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Our Favorite Latchkey Kid Foods, Ranked

The greatest snacks for a generation left to fend for itself

Collage of foods from the 70's inside black outline of a key
The Arrow

There were probably a few kids during our childhoods who had parents waiting for them when they got home from school. I guess there’d be, like, deli platters or a rhubarb pie on the counter or something. I have no idea how such households functioned. But most of us in the ’80s returned to an empty house. And the first order of business was stuffing our faces with the tastiest junk food a glorified refinery could mass-produce.

The following list is built on years of childhood research, the snacks I’d munch on in front of SilverHawks until my mother came home. That makes it a purely personal and subjective list, which is my way of preparing you emotionally for the absence of Hot Pockets.

10. Toaster Strudel

It was all about the icing, wasn’t it? Those little tear-off packets. You could dribble multiples onto a single pastry if you were sad because the bullies really brought the thunder in PE that day. That icing, let’s be honest, was all that stood in the way of complete conquest at the hands of Pop-Tarts.

9. Capri-Sun

The defining feature of this drink occupying the no-man’s-land between Kool-Aid and juice was the pouch. For a kid in the ’80s, it was a fabrication miracle, even if an unexpected amount of marksmanship was required to pierce the tiny entry port with the flimsy attached straw.

8. Fla-Vor-Ice

In Florida, a 20-minute bike ride home from school would leave me sweating through my surfer dude tank top, and these tubes of rainbow sugar slush were somehow colder than any ice cream or Popsicle on a stick.

7. Chunky Sirloin Burger Soup

This was varsity-level soup as far as I was concerned, fully self-sufficient semi-stew that didn’t need an extra can of water to be complete like the condensed soups did. The main attraction, of course, was the little hamburgers with grill marks that I imagine a miniaturist executed with a fine-bristled brush and edible paint. What could be better to serve over boil-in-bag rice?

6. Manwich

Looking back, it was reckless of me to eat this since I was not yet a man. But you were in for a hearty and apparently masculine sloppy joe experience when you opened a can of this muy macho seasoned tomato sauce and stirred it through a pound of sizzling ground beef.

5. Lender’s Frozen Bagels

If you could withstand about two and a half minutes of prep, you could grab one of these out of the freezer, toast it up and then microwave it with a layer of Ragú and a couple of Kraft singles. Why have Bagel Bites when the upgrade, and it most definitely was, was right there waiting to be assembled?

4. Pizza Rolls

Yeah, no way a product like pizza rolls was ever gonna slip through the grasp of a seventh grader. I never could get a uniform temperature with these things. I’d assemble, like, eight on a plate in what I believed was some sort of mystical cooking formation. Inevitably, three would be perfect, two would still have an icy interior, and the remainder would rupture from the heat and expel a molten nanocube of pepperoni.

3. Chicken Cordon Bleu Stuffed Chicken Breasts

There were a number of retro recipes that found frozen form in the ’80s—chicken Kiev, chicken Francaise and this one, ham and cheese ramrodded into a breaded chicken mound. These things were dense and took a bit longer to prepare, so making one usually required a preliminary snack with quick-release calories to take the edge off.

2. Vienna Fingers

No Oreos? No Chips Ahoy!? Do I have some sort of E.L. Fudge vendetta? Seriously, this is my cookie representation? Yes. These cream-filled sandwich biscuits took a stab at elegance and were almost reluctant to taste like anything, but I somehow adored them all the same.

1. Steak-umm

The exemplar of latchkey cuisine. Before the meta upon meta upon meta Twitter feed, there were just frozen red shingles of meat matter. I loved watching them soften and warp in the skillet and then carefully folding them between two slices of white bread. You could feel the salty grease seeping through and warming your fingertips. This was my ideal dinner at 13, and I’m afraid I’m not much more complicated now.

Photo: Capri-Sun: Martin Lee/Alamy, Campbell’s: shutterstock, Vienna Fingers: shutterstock, Hot Pockets: Hong Vo/shutterstock, popsicle: courtesy Fla-vor-ice, chicken cordon bleu: Tomasz Jakusz/Alamy, toaster strudel: Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock, Steak-umms: Keith Homan/Alamy, bagels: courtesy Lender’s bagels, Manwich: Michael Neelon/Alamy.

Follow Article Topics: Eating-&-Drinking