Eschewing traditional methods of packing lunch, Lunchables pushed the boundaries of what could be considered lunch, and even food. Entering the lexicon of the lunch table in 1988, the Lunchable sought to change the purview of the school cafeteria. Within this context, I seek to unpack the cultural meanings and social messages of the Lunchable, dismantling long-held assumptions of the essence of the Lunchable.
Nice thesis, right? Being it September, I have the days of “back to school” on my mind—Mead notebooks, backpacks, and school lunch. That’s how I got to thinking about Lunchables. What the hell is it about Lunchables? A Lunchable is a prepackaged lunch combo that comes with a main entree, generally something like turkey and crackers, a pizza, or chicken nuggets, a juice pouch, and a small dessert.
Among the X and Y generations, Lunchables are viewed in mythic proportions. Think back to your cafeteria lunch table where a kid pulls a Lunchable out of his lunchbox. The kid is seen as a God, cool as hell, and as having parents that actually love him. Then you look at your pallid turkey on rye sandwich. Your mother may have lovingly made that sandwich, but you know right then and there that she hates you.
However, I’m sure it was seen differently across various schools based on local cultures and communities. Perhaps in another school, taking a Lunchable was considered a sign of having a lazy parent. Or a rich parent. Having a Lunchable might have been viewed as upper class. But at my school, having a Lunchable was cool. Prepackaged meats were a status symbol. Pulling out a pizza Lunchable had all the kids around you, asking for one of the pizzas.
Hungry for Cafeteria Cred and just curious, we begged Mom for Lunchables in the grocery store, but she refused. Lunchables were too expensive—and it’s true, back in the 1990s, these things were fancy, for the kid with “distinctive tastes.” They came with several compartments of sliced meats—turkey and ham, cheese, crackers, a packet of dijon, and a mint. Over the years, they’ve derailed their original marketing, going straight for the fat kid who wants a brownie. These days Lunchables have lost the dijon, and are now packaged in “extreme” varieties, “dunkable” varieties, and something that involves putting Pop Rocks on mini-tacos.
All this said, and they weren’t even good. In fact, they were completely disgusting. No one liked ’em—the knuckley meats, the candlewax cheese—and seriously, who the hell would put Pop Rocks on tacos? Back then, we choked them down because we thought it made us cool, but only now are we coming out with our stories, our confessions of hating these things, only now in our twenties and thirties.
Like I said, Lunchables are the stuff of myth, of legends. So I decided to contribute to that legend, by setting out to make the Biggest Lunchable—a real-sized pizza out of the pizza kits. My goal was to push boundaries, to go where no one has gone, to de-compartmentalize the cheese, the crusts, and the sauce, and to make One Big Pizza.
I’m telling you, this is going to become LEGENDARY, like the night when Jonny cruised in his Stingray all the way to the Dead Man’s Curve. But this is still bigger than that, bigger than the time Big Bird went to Japan, and even bigger than the time my cousin invented a new way to jump in the pool. This is the night when THE SURFING PIZZA made the BIGGEST EVER LUNCHABLE PIZZA.
One of the classic problems with Lunchables is that it never has enough stuff—not enough cheese for each crust, not enough salsa to accommodate the nachos. You find yourself rationing the cheese and skimping on the salsa. You really have to plan ahead while eating it. So in order to make The Big Pizza, I began with 3 boxes of the “Extra Cheesy” Pizzas. This is the fat-kid-sized with TWO servings of cheese product, plus a Capri Sun, and an Airhead candy.
Step 1, I laid everything out:
I spread the discs into a circular formation. As you can see, I got them to be about the circumference of the paper plate. I dumped all the cheese on a paper plate, and lined up the pizza sauce packets.
My first challenge was to lay down the mini-crusts in such a way that it would support the mountain of cheese. Oscar Mayer has recently replaced the cardboard-like crusts with a more pliable, softer crust, so I was able to press the crusts into one another slightly.
Step 2, I spread the sauce packets over the crust:
Step 3, I added the mounds of cheese:
That’s right, I had mounds. The “Extra Cheesy” packed in a whole lotta extra. The cheese in these Lunchables is one of things everyone likes to pick on, because ominously, it’s not even called cheese. It’s an artificial food, known here as “cheese product.” What does that mean? When you hear the word “product,” images of plastics and ground hooves come to mind, but this product isn’t the worst thing you could eat. In fact, it likely has more in common with vegan foods than actual dairy, comprised mostly of oil and textured protein.
Step 4, I preheated the oven to 350, and while I waited, I set my place at the table.
This is the most appropriate item I could think to serve my epic pizza on, and perhaps I just wanted to show it off:
NINJA TURTLES DINNER TRAY.
Step 5, put the pizza in the oven for about 7-10 minutes. And here is what I got:
There she is, the Biggest Ever. 9 mini Pizzas, the equivalent of 3 lunches. Let’s take a look at the Nutrition Facts:
Total Fat: 30g
Total Carbohydrate: 192g
Packing a wallop in all that textured whey protein. Not shabby on the sodium either. That’s the worst thing about Lunchables—they’re about 98% salt. But consider this–in 1997, Lunchables got busted for having 1,780mg of sodium in just one Lunchable. Remember, the 1,980mg above is the combined amount of three packages.
Step 6, Slice and Dice:
That was about all I could stomach, that slice right there. It’s not that it was bad pizza; it was not unlike pizza you’d get on a zoo fieldtrip. The cheese had a plastic, gelled consistency. The sauce was great. The crusts didn’t bake at all; remaining the same soft, pliable rounds. However, my roommate liked the pizza. “Dude, it’s like you tied up the babysitter and ransacked the fridge,” she said. Awesome.
This is every kid’s dream, at least those of us kids who didn’t dream to become astronauts and Disney mouseketeers. Nope, we were content being regular, just dreaming about big pizzas and boxes of crayons with endless colors. We went to school for years and years, not really planning ahead, bucking scholarships, and phoning in our final papers.
We don’t have to think big, because we just feel that something big is coming anyway. The crayon box is limitless, any color you choose. The pool is deep, always a new way to jump in, to make the biggest splash.