How to Plan Meals like a 1950s Housewife

Images of food from mid-century cookbooks for How To Meal Plan Like a '50s Housewife by Mid-Century Modern Mommy

The best thing about reading old homemaking books is how every home economist thought that her area of specialty was the most important factor in living the best homemaking life. Meal planning was responsible for the health and satisfaction of the family, and it took that very seriously. If you weren’t taking the long view of building up resistance to illness and raising keen vigorous youngsters, you ought to have been ashamed of yourself.

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Planning Vintage Family Dinner

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Meal planning was, of course, just the first step in “family food problems.” The four areas of food problems facing the ’50s housewife were planning, purchasing, preparing, and presenting. Today we are looking at planning, the first step.

I love reading vintage cookbooks. I especially love the menus. Vintage menus are my happy place.

The Daily Diet

The big thing in mid-century cookbooks was to plan the meals so that they fit a diet pattern. All the big cookbook authors — Betty Crocker, Ruth Berolzheimer, Meta Given — had a diet pattern to meet the recommended daily requirements. They all pretty much agreed that there should be:

  • 1 quart of milk for each child and 1 pint for each adult.
  • 1 serving of citrus fruit or tomatoes, or tomato or citrus juices
  • 1 other fruit, either fresh, canned or dried
  • 1 green (preferably leafy) or yellow vegetable, raw or cooked
  • 1 serving of potato
  • 1 other vegetable, either fresh, canned or dried
  • 3 or more servings of whole-grain or enriched cereal — bread, breakfast food, cake, etc.
  • 1 serving of meat, fish, or cheese. Liver or other meat sundry weekly
  • 1 egg daily, if possible; otherwise at least 3 or 4 times weekly
  • 3 to 5 tablespoons of butter, or margarine fortified with vitamin A

Any foods in addition to this are for variety, greater energy and palate appeal. For instance, I have a 13 year old son. I plan an extra half a loaf of bread for him a day. In a couple of years, it’ll be a full loaf.

Adding sugar is another way to increase energy and palatability. It isn’t popular anymore, but I have been known to use a spoonful of sugar to get the vegetables to go down. The rule is that you eat your vegetables if you want dessert.

The Menus

Menu planning is an art. If you use someone else’s menus without adjustment to your own family, you’ll waste time, money, and food. On the other hand, planning menus is really complicated. It isn’t simple. You have to consider:

  1. The ages, sexes, and occupations of the family members. Toddlers and teenagers do NOT eat the same things.
  2. Income and cost. This really applies to the food shopper, but it also applies to the menu planner. When you can plan menus after shopping, you can shop the sales easily. You can also store food and prepare for emergencies.
  3. The number to be served. This really applies mostly to large groups, but even in my own family, I have to prepare casseroles for 10 people, which means a much bigger pan. And forget modern sheet pan dinners — I have to squeeze in so many sheet pans that everything cooks unevenly.
  4. Climate and season. Hot foods for cold weather, cold for hot weather. Use seasonal foods, and preserve them in season. And make special foods at holidays (holiday food is especially the provenance of the family hostess).
  5. Equipment needed. I only got a stand mixer last year. I don’t have every item for equipping a kitchen. And someone just starting out may have to make do with a couple of kitchen forks, a bowl, a knife, and a few pans. And don’t try to give a dinner party without enough plates!
  6. Experience and preparation time. Unless you’ve been cooking for a few years, it’ll take longer than the recipe says to do the same things. And if your kitchen isn’t organized, it will also take longer. And it is always advisable to have a minimum of last-minute preparations so that hot things will be hot and cold things cold.
  7. The service. Even if you only serve family-style, I good family hostess knows that she is teaching orderliness, respect for family, manners (aka social skills), and the love of beauty by setting the table neatly, serving attractively, and fostering an appreciation of family relationships and enjoyment of meals.
  8. Appearance. This mostly refers to the appearance of the plate. Back in the ’90s, there was a fad diet for eating by colors to get a well-rounded diet. This is the same thing, only vintage.
  9. Variety. Mix it up with different textures, flavors, and garnishes. Don’t serve cream pie with creamed chicken. Serve a lemon pie instead.
  10. Foods on hand. A successful family cook shops in her own pantry first and plans to use leftovers before they spoil. There is a method for this.
  11. Recipes. Know your recipes and choose them well. A new recipe can ruin a menu if it turns out wrong.

’50s Style Meal Planning System

So, the first thing to do is to either do your weekly shopping or sit down with all the sales flyers and figure out what is on sale.

Next, you need a planning sheet for your meals, whether you’re planning for one day, or eight weeks. Take stock of what you have, or what you’ll be getting on sale. Then fill out the meat column for every meal where you are having meat. Do this for the entire time where meals are being planned.

Now, take your daily diet sheet and evolve each day’s food so that all the requirements are met, paying attention to variety and appearance. The order of planning is:

  1. Plan meat or other main dish.
  2. Plan vegetables, including potatoes.
  3. Plan salad.
  4. Plan hot bread.
  5. Plan dessert.
  6. Plan beverage.
  7. Plan first course.
  8. Plan cereals.
  9. Plan breakfast fruits.

One thing that is really helpful when you are planning your meals is to have lists of recipes/dishes you can use in each category. For example, I have lists of menu planning suggestions, taken from the recipes in my vintage cookbooks, for main dishes, vegetable, salads, extras, desserts, and garnishes.

Ready-Made ’50s Meal Plans

Another option is to get a cookbook which has menus for every day of the year. These were really popular in the ’30s and ’40s. Some of the best known are What Will We Have for Dinner, Alice Bradley’s Menu Cook-Book, and The Modern Family Cookbook (only the 1940s editions). By the 1950s, these books were unpopular, and later editions of cookbooks don’t have them. But they were billed as a way to reduce the difficulty and drudgery of meal planning.

Meta Given’s The Modern Family Cookbook has the most approachable menus. I use them frequently, substituting in what I have one hand. The way the menus are set up makes it easy to switch one vegetable for another, or switch meat dishes. Also, her menus include the primary ingredients for each recipe, which make it possible to “shop” in your pantry and freezer first.

Looking for more menus?

If you would like, you can check out the rest of my mid-century dinner menus. And if you make the menus, share a pic on Instagram and tag me! (Are you following me on Instagram? I share a lot of vintage homemaking quick wins over here!)

Cookbook images from mid-century cookbooks for How to Meal Plan Like a '50s Housewife by Mid-Century Modern Mommy

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3 thoughts on “How to Plan Meals like a 1950s Housewife”

  1. I was able to find Meta Given’s cookbook on I like how the cookbook is organized and easy to follow. I wanted to be able to really check it out before buying a copy of my own. After looking at the menus I had to ask my husband if he liked liver, because I’ve never cooked that for my family before. In fact, there are a lot of meals I have never prepared in the cookbook! I’m going to try it out for the rest of the year, just using the same menu plan all month. It will give me a chance to really learn how to prepare all the meals listed and hopefully save time and money. What’s the going rate for veal anyway, lol?

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