Out to Lunch
Are any of these premade meals worth buying?
Here are the results, from those that should be put on academic probation, to those that passed—barely.
Lunchables Mess With Your Mouth Chicken Dunks Contents: Breaded chicken nuggets, Sour Tongue Tasting Fizz, ketchup, Starburst, Capri Sun 100-percent juice Look/Convenience GPA: 1.73 Taste GPA: 0.35 Nutrition GPA: -0.80 Weighted GPA: 0.05
No Lunchables product got me as excited as Mess With Your Mouth Chicken Dunks, which feature a "sour fizz" powder to sprinkle on chicken nuggets after they've been dipped in ketchup. But like many things I've anxiously anticipated in my life— Boogie Nights, smoking cigars, the 1983 Milwaukee Brewers team—the chicken dunks were bitterly disappointing. Limp and soggy, the cold chicken lumps were made less appealing by the fluorescent purple fizz powder, which added no real zing but instead an unpleasant sourness and a grainy texture. Kids and adults agreed: These are gross. "Minus 5 million," Lulu said when asked for her taste score. "No, minus 5 billion." (I interpreted that as a zero.)
Our nutrition panel was appalled by the very existence of this product, giving it a negative score not just for what it was but for what it taught kids: to sprinkle candy on an already unhealthy meal. Joyce was succinct: "Anyone who gives this to their kids is guilty of child abuse." The low nutrition score and the group's unanimous hatred were enough to help this product approach taste-testing absolute zero.
Lunchables Maxed Out Ultimate Nachos Contents: Tortilla chips, mild salsa, nacho-cheese dipping sauce, nacho-cheese seasoning packet, bottled water, Kool-Aid tropical-punch flavor powder, Air Heads candy Look/Convenience GPA: 2.13 Taste GPA: 2.23 Nutrition GPA: -2.00 Weighted GPA: 0.10
While the kids went crazy for Lunchables nachos, immediately sprinkling cheesy powder on the chips and dipping them in salsa and cheese sauce, and I thought the nachos were cheesily delicious, the more adult adults pooh-poohed the cold cheese sauce and found the salsa bland. And this meal—with 580 calories, 27 grams of fat, and half a day's worth of sodium—received the lowest nutrition score of all. The only healthy thing in the lunch, the spring water, was spoiled by the addition of sugary Kool-Aid powder. This lunch offers a prime example of the dangers of trusting the taste buds of kids: "These Air Heads are amazing," said Simon, scoring the meal's dessert a 10,000 for flavor. "Look, it's all sugar," he added rapturously as the adults looked on, aghast.
Norwegian Jake's LunchBoxers Peanut Butter & Jelly Contents: Flatbread wraps, peanut butter, jelly, part-skim string cheese, Nestle Crunch mini, Wet Nap Look/Convenience GPA: 0.13 Taste GPA: 1.69 Nutrition GPA: 0.40 Weighted GPA: 0.73
Attractively packaged, the Norwegian Jake's line—based in Michigan and extending its brand reach through 35 states—seems like a healthy winner on first glance. Its label promises an appealing-looking PB&J wrap. But each tortilla has to be painstakingly covered in squeezed-out PB&J. "By the time you put it all together, the bell would ring," groused Simon.
I thought the wrap tasted fairly good, like a reasonable facsimile of a peanut butter sandwich. But no one else was overly excited about it. The nutrition panel viewed this meal as a missed opportunity. While the tortillas have an aura of healthiness about them, it's misleading: They're not whole wheat, and they're loaded with hydrogenated oils. The meal packs in nearly 26 grams of fat—50 percent of the U.S. recommended daily intake —plus whopping amounts of sodium and sugar. "This is what drives me crazy," Abby said. "They take a healthy food and they make it junk."
Lunchables Turkey and American Stackers Contents: Crackers, cheese, turkey, chocolate Oreos Look/Convenience GPA: 2.33 Taste GPA: 1.18 Nutrition GPA: 0.00 Weighted GPA: 0.82
No one felt that strongly about this meal, except our nutrition panelists, who were amazed at how Oscar Mayer can foul up a simple tray of turkey, cheese, and crackers by adding crap like starch to the cheese to keep slices separated, hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup to the crackers, and sodium nitrite and ominous-sounding "smoke flavor" to the turkey. Nineteen grams of fat, 9 grams of saturated fat, 900 mg of sodium: It all adds up to a meal none of the kids liked that much. Only Simon gave this meal a decent taste score, because he likes Oreos.
Norwegian Jake's LunchBoxers Pizza Contents: Flatbread wraps, marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, Nestle Crunch mini, Wet Nap Look/Convenience GPA: 1.73 Taste GPA: 1.94 Nutrition GPA: 0.00 Weighted GPA: 0.93
"Definitely too complicated for school," Cam announced as he watched the kids struggle to open the tortillas, cheese, and pepperoni to assemble these pizza wraps. Although the kids seemed excited about the process, likely because the prospect of "pizza" was in sight, only Aaron ended up liking this meal; the other kids found it "weird" and "cold," asserting that it tasted measurably worse than cold pizza. Most of the adults, however, found the pizza wraps fairly palatable. The pepperoni in particular was singled out for praise, though not by Joyce, who noted that "pepperoni's a killer," adding fat, salt, preservatives, and nitrites to the meal. Abby was annoyed that the marinara sauce contained high fructose corn syrup.
Armour LunchMakers Cracker Crunchers Cooked Ham Contents: Crackers, ham, cheese, Nestle Crunch mini Look/Convenience GPA: 2.87 Taste GPA: 1.46 Nutrition GPA: 0.40 Weighted GPA: 1.21
More or less indistinguishable from other cracker-stacker meals, Armour's LunchMakers shared the same problems as those lunches. Hurting Armour's taste GPA: The cheese was "very bland" and the ham "not tasty." Hurting Armour's nutrition GPA: Nestle Crunch bars are "delicious." (Dedicated tasters that they were, the kids tasted every Nestle Crunch bar, in case minute differences existed in the Nestle Crunch bars used by different prepackaged lunch companies. Turns out: No.) The nutrition panel wearily ran down the now-familiar litany of sins: corn syrup and hydrogenated oil in the crackers, additives galore in the ham. After choking down a bite of this lunch, Simon groaned, "We need exercise." We took a break, during which the kids, suffering some kind of junk-food-induced delirium, gleefully chomped on whole, raw cucumbers.
Lunchables Ham & Cheddar Lower Fat Stackers Contents: Crackers, ham, cheese, Capri Sun flavored juice-drink blend, Jell-O fat-free pudding Look/Convenience GPA: 2.73 Taste GPA: 2.35 Nutrition GPA: 0.60 Weighted GPA: 1.55
Despite the meal's tepid initial reception—Jesse declared that it smelled, upon opening, "like barf"—most of us thought the meal was pretty tasty and deemed it the best of a bad lot of meat-and-cheese cracker-stackers. It is also marginally less unhealthy than its counterparts, with 11 grams less fat than other, similar meals. But, as Joyce pointed out, "Wherever there's low fat there's lots of sugar." And indeed, once again the meal's crackers contained high fructose corn syrup. While the fat-free pudding was grudgingly approved of, despite its high sugar content, the nutrition panel went apoplectic over the sugar-packed Capri Sun.
Uncrustables Peanut Butter & Grape Jelly Sandwich Contents: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread Look/Convenience GPA: 3.60 Taste GPA: 3.17 Nutrition GPA: 0.80 Weighted GPA: 2.07
Uncrustables are crustless white-bread packets—imagine a PB&J empanada—kept frozen at home, popped in a lunch bag in the morning, and eaten thawed at lunchtime. Though some felt the peanut butter was a little too sweet, and some of the kids complained it was overstuffed with jelly, overall the meal was a hit—even our nutrition panelists, who could barely bring themselves to touch other products, each happily ate half an Uncrustable. I, myself, with the culinary sophistication of a 10-year-old, thought this tasted like the PB&J of my dreams—fluffy white bread, gooey peanut butter, sickly sweet jelly, and no crust.
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.