Dinner Through the Decades

Fun foodie facts through the years. 

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Family Sitting Down


Dinner as we know it is a relatively new concept. As work shifted from farms to factories in the 1800s, eating a midday meal to refuel for an afternoon of physical work became less important; thus, the idea of having the main meal at the day’s end was born. It also was a signifier of a truly modern family as it showed your clan’s upward mobility.

So what other shifts and events shaped the meal that for many conjures up images of Norman Rockwell–esque familial bliss? Consider the following key moments, products and recipes that helped shaped the evolution of the family dinner. 

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The former colonists prospered and set up house, and appliances (iceboxes, cookstoves), gadgets (apple parers, lemon squeezers) and tin (as opposed to heavy cast iron) made kitchen tasks more manageable. One manual on the art of housekeeping included entries on etiquette, table settings, cooking tough cuts of meats and more. 

Products: Fleischmann’s yeast, soda (Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper), Heinz Ketchup, Jell-O

Popular Recipes: Cornbread, Meat Stew, Fried Oysters, Boiled Mutton

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Early 1900s


Reform-minded home economists rule, finding purpose (and a career path for women) instructing housewives about good nutrition and the importance of measuring ingredients, meal planning and creating a dinner menu. Sauces and dressed salads are showcased. 

Products: Karo syrup, Crisco, Ovaltine, canned tuna

Popular Recipes: Perfection Salad (any variety of ingredients molded in aspic), Parker House Rolls, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, Fried Chicken, Baked Ham, Pineapple Upside Down Cake


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World War II and food rationing come to a close, yet manufacturers need to find innovative ways to make use of wartime-staple surpluses. Better technology for freezing, canning and dehydrating are key, resulting in products that promise to free housewives from cooking drudgery.

Products: Canned meats (Spam, fried hamburgers), soups and vegetables; Pillsbury Hot Roll Mix; assorted cake mixes

Popular Recipes: Goulash, Chopped Beef (Lamb, Pork or Liver) en Casserole 

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The postwar suburban golden age takes off. Keeping house and entertaining are in vogue, while frozen-food technology (which dates to the 1920s) remains important, resulting in an influx of frozen foods—from veggies to full meals—to supermarkets.

Products: Tatonuts (potato snack touted for “strong resistance to weather conditions”), frozen OJ from concentrate, Rice-A-Roni, Swanson TV dinners (the first is turkey, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes and buttered peas; apple cobbler debuts in 1960) 

Popular Recipes: Tuna, Noodle and Green Bean Casserole, Bananas Foster

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The youthquake erupts, thanks to a handsome president and his glamorous wife, while The Feminine Mystique raises women’s consciousness that there’s more to life than an MRS degree. Fast food (Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, Taco Bell) is a dinner treat, while space, the next frontier, inspires food marketers. French cooking (thanks to Julia Child) and “international” entertaining demonstrate culinary sophistication. 

Products: Instant mashed potatoes, imitation bacon bits, frozen bread dough, freeze-dried coffee, Cool Whip, Tang, taco seasoning mix

Popular Recipes: Chop Suey, Boeuf Bourguignon, Grasshopper Pie 

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Inflation requires housewives to stretch their food dollars, while Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet prompts the nation’s natural food movement. Vegetarian is the new culinary religion (The Moosewood Cookbook is its bible), and shopping the health food store gives consumers a taste for buying in bulk. TV cooking shows (hosted by male chefs) trigger the Cajun and international trends.

Products: Hamburger Helper, Stove Top Stuffing Mix

Popular Recipes: Ziti Casserole (from The Family Circle Cookbook, 1974!), Pasta Primavera, Swiss Cheese and Mushroom Quiche, Carrot Cake

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A robust economy (for some) leads to the rise of casual gourmet: nouvelle cuisine, wine and cheese parties, upscale pizza (goat cheese, smoked salmon) and authentic ethnic. Record numbers of women flood the workplace, so dinner gets chill: Skillet dishes, casseroles and pasta are lifesavers.

Products: Boboli pre-made pizza crust, prewashed bagged salad greens

Popular Recipes: Chicken Marbella, Pasta Salad, Enchiladas

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Culinary cred grows and everyone is an expert thanks to TV’s Food Network. Restaurants are the new nightclubs, chefs the new rock stars. Classic recipes are revisited (with an updated Joy of Cooking) and decadent desserts reign. Healthy cooking grows up and supermarket shelves stock all things fat-free (cookies, salad dressing). 

Products: SnackWell’s cookies, turkey bacon

Popular Recipes: Southwestern Meatloaf, Un-Fried Chicken, Mississippi Mud Cake

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With home as a haven from an uncertain world, the new millennium strengthens a comfort food comeback. It’s the decade of extremes as technology produces fortified fare and The Omnivore’s Dilemma exposes a problematic food system. The documentary Super Size Me criticizes fast-food portions, while “home cooking” becomes meal assembly. Obesity rates remain sky-high, and the Slow Food, artisan, organic and farm-to-table movements are alternatives to industrial agriculture. 

Products: Omega-3 eggs, turkey Spam, tuna and brown rice in pouches 

Popular Recipes: Mac and Cheese, Chicken Pot Pie, Roasted Beets, Kale Salad