Controversial Lunchables Strike Again

Oscar Mayer Lunchables Chicken + American Sub Sandwich

Oscar Mayer Lunchables Chicken + American Sub Sandwich

I Paid: $3.59 for 5.7 ounces of food and 6.5 ounces of water (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 3 stars

Marketing: 3 stars

Sometimes, a food is not merely a food—it’s a cultural artifact. On that note, there may be few more anthropologically significant pieces of edible history than the new Oscar Mayer Lunchables variety, Chicken + American Sub Sandwich. If you’re somehow blissfully ignorant of Lunchables, the deluxe version is meant to be a complete meal in a box: dessert, side, drink, and sandwich or pizza, all prepped and ready for school. Lunchables represent a tension inherent in most of the mass-marketed food aimed at busy parents: They have to be convenient, cheap, and healthy, or at least present a plausible claim of nutritional value.

On that front, the package of the Lunchables Chicken + American Sub Sandwich brags up the healthiness of its contents. “Made with WHOLE GRAIN,” says the text under the photo of the sandwich. The Jell-O is sugar free, the beverage is bottled spring water (more on that in a second), the chicken breast and cheese are modest in quantity, and the calories for all eight food items in the box total a mere 250.

On the flip side, this one modest meal contains no fewer than nine pieces of plastic or foil packaging, to say nothing of the ethics of bottled water. There are nearly 100 ingredients that go into the various foods contained within the meal, most of which require a Google search and careful reading before they become even vaguely understandable. The bottled spring water comes with what is essentially a Kool-Aid Alka-Seltzer tablet that you insert into the bottle to make it potable for kids—which means, in this case, flavored like sweetened artificial fruit.

There are no real surprises flavor-wise. The sandwich is little more than a dinner roll with luncheon meat, WHOLE GRAIN notwithstanding. The tiny “crispy rice treat” is a faithful rendition of the classic, consumable in three small bites. The American cheese is devoid of flavor, as you’d expect.

In short, it is what it is: an affordable, convenient, convincingly packaged meal substitute, chockablock with resonant buzzwords, enough ingredients to choke a stenographer, and food that is both calorically light and aggravatingly inoffensive. There’s already a book dissecting the various ingredients in a Twinkie; a similarly interesting one could probably be written about the humble Chicken + American Sub Sandwich, starting with the farm where the chickens live their short lives and ending with a box of plastic and chemicals that millions of kids call lunch.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.