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What Recipes Americans Actually Cooked and Ate During the 1950s

Updated on January 5, 2020
mactavers profile image

I've lived in Arizona for 68 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books, and travel.

Casseroles Using Hamburger

Budget Receipes for stretching a pound of hamburger
Budget Receipes for stretching a pound of hamburger | Source

Home Cooking

The 1950s was a decade in which most of America's women were not employed outside the home. Most families only had one car, fast food wasn't around in any numbers and married women were called housewives and/or homemakers. Eating out was usually reserved for special occasions for many families. From the number of cute retro diners and cafes in existence today, one who didn't experience the 1950s in person 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 the 1950s, but certainly were not an every day thing.

I purchased two old copies of Better Homes and Gardens Magazine from 1958 at an antique store recently, and after enjoying the numerous ads for food products, it prompted me to take out my mother's old cookbook and read what 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 and region and of course by their budgets..

Main dishes many nights at our house were casseroles which illustrated the cook's ingenuity and thrift. Note the photo for an article that touts how to feed a family of four on one pound of hamburger. Typical main dishes might have been a hamburger, tuna fish, or chicken casserole, or 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 in the 1950s had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s and nothing was wasted. Using left over foods creatively was both a skill and an art. My Mom reused waxed paper and tin foil many times!

1950s Spanish Rice Main Dish

Minute rice, tomato sauce, green peppers and onions are the ingredients in this popular main dish
Minute rice, tomato sauce, green peppers and onions are the ingredients in this popular main dish | Source

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 back yard in Arizona, so from Dec through April we enjoyed fresh orange and grapefruit juice. Otherwise, most juice was 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 & Vegetables 1950s Style

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 bannanas were popular. Salads featuring cottage cheese with a slice of fruit or a tomato wedge were popular. Canned fruit such as Fruit Cocktail or canned peaches or pear halves were served as a salad or a dessert. Keep in mind that air freight shipping of perishible 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.

Pie and Ice Cream



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 a standard. Puddings such as Tapioca, butterscotch, vanilla, rice, bread, and chocolate were common. Ice cream or sherbet were a big treat 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.

This Baby Boomer often misses some of these old favorites.

© 2012 mactavers


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Even with all these "comfort" foods, plates and portions were smaller and looking back, I remember fewer people being obese.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      2 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      What a great reminder of the food and recipes from the past. We had all the dishes you mentioned with Sunday dinner being served after church and leftovers that night after evening service. We cooked from scratch excepting Bisquick which was the staple of many recipes. Meatloaf, baked whole chicken, hot dogs and casseroles were supplemented with fresh green beans and summer squash. And you're right about dessert if and only if we cleaned our plates.

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      A friend of mine has an impressive collection of very old cookbooks and then she branched out into the various customs of table manners and eating and how the various types of eating utensils developed. I keep thinking that my children won't have much to collect with all the paper plates and plastic utensils.

    • firstcookbooklady profile image

      Char Milbrett 

      2 years ago from Minnesota

      My mother and grandmother cooked from scratch, or homemade, the entire time I was growing up. This led to an addiction to old cookbooks, you know, the 'go to barn and select young chicken' cookbooks. Smile. I have literally hundreds of old cookbooks, which I love!

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your memories Paul. It amazes me how little most of our mothers had to spend for groceries and how far they could stretch their budgets and still produce such good food.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      @mactavers , I grew up during the 50s and remember eating a lot of the food you mention in this article. For dinners I remember mom making spare ribs and sauerkraut and calves liver with bacon on Saturday. On Friday I remember often eating the smelt fish. We had fruit cocktail and jello salads and I can't forget the angel food cake. I am sharing this hub with HP followers and on Facebook.

    • franciaonline profile image


      4 years ago from Philippines

      Hi mactavers,

      This hub of yours brings me back to our own cooking in the 50s. While we didn't cook the same food with you, the concept of managing whatever was available in the most creative way possible sounds similar. Thanks for this hub.

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the comments. We were a lot thinner. Smaller plates, regular meal times, no fast food, and few items that would be considered junk food today. Although there was a potato chip factory not far from our house, and sometimes my Mom would buy them in a big tin can, but not very often.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      7 years ago from USA

      My mother and father both worked,but my mother did all of the cooking. We had a variety of low cost meals like Spanish rice, hot dogs and beans, kielbasa, homemade soups. When we had meat, the servings were much smaller than what we would expect today. Sunday was the day that Mom always made a roast chicken or beef or pork roast. We seldom had ice cream unless we were treated to an ice cream cone when we were out because our tiny freezer wouldn't keep it frozen. Jello, pudding, canned fruit and homemade cookies were our standard desserts. No brownie mixes, cake mixes or eating out at fast food restaurants! We ate less in the 1950s, and we were all a lot thinner!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      7 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      This is a creative way to look at history. I grew up in the 1990s but my parents both grew up in the 1950s and ate alot of the things you are talking about. It seems like breakfast hasn't changed in terms of what we eat but preparation seems to have evolved with technology. Voted up and interesting!

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for you comment Lawrence. Your comment about eggs is right on. My Dad couldn't cook, but if Mom was gone, he would either scramble eggs with slices of hot dog and onions thrown in, or heat a can of pork and beans, and place a fried egg or two on top for good measure. I'm sure that kids today would find both "dishes" disgusting.

    • Lawrence Da-vid profile image

      Lawrence Da-vid 

      7 years ago

      In the 50's, we had spaghetti, mac and cheese, all sorts of vegetables and people enjoyed eating food. It was nothing to scramble eggs and bacon then serve them on bread with bacon gravy. Meals consisted of all sorts of foods that to day seem decadent. We enjoyed our food. Enjoyed visiting relatives that forced food at you from every avenue. As soon as you entered the front door, a plate was shoved in front of you to Food was the form of "Love."

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      I've been away the last 2 days, but thanks to all of you who posted comments or who shared this Hub.

    • profile image

      Sunnie Day 

      7 years ago

      This was really got me to Google the 1940's too..hehe I do believe the portions and housecleaning kept the weight off during those times..not so sedimentary lifestyles..I was surprised to see many processed foods that we have today.. Thank you for a great hub


    • SweetiePie profile image


      7 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I think the way ate depended on the part of the country you lived in. Having talked to people from California who grew up here in the 1950's, fruits and vegetables the plain way have always been popular here. It was not until I had met people from the Midwest that I even heard of eating cheese or some sort of sauce on veggies, but that was something my mom said they did a lot of when she was growing up there.

      Also, yes fast food consumption was less in the 1950's, but McDonald's and a lot of the fast food joints got there start here in SoCal, so it was not unknown for teens to go out on a Friday night to the local burger stands. Mexican food has always had a heavy duty influence on California as well, and even back in the 50's people ate tacos and burritos here, even when cooking at home.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      7 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      thsi is the most awesome and interesting hub. I remember those casseroles dishes the rice dish was the best.. I didnt care for the tuna though..pie and icecream was always there when we could afford it.. didnt eat a lot of meat unless it was fried chciken in sundays, love your hub

      I will share it


    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the comments. Lima beans should be illegal. Actually my Mom made a dish with dried lima beans that she usually got rave reviews on.

    • tglowv profile image


      7 years ago

      This is a really interesting article. I love collecting old cookbooks and seeing what people ate and how tables were set. Thanks for this article, voted up and awesome!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      I grew up eating all of those things, My mom made a really good Tamale Pie casserole (and we got our grapefruit from my uncle in Indio, CA). I learned how to make chipped beef in gravy on toast in jr. high school.

      The things I really don't miss are the canned peas and, especially, lima beans.

      You brought back a lot of memories.

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for your comment. My husband's farm family always used the expression that Clean plate, Clear day in the Morning, and I've always wondered where that expression came from. I too treasure the cooking and entertaining that I learned from my Mom and Grandma.

    • kat_thurston profile image


      7 years ago

      Even though I was not from that era I often wish we could go back to simpler times. Even yes I agree to an extent that technology has been good it has also been bad. I Learned to cook from my grandma and great grandma two greatest woman that ever lived and I miss them sorely that taught me about life and my great grandma always was sayinng "waste not want not" I am avid about using leftovers and creative with them I can't stand to see food go to waste.


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