Friday, August 30, 2013

Foods of the 90s: I was an 80s kid but a 90s chick

For a long time, I've assumed that the foods of the 80s and 90s were pretty similar, but upon further reflection I've decided that is not the case.

I was a kid in the 80s but many of my formative years of schooling (part of high school and all of undergraduate and graduate school) were spent in the 90s.  So I asked myself, what trends were UNIQUE to the 90s....

1. Fat-free desserts
Image credit: Babble

In previous eras, it was assumed that desserts contained butter and sugar and weren't particularly healthy. The 90s brought forth the idea that you could have your cake and fit into your fashionably tattered grunge jeans, too.  Of course I ate Snackwell's.  The boxes of these fat-free treats, amped up with artificial sweeteners to compensate for the lack of fat, were always curiously light. I loved the rubbery texture of the frosting. You could eat the entire box (500 calories) and still have room for a (400 calorie) pint of fat-free ice cream. Snackwell's vanilla sandwich cookies tasted stale, but I kind of liked slightly stale foods. I even ate those Weight Watcher TV dinner desserts that you had to nuke at low power for a few seconds in the microwave.

2. French bread pizza

Image credit: Brand Eating
I lived in New Jersey, which was densely-populated with Italian-Americans.  And yet I ate these things. Because of the convenience?  Because The Scarlet Pimpernel was a really cool mini-series and set in France?  My favorites were Stouffer's but you had to actually finish those off in the oven to brown the top, so usually I just said fuck that and got Healthy Choice because you could nuke 'em and have 'dinner' in minutes. 

3. Muffins
Image credit: Triad couponing

Muffins were everywhere.  Maybe because they could so easily be made low-fat: the diet brownie cheesecake muffin epitomizes 90s cuisine.   Maybe because they could be stuffed with oatmeal.  Regardless, long before Red Velvet doughnuts and bacon chocolate chip cookies became mainstream, muffins were everywhere.  I loved senior year AP Biology because on non-lab days in the study hall after class I could buy molten hot chocolate chocolate chip muffins or cheese danish-stuffed muffins oozing under the heat lamp for breakfast in the cafeteria. I had a peanut butter and jelly muffin and Tasti-D-Lite from the 7-11 after nearly every swim practice in high school. I loved the buttery corn muffins and sweet oatmeal muffins from my college dining hall.  I even liked the rubbery fat-free muffins which were made with applesauce and no fat, no fat at all because fat was the very devil in the 90s.

4. Ice cream with weird shit in it

Image credit: Favorite Copycat Recipes
Despite the low-fat frenzy, the 90s was the decade of throwing shit in ice cream.  Before, ice cream came in three flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry and your topping options were hot fudge, caramel, or sprinkles.  Ben & Jerry's changed all that.  In the 90s, the quality of the ice cream wasn't the point (because more often than not, it was fat-free), the point was that you could throw a brownie, a candy bar, and half a pound of nuts in a container, eat it all, and say "I just had a dish of ice cream."

5. Frozen yogurt

Image credit: Mrs. Fields
I worked for TCBY and nearly got assassinated when I gave a woman sugar-free vanilla fro-yo rather than fat-free fro-yo. I was obviously trying to spackle fat to her thighs (even though the sugar-free had fewer calories).  Dude, why did they put the two vanillas in the same machine to confuse me? The yogurt was low-calorie but we had enough toppings (again, weird shit in the ice cream) to compensate for that.  We even had a SLIM FAST frozen yogurt milkshake.

6. Really unhealthy cafeteria food

Image credit: Fabulous Chick Gets Fit
At my 80s elementary school, there was no cafeteria and while I realize this would give Jamie Oliver a heart attack, the homeroom mothers would bring in food we could buy from the outside.  The choices were limited--one day was hot dog day (plain, mustard, or ketchup),  one day pizza day (just plain, no choice of toppings by the slice), one day was sub day (1/4 or 1/2) and my favorite was McDonald's day (choice of small burger, cheeseburger, or 6-pack nuggets).  And ice cream and milk were available for a quarter.  Was this health food?  No, but it was portion-controlled for the normal kid's appetite. Just like the mystery meatloaf of my mom's childhood or her brown bag peanut butter sandwiches were pretty modest.

In the 90s cafeteria, not only were their ginormous muffins, but also breakfast sandwiches oozing with cheese, square mystery pizza every day, snack cakes like Chocodiles and Linden's Buttercrunch Cookies I could ONLY get in school (thus motivating me to eat them more frequently).  French fries and bagels, bagels galore.  There were even processed foods I have NEVER have seen outside of a school cafeteria like breaded cinnamon sticks.

My typical high school day often involved a heat lamp-melted cafeteria muffin, a bagel with low-fat cream cheese and some kind of snack pastry. And go home and have a Lean Cuisine TV dinner.

7. Bagels

Image credit: Piggy's Deli
Along with muffins, bagels were everywhere.  Student council meeting?  Mock trial meeting? Study break in the dorm?  Lecture by famous Professor X? Debate team breakfast?  THERE WILL BE BAGELS. PILES AND PILES OF BAGELS.  With little white knives and very thick un-spreadable whipped butter and cream cheese. They were perfect because they were cheap, filling for about an hour, and took lots of time to eat (and thus you could discuss your teen angst over them and all the dieting girls could 'peel' them, eating the skin and then the soft innards to make them last longer).

Once, I brought bagels to a class for breakfast and took the unconsumed bagels to my next study hall.  I still remember how a group of freshman boys took up my offer to finish them off.  They ate the bagels with butter and cream cheese AND THEN ATE THE BUTTER AND LICKED THE CREAM CHEESE CONTAINER CLEAN.

It was then I understood the appetite of teenage boys: I hasten to add they did thank me profusely even though they ate the cream cheese with their hands.

8. Snapple

Image credit: Dr. Pepper Snapple Group
Snapple was great because you could wrap your hair scrunchie around the top of the bottle. It really wasn't very healthy, despite the label, but thanks to Snapple, no scrunchies were lost in the 90s.  Now you find hair ties all over the ground because people have water bottles.

9. 'Character' kid food

Image credit: Blue Buddies
Teddy Grahams were all the rage and while sugary cereals had been in style for a long time, the 90s oversaw the rise of Teenage Mutant Ninja and Smurfberry cereal, taking food-as-entertainment to a new level.  At least the Flintstones cereal was inspired by a classic show...

10.  Food so sweet and processed that only children can eat it

Image credit: Calorie Count
I also think this was the decade when French toast 'sticks' and pull-apart frozen waffles became in vogue (because it is so hard to make French toast or to cut your own damn waffles). And yes, Lunchables.  Fortunately, I was too old for these things when they came out. I can't fathom eating them any more than I could eating the leg of a Barbie doll. They are that natural.

10. Incredibly unhealthy 'healthy' yogurt

Image credit: Crazy Food Dude
Say what you will about the 80s, but there was pretty much five flavors of yogurt in the supermarket and all were whole milk. In the 90s, this changed and everything became fat free. Other than Fage, today it is almost impossible to find real yogurt in the supermarket.  In the 90s, plain yogurt almost disappeared and was replaced by flavors like Key Lime Pie and Strawberry Cheesecake.  Extra bonus points if the yogurt came with stir-in Oreo crumbles. And don't get me started on Gogurt.

11. The Extra Value Meal at McDonald's

Image credit: McDonald's
Before Supersize Me, the ability to order a super-sized meal by number with minimal interaction at the drive-through was seen as a great asset.  I went on countless road trips in college during which we rewarded ourselves for sitting in a car for six hours by getting our special 'value' meals.  I usually went for the healthier option of the grilled, mayo-laden chicken sandwich, fries (of course), and a vanilla milkshake.  Diet Coke if feeling virtuous.

12. Funky-ass pizza

Image credit: Tumblr
Ham and pineapple like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Buffalo chicken. Because if you put enough toppings on a Domino's pizza, you forget how awful and cheap and SWEET the tomato sauce and bread are... reviewing these 90s trends...all of which involve 'diet' food that is not really diet, immense portion sizes, and food that is designed to minimize the effort of eating and thus encourage you to eat more...I may have found the solution to the 80s paradox of why kids were so skinny in the 80s and we all got so fat in the 90s...


  1. EXACTLY!!! I am still carrying the 20 lbs I gained during the fat-free frenzy.

    1. Until I wrote this post and reflected upon the differences between 80s and 90s food, I did not realize what a dark food decade it was, one from which we are still recovering as a nation...

  2. Maybe I just don't remember correctly because I was too young to actually be buying food in the 90s, but a lot of these seem not to apply to us in Canada (or Ontario at least). Not surprising though since we usually get things late and don't remember a lot of these things becoming a big deal here until the aughts (specialty pizzas, weird yogurts and ice cream especially -- except for maybe DQ blizzards). Snapple was never huge here either, but Fruitopia was all the rage :). However, I would eat anything branded Ninja Turtles, and remember having a special fondness for the green arrowroot cookies :). "Fruit snacks" also I think were one of those things that exploded in the 90s (shark bites anyone?). And I probably would have died in my late highschool and university years if it weren't for the value menu :) (late 90s to mid aughts)

    1. It's so funny you say that, because on my Facebook page someone from California commented that all of these trends were very popular in the 80s in his state--I suppose if Canada 'gets things late,' California gets them early and New Jersey is in the middle. I remember Fruitopia was very popular at my college. And you are so right about the 'fruit snacks'--that was very trendy as a lunch item! I forgot about them because they were never one of my passions but some kids ate them by the truckload.

  3. I was part of all these eating fads...The yogurt bar is making its way back again and this time it costs a fortune.

    The Snackwells, I think I ate those by the box full without concern for calories because you see it had no fat (laugh).

    Thanks for bringing us back.


    1. I know! I see the yogurt thing ALL OVER and as people dump nine million toppings on dreadful, cheap, fake yogurt I ask myself 'did we learn nothing?'

  4. Like your Facebook friend, I was thinking a lot of these are 80s trends or earlier and I think it does have to do with which coast you're on. I always consider Entemann's a 90s thing, even though people older than me from the east coast grew up on them. Snapple is definitely 90s for me, though. I used to drink that every afternoon at work out of one of those fat glass bottles and it would ruin my day if the cafeteria only had Nestea.

    1. Interesting! It does appear that California was a huge food trend leader, by my informal survey. And yes, I grew up on Entenmann's even in the late 1970s (I can remember having their danishes as a tiny, tiny child)--it is part of my East Coast 'birthright.' Of course, what was very 90s was the Entenmann's line of fat free pastries, which of course I bought and over-consumed.


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