What School Lunches Looked Like in the ‘80s vs. Today


Parents nowadays have it tough. We’re constantly falling into the “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” scenario. And no other time wreaks such emotional havoc on our parental self-esteem than back-to-school time.

We’re mocked for being the parents who throw elaborate “back-to-school” parties the night before our darlings start a new year, yet we feel like total slackers if we don’t at least print up one of those cute signs, found in over-abundance on Pinterest, displaying our child’s age, grade, and year. And it appears the newest trend in parental competition is who can produce the most elaborate, healthiest lunch box for our cute little ones. One company has even deemed this year that “Healthy Lunches Are the New Cool!” Sorry kid, but if your mom sends you to school packing a bag of Doritos, you may just be ousted from the A-list lunch crowd.

I, for one, have completely signed up for this new trend and have spent an embarrassing amount of time, and subsequently money, researching the ideal lunchbox and healthful foods to fill it with. While this rising trend can start to feel a little bit like a new round of the mommy wars, I also have to chuckle because of how drastically different this all is from how I grew up.

For a typical child of the ’80s, cafeteria competitions were often focused on who had the most unhealthy lunch, with the winner being whomever was packing a Ding Dong and a can of Coke, wrapped in tinfoil no less. As we enter our third week of school, having already packed over 20 lunches, I started reminiscing about my old childhood and how my kids’ lunches stand in stark comparison to what my mom packed me. While I’m sure my mom thinks the attention I’ve devoted to these lunches is ridiculous and chalks it up to further proof of my generation’s propensity to helicopter-parent, I take some small consolation knowing that my kids aren’t eating a school lunch that’s more like a TV dinner gone bad than a healthful midday meal to keep their bodies and minds going.

Just for kicks though, I thought it’d be fun, and harrowing, to take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about some of the foods I routinely found in my lunchbox and the school cafeteria vs. what my kids find today.

Let’s start with the lunch I sent my kids off to school with today …

Image Source: Andrea Howe

Fresh fruit, check. Variety of veggies, check. Organic sweet treat, check. Nitrate-free deli meat and organic cheese stick, check. Sustainable wooden spoon alongside a small cup of apple sauce, check.

 Now, let’s take a look at a lunchbox staple during my school days …

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kraft Handi-Snacks! A stack of buttery salted crackers alongside some orange cheese goop that was tantamount to eating a salt lick. Packaged in plastic with the classic bright red plastic knife-like object, this was the stuff of ’80s kids’ dreams. I don’t know if we can even call this actual cheese, but our parents did, and so in their eyes, they were sending us to school with a good helping of fortified dairy product to pack a protein punch. And I’m sure millions of those little red sticks are still hanging around landfills all over the US.

My kids’ school lunches, chockfull of whole grains …

Image Source: Andrea Howe

Whole grains are important for our health. Packed with fiber and protein, they’re the type of good carb that can give us fuel to focus and remain energized throughout the day. Important stuff for young kids working hard at school, right?  That’s why the other day I sent my second- and fourth-grader off to school with some leftover whole wheat pasta, tossed in olive oil, with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies on the side.

Now back in the day, this was my parents’ idea of a whole grain …

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Enriched white bread, packed with 8 essential nutrients! After all, it says so right on the package, so it’s gotta be good, right? Wonder Bread could be found in virtually every home and lunchbox across the country, and everyone knew they made for the best grilled cheese sandwiches and PB&Js. But in reality, nowadays we know better. Even though it tastes like a fluffy white cloud, this enriched white bread is nothing more than just empty calories in the form of a sugar-laden carb. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Another typical lunch for my kids …

Image Source: Andrea Howe

An assortment of fresh berries, the best organic blue corn tortilla chips with a cup of salsa, fantastic salami, and for a treat, chocolate candies made with all-natural plant-based dyes. My kid’s lunches make me envious, as I don’t eat nearly as well when I’m scarfing down food in between working and chasing around a toddler. Sometimes I can’t believe how different these kids have it compared to how I grew up.

A typical school lunch for a child of the ’80s …

Image Source: Thinkstock

Honestly, I don’t ever remember us having fresh fruit in the house aside from good ol’ bananas and apples. Fresh berries? Forget about it. Who needed fresh fruit back in the ’80s when we had a bevy of canned fruits to choose from?! Oh, how clearly I remember canned peaches, canned pineapple, canned pears, and canned fruit cocktail, all packed in a lovely sweet syrupy goodness that we always drank along with our fruit. And really, who needed real fresh fruit when we all had fruit roll-ups growing up? I can still recall the sound of cellophane as you tried to pull the roll-up off in one fell swoop.

Image Source: Flickr User daniel85r

Back in the ’80s, there was hardly a need for organic, free-trade chocolates made with plant-based dyes when you had a Ding Dong in your lunch pail. Those foil wrapped chocolate discs were the equivalent to winning the lottery as a kid, and it’s the one junk food I would definitely say my kids are missing out on. Too bad, so sad. I wonder if treats like these are the reason I always felt so tired at school. Or maybe it was the fact my parents let me stay up until 10 PM each night. Parenting in the ’80s sure looked a lot different than it does now.

Image Source: Flickr User NY Kid

Truth be told, some days I feel both sorry for my kids. I’m pretty sure our parents back in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t think twice about the foods they gave us, and they really never thought they were harming us in any way. That’s just the way we ate, as did virtually everyone, and I can’t recall a single friend whose lunch box didn’t almost identically resemble mine. Nowadays, we know better. Between the rising childhood obesity rates and a growing prevalence of childhood T2 diabetes, feeding our kids the type of foods we grew up on is almost seen as child abuse, depending on where you live and the circle you run in. While at the end of the day I know I’m doing my kids better by feeding them this way, I sometimes wish we could go back to the days of blissful ignorance, even for just a moment. Between deciphering labels with hard-to-pronounce ingredients and deciding if GMOs are truly safe or not, I think I’ve spent more time researching what to feed my kids than my parents spent doing homework with me during my entire school career.

So are school lunches something you worry about as a parent? Or is this one category you choose not to worry about?

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