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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.

      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.

                      3. I know this has been mentioned on other threads, but check it out:

                        Clara tells of surviving the Great Depression on potatoes and pasta. I'm actually going to try some of her recipies.

                        I remember my mother telling me about going to nursing school during the '30s & making do with ketchup sandwiches, ketchup soup & mashed potato sandwiches (stuff she could take from the school's cafeteria). My husband worked in the caf to help put hiomself through Penn State. He had zero money. He survived on hard boiled eggs he took that were left after the breakfast service, keeping them on the cold window sill in his dorm room. He would make his rounds of all of the vending machines to see if anyone had forgotten to take their change.

                        Part of the problem with many people trying to live on the cheap is that some of the cooking utensils that would make it so much easier & cheaper for them to cook are not always readily available. For instance, you can do an aweful lot with a rice cooker & a pressure cooker. Makes it so much easier to make those very cheap ingredients, like rice and dried beans, cook faster & stretch.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: PattiCakes

                          Rice cookers and slow cookers, are pretty common nowadays and even pressure cookers are hardly unheard of.

                          Unless someone is just starting out, or they are absolutely not into cooking, I can't think of anyone who does not have at least one of these.

                          I have a pc and a slow cooker which can handle just about any form of beans. I do rice just fine on the stovetop so I have never needed a rice cooker.

                          Rice or chapatis, and dal / beans are the absolute cornerstones of our diet, and we don't think of these as poverty ingredients but as rich and satisfying, can make them in an infinite variety of ways and serve at parties.

                          I agree you cannot get cheaper than these; even canned beans which are often 2 for 1$. It is a shame that these ingredients are not more popular in the US.

                          These everyday staples are not our biggest budget problems: fresh fruit, other veggies, and dairy products are. I do shop the seasonal, sale, and marked downs as much as I can, but would love to learn more about how to negotiate a better deal from produce managers, as described by Makingsense......

                          1. re: Rasam

                            Rice cookers and pressure cookers are not main-stream outside of the Asian/Indian community here in the USA.

                            I really don't understand why, since they are energy-saving and allow you to make use of very inexpensive ingredients. We Americans just don't seem to be very familiar with them, and pressure cookers got quite a bad reputaion with our parents' generation because they were't considered very safe. Of course the newer generation of pressure cookers are much safer, but that reputation still lingers. We tend to cook with the same type of tools that our parents did, so if they didn't use a pressure cooker or a raice cooker......

                            I myself am just learning to use both, even though I have been cooking fairly well without them for many years. If I were to give a gift to someone just starting out, living on their own & on a tight budget, I would certainly consider giving them a rice cooker, along with a rice cooker cookbook. A basic one is not very expensive, it doesn't take up much space, it uses very cheap ingerdients, and you can certainly make filling, nutrishous meals with it.

                            1. re: PattiCakes

                              Half my family is not Asian; fairly 'mainstream' Midwest folks, and most have slow cookers (one of the three gadgets I mentioned).

                          2. re: PattiCakes

                            Rice cooker = pot with lid.
                            A good substitute for a pressure cooker is a heavy pot and allowing more time while you are watching TV or surfing the net.
                            People made it through centuries and certainly the Great Depression without these appliances.
                            Garage sales are becoming more frequent as people are trying to raise a little cash. The Salvation Army and similar thrift stores are great places to find bargains on crockpots, kitchen equipment, etc.
                            Some older things and especially vintage kitchen things are often much better quality than what you can buy today.

                            1. re: MakingSense

                              My Grandma's pressure cooker, that I have know, is from at least the early 50's and we've had to get new gaskets but it works fine and it saves time. You can use the toughest meat on earth and after a half an hour or so of pressure cooking your stew meat is tender.

                            2. re: PattiCakes

                              I just finally got around to looking at Clara's you tube stuff today. I LOVE it. She's wonderful, and the stories along with the recipes... just lovely. She reminds me so much of my husband's Nana and my own maternal grandmother. Her potato dicing is just perfect. :)

                              1. re: Morganna

                                I made the "poor Man's Dinner" last week (not the "feast), using some kielbasa I found in my freezer. It was not bad at all -- very much like home fries with meat.

                                1. re: PattiCakes

                                  Actually I though the meat with the lemon and olive oil looked delicious.
                                  I had to laugh because at the last, she says to let the meat sit and marinate in the grease and lemon. Or something pretty close to that. She's 93 and seems to be very with it, gosh she looks better than some people I know who are much younger. Anyway I guess that grease didn't hurt her any.

                            3. I have a lot of active memories of things my mother cooked during the Great Depression, but my most favorite is of Sunday morning apple dumplings. She made pie dough from scratch using suet she got free from the butcher, then rolled out a piece about 8 inches round, piled the center high with sliced apples (she bought bruised ones really cheap, then cut out the bruises), a fairly heavy sprinkling of cinnamon sugar along with a generous dollop of butter. Then she pulled the dough together to form a large square and pinched the seams together before putting a slit in the top to vent the steam. She baked them on cookie sheets, at least one per person, then served them warm in a soup plate with sweetened nutmeg milk poured over them. What a wonderful breakfast!

                              She also made a lot of tamale pies using leftover roast beef or boiled chicken. We raised our own chickens and rabbits for eating, so there were probably a few rabbit tamale pies too.

                              She also cooked a lot of pasta, ranging from mac and cheese to spaghetti. My dad was in the Navy, so we weren't hit by the depression nearly as bad as most, but my dad befriended an Italian sailor far from his New Jersey home and used to invite Mike for spaghetti on weekends. Mike would eat at least two pounds of cooked spaghetti by himself!

                              The best way to stretch your food budget is to live someplace where you can raise your own chickens (for the pot and for the eggs) and have a nice garden. Urbanization has certainly taken its toll!

                              1. Spice soup - boil water, add salt, pepper & whatever spices that seemed not to clash. Delicious, low calorie and provides 20% of your daily requirement for water.

                                Be careful though, the highest ratio of calories per dollar are processed junk foods. Good for the budget, not so good for the body. Misguided agricultural subsidies make it so that a pack of Twinkies, which needs numerous ingredients, handling, packaging, etc., is cheaper than a bunch of carrots, which only needs to be plucked from the ground.

                                1. Pasta, Pasta and Pasta with lots of sauces. Even back in college I grew my own herbs in a little window box. I used them with back then just some butter and chicken broth with the famous green can probably. It was edible. We also had a nice local co-op. I got lots of beans, barley, oats, etc. Also popcorn LOTS of popcorn with brewers yeast on it. Not sure why. And then my favorite ... soup. I really did cook. We had a local farmer and for the college kids gave us a break on chicken, he was great to the kids. I would buy chicken and make soups. Everything from chili meatless, chicken, vegetable and bean soups. I actually started a small business and sold my soups to some of the guys in the dorm. They were on the soccer team and they used to buy pots from me as well as some of the other tenants. You can make a lot of soup for little money. I did very well.
                                  I also was a rice girl brown rice with fresh veggies from our local farmers market with some melted cheese. Filling healthy and great. I was the only roommate who cooked so I did all the cooking and they bought all the food. Worked out fine. I do remember my fair share of rice cakes and peanut butter however.

                                  1. I have used the leftover cereal and milk in the bottom of the bowl, saved over around three days worth of breakfasts, to add to the batter for homemade cereal muffins. Now my little daschund gets the leftover cereal and milk, if the cat doesn't beat her to it.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: givemecarbs

                                      wow, you win. although, the sweetened milk probably made them so yummy... hm.... very interesting

                                    2. Ready for this one? I would make a "dough" out of flour and water, add a little salt, flatten it, and fry it with butter. I called these "tortillas", and you know, I sometimes get a craving for them still.

                                      1. There is a problem with a lot of the solutions put forth - I don't know the current age of the posters. While not yet "old", I am a boomer, and can't eat the way I did when I was 20, without risking ill-health. Obviously if I have nothing else to eat, immediate survival takes over meaning white carbs or whatever there is, but it is a challenge to eat reasonably healthy food with little money.

                                        One thing I've found that is very cheap if you have Mediterranean or South Asian people is chickpea flour, whether the Mediterranean kind panisses and socca/farinata are made from or the South Asian besam, from their small, more fibrous chickpeas (channa dal). You can make a high-protein crêpe from that without adding either eggs or milk, and with some spices mixed in, they are surprisingly tasty. Like any crêpe batter, it has to set for a while.

                                        1. Gee, nobody should ever raise an eyebrow at the "incredible edible egg."
                                          Last week, the Safeway had a coupon for eggs - $.97 for 18 eggs.
                                          If you eat 2 or 3 scrambled, fried or whatever, that's between 11 and 16 cents a meal for good protein. Add some grits or a potato. Some bread for a sandwich. A few scraps of this or that for an omelet. Some leftover veggies = fritatta.
                                          Eggs with milk and sugar = custard or flan.
                                          As long as there are eggs in the house, you're not going to be hungry.

                                          6 Replies
                                          1. re: MakingSense

                                            I am in total agreement. When I have nothing, I usually have eggs. I also keep a few baggies of a sliced baguette. So, eggs and toast anything goes. You can even add one of those horrible "is that American cheese" slices. Not great, but it is something to eat and better than a whopper or big mac. Not what I normally cook, but get home at 11 or 12 at night and starved. Why not? Slice an apple and call it healthy :) Protein (egg) fruit (apple) and sort of dairy (cheese)

                                            Seriously, eggs I make tons of stuff with and use them all the time within reason. But if nothing else, a good egg is a great go to food.

                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                              me too, I love eggs, especially a fried egg sandwich with mayo.

                                              1. re: chef chicklet

                                                we just did the fried egg thread. Me too and I admit, I have tried with mayo and it was great! Never had the mayo before and a great addition.

                                                Ever made eggs in muffin tins with a bacon wrap? This is really fun and easy. A regular muffin tin sprayed with pam. Put 1/2 to a full slice of bacon around the inside edge of the muffin cup (I cook the bacon in the micro on low just for 1 minute until slightly but not cooked, then put a 2 heaping spoons of leftover mashed potatoes or a baked potato and leftover any type of potatoes ... That is the best way to make this, and topped with a little cheese, just a teaspoon not too much and then top with 1 whole egg, s/p. Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes. A great simple breakfast item. Then slide out like little cupcakes wrapped in bacon.

                                                1. re: kchurchill5

                                                  Soo...muffin tin, spray with Pam, nuke bacon for a minute, wrap bacon around sides if muffin tin, spoon mashed potato leftover on bottom, add a bit of cheese on top of the potato, then crack an egg on top of all of it, then bake? Sounds great.

                                                  1. re: schrutefarms

                                                    Pretty much it. I just start the bacon it helps, I have used leftover hash browns, mashed, smashed, even a small round slice of polenta too. They all work.

                                                    Their nice breakfast dishes. Just cook until the whites are set and the yoke runny

                                                  2. re: kchurchill5

                                                    Don't agree with using Pam though. I have a silicone brush to dab good-quality oil on as lightly as Pam spray. Cheaper, better for the environment and better for you.

                                                    I used to have a sprayer for real oil, but alas it clogged.

                                              2. Still love, but with shame... spaghetti with butter, ketchup, and green can cheese. Also chicken or beef ramen with frozen mixed veg. I buy these things (not pasta or butter) just for the comfort factor. Not hip or healthy, but pleasing.

                                                1. As a kid I would use like 10 packets of soy sauce with a container of fried rice from a chinese takeout near my junior high school.

                                                  My dad used to buy "sandwich slices" in place of real cheese.