Frugal Food Tips From the Great Depression

Posted on Posted in Cooking For Less

While wandering around one of my favorite thrift stores I ran across the book We Had Everything But Money. This book is a collection of first hand accounts of life during the Great Depression.

If you think were experiencing difficult financial times now, consider what the nation faced then – a complete collapse of the banking system, 35% unemployment, and a severe drought that devastated farmland in the Midwest.

Yet the way in which Americans adapted to such extreme economic calamity provides insights and lessons that we can benefit from today during our economic downturn.

In their own words, those that lived through the Great Depression provide us with valuable lessons on how to feed our families for less.

For school lunches, my mother would make my favorite: dandelion sandwiches on fresh baked bread. After the dandelions had been cleaned and boiled, shed squeeze out the juice and fry the greens in olive oil, seasonings, salt and hot red pepper. We saved the juice, too, and drank it like hot soup with a dash of olive oil and salt.

The great depression reminds us that even the simplest of ingredients can be seasoned and cooked in a way that makes them delicious affairs.  No, I’m not suggesting that you go pull up a batch of dandelions for dinner, but do consider simple unprocessed ingredients like rice, beans, and vegetables.

While our pre-packaged, ready to eat in an instant lifestyle frequently shuns these simple ingredients, the rest of the world has been using them to create incredible meals for ages,  at a fraction of the cost of our highly processed American diet.

Cookbooks like More-With-Less by Doris Janzen Longacre show you how to turn basic low cost ingredients into savory meals. Alternatively, vegetarian cookbooks can teach you how to turn grains and vegetables into meals your family will love.

The same can be said for international cookbooks that illustrate how to prepare simple ingredients with spices and other flavorings to create cheap, delicious meals.  Not only are meals prepared from simple unprocessed ingredients cheaper, theyre also healthier as well.

Parents learned tricks that cut the food bill. You parked outside the grocery until 10 minutes before closing time on Saturday night and then hurried in to snap up bargains on fresh produce. It was priced for quick sale because it wouldn’t keep over Sunday in those unrefrigerated times.  I remember Dad buying an entire sack of bananas for 10 [cents]. We feasted on them for nearly a week.

Smart shoppers are using this very same trick today. They simply know the time of day when their local grocery store marks down the days baked goods, roasted chickens, pre-made sandwiches and other perishable items. Then they scoop in to grab the bargains. Its not hard. Simply ask the bakery or deli manager when items are marked down for the day.

Other savvy shoppers make special note of when the grocery store marks down the meat that’s approaching its sell-by date.  Meat is then purchased at a steep discount and either made into a meal shortly after the purchase, or placed in the freezer for later use.

The first day wed have beans. The second day Mother would add water and elbow macaroni to the leftovers. The next day shed add a can of tomatoes. If there were any left after that, shed add more water and drop dumplings into it. Seems like we ate beans all week, but they were filling and helped us survive the Depression!

Beans may be one of the most unappreciated food sources in all of America. Our depression era forebearers knew full well the benefit of beans. Dirt cheap, especially when purchased in the bag, beans are chock full of nutrients.

In fact, the USDA cites beans as one of the foods highest in cancer fighting anti-oxidants. They are also loaded with fiber, essential for lowering cholesterol.  Combined with rice or other grains, beans serve as a nutritional replacement for meat, providing the benefits of meat at a fraction of the cost.

WE OFTEN made a meal of sliced raw potatoes, onion and, on occasion, a few strips of bacon. We added some water and cooked everything together in a covered pot. It was really good. In fact, we still make Depression soup today!

Even today, soup is one of the most cost effective and nutritious meals you can feed your family. I’m not talking about the expensive, salt-laden, canned version. Making home made soup has never been easier.

You can easily boil leftover turkey or ham bones with some vegetables to make a cheap soup broth. Save left-over vegetables and meat in your freezer until its time to make a nice big pot of soup. Add some herbs, spices, and seasonings and you have a meal fit for a king. For extra hearty soup, add rice or pasta.

If you’re new to making homemade soup check out They have complete easy to follow instructions on how to make a variety of homemade soups, as well as tutorials on soup making basics.

Most people had gardens. Big gardens. They not only provided vegetables and berries and rhubarb for the summer months, but also raw material for canning.

Gardens provided a cheap and nutritious source of food for families during the Great Depression. Its no wonder then that gardening is making a come back during these current tough economic times. According to the National Gardening Association 43 million US households will engage in some form of gardening in 2009, up 19 percent from 2008.

Gardening is a great way to grow your own pesticide free, organic vegetables that taste better and cost a fraction of the price of supermarket produce.

Even small spaces can be used to grow huge quantities of produce. Don’t have a back yard – consider small container gardening to grow fresh herbs instead of paying outrageous prices in the grocery store.

Don’t know where to start – check out these great websites:

The National  Gardening Association Website.
The Vegetable Garden Guide.
The Vegetable Gardening Guru.

These websites feature comprehensive content that will have you growing your own healthy food in no time.

During the Great Depression families did more with less and still were able to serve healthy meals. Their lessons in frugality still serve us well today.