Brunchables! GET IT?!"

Yes, it happened — maybe not exactly like that, but it happened — and Kraft Heinz announced three flavors of Brunchables in 2019. The new line was launched on April Fools' Day, so of course people assumed it was a prank, but the company acknowledged it was indeed real.

While the slightly more upscale Brunchables offerings look intriguing compared to their basic lunch meat and cheese counterparts, the big problem with this concept is that it can't really be brunch unless it also includes bottomless bloody marys or mimosas. Plus, they will obviously need to release a fried chicken and waffles version and an acai bowl option if they want to stay on trend. 

One thing's for sure: The Twitter account is trying very hard to be hip with the millennial kids, tweeting out gems like, "You know what's great about #Brunchables? Not having to hear about Becky's girls night out."

The ingredients in Lunchables are pretty sketchy

One would think that a lot of the Lunchables varieties would have pretty straightforward ingredients, because how sketchy could meat and cheese and crackers really be? But you'd be wrong, because even the bologna is made with mechanically separated chicken. What exactly, does that mean? According to the USDA (via Fox News), "Mechanically separated poultry (MSP) is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue." Yum.

The basic turkey in a Lunchables meal contains modified cornstarch, dextrose, carrageenan, and a whole mess of other ingredients that provide cheap fillers and prolong the shelf-stability of the product. Even the cheddar cheese (make that "Pasteurized Prepared Cheddar Cheese Product") contains 15 ingredients. Coupled with artificial flavors, colors, saturated fats, and high fructose corn syrup, it's easy to see why Lunchables doesn't have the best rep in the cafeteria.  

But hey, even Oscar Mayer admits that Lunchables' purpose is to "provide a convenient way for busy moms to occasionally treat their kids to their favorite foods," adding that they aren't meant to be a daily habit. That's probably for the best.

There's a reason a lot of Lunchables aren't advertised

Advertising slogans can truly make or break a product, and Lunchables have gone through quite a few different slogans that definitely appeal to kids: "Lunch will never be the same." "A surprising twist that's hard to resist!" "Make your own fun!" "Make fun of lunch!" "It doesn't get any better than this!" "It's more than lunch, it's Lunchables!" 

And while kids growing up in the United States see anywhere from 13,000 to 30,000 TV commercials each year, Lunchables commercials seem to be a bit sparse during cartoon hour. Why?

That's due to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulating group for companies to set up their own rules about how they market to kids. Kraft agreed they would only advertise their Lunchables that met a certain set of nutritional guidelines. This means that in April 2013, Kraft had 42 Lunchables, but only five of them met the minimal nutritional standards for fat, calories, and sodium to be able to be advertised. Basically, if you see a spot for Lunchables, you can assume that it must be nutritionally "okay."

Teachers really hate Lunchables

It turns out that this quick and easy school lunch for the kids might be causing their teachers a bit of angst… 

According to Nourishing Plot's Becky Plotner, ND, a teacher claimed that "Lunchable Kids" experience a lot of negative effects after consuming them, saying, "Their behavior is problematic in the classroom, disruptive, and exhausting." The teacher also added, "More of my Lunchable Kids create behavioral problems than my other kids. They take shortcuts, have poor attitudes and seem to struggle socially. I also believe that the lack of nutrition makes it difficult for the kids to function."

Some teachers have even banned Lunchables from their classrooms, going so far as to sending notes home with kids explaining to parents why the lunch choice isn't allowed. One teacher commented on a message board, saying, "Every day I see Lunchables at lunch and now snack time in my kindergarten class. It's peer pressure, even at that early age. Once in a while, a kid who usually eats healthy will have one, take a bite and refuse to eat the rest, but that's rare." And yet another teacher commented, "As a school teacher I see these EVERY DAY in the lunch room and usually with kids with behavior problems! I am sure that these things are maybe 50 cents to make and are terrible for the environment and child!" 

It seems like these teachers aren't buying the whole "Make your own fun!" lunchtime vibe.

Kylie Jenner broke the Internet with Lunchables

We know it's the goal of all celebs to break the Internet, but Kylie Jenner probably didn't think Lunchables would be the thing to do it.

But the Keeping Up With The Kardashians star did just that when she shared an Instagram story of how she had microwaved a pizza Lunchables, asking her followers if they liked them hot or cold. There's no reason why she chose to microwave a Lunchables considering most kids who eat them at school don't even have access to a microwave, and if kids (or adults) were eating them at home aren't their roughly 9000 gazillion bazillion other delicious microwavable food choices, like pizza rolls or microwavable frozen pizzas or pizza bagels or pizza sticks or even leftover pizza? 

The people of Reddit were curious as to how others enjoyed the little cracker-like disks of pizza product, and considering the replies consisted of sentiments like, "What kind of psycho heats up the pizza?" and "Cold because I'm not an insane person," it seemed that Redditors strongly disagreed with the microwave treatment. Jenner's followers, however, backed her up, with 71 percent saying they preferred the Lunchables pizzas hot.

Adults are very nostalgic for Lunchables

A lot of grownups happily remember chowing down on Lunchables as kids, and a lot of adults still eat them to this day. Proof? One Redditor proudly proclaimed, "I would sell my soul to the devil for a Lunchable. I still get the pepperoni pizza ones when I'm drunk at Wawa at 2am."

Another Redditor shared a very touching Lunchables-centric story about his father's visits after his parents divorced, saying, "One major thing that will always stick with me is that he always used to buy us a lunchable of our choice right when we saw him. I eventually tried them all, but my favorite were the cracker stackers. This memory of love and enjoyment of seeing my dad, has now transcended into lunchables. Whenever I see lunchables now, no matter what mood I am in or how that day has gone, my mind goes to that happy place when life was simple and filled with love." Awwww! Say what you want about Lunchables nutritionally, but a story like that is bound to make you crave some round ham and some bright yellow cheese.

Kendrick Lamar is pretty sick of Lunchables

When rapper Kendrick Lamar was on tour with Kanye West for the Yeezus tour in Europe, he ate a lot of Lunchables. Maybe too many Lunchables. According to the The New York Times Magazine, Lamar said, "I ate so much of this in Europe, dawg, I got burned up. I didn't want to see another Lunchable for a long time." 

It's baffling to consider eating Lunchables when you're in Europe, and also when you're a Pulitzer Prize and 13 time Grammy winner, because couldn't you basically eat all the fancy things at all the fancy restaurants at that point? It probably just speaks to the nostalgia factor of Lunchables, though — who wants to eat wiener schnitzel in Vienna or cassoulet in France when you can eat a Chicken Popper Kabobble? Lamar has been quoted as saying one of his favorite comfort foods is tacos, so maybe he was just scratching that itch with the Lunchables Mexican Style Chicken Tacos?

Almost 1,000 pounds of Lunchables were recalled due to allergens

In 2016, Lunchables Ham and American Cheese Cracker Stackers were packaged with a Nacho Lunchables label and due to this little blunder almost 1,000 pounds of Lunchables were recalled. That's because the label failed to mention that the product actually contained both wheat and soy. Soy can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction in severe cases, and it can also cause vomiting and diarrhea — things no parent wants their kid to experience after enjoying lunch. A reaction to a wheat allergy can mean hives, sneezing, and nausea. 

Kraft Heinz released a statement following the incident, saying, "We apologize for this situation and are working hard to communicate with consumers and investigate how we can improve so this does not happen again." No adverse reactions or illnesses were reported after the recall, but it's not hard to see how troubling this would be to parents who have children with wheat or soy allergies.