Diet plates

Dieting for weight loss began to attract attention in the 1920s, reversing the preference for somewhat chubby bodies that preceded it. Before World War I, the word “diet” could equally well refer to a plan of eating designed for gaining weight. Then — and now — the notion of dieting contained contradictions.

A 1905 newspaper story described the phenomenon of the “jiu jitsu girl,” a modern being who took a rational attitude toward her food, either for the purpose of adding or losing pounds. If she wanted to lose weight she drank a lot of water, did gymnastics, and ate only fish, poultry, fresh vegetables, and fruit.

But the weight-losing version of the jiu jitsu girl must have been a rarity in 1905 because restaurant menus took no notice of her. Most of their offerings were more likely to add pounds. Which must be why, when she went into a restaurant, JJ girl tossed aside the menu as she gave her order.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the so-called Hollywood Diet became the rage, restaurants made a few concessions to dieters by providing the regimen’s staple food, grapefruit. But few if any provided diet menus or special low-calorie dishes.

Whether restaurant patrons tried to cut calories with grapefruit, salads, or zwieback in the 1920s and 1930s, European chefs deplored the trend. Critics said dieting was one of the causes of the downfall of restaurant cuisine in those Prohibition years. Alas, they sighed, art had gone out of restaurant cooking and weight-conscious women were largely to blame.

However, those who took a more businesslike attitude toward restaurants, such as industry publisher J. O. Dahl, recommended that restaurants get with the times. Look through popular magazines, he counseled, and see how very often dieting is discussed. He urged progressive restaurateurs to develop diet menus for their women guests – whose numbers were drastically increasing.

Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that dieters received widespread recognition with the arrival of the restaurant diet plate. Shown in all its glory at the top of this page, it was stereotypically a hamburger patty – sometimes referred to as chopped steak – accompanied by cottage cheese topped with canned peach and a limp lettuce leaf on which reposed a wan slice of tomato.

Slight variations happened. Gelatin might accompany or replace canned fruit. Steak houses such as Bonanza and Golden Corral added toast to the plate. Woolworth tucked in saltines (see 1971 Woolworth advertisement below).

To be absolutely fair, some restaurants were a bit more creative in designing diet plates. The National Restaurant Association, recognizing that about 10% of customers were on diets at any given moment in the 1950s, helped develop menus. Perhaps a menu of consommé, celery hearts, 4 oz. minute steak, green beans, and unsugared fruit was one of their suggestions. In 1962 the Town Room in the Sheraton-Dallas relieved diet boredom with “hefty” slimming lunches of Goulash and Shrimp Hawaii.

Putting everything into perspective, even the dispiriting classic diet plate was superior to the liquid diet products that some restaurants put on menus in the early 1960s. For 50 to 75 cents a glass dieters could sip Metrecal (a product of the same company that made Drano and Windex). “Some drugstores find it is giving the hamburger competition,” reported a 1960 story.

By some bizarre logic, places that seemed as though they were havens for non-dieters also offered diet plates. Such as pancake houses and sweets shops. The DoNut Shop in Edwardsville IL had a Weight Watchers Diet Plate and Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Seattle advertised a Low Calorie Diet Plate. Were these nothing but conscience-soothers for customers prepping for ice cream and doughnut binges?

Although I have no doubt you can still find the occasional classic diet plate on a menu today, the hamburger-cottage cheese-peach lunch fell into deep disfavor in the 1980s. Long regarded as boring, by the mid-1980s they were commonly referred to as “old style,” “so-called,” or “1950s diet plates.” Critics argued that in most cases they were not only insipid, but also contained more calories than other menu items.

But it was not the critics who sunk them as much as it was changes in restaurant culture of the late 20th century. Many restaurants upgraded their menus with fresher and lighter food that (usually) had the virtue of being lower in calories. Restaurants specializing in salads became popular.

A sign of changing times was the Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. With a decor that signified “natural,” the casual restaurant had a brick floor, hanging plants, butcher block tables, and walls painted with large apples. Calories were given for each dish on the menu. Even the highest-calorie item, a Spinach and Mushroom Quiche, topped out at about 200 fewer calories than the classic diet plate, and a Tostada Salad came in at 395.

Another example was the 1980s “Light Balance” menu at Tumbledown Dick’s in Cos Cob CT  where no dish had more than 380 calories, whether it was a Vegetable-Stuffed Pita, Chicken Florentine, or Pasta Primavera. The Light Balance menu gave not only calories but also fat, sugar, and sodium content.

In retrospect, as unappetizing, calorie-rich, and unbalanced as the 1950s diet plate was, the irony is that the average American was slimmer during its time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017


Filed under food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, women

20 responses to “Diet plates

  1. Pingback: A few words about “healthy” wine | Wine Curmudgeon

  2. Michelle A. Vigil

    If more restaurants served the diet plate including lean chicken breast and fresh fruit on the cottage cheese, I’d order it every time!

  3. Leslie Chapman Glutzer

    Just read the article on low calorie plates in restaurants and noticed you mentioned my restaurant, Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter. One small correction is that the restaurant featured wood floors, not brick floors. Thanks for remembering us!

    • Thanks for the correction. BTW, it came from a story in the San Diego Union, 1980, about salad restaurants becoming popular, that contained this sentence: “Their father constructed the inside of the restaurant, a cafeteria-line operation decorated with large apples painted on the walls, a red-brick floor, full-length windows, hanging plants and butcher block tables.”

    • Loved your restaurant! Was one of the first people to eat there when I lived in the gold coast. Loved both of you girls. Some days I would just eat there to see your smiles. So very sorry to have just read about your sister. Ugh. Your restaurant name just popped into my head and I googled it along with a menu and this comment. Again, thank you for having a great idea way ahead of its time. Still thinking of you and watching your dad help you out during busy lunches.

  4. Denise

    I was recently at a restaurant and spotted a very authentic diet plate on the menu! Didn’t order it, but having read this article I was very excited. 🙂 Luckily in the age of the Internet, even a rather out of the way diner has its menu online if you’d like to see:

  5. TheManFromTaco

    Interestingly, that kind of “diet plate” consisting of a beef patty, cottage cheese, salad, and possibly tomatoes or other fruit, was very similar to what bodybuilders of the 1940s and 50s such as Steve Reeves listed as their usual fare… a goodly amount of protein for muscle maintenance, but quite low in carbohydrates.

  6. Your top picture made me laugh. There is a restaurant here in Ottawa, called The Carlingwood Family Restaurant. It has been around for over 50 years. I’m 38 now, and I can remember going there when I was 5 or 6. They had the best milkshakes. Anyway, they have a meal called “The Calorie Watcher” – it’s a quarter pound of ground beef, served with a fresh garden salad and cottage cheese.

    However, even with that, the food here is very good. In fact, I always have breakfast here before I go to my doctor’s appointments. So yummy!

  7. Really important to watch our DIET. Awesome!

  8. Very interesting and informative post – great read!


  9. My favorite argument is that dieting destroys art. Definitely gonna use that one with some of my hipster friends.

  10. Betty D.

    I love looking at old restaurant menus and am always pleased when I see the mid-century diet plate, which I remember from my childhood when my mother would order it. It doesn’t seem that bad to me, especially if the hamburger were properly cooked and the tomato was decent and perhaps with fresh fruit instead of the canned. It’s filling and would give you a good boost of protein with some fat, and it’s fairly low in carbs and probably comes in low on the calorie count. Those 1950s people weren’t so dumb.

    • Seems odd today but the classic diet plate was often faulted for having too much protein.

      • Cathy Cee

        That beef patty and cottage cheese ARE proteins. Is that bad? If you’re interested in food and how it affects people, I suggest reading “Eat Right 4 your Type” It has an interesting concept. It separates people by their blood type (one of the 4). Why? Because people from various areas of the world tend to have the same blood types.
        I won’t got into the entire premise of the book, but tells us why some people, even siblings can eat something that packs on the pounds and others easy lose weight on the same diet. Basically some people can eat a protein heavy meal and easily lose weight by cutting out the carbs, while others can eat carbs and little meat and maintain their weight.
        I used to work with a Vietnamese man, he’d bring in his good sized portion of rice with tiny bits of meat and stay thin. If I on the other hand, ate as much rice as he did would balloon into a cow. Me, with my type O blood, should have been eating the cow, and tossing that rice to the birds. We also worked with an Indian woman, whose several close family members died from heart attacks, even tho they all ate very low fat meals. It’s an interesting view, even if it’s not entirely accepted by the powers that be.
        The point is that we’re all different, what’s good for one person may not be for another.

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