Inside the lunch box of an Aussie kid in the 90s
THE 1990s was a golden era for the Australian lunch box.
As the nation marched bravely towards the new millennium, the advent of the internet opened up a whole new world of mass media marketing directed at kids.
My friends and I were totally engrossed in Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, and food industry executives soon realised they could make some easy cash by side-stepping our sensible parents and marketing their oversaturated, sugary crap straight to us.
Suddenly, new, delicious products hit the shelves, blinding me and my young friends with colour, sugar, flavour and little plastic toys.
We never stood a chance.
Every shopping trip descended into a desperate attempt to convince mum to buy the latest LCM bars - literally cereal stuck together with gluey sugar syrup to form a bar - or those big bags of "kids-sized" chips to shove in my new Barbie ziparound lunch box (complete with inbuilt food dividers and an external drink bottle strap, FYI).
Parents today would shudder at what was in our lunch boxes back then, but I believe the '90s was a remarkable period when the marketing industry was on steroids, no one cared about plastic packaging or chemicals in our food, and the more processed and colourful your lunches were, the more street cred you'd have with your mates.
And boy, did we have some cred.
In the '90s, if your mum didn't send you to school with at least one packet of cheese and bacon balls, a pop top and some Ovalteenies, then who even were you, please leave us alone.
Every snack had a gimmick, and we wanted every last one of them.
Tubes, sachets, dip sticks, cones, plastic toys, colourful containers - everything was bigger, brighter, sweeter and made us grin from ear to ear. Until the next thing came along.
It pains me to think of the bland, allergen-free contents of today's school lunch boxes (or stainless steel, eco-friendly bento boxes).
And before you ask, no, I don't have children.
And yes, I understand the merits of a healthy, balanced lunch that incorporates locally sourced produce with nutritionally beneficial ingredients.
But, where's the fun in that?
Let's take a look at the kaleidoscope of the lunch box of a 90s kid and feel sorry for the kids of today, who will never get to experience it.
Granted, they will probably live longer than us. But whatever, let's get this started:
BURGER MAN CHIPS
These saucy little dudes bring back memories of school discos, where $5 could buy you three cans of soft drink, a packet of man-shaped chips and a wild night out.
Possibly the most beloved Australian snack from this decade. The packs featured three sections, one for the biscuits, one for the dipping sauce and one for the crumbles. Millions of kids almost held a vigil when the company discontinued the strawberry and vanilla flavours.
MAMEE NOODLE SNACKS
You know those things that would just appear in your lunch box, and you wouldn't question them because it was something new your mum was trying and it was bloody delicious? Mamee noodle snacks were those. Just a packet of dried, salted noodles. Absolutely no nutritional value whatsoever, but we devoured them.
A container, filled with sliced cheese, mystery meat and crackers. Sometimes a little packet of M&Ms or Skittles featured as well for dessert. We were given the tools with which we could paint our very own lunch canvas.
No Aussie lunch box was complete without a packet of Ovalteenies. Fun fact: They weren't changed to an actual oval shape until the early 2000s.
It's the 1990s we have to thank for advancing the Australian custom of dipping things into other things. Wait, what about fondue in the 1970's? Nah. Snackabouts played a seminal role in the dipping movement, with each serve offering four biscuits and a dollop of vegemite, peanut butter or cream-cheese spread. The Snackabout soon evolved and new products would provide little dipsticks to spread our chosen condiment on our bickies. The height of lunchtime laziness.
A cure-all for colds, a comfort food in the winter, and something to crunch and annoy your teacher during class. Eucalyptus drops have been a dependable constant in the life of Aussie kids for many years.
These baby bears held quite a lot of currency in the schoolyard marketplace and would often make for an easy swap with an Uncle Toby's Roll Up or packet of Cheezels (so you could put them on your ring finger and pretend to be married).
If you haven't already picked up on this, chips were a big part of the Aussie kid's lunch box in the '90s. We mostly enjoyed them in small "kid-sized" packets. Samboy made the best, most flavoursome of the chips and the label packed a real punch.
One word: Genius.
A colourful tube of flavoured yoghurt, designed to make the most boring part of lunch enjoyable? Yeah. We were there for Go-Gurt in a big way. Mums everywhere would do their best to freeze the tubes or wrap them in a tea-towel next to a big freezer block, but they were usually lukewarm and watery by lunchtime.
HUNDREDS AND THOUSANDS BISCUITS
Remember finding four of these wrapped up in some Glad wrap at the bottom of your lunch box? What a time to be alive.
SPACE FOOD STICKS
It quickly became every kid's civic duty to eat a space food stick, in honour of the brave astronauts who ate these for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We didn't even care that they tasted like rubberised advent calendar chocolate, it was important to pay your respects.
Well, that escalated, didn't it? What was once a tiny packet of hazelnut chocolate spread, shoved hastily inside your kid's lunch box to fill it up, quickly ballooned into a generational obsession with the stuff. Literally, '90s kids now eat Nutella in and on everything. Here's where it all started.
"It's REAL juice, mum, I swear!"
The cry of every '90s kid when their mum stared, unconvinced, at the colourful "fruit drinks" on the grocery store shelf. Damn, they were tasty.
Especially when frozen in Summer and packed in your lunch box with a spoon to make a DIY slushy.
What the '90s lunch box may have lacked in fresh fruit, it certainly made up for in a metre-long fruit straps of processed fructose. The Uncle Toby's Fruity Metres were a creative spin on the classic Roll Up, just longer, thinner and probably worse for you.
PUSH POPS AND RING POPS
These treasured treats were the source of many jealous glances at lunchtime. If you had a ring pop on your finger, or a sticky push pop in your paw, you were the boss.
Finally, at the end of the school day, the Aussie '90s kid would retire to watch the afternoon cartoons (Captain Planet, Alex Mack, Art Attack, Feral TV) with an afternoon snack. And, just like our lunches, our afternoon tea would feature the nutritional value of a piece of cardboard.
Pizza pockets, a doughy sphere, filled with mystery squares of meat, pizza sauce and molten cheese. They could melt your fingerprints off with one touch, but they have always been the ultimate comfort food of the '90s.