Here follows a history of convenience foods in the Netherlands (1,900 words; c. 10 minutes). Please refer to this website when citing (parts of) the text.
Before we talk about the history of ‘convenience foods’, we need a definition. I would argue that these are products and dishes that can be divided into four categories: convenience meals in the home – ready meals, take-away salads – and meals outside the home (in restaurants), and snacks, both inside and outside the home. This means that restaurants, too, provide ‘convenience’ foods: consumers can skip both cooking and cleaning up. However, eating in restaurants has historically been a marginal phenomenon. Even by the end of the 1990s, Europeans spent less than 10% of their food budgets on eating outside of the home; during the 1950s, this share was as low as 1%. Accordingly, eating or snacking outside the house is a minor part of the history of convenience foods. That is why this history will mostly focus on convenience meals and snacks eaten inside the house.
Ready meals are far from a new phenomenon in Europe. Over 150 years ago, the better-off could go to a picknick with an entire meal stored in a can. These dishes consisted of such combinations as potatoes, garden peas and pieces of meat. Such tinned innovations found their way not just to picknicks, but were also used in places like army barracks and hospitals – places with a need for quickly producing meals for a great number of people. Since these culinary novelties were still fairly expensive, they were not for everyone. Only after the Second World War did canned meals slowly become economically feasible for more and more people.
By the 1950s and 1960s, rice and noodle dishes were sold in a can by companies like Koenvisser. Their spaghetti was advertised as prepared exactly like one made in ‘romantic eateries in Italy’. Hence the product was explicitly associated with foreign travel and high quality. Though despite these lofty words, some scepticism about the taste of such historical meals is in order if we are to believe contemporary surveys about ready meals. But there were reasons besides taste and economics that prevented ready meals from becoming a great success in the post-war decades. Mass popularity was also hindered by the Dutch’s inhibitions regarding convenience.
Inhibitions toward convenience
In the post-war decades, women in the Netherlands did most of the labor inside of the home. They were expected to take perfect care of their families. In other words, the societal pressure on housewives was incredibly high: a spotless house, total devotion toward husband and children, and culinary artistry in the kitchen. The daily meal was regarded with the utmost seriousness. Such attitudes gave almost no room to giving in to convenience, which was seen as encouraging laziness.
Here, in the advertisement above, we see a direct reference to these inhibitions toward convenience. The ready-made pudding is presented as a secret between manufacturer and housewife: don’t let your family find out. The importance of the household, of the people that should be taken care of so lovingly, also informed the advertisement: “Serve it… Cheers [will follow]!”. Women shouldn’t forget: they were cooking for an audience.
This rejection of convenience had existed for quite a while. The term ‘luiewievenkost’ (‘lazy-wives-grub’) had existed some time, referring to dishes that were easy to prepare, like stews and mashes. In an ethnographic survey, women said that a wife serving these dishes with regularity was looking for trouble. There was no shame in relying on little packets and powders to quickly spice up a meal. Stock cubes, for instance, or tomato puree, were ‘convenience’ products in good standing. But to scoop an entire meal from a can, that was not done, unless you were a man being forced to cook his own meal.
An opening for more convenience
But things were changing rapidly in the Netherlands. In the 1970s and 1980s, women were increasingly occupied outside the home, while ready meals came with improved taste and in more varieties. More and more, families started seeing convenience foods as a solution to some of their (planning) problems. The earlier inhibitions slowly melted away. Advertisers, eager to market their products, tried to find ways to address the changing societal position of women. In one advertisement by Conimex, a tired woman has her hands in her hair. “If you’re feeling like that…”, then Conimex is here to help, its text asserted.
No longer did women have to hide the fact that cooking, like other chores, could be a tiring drudge. Enter the ready meal: a new generation swiftly embraced convenience foods. No wonder that, in 1975, Iglo felt safe to sketch a scenario where a frozen dinner might come in handy when one simply doesn’t feel like cooking – accompanied by a photo of a young, modern woman, of course. A marketing strategy that would’ve been unthinkable a few decades before.
There is little reason to believe, however, that inhibitions felt toward convenience have completely dissipated. All the TV dinners in the world can’t prevent parents still getting lectured when serving their children a ready meal. To many, a frozen pizza is still a bit of a ‘sin’: something to make up for the next day. Here, an important role is played by the perceived healthiness – or lack thereof – of different foods. More on that later; first, snacks.
Snacks, like ready meals, are far from new to the Netherlands. Street foods like herring, a roll with pickled pork, ice cream, and French fries were already available in urban centres throughout the nineteenth century.
However, snacking at home is a different thing: Europeans ate biscuits before the masses knew about tea or coffee. True ‘snacking’, though, was usually about being outside and grabbing a quick bite, not something done on the living room couch. With rising prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s, that slowly changed, as stores expanded their horizons and started offering all sorts of foods to nibble on. In 1958, for instance, the potato chip was introduced to the Dutch market. Furthermore, both freezers and deep fryers became more affordable, so frozen croquettes and French fries could now also be sold to the public.
Snacks and the Dutch meal
Snacks foods became popular in the Netherlands at a relatively late moment in time: the 1950s saw a very cautious increase in their consumption. One reason for the late rise of snacks in the Netherlands was that complex production processes were involved in making them. The large scale manufacture of potato chips, for instance, demanded serious investments and advanced technologies.
In the 1950s and 1960s, marketers at Dutch food manufacturers were also not willing to bet on the success of snacks yet. The Dutch ate healthy breakfasts, big lunches and sizeable dinners, so most thought that this left very little room for snacking. One strategy pursued by advertisers was making snacks not a supplement to, but a part of dinner.
The advertisement for Diamant deep frying fat on the right is from the same year that potato chips were introduced to the Netherlands. But here, the chips are home-made – perhaps a sign of certain inhibitions regarding convenience. More importantly, they are a part of a full dinner plate. Even companies like Coca-Cola, now a drink for the moments in between meals, could not afford to disassociate itself from the evening meal. Which is why its advertisements place the glass bottle next to a roasted chicken, as a substitute for a glass of milk. Even recipe columns of women’s magazines followed this logic: Libelle called snacks ‘dishes’ in 1960, and de-snackified mini French fries by calling them ‘pommes allumettes’. Only as part of a regular meal did snacking products make sense to Dutch consumers.
An opening for more snacks
It appeared that the daily food habits of the Dutch determined the fate of snack products. But these habits changed quickly in the post-war era. Women found work outside the home, nuclear families became smaller, and one-person households were on the rise. The Dutch Meal (capital ‘M’) lost some of its significance. With food patterns changing at a great pace, reheating food became an almost daily occurrence to some. The food industry started to provide European populations with an enormous supply of convenience foods that greatly encouraged ‘grazing’: days full of healthy and unhealthy snacking moments. Grazing would become one of the most prominent food trends of the past century in the Netherlands, but it only gained momentum in the 1970s. Now, as people go from baby carrots to a small sandwich, then onto some fries and finally to a big salad, ‘meal’ and ‘snack’ have become hard to differentiate.
The 1970s, therefore, saw the true popularisation of snack foods – not just in the Netherlands, but in the entire western world. In 1971, McDonalds opened its first European restaurant in the Netherlands. Other products like Pringles, salted nuts, and popsicles could now all be bought and stored at home.
A critical voice: the importance of health
With the popularity of snacks rising, several concerned voices emerged. The Dutch Consumer guide voiced its scepticism early on. Its message: make sure to limit your intake. In 1976 it published a review of potato chips, concluding that they were “fatty, very calorie-rich and occasionally too salty treats”. Two years later, deep fried snacks were judged similarly: “Since we’re already eating too much, limiting our intake of dietary fat can’t hurt”. Two years later still, the guide had similar words for French fries: “French fries, half-fat or not, remain a calorie-rich food”. In the 1980s and 1990s, more organizations turned against the intake of (too much) dietary fats, while trying to increase ‘awareness’ among consumers. The consumption of snacks and fast food was increasingly moralized, as evinced by, for instance the rise of the Slow Food movement (1986).
Fast food and snacks were not just seen as gauche, they were also deemed unhealthy. Ideas about healthy living had long been important to Dutch food habits, but in the 1970s, things kicked up a notch. What had started off with the simple desire for a slender figure, grew into the wish for a longer and healthier life. In the end, both manufacturers and consumers couldn’t resist conceptualizing foods as a type of medicine, resulting in ‘superfoods’ and cholesterol-lowering margarine. Dutch started reading products’ lists of ingredients, assisted by their government, which made them mandatory in 1979. This stimulated the rise of dietary products: every old snack now came in a ‘light’ version, whereas new products, like the granola bar, increasingly touted the fact that they contained 0% sugar or 0% fat.
Convenience in the 21st century
In part because of these ‘healthy’ variants, the popularity of snacking has kept on rising. By the end of the 1990s, the Dutch were already getting 30% of their daily energy from snacks. It should be obvious by now that in the Netherlands, the acceptance of convenience foods was shaped by societal inhibitions and ideas. For a long time, their success was less than self-evident. But all in all, convenience foods have become immensely popular, and are now a significant part of our food culture.
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