What makes kids food kid foods? Is it a malleable set-up that encourages children to play with their crackers and pasta? Or, perhaps, it’s brightly-colored packaging with the contents within written out into burst shapes. Certainly, the market has trended toward healthier options as of late, but there still is very much a place on the shelf for the kind of highly-processed, hand-held snack food you might only deem fit for an eleven year-old circa 1994.
But did these foods actually taste good, too? Do they stand up to a palate that has largely—really, we’re only talking about once or twice a year or so—given up on Saturday nights of malt liquor and Taco Bell? Were we all just dumb children duped by the enclosed toys and neat-o cartoon characters?
What follows isn’t exhaustive, but it is meant to be representative—fraught territory like dessert, candy and cereals were largely avoided, as were foods like Oreos or Cheetos that many adults still regularly relocate from the 7-11 into their arteries. These are the neon containers and sodium-rich tastes of the ‘80s and ‘90s that can still be found at grocery stores and gas stations, for everyone to enjoy. It’s up to you if you get them as far as the checkout line.
Ritz Handi Snacks
You know this one: The crackers encased in a portable carrier, separated from a cheese dip and boasting a red plastic spreader-thingy. It’s a scary enough proposition to jump right in, the dip’s bright yellow color only found in a nature imagined by a banana-drawing Pixar animator tripping on ayahuasca. The liquified “cheese,” which is made up of roughly 1,700 ingredients, also hasn’t been refrigerated since, well, probably ever.
Is it any good? Into the brink, I cast the red skewer and encountered a way-too-easily spreadable glop. It’s not too bad. Well, it’s pretty bad. The salty, creamy flavor is pleasant enough up front but then gives way to an aftertaste longer than Ben-Hur. It’s not much worse than the stuff pumped out at ballpark nacho dispensers or dug out of Whiz cans, which is to say: It’s not good. The Ritz crackers are a legitimate foodstuff, though. Nice crunch.
Can you eat this as an adult? Yes, you can eat this as an adult. But, you’re going to want to have some rotgut whiskey, Listerine or rocket fuel on hand to wage war with the aftertaste to end all aftertastes.
My Roll-Up experience brought back memories out of the gate: The smell, the consistency—the thing is harder to tear than a Florida voter tab—and the taste were all major throwbacks to the bottom of the Thermos Ninja Turtle lunchbox.
Is it any good? The one I tested out was strawberry, in name alone. The primary ingredient is corn syrup and somewhere in the middle of the pile of something-trates is a bit of pear puree concentrate. I can see how that would make the Whole Foods parents of the 2010s queasy, but I’m all about these candies. Beacuse they are candy. Nothing more, nothing less.
Can you eat this as an adult? Yes. Candy = good.
Gushers are made with pretty much the same ingredients as Fruit Roll-Ups—they’re both assembled by Betty Crocker in country kitchen (laboratory) somewhere, following her famous corn syrup and pear puree recipe—but as a bonus, my pack came with both strawberry and tropical flavors.
Is it any good? Not a bonus: These guys weren’t quite as much of a pleasurable wink back to schoolyard as confirmation of why we don’t place these horrors upon our tongues anymore. Show me an adult who enjoys random bursts of mysterious liquid in his or her mouth, and I’ll ask you what you’re charging for the subscription.
Can you eat this as an adult? You can eat these as an adult, but I would advise against it. If you like to eat food that has a different internal consistency, pick up some of those peanut butter pretzels from Trader Joe’s.
Kraft string cheese
Where did we go wrong? At what age did we abandon the fall-apart wonder that is string cheese? Technically a mozzarella, this ain’t the buffalo variety hand-stretched by a bearded herder in a cold, Northern Italian river or whatever. It’s mass-produced, pasteurized and impossibly white.
Is it any good? It’s wonderful. Cheese carts pushed around by mongers at the finest restaurants and fromage plates arranged for the holidays should incorporate Kraft string cheese alongside Époisses and Stiltons. A side note to Donald Trump: If you should become president and want to deport anyone, please do so with the people who bite the ends off of string cheese instead of tearing.
Can you eat this as an adult? You can, you should, you must.
Cap Sun is one of the few products from my childhood that seems to have looked around—seen the black president, watched gay people getting married—and realized it’s the 21st century. Its fruit punch is now devoid of high fructose corn syrup and, even though it’s not exactly healthy per se, the bagged brand now offers some 100% juice flavors.
Is it any good? The original, sugar-bombed ones are just fine by me, and I’m not so sure I won’t be working them back into my picnic baskets again. You should do the same, unless you’re one of those freaks who pokes the straw in the bottom of the bag.
Can you eat this as an adult? Yeah, let’s start seriously weirding out those around us by bringing this one back. Like, let’s get Capri Sun on some restaurant menus.
These are those mini graham crackers shaped like teddy bears. A man unmoved by this proposition is no man, at all.
Is it any good? TGs are delightful. More adults—deflecting judgmental gazes from their peers—should eat them on the subway, in their car, or at the mall. I, for one, would be enthused about the new America where passersby on the street nod in approval when another approaching stranger is dipping into her snack bag of Teddy Grahams.
Can you eat this as an adult? Hell yeah. I’m gonna get Wylie Dufresne to work on a dessert incorporating them, stat.
I chose a ham and cheddar Lunchables that was on sale, at my local supermarket, for one dollar.
Is it any good? That price is too high. I figured that the ham would be less risky than Kraft’s other Lunchables classic—turkey and American cheese—but a grown man, who is eating children’s food, must admit when he is wrong. The texture of the round disced pig product is so overly-processed that its little dimples and pockmarks seem less natural occurrences and more mechanical burps in a Ford-esque assembly line.
It’s kind of like headcheese for eight-year-olds, without the bona fides. Under “Oscar Mayer Lean Ham,” the package reads, “water added.” No shit. And, woe is me: the cheese, purportedly cheddar, has no discernible sharpness. This Kraft—more like Krapt amiright?—product tastes as if no milk or aging were used in the process is the platonic nadir of what cheese is supposed to taste like. Further existential questions swirl—what makes a cheese a cheese?—only to be interrupted by a crippling stomach ache. The vanilla creme cookies were solid, though.
Can you eat this as an adult? Don’t do it, no matter how much vintage cred you might be able to accrue snacking on one outside of your local Urban Outfitters.
Chef Boyardee ravioli
Here we have “pasta” that seems a few generations removed from the kitchen of a real Chef Boyardee. It’s true: Ettore Boiardi immigrated to the U.S. from Italy and was head chef at the Plaza Hotel in New York, cooked for President Woodrow Wilson, supplied rations to World War II soldiers and is buried in the same Ohio cemetery as my grandparents. You can tell that story to your kids as you’re poisoning them with sodium.
Is it any good? For something that smells like Purina, I found myself eating more than just a taste of Chef Boyardee’s mini beef ravioli. They aren’t quite what many food critics would term “desperately mediocre,” but would pass as edible near a battlefield or in space. There’s an inexplicably banal appeal to the mushy pasta and its sweet sauce.
Can you eat this as an adult? Maybe just eat some other kind of ravioli. Pretty much any other kind will win the day.
On most cans, there’s a game advertised called “Uh-Oh, SpaghettiOs!” which seems less like a premise of a contest, and more the sound of the cries of children when the O-shaped gluten rings reach their tables.
Is it any good? I could barely stomach a few spoonfuls before becoming palpably nauseous. (I should note that I felt terrible over the course of the two days I was eating these “foods.” These products are awful for your children, 33-year-old freelance writers and, probably, most reptiles.) The overly-sweet “tomato and cheese” sauce is the real bummer, here, and might cause as many trips to the dentist’s office as Halloween: High fructose corn syrup being high on the ingredients chart confirms it. I’m surprising the noodles weren’t responsible for droves of al dente-loving Italians returning to the homeland, heads sunk in shame.
Can you eat this as an adult? No. How hard is it, really, to boil pasta and toss in some sauce?
Gorton’s fish sticks
Gorton’s fish sticks are like diapers: They smell like shit and the only people who use them are either very young or very old.
Is it any good? Once you clear out the fishy smell that can only be described as “probably worse than the boots of the killer in I Know What You Did Last Summer,” they’re alright. The sticks are salty and crunchy. A spritz of lemon and healthy dollop of tartar sauce are musts, which—if you’re taking the care to use—you can probably do better than fish sticks.
Can you eat this as an adult? Don’t shoot your wad now; hold out for the nursing home.
Snack Pack pudding cups
The first thing you notice about Snack Pack pudding—besides the constant urge to make Billy Madison references—is that it isn’t refrigerated at the grocery store. Jello pudding? Fancy pudding I don’t even know about? It’s cold. But, Snack Pack skirts science and good sense to find itself on the shelves at the end of abandoned aisles. I picked up the standard chocolate, refrigerated at home, and began my work.
Is it any good? Snack Pack is legit. It’s all of the things you’d want in a pudding: It’s creamy, sweet and rich. But, do you want a pudding? Pudding is weird. The texture is in its own league, somewhere between ice cream and fudge. Judging by all of the budinos popping up at haute restaurants, though, I’d say you want the pudding. And Snack Pack can go toe-to-toe with any of ‘em, including a $27 dessert served beside some kind of deconstructed wedding cake that’s name is a pun of a Wallace Stegner novel (Frosting to Safety). I’m still not sure how something that purportedly has “real milk” and “no preservatives” can sit on a room temperature store shelf for months on end, but I’m no scientist. I’m just a 33-year-old man eating food manufactured and marketed for children.
Can you eat this as an adult? Sure, go nuts.
I might’ve been most scared to taste-test this guy. I used to cop Kid Cuisine all the time back in the day: say, when my parents went out on a Friday night and I had a babysitter. Still, I was nervous as to what this microwaved assortment would yield, as far as my aged palate was concerned.
Is it any good? Having low expectations led to a pleasant surprise. The chicken nuggets had decent flavor (despite being a bit soggy) and the mac ‘n’ cheese side had noodles with some bite, if little robust flavor. The corn was wet and flavorless in that nuked way and dessert was a total nightmare. I remember the last course being tough for Kid Cuisine to pull off in my youth and when the chocolate pudding emerged from the microwave bubbling—something pudding has no right to do—I was magically transported back to the days of watching blurry porn with the local high school nitwit charged with making sure I didn’t die.
Can you eat this as an adult? Yes, but just to freak your roommate and/or partner out when he/she gets home from work one day and asks: What’s for dinner?
Purportedly some sort of fruit punch, this drink is bracingly sweet: I’m convinced an advertising executive came up with image of anthropomorphic toothpaste bubble cartoons after hoisting a cup.
Is it any good? First I tried to dilute the syrup with some ice and, when that didn’t work, I reached for some vodka. Now, I’m sure some college kids have popularized the concoction—perhaps they use rum—but I’ll gladly take pleasure in the prospect of at least one person reading this and attempting it. On Hawaiian Punch’s label, there’s a rad little dude surfing. That’s kind of what happens with the vodka, which has been rendered undetectable by the punch’s corn syrup blitzkrieg, as it rushes on a wave into your veins and produces one of the dumber drunks attainable outside of Mad Dog 20/20.
Can you eat this as an adult? The Russian version comes highly recommended.
Colin St. John is a Denver native who contributes to Rolling Stone, Esquire, Inverse and other various publications. He likes some specific things (chicken sandwiches, Richard Linklater movies) and dislikes others (sliced tomatoes, guns).