Partial image of menu with a cup of coffee and toast with jam

(Photo illustration by Michael Vendiola)

Meal planning for victory

During World War II, cookbooks by Meta Given, PhB 1924, EXʼ27, helped guide a malnourished nation.

In 1940, after Germany invaded and conquered France, the United States launched the first peacetime draft in American history. But military draft boards soon made a startling discovery, according to The Secret History of Home Economics (W. W. Norton, 2021): one-third of men called up for service failed their physicals due to poor nutrition.

By May of the following year, the government had issued new nutrition guidelines. There were seven basic food groups, Americans were told, and all seven should be eaten every day. It was a simple message designed for a time when many people lacked even a basic understanding of nutrition. Most respondents to a 1941 poll did not know the difference between a vitamin and a calorie.

“Feeding the family has always been a matter of supreme interest to the individual; now, in the present emergency, it is a matter of national concern,” read the foreword to The Modern Family Cook Book (J. G. Ferguson and Associates, 1942), by Meta Given, PhB 1924, EXʼ27. Given had focused on cooking and nutrition during her graduate study in home economics—a popular subject of study for women at UChicago in the 1920s. She dedicated the book to “Dr. Evelyn G. Halliday [SB 1915, SMʼ22, PhDʼ29] and Dr. Lydia J. Roberts [PhB 1917, SMʼ19, PhDʼ29] of the University of Chicago, whose contributions to the field of Home Economics have won nation-wide recognition.”

The Modern Family Cook Book included not only recipes but 366 menus (a menu per day plus an extra for leap year) that fit what she called “the diet pattern.” Givenʼs pattern—slightly more complex than the federal model—had 10 food groups. Like nutritional sudoku, her generous daily menus managed to include them all:

  • 1 quart milk for each child and 1 pint for each adult.
  • 1 serving of citrus fruit, or tomatoes, or tomato juice.
  • 1 other fruit, either fresh, canned, or dried.
  • 1 green (preferably leafy) or yellow vegetable, raw or cooked.
  • 1 other vegetable, either fresh, canned, or dried (aside from potato).
  • 1 serving of potato.
  • Whole grain or enriched cereal—bread, breakfast food, cake, etc.
  • 1 serving of meat, fish, or cheese. Liver or other meat sundry weekly.
  • 1 egg daily if possible; otherwise at least 3 or 4 times weekly.
  • 3 to 5 tablespoons of butter, or oleomargarine fortified with vitamin A.

Once a week, Given noted, the potato could be replaced with “rice, macaroni, spaghetti or noodles” for variety—but on those days, more green and yellow vegetables, bananas, or other foods should be eaten. (Given took a dim view of supplements, warning that “the vitamin fad” might even be harmful.) She kept tight control over the food budget as well as nutrients. The weekly cost of feeding a family—defined as two parents and three children—was $12 to $15 in 1941 dollars ($220 to $275 today).

Given did not forbid much. Once the minimum daily requirements had been met, homemakers could “go ahead and add anything your family likes,” she wrote: “a savory gravy, pie, cake, or some other dessert” or additional servings.

Given followed The Modern Family Cook Book with a two-volume Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, published in 1947. Volume 1 covered appetizers to fish; volume 2, foreign foods (including garlic bread and pizza) to vegetables.

Updated editions of both books appeared throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and still inspire a dedicated fan base. “Like grandma used to do!” reads a typical five-star Amazon review. Other reviewers write that they are buying replacement copies after decades of use: “I have had a copy of this book for about 50 years, I wore mine out and could no longer read the recipe for Lemon Cream Pie.”

Meta Given’s day’s guide using seasonal foods in thrifty and balanced meals

A sample menu for August. A “moderately active man” required 3,000–3,300 calories daily, a “moderately active woman” 2,200–2,500 calories. “Sedentary” was not an option. It was added in later editions.


White grapes
Prepared cereal with top milk
Toast with butter, jam
Coffee for adults
Milk for children


Creamed eggs on toast
Sliced tomatoes and lettuce wedges, French dressing
Fresh pears
Hot or iced tea
Milk for children


Cold sliced fresh Boston-style pork butt
Corn on the cob
Creamed turnips
Grated carrot, apple, and orange salad
Bread and butter
Fresh peach tarts
Coffee for adults
Milk for children