The under-appreciated joy of making a meat loaf

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

meatloafGripped in the throes of sweet nostalgia recently, I spent part of an enjoyable morning making a version of my mother’s homemade meat loaf recipe for our family. (If you’re creating your meat loaf masterpiece in the afternoon, I recommend having a nearby glass of heart-smart red wine on standby to keep you company).

It was a highly therapeutic kitchen experience that I’m afraid will soon become extinct. Meat loaf is an old-fashioned dinner that now makes hipsters sneer, nutritionists groan, and vegans turn even more pale than usual.  And like a lot of home cooking, it takes a bit of effort to whip up, so busy people doing Very Important Things believe they simply do not have time to make it. Goodbye, homemade meat loaf. 

This would be a sad development, I think, because nothing says “homey” more than sharing a delicious homemade meat loaf dinner with your family. So when I get a rare but insistent nostalgic craving for my mother’s meat loaf, I make up a double freezer batch for future meals. After all, if you’re going to chop one big onion, it really doesn’t take that much extra effort to chop two or three more while you’re at it.

And just in time for my meat loaf adventure, new research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that what we’ve come to know as evil saturated fat – the kind of fat found in butter or red meat –  may NOT help predict heart disease risk after all, according to study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of Harvard University. 

Making a meat loaf is a wonderfully tactile experience for me. I learned how to do this by observing my own mother when I was a child, watching her dice and slice ingredients, squishing them into the cold red meat with her bare fingers in a most satisfying way.

I tend to follow an 80/20 Mediterranean Diet rule since my heart attack (at least 80% of my diet is heart-healthy on any given day). I rarely eat meat anymore, although I was raised in a big Ukrainian family where (except for Fridays when we had to eat fish) meat was typically on our farm kitchen menu three times a day. For example:

  • eggs and ham, bacon or sausages for breakfast
  • homemade soup (with meat) and sandwiches (with meat) for lunch
  • MPV for dinner (meat, potatoes, vegetables)

Almost every culture’s culinary history features some type of patties or loaves of minced meat mixed with a variety of ingredients.  Early Romans mixed their meat with wine-soaked bread, spices, and pine nuts. Medieval European cooks served theirs mixed with fruit, nuts and seasonings.

universal vintage adBut it was the invention of the home meat grinder that brought the heyday of meat loaf into North American kitchens.  My own mother, like most new brides of the 1940s, had such a grinder in her kitchen, a substantial hand-operated cast iron contraption made by Universal that attached firmly to our Arborite and chrome kitchen table. Into the hopper of the grinder, she threw small chunks of fresh beef or pork, and out of the business end sprouted long bright red spirals of beautifully marbled ground meat that fell into a waiting Pyrex bowl. For burgers or meatballs, she would sometimes add a slice or two of raw bacon to the beef chunks for extra juicy results. A friend once told me that her mother made a delicious crispy hash by dropping pieces of Sunday dinner’s roast beef leftovers, cold boiled potatoes and chunks of onion into their Universal grinder, then patting the resulting mix nicely into a casserole dish to bake in a very hot oven until crusty.

My mother and other Ukrainian cooks would likely tell you that a good meat loaf must have more than just meat

Besides generous handfuls of chopped onion, garlic and spices, you must add an egg or two plus a good measure of breadcrumbs, rolled oats or other starchy fillers. This not only improves the meat loaf’s texture, but during the bleak days of the Depression or wartime, frugal cooks struggling with poverty or meat rations could whip up a mean meatloaf that stretched a small amount of beef or pork into a hearty meal that served eight hungry family members.

For example, Molly’s Cookbook, one of the vintage series of American Girls cooking guides in 1944, featured a World War II favourite called Vitality Loaf that called for about half and half breadcrumbs, oats or wheat germ and ground meat.

Before I divulge the recipe for the world’s best meat loaf, consider another casualty of the lost art of meat loaf-making. As registered dietitician Rosie Schwartz of Toronto wrote on her excellent blog, Enlightened Eater

“We live in a society filled with conflicting attitudes.  The ability to prepare  meals for a family is a skill that is given much too little respect, yet we have culinary stars and heroes on television cooking shows.  Go figure.

“But food is also about love. It’s about sharing and thinking about  someone you care about.  It’s not about how fabulous a meal you can make. It’s about showing someone you care about that you took some time – a few minutes or a few hours – to provide  that person with a food you created.”

So go create some delicious food for somebody you love today.

Here’s a pretty close version of my mother’s own recipe, from the classic (and sadly out of print) cookbook called Traditional Ukrainian Cookery by the late Savella Stechishin (Trident Press, Winnipeg, Canada, 1971).

Meat Loaf

“Literally translated, meat loaf is called by two names used interchangeably – minced roast and mock rabbit. This loaf is good served hot or cold, or as a filling for sandwiches.

Preheat oven to 350.

CAROLYN’S NOTE:  And since your oven’s on for an hour anyway, why not put in some whole Russet potatoes and a baking pan of seasoned mixed veggies tossed with two tablespoons of olive oil so you’ll have baked potatoes and roasted vegetables alongside your homemade meat loaf?


Combine and let soak:

  • 3/4 c. dry bread crumbs or rolled oats
  • 1 c. milk

Meanwhile cook until tender:

  • 1 onion, grated or chopped
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp butter

Combine in large bowl:

  • bread crumb or rolled oats mix
  • onion/garlic mix
  • 1 pound ground round steak
  • 1/2 pound lean ground pork
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • salt and pepper to taste

mugShape this mixture into a loaf and place it in a lightly greased loaf pan.  Brush the top with melted fat. CAROLYN’S NOTE: in my own mother’s farm kitchen, that fat would have been the bacon fat that lived in an old green Fire King jadeite coffee mug on the counter beside our stove into which that morning’s bacon fat would be poured from the frying pan each day. By the way, I just saw an identical green Fire King coffee mug on eBay selling for $60!

Cover the meat loaf with aluminum foil and bake at 350 for one hour. When the loaf is partially baked, pour 1/2 c. of hot soup stock or water over it, cover again and continue baking. Baste frequently to keep the loaf nice and juicy. Remove the foil for last 15 minutes of baking time.

When done, combine 1 Tbsp of flour and 1/2 c. sour cream or tomato juice and pour over the loaf. Let it cook a little while longer to blend the flavours. Remove the loaf to a warm plate. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.  Cut the loaf into slices and pour the sauce over them. Serves 8.*

* NUTRITIONAL FACTS:  My copy of Savella Stechishin’s cookbook was published in 1971, long before Nutritional Facts were publicly available, but here’s my best guess based on similar recipes:

  • Calories per serving: 325
  • Fat: 15 g
  • Carbs: 10 g
  • Dietary fibre: 3 g
  • Protein: 22 g

YET ANOTHER NOTE FROM CAROLYN to my vegetarian/animal-loving friends: Please do NOT send me any tofu/nut/seed/soy/lentil alternative recipes for your I-Can’t Believe-It’s-Not-Meat-Loaf. When I feel nostalgic for my mother’s meat loaf, I am NOT craving anything but the real thing. Thank you.

See also:

Q: How long has it been since you had – or prepared – homemade meat loaf?


37 thoughts on “The under-appreciated joy of making a meat loaf

  1. Thanks for the post. I make the exact recipe at least once a month. I need to see what the name of my Ukrainian cookbook is. It was a wedding gift in 1968 and is well used, stained, and well loved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Ellana – I wonder if you have Savella Stechishin’s cookbook too (same vintage). If you do, it’s a collector’s item (selling online new for up to $1,000!) You should see MY copy: stained and the cover in tatters, rips taped many times over – definitely well loved! 😉


  2. For months after my heart attack, I was obsessed with diet. As time has elapsed I have become more realistic. Where I live, the food gurus have done a great job of scaring people into believing that dairy, bread, grains and anything with gluten is as harmful as eating poison. The gluten free industry is thriving. Restaurants, even pizza places are feeding into this frenzy.

    I know 10 women who during this past year have had heart events. Seven of them have male partners who have not! Their ages range from 50 to 70. ALL are at least somewhat athletic, not overweight, and eat well! Only one was a smoker.

    There is something going on here that is frightening with this obsession with diet fads. Heart disease is more than diet and exercise and no one can tell us which of the many factors are more significant than others.

    Having just returned from France where the food is replete with baguettes, crepes, chocolate, croissants, cheese and of course wine, I began to research why they are so healthy. I DID NOT SEE ANY OVERWEIGHT FRENCH PEOPLE! In some case comparisons, 1/3 less heart disease than other developed countries! It has been coined The French Paradox.

    Of the many theories that are speculated about is that they do not deny themselves eating what they enjoy (only in small portions of course).

    So, after this rant I confess to making a meat loaf every week. I make a veggie drink that day and save the pulp to add to the loaf. I make it much like you do Carolyn, but I make a thin sauce of ketchup, mustard and brown sugar to cover it with before baking. Then top this off with sliced green olives, just like Mum did:-).

    I eat veggies and fruit every day but after many years of a being a vegetarian I am now a carnivore and like meat…although not too much of it. I eat eggs, I eat bread, I eat grains (gasp!).

    I love, love, love this blog 🙂 Comfort foods indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love, love, love your comment, Barbara! I’ve also heard that eating/snacking on processed foods is less common in France. My own Manitoba grandmother lived well into her 90s, outlived three husbands, and worked on her farm til almost the very end. This woman’s lifetime diet was based on the traditional Ukrainian ‘holy trinity’ of bacon, butter and sour cream. I’m guessing she never purchased ‘convenience’ or fast food during her entire lifetime, yet made plenty of meat loaf!


  3. Ahhhhh, meat loaf.

    My daughter was never a big meat eater and in her late teens became a vegetarian, but during those “pick at meat” days she loved meat loaf. Go figure.

    She is an intensely competitive endurance athlete and since she has started to eat meat again in small portions in the past 8 months, says she can’t believe how much stronger she feels and with much more energy.

    We still love meat loaf as a shared meal!


    1. Hi Lauren! My own daughter spent a few teen years as a vegetarian, too – except for bacon. Interesting story of your daughter’s athletic improvements with a bit more meat in her diet.


  4. Oh, my Carolyn, you really unleashed an abundance of nostalgia didn’t you? I had that meat grinder! My father (a butcher) believed you make your own ground meats because he had been thru slaughter houses in Chicago post WW2 and he didn’t like what he saw!

    So I ground my own turkey (raw) and beef etc. Also ground nuts (before choppers were electric) and best of all, all the leftovers from Sunday dinners for that wonderfully, browned hash in the cast iron skillets! Yum. Of course it was in Crisco! Now I’d probably use olive oil or coconut oil. Ha

    And meat loaf, oh yes, I remember all the stages, including a delightful brownsugarmustard sauce!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think what this post, and all the replies shows is that we all crave “comfort food” and even as heart attack survivors, we can enjoy it once in a while.

    I call these types of foods my “once in a while” foods and they are a real treat.

    But I think what these discussion describes most is the love that was prepared into our food by our Mothers and Grandmothers and how we want to pass this on to our own families.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reinforcing this important point, Eve. These comfort foods are indeed “once in a while” foods – and boy, do we appreciate them even more because of that infrequency! Thanks also for reminding us that the secret ingredient in all of these nostalgic favourites is L-O-V-E ♥!


  6. I have been playing with meatloaf recipes a lot these last several months….using venison, ground turkey, grassfed beef….combinations of or alone. I love Barefoot Contessa’s turkey meatloaf and have wowed a few crowds using it…..main thing I have learned is not to over work the meat….I too have frozen (pre-portioned) meatloaf in freezer. And I always roast along side my favorite veggies……

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Suzie – I’m not familiar with the Barefoot Contessa’s turkey meatloaf but will definitely check this out. I wonder if “overworking” the meat makes the end result tougher?


      1. I think if loaf is less dense and more crumbly, it takes in more of marinades and seems less dry….I sautee separately onions with fresh thyme, Worstcheshire and tomato paste….add eggs, ketchup, breadcrumbs to meat….put it all together and bake. I like to add finely chopped celery to onion. Except for breadcrumbs, maybe eggs if allergic, and using nonsugar ketchup I am comfortable eating this when I want….

        I am not someone who thinks saturated fats are the cause of heart disease. Sz

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Personally, I agree with your last statement, Suzie: no one food or one risk factor is the cause of heart disease, just as no one miracle supplement or healthy lifestyle activity can guarantee to prevent it. We’re not alone, as the lead researcher of the Annals of Internal Medicine report (mentioned above) concluded: “Guidelines that focus on single nutrients as targets for preventing chronic diseases don’t make a lot of sense.”


  7. I’ve been making meatballs, but like the flavor of either ground lamb or our butcher’s bulk pork sausage mixed with the ground round. Love to squish between my fingers. And I’m a big fan of “Well, the oven is on anyways…” for marathon cooking.

    Aside from baked potatoes, roast those butternut squash that have been sitting on the counter for a couple weeks, and then all those other veggies. That way there’s always enough for a few more easy meals (and the freezer.)

    Even most of us who grew up on The Farmhouse Diet couldn’t possibly eat that way on a daily basis anymore, even when we’re pretty active. But your 80-20 rule works. It would be a shame to deny ourselves “happy foods” and the present state of research really doesn’t justify it. What is “heart-healthy” really anyways?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such good points, Kathleen! I too like buying meat from my local butcher shop (it’s more expensive but I so rarely buy meat, and he features locally-grown meats from sustainable local farms) rather than on a styrofoam tray from a big box supermarket. Will look for the butcher’s pork sausage to add to the mix next time a meat loaf craving hits! Great idea!


  8. Carolyn,
    Wonderful post – my Grandma who taught my Mother how to cook who taught me was from Russia. Records were long lost as to what village – if it wasn’t in the Ukraine it sure musta been close.

    Besides bacon fat, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) was a staple for chopped liver and other dishes.

    Thanks for the memories!!!!!!!
    P.S. Next time I smush the meatloaf with my fingers, I’ll add some lemon juice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi JudyJudith – THAT’S what “schmaltz” is? I only knew it as the colloquial meaning when something is “excessively sentimental”. Ya learn something every day around here…


    1. Hello Elizabeth – that’s where the 80/20 rule comes in! That way, when we get these nostalgic cravings, it’s a very occasional special treat that we appreciate even more.


  9. That’s what my mom used to make and that’s how I make it or used to make it. If you buy the trio pack I convince myself it’s healthier and tastes even better.

    But Carolyn, one main difference: NO DESSERT? that I must have after every dinner. No excuses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent point. Our farm kitchen produced desserts at least twice a day: cookies, tarts or squares for lunch, and a “proper” dessert (pie, cake, fruit crisp) for after supper. How about (since the oven’s on anyway) a nice fruit dessert to follow the homemade meat loaf? I love Bonnie Stern’s yummy gingerbread pear cobbler that bakes in the oven for the last 45 minutes of cooking your meat loaf/potatoes/roasted veggies. SO delicious on a cool evening served warm with French Vanilla frozen yogurt on the side. If you substitute whole wheat flour for the white and throw in extras like pumpkin seeds or flax seeds, it feels even healthier!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh my goodness! The grinder (used primarily to grind ends of Sunday roast to make Shepherd’s Pie the next night), the container of bacon fat (ours was in a crockery jar that English marmalade came in), the MEATLOAF!

    We had it every Wednesday night with baked potatoes and frozen mixed veg. I proudly serve my mother’s recipe to guests all the time. Like you, I love the squishy feeling of mixing it with my hands. It’s a mix-everything-in-one-bowl version which doesn’t require anything be pre-cooked so is really easy to slap together.

    The ingredient which REALLY makes our recipe is sage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi again Deborah! I used to think it was just my family’s farm kitchen that had an open container of room temperature bacon fat sitting next to the stove (you just don’t see that on cooking shows these days!) I’m going to include some sage in my next batch of ML.


  11. I love this post – really touches my heart!

    AND… I plan on trying your mother’s meatloaf recipe. I still make meatloaf, but often with ground turkey, using Ann Landers’ meatloaf recipe.

    Thank you, Carolyn.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The ground turkey is merely a heart healthy substitute that Ann Landers never gave a thought about back then! The key ingredient (other than the meat, that is!) in Ann Lander’s meatloaf is Lipton Onion Soup mix! I really dislike chopping onions! It is a well used recipe.

        Thanks again for your heart warming post!


        1. I love the part in the Ann Landers reader’s 1992 comment where she writes: “It is the best meat loaf recipe I have ever found and I don`t hesitate to serve it when I have company.” Most of us may only think of meat loaf as a family dinner, far too humble for company – despite its deliciousness!


  12. Carolyn, it sounds wonderful! My family is from the former Czechoslovakia; my mother made something similar called sekana. The basic differences? It was seasoned with marjoram, and sprinkled with grated cheese, then baked until brown. Yes, nostalgia.

    I pretty much live on the low sodium version of the DASH diet, but sometimes, I crave something just like Maminka used to make. : )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Suze – your mother’s sekana sounds wonderful. I think you could almost re-create that – minus the salt – by bumping up the herbs and spices. Wouldn’t be exactly the same (my own mum was pretty heavy-handed with her salt shaker!) but close!


      1. You’ve got me thinking, Carolyn. I have no-salt-added bread crumbs; maybe I can get a small chunk of Swiss cheese (low in sodium) from the deli and grate it myself. Mmmm!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I love meatloaf! We had a grinder just like this when I was growing up in the 50’s. Thanks for sharing, I’m going to share this with all the cooks in my family!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Shared this post on my Facebook page so lots might enjoy it.

        I am a heart disease/heart attack survivor – also always nice to meet a sister!

        Liked by 1 person

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