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Food solutions for lean times

I was sitting around with some friends the other day, when we all began talking about what we used to eat when we really had no money, for instance during college. Top Ramen and kraft mac n cheese prevailed, of course, but there were some interesting things that came out. One friend who's family could never afford to splurge on take out pizza growing up, was raised on white bread, ketchup and melted american cheese and she didn't know that wasn't what everyone considered "pizza" until she got to high school!

But the winner, I would say, was my brother. A notorious lover of bread, during his bachelor days right out of college (and right before a job), my brother used to eat "bread sandwiches." He explained that this meant toasting one piece of bread and putting it between two other untoasted pieces, so that you feel like you're eating a sandwich with something substantial in it as you crunched down...

What have you done, when you've been stretching the dollar that others have raised an eyebrow at?

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  1. My college roommate used to eat bread sandwiches, except the middle slice wasn't toasted. It was just three slices of white bread.

    When I was really tight on the budget, I used to eat rice topped with taco sauce from the packets that Del Taco gives out.

    4 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Oh free packets! Those were my favorites. I made entire meals based around one super cheap item and as many free packest I could gather. Malt vinegar-ketchup-mustard sauce reigned supreme.

      1. re: hyacinthgirl

        The salsa bar at Baja Fresh was great for getting "ingredients" and "toppings" for meals on the cheap ...

        1. re: ipsedixit

          I might actually try that at lunch! There's not a lot of options right near me... : )

      2. re: ipsedixit

        My Dad (who grew up in the Depression) called these "jam sandwiches." Three pieces of bread, "jammed" together.

        Should make us happy for what we have.
        Cay

      3. Apples, oranges, potatoes, onions, rice, beans and anything else that could be bought in bulk on the cheap. Fruit and vegetables that where on special at the time.

        Whole chicken was inexpensive, I ate a lot of it.

        Never cared for the wish sandwich (nothing but bread), ate a lot of onion sandwiches with catchup or Arby's horseradish sauce.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Demented

          I don't think this suggestion would raise eyebrows, but cook in bulk as well. You can make great casserole dishes that will last a long while by increasing the proportions from the recipe. Pastitsio is one of our kid's favorites. Mostly pasta, ground meat of your choice, onions, tomato paste, some leftover red wine, a little cinnamon, flour, butter, and grated cheese - spring for some fresh herbs if you're feelin' a little deeper in the pocket. I can make a double recipe last for days, with the kids begging to eat the leftovers for breakfast and dinner until we run out.

          1. re: bulavinaka

            You are right, this would likely not raise eyebrows. This is what I've done in lean times all the same.

            1. re: bulavinaka

              I wonder if the Pastitsio is what my Greek Grandmother (not by blood) used to cook. It sounds really familiar, except that I think she chopped up huge batches of parsley and sautee it and chopped up onion in olive oil and later tomato paste. I loved that dish.

              1. re: HLing

                The basic ingredients you mention are definitely a basis for the dish. Throw in some ground or chopped protein, penne-type pasta, pour on some bechemel sauce on top, and that's pretty much it.

                1. re: bulavinaka

                  ah yes, it's coming back. She always insisted that I get some ground chuck from the butcher (not pre-ground), and yes, there's that bechemel sauce! I'm drawing a blank on the type of pasta, but somehow I might be confusing it with the layered Eggplant dish she makes because I ketp thinking it's like a Greek version of Lasagna...
                  It's making me hungry thinking about it. Thanks for bring that word and dish back into my mind. I'll have to try to make it soon. Lean or not :)

          2. Learn how to deal with bulk meats because it's a lot cheaper to break it down yourself. I used to look for the cheapest thing in the meat case, buy that, and figure out how to use it. I taught myelf how to clean squid because at 49cents per pound, it was the cheapest buy. Whole chicken is always cheaper than parts. Its cheaper to buy beef and grind it into hamburger, than to purchase the pre-ground stuff.

            1 Reply
            1. re: 512window

              Not necessarily, window. At the Argentine butcher's round the corner from my house, whole chickens are considerably more expensive than chicken legs.

              It is certainly more salubrious to grind your own beef or other meat than to buy it made, and you know what is in it!

            2. Rice and beans sustained me through graduate school - almost 10 years. Fortunately, I never got sick of it. I could still happily eat if for many meals, though the family would revolt if I tried.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Cachetes

                How about if you ring the changes with different spices? Rajmah-rice once; Mexican spices another time; Italian another, and so on? The same beans and rice would taste radically different, and maybe the family would like it?

                1. re: Rasam

                  Thanks, great suggestions. My family likes them, but not as much as I do, so maybe a little diversification would help. My mother used to make a lot of rice dishes with Italian variations, so maybe I'll start there!

              2. When we first moved back to the US from living for a few years in South America, I felt sooo poor every time I went to the grocery store and was confronted with the prices which seemed so outrageous by comparison to what I had been paying in public markets especially for produce.
                I was at an Albertson's with my brother-in-law and complained to the produce manager about the low quality of something or other vis a vis the price and, much to my surprise, he offered to mark it down for me if I would buy a bagful.
                Wow! I had never considered bargaining in a US store before like I had done every day in South American markets for years!
                I asked the man about a couple of other items and he was happy to deal.
                My BIL ran for cover in total embarrassment.
                Yeah, I tried it again in other stores and it often works. My kids hate it and won't go shopping with me if they even think I'll try it.
                If the produce looks a little wilted or shabby and I can trim it or use it for soup, or if I'm willing to buy a large quantity, I ask.
                The worst that can happen is that the produce guy says "no." Big deal.
                It works at the meat counter sometimes too. Never hurts to ask.

                7 Replies
                1. re: MakingSense

                  It's probably worth trying this in the deli/dairy section as well. Stuff like cottage cheese or yogurt that is close to expiration usually gets tossed. Cheese that starts to mold, the same. When I used to work at the markets, our store's policy was to mark down near-expired stuff by half, and we used to either recut/rewrap the cheese and mark it down by half, or just toss it. Cottage cheese and yogurt are usually fine for at least a week to 10 days beyond the code dates.

                  1. re: bulavinaka

                    it's definitely worth haggling over dairy. i've even had stores offer to sell it to me at a discount (without my asking) when they're planning to remove it from the shelves because the dates are getting close.

                    1. re: bulavinaka

                      Several people have mentioned on CH that they routinely check the "reduced for quick sale" sections in stores. I've gotten some terrific bargains there.
                      Many stores mark things down at certain times of day, so if you're a regular shopper, you kind of know when the best bargains will be available. It seems like a lot of supermarkets do it either first thing in the morning or about mid-afternoon.

                      One deli department used to sell the "end cuts" of all the meats and cheeses in a mixed tray for about $1/lb. Those were great for my kids' school lunches. Not the prettiest sandwiches but the kids were happy. I could always make pimento cheese or "potted meat" - sort of poor man's pate.
                      That old Jacques Pepin recipe for Fromage Fort has been a family favorite for decades. Great way to use cheese scraps.

                    2. re: MakingSense

                      I really want to try what you describe. If I am not lucky enough to run into the produce manager next to the display, do you think I can ask to speak to him/her?

                      And what should I try and say? What approach should I take? We are not a large family; is it because you were buying a large amount that it worked?

                      I'm very shy and hate bargaining even in 'developing' country markets, but perhaps I should try overcome that.

                      1. re: Rasam

                        In many countries, bargaining is expected. They think you're a goof if you don't participate in the sport. Guide books will usually tell you if it's appropriate so check and then dive right in. It's really fun.
                        The only problem that I have is when I've bargained too well for the fun of it and then felt like I had to buy something (or two or three in a package deal) that I didn't really want that bad, but I had gotten the price down so low that I felt like I had to buy it.

                        Always be polite. Assume that the produce person takes pride in his wares so don't insult him or his products. Commiserate.
                        "Oh, gee, are these all you have? They look pretty wilted. Do you have more in the back?"
                        Often they'll get you better stuff or say that what out is what the warehouse sent and they'll even apologize. It's not their fault and they feel bad.
                        Sympathize that you know he can't always control what "they" send him and ask if there's any chance that he'll be marking them down for "quick sale" to get rid of them before a new shipment comes in.
                        If he hesitates, add that you could use them for soup or something if you trim them really well but not at full price or "that price...." and let your voice trail off.
                        If he says, "No," just thank him and tell him that you just thought you'd ask because you hate to see things go to waste...
                        If you DO get a bargain, buy extra and freeze it. Or drop some off at a soup kitchen.

                        Ask and ye shall receive. Sometimes.
                        Never ask and it never happens.

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          Thanks MakingSense. I grew up in a bargaining culture and live in one now, and every now and again gird myself and attempt it; but still hate it.

                          Thanks for the advice on how to try it in the US and I'll try it and get back to you if it worked.

                      2. re: MakingSense

                        You'd be surprised, probably since many of our stores are dropping in sales volume, they're are tons of food going out the back door. Such things as the premade sandwiches and salads, guess what happens/ They dump them! Or sometimes they do donate to homeless and halfway houses. But it's worth asking, why not? A good produce manager is sure going to take something than write off a loss he doesn't have to.

                        I buy the produce on sale. That's it. Not on sale, I pass.