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What Did Our Grandparents Do?

Storing foods and being frugal are all part of preparing for tough times. This month I thought it might be fun to look at what people did during the Great Depression here in America. When times are tough you might not have as many ingredients or be able to afford some of the items. Thinking about substitutes ahead of time can help you plan for when you might not be able to obtain resources.

During the Depression, it was common to substitute many items that they did have for ones they wished they had. My grandmother and mother would often talk about what they had for meals and what they cooked. Many of our family recipes are based on these substitutes they used. There are many recipes and stories out there, but here are a few examples of substitutes that my family used. Many carried down to my childhood and some we still use.


We often take drinks for granted, but just having water can be boring or maybe the water doesn’t taste that good in your area. What can you substitute when you can’t get your normal favorite beverages? What did our parents and grandparents do?

Tea is pretty easy to make with mint, lavender and many flowers and herbs and that was very common and still is today. Coffee is a little more creative when you can get coffee grounds. Wheat products or Postum and Chicory were often used in place of coffee or were often added to a small amount to stretch it. You can still purchase both as coffee substitutes today.

Families often drank milk at meals during that time and buttermilk was sometimes drunk instead of regular milk. The reason was that if they were making their own butter this was the byproduct and was extra and was often discarded. Part of my family ran a dairy farm and many dairies gave this away to people that couldn’t afford milk since it was no longer needed after making the butter.


Even when I was a child different meat extenders were common. Soy or tofu products along with lentils, beans, and oats were used. We have meatloaf, hamburger helper and spaghetti, and other meals that help extend food even now. During the Depression, they did have meatloaf, but they also had “Meat and Potatoes Patties” which is a really small amount of hamburger and lots of mashed potato. For breakfast, a mixture of bread crumbs or mashed potato covered with bacon for a tasty bite was a bonus. Or gravy bread or maybe cornbread with a little sausage. Often just gravy and toast and wish you had some meat in the gravy.

In the city, they would also take meat and potatoes and form them into chicken legs, and deep fry them. They also did this with Spam (canned meat) and made lamb-shaped or chicken-shaped loaves. These are areas where they couldn’t get chicken meat and had to make do. It was a tasty treat for the kids. Always reminded me of an early version of chicken nuggets. My family had chickens and eggs, so they fared better than many others they knew.

During tough times when they couldn’t afford beef or chicken, many people would venture out for squirrels, rabbits, possums, prairie dogs, raccoons, birds, and if possible larger game. However, most stuck with smaller game. It is harder to process large game and they could send children out to gather berries and set snares for smaller game.

For lunch, they often didn’t have lunch meat. Instead, they would use beans, a mashed potato sandwich, an onion, a ketchup-only sandwich, or liver. I used to have fried bologna sandwiches on toast as a kid as a dinnertime sandwich.


I grew up pulling dandelions, mustard greens and lamb quarters. I know my parents grew up the same way and would talk about other greens and wild onions and garlic they picked. In my family we would use them as part of a salad or more common a “Mess of Greens” and cook them down. We also cooked the lettuce or cabbage down this way as well. Most common was to add vinegar to these cooked greens.


I grew up making our own stock from vegetables and more often from the leftover bones from dinner. When I have a chicken dinner, all of the scraps and bones go into the crockpot with some water. Roast or steak-those bones are also going into the crock pot to simmer and develop a nice broth. This is something I was taught from early childhood.

Soups and chowder were great for this-a small amount of meat for flavoring or to make the stock and then lots of beans or lentils. Soup was often served at all different times of the day. Something warm with lots of liquid to fill you up. You could add the root ends of green onions, carrot peels, or any scraped vegetables to help with the stock or flavor in the soup.


Sugar and fruits were hard to come by and this is an area where they got creative. There are many versions of Mock Apple pie that include using club crackers and tomatoes and other items. I have tried some and they often do come close to tasting like apples.

Other creative pies and cakes include Vinegar Pie, Grape Jelly Pie, and Surprise Spiced Cake (when there was no oil they used tomato sauce from the garden tomatoes). Green tomatoes were either fried or grandma made it into tomato pie or had fried green tomatoes as a side dish. Often cakes were flourless cakes.

On holidays we usually had pecan pie growing up, but that wasn’t always possible during the Depression. No pecans-then Shoofly Pie to remind you of that taste. Near the family farm grew apples and often had baked apples or apple crisp. Grandma would also dry apples or make them into hot apple cider to drink.

Leftover bread crumbs were often made into bread pudding. Leftover rice into rice pudding. My grandmother never wasted any scraps of food. It always became something else. Waste not-want not was her motto and it showed in her cooking.


My grandmother would always serve homemade pickles at every meal. She made pickles from watermelon rinds, cantaloupe rinds, tomatoes, and about anything she could find to pickle. Cucumber of course, but she often got creative even with cucumbers.

She also always kept a jar of lard and one of bacon grease and in the old days they would use these on bread or toast when they didn’t have butter to cook with.


Bread was one of the hardest-hit items during the Depression. The cost rose 50% from 1930-1935. This caused breadlines to become commonplace in many cities during this time. Long lines were created and the numbers of homeless and unemployed people often overwhelmed the charities that were giving out food.

Cornmeal was often used as a substitute and could be used for mush or better - cornbread and corn pones. Others made fried bread, tortillas, and Hoover bread. We even had potato bread with potato sausage for breakfast.

So why be interested in Depression foods? When times are tough it forces you to be creative. The people that were most successful during the Depression had already developed the lifestyle of lean living and not letting things go to waste. It is a good survival skill to have and practice before you need it.

Recipes for “Depression Patties” and other recipes can be found in the Agape Recipe book. There is a link in the Recipe article below also a link can be found at

What Did Your Parents or Grandparents Do

These are just a few things that my parents and grandparents did during the Depression or tough times. They also made their own cleaners and home remedies. Ask your family or friends what did people do in your area during tough times. Then you can consider what might work for you and your family. Try some of the recipes and make it fun to see how you can save. Challenge family and close friends on ways to cut back and try different methods. Have fun as you learn how others did it in the past.

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