What are nostalgic foods?

The Nostalgic Food Trend: Why are vintage recipes making a comeback?

Disclaimer: The Food Trends is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a way for websites to earn advertising revenues by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

There is something comforting about nostalgic food that helps us remember a simpler time. Last week I was meeting with a few girlfriends, and the topic of Girl Scout cookies came up. They were discussing how much they love the cookies and how easy it is to sell them every year.

I said, “I just don’t get it. They are awful, dry processed cookies”. I was met with looks of shock. 

“Wait, how can you not like Girl Scout cookies? Not even Samoas (now called Caramel deLites)? Tag-a-longs (Peanut butter cookies)?”

“No,” I said, “I like cookies, they are just not good quality. I have never liked them.”

After they got over their shock, they admitted that as far as cookies go, they are not that high quality. But instead, the cookies bring back a sense of nostalgia from childhood. So while they might not be the best tasting cookies out there, there is something comforting about them. 

I don’t remember eating Girl Scout cookies as a child, so for me, they are just hard cookies that don’t taste that good. Clearly, I am alone in this opinion.

But I can wrap my mind around the enjoyment of childhood snacks that bring up a sense of nostalgia. There are plenty of foods that were dinner staples when I was growing up that I would love to eat today. But what is this retro food trend about and why are people loving the nostalgia?

What are nostalgic foods?

Nostalgic recipes or retro foods refer to foods that were popular in the past but have since fallen out of fashion. These foods are often associated with a particular time period or cultural moment, and they evoke a sense of nostalgia for those who remember them. Overall, retro food is often characterized by its simplicity, affordability, and use of basic ingredients.

Classic dishes like tuna casserole, green bean casserole, and spam are examples of a few foods that have fallen out of favor but may hold fond memories for some. 

Retro foods can range from classic comfort foods like meatloaf and macaroni and cheese to more unique items like Jell-O molds and ambrosia salad. Sometimes retro foods deserve to be forgotten, like this list of gag-worthy retro foods, whereas others are classics that should be brought back.

The 70s and 80s are popular decades for vintage recipes trying to make a comeback. Fondue is my personal favorite for a 70s retro recipe. I can’t get enough!

As the decades progress, trends in food shift over time, and some retro foods are forgotten. However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in retro foods, with many people rediscovering these classic dishes and putting their own modern twist on them.

Why are retro foods popular? 

There are many reasons why retro foods have become popular again. They evoke a sense of nostalgia and comfort for those who remember them from their childhood and teenage years. Food can be connected to our feelings and emotions, so when we eat something that reminds us of better days, this can be comforting. 

Additionally, many people are looking for simpler, more affordable foods to add to their diets. Retro foods fit the bill perfectly for delicious taste while on a budget as most are made from affordable, basic ingredients that are easy to find. 

Finally, there is a growing interest in sustainability and reducing food waste, which has led to a greater appreciation for the frugal cooking practices of the past. Retro foods often use leftovers and scraps, making the most of what you have on hand. 

Popular retro foods

A few popular retro foods that are making a comeback on menus and at dinner time are: 

Deviled eggs are a popular retro recipe

Retro appetizers:

  • Deviled Eggs
  • Cheese Balls
  • Shrimp Cocktail
  • Pigs in a Blanket
  • Chex Mix

Retro main courses:

  • Meatloaf
  • Tuna Casserole
  • Chicken a la King
  • Beef Stroganoff
  • Salisbury Steak

Retro desserts:

Jello desserts were popular in the 70s and 80s
  • Jell-O molds
  • Ambrosia Salad
  • Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
  • Banana Pudding
  • Rice Pudding

Retro drinks and cocktails:

  • Classic Cocktails like Martini, Manhattan, and Old Fashioned
  • Shirley Temple
  • Root Beer Floats
  • Classic Milkshakes
  • Eggnog (especially during the holiday season)

Favorite vintage recipe cookbooks

If you are looking for some old school retro recipes, here are a few cookbooks to check out:

These are just a few favorites, but just an internet search will pull up many more ideas for nostalgic recipes.

Are retro foods healthy?

As a registered dietitian, I always look at the health benefits or downsides of a particular food trend. A blanket statement can’t be made about the health benefits or concerns around nostalgic foods, since they are all different. But, often “comfort” food usually involves quite a bit of carbs, sugar, butter, or other less-than-ideal ingredients. 

When it comes to the health benefits and concerns around retro foods, the answer is not black and white. While many retro foods may not be considered “healthy” by today’s standards, they often have their own unique benefits and downsides. 

For example, many nostalgic foods rely on simple, whole ingredients like fresh vegetables and lean meats, which can be a healthy choice. Additionally, many retro foods are designed to be affordable and easy to make, which can encourage home cooking and reduce reliance on processed convenience foods.

However, there are also downsides to consider. Many classic dishes are high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, which can contribute to health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Additionally, some retro foods rely heavily on processed ingredients like canned soups and pre-packaged mixes, which can be high in preservatives and artificial ingredients.

Tips to make retro foods healthier

There are definitely ways to improve vintage recipes to make them healthier. Consider looking for recipes for healthy comfort foods. Or pick a classic favorite and look for a “healthy” version is a great way to enjoy your favorite food while improving its nutritional value. Here are a few tips to improve the “health” value of nostalgic foods:

  • Substitute with whole-grain ingredients: Instead of white flour or white rice, opt for whole-grain alternatives.
  • Use leaner cuts of meat: Swap out fatty cuts for leaner options like chicken breast or ground turkey.
  • Reduce sugar: Cut down on sugar by half or use natural sweeteners like honey or stevia.
  • Add vegetables: Even comfort foods can be fortified with an extra serving of vegetables.
  • Portion control: Comfort foods are often rich; smaller portions can satisfy without overindulging.
  • Cook with less salt: Use herbs, spices, and other flavor-enhancers like citrus instead.
  • Opt for healthier cooking methods: Grilling or baking over frying can make a substantial difference.
  • Cut back on cheese and cream: Choose low-fat dairy products, or use them sparingly.
  • Ditch canned ingredients: Fresh or frozen vegetables over canned to reduce sodium.
  • Be mindful of additives: Check recipes for packaged mixes that may contain artificial ingredients or preservatives, and look for natural alternatives.

Making these small changes can keep the essence of your retro dish while making it more aligned with current health standards. Whether it’s a childhood favorite or a newly discovered vintage recipe, you don’t have to compromise on health to enjoy the comfort and nostalgia it brings.

But also remember that sometimes it’s okay to enjoy something because it tastes good or brings you a feeling of comfort.

Overall, the health benefits and concerns around retro foods depend on the specific dish and how it’s prepared. No matter what comfort foods you enjoy, you can always balance them with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. By doing so, you can appreciate the nostalgia and comfort of classic dishes while still maintaining a healthy diet.

For more info on the top food trends for 2023 from a dietitian’s perspective, check out our roundup blog post.