What a healthy dinner looked like in 1987, how it looks today, and what we can expect 30 years from now.

Ann Taylor Pittman; Jamie Vespa, MS, RD; and Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
March 06, 2017

The dinner plate, a symbol of nurturing and domestic plenty, is as reliable a time capsule as fashion or pop music. Trends are easy to spot—and easy to mock, as one decade's go-to dish becomes the next decade's punch line. (Hold the microwave-steamed veggies, please—forever.) From fat-phobic to plant-forward, here's how the national plate has evolved—and where its heading.

Photo: Sarah Anne Ward

THAT WAS THEN … 1987

If you were mindful enough to cook light back in 1987, odds are you were motivated by fearful headlines. Cholesterol and fat, the dietary Joker and Penguin of the decade, lurked in every (delicious) dish, poised to drive us to an early grave. Traditional staples like beef, butter, and eggs were sacrificed on the altar of "lean" cuisine. In their place came starches naturally low in fat, and lean poultry, fish, and reduced-calorie margarines (we could believe it was not butter).

Skinless, Boneless Chicken Breast

This lean protein became the weeknight staple. Usually grilled or baked, it was prepared with little to no fat. Serving size was skimpy: Back then, skinless, boneless breasts averaged about 4 ounces each, roughly half the size they are today.

Skim Milk

Though milk consumption had already begun the downward trend still going on today, most people thought of skim milk as a fortified beverage essential to good health—not just something to pour over cereal or in coffee. The low- to no-fat dairy treatment extended to yogurt and sour cream as well.

Steamed Vegetables

Steaming offered a fat-free, foolproof way to cook, and countertop steamers were hugely popular. Indulgence came in the form of a pat of margarine. Unless you grew your own, fresh herbs were hard to come by, so dried was the best option. Dash of Mrs. Dash, anyone?

Refined Grains and Starches

Carbs became the star of the show, often making up half of the plate. With the focus on fat content rather than nutrient density, refined grains like white rice and pasta were popular "healthy" choices. If you were interested in whole grains, you were generally limited to brown rice and oats (and labeled a hippie).

Photo: Sarah Anne Ward

THIS IS NOW ... 2017

Forget deprivation. Healthy eating is no longer about what we shouldn't include on the plate, but a celebration of eating just about everything. Forget playing it safe; variety is the new mantra. We seek out ingredients that bring balance, color, and texture to our meals. We crave richer, bolder flavors. An abundance of fresh, whole foods help keep dinnertime fun, beautiful, and delicious.

Get the recipes: Salmon with Horseradish-Mustard Sauce, Farro-Kraut Pilaf and All the Green Things Salad.

Whole Grains

Even though they take up only half as much of the plate as refined starches did 30 years ago, nutty, chewy farro and other ancient grains bring texture and earthy intrigue. Add a few forkfuls of fermented sauerkraut for gut-healthy, probiotic-rich tang.

Go Green

Vegetables dominate half of the plate, providing crunchy, creamy, and toothsome textures. Handfuls of mint and parsley bring a burst of herbal freshness to sugar snaps, peas, and asparagus.

Omega-3-Rich Fatty Fish

Portion sizes of meat and poultry entrées continue to shrink in favor of sustainable fish high in unsaturated fat. If you can find them, seek out wild salmon varieties like sockeye, coho, and king—or try mackerel or sardines.

Full-Fat Dairy

Keep portions (and sat fat) in check by deploying a smart dollop of sour cream or yogurt for satiating creaminess.

Unsaturated Fats

Embrace the health and flavor benefits of good-for-you fats, including olive oil and avocado in the salad, omega-3 fats in the fish, and more olive oil enriching the grains.

Red Wine

We opt for red due to resveratrol, a compound in red grapes that may help reduce cardiovascular disease risk, fight cancer, preserve memory, and more.

Photo: Sarah Anne Ward

THIS IS NEXT ... 2047

A sneak peek of your supper 30 years from now may very well elicit a "Jiminy Cricket!" Which is fitting, given your burger (and bread and pasta) could be made of bugs. Meat consumption will shrink due to dwindling resources, shifting from the center of the plate to the role of condiment. Thug Kitchen's Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis explain that "meat will continue to fall from its place as the focal point of a meal to an occasional accent, if present at all, as people continue to understand both the environmental and physiological impacts of a diet heavy in animal products." Depleted of many wild fish, the oceans will offer up a different bounty, according to Barton Seaver, Director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard School of Public Health: a host of sustainable aquaculture, including iodine-rich salty greens from sea beans to seaweed. Oceans will also become our primary source for drinking water. The American diet will eschew processed convenience food and embrace from-scratch cooking from a diverse array of plants, including cover crops, seasonal veg, ancient grains, and plenty of good, healthy fats.

Get the Recipes: Whole-Grain Cricket Bread, Sautéed Sea Beans and Onions, Black Barley with Cowpeas, and Eggplant with Spicy Meat Relish.

Photo: Ann Pittman

Cricket Flour

A standby Mexican bar snack that's already being used in protein bars for the nutritive punch it packs, the cricket will find favor as a milled meat substitute as large-animal farming will subside. David L. Katz, MD, MPH, Director at Yale University Prevention Research Center, says, "If we are eating bugs, they will be tasty, and we will be used to them." He envisions "formal farming of edible insects, and they will be fed in a manner that makes them a rich source of omega-3, along with high quality protein." If you would like a taste of our eco-friendly future, cricket flour is readily available now. ($10 for ¼ pound, amazon.com)

Fresh Milled Flour

Continuing today's trend, sourcing of this whole food will grow evermore local, and home kitchens will be equipped with mills so that home cooks can make their own grain flours for instant use in fresh, nutrient-rich dishes. Duncan Holmes, Culinary Director at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, states, "I think that 30 years from now, home chefs will be able to healthfully mill their own grains and use them for flours, pastas, and more." So your New York rye bread might be actually from Rye, New York—or wherever you live!

Micro-Livestock

In addition to your cricket concoctions, microlivestock will help replace large-animal production to leave less of an environmental impact. Danielle Nierenberg, Co-Founder and President of Food Tank, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters, explains, "I think people will be interested in eating meat that has less of a hoofprint than beef, chicken, and seafood." She says expect to see more goat, rabbit, guinea pig, and grasscutters (large rodents in the porcupine family), many of which are already delicacies in much of the world.

Photo: Sarah Anne Ward

Sea Beans

We'll be happily enjoying more earth-friendly sea vegetables and seaweed, which are vitamin- and mineral-rich as well as sustainably cultivated. Sea beans (also called salicornia or samphire, and similar to asparagus) are particularly delicious—crunchy, juicy, salty, and even more importantly, abundant along our saline shores.

Specialty and Local Produce

What is now considered specialty produce, like watermelon radishes and Japanese eggplant, will be more commonplace in 30 years, as people's appetite for variety continues to grow. Some produce will be hyperlocal, often grown in our own backyards. David Katz, MD, MPH, Director at Yale University Prevention Research Center, predicts that "we are going to democratize food production, getting ever more people involved in small-scale farming in yards, on rooftops, and using efficient hydroponic and aeroponic systems." Katz further explains, "Selective breeding, fortification, and perhaps methods of genetic modification will have been applied so that plants produce all essential nutrients, including B12—so that vegan diets are nutritionally complete."

Cover Crops

Given the limited supply of soil still packed with nutrients, soil health will be more important than ever. "People will be eating what are typically thought of as cover crops—these are crops that protect soil from washing away or blowing away between plantings," explains Danielle Nierenberg, "and some are really delicious, including cowpeas, winter peas, alfalfa, fenugreek, lablab (a crop indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa)." To avoid a global dust bowl, cover crops will find their way to more tables as they hold our land from drifting off into the sky.

Heirloom Grains and Legumes

Interest in, and availability of, ancient and heirloom grains like black barley will continue to grow and diversify. Thug Kitchen's Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis explain, "We'll definitely continue on this path of more access to diverse fruits, veggies, and grains from all over the world and in neighborhoods rich and poor. There's probably going to be a push for more localized heirloom and heritage foods from our specific regions, similar to the native plant revolution happening right now with gardening and landscaping." Grains will be paired with legumes to compose a complete plant-based source of protein.

Photo: Randy Mayor

Culinary Argan Oil

Our main source of fat will come not from dairy or meat, but from high-quality sources such as coconut, avocado, and nuts or seeds. Walter Willet, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of health, predicts that "vegetables will be prepared with healthy oils to make them taste great; the variety of oils may be more than we have today." Chef Michel Nischan, founder and CEO of Wholesome Wave, suggests that a drizzle of heart-healthy culinary argan oil—made from toasted nuts of a hardy Moroccan tree—will boost veggies, grains, and legumes. (Dip&Scoop Culinary Argan Oil, $20 for 3.4 oz., amazon.com Note: Be sure to search culinary argan oil.)

Water

As the earth continues to heat like a Hot Pocket, more of the world will face massive fresh water shortages, and staples that rely on massive amounts of it may become just as rare. Sam Kass, Senior Food Analyst at NBC News, Former White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition, states, "Unless we get really serious about tackling climate change, putting the good food on our tables that we enjoy today will become increasingly difficult. Experts are starting to think our grandkids won't have access to items such as coffee, chocolate, wine, shellfish, pistachios, and almonds that we have come to enjoy and rely on, because they are all under threat by climate. We have to rally around making progress here if we want to preserve these foods for our kids and future generations." Ironically, you will probably be drinking plenty of water, "obtained from desalinization," as David L. Katz suggests, from one reserve that will still be around: the ocean.