Cooking can be relatively easy when you have no constraints — access to the best produce, finest ingredients, no limits on the cut of meat or the price of the cheese. But what do you do when times are hard? When you have little money but many mouths to feed? We’ve all been there, or know someone’s who’s been there — when you’ve had to struggle to come up with a meal.
When times are hard and cash is low, we need a new way of looking at cooking, one that values ingenuity and invention over ingredients and technique. When the goal is to survive, you’ll probably start taking a second look at scraps you might otherwise discard, or find low-cost alternatives to meats and fruit, or even forage in your own backyard.
Here are 17 simple recipes from when times were hard:
1. Auntie Fee’s “How to Feed 7 People For Just $3”
If you don’t know Auntie Fee, she had this really lively YouTube channel where she made down-to-earth recipes in her own kitchen. She cooked with what she had on hand, spicing things up with colorful language and playful banter with her cameraman/son Tavis.
One of those recipes was “Feed 7 people with just $3.” Wanting to see if this was really feasible, I decided to recreate her recipe. Now, I did have to scale things up a bit as her recipe seemed more likely to feed only two or three. But the math still works out.
Using beef-flavored crushed instant noodles and leftover ground beef (or leftover chicken breasts paired with chicken flavored noodles) you’re going to fry the noodles up using oil or leftover grease, until they are browned. Auntie Fee used Top Ramen which she bought 10 for $1, so you can see how inexpensive this meal can be.
Watch my take on Auntie Fee’s classic here:
Most of us would never think of saving the peels from the various fruits and vegetables that we consume. But when times are hard, you’ve got to think differently, and that means using as much of the fruit or animal as possible, trying to eliminate any and all waste.
The French chef Jacques Pépin has made this almost an art form, saving carrot and radish butts for soup stock, or dried out ends of bread for French Toast.
But did you know that you can also make a mock steak from grapefruit peel? Here’s how:
Usually when we think of pies, apple, cherry, blueberry, or pumpkin come to mind. But what if those main ingredients are hard to come by or too expensive for you to buy?
A class of pies called desperation pies were born during the times before refrigeration and ubiquitous canned pie fillings. These pies used staples from the pantry such as butter, flour, sugar, and eggs.
To make the filling of this pie, in addition to butter, eggs, salt, and sugar, you’ll need one cup of boiling water, a free ingredient and something surely almost everyone has on hand.
Another food item that has become nearly universal, at least in the United States, and relatively inexpensive — jelly — must have been much harder to come by when times were hard.
So, necessity being the mother of invention, many new sandwich creations were invented. Ever heard of a peanut butter and pickle sandwich? No? What about peanut butter and onion?
How about peanut butter and mayo? You can watch me try all three of these creations here:
When times are REALLY hard, sometimes all you have is bread. Coming in at 330 calories the toast sandwich might be the UK’s cheapest meal, costing less than 8 pence, or 10 U.S. cents.
This recipe (if we can call it that) goes back 150 years to mid-Victorian England, first mentioned in a book called Beeton’s Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton. The book was wildly popular in Britain as it contained not only recipes, but all sorts of ways to run an efficient household.
This sandwich was meant to be served particularly to the infirm, so a healthy person might get some slices of meat as well.
So for your toast sandwich, you’ll only need two ingredients: bread and butter. The two outer slices of bread, which are untoasted, are generously buttered, and then the third slice, the toast, is inserted between them.
But does it taste good? You can watch me make it and found out here:
6. Make Your Own Civil War Era Ketchup
Did you know that you can make your own ketchup? These days we don’t think much of spending a few dollars on bottled ketchup from the store. But what if you were a Civil War soldier in the field? I don’t think they had any MREs back then.
So when I started researching Civil War era ketchup, I was surprised to learn that both the Union and the Confereracy had their own versions of tomato ketchup.
Both recipes call for fresh, crushed tomatoes, but that’s where the commonality ends. The Confederate ketchup also calls for nutmeg, mace, ground mustard, peppercorns, white vinegar, and red peppers, making for a very complex ketchup indeed.
The Union, or Boston ketchup, calls for two tablespoons of finely grated onion, a big pinch of mace, and peppercorns. So certainly less complex than the Confederate version.
Watch here to both see how they’re made and taste:
Another staple from the American Civil War is hardtack, a hard, bland cracker-like bread that had the benefits of both indestructability and a long shelf life. There were some problems with hardtack, however, as soldiers often referred to the crackers as ‘worm castles’ or ‘jawbreakers’ — but when choices are limited, you eat what you’ve got.
Hardtack looks simple and it is simple, using only three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. I got my recipe from the Washington Post which you can find here.
You can watch me make and taste hardtack here:
Need a tasty beverage to help that hardtack go down? How about pine needle tea? Though not drunk often today, pine needle tea was formerly used a source of both vitamins A and C, and as such a treatment for scurvy.
Though several different species of pine can be used, in North America the best would be Easten white pine, a species found widespread in the Eastern U.S.
If you want a sweeter, more pleasant tea, make sure to harvest younger needles which are typically brighter green and can be found at the ends of branches. If you’re trying to prevent scuvy, then go for the older, darker needles which however, will make for a much more bitter tea.
You can watch me make my pine needle tea here:
This meal, Clara’s Great Depression Poorman’s Meal, was brought to us by another dear old YouTube friend who has passed, Clara. This recipe comes from a time in American history where many things were not readily available.
But one thing there were a lot of were potatoes. Clara said that her father would buy potatoes by the sackful. So this recipe will utilize potatoes as the star of the show.
Clara uses Russet potatoes in her video, but I had Yukon Gold — though I don’t think Clara would mind much about the type you choose.
Also, remember, in the spirit of hard times, when you peel those potatoes, save the peels — you can use them in another recipe. In this case potato skin crisps.
One unique aspect of this recipe is that you’re going to put everything into a cold pan without oil. Once you’ve put the potatoes and the onions in, you’ll add the oil and then heat it up.
For this recipe you’ll also need some hotdogs and tomato sauce. Pretty simple and inexpensive.
You can watch me make and try it here:
This recipe, Weenies Royale, comes from the Japanese internment camps which were set up in 1942 in the United States soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Roughly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans, considered a threat to the nation, were forcibly sent to ten remote camps, all over the U.S.
The camps were open for the duration of the war — the last one closing in 1946. And this particular recipe was invented there using the rations that were provided by the U.S. government, basic, simple foods such as SPAM, hotdogs, and bread.
This recipe will be just caramelized onions, sliced hotdogs, soy sauce, and beaten eggs served over a bed of rice. The resulting dish is somewhat reminiscent of the Japanese favorite oyakodon which is eggs in soy sauce cooked with chicken.
You can watch me prepare and eat Weenies Royale here:
Known by many names including Shit on a Shingle, Save Our Stomachs, and chipped beef, S.O.S. is food born of practicality — making something low-cost and nutritious for military personnel. Ask any armed service veteran and they’ll know S.O.S.
There’s definitely a love-hate relationship with this dish as it is still served in the military, which makes sense since it’s easy to prepare, has all the basic nutritional requirements, and is relatively low-cost.
The dish consists of dried beef in a roux (which is a combination of flour and fat) spiced up a bit with black pepper and served on a bed of toast (the shingle). If you want to go fancy and liven things up a bit you can sprinkle some fresh parsley on the top.
You can watch me make and taste my chipped beef here:
During the Civil War the Confederate Army was often scrambling for provisions, especially life-giving coffee. Dandelion root coffee among others (acorn, corn, persimmon) was made as a substitute when the real thing was not to be had.
To make your own dandelion coffee, it’s best to harvest young dandelions even before they’ve produced a flower because that means more of the energy has gone into creating the taproot which is what we will be using for our coffee.
Once you’ve harvested your dandelions — I harvested probably about twenty-five of them for my batch — you’re going to cut off the leafy parts which you can save for a dandelion salad if you like. And if you do end up harvesting dandelions in flower, you can save those for dandelion wine.
After you’ve scrubbed your roots, removing as much of the soil as possible, you’re going to chop them up into small pieces, place them on a baking tray in place in a 200℉ oven for an hour or two to dry them out.
Once they’re dry, crank the oven up to 350° for roasting which should take anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes depending on now big you’ve cut your pieces.
Now all that’s left to do is to boil some water and steep your dandelion root for coffee!
You can watch me make the coffee and find out what it tastes like here:
Sometimes low-cost isn’t good enough — you’re so broke that you need something free. This meal, ketchup soup, utilizes free fast food ketchup packets and creamers.
As for the history of ketchup soup, some say it is another Depression-era recipe from the 1930s, while others attribute it to the hobo community, calling it hobo ketchup soup.
Basically what we’re going to be doing is taking our ketchup and combining it with a little bit of sugar in hot water. Some recipes call for a splash of milk, or creamer, so I added that to mine to give it a little more heft.
Anyway, a super simple, free recipe that anyone can make. You can follow along with me here:
Another strategy for coping when times are hard is to stretch or double what you have by adding to it. For example, my husband’s mother used to double her milk by mixing powdered with regular milk.
You can also double your butter which was often done during war-time rationing.
The recipe I used to double my butter was for Knox Spread taken from the book ‘Wartime Menu Helps’.
The key ingredient to making this butter spread is Knox unflavored gelatin, hence the name — Knox Spread. After you’ve prepared your gelatin, you’re going to cut the butter up into small pieces and beat it up until it’s nice and smooth and creamy.
To the melted gelatin, you’re going to add one cup of evaporated milk and a half teaspoon of salt.
The next step will be to make an emulsion, beating the butter some more while slowly adding the milk/gelatin mixture. You can also add a little food coloring if you want to bump up the color.
The result should be a vibrantly colored, fluffy spread which can be used on toast or muffins — though you probably won’t want to use it for baking.
You can watch me double my butter here:
Goetta, pronounced “get-uh,” is an oatmeal sausage patty originating from German immigrants in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. A classic example of tasty eats during lean times, goetta is the poster child for the power of doubling. Shaped into a loaf, then sliced and fried-up crisp, it’s the perfect accompaniment to fried egg and toast.
To make your own goetta, you’ll need steel cut oats, ground beef, ground pork, onion, garlic and a bunch of different aromatics: ginger, mace, black pepper, white pepper, coriander, and cloves.
You can watch me making and trying goetta here:
This recipe hails from Venezuela. Now the history of Venezuela is long and complicated, but recently Venezuela has fallen on hard times, having to devalue its currency due to rising shortages and accompanying inflation. So necessities like milk, eggs, and flour have been increasingly difficult to afford for normal Venezuelans, forcing them to make do and become inventive with what they have.
This recipe uses not only the fruit of the plantain but that which is usually discarded — the skin, or the peel. And since cooking oil is very expensive in Venezuela right now, it’s used very sparingly, so as a substitute people are using sardines which are naturally oily.
To make this dish you’re going to bake your plantains and boil the skins. The skins will be used as a kind of boat that will be stuffed with plantain, peppers, onions, soy sauce, cilantro, and cheese, making for a nice, hot, hearty meal.
You can watch me make and taste my plantain peels here:
The Navajo people invented fry bread in the 1860s when they were forced to relocate out West by the United States government. Given rations of flour, sugar, salt and lard, the Navajo created this delicious fry bread.
Nowadays, Navajo use fry bread to make tacos which also go by the name of Indian tacos, or Native American tacos. You can find them at fairs, carnivals, and pow-wows, mostly in the American West.
What makes fry bread extra delicious is that it is deep-fried, then topped with beans, ground beef, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese — all the things you would find on a typical taco. Fry bread is also served as a dessert topped with honey and butter, or sometimes with just powdered sugar.
You can watch me make and taste fry bread tacos here:
Toodaloo! Take care! Byeeeee!