Buying food: Grocery shopping tips from 1950

The American housewife! Who has a more important or more responsible occupation? Wife, mother, laundress, counselor, maid, chef, purchasing agent. All of these are her duties at one time or another.

So begins Buying Food, a home economics film from 1950. Buying Food is fascinating not just for its shopping tips, but also for the inside look at a grocery store from 60 years ago. (Self-service grocery stores were introduced in 1916 and grew in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, but they were still relatively young in 1950.)

The condescending narrator e-nun-ci-ates his thesis:

If her income is limited — and most incomes are — it is her duty to be sure that what she has to spend buys the most in healthful, nutritious food for her family. Yes, she feels that she must buy wisely if she can. But what does this mean? What can she do to be sure that her money goes as far as possible?

Most of these tips will probably be quite familiar. But remember, this film is meant to educate future housewives: high school girls. Tips include:

  • Use a grocery list to eliminate impulse buying. Notice that the film's impulse buyer is a man. A man can't possibly know how to shop properly, right? (Kris would answer “yes”.)
  • Buy only what you need. When you buy too much, whether through impulse or through mistaken economy, you run the risk of creating waste. And wasted food is a huge drain on the budget (both then and now).
  • Compare unit pricing. The film doesn't call it unit pricing, but that's what it is. Viewers are instructed to compare the price per ounce on a can of beans, for example. Search for the best value, which isn't always the largest lot.
  • Buy in bulk. You can often save money by purchasing “case lots”. (Actually, the grocery store we used to shop at in my home town still has a “case sale” every summer. You can order cases of your favorite food in advance. I'd always order a case or two of my favorite canned chili. It was a great way to save money.)
  • Don't buy foods your family won't eat. And don't buy too many perishables. Again, you don't want to waste food.
  • Know what you're buying before you buy. “When you buy canned goods, be sure to read the label. The information on the label is much more reliable than the flowery language of advertisements.”
  • Purchase produce in season, when possible. Produce costs less and tastes better when it is in season. (Yes, it's obvious, but it's a main point in the film.) The film also notes that “if the housewife's time is not too highly valued”, home-canned produce can be a savings.
  • Frozen foods are a good choice. They're nearest in quality to fresh produce. They cost a little more, but this cost is offset by the fact that there's no waste.
  • Use the best grade of milk available to you. “Disease may be contracted by drinking unsanitary raw milk.” (Of all the tips, this seems least applicable to modern grocery shoppers.)

But successful meals aren't just about smart shopping. The film notes that cooking skills are important, too:

The cooking ability of the housewife [is] highly important. It doesn't take much skill to make an excellent meal from an expensive t-bone steak. But the sign of an accomplished cook is an attractive and tasty dish made from less expensive meat: hamburger, frankfurters. Even a well-prepared, well-seasoned stew is a dish a housewife can be proud to set before her family.

Over the past few weeks, Kris and I have had fun browsing through the Public Domain media at the Internet Archive. There's a massive collection of old instructional films (like this one) on a variety of subjects — dating, diet, driving — including many on personal finance. If you, too, enjoy films like this, I encourage you to spend some time exploring the site.

Note: This film was created for high school home economics classes of the 1950s. Yes, by modern standards it's sexist, but if you can put your brain on “pause”, it's a fun film, and an interesting glimpse at the past. Plus, most of the tips are still applicable today.
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Debi
Debi
10 years ago

I need to take the film’s advice to “buy only what you need” to heart. My downfall is succumbing to all the gorgeous fresh veggies in the produce section, then not having time (or being too tired after work) to cook them before they spoil. The problem has worsened since a Fresh Market grocery opened practically next door to my office. I often spend my lunch hour there–grocery shoppping when I’m hungry, another bad strategy. No more. I’m turning over a new lettuce leaf.

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
10 years ago

This kind of information was the only worthwhile part of the annoying home-ec classes that girls were forced to take in those days. To graduate from high school in California, I had to take a full year of home ec in junior high school, and another semester in high school. No exceptions were granted. The junior high school experience was a total waste–when I should have been taking a solid subject, I was being taught how to make Jell-O from a package. The high-school course, though, was basically a class in personal finance lite. Although it was assumed that girls… Read more »

phred
phred
5 years ago

Back then, most did not go to college. You could still have a good life without it.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
10 years ago

Debi, I have the same problem with veggies and fruit when I go to the market. It’s hard this time of year with all the fresh produce out there.

One tip I’ve found helpful is to plan a stir fry at least once a week — or another “use up what’s in the fridge” meal (like a big salad).

Kris’s post about dealing with an abundance of berries also came in handy for me. I would never have thought to try freezer jam — but now I’ve made three batches!

Charley
Charley
10 years ago

These tips are helpful, and it goes to show that great advice can be timeless. Now that my wife has agreed to stay home with our baby triplets and thus losing her income, we have to become a bit more conscientious about the food we buy and to make sure none of it is wasted. It’s kind of funny, my wife texted me at work yesterday to yell at me about leaving two bananas to over-ripen. While only a few nickels potentially wasted, it shows that we are taking the lessons to heart. In any event, over-ripe bananas make great… Read more »

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

This is awesome! I would love to be a housewife. We’re taking steps currently to allow me to be a stay at home mom when the time comes!

Heather
Heather
10 years ago

Check out my post in which I compare my old coupon-clipping big chain grocery store shopping to my current & NEW experience with getting most of my food from CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). My experience has been amazing! And I am NOT spending more than I did at Cub. In fact probably less!
http://greenadventuresofacitygirl.blogspot.com/2009/07/is-being-green-affordable.html

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

@Debi and Elizabeth – I’m with you on that. It’s taken me so long to learn that it’s not “healthier” or “cheaper” to buy fresh veggies by the pound if I can’t use them up in time.

I finally just took the misnamed “crisper” drawer out of my refrigerator. It was just a place where vegetables went to die. I find that the empty space is great for chilling wine bottles, and now I’m less tempted to “stock up” on perishables.

Annie
Annie
10 years ago

I actually already do these things, probably just by common sense (and not a heap of money in the bank!) but I do break the rules sometimes, and like Debi, come out 2nd. It is good to know that i’m doing the best I can!

Mrs. White
Mrs. White
10 years ago

This is excellent. How did you get the original video small enough to fit in a post?

Blessings
Mrs. White

Tyler
Tyler
10 years ago

Good tips from this video! I am grateful I was raised knowing the importance of a grocery list and not shopping when you are hungry. Although I am guilty of it sometimes! One tip I would like to comment on is the pasteurized milk bit. Though I accept the best quality pasteurized milk should be bought, there is also raw milk. Raw milk is regulated and humans have drank it for thousands of years! Just a quick google search found me this information: “In what microbiologists call the principal of Competitive Exclusion, non-pathogenic bacteria like, say, Lactococcus lactis, can actually… Read more »

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
10 years ago

My girlfriend buys raw milk from our local co-op from time to time and I have to admit that it is quite amazing (and amazingly expensive!). The farms raising cows for raw milk production are paying a lot closer attention to the health of their animals than your run of the mill factory farm.

Also, I have to agree with Elizabeth (#3) – The weekly stir fry is a great way to use up vegetables that you had big plans for but, somehow, just never found the time to prepare.

Rachael
Rachael
10 years ago

That milk tip is more applicable than you’d think. There is a resurgence of raw milk from dairy farms as a valuable commodity for the all-natural types. I remember a year or two back a couple of kids got very, very ill from it. I wanna say this was in Mcminneville, OR or thereabouts. People think it’s healthier or “purer” or some such, but the truth is it’s just got a lot more bacteria in it… pasteurization was invented for a reason! Here’s a link to one article (not the one I was thinking of…) about raw milk sickening people:… Read more »

RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
10 years ago

There are three grocery stores in my neighborhood: Wholefoods, Safeway, and Trader Joes. Every time we shop at Wholefoods or Safeway, we come out saying DAMN, that was more than we expected to pay! The opposite is true for Trader Joe’s. Unless there’s that wonder dry aged Rib Eye only available at Wholefoods, or especially desirable fruit at Safeway, we will always go to Trader Joes. The savings is generally 20%, or $20-50 every single trip, which is about twice a month. Who couldn’t use an extra $400-$1,000/yr! Another way to save on food is to simply not eat so… Read more »

mick
mick
10 years ago

Just a tip for the veggies re Sam at #7: I’ve taken to storing all my veggies in the fridge door. They last several days longer–especially lettuce types (My drawer has a problem with freezing veggies no matter what the fridge is set on…great for meats waiting for tomorrow’s BBQ though.) On homemaking/frugality sites (especially support sites for SAHA&Es & SAHMs)it is kinda funny/intriguing to me how much we have to dig out our grandparents literature for the best tips and instruction (thank you Guggenheim Project, Google Book Search & Open Library and now this site thanks to JR). I… Read more »

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
10 years ago

Home Ec did not exist in my HS, but then, the HS I went to assumed that I would be wealthy enough to just hire people for that kind of thing (I’m not, I wouldn’t if I could, but there were people that were and did). 😛

I too have the problem of going to the farmer’s market and spending $$$ on delicious fresh fruit and veggies, only to work 10hr days, come home and eat chips and salsa because cooking is too much work. Poor, sad little veggies.

Moneyblogga
Moneyblogga
10 years ago

I love these old films! They are a time capsule and I spend at least half the time comparing rituals/attitudes of yore with those of today. 1950 wasn’t THAT long ago but how times have changed.

Claire
Claire
10 years ago

My grandmother would like to add “be sure and include a casserole made with a can of cream soup or a jello salad with every meal!” (I kid, I kid.)

I notice the list doesn’t mention meal planning. The first thing I do when I make a grocery list is to plan out the meals for the week. Then I list the things I need for them, add the things I like to always have on hand, and I’m done.

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

@Claire (#17)
Kris and I are just learning about meal planning. We’re drafting our first two-week meal plan for the beginning of August. I’m chronicling it at my personal site. If it works well, I’ll post about it here at Get Rich Slowly.

Virginia @ Where You Hang Your Hat
Virginia @ Where You Hang Your Hat
10 years ago

JD, I’m looking forward to your post on meal planning, especially as another couple who doesn’t yet have kids. My husband and I have been talking about this idea for months but still haven’t really done it.

RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
10 years ago

Oh, another good idea that my wife and i implement all the time is ordering for one. Studies show that humans and animals will generally overeat if more food is placed in front of them than necessary.

By ordering one appetizer and one entre for the both of us, we savor our food more, and eat within our means and save money. If we’re hungry, we’ll just order something else!

Best,

RB

Rich By 30 Retire by 40

MK
MK
10 years ago

Thanks for the info on the Archive of these old videos! I’m going to have to check it out!

one thing I did notice in this film is the size of the carts. Those things are about 1/3 the size of the behemoths that they have in grocery stores now a days! I think that also says alot about buying habits now vs. habits in the 50’s. Also there isn’t an overabundance of choice on products, only a handful of manufacturers for each item.

I suppose that is how progress works!

Ameya
Ameya
10 years ago

I haven’t watched the video yet (I’m going to!) but I just gotta say, I love the term “purchasing agent”. I sorta wish I was more of a shopper just so I could correct people from “shopaholic” to “ambitious purchasing agent”! Haha!

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

“If the housewife’s time is not too highly valued…”

This line made me laugh! My grandfather used to grow his own vegetables and preserve them — in addition to working full time.

My mom made preserves as a hobby, and as gifts for him.

Rina
Rina
10 years ago

So very true about the unit pricing. I recently started my own business (selling frozen, ready to bake pies & cookies as well as freshly made items) so as part of determining my costs, I priced out all of my ingredients by the cup, teaspoon, etc (oh my WORD that’s a lot of converting and work and time).

I came to realize that buying bigger is sometimes WAY, and I mean WAY more expensive – much to my surprise!!

Great article, thank you. Stumbled!

Austin
Austin
10 years ago

It’s funny how even after more than 50 years most of the advice from this film is still valuable and relevant. It is comforting to know that managing money doesn’t have to be complicated.

“A man can’t possibly know how to shop properly, right?”

Haha! It’s a trick question… 😉

Slackerjo
Slackerjo
10 years ago

Mrs Slinkman, why did you send Henry to the grocery store? Obviously he’s in over his head.

Maybe he did such a bad job on purpose so she would never ask him to buy groceries again? Really Henry, oysters? What were you thinking?

I hope the Slinkman’s survived this difficult period of their marriage.

Still I love these movies cause they are so earnest. And the advice, although hokey, makes sense today. I always plan my meals and shop with a list. I usually allow myself 1 impulse buy (favorite impulse buy -tapioca pudding).

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
10 years ago

It’s interesting to me that it seemed to be assumed that you’d eat meat with every dinner, even if it was just hot dogs (ick!). Also, the assumption that if the food wasn’t eaten in a single meal it would be wasted, like you couldn’t work it into something later in the week. That kind of sounds like the home ec mentality to me, where everything must be made from a recipe, no improvising allowed.

My, she looked young, too. There were times in the 1950s where the median age at first marriage was in the teens for US women.

Joan
Joan
10 years ago

Amazingly, I have SEEN this film before. There was a DVD called, I believe, “Educational archives” that had a ton of these gems on it. Also one called “Workplace 101” or something like that. If you can – and this is admittedly off-topic – look up “Shake hands with danger,” which is a workplace-safety video from the same era. That aside, it’s funny. The tips ARE still the same today in many ways. If anything, I think it’s harder now. Many of the primary shoppers now, unlike then, are also working outside the home, so there’s less time to compare… Read more »

Sasha
Sasha
10 years ago

Hey Charley!! Your wife can make those “over-ripened” bananas into banana nut bread. Google a recipe. They don’t have to be thrown away!! This video was amusing. Yes, some of the “tips” were helpful and applicable to today’s conditions. The “grades” of products is something I don’t see anymore today… Maybe I don’t pay attention, but I haven’t seen ‘Grade A’ lima beans in my canned goods section. Also, I haven’t seen a meat section that carries ground beef like that ever. It would be interesting to see this updated for the modern “purchasing agent”. I need some tips that… Read more »

Diana
Diana
10 years ago

“The American housewife! Who has a more important or more responsible occupation? Wife, mother, laundress, counselor, maid, chef, purchasing agent. All of these are her duties at one time or another.”

What a great way to express what a homemaker does (male or female); Isn’t it amazing that what was once considered a full-time job is now expected to be part-time?

The Frugal New Yorker
The Frugal New Yorker
10 years ago

Diana, you make a great point! Women entering the workplace en masse has been celebrated as a great economic driving force, but I wonder if the decline in our eating habits and increase in weight has something to do with that.

It’s funny how small the shopping carts are, as well as the size of the market itself–no supermarkets yet? Even so, I was surprised by how well almost all of the tips still apply today. Strange that no matter what else changes, we still struggle with these basic actions.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

@ The Frugal New Yorker — I certainly wouldn’t say so based on how “healthy” those meals were in the video! I think we have healthier choices than we did in the past, and a better awareness of nutrition, but we’re just not putting it to use.

Besides, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles are partly to blame as well. Think of how much time people spend in front of TV or computer screens these days compared to decades ago. Most kids don’t even walk to school anymore, let alone play outside as much as they did decades ago.

yourfinances101
yourfinances101
10 years ago

I am always surpised at how many people underestimate the potential savings with regards to grcery shopping.

For most, it is our second biggest monthly expense!

I personally view grocery shopping (and getting the best deals) as a weekly challenge, and it has actually made it kind of fun.

Good info..thanks for the tips

Wilhelm Scream
Wilhelm Scream
10 years ago

@Escape Velocity – do remember that they wouldn’t have had a fridge or freezer, so any uneaten food would have to be eaten very quickly indeed before it would go off.

E
E
10 years ago

how fun! 😀

My high school offered home ec as an elective, which my parents forbade me to take. (Not that I wanted to!) My mom said she could teach me cooking & sewing, and school could teach me physics and algebra.

I learned how to balance a checkbook in 6th grade math class. That seems a much more appropriate place for budgeting and other money skills.

Meep
Meep
10 years ago

In America most milk is actually pasteurized and homogenized, unlike in many other countries where it is merely pasteurized. The homogenization allows it to last a very long time relative to the 2-4 days it lasts without that process. You cannot make milk tarts with it though, because it never sets. Homogenizing just involves breaking down the fatty creamy layer that can separate to the top, so you can safely buy non-homogenized milk (as long as it says it was pasteurized) if you are looking for a better taste but don’t want to risk disease. Just use it quick (and… Read more »

Nancy
Nancy
8 years ago
Reply to  Meep

I’ve been safely drinking raw milk all year. I love this stuff. It is from healthy, grass-fed pastured cows and has not been pasteurized or homogenized. It will last 7-8 in the fridge after opening before it starts to go sour.

Mikell
Mikell
10 years ago

I think the point about the milk has to be taken in a different direction these days–it’s less about buying pasteurized vs. raw, and more about buying standard vs. organic milk. The health benefits of drinking milk that’s not laced with growth hormones, antibiotics and other nastiness created by the “dairy industry” are huge. Organic milk might cost more, but in my opinion, it’s definitely worth it.

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
10 years ago

@Wilhelm–No, I think a US household in 1950 would ordinarily have had a refrigerator, although probably nowhere else in the world. Don’t have any statistics handy, though.

sir jorge
sir jorge
10 years ago

i hate how people say that buying in bulk saves money…sure it might save some for those that are fortunate enough to have room to store things in! If you’re broke and live in a small apartment, there’s no room or savings in buying in bulk.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

@ sir jorge — I get confused. Sometimes people use the terms “buy in bulk” and “buy bulk” interchangeably. Like you, I don’t see the benefit of buying large quantities of things for just me. However, I buy a lot of stuff at the bulk food store and save money because I only need a little. The cost per unit is lower, and I’m not paying for product that will go bad or go stale. I was also a little perplexed by the assumption that uneaten food at a meal would get thrown out. During the war, didn’t people use… Read more »

Dave
Dave
10 years ago

Sir Jorge
Buying in bulk works if you are sensible about it, where I buy, they sell boneless chicken breasts for $1.99 Lb for 10Lbs or small pakages of the same for $3.99, 10 Lbs of chicken is a fairly small and will fit into odd spaces in the freezer if divided for meals, buying industrial sized cans takes up a lot of space and usully has waste left over, so it’s a mater of finding out what works for you, not everything is better to buy bulk.

Rachel
Rachel
10 years ago

@Slackerjo: I am totally with you on the love for tapioca pudding, but seriously, that stuff in the store cannot compare with good homemade tapioca! It’s not at all difficult – if you can separate an egg, you’re good – and so much better! You can stir in chocolate chips or almond flavoring or raspberries or… There’s always a recipe for pudding on the tapioca box. Plus it’s cheaper too!

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

While the language and tone is rather sexist, I would like to point out that discounting or belittling this kind of thing is not much better. It takes a LOT of work and planning to effectively run a home on a budget, no matter who is doing it (bachelor to mother of 10), but especially if there are children involved. Think about the careers that are chronically undervalued and underpaid in our society: nurse, teacher, librarian (all require college work above a BA, usually a masters), also secretaries who really do a lot of work and keep everything running smoothly…..anyway,… Read more »

Meaghan
Meaghan
10 years ago

Great advice is timeless (and often obvious!). Thanks for sharing!

Rachael
Rachael
10 years ago

I’m glad someone else noticed how much smaller the carts are in this video. Just as homes, cars, etc. have gotten bigger, so have shopping carts.

Bill in NC
Bill in NC
10 years ago

I noticed some product labels haven’t changed – like Van Camp’s Pork & Beans, in over 50 years!

Also recognized Jolly Green Giant, Barbasol, Bird’s Eye packaging.

I don’t think any shopper today would buy a “Grade C” product, however.

Sadie
Sadie
10 years ago

the two things that stood out to me were the comment about if the housewifes time is not very valuable and the part whenever the narrator was talking about being a good cook while it shows the housewife putting an entire stick of butter into a bowl, hilarious!

Em
Em
10 years ago

Hear hear, Catherine!

The Washington Sate dairy responsible for the outbreak was FILTHY, with cow feces a foot deep. No-one should have bought milk from them after seeing their barn. Certified raw milk producers are scrupulously clean and their animals are much healthier than the miserable creatures who produce the pus-laden milk pasteurized to make it edible.

Good raw milk is equivalent to sushi-grade fish. Our farmer’s bacteria counts were consistently lower than the legal requirements for pasteurized milk.

Please educate yourself before forming an opinion. Thanks!

Bent e Shj
Bent e Shj
10 years ago

It’s amazing how this kind of films is still valuable even after more than 60 years!
Love the advices and I will put them in my mind in my next visit to the grocery, specially “Buy only what you need”
Thanks for sharing…

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