The Dessert Trend ’90s Babies Never Saw Coming

We just can’t quit you, puddin’

90s dessert trend: instant pudding
Lynne Mitchell/Getty Images

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. In our desperation to relive the bliss of yesteryear, we bring all kinds of trends back from the grave: low rise jeans, side parts, Bayonetta glasses. We’ll even eat a Cosmic brownie just to feel something.

But some things are better left in the past, and we thought instant pudding was one of them. We couldn’t have been more wrong. In January, the New York Times published a compendium of the restaurant trends that define eating out in the present moment. Among them? Nostalgic desserts—no surprise there. But it’s that wiggly, jiggly, comes-from-a-box treat, specifically, that’s coming back to delight. (Or haunt, depending on your taste preferences.)

If you only ate pudding in the form of a lunchbox snack cup or as the final course of a frozen TV dinner, you probably remember it as a convenient treat. But real Pudding People know that the instant stuff is so much more than that—it’s an ingredient in its own right, a secret held by grandmas and Pinterest users to make other desserts even more delicious.

What do chocolate cake, soft-baked cookies and cheesecake have in common? Yes, it’s instant pudding. The unique combination of sugar and cornstarch has a magical effect on other desserts: It can make cakes moister, fluffier and taller; add chew to cookies and ensure a foolproof creamy cheesecake. That’s because sugar attracts moisture, and cornstarch can assist with leavening and texture.

According to Pudding: A Global History, the packaged food was introduced in 1918 as a byproduct of the post-WWI manufacturing boom. It was a supermarket staple meant to shortcut dessert as women joined the workforce; not until the 1960s did home cooks realize it could improve other recipes, too. And while sales have declined in recent years, apparently that hasn’t stopped professional chefs from puttin’ puddin’ on the dessert menu. (FYI, everyone’s favorite famous pudding treat, Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding, has used instant mix in the recipe for many years.)

So, if it was once a closely guarded secret ingredient, why is pudding coming out of the woodwork again?

We think we can safely assume it goes back to that darned nostalgia factor. After all, ’90s babies, peak snack cup consumers they are, love to relive their youth. And can anyone blame them? They long for the days when no one had lived through a pandemic, a housing market crash or a global recession. They crave the artificial taste of vanilla, chocolate or even pistachio, hoping the taste memory takes them back to a time when their only worry was whether they’d get to ride their bike after their homework. They want that artificial taste, and they’re not afraid to admit it.

Why? Because it makes them feel something. (Oh yeah, and it also makes for a really good cake.)


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...