Changes in Food Preparation

Sally Schakel

Home cooking today is far different from what I remember as a child. Food technology has brought us an abundance of modified ingredients and prepared foods. Food transportation systems that deliver fruits and vegetables from all over the world mean produce is “in season” year round. New kitchen appliances, especially microwave ovens, have reduced the time we spend in the kitchen. All of these innovations over the last half century have changed the way we cook and the food we eat, perhaps simplifying food preparation but also complicating our food and ingredient choices.

I grew up in a 1950s Midwestern home where my stay-at-home mother prided herself on our nightly family dinners with dishes that are still among my “comfort” foods: meatloaf, pork chops, or roasted chicken; potatoes baked, mashed, scalloped, or “riced” (who today has ever seen a potato ricer?); green beans, corn, or succotash from the can or frozen package; iceberg lettuce or fruit gelatin salads; and always dessert, homemade fruit pie being the favorite. If my mother slipped in a chicken and rice casserole occasionally, it was always accompanied by a tray of cold cut meats at my father’s insistence. Cookbooks in our house (and I suspect most Midwestern homes) were from the kitchens of Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens. No books on the preparation of Chinese or Mexican foods, and certainly not Indian, Thai or Ethiopian, were readily available as they are today. Today with neighborhoods more culturally diverse, supermarkets stocking exotic fruits, vegetables, and spices, and ethnic restaurants popping up in large cities and small towns alike, we are exposed to an international cuisine that was unheard of in the 1950s. These recipes have found their way into our home cooking.

Modifications to foods used as recipe ingredients have multiplied dramatically over the years. My mother loved to bake. When our house was built in 1948, she had a large flour sifter bolted into the kitchen cabinet. She could crank out the flour for all her pies, cakes, and biscuits in the “sifted” form called for in all her recipes. Today most flour is pre-sifted, and amounts have been adjusted accordingly in standard recipes, making my mother’s sifter obsolete. Reduced calorie ingredients were not as available in the 1950s as they are today. Consumption of low fat milk increased five-fold from 1950 to 2000. By the mid-1990s a consumer could find over 5,400 lower fat versions of food products on supermarket shelves. Animals have been bred to reduce the fat content of meat cuts, and more fat is trimmed off meat sold in today’s retail markets. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts have become a mainstay of current recipes. The type of fat used in home food preparation has changed. Butter and animal shortenings, standard cooking ingredients for my mother, have been replaced with margarine (now available as trans fat free) and healthier vegetable oils. The annual per capita consumption of fresh vegetables rose from 147.9 pounds in 1970 to 201.7 pounds in 2000 in part due to the introduction of pre-cut and packaged carrots and salad greens and the availability of a larger variety of fresh vegetables in supermarkets. Organic foods, not widely marketed until the 1990’s, have become “mainstream” in grocery stores today, accounting for more than 3% of U.S. food sales in 2008. More foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals, including the addition of folic acid to refined grains in 1998. Food manufacturers have replaced the home canner, producing the rows of pickles, jams, and spaghetti sauces that line grocery shelves.

Time spent in preparing home cooked meals has steadily declined since 1950 as more Americans eat at restaurants and fast food outlets. In 1950, restaurant sales were 25% of retail food sales; in 2008 restaurant sales accounted for 48.5% of total US retail sales. In addition, preparation time for those evening meals that we do cook at home averages between 31 and 45 minutes, much less than that of my mother who spent much of her day cooking for our family.

Although it is unlikely that we will return to the days when most meals are prepared at home, there are signs that some Americans are doing just that. A recent Whole Foods Market survey found that 79% of their shoppers are cooking more meals at home either to save money (54%) or to make certain their foods are made with healthful ingredients (41%). In times of a slowed economy and an increased awareness of healthy food choices, home cooking may be on the rise.


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“Consumers Stay Loyal to Organic Food.” Nick Hughes. Food September4, 2009.

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“Organic Foods Are Now ‘Mainstream,’ Says USDA.” Caroline Scott-Thomas. Food September14, 2009.

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Changes in Food Preparation

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