Hundred-year-old Food-related Math Problems

Basket with apples

Word math problems are a great way to engage students in learning how to apply the skills they have learned. Interesting problems encourage students to think creatively about how to solve problems that have applications in the real world.

Both in 2020 and 1920, there were many word problems that are based on food-related topics. However, there are major differences in the problems. Based on a quick scan of food-related problems on Pinterest, restaurant menu, food truck, pizza fraction, and food cost problems are currently popular. Food-related math problems in a 1920 home economics textbook also addressed cost, but with a slight twist. The focus of these hundred-year-old problems was on how to get a given number of calories for the least cost.


  1. A quart of milk gives 675 calories; a pound of lamb chops, 1600; a pound of eggs (eight or nine), according to size, 670 calories. With milk at 17 cents a quart, lamb chops at 48 cents a pound, and eggs at 60 cents a dozen, which food is the cheapest per 100-calorie portion?
  2. Cream of wheat has a fuel value of about 1600 calories and costs 15 cents a pound. Compare the cost of a 100-calorie portion of cereal with that of chops, milk, or eggs.
  3. Large oranges cost 60 cents per dozen. What is the cost of a standard portion?
  4. A good juicy apple yields about 100 calories. Dried apples give about 1320 calories per pound Find the difference in cost of 100-calorie portions, if fresh apples sell at the rate of 3 for 10 cents and dried apples cost 15 cents a pound.

Household Arts for Home and School (Vol. II) (1920) by Anna M. Cooley and Wilhelmina H. Spohr


49 thoughts on “Hundred-year-old Food-related Math Problems

    1. A hundred years ago they generally thought about calories in almost the opposite way from what we do today. The focus tended to be on getting the most calories for the least cost.

  1. In our society, attempting to find economical ways to get the most calories seems odd, but it would have been especially important in those years, when physical labor was more common, and money often in shorter supply.

    1. Some word problems I liked; others I hated. Every time I go canoeing on a stream I remember the old math problems about boats going downstream a certain number of miles per hour (maybe 5), and the wind blowing upstream a certain number of miles per hour (maybe 2). And the question was about the actual speed of the boat (3 miles per hour).

    1. So do I. I’m often amazed by some of the topics covered by old word problems in old math books. I once did a post on Odd, Unusal, and Strange Math Problems that included a problem on how long it would take for a cannon to fire a certain number of rounds. Other times I did posts on firewood (cordwood) problems and rural math problems (acreage calculations, etc.) – Whew, I bet that it’s been many, many years since any of these topics were last used in math books.

  2. In 1920, after a world war, there were still restrictions on some purchases. We were conserving in order to send more food to Europe which was facing severe famine in many areas devastated by the war, especially the farmland. The value of food, and how many calories they needed, was always on the mind. Can you imagine going to the farm stand and having to decide whether to buy potatoes or meat based on how many calories you would get for your 25 cents?

  3. My brother was once giving a ride to an Amish man, and was drinking an energy drink. The Amish guy looked at the package of my brother’s energy drink and said something to the effect of “I really need to try this, it has 500 more calories than the one I’m drinking.”

  4. Oh, how I hated those Maths problems! And all about baths emptying and trains overtaking cars – whatever – they were all impossible as far as I was concerned. I loathed them with a passion which has never abated.

    1. I also have strong memories of some word problems. It’s funny how math problems get ingrained in our memories. They must have been really traumatic at the time that we remember them so many hears later.

    1. It’s just the oposite now from back then. I think that my children did problems in their health class where they calculated how many calories they would burn if they exercised for a certain length of time. For example, how long would they need to exercise to burn the calories if they ate a piece of cake?

  5. These are as annoying of math problems as any I’ve seen. That being said, how cool that you found these. Imagine trying to get the most calories for your money.

  6. Wow, that would take a little getting used to, after we been taught on how to cut back on calories. I grow up with eating foods that stuck by you .. cereal wasn’t very high on that list.

    1. Your comments reminds me of how my mother used to tell me that I should eat oatmeal because it would stick to my ribs, and I won’t get hungary until lunch.

  7. I found this amusing, that people 100 years ago had a very different view of things than people today. I would not pit different food groups against each other as in problem #2. I would decide which protein would suit my family best and which fruits and vegetables would be good to buy. If the math got too complicated, I would buy chocolate ice cream for dessert.

  8. Oooh, I remember having to do calculations like this at school and hated it! I have dyscalculia so it was always a nightmare for me, but I’m interested that these were based on calories (though still makes the maths difficult!)

  9. This made me smile! I never did like word problems in school although they really are practical for every day use. Math wasn’t my thing, but I can calculate and measure for cooking. I would not have made a good grade on that section of home ec!

  10. I’ve had to make similar calculations based on the number of calories required per day and find out how much (volume) of a specific food to serve to achieve the required calorie intake! It is still not easy or fun!
    Answers: #1 =milk at 2.5 cents/100 calories #2=eggs cost 5.7 cents, lamb costs 3 cents, eggs are 2.5 cents and cream of wheat costs not quite a penny! #3=5 cents #4=an apple costs 3.3 cents and 100 calories of dried apples is 1.13 cents

    1. Thank goodness Murisopsis figured it out for us. For a second, I was worried that I’d have to actually come up with the answers. 🙂

  11. Only today I wrote about buying a peck of peaches. I never thought sixty years ago that I would ever need to know about pecks! I loved story problems, but not those involving bushels and pecks (although I loved the song “I Love You a Bushel and a Peck”).

    1. I’m often surprised by how often I draw upon something I learned in school many years ago that I thought was worthless and a waste of time when it was being taught.

  12. As you mention in an earlier comment, they sought the most calories at the lowest cost back then, and these days we often pay more to buy foods that promise fewer calories. A change in viewpoint, and in the quality of the food, perhaps.

    1. I think that today, food typically is a smaller portion of a family’s expenditures than it was a hundred years ago. That may be one reason that more calories was seen as better back then.

  13. In those days people naturally burned and needed, more calories. Even people in the city walked more. Children walked to and from school, with gym class in between. Today we are all much more sedentary.

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