The Midwest can get a bad rap for being boring, full of farm fields without much to do, and just taking up space between the major cities on each coast. But people who think that haven’t dined with us, let alone walked through history to see the vintage recipes that make up the true Midwest.
From Chicago pizza to real Kansas corn on the cob to all of the states at the heart of the country between, the Midwest is the place to go for a throwback culinary experience through the decades. Still not convinced? These vintage Midwestern recipes might just change your mind.
And for more, don’t miss these 15 Classic American Desserts That Deserve a Comeback.
Nothing screams “county fair,” or a hot July ball game, quite like cheese fries. This diner food reminds us of our after-school hangouts with friends, but without all the calories and fat (did you know Outback Steakhouse’s version has almost 3,000 calories?). Instead, real sliced potatoes and pepper jack cheese are the stars of this show that will have you missing Friday afternoons in the “fly over” states.
Get our recipe for Cheese Fries.
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Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota are some of the top beef-producing states, and their expertise in creating the perfect burgers goes way back. This burger has some secret ingredients like mushrooms and some healthy swaps like reduced-fat Swiss that won’t alter the flavor at all. Bust out the cast-iron skillet if you aren’t up for grilling.
Get our recipe for an A1 Swiss Burger.
A cold beer is an essential on a hot Midwestern day, so why not pair it with a chicken dinner? Backyard cookouts have only gotten better when grillers realized they could use a full can of beer to prevent meat from drying out. Since then, we’ve seen beers, sodas, and other cans making their way right into the middle of whole chickens and turkeys. The best part of this recipe? It calls for you to drink half the beer before cooking with it.
Get our recipe for Beer Can Chicken.
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The Midwest turns a million beautiful shades in the fall, and apple pickers head out in pursuit of the perfect brand for their pies. But apple pie is a throwback indulgence all year round in the Midwest. This version swaps some of the less healthy ingredients for oats and almonds, minimizing the guilt and maximizing the nostalgia.
Get our recipe for Apple Pie.
On some Midwestern tables, you will find baby back ribs as a weekly staple. In other places, it’s a major indulgence. In the summer, pairing with peach BBQ sauce is a fan favorite, and this recipe calls for bourbon as well, making it the perfect ode to our Kentucky neighbors. Don’t think you have to have a smoker to make this simple recipe, either!
Get our recipe for Smoky Ribs with Peach BBQ Sauce.
Breakfast in the Midwest is no slide of fruit and black coffee—it’s an experience. This waffle recipe with ham and egg mirrors Denny’s popular (and super unhealthy) “Slam” for way fewer calories. The best part is that you can make it in just a few minutes by using frozen waffles instead of from scratch.
Get our recipe for Waffles with Ham and Egg.
A Sunday night tradition, spaghetti and meatballs can have a sneakily high calorie count, but this recipe features turkey rather than beef meatballs, trimming it back a bit. Real marinara sauce, made from whole peeled tomatoes, also keeps the sugar content down, making for the ultimate, more nutritious comfort food.
Get our recipe for Spaghetti and Turkey Meatballs.
Flirty, cool nights at the Navy Pier in Chicago conjure up images of an essential Midwest food: the Chicago Hot Dog. This is not just any old hot dog. A real one has a variety of additional ingredients, including pickled relish, a classic poppy seed bun, pickle spears, mustard, and onion. This healthy version swaps full-fat dogs for a reduced-fat, all-beef option.
Get our recipe for a Chicago Hot Dog.
If summer nights in the Midwest have the exciting ice cream truck tune ringing in your head, you can experience it again with a healthy twist on ice cream sandwiches. This creative take on a traditional dessert staple integrates healthy add-ons such as bananas, strawberries, cherries, and nuts, as well as a dark chocolate swap.
Get our recipe for Ice Cream Sandwiches.
One of the classic comfort foods has us wishing for Grandma’s lunches on cold days. This version features a variety of vegetables from peas to carrots, upping the nutritional punch of this dish, along with russet potatoes and ground sirloin, which can be a bit leaner than traditional lamb.
Get our recipe for Shepherd’s Pie.
One of the most natural side dishes of choice in the Midwest, this more portable version conjures up images of park picnics and summer cookouts. Eliminate some of the extra fat content while preserving the memories by using veggie elbow macaroni and less butter; there’s even an option to integrate some Greek yogurt.
Get our recipe for Crispy, Crumb-Topped Mac and Cheese Cups.
Many Midwestern states like Kansas are iconic pork capitals of the country, but this slow cooker-friendly recipe looks trendier than ever. The slaw only takes a few seconds longer than the pork, which can cook on its own while you’re gone for the day, letting that ground cumin do all the hard work for you.
Get our recipe for Shredded BBQ Rubbed Pork Shoulder with Creamy Slaw.
Those fields of grain can be turned into delicious breads of all types, including the fan-favorite, pizza, and its close buddy, flatbread. This pumpkin marinara recipe sounds like a bizarre combination but is anything but. The pumpkin gives the marinara a nutritious boost, and those thin artisan crusts can be homemade or store-bought to save time.
Get our recipe for a Pumpkin Marinara Flatbread.
If you’ve ever ventured into the southern parts of Ohio, you’ve probably been introduced to Skyline chili, which comes on spaghetti and in cheese coneys and has a cult-like following. This recipe is a healthier version, while still integrating classic toppings like chopped onions, kidney beans, and cheese, but with spaghetti swapped for spaghetti squash. The secret ingredients only locals know? Chocolate.
Get the recipe from Half Baked Harvest.
While other states may scoff at the idea of a casserole, the Midwesterners are experts at it: not too mushy, some crunch around the edges, and the potential to pack them full of veggies. The crunch in this recipe comes from Ritz crackers, but you will still get a good portion of protein with ham as well.
Get the recipe from The Cozy Cook.
What the heck is Kuchen? You’re going to have to make a stop in South Dakota to find out. This is the state dessert and for good reason. This custard-like pie can be transformed into bars, is flavored with fruits such as this cherry version, and will have you wishing South Dakota was your home stomping grounds.
Get the recipe from Cooking Classy.
If your favorite aunt didn’t make these, are you even a Midwesterner? You may also remember tater tots from the school cafeteria where, for better or worse, they were a staple item with lots of ketchup. This version gets a protein boost with plain Greek yogurt and features real ingredients such as simple potatoes, cheese, and bacon, making the cafeteria version a distant memory.
Get the recipe from Well Plated.
Try to convince anyone from the Buckeye state that this dessert can be made healthy, and they’ll probably laugh you out of Ohio. But it’s true, and possible, as this recipe proves. Simply work some protein powder into the mix, and you have a delectable, justifiable snack.
Get the recipe from Fit Foodie Finds.
You may be surprised to find out that Wisconsin and Ohio are two states that produce the most cabbages for sauerkraut, a traditional staple of German diets. This probiotic-rich recipe is flavored with garlic, turmeric, and ginger. Throw it on top of an all-beef hotdog or beside a pork chop for a classic meal.
Get the recipe from Minimalist Baker.
Anyone passing through the Midwest knows to make a stop for this unique, thick, and often meaty pizza in Chicago, spilling out past city limits to much of Illinois. You’ll recognize this pizza, which has a classic twist of topping the cheesy bread with chunky marinara on top, rather than the other way around. Every garden vegetable can be a star of this show, from mushrooms to green peppers to onions.
Get the recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction.
Some consider Kentucky a Midwestern state, so we’re including it here. You haven’t hosted a derby party until you’ve made Kentucky Hot Brown Sliders, which aren’t even really that brown. The open-faced turkey sandwich often has bacon, tomatoes, pimientos, and a cheesy sauce called Mornay. Bake the sandwiches with butter sauce, including Worcestershire, and don’t forget to pair with a mint julep.
Get the recipe from The Seasoned Mom.
Don’t ask what’s for dinner in Midwestern states without expecting to hear “meatloaf” at least once per week. But it doesn’t have to always feature beef—this version uses turkey, zucchini, and pepper jack cheese for a twist on the traditional classic. We still can’t help but pair it with mashed potatoes, though.
Get the recipe from Ambitious Kitchen.
Baking this state fair favorite eliminates many of the unnecessary calories from this lunch you might remember eating as a kid. If you didn’t have a root beer stand where you could get these in town, you may have been lucky enough to have a grandparent make you some. Opt for whole-wheat flour and lean beef to make this Midwest staple even healthier.
Get the recipe from The Baker Mama.
While corn on the cob with simple salt and butter will do the trick, this recipe fancies up a Midwestern favorite with some extra spice. You can also try parmesan and cilantro for a surprising combo. Not only is this recipe delicious, but it also makes a beautiful and colorful centerpiece dish to any spread.
Get the recipe from Blissful Basil.