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Monday, March 8, 2021

Meal Planning from the 1950s

Our conversations about favorite retro cooking last week prompted me to think about a section of my mom's 1953 cookbook. My mom was a very young bride by today's standards, 19 when she married my father. As a wedding gift from an aunt, she/they received the Better Homes and Garden's New Cook Book. A good deal of what my mother learned about cooking in those early years of marriage were found in the pages of this cookbook. 

As a teenager I had a crazy obsession with reading my mother's older cookbooks. When I was 18 and left home for college, my mom gave me this cookbook. Despite having taken Home Ec in middle school, I still had a lot to learn about cooking after I moved away for school.

One of my favorite sections of this cookbook has always been the meal planning one. I may not be wild about meal planning, but I like reading about how it could be done in someone else's household.

I think "ideal" meals of the 1950s were somehow lost by my own childhood years. On Leave it to Beaver (and other TV shows of its era), the star family, the Cleavers, always had dinner in a formal dining room, while the kitchen table was used for breakfast and lunch. I don't know if this is how families of the 50s actually ate their meals, or if this is just how TV families dined. But I always felt that family life had somehow shifted by the time I was in elementary school. Once we had a separate dining room as well as a an eat-in kitchen, my family always ate "regular" dinners in the kitchen, while the dining room was reserved for special occasions.

In addition to a shift in where Americans tended to eat their meals, the actual dinner menus from the 1950s (form my mom's cookbook) seem more formal than how my family today eats. In my mom's cookbook, the "dinner suggestions" section contains 6 different elements for each meal: entree, starchy food, vegetable, salad, dessert, and "nice to serve." Here's an example:

Rolled Rib Beef Roast
Browned Potatoes or Whipped Potatoes
Succotash or Broccoli with Hollandaise Sauce
Gold Coast Salad or Cranberry Salad Squares
Pumpkin Chiffon Pie or Date Pudding with Whipped Cream
Watermelon Pickles or Bouillon

Can you imagine making all of that on a random Tuesday? Okay, so maybe this would be a "special" meal. Here's another dinner suggestion:

Grilled Minute Steaks
Hash-brown Potatoes or French-Fried Potatoes
Buttered Corn or Wax Beans with Bacon Bits
Perfection Salad or Tossed Green Salad
Ambrosia or Walnut Gingerbread
Chili Sauce or Toasted Buns

My guess is these elaborate everyday meals went out of fashion as women's daytime hours were filled with work or other time-consuming activities. Here's another dinner suggestion:

Baked Pork Chops
Whipped Potatoes and Gravy or Corn Stuffing
Parsnips or Green Beans
Prune and Apricot Salad or Spiced Pears
Brownies a la Mode or Baked Apples
Relishes or Grape Juice

There's also a small section on meals that save you money. This section looks a little more like how my mother cooked (but with fewer and simpler desserts). Here are a few of those entries:

Meatballs with Spaghetti
Whole Carrots or Green Beans
Chilled Relishes or Mixed Greens with Garlic Dressing
Winter Ambrosia or Pineapple Sherbet

New England Boiled Dinner
Carrots, Potatoes, Onions, Cabbage (cooked with corned beef) or Turnips and Beets may be added
Apple-Raisin Salad or Molded Cranberry Salad
Lemon Meringue Pie or Maple Cup Custard

Tuna Bake with Cheese Swirls
Glazed Carrots or Buttered Green Beans
Tomato Aspic or Bouquet Salad Bowl
Emerald Isle Fluff or Lemon-Coconut Squares

Pork 'n' Apple Pie
Buttered Shredded Cabbage or Cauliflower
Chef's Salad Bowl or Celery-Apple Salad
Cottage Pudding with Lemon Sauce or Chocolate Bread Pudding

It's interesting, but the section that I think more closely reflects how many of us do dinner, now, is actually titled for lunches -- "Lunches your family will like." Many of the entries in this section would fall under a supper designation, in my mind. Here are several "lunch" suggestions:

Creamed-egg Casserole
Green Beans with Bacon or Spinach with Mushrooms
Circles of Head Lettuce, Russian Dressing, and French Bread or Waldorf Salad and Hard Rolls
Cherry Puff or Broiled Grapefruit

Creamed Dried Beef on Baked Potato
Pickled Beets or Brussel Sprouts
Tossed Green Salad or Citrus Salad
Applesauce Cake or Whole Apricots and Cookies

Spanish-rice Skillet
Buttered Asparagus Tips or Spinach with Mushrooms
Chef's Salad Bowl and Biscuits or Orange and Grapefruit Sections on Watercress and Relishes
Date Pin Wheels or Chinese Chews

Chicken a la King
Potato Chips and Fresh Buttered Peas or Corn Coblets
Pear Halves with Softened Cream Cheese and Cloverleaf Rolls or Tomato Slices on Lettuce with French Dressing and Biscuits
Orange Cake or Red Raspberry Fluff

Potato Chips or French-fried Onions
Kidney-bean Salad, Dill Pickles Slices, Celery and Carrot Sticks or Tossed Green Salad and Cocoa
Banana Split or Fresh Fruit

Fluffy Tomato Omelet
Fresh Peas or Broccoli with Lemon Butter Sauce
Pineapple-Cottage Cheese Salad with French Dressing and Bread Sticks or Sunshine Salad, Celery Curls, Ripe Olives
Crispette Squares or Coconut-Banana Rolls

Those were obviously lunches to be eaten at home. There's another section on lunchbox ideas. Here are a few of those menus:

Deviled Ham and Pickle in Bun
Iced Tea
Potato Chips
Celery and Olives
Brownies or Pear Halves

Egg Salad in Coney Buns
Milk or Coffee
Whole Tomato
Grapes or Sponge Cake Bars

Vegetable Soup
Chocolate Milk
Cottage Cheese, Tomato Wedges
Date Pin Wheels or Apple Wedges

Baked Beans
Cream Cheese Sandwiches on Brown Bread
Milk or Coffee
Chopped Vegetable Salad
Canned Peach Halves

Corned Beef Sandwich on Rye Bread
Mustard Pickles, Celery Hearts, Carrot Sticks
Baked Custard

Fried Chicken
Bread and Butter Sandwich
Mixed Vegetable Juice
Tomato Slices, Cucumber Sticks
Chocolate Cupcake

Baked Ham Sandwich on Whole Wheat Bread
Milk or Coffee
Potato Salad
Plums or Pecan Crispies

As a teen, I loved food and thinking about food. I was often dieting, so reading about these varied and full menus seemed to fill something in me. In any case, I thought a little trip down the memory lane of meal planning, via my mother's first cookbook, would be fun. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.


  1. my first observation was that the meal plan has a LOT of food. And a lot of components to get to the finished product. Even lunches seemed BIG to me. I don't recall having enough time during a school lunch period to finish all my food.

    Reading cookbooks are a favorite past time of mine. But I "lost" that when we moved nearly 8 years ago. So now I only read cookbooks occasionally. I also get that "full" feeling after reading cookbooks. I rarely make what I see and like.

    1. Hi Alice,
      I agree -- it does look like a lot of food, especially those full dinners. I can't imagine having to get that all ready and on the table for a family. I wonder if portion sizes were significantly smaller back then. So maybe "all" of the food amounted to a similarly full plate as today.

      My school lunchbox was mostly the same, day after day -- a half-sandwich, half-apple, milk, and either a small baggie of chips or a cookie. I was always in a big hurry to finish eating so I could go play on the playground at lunchtime. I was "allowed" to skip eating the cookie or chips until after school, but had to finish the sandwich, apple, and milk at lunchtime, which was do-able.

    2. I just watched an old educational video from he 1960s on losing weight and it sounds like the daily recommended calories for most adults at the time was 3000. Also people today seem to think these old style meals are a lot of food, but seem to not think much about eating a meal from a take away place that is 1200-1500 calories for one meal. A simple Sausage Egg McMuffin and hash brown breakfast is 620 calories. Add an orange juice and you are at 770. But if we have two eggs with two slices of toast with a pat of butter/real fruit jam and an 8 oz glass of 2%milk and half a grapefruit we are at 525 calories. Get rid of the milk and sub in coffee or tea and we are only at 390 calories. It just tends to sound like more food and more work.

  2. Unlike you, I didn't read cookbooks when I was growing up. Our main cookbook was a Fannie Farmer that was not as user friendly as the Better Homes and Garden that we got later. When I was in junior high or so, my mother went back to work and worked long hours as a nurse in an understaffed hospital. My sister and I were in charge of preparing supper each night. Meal planning was fairly easy. Our mother told us that we needed a meat, starch (usu. potatoes), a green vegetable, and a yellow vegetable. We always had milk to drink. Dessert was rare. That basic plan covered the different food groups as well as many of the vitamin and mineral requirements. Much of our food was either fresh from the garden or what was canned or frozen. The trick was getting the meal ready by the time my father came home from work if we had forgotten to take the meat (often venison my father got from hunting) out of the freezer. Back before microwaves, a pressure cooker helped a lot with this. My sister was amazing in how fast she could get a decent meal on the table when she hadn't planned ahead.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      My grandmother used the Fannie Farmer cookbook. I agree, it never seemed very user-friendly to me either. But it was definitely very full of information.

      It sounds like you had great hands-on experience for learning how to meal plan. I remember in Home Ec we did a section on meal-planning that sounded similar to how you were instructed by your mother. It's a basic, but very effective, approach that works with what's available, as opposed to planning, then going out to get what you need.

  3. I like to read cookbooks - all kinds. I also love to watch TV shows that talk about trends and inventions in food and how they changed the world. For example, canned soups came to the forefront when women went back to work, hence the popularity of casseroles. I don't
    know that these changes are healthier or better. I still prefer homemade, but so many things like soups, cake mixes, spaghetti sauces, rice a roni, etc. are considered staples now in so many homes. There are a few dishes that I have raised eyebrows about like tomato aspic or creamed egg casserole. I remember a salad my mom made for fancy occasions with a pear half on a lettuce leaf, with a dollop of mayonnaise, and shredded cheese on top. Don't know if my kids would eat that today.

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      Tomato aspic was a favorite of my mother's. I never liked it as a kid, but like it now. It may be an acquired taste.
      Your mom's pear salad sounds a lot like something my grandmother served -- canned pear half, with a scoop of cream cheese, and served on a lettuce leaf. I'm not sure my kids would have eaten the pear half with mayo, though. I've told them that a lot of jello salads were topped with mayo and they think that's disgusting. My grandmother used mayonnaise as is for a salad dressing. My kids can't get over that one, either. Tastes have changed.

      I find it interesting, too, the changes in how we prepare food and the products we buy now compared to 50, 60, or more years ago. It's a part of cultural history that has always interested me.

    2. Way back when, my mother made that same pear salad. She no longer fixes it anymore, so maybe everyone's tastes have changed over time!

      Lynn from NC Outer Banks

    3. Hi Lynn,
      Maybe that pear salad idea was in a lot of women's magazines at the time. I guess foods and recipes have fads like everything else in culture.

  4. Another member of the loves-to-read-cookbooks club here. For me, it was also the Fannie Farmer cookbook. After I got married, I got the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and that remains a staple (early 90's version) that I point my kids toward if they suddenly want to make pancakes or other foods.

    Like you, I can't fathom making some of those meals on an average weeknight, even some of the lunch menus!

    1. Hi Cat,
      My daughters have used my BH & G cookbook a lot, too. They're also more inclined to look up recipes online than I am, in place of using cookbooks. I wonder if actual cookbooks will become a thing of the past at some point.

      I do wonder if this was how people of the 1950s cooked, or if most folks didn't cook this way, but used these meal plans as a springboard to a simpler meal, skipping some of the side dishes or making simpler versions.

    2. You may be right about cookbooks becoming a thing of the past. My oldest daughter, married, mainly looks online for recipes (and in all fairness, I do quite a bit of that myself). But my 11 and 13 YO sons do not yet have phones so are willing to use a cookbook or printed recipe that I point out to them.

    3. I have some recipes that I've used from cookbooks for decades, so I continue with those. But I also have some new recipes that I only know through online sources.
      I hope cookbooks don't totally fade away, because they are fascinating sources of cultural information from previous periods. I'd hate to see that source just disappear.

  5. Ooh, I love old cookbooks. I have my mom's from 1950. I think the cover is prettier than the later versions. Lili, you are right about the meals--maybe I would make that much for company, but for a family meal? Nope! I can tell that my mom liked to make the breads and desserts the most--the pages are more smudged in those sections.

    My husband inherited cookbooks from his grandparents and I spent one winter leafing through them. One recipe that still makes me shudder involved placing a banana inside a slice of ham and topped with cheese. Fortunately that one never caught on!

    1. Hi Kris,
      Oh that's a strange one, with the banana, ham, and cheese. I wonder if this was one of those recipes that was "engineered" to use ingredients that were plentiful in a time of scarcity. I have a couple of Great Depression and WW2 community cookbooks that talk about how to use foods that are in abundance while making do without components which are scarce. I wonder if the banana, ham, cheese was supposed to be an "entree"? I think my family would think I'd lost my marbles if I served that up, and I know my husband would not take even one bite.

      The cookie section in my BH & G cookbook is the one most smudged and pages folded/torn/taped. That might have been as much my baking as my mom's though. I always liked baking cookies as a girl.


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