Save Money on Food by Thinking Like It's the Great Depression

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The Great Depression Wasn’t All Bad

Not too many people think of the Great Depression, a time of unparalleled poverty and despair, in positive terms. However, there were some good things about it. The lack of money, combined with a total absence of public welfare programs, taught people to work with what they had, and an entire generation learned they were tougher than they thought.

The Great Recession of the the early 21st century has reawakened Americans to the value of saving money and acting in an economical manner. The Great Recession may be almost over, but many people are still worried about finances, and the lessons from the Great Depression can still help us save money on food.

Use Meat as a Flavoring, Not Just an Ingredient

The best information on what has come to be known as “Depression-Era Ecology” (a term coined by Louisa Shafia, author of the book Lucid Food) comes from those who actually lived through the 1930s. One such person is Nancy Smith, a spry, 97-year-old who lives in northern Colorado. When asked how her parents fed them through the 1930s, she speaks of “meat flavored vegetables for dinner.” (Smith, 2010).

The phrase “meat-flavored vegetables” conjures up images of limp greens and over-boiled potatoes topped with grease. That may sound too tasty, but there are other, more palatable options. Imagine potato soup enriched with crisp bacon-bits, or fresh vegetables and tender noodles floating in a rich homemade chicken stock (the original form of chicken noodle soup).

Waste Not, Want Not

If there was one thing our Depression-era ancestors knew, it was not to waste anything. They knew they could save money on food by being “nose to tail” cooks. Harold McGee, a food scientist, has been quoted as saying “most of the world lives of what Americans throw in our garbage pails.” (Swift, 2009). If this is true, we should be able to stretch our budgets via edible recycling.

The place to start edible recycling is to look for uses for things we normally consider useless. Take, for example, the “waste” pieces produced when we prep vegetables. Carrot skins, onion peels, the bottom ends of celery, and herb stems can all be browned in a little oil and used to produce a rich vegetable stock (Swift, 2009). Add the leftover bones and wing-tips of a roasted chicken, and you get a homemade chicken stock better than any found in any store. For more information on this, check out the website of the Splendid Table,

Growing Food at Home

Most people survived the Great Depression by growing at least some of their own food. Growing food remains a viable and economical option. Most homeowners have at least one corner of the yard where they could grow tomatoes or zucchinis, and community gardens, where people can rent soil space, are becoming more and more common.

If “real” gardening isn’t an option, then there’s the option of at least growing herbs. Fresh herbs add great flavor to inexpensive foods without adding fat or calories, but fresh herbs themselves cost a bundle in the store. A few pots and a sunny window can mean fresh herbs all year round. Easy herbs to grow include basil, parsley, garlic, mint and thyme (Kimble, 2006).


Kimble, L. (2 August, 2006). 5 Popular and Easy to Grow Herbs for Your Garden. Associated Content. Retrieved 15 May, 2010 from

Shafia, L. (2009). Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Concious Life. New York: Ten Speed Press / Random House.

Smith, N. Personal Communication. 15 March, 2010.

Swift, S. (Producer). (20 December 2009). How to Eat Supper. The Splendid Table. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from