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Depression Era Menu Faves To Help Tide Us Over

The last time so many average folks had trouble keeping decent food on the table was the Dirty 30s. The Great Depression. My parents and grandparents lived through it. And brought out of it some classic make-do recipes that tided them over…

Deluxe Mac and Cheese - © Chef Mo - allrecipes comMac and Cheese casserole: A classic that satisfies both your family and your budget.

The big picture

During the Depression, folks did what they had to make ends meet. At one point, my Dad’s dad had no fewer than 4 pick-up and delivery routes. He started before dawn hauling ice – in a horse-drawn wagon –  for folks’ ice boxes. Then he went around with milk and other dairy products. After that, he delivered bread to the same homes.

And finally, he picked up laundry from the rich folks’ homes along the posh shoreline of Lake Ontario. Just a few blocks south of their unpainted clapboard home. Grannie and Dad’s older sister, Dot, did the washing, starching and ironing.

Dad raised rabbits and helped with the chickens, which produced both themselves and eggs, for sale or barter.

Everybody pitched in, and everybody benefited from everyone else’s efforts.

Food prices out of control

Now, we face a similar economic dilemma. Across-the-board inflation plus food price increases exacerbated by the recent COVID Crisis.

More people who thought they were middle class prior to 2020 are slipping beneath the poverty line. They’re having trouble paying their monthly bills and keeping up with their loan payments and mortgages. But closest to home for many is the ongoing – and worsening – problem of simply keeping their families fed.

As food prices continue to rise, many foods folks took for granted before COVID are pricing themselves out of reach for the average family. Dietary compromises are being made. Some families are cutting-out some meals altogether. Some arents report they routinely go hungry so their kids can eat.

What can we do to fight these challenges that most of us have never even imagined up until now?

The Depression Cook Book

There isn’t one, official Depression Era Cook Book. It’s the totally informal, grand compilation of all the make-dos and use-what-you-have recipes that got our forebears through really hard times.

The following are all suggestions from my Mom’s family cookbook, which she inherited. And my Dad’s recollections from his teen years, during the 30s.

Chipped Beef on Toast

You either love it nostalgically or hate it. Even the guys who had it so often in the army are divided in their opinions. It was cheap and easy to make back in the day. What we would now call a ‘go-to’ main.


Regular, Buttermilk or Buckwheat; whatever you wanted. They were fast, easy and dirt cheap to make. Buttermilk was a byproduct of the dairy industry and almost free. You could top them with whatever you had left over. For breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Potato Pancakes

Also known as Latkes. My Mom’s mom appropriated the recipe from a Ukranian neighbour in Winnipeg. A great accompaniment to any meal. A break from mashed and boiled. And you can stir other foods into them…

Tuna / Chicken / Ham Salad Sandwiches

Same cost-benefit equation as Fish Cakes (below). You can add all kinds of things to ‘extend’ the protein component. And by changing-up the bread, you can add substance and variety.

Fish Cakes

Use any canned fish: Salmon, Tuna, whatever. You should also consider frozen fake Crab Meat, from the seafood aisle. All of these fish items are pricey these days, but the fish cake technique makes them go a long way. You can do dinner for four for under $5 per person.

Fish Sticks

Good, old fashioned Fish Sticks are still a relatively cost-effective way to get concentrated protein into your family. But there are now more ways to serve them than there were when you were a kid. Do a Fish Burger for a change-up. How about Fish Sticks On A Stick (for dipping)? Google ‘fish sticks serving ideas‘ for a whole slew of plates and combos you may not have previously considered.

Eggs and ?

Eggs are still one of the cheapest, most concentrated food sources of vitamins, minerals and proteins. And current (conservative) medical wisdom holds that one a day won’t hurt you. As the Egg Producers have been hammering into our brains for decades, “They’re not just for breakfast anymore!” Starting with an egg opens the door to a literal world of recipes, many of which are quick, easy and delicious.

Roast Chicken

Today, in the 2000s, we’ll to start with a rotisserie chicken, from the supermarket deli section. Whip up a classic Chicken Dinner with sides of mashed potatoes, kernel corn and green peas. The corn and peas are cheapest and have the highest, most consistent quality if you get them frozen. You could also get some frozen fries, country fried spuds or hash browns, if you want to splurge a couple of more bucks.

Chicken Casserole

Made with leftover chicken from the rotisserie bird you brought home earlier in the week. Also consider: Tuna and Noodles, Mac & Cheese, Cheesy Ground Beef and Noodles, Leftover Ham and Cheese…

Chicken Soup

Made by simmering the bones of the aforementioned rotisserie chicken. Strip off any lingering shreds of chicken meat. Noodles make a nice hearty, cheap addition. Toss in any appropriate leftover veggies you may have on hand.


About the easiest thing ever to make. Just don’t overwork them, and don’t add too much baking powder. Great to serve with soups and stews. Also a great breakfast item, with various toppings.

Bread Pudding

A favourite of just about everyone in my parents’ generation. And a cheap and easy dessert to throw together. Use up stale bread! Again, you either like it or not. But try it with various toppings and additions, and you’ll find a version you’ll love.

My final word

The above dishes are just a few of the most popular, best-known ones that came down to me from my Mom and grandmothers. There are hundreds more – thousands if you start to studiously examine cuisines other than the one you grew up with.

I haven’t linked to any recipes. I’m sure that, like me, you have lots of family faves at hand if you just delve into the ‘literature’ (the family cookbook!). But if you want to, just go Google ‘cheap eats recipes’. The results could keep you going for years!

~ Maggie.