There are lots of choices to be made when you’re eating at a diner, from what to order to how you’d like your coffee, though few decisions are more controversial than which jelly packets go best on your toast. Those little tubs of jelly or jam in white plastic are a diner staple, as commonplace on those laminate counters as a bottle of ketchup, and people have lots feelings about which flavor of jelly is the best. There are some classic flavors of jelly and jam, like grape and strawberry, but if you’re lucky, your diner will have a wider selection of jelly packets than just those. This orange marmalade, mixed fruit jelly, even apple butter. But there’s no definitive ranking of diner jelly packet flavors, until now.
I went to my local diner, Kellogg’s in Williamsburg, to taste all the jelly packets and compile my ranking. Though one major thing I had forgotten about jelly packets is how tiny they really are. A single packet only coats half of a slice of toast, so if you get two slices of diner toast, as is traditional, you’ll probably need four packets of jelly to appropriately coat your carbs.
But jelly packets are complimentary with any order of diner toast, and the waitress didn’t give me any weird looks or hassle me when I asked for extra packets, so I would recommend that you ask for all the jelly they have. All of this to say is that you’re not wedded to your choice. If you smothered one half of one piece of toast with one flavor and realized you hate it, no sweat—you have three other chances at jelly greatness.
While all packets of diner jelly are sweet and delicious, some are definitely more satisfying than others. From worst to best, here are my official, but probably not definitive, rankings of four of the most popular flavors of diner jelly packets.
Mixed Fruit Jelly
When I read the phrase “Mixed Fruit,” I picture a veritable cornucopia of grapes, pears, peaches, oranges, honeydew, all of the berries. But when Smucker’s writes “Mixed Fruit,” what they really mean is more than a single fruit. In this case, two fruits: grape and apple. Mixed Fruit Jelly is, I suppose, made of mixed fruit in the most technical sense of the term. But it’s not satisfying because the entire time you’re eating a slice of toast with Mixed Fruit Jelly, you’re trying to figure out what, exactly, you’re ingesting. Like, if you handed me a packet of Mixed Fruit Jelly, I couldn’t tell you what fruits are in it, even though, upon closer inspection, the only two fruits illustrated on the label are grapes and apples.
The main taste is sweet, that coating of your mouth that comes from eating high fructose corn syrup (which, for the record, is the first ingredient). Mixed Fruit Jelly is rare, but that’s probably for the best, because it is the worst, and most disappointing, of all the diner jelly packets.
Concord Grape Jelly
I was shocked, genuinely shocked, to see that the first ingredient on the packet of Concord Grape Jelly was actually concord grape juice. The second ingredient, though, is high fructose corn syrup, and though this jelly definitely tastes like some kind of grape—maybe one that’s been sitting out in the sun for too long—the overwhelming flavor is sweet. The texture is also off-putting, it’s gelatinous and glassy when you first open the packet. And it’s not purple, it’s a strange red that’s a hue so deep that it’s hard to tell if the jelly’s been dyed or not. But Concord Grape Jelly wins out over the Mixed Fruit Jelly by a long shot, if only because it is what it says it is and sort of actually tastes like grapes.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve always loved orange marmalade, in every form, and packets of Orange Marmalade have always been my go-to for diner toast. But they take second billing on this list because I know the flavor is divisive, almost certainly the most unpopular diner jelly packet option based on my very unscientific, informal survey of roommates and coworkers.
You should give Orange Marmalade a chance, though, especially if you’re eating it from a diner packet. It’s not bitter, simply because there is so much corn syrup, yet Orange Marmalade still tastes like orange, which, as I’ve learned is no small feat when it comes to diner jelly packets. If you needed more proof that it was really orange that you were tasting, there are actual pieces of orange peel inside. You feel like you’re eating real fruit with your butter and carbs, and knowing that you’re not going to get scurvy is always a bonus.
This is where the difference between jam and jelly becomes a critical distinction, and the reason why Strawberry Jam lays claim to the top spot. Jelly is only made from the juice of fruit, with all the solids strained out, while jam contains those little bits of fruit, adding a bit of texture and some extra flavor. Strawberry Jam, even from a diner jelly packet, looks like strawberries, tastes like strawberries, even has the texture of super soft strawberries because, quite simply, you’re eating actual strawberry bits. It’s a favorite with a very low failure rate, so it’s almost always available in diners and delis, on buffet lines around the country, so when in doubt, ask for Strawberry Jam.