The tradition of sitting down for a family meal at the end of the day is as American as meat and potatoes—or sloppy joes and macaroni and cheese. Over the past 100 years, our idea of what constitutes a “traditional” American dinner has gone through quite the evolution. In the below video, Mode.com breaks up the century’s most iconic family dishes decade by decade.
The video starts with a hearty meal of Franconia potatoes and roast beef. Flash forward a decade to 1925, and the plate is now covered with a pile of chicken and vegetables heaped atop a bed of rice. Rice was introduced to what would become the United States in the 1600s; as the centuries went on, it became a staple for many.
Things start to get a bit more processed in the post-war era. Spam makes its dinner plate debut in the video in 1945. The canned meat was actually invented in the 1930s, but its popularity boomed as fresh meat became scarce during World War II. The processed pork is followed by the ubiquitous TV dinner of the ‘50s. The one shown in the video features roast turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, and peas. It’s no coincidence that it looks like a small Thanksgiving feast: The first TV dinner was actually modeled after the holiday’s traditional fixings.
The meals’ transition from hearty, cooked-from-scratch fare to processed foods highlights a shift in many households. After World War II, families had access to new gadgets like refrigerators and microwaves and an abundance of canned, convenient food that cut down the time they needed to spend cooking. The 1970s-style fondue feast shown in the video also demonstrates how women’s roles were starting to change from housewife to hostess.
From the 1950s TV dinners to the sloppy joes and boxed macaroni and cheese of the ’80s and hard-shell taco meals of the ’90s, it’s apparent that healthy eating rarely took priority over convenience. Things began to turn in the 21st century, with meals of sushi and grilled salmon with quinoa and kale representing the two most recent decades portrayed. That’s definitely an improvement over the fried spam we were eating in the ’40s.
A version of this story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.