How women fed their families for thousands of years without the stress of complicated menu plans and what we can learn from these homemakers.
For most of my married life, I’ve stressed over feeding myself, my husband, and my rather large family.
I have made extensive menus using Pinterest and cookbooks. I have meal planned using Evernote. I have used only a list of my family’s favorite meals. I have meal planned based on whatever latest diet I was on. I even tried to simplify everything by making breakfast DIY and lunch soup, salad, or sandwiches.
Yet still, feeding my family stressed me out!
This fact got me thinking about homemaking methods of old. I don’t remember my mom stressing over what to feed us and her shopping list fit neatly on a note no bigger than an index card!
I also remember my mom reading her grandmother’s journals to me and how even then, I took note of my great-grandmother’s unbelievable ability to feed a crowd at a moment’s notice. Her freezer seemed stocked with endless goodies that she could pull out, defrost, and delight the masses!
So, in desperation, I called my mom and asked her to explain meal planning and grocery shopping from her generation and the ones before her.
It is important to note that my mom was older when she had me and my 101 year old grandmother is still alive at the time of this writing. I never knew my great-grandmother, a German Mennonite immigrant who came to the United States in the early 1900’s, bringing her own cultural ways and ethnic dishes the prairie.
So, while the heritage of the women in my family is unique to my story, I do not believe their way of menu planning and feeding their families was unique to their generations.
I also believe their way of managing meals was consistent and constant for hundreds of years, and it has only been in the last 20 years or so that feeding our families has so drastically and dramatically changed.
I also want to note I am not here to pass judgement on my generation of homemakers. However, I do believe we live over-complicated and guilt-ridden lives that have directly affected our ability to easily and confidently feed our families day in and day out.
In this vein, I offer this post as encouragement to look to our past and learn from our foremothers if we hope to simplify our meal plans and our lives.
Meal Planning 100 Years Ago
The first question I asked my mom was what she remembered about how her grandmother (my great-grandmother) fed her family.
My mom spent a lot of time with her grandmother and remembered quite a lot about her homemaking habits. What follows are direct accounts of how a woman keeping a home in the early 1900’s would have managed meals.
My great-grandmother kept a garden, as did everyone of that era. She grew potatoes, peas, corn, radishes, and other vegetables her family preferred to eat.
Main meals consisted of MEAT + POTATO + VEGETABLE + BREAD.
The meat was either homegrown or purchased from the local butcher.
Potatoes were from the garden and most often served mashed with gravy from the pan drippings of whatever meat had been cooked.
The other vegetable was from the garden and was NEVER salad – no one ate salad.
Bread was often rye bread. White breads were reserved for Sundays and special occasions. Zwieback was one of these delicacies, and leftovers were toasted on Monday to be eaten the rest of the week with coffee for breakfast.
Recipes were simple, made from memory, and only included ingredients that were always on hand. These recipes were often passed on from previous generations and became part of the fabric of people’s lives and culture.
Takeaways from the homemakers of the 1920’s & 1930’s:
- Grow what you can and what your family will eat.
- Meals follow a formula and do not include lots of extra ingredients.
- Make meals from what you have on hand.
Meal Planning 50 Years Ago
My grandmother, who is 101, had to go to work in the late 1940’s because her husband left her alone with 3 children following the war. My mom took over cooking when she was 8 years old and continued in the same manner throughout her own homemaking years.
Her meal planning and shopping methods did begin to change shortly after I was born with the advent of diet culture dictating what people *should* eat. In my opinion, this is where the stress of meal planning and grocery shopping began, but I digress…
The MEAT + POTATO + VEGETABLE + BREAD formula defined my mom’s meal planning much like her grandmother’s.
Meat was whatever was on sale at the market.
Potatoes were baked, mashed, fried, or escalloped. (However, she really liked new potatoes creamed with peas early in the season.)
She kept a garden when she could, and like her grandmother and mother, grew only what her family would eat. (I personally remember potatoes, peas, beans, and strawberries.)
However, if she bought vegetables, they were canned and usually corn or beans because that’s what my older siblings would eat.
NOTE: I am much younger than most of my siblings, thus the reason I speak of their experience separate of my own.
Mom bought store-bought white bread and usually served it folded over with butter.
They rarely had seconds and dessert. They also rarely had snacks. Snack foods weren’t even a thing. Mom might have served a cookie and half a glass of milk after school, but that was it. There were no bags of chips and boxes of cookies to be randomly eaten throughout the day, and there definitely weren’t entire aisles in the grocery store dedicated to such things.
Occasionally, mom would serve breakfast for dinner – most often waffles with a milk sauce – a recipe passed down from her German Mennonite heritage.
Meals were simple and consistent. Mom’s grocery shopping consisted of restocking the ingredients she always kept on hand. She knew her pantry and refrigerator so well, her shopping list was mostly in her head and required only a small written list for special items she might otherwise forget.
Like her grandmother and mother, she had no written meal plan. All the ingredients she needed to make any of her usual meals were always on hand.
Takeaways from the homemakers of the 1940’s – 1970’s
- Keep your pantry stocked with ingredients to make easy meals.
- Feed your family things they like.
- Eat less snacks.
Why is Meal Planning So Complicated Now?
As I alluded to earlier, my personal belief is that once the government began telling people what to eat, meal planning became progressively more difficult for the homemaker.
From there, diet culture exploded and food became an obsession. Homemakers obsessed over what they should or should not serve their families.
Food began to be categorized as good or bad. My great-grandmother’s formula of MEAT + POTATO + VEGETABLE + BREAD became a recipe for poisoning your family. (How dare you feed your family so many carbs!)
All of this food obsession did nothing but stress us all out. It literally ruined dinner.
How Do I Simplify My Meal Plan?
So where do we go from here?
First of all, if you have a meal plan that works for you and doesn’t overwhelm you, then DON’T try to reinvent the wheel! Sometimes our homemaking woes are caused because we start to believe what we are doing is inherently wrong when really it isn’t.
So, the first step to simplifying our meal plan is to recognize preferences – our own and the preferences of others. We need discernment to know what matters and what doesn’t. We have to be strong enough to stand firm in our own homemaking skills and not be swayed by every passing fad in nutrition.
The plain and simple of meal planning is feeding our families.
How we do that is no one’s business but our own.
Food shouldn’t have tons of rules. Feeding our families shouldn’t be the bane of our existence as homemakers. Meal planning should be simple, effective, and consistent.
My personal takeaways from my conversation with my mom:
- Have a meal time formula that is plug & play, drag & drop, full-in-the-blank easy.
- Snacks are a waste of calories and money.
- Feed my family food they will eat.
- Know my pantry and keep it simple and keep it stocked.
Set yourself up for success in meal planning by creating a pantry based on what your family actually eats and stop overthinking your weekly meal plan!