The New Definition of ‘American’ Cuisine Pushes the Boundaries of Fast Food and TV Dinners

Photo: Stocksy/Ina Peters; Graphics: Well+Good Creative
Between 2013 and 2015, artist Lois Bielefeld set out to photograph the "typical American meal" in a series called Weeknight Dinners. The scenes are as mundane as they are interesting. One image captures a couple eating on the floor of their living room. In another, a teenager places her phone between herself and a bowl of something orange. There's a family barbecue, a TV dinner eaten alone, a paper plate with pizza slices, and—of course—a Tupperware meal.

Consumed as a series, Weeknight Dinner paints a colorful portrait of 21st century American cuisine. One that’s focused largely on convenience rather than health. The food industry has kept these two factors at odds for decades. But now, a new crop of wellness-enthused consumers are demanding ease and nutrition in one bite. As a result, the portrait of American cuisine is getting revamped.

If the $4.2 trillion global wellness industry ($702.1 billion of which centers around healthy eating and nutrition) has its way, a recreation of Bielefeld's project 10 years in the future would look much, much different. Before looking forward, though, culinary historians and experts say a little bit of retrospection is in order.

A brief history of American cuisine

Coney Island hot dogs and French fries may come to mind when you think about America, but just like French food is more than baguettes and escargots, U.S. fare is vibrant, varied, and ever-evolving. "I’m an anthropologist, so I think of things starting off with indigenous foods, like Indian maize, beans, and squash; lots of wild plants and animals; and flavorings," says Ellen Messer, PhD, a biocultural anthropologist specializing in food, security, and religion at Tufts University. Over the years, different parts of the U.S. relied on European grains, rice from Asia and southern European cultures, and other staples plucked from disparate countries, traditions, and cultures.

If you zoom out to consider the more general food habits of Americans, you’ll find a historical focus on convenience.

Sarah Wassberg Johnson, a food historian who studies agriculture and rural communities in America, says that you can't understand American cuisine without looking at World War II. "Most of what’s considered stereotypical 'American food'—hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, milkshakes—all comes out of post-war innovations in agricultural and food processing," she says.

In the lead up to World War II, infrastructural developments—like improving pre-existing roads to accommodate the use of automobiles—allowed for a more regional and national food production system. Food could now be transported long distances before it spoiled. When canning reached peak popularity until 1943, it became even easier to mass-transport foods and the beginnings of a national food culture began to arise—one further fueled by the invention of fast food.

"The vast majority of fast food chains do not predate the Great Depression in the 1930s," says Johnson. "You have these one-off fast food-style restaurants that become franchises in response to the interstate highway system, as a result of people wanting to have consistent food that was the same wherever they got it." The need for consistency and convenience on the road also changed the way people ate at home.

"In the last century, there has been real growth in the food industry," says Dr. Messer. "Industrially processed foods like the iconic sliced white bread, foods of animal origin, and convenience foods became much more ubiquitous around America."In the 1950s, Swanson coined the phrase "TV dinner," effectively kickstarting the widespread popularity of meals that could go from frozen solid to piping hot in minutes.

The wellness industry has now begun the work of refashioning these American food “traditions” while still safeguarding the culture of convenience. From hamburgers to TV dinners, nothing is out of bounds.

If the wellness industry and consumers have anything to say about it…

"As a generation, millennials have been a huge driver in the shift away from convenience. The focus on taste and satisfaction are now shifting toward a prioritization of health," says Malina Malkani, RDN, a dietitian with the American Academy of Dietetics who has observed the change of mindset in her patients over the years.

In 2019, millennials (dubbed the "wellness generation" by Sanford Health) make up the majority of the American population. Research has shown that this generation, born between 1981 and 1996, represents about $10 trillion worth of buying power.Studies have indicated that healthy eating and nutrition is of utmost importance to them, which could spell success for companies that put the wholesomeness of food first.

In 2016, Amazon acquired Whole Foods for a cool $13.7 billion. While in-store pricing remains far from affordable, an estimated 100 million Americans (and those who subscribe to Amazon Fresh) live within the delivery area of more reasonably priced Whole Foods 365 products. For the right dollar amount, this move accomplishes the marriage between convenience and nutrition for Prime members.

Beyond Meat, which is in the business of making plant-based burgers appeal to omnivores, is on a similar accessibility mission. Its strategy involves targeting fast food chains as a way to encourage consumers to eat more vegetables and less meat. “Accessibility is one of the biggest impacts we want to have,” Will Schafer, Beyond Meat’s vice president of marketing, previously told Well+Good. “When we look at [which restaurants] to partner with, places like Subway give us the chance to make our product so much more accessible and affordable.”

At the same time, the Beyond movement (and its meatless competitors) seek to add the health of the environment to the nutritional conversation. "If you’re looking at wellness, what you also have to look at is how wellness can be an umbrella concept talking about the state of the environment," says Dr. Messer. "You also have to look at the way people look at their roles in trying to maintain the earth through the environment movement—which is also about wellness, which is also about health."

Here's what a dietitian thinks about alt-meat burgers: 

Whole Foods and Beyond Foods are both examples of major players spearheading the healthy food hustle. But niche purveyors—like Mosaic Foods (which sells healthy TV dinners) and Caulipower (which creates cauliflower-based, low-carb takes on pizza crust and more)—are cropping up, too.

"Superfoods," the buzzy term given to ingredients with impressive nutrient profiles, seem to be at the center of many of these smaller movements. Cauli-mania has launched a thousand pizza crusts and pastas. Broccoli tater-tots are a mainstay in the freezer aisle. And even turmeric—a super spice—has now found its way into lattes, desserts, and the meals in between.

Even fast food is getting a “fast casual” rebrand with chains like Sweetgreen and Dig Inn taking off. “I think now are moving more in the direction of trying to find healthier, fast casual foods that once had a sugar, salt, fat emphasis, and raised dietary health issues over the previous 50 years,” says Dr. Messer.

Supermarket aisles (both online and IRL), snappy food chains, and even TV dinners have now been given the wellness treatment. The question is—will people buy into them?

According to the food anthropologist, there are still a few barriers that need to be addressed in order for our overall cuisine to become more healthy. First, the tendency to zero in on the nutrition label could keep us from realizing the whole picture of "healthy eating.” A complete definition includes environmental longevity as well as the social and cultural effect of the food itself.

The idea of "gracious living"—the more ritualistic, family-oriented tradition around food—deserves a comeback. "One aspect of having a healthy diet was that you sat down and had a family meal," says Dr. Messer. Who you surround yourself with at breakfast, lunch, and dinner ultimately eclipses how many veggies end up on your plate.

“I think now are moving more in the direction of trying to find healthier, fast casual foods that once had a sugar, salt, fat emphasis, and raised dietary health issues over the previous 50 years." —Ellen Messer, PhD, biocultural anthropologist

"Food analysts are focused on what you can sell—and you can sell olive oil. You can sell fish, you can sell omega-3 fatty acid pills. The kind of well-being that comes from having regular social relations and a social life centered around food—which helps organize the family and keep relationships in good working order—doesn’t get enough attention," says Dr. Messer.

For her part, Johnson believes that teaching healthy cooking in high schools could inspire teenagers to cook healthy and flavorful meals for themselves throughout their adulthood. Plus, it could refresh vegetables’ bland reputation.

"American meat, potato, and vegetable on the side comes from our collective British heritage, but also comes from when researchers were first doing research into calories," she explains. "It was much easier to count the calories of disparate foods than the calories of goulash, or a casserole, or whatever."

Banishing the broccoli to the far side of the plate creates an overall negative connotation with vegetables for a decent part of the population. Even official American food guidlines, first released in 1916, separate each food group into distinct categories.

In regional- and cultural-specific cuisines, Johnson and Dr. Messer say this just isn’t the case. "What you see with all the ethnic cuisine is that they take grains and mix them with a number of side dishes that include—if there’s meat—meat. If there’s vegetables, vegetables," says Dr. Messer. As Asian cuisine grew in popularity in America during the 1970s, it was partially responsible for eliminating the need to leave an inch or two between every component of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. And teaching young Americans how to prepare healthy dishes from various cuisines could open their minds to new ways of consuming the nutrients that compose a healthy diet, says Johnson.

The evolution of healthy food is happening right before our eyes. Johnson cites as an example a number of African American communities who are embracing African- and Caribbean-based veganism. "It’s very influenced by Rastafarian culture, which is also vegan. There’s an effort to reclaim African American identity and eating better to combat the diseases that are common in a lot of especially poor communities. There’s a really interesting backlash against very traditional soul foods, which are very fatty and meat-centric."

For now, each of these conceptions of what health American cuisine could be are just that: conceptions. As Johnson and Dr. Messer point out, the mid-20th century conceived much of what we know as the nutritional character of America today. Ultimately, it's up to us to write the future of our food.

Here's how 7 different countries outline their nutritional guidelines. Plus, Harvard's formula for creating a healthy plate

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