Before nutrition labels and organic ingredients started gaining momentum, there was a time in North America when food was more novelty than nourishment. The 1980s were all about convenient packaging, snazzy branding, and fun — albeit artificial — flavouring. It was a time when popular snacks contained loads of sugar, and salads were smothered in ranch dressing. Take a walk down memory lane as we remember some of the most uniquely ’80s foods.
Push Pops hit candy store shelves in 1986 and became a huge hit thanks to its clever packaging. Each plastic tube contained a lollipop that had to be pushed out for consumption. The best part was the fruity candy could be lowered back into the cylindrical container, and stored for later thanks to a handy cap. For kids in the ‘80s, this meant you could savour a few licks of the lollipop and store it — possibly under your pillow — for later.
Seven-layer dip is now a Super Bowl party staple, but the colourful concoction didn’t become popularized until the 1980s, when Tex Mex served as the inspirational flavours behind many American favourites. Over time, chefs and home cooks have put their own spin on the recipe, but generally, it includes mashed, refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, salsa or pico de gallo, grated cheddar cheese, black olives, and either sliced lettuce, jalapeños or green onions.
Tri-Colour Pasta Salad
There was a time when households really loved tri-colour pasta. Something about the addition of green (spinach) and red (tomato) noodles made dinnertime feel fun and novel. Perhaps the most popular use for the tri-color noodle was pasta salad, a potluck and, oddly enough, buffet staple since the 1980s. Cooks would cook and cool the noodles before tossing them with cheese, broccoli, sliced olives and Italian dressing.
Artificially Flavoured Fruit Snacks
Perhaps it was because kids just weren’t into eating real fruit in the 1980s, or maybe it was harder to get them fresh and in season. Whatever the reason, artificially flavoured fruit snacks became a hit back then and remain popular today. Brands like Fruit Corners, Shark Bites and Fun Fruits paved the way for snacks like Gushers and the Fruit Roll-Up. If you expected to find real fruit juice in any of these cavity-causing candies, you’d be mistaken. These snacks were pure bites of sugary bliss.
Beef Stroganoff originated in 19th century Russia and made its way to American high school cafeterias in the 1980s. Back then, sauteed slices of beef and mushrooms covered in a brown sour-cream sauce might not have seemed appealing, but these days, served over pillowy egg noodles or a bed of rice, seems like the ultimate comfort food.
Popcorn From a Popcorn Maker
In 1981, General Mills received the first patent for a microwave popcorn bag, but it still took several years before the product was released to the masses. Therefore, popcorn from a popcorn maker was still the most popular way to make the salty, buttery snack in most households. The electric standalone kitchen gadgets performed one function only: popping popcorn that would be released into a bowl. Amazingly, popcorn always came out perfectly.
Spinach Dips in Bread Bowls
If you were going to a house party in the 1980s, it was almost guaranteed there would be a bread bowl filled with creamy spinach dip. The savoury dish was made by hollowing out a round loaf of pumpernickel or sourdough bread, and filling it with the mayonnaise-based dip. The remaining bread was then sliced into cubes and used for dipping.
Jell-O has been a treat for generations, and in the 1930s, the company ventured into pudding. Around 50 years later, they found a new way to serve it to kids: creating a popsicle made from the chocolate pudding. The frozen fudgy bars were the ideal summer treat — combining the milk-chocolate flavour we all loved with the iciness needed to combat sweltering summer days.
Along with comfort foods like Hamburger Helper and Rice-O-Roni, Sloppy Joes also became popular in the ‘80s. Kids loved the meaty sandwich, mainly because it was one of the messiest meals out there. A mixture of ground beef, onions, tomato sauce or ketchup, and other seasonings served on a hamburger bun — yum! Our craving for packaged convenience in the 1980s meant you also had the option of simply heating up a can of Manwich to avoid any cooking.
Among the quick-fix foods we were consuming in the ‘80s, was freezer cakes, made by brands like McCain and Sara Lee. These were already baked, fully-iced cakes that came in boxes found in the freezer section of grocery stores. The funny part was that you never needed to defrost the cake in order to consume it. The contents managed to stay somewhere between ice-hard and spongy. While Sara Lee’s cakes eventually declined in popularity, McCain’s Deep ‘n Delicious chocolate cake is still going strong.
Michelle da Silva is a Toronto-based writer who loves telling stories related to food.