- How What We “Know” about Food and Health has Changed Over Time

45-60 minutes

PART 1: Introduction

Some of the differences in people's food preferences and sensibilities can be understood as a function of generational experiences. People growing up in different eras have been exposed to differences in: the kinds of food readily available, what their family members and cultural group members say to eat, the latest scientific information about what is considered healthy and what is not, media messages aimed at influencing consumer food selection behavior, and government recommendations on what we should eat.

This activity is designed to help family members of different generations develop a better appreciation of the impact of historical food recommendations/guidelines on the eating habits of family members throughout different generations. In other words, why does grandmom have such different views than other family members?


Our food choices are not static. They are dynamic and change over time. As we grow older, our food choices expand. Some of the reasons that we change our food choices is that we are exposed to new information through TV, magazines, and friends. The government also issues new guidelines regarding what we should eat. The government guidelines that a grandmother grew up with may be very different than what is now being recommended to her children and grandchildren.


General Objectives

  • Using a picture of current and previous Food Guidance Systems, participants will compare the differences in the FGS over the past 50-60 years.
  • Participants will learn the scientific reasons why food and nutrition recommendations (Food Guidance Systems) have changed over time.
  • Participants will assess the impact these recommendations have on the food behaviors of the different generations in their family (grandparent, parent, child).

Specific Objectives

Participant will be able to:

  • Use the Food Guidance System pictures, select the Food Guidance System (FGS) prominent during their childhood (K-12 grades)
  • Discriminate how the FGS existing in their childhood is different from the FGS prominent during the childhood periods of other family members.
  • Discuss 1-2 reasons why the dietary guidance systems have changed from one period to the next.
  • Compare 1-3 recipes from their childhood to recipes of today looking at different ingredients and food preparation techniques.


  • Picture of historic food guidance systems (FGS)--See handout.
  • Larger pictures of each of six FGS's [1940s, 1950s-60s, 1970s, 1990s, 2005, 2011] to put around the room at different stations.
  • Paper and pencils
  • Copies of handouts, including: two "Comparisons Between Traditional and Modern Recipes" handouts and the "Chart of Differences between the Food Guidance Systems" handout.
  • Optional: 2-3 cookbooks or individual recipes per family from the past 40 years and 2-3 current recipes (ideally from the same cookbook -- an old Betty Crocker vs. a new Betty Crocker). [Families can bring in their own family favorite recipes they are willing to share.]


  1. Before beginning the activity, the nutritionist/facilitator should become familiar with the following information about the history of USDA's Food Guidance System (or food guides, such as "The Basic Four" and the "Food Guide Pyramid"):
    • USDA has had a long history in developing and promoting food guidance. Different food guides have been used over the past 90 years. Each one addresses the health and nutrition concerns of the time when they were introduced. For example, in 1916, the Food for Young Children guide recommended 5 food groups (milk; breads and cereals; vegetables and fruits; butter and other "wholesome" fats; and sweets).
    • In the 1940s the food guide was considered a wartime food guide. Nutrition had become an integral part of the nation's defense program because it was feared that nutritional inadequacies of U.S. men might compromise their ability to fight. The food guide included 7 groups (green & yellow vegetables; oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit; potatoes and other vegetables and fruits; milk and milk products; meat, poultry, fish or eggs; bread, flour & cereals; and butter and fortified margarine). It promoted eating foods that provided vitamins and minerals needed to prevent deficiencies because many of the eligible service men were malnourished (underweight and in poor health).
    • The 1950s and 1960s introduced a simplified food guide called "The Basic Four." It included 4 groups (vegetables and fruits; bread and cereal; milk; and meat). Fats, oil and sugars were not emphasized because these foods usually appeared in meals in combination with the specified foods (in the four groups), and nutrition-wise, were seen as contributing mainly calories.
    • By the late 1970s, concerns about dietary excess led USDA to issue "The Hassle Free Daily Food Guide," which included a caution group of fats, sweets, and alcohol.
    • In 1992, the original Food Guide Pyramid was introduced with 5 groups plus a tip which contained foods to eat sparingly (sugars and fats).
    • In 2005, MyPyramid was created with more consumer messages and educational materials. Major changes included more categories of calories and recommendations made in household measurements (e.g., cups and ounces versus servings). Also physical activity was included, a first for any food guidance system. These changes were instituted to address the increasing rates of obesity and decreasing rates of physical activity in the lives of Americans.
    • In 2010, USDA decided that a simpler food guide was needed that illustrated food choice by food group and quantities on a divided plate. MyPlate was created to emphasize portion control and making ½ your plate fruits and vegetables. These changes address the growing concern about obesity in the U.S. With the increasing use of technology in society, this food guidance system makes expanded use of the Internet. The USDA website -- www.choosemyplate.gov -- includes tools to assist people in keeping track of their food choices, physical activity, calories in and calories burned, and even nutrient deficiencies.
    • Many participants will want to know how many calories they should consume each day.

      A component of ChooseMyPlate is "SuperTracker". This feature allows participants to enter their age, sex and activity level to receive an individualized caloric recommendation. If internet connection is available, you may want participants to log into the ChooseMyPlate.gov site to obtain this information. You can also access a daily food plan which will suggest quantities to eat from the MyPlate food groups. While many people may deviate from this average, 2000 calories is the generic recommendation for adults over 18 and many children. This would include 6 ounces of grain foods, 2½ cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy foods and 5½ ounces of protein each day. Have participants plan a daily menu using these foods and quantities to accompany this activity or "Portion Distortion".

      A word of caution, some older children will be growing and food intake will be much higher.

PART 2: Match the Food Guidance System to the Date

  1. Show the pictures of the various historical food guidance systems along with a separate list of dates. Give one set of pictures to each family.

    Handouts 2-1 (2 a-e): Food Guidance System pictures

  2. Ask participants to MATCH each FGS (also include description of food items being recommended in that FGS) with the correct date -- 1940s, 1950s-60s, 1970s, 1990s 2005, and 2011. This can be done by each individual family or the group as a whole. The facilitator should encourage families to allow the youngest child to be the first to match a FGS with a date. For example, an 8-year-old should be able to easily match the new MyPyramid to the year 2005. A parent or grandparent might find it easy to match the 1950s-60s to the old Daily Food Guide/Fun for Fitness Guide.

    Answer Key:
    (a) 1940s
    (b) 1950s-60s
    (c) 1970s
    (d) 1990s
    (e) 2005
    (f) 2011

  3. Once all of the FGS have been matched with dates, the facilitator can show the correct answers.
  4. Set up 5 stations around the room, each with an enlarged picture of a FGS (with time period written in) along with a copy of the "A Brief History of USDA Food Guides" handout and any era-specific recipes that have been collected. Ask participants to identify which FGS was prominent during their childhood (K-12 grades) by getting up and standing by the picture. Have each family note where their other family members are standing around the room and how many different FGS's are represented in their family.

    Handout 2-1 (2 h): A Brief History of USDA Food Guides

PART 3: Recipe Comparison Across Time

  1. Introduction: As a sign of dietary changes taking place in recent years, the food giant Heinz has changed the contents of its canned soups, increasing the "quantity of ingredients" while reducing fat, salt and sugar (Lawrence, 2004). The new Heinz tomato soup for example now contains 84% tomato compared with 74% in the old version. The company has also reduced salt levels by 20% to 1g per serving. Sugar has been reduced slightly from 5.2g per 100g to 4.9. The quantity of vegetable oil added has also been reduced.

    [See chart below]
    Dietary Knowledge Timeline:

    Old Heinz Tomato Soup
    Ingredients:Tomatoes (74%), water, vegetable
    oil, sugar, modified cornflour, salt,
    dried skimmed milk, whey protein, cream,
    spice extracts, herb extract, citric acid
    Contains per 100g
    Sugar 5.2g
    Fat 3.6g
    Sodium 0.4g
    New Heinz Tomato Soup
    Ingredients:Tomatoes (84%), water, vegetable
    oil, sugar, modified cornflour, salt,
    dried skimmed milk, whey protein, cream,
    citric acid, spice extracts, herb extract
    Contains per 100g
    Sugar 4.9g
    Fat 3.0g
    Sodium 0.2g
  2. Next, have the participants at each of the FGS stations choose 1-2 recipes from the cookbooks or printed recipes at their station that would represent the kinds of foods they would have eaten and the ways the foods were prepared when they were in their mid- to late childhood years. Have them note how the food is prepared or presented in recipes. For example, a recipe from the 1950s might say to fry the chicken in fat and serve biscuits with butter and honey.
  3. Next, have each group compare the "old recipe" from their childhood to a "new recipe" of today. One way to do this is to have participants review the two "Comparisons Between Traditional and Modern (new, lighter) Recipes" handouts.

    Handout 2-1 (3): Traditional and Modern Recipes (Chicken, Macaroni & Cheese)

    The traditional recipes are generic representations of recipes found in old cookbooks and which have been passed down through families as the traditional recipe. The "new" recipes are modified from the traditional in ways that reflect new cooking/health practices.

    • For the fried chicken recipes, the modern one has less total fat, less saturated fat, fewer calories, and will take about the same time to prepare as the traditional recipe.
    • For the macaroni & cheese recipes, the modern one has less total fat, fewer calories, fewer ingredients, and will take less time to prepare than the traditional recipe.

    Another way to do this is to use recipes from the same cookbook, such as Betty Crocker from the 1950s and Betty Crocker from today -- many times local libraries will have both eras in their collection. How have the recipes changed? Are foods prepared differently? Are there different ingredients? Do they reflect differences in the foods that people consider healthy and acceptable? Are the portion sizes different? [Some old cookbooks not only have different ingredients, but smaller portions; e.g., brownies to serve 12 instead of 6.]

    Taking a close look at cookbooks at home could also help families update old recipes and encourage them to cook together.

  4. Ask a couple of different people from each of the FGS stations to talk about the differences in the recipes over time. They can also share their personal preferences.

    Inform the participants that recipes reflect changes in eating habits and these eating habits are influenced by changes in our Food Guidance System. As the group can see from Handout 2-1 (2-f) "A Brief History of USDA Food Guides," there have been several changes over the past 70 years in our FGS. (Nutritionists can talk about some of the background information provided above.)

  5. At the end of this activity, using the latest FGS as a backdrop, give a brief overview of the topics addressed in other activities in this section, such as portion sizes ("Portion Distortion") and consumption of sugar ("Balancing the Sugar"), that will support families' efforts to eat more healthfully.

Contact Us

Matthew Kaplan, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging

Contact Us

Matthew Kaplan, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging