Post World War II Food

World War II brought several changes to what and how we eat. For example, members of the military traveled the globe during World War II, encountering different cuisines. When they returned, they brought back memories of those dishes. French, Italian, and Chinese food soon became popular in America beyond immigrant neighborhoods like Chinatowns and Little Italys.[1]

Other changes were spurred by foods included in military rations and food produced using technologies developed during the war. There are also recipes born from rationing and Victory gardens that “stuck.”

Black and white with the contents of the K-Ration breakfast arranged in front of the striped box they came in.
A K-Ration breakfast. It includes a packet of Nescafe instant coffee, energy biscuits (they look like crackers), gum, a tin of chopped ham and eggs, the key to open the can, and cigarettes.

US Army Signal Corps, 1943.

The Taste of Rations

The US military had a system of rations for feeding troops in the field. This system was designed to “maintain the health and effectiveness” of the troops.[2] K-Rations and C-Rations were both issued to troops in combat. They provided between 3,000 and 3,600 calories per day. Within these rations, soldiers found candy, freeze dried coffee, and canned meat.[3] In civilian life, we know these as M&Ms, instant coffee, and Spam.


M&Ms – the chocolate candy surrounded by a hard candy shell – were patented by Forrest Mars on March 1, 1941. By making a deal with Bruce Murrie of the Hershey Corporation, Mars had access to rationed chocolate. M&M candies, named for the first initials of each partners’ last name, went on sale late in 1941. When the US went to war, Mars got an exclusive contract with the US military to provide M&Ms for C-Rations. The candy was perfect for this use – they traveled well, and because of the candy coating, did not melt at high temperatures. Soldiers returned with a taste for the colorful candies, and M&Ms became available to the general public.[4]

B&W ad illustrated with a woman and girl in matching aprons. The girl is pouring hot water into a cup. A jar of Nescafe coffee is in the lower right. “A perfect cup of coffee every time. So simple a child can make it. Always delicious, always the same.”
A ca. 1945 advertisement for Nescafé proclaims how tasty and easy it is to make. It also reminds buyers that the armed forces are taking nearly all the coffee they can manufacture.

Copyright Nestlé S.A. Collection of the Nestlé Historical Archives.

Instant Coffee

Instant (or soluble) coffee existed before World War I. It was a dried, concentrated coffee extract that you prepared by adding hot water to it. In 1936, the Nestlé company developed their Nescafé brand instant coffee. Spurred by a desire to transform surplus coffee beans from Brazil into a quick-to-use, low-waste product, Nestlé discovered a way to make a more flavorful instant coffee. They called it Nescafé, a combination of the words Nestlé and café.[5] In 1941, Nestlé began supplying Nescafé for inclusion in American field rations. When American soldiers returned home after the war, they had a taste for the instant coffee.[6]

After the war ended, Nestlé provided Nescafé for the care packages sent to Europe and Japan. These packages provided food and other necessities while the countries got back on their feet. This boosted global demand for Nescafé.[7] There is, however, more to the story. During the war, Nestlé companies supplied both the Axis and the Allies. In 2000, the company agreed to pay millions of dollars to settle claims that a German company they purchased used forced labor during the war. [8]


Spam is a tinned pork product. It was first introduced by the Hormel company in Austin, Minnesota in 1937. It became entrenched in American culture in World War II, when the US military contracted with Hormel (and other canned meat providers) to supply it for military rations. Hormel estimates they shipped more than 100 million pounds of Spam during the war.[9] Not all those who encountered it loved it – or even enjoyed it. Hormel kept a “scurrilous file” of hate mail from service members who were eating it three times a day. Others refused to even have it in their house decades after the war.[10]

For those on the Pacific home front (including American Samoa, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawai’i), Spam holds a special place. American GIs would share their rations with locals, and it was available for purchase in the post exchanges.[11] When the Japanese incarceration camps in the Philippines and on Guam were liberated by American forces, soldiers found starving prisoners. Many shared their rations on the spot. And with the extensive damage from the war, many Pacific islands were unable to provide enough food for their residents. There were also delays in the transition to commercial shipping, further limiting choices. To feed people, many of whom were on the point of starvation, the US issued rations, including Spam.[12]

“The Chamorro people have this love of Spam, corned beef, and pork and beans because that was the food they were given right after the war… We who were born right after the war, we remember. We grew up eating it every day.” – Linda Calvo, Guam[13]

Two people in Hawaiian shirts pose beside a smiling character (a can of Spam with a face and legs, wearing sneakers). Behind them are surfboards.
Visitors to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota post with a can of Spam.

Photo courtesy of Jade Ryerson. All Rights Reserved.

“to the people of Hawaii, Spam meant precious nourishment in a time of uncertainty and chaos. Thus, they prepared it with an immense amount of love. We cut it up, we sautéed it, we simmered with shoyu and sugar; we turned it into something else that was beautiful.”[14]

In Hawai’i, Spam became popular after the US restricted the fishing industry during the war. They were afraid residents would use the boats to communicate with the Japanese. Because there were so many people of Japanese descent living in the Hawaiian Islands, the federal government could not incarcerate all of them (like they did for those living along the west coast of the mainland). Instead, the US imposed martial law. Spam and other shelf-stable, shippable foods replaced fresh fish in the Hawaiian diet.[15]

Regardless of how it was introduced, Spam has remained an important part of the culture of these places ever since. In Guam, each person eats an average of 16 cans of spam per year, while Hawaiians consume an average of 5 cans per year. It has also been incorporated into regional menus at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. For example, you can order Spam, Eggs, and Rice for breakfast in Hawai’i, American Samoa, and Guam.[16] Importing Spam to Pacific islands like the Philippines is expensive. Seeing a can of Spam in these homes suggests they can afford it, or that they have connections to those in the US who send it.[17]

Among Spam’s benefits is that it is shelf stable, and can be eaten cooked or straight out of the can, in case of emergencies like hurricanes.[18] It’s downsides include its role in the dependence of these places on imported canned and processed foods, and the accompanying health impacts such as the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease in these places since the war.[19]

A color photo showing spamsilog served on a colorful plate. A mug of tea is to the left of the plate.
Spamsilog. Fried Spam served with garlic fried rice and an egg.

Photo by Bing Ramos, Quezon City, Philippines. CC-BY-SA 2.0.


Spam Fried Rice (Guam): Fry half of a chopped onion until soft. Then add half a can of Spam, cubed, and fry until golden brown. Add 3 cups of cooked rice and fry until it is shiny (about five minutes) before adding 2 teaspoons of soy sauce and frying an additional 5 minutes. Serve on a platter topped with two scrambled eggs (chopped up) and chopped green onions, if desired.[20]

Spam Musabi (Hawai’i): a “sushi” of Spam, sometimes using the Spam can as a form to shape it. There are many versions; this one makes 2 servings, and is modified from the Spam website: In a large skillet, fry two slices of Spam (3/8” thick each) until crispy on each side. Drizzle with a glaze of your choice (for example, a soy-based sauce or sweet ginger sesame sauce – you can buy or make your own). Line the inside and bottom of an empty Spam can that has both ends removed with plastic wrap. Press 1.5oz of cooked white rice (or sushi rice) firmly into the can. The rice can be seasoned with toasted sesame seeds and furikake if desired (furikake is a Japanese rice seasoning. You can buy it, or make your own). Place a slice of the cooked Spam on top of the rice, and press firmly. Remove from the can, and repeat for the second slice. Cut two strips from a sheet of nori (seaweed). If you like the taste of nori, you can cut a wider strip. With the strip of nori laying shiny side down, top it with the pressed Spam and rice. Wrap the nori around it, and repeat with the second piece. Serve immediately.[21]

Spamsilog (Philippines): a combination of fried Spam, garlic fried rice, and egg often served for breakfast, especially with banana ketchup.[22]

Wartime Food Innovations

Most wartime food innovations were geared to provide the military with nutritious, easy-to-ship, and long-lasting foods for rations. Some of the innovations made it into production during the war years; others did not. Regardless, several, including powdered cheese and orange juice concentrate went on to shape the civilian food landscape.

Color photo. Can (black, orange, and green) reads “Minute Maid Concentrated Orange Juice. Makes 1-1/2 Pints.” Arms, legs, and feet are colored orange. The hat, also from a can, reads “Minute Maid.” Face made of painted wood.
An articulated figure made from a Minute Maid concentrated orange juice can, ca. 1950s. When placed on a thin board that was tapped on, these figures “danced.”

Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson (1986.65.277).

Powdered Cheese

Cheese was a convenient way to ship dairy.[23] The military was always looking for ways to reduce the weight and volume of foods as ways to increase how much could be transported at one time.[24] In 1943, USDA scientist George Sanders developed the first real cheese powder. Previous attempts to dehydrate cheese had failed, because the application of heat caused the milk fats to melt and separate. Sanders solved the problem with a two-step process. By first grating the cheese and drying it at a low temperature. This resulted in a barrier forming around the fats. In the second step, the cheese was ground into a powder and dehydrated again before being pressed into cakes.[25]

When the war ended in 1945, the military had huge stockpiles of food, including powdered cheese. The government liquidated these stockpiles, sometimes for pennies on the dollar, to private industry. Companies like Frito (later Frito-Lay), Kraft, and others found ways to use these wartime products. In 1948, the Frito company coated puffed cornmeal pieces with dehydrated cheese, and Cheetos were born.[26]

Orange Juice Concentrate

Research began in 1942 for a way to economically ship orange juice to soldiers on the front lines. It was important that they got enough Vitamin C to say healthy. The military had been issuing lemon crystals, but because of their unpleasant taste, soldiers tended to ignore them. Initial attempts to concentrate orange juice left it tasting bland. In 1945, just as the war was ending, the process of making tasty orange juice concentrate was perfected. Fresh juice added to the concentrate restored the taste of fresh juice. The resulting process removed 80% of the water in orange juice. When ready to drink, users only had to add back the water to the frozen concentrate. Producers quickly pivoted the product to the consumer market, and Minute Maid hit the shelves.[27]

Black and white photo of Julia Child standing by her stove. She is tasting something with a spoon. A skillet on her stove has something cooking in it. She has a towel tucked into her apron strings. She is surrounded by cooking utensils.
Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978. Julia was in France in World War II working with the Office of Strategic Services (it became the CIA). She fell in love with French food. She learned to cook it there, and brought it back to the US. Her cookbooks and TV shows made it accessible to home cooks.

Photo copyright Lynn Gilbert, CC by SA 4.0

Ration Recipes

After the war and rationing ended, Americans still faced some challenges in grocery shopping. A lot of foods were being sent to Europe and elsewhere to feed Allies whose farmlands had been devastated or neglected. As food choices and availability improved after the war many Americans compensated for wartime scarcity by eating meat- and butter-rich meals. Grilling a steak became the height of entertaining.[28] But some wartime foods (including some with roots in earlier times of shortage, like the Great Depression) stuck. Among these are stuffed peppers; Kraft macaroni and cheese; and fruit cobbler.

Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers (and their close cousins, stuffed cabbage leaves and stuffed tomatoes) were filled with a mixture of a little ground beef extended with rice, seasonings, and other vegetables (which in season, could come right from the cook’s Victory garden). Ground beef was popular during wartime, because it needed fewer ration stamps than other cuts of meat. In one stuffed pepper recipe, a quarter pound of beef made four servings of stuffed peppers.[29]

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese

Kraft macaroni and cheese was invented in 1937 during the Great Depression, but its popularity boomed during the War. The powder is a cheese sauce that has been partially defatted and dehydrated. By adding milk and/or butter during cooking, you replace the moisture and fats.[30] Kraft macaroni and cheese was inexpensive, filling, and you could get two boxes for a single ration point. It was also quick and easy to make – an important consideration as women who were in the workforce had little time at home.[31] Kraft sold 50 million boxes of its macaroni and cheese during World War II.[32]

A square baking pan sitting on top of a white gas stove. In the pan is apple cobbler – slices of apples covered with a thin crust.
Apple cobbler.

Wikimedia Commons.

Fruit Cobbler

Fruit cobblers and crisps became popular during World War II. Seasonal fruits made up most of the dish, needing only a little rationed sugar. These desserts had no bottom crust, saving on the butter, lard, or shortening needed. The thin toppings of cake, biscuit, pastry, or crumble used very little fat. The result was a ration-friendly dessert that is still popular.[33]

Dishes like those described here – from Spamsilog to Fruit Cobbler -- have become staples in American culture. The reasons may include being comfort foods, being inexpensive or easy options when money or time was tight, or perhaps from a sense of patriotism or nostalgia.

** Any mention of trade names does not imply endorsement of these brands, companies, or products. They are included solely for historical understanding.

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History's cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

Last updated: November 16, 2023