Every decade, it seems like some new kind of diet becomes the hot new thing. They make different promises – helping you lose weight, get healthier, or build muscle, to name a few examples – but the core directive is almost always the same: you need to change the way you eat. How? Well, it depends on the era. Here are a few examples of what we ate and why throughout the past 100 years.
Vitamins were discovered in 1912, and the first book about calorie counting was published by Dr. Lulu Peters in 1918, but in this decade, the concept of nutrition was far from public knowledge. World War I brought rationing, so people worked to find ways of making do with less.
Main: Beef soup was a source of animal fat, which was part of many dishes because it kept the stomach full for a long time. Soups and stews were a good way to stretch its effects further.
Side 1: Creamed potatoes are usually called “mashed potatoes” today. We add more spices and herbs than they would have in this decade, when they mainly used (a lot) of salt and pepper.
Side 2: Cabbage salad used an inexpensive and traditional green as its base, making it popular in the ‘10s.
Dessert: Hershey’s milk chocolate was first sold in 1900 and had become widespread by the end of the 1910s
Drink: Ovaltine, a chocolate drink powder, was marketed as being healthy and appealing to children.
In the 1920s, food was cheap and plentiful, and Americans’ tastes were starting to expand as they became interested in the cuisine of immigrants. Some of the earliest meat substitutes were developed during this decade by George Washington Carver.
Main: Spaghetti and meatballs was invented as Americans became fond of mediterranean food, prompting Italian-Americans to create new recipes.
Side 1: Cucumber tea sandwiches on Wonder bread were trendy as processed foods became popular. There was also a preference for recipes deemed “dainty.”
Side 2: Biscuits, which people could learn to make by sending away for correspondence courses that taught the basics of how to bake.
Dessert: Fruit cocktail was eaten regularly during Prohibition. With the alcohol ban in effect, some people tried to get their fix from super-sweet, syrupy desserts.
Drink: Orange pekoe tea often came in ornate tin boxes, which sometimes presented the beverage as being “exotic.”
The 1930s brought on the Great Depression in the U.S.; thus, many people looked to cheaper food sources for nutrition. Refrigerators also became more common, replacing the less-efficient iceboxes that had been used previously.
Main: Chicken and other varieties of aspic, a dish where foods are suspended in gelatine, were very popular because the collagen supplied protein and was inexpensive. Leftovers could also be repurposed this way.
Side 1: Mayonnaise salad would also have been molded similarly to an aspic. Special efforts were made to have food appear pretty to make up for the smaller portion and less luxurious ingredients.
Side 2: Bread was still affordable, and a slice on its own was a common part of a meal.
Dessert: Marshmallows, another gelatine-containing food, were frequently used in recipes as well as being eaten on their own.
Drink: Dr. Pepper wasn’t really viewed as healthy, but the sugary, caffeinated soda pop could offer a cheap boost of energy to fill in the gaps left by inadequate food intake.
Another World War brought rationing back into the lives of many. This time, though, people were prepared with experiences from WWI and better public knowledge of nutrition, so they planted their own vegetables and innovated new ways to use less meat.
Main: Beef loaf allowed cooks to get maximum use out of their meat ration by seamlessly mixing it with breadcrumbs or oats, a practice still used in modern meat loaves.
Side 1: Lentils started becoming popular during this era. People were intrigued by vegetarian meals and the prospect of getting sufficient protein without exhausting their meat rations.
Side 2: Rice was cheap and easily adapted to any meals. It could be served with homegrown vegetables from the victory garden as illustrated here.
Dessert: Cakes made with drastically reduced amounts of eggs, butter, milk and sugar were another creation of this decade. Dried fruits, especially raisins, were used for sweetness instead.
Drink: Watered-down coffee was drunk out of necessity. By the 1940s, coffee had become extremely popular in the U.S., but it was one of the first rationed foods, so citizens made do with less.
By the 1950s, concepts like the “five basic food groups” approach were becoming common knowledge. Most health guides emphasized getting energy from food and the importance of eating a balanced diet. Many modern concepts of nutrition began in this era.
Main: Casserole made with spam, which was invented in the 1930s but spiked in popularity after World War II. It was seen as an inexpensive, modern, and versatile ingredient.
Side 1: Whole wheat bread and butter, since people were advised that bread and butter were good to eat every day, and whole grains were emphasized.
Side 2: Personalized salads were the latest thing as the first salad bar was introduced at Sky Club in Wisconsin.
Dessert: Sliced melon and other fruits were suggested as the ideal dessert. Those containing Vitamin C were especially recommended.
Drink: Milk, because people were instructed to drink a glass with every meal.
One of the most recognizable names in dieting, Weight Watchers, was founded in the 1960s. They simplified Peters’ calorie counting system by assigning point values to food, which also took into account their nutritional value. The program remains popular today.
Main: Shrimp cocktail was an appealing option because not only is shrimp zero points on Weight Watchers (meaning you can eat a lot of it), but the dish was considered chic.
Side 1: Hard-boiled eggs were promoted in the book “Sex and the Single Girl,” published in 1962. It recommended a weight loss diet of primarily eggs and white wine.
Side 2: Vegetable salad in gelatine and other molded foods of the 1930s were in again. People had continued making them for years, but they got a particular bump in the 60s.
Dessert: Instant puddings, like Angel Delight, were promoted as an easy, “light” dessert.
Drink: Diet Rite was the first diet soda pop. It was made with no sugar and only contained about one calorie per serving. Coca-Cola later produced a similar drink called Tab.