Given today’s food on the go culture, it’s not hard to wax poetic about how the world was 50, 60, or 70 years ago. Of course, one of the great centerpieces then was the family dinner table, around which moms, dads, and their kids would gather in the evenings for a meal. But that’s not all there is to remember with warmth and fuzziness. So here are some of the old-school traditions that may make you nostalgic for days and dinners gone by.
20. Placemats were a must
In 2019 a study revealed that the majority of Americans no longer eat at the dinner table. Yes, of the more than 1,000 people surveyed, less than half said they sat down for a proper meal, despite having done so as kids. Instead, many opt to eat on the couch or even in bed.
As such, this tradition may be nostalgic for just about every adult who reads this article. Once upon a time, everyone gathered around the table, and most families set theirs in a similar way. You see, it wasn’t dinner without the right glasses, plates, bowls and utensils. But many wouldn’t eat without a fresh tablecloth on the table, as well as placemats at every seat.
19. Strong pre-dinner cocktails
When you get home from work, you might head to the fridge and crack open a beer. Or, maybe you pop the cork on a bottle of wine and pour yourself a glass. Either way, your habits now are zero-fuss, and they’re mild, as far as alcoholic beverages go. But this wouldn’t have flown at a dinner table half a century ago.
No, instead you would’ve poured a much stronger cocktail. Think something along the lines of a dry martini, which features gin, or a Manhattan, a whiskey-based beverage. Other once-popular pours include the Gibson, which would be prepared exactly the same as a martini. The only difference was that the garnish was a piece of pickled onion, rather than an olive.
18. Smiling faces only
Family dinners should be pleasant – at least, that was the unwritten rule up to 70 years ago. This trend was a continuation of Victorian-era standards, which dictated that relatives should dine while acting “agreeable, pious and unified,” according to NPR. In fact, during the 1950s this expectation combined with the era’s focus on the nuclear family, who would gather round the table for dinner and smile through it.
Indeed, some of the rules that guided 1950s dinner table behaviors were pretty stringent. An instructional film from the era called A Date With Your Family stipulated that everyone should play their part to make a meal a smiley affair. And that was even if it meant suppressing lingering thoughts or emotions. The narrator says, “The table is no place for discontent.”
17. Iceberg lettuce to whet your appetite
There’s so much health-related information available today. And, if you’ve ever peered down the list of the healthiest green vegetables to eat, you’ll know that iceberg lettuce doesn’t make the cut. Each crunch of this green has a high water content, meaning it’s not as nutritionally dense as the likes of romaine lettuce, kale and arugula, among others.
Fifty years ago, though, a salad made of iceberg lettuce was the go-to for a pre-dinner appetizer. And it didn’t take much to prepare the starter, either. Most home chefs would serve their iceberg with sliced tomatoes, and sometimes, a few other veggies of choice. They topped off their creations with dressings including blue cheese, Russian and Italian.
16. Dressing to the nines
These days when you go out of the house for a sit-down dinner you probably make some effort to get ready. Of course, that preparation depends on the type of eatery you plan to visit. A four-star brasserie will get you to dress your fanciest, while you might wear your sweats to grab dinner from a take-out corner – and, for that, we won’t judge you.
However, up to 70 years ago, your casual get-up would not fly at the family dinner table. You see, moms would get the kids ready for dinner, ensuring they swapped out of their play clothes and into fresh duds. This step was especially important for the women in the family. According to A Date With Your Family, “The women… seem to feel that they owe it to the men to look relaxed, rested and attractive.”
15. Heads of the family become heads of the table
Do you think about who sits where when you sit down to dinner? Probably not. But back in the day, families had a strict seating order, and they learned it from the media they consumed. TV Shows such as Leave It to Beaver showed a cheery nuclear family who gathered around the table in a particular way.
Namely, families in the 1950s would sit as follows: the father would sit at the head of the table; his wife would sit directly across from him; and their sweet little children would fill either side of the table to complete the perfect picture. If you’ve ever tried rounding up your little ones for a family meal like this, you know it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
14. Manners were a must
Let’s see if your manners would be up to snuff at a dinner table from 50 years ago. When you sit down at the table, what do you do with your napkin? How about if you want to get up from the table? Do you do it, or do you ask for permission? Answer a question wrong, and you’d be committing a dinnertime faux pas – a half-century ago, anyway.
If you wanted to flex your manners, you’d start by sitting down and placing your napkin in the middle of your lap. Next, you’d excuse yourself any time you wanted to leave the table. You’d never reach across someone to grab the dish you wanted, and chewing would only take place if you shut your mouth completely. Let’s be honest – some of these should still be part of our dinnertime routines.
13. Breaking bread – quite literally
Most of us love bread. However, it’s not everyday that we grab a cutting board and bread knife to slice up a loaf to go with dinner. Fifty years ago, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find a supper table sans bread. Yes, it was the norm to have bread with every single meal.
Now, this tradition doesn’t necessarily mean that diners were unhealthier in the past. Their plates often featured a hearty helping of veggies alongside their roll or slice of bread. As Chris Foster noted for 12 Tomatoes, the carbs served an important purpose. He wrote, “That piece of bread was great for soaking up any excess gravy or sauce that might’ve escaped the main course.”
12. You couldn’t say no to a casserole
The casserole fell from grace in the 1970s but, before then, it was all the rage at American dinner tables. Many home chefs loved these dishes because they were an all-in-one meal. All of the ingredients would go into a single piece of metal or glass cookware, from which they could serve the finished baked product.
And most casseroles had the same set-up. Yes, most recipes featured bits of chicken, fish or ground tuna. Next would come a layer of veggies, then some sort of binding starch – think pasta or potatoes. Finally, they’d finish off their dishes with a cheesy or crumb-centric topping. Now we’re in the mood to whip up an old-school casserole.
11. No time to cook? Can it
We all have those times where we have no desire or energy to cook. So nowadays we have options. Namely, we can log onto an app, order any type of cuisine we want, and have it arrive on our doorsteps. Fifty to 70 years ago, though, people didn’t have this resource in a pinch, so they had to improvise.
Fortunately, home chefs could fill their pantries with canned foods for when they needed a quick meal. Some of their favorite brands still exist, too. If you want a taste of the 1960s – or, if you want to relive your childhood – grab a can of Chef Boyardee, heat it up and enjoy the sweet flavor of nostalgia.
10. No slurping your soup
Journalism provides us with a great record of the time in which we live, as well as an archive of the eras that preceded us. For instance, a 1950s’ Woman’s Own magazine shows us precisely what was expected of women when they went on dinner dates. And a big point of contention was the way in which they ate the last drops of their soup.
Indeed, back in the day you weren’t supposed to press your soup bowl towards you to gather its remaining drops. In fact, the Woman’s Own article revealed that such a move was “the height of bad manners.” Instead, women were to gather up their liquid appetizer by pushing the spoon away from them. Interesting.
9. TV dinners were the most special treat
When you come across the freezer aisle at a grocery store, you’re likely to find a slew of microwaveable meals. As we all know, they’re perfect for a quick dinnertime fix. But at the same time, they’re not exactly anything special are they? However, in the old days the TV dinner reigned supreme.
You wouldn’t have found anything pretty to eat in these TV trays, though, by today’s standards. When microwaveable dinners became the coolest thing to eat, the options were pretty basic. Furthermore, they were all compartmentalized so the portions weren’t big. Think things like turkey pot pie, macaroni and cheese, steak and potatoes and meatloaf, which came frozen alongside veggies and a brownie for dessert.
8. If you want to leave the table, show you’re able
You might be thinking, “We’ve already covered this one. All I have to do is ask if I’m excused, and I’m good to go.” Unfortunately, there was one more hoop to jump through before you could leave the table, at least if you were a child. Yes, your parents would inspect your plate to make sure you had earned the right to depart from dinner.
Most parents would insist that their children cleaned their plates – by eating all of the food on them – before they could leave the table. This rule had a lot to do with their own childhoods growing up during The Great Depression. Waste not, want not – and that meant eating every last crumb before running off to play.
7. Invited to a dinner party? You could probably guess the theme
Today’s party throwers are clever. They come up with the funniest, most poignant themes and ask guests to bring food or wear costumes that follow suit. A half-century ago, though, you wouldn’t have found as much creativity in the era’s party planners. Instead, they all tended to go for a similar, albeit fun, theme for their shindigs.
And the 1950s in particular were famous for their Hawaiian-themed soirees. Homeowners would invite their friends over for luaus and pull out all of the stops. Yes, they’d pour cocktails into coconut-shaped cups, and they’d decorate with lush palm leaves and pineapple motifs. Don’t forget the food – a 1950s Hawaiian party wouldn’t be complete with a pineapple upside-down cake.
6. Keep the conversation light
In today’s tense political climate, it can be tough to have a pithy conversation over dinner, especially with your family. However, such debates and discussions would have no place at the supper tables of yesteryear. Guests had one goal when it came to gathering for a meal – everyone was to remain at ease.
Of course, these pleasantries were all superficial – plenty of families did and continue to debate over their dinners. And this is a good thing, according to Mackensie Griffin in her 2016 piece for NPR. She wrote, “While many enjoy their time with family at the dinner table, it is also a space where one can freely air one’s grievances to other family members. These kinds of dinners are accepted – and even celebrated – by a modern sensibility.” Hear, hear.
5. Sunday dinners were a must
No matter where you were or what you were doing, you’d drop everything on Sunday. Why? Because the last day of the week was always reserved for family dinners. It wasn’t just your average meal, either – moms the country over would spend all day preparing something special to feed her next of kin and other relatives, too.
Considering that Sunday dinner was such a special occasion, you can imagine that 1950s’ moms made their little ones change into something snazzy before sitting down to eat. Then came the long-awaited meal of the day, which was elevated to match the semi-formal attire required by the family matriarch. After that, we imagine plenty of families snoozing – a serious feast will always do that to you.
4. Heed the time on the dinner party invite
A 1950 book called Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage outlined how hostesses – and their guests – should behave at a dinner party. When it came time for diners to arrive, ladies had to greet each guest. She’d also have to roll with the punches if the gathering snowballed into disaster. Yes, she would have to smile her way through any arguments and any poorly cooked food.
As the book described, though, guests had to uphold their end of the bargain, too. Yes, their main responsibility was to show up at the precise time that the party was meant to begin. Beyond that, best manners would require them to happily participate in games and conversations as initiated by the host. If you’ve ever thrown a less-than-successful shindig, then you are probably missing party etiquette from the 1950s right about now.
3. Say Jell-O to your old favorite dessert
You might associate Jell-O with hospitals, and that’s for a good reason. You see, the jiggly stuff contains gelatin, which goes easy on the stomach, even if you’re sick. Plus, it helps balance blood sugar levels and give you an energy boost, all of which comes in handy when you’re fighting illness. In the 1960s though, Jell-O had a following for a different reason.
That’s right, people could store boxes of Jell-O in their pantries and pull them out to whip up dessert in a pinch. The go-to was Whip n’ Chill, which transformed from a powder to a mousse and came in flavors including chocolate and strawberry. On that note, boxed cake mixes became all the rage at this time, too – and those are still in use today.
2. After-dinner cigarettes were always on the menu
Once you finished your Jell-O or cake for dessert, an old-school dinner party would give you a window to partake in another post-meal pleasantry. Yes, the grown-ups would light up a cigarette and puff through it to conclude the feast. Not everyone partook, of course, but plenty more people did then than they do today.
In fact, even grown-ups who didn’t normally smoke might light up after a particularly glorious meal – for more reasons than one. As Foster wrote for 12 Tomatoes, “We definitely remember a few times when dad would light up an after-dinner cigarette. Usually this was only on special occasions, but you have to remember how different the thinking on cigarettes was back then.”
1. Don’t touch your asparagus with a fork
Remember that Woman’s Own article we already discussed? It gave 1950s’ women an outline of how to behave while out on dinner dates. Well, the article did have more tips to go with some of its stuffier suggestions. For one, it said you could grab celery sticks with your hands.
Interestingly, though, the magazine added another vegetable to their eat-it-with-your-hands list – asparagus. The article minced no words. It read, “asparagus is one of the few foods which can be eaten with fingers,” and encouraged daters to do so. Nowadays, this tip might not look so cute while on a date. But it could work just fine while you’re eating at home.