There is a definite sense of nostalgia associated with many foods and drinks. Most of us have memories of a beloved dinner from childhood, a casserole that seemed to make a regular appearance at a family reunion or holiday meal for years on end, go-to party snacks that seemingly define an era, or the food fads that hit it big and were copied in restaurants and supermarkets coast-to-coast (cupcakes, anyone?). It goes without saying that like fashion, food can be trendy and even stylish in some cases. Some foods, drinks, popular meals and even diets are so pervasive that they have helped define certain decades in North American culture.
From casseroles in the 1950s to the 2000s “celebrity chef” craze, let’s journey back to the “good old days” and explore the foods that have defined the past six decades. Some trends like tuna noodle casserole are horrifying by today’s standards, but others are worthy of present-day cravings and might just prompt you to dash to the supermarket to see if that beloved snack you’d forgotten about is still available.
1950s: Prepackaged foods and casseroles
The postwar era in North America was characterized by a boom in consumerism and more prepackaged foods than ever were available on supermarket shelves. Consumers seemed to favor the notion of scientifically manufactured foods that required minimal time in the kitchen, allowing a meal to get on the table with simplicity and ease. Canned soup was big, and it wasn’t long before people realized that casseroles – mushy baked concoctions – could be “enhanced” by using condensed soups as sauces to hold together combinations such as meat (often canned, such as tuna) and frozen “vegetables” like tater tots. Tuna noodle casserole is perhaps one of the best-known casseroles that emerged out of this era. Another huge food trend in the midcentury was TV dinners: prepackaged “complete” meals that consisted of meat, a side dish or two, a frozen vegetable or fruit, and a tiny dessert were neatly packaged on a tray. They could be served quickly and required no cleanup. If a cook wanted to put a little bit more effort into creating something in the kitchen, they could stir together a chip or veggie dip out of – you guessed it, more prepackaged concoctions – dry soup mixes. This decade also welcomed the introduction of the first sugar-free soft drinks. As far as restaurants go, this was the dawn of the franchised fast food era: the first McDonalds restaurant franchise opened in 1953.
1960s: French influences
The 1960s moved away from the comforting casseroles and pre-packaged ease of the 1950s meal trends and into food that was more complicated and ostentatious. Fashionable meals in this era often had French influences thanks to the success of chef Julia Child and her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published in 1961. Formal steak dinners might be complemented with iceberg lettuce salad or Caesar salad. Cocktail parties and barbeques were also popular social gatherings. The 1960s was also when so-called “ethnic” food started to appear, with more Japanese restaurants becoming popular. However, for day-to-day meals, instant foods were also making an appearance. Technological marvels such as instant mashed potatoes, freeze dried coffee, Cool Whip and powdered cheese owe their success to this era. Junk food, marketed towards baby boomer children, also started to rise to fame. In the 1960s, the powdered drink mix Tang was introduced and soft drinks began to be sold in cans for the first time. Fast food restaurants started to boom, including Wendy’s, Red Lobster and Domino’s Pizza.
Pre-packaged food was more common than ever in the 1970s. French-inspired dishes also persisted into this decade, including crepes, quiche and beef Bourguignon. Pasta started to make a more frequent appearance on dinner tables, with spaghetti carbonara, Bolognese sauce and fettuccini alfredo quickly becoming prominent choices. Perhaps one of the foods that the 1970s was best known for was the fun (and communal) party staple: fondue. What could be better than dipping crusty bread into a pot of hot, melted cheese? Or dipping fruit into chocolate for dessert? Another finger food commonly found at 1970s parties included shrimp cocktails. White wine was regularly served at gatherings, and desserts included black forest cake and baked Alaska.
1980s: Health-conscious prepared food
All of the prepared junk food that persisted throughout the 1960s and 1970s seemed to catch up to stomachs (and waste lines) by the 1980s, a decade that witnessed the introduction of more diet-conscious, yet still pre-prepared, “healthy” food options. Bagged salad was introduced in this era, and Diet Coke really started to take off. Pasta salad also hit it big: cold pasta with dressing was somehow deemed a lighter option than the artery-clogging side dishes of the previous decades. If you enjoyed food served in layers, you were in luck in the 1980s: dishes such as 7 layer salad and 7 layer dip were popular sides at parties. For those who were still a little less health conscious, cheesecake, crème brulée, molten cake and cream puffs were all trendy dessert options. Bread started to get more attention in this decade: popular breads included English muffins, pitas and bagels.
1990s: Fat free
Diet trends continued more persistently than ever in this era. Fat free foods started to take over the supermarket aisles in the 1990s with the introduction of fat-free snack foods such as Pringles and Frito-Lay options. Fat free cookies (granted, they still had tons of sugar) offered consumers a “healthy” alternative to packaged snack foods from previous decades. Healthy Choice cereal was also introduced. With the baby boomer generation’s children now growing up in this decade, snack foods once again became very popular. Frozen pizzas, burritos and hot pockets as well as prepackaged snack crackers, cheese and cookies all provided a bite on the go. Although Starbucks began in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. years prior, the coffee chain began to spread like wildfire across the country in the 1990s. Americans enthusiastically made grabbing a coffee on the go a part of their daily routine. Cosmopolitans and a multitude of other flavored martinis were chic drink choices at happy hour.
2000s: Cupcakes and celebrity chefs
With consumers in this era possibly a bit more skeptical about the pre-packaged “healthy” food options of previous decades, there was a return to the basics in the 2000s. Artisan breads and farmer’s markets rose to prominence after the turn of the millennium. Sushi also began to be very trendy, with sushi bars cropping up throughout cities. Food took a miniature form with the introduction of “sliders”, which were small-sized sandwiches or burgers. Side drinks stepped aside and gave the spotlight to flavored waters as a newer and trendier beverage option. For those who wanted a lot of fruit and veggies in beverage form, smoothies laced with energy or nutrition powders also hit it big.
The Atkins Diet became huge, allowing diners to eat whatever they wanted with only one caveat: no carbs. With the rise of celebrity chefs lending advice to the masses on cable television cooking shows, many home chefs began to consider themselves pros in the kitchen. As far as dessert is concerned, cupcakes made a huge splash in this decade. Not exactly a new invention, the one-time kids party staple was reimagined as a full-blown trend that could be enjoyed by adult consumers. Cupcake shops offering a range of sophisticated and imaginative cupcake flavors began to open their doors.