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What Foods Did Americans Cook and Eat in the 1950s?

I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Budget recipe for stretching one pound of hamburger to feed a family of four

Budget recipe for stretching one pound of hamburger to feed a family of four

Home Cooking in the 1950s

The 1950s was a decade in which most American women were not employed outside the home. Most families had only one car, fast food was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, and married women were called housewives and/or homemakers. For many families, eating out was usually reserved for special occasions.

From the number of cute retro diners and cafes in existence today, one who didn't live through the 1950s themselves would easily have the false impression that we constantly ate hamburgers and hot dogs and drank flavored colas, malts, and milkshakes. These foods and drinks were all a part of what we ate and drank during that time, but it certainly was not an everyday thing.

During a recent visit to an antique store, I purchased two vintage copies of Better Homes and Gardens magazine from 1958. After enjoying the numerous ads for food products, it prompted me to take out my mother's old cookbook and read which recipes she had collected and cooked as our family favorites. Keep in mind that America is rich in many cultures and cuisines, so what families ate differed by ethnic group, region, and of course, budget.

What We Ate in My Home

In my own home, main dishes many nights were casseroles, which illustrated the cook's ingenuity and thrift. Note the photo above that touts how to feed a family of four on one pound of hamburger. Typical main dishes might have been a hamburger, tuna fish, chicken casserole, dried chipped beef in cream gravy over toast, fried chicken, mac and cheese, Spam, canned ham, spareribs, hot dogs wrapped in Bisquick, hot dogs with barbecue sauce, liver and onions or various bean dishes. Meatloaf was made with hamburger stretched with bread crumbs. Soups such as vegetable, split pea and bean were slow cooked for hours. Deviled eggs were popular for a summer main dish. For our family round steak, pot roast, pork chops, or real ham was served on Saturday night, or sometimes on Sunday, or when we had company. It is interesting to us Baby Boomers that mac and cheese with the addition of crab or lobster with a variety of expensive cheeses has been elevated to almost gourmet status in today's restaurants.

The size of dinner plates was much smaller than plates are today, which lent itself to smaller portions. Another thing to note about eating in the 1950s is that most parents had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and nothing was wasted. Using leftover foods creatively was both a skill and an art. My mom reused waxed paper and tin foil many times!

Spanish rice: minute rice, tomato sauce, green peppers and onions are the ingredients in this popular main dish

Spanish rice: minute rice, tomato sauce, green peppers and onions are the ingredients in this popular main dish

Breakfast in the 1950s

Hot breakfast has not changed much since the 1950s. Bacon, eggs, hash, pancakes, toast, waffles, and fried potatoes were the normal at our house. Keep in mind that fried food was either fried in butter, shortening, or previous bacon drippings. Toast was slathered with butter and jelly. Other items included oatmeal, corn meal mush, Shredded Wheat, puffed rice, puffed wheat, Corn Flakes, and Grape Nuts.

The house I grew up in had various citrus trees in the backyard, so from December through April, we enjoyed fresh orange and grapefruit juice. Otherwise, most juices were canned or from frozen concentrate. Most housewives had several wonderful coffee cake or cinnamon roll recipes that were called quick breads if they were baking powder–based as opposed to yeast-based, which took much longer to prepare.



Salads and Vegetables

Salads are the meal component that have changed the most since the 1950s. Think mayonaise! Jello salads came in every variety. Sunshine jello was lemon jello with shredded carrots and crushed pineapple. Lime jello often had shredded cabbage and chopped celery. Jello salads often had a generous glob of mayo as a topper. Fruited jellos with fruit cocktail or bananas were popular. Salads featuring cottage cheese with a slice of fruit or a tomato wedge were popular. Canned fruit such as fruit cocktail, canned peaches, or pear halves were served as a salad or a dessert. Keep in mind that air freight shipping of perishable fruits and vegetables was not the same as today.

Those who grew up on farms probably enjoyed a better variety of fresh vegetables, but canned corn, canned green beans, or peas were all pretty much overcooked and dull. Potato dishes were mashed, scalloped, or fried.




Most nights we got dessert after dinner if and only if we ate all our dinner. Cookies such as sugar, chocolate chip, ginger, molasses, or oatmeal with raisins were standards. Puddings such as tapioca, butterscotch, vanilla, rice, bread, and chocolate were common. Ice cream and sherbet were big treats since most refrigerators didn't have very large compartments. Cakes were spice, chocolate, angel food, sponge, and pineapple upside-down cake. Most people made and loved pies of all types.

How About You?

If you grew up in the 1950s, which dishes do you remember eating at home? Which ones did you love, and which ones are you happy are no longer popular?

Speaking for myself, I often misses some of these old favorites!

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