9 money-saving tricks from the past to cut food costs during inflation

On a recent national broadcast on rising food prices and inflation, I was struck by the graphic: An empty shopping cart in front of a refrigerated display of expensive imported cheeses. I don’t think whether or not we can afford a steady supply of Brie is what really worries us right now.

Instead, I’d bet most of us have noticed how our bills have tripled over the past few months just by buying basics like produce, eggs, poultry and meat. . And we are all looking for ways to reduce that final bill to a manageable number at the register.

The best way to do this, I have found, is to learn from the past. I grew up during the runaway inflation of the 70s and remember well how my mother coped. I also gleaned a lot of advice from immigrant grandparents, my own and those of my classmates, who experienced the Great Depression and World War II rationing. Not only do their recipes and techniques still inform the way we eat today, they are helpful in guiding us toward more frugal habits.

Many of the guiding principles that helped those generations survive can be used today. Here are some of the best.

Use less expensive cuts of meat

For example, your favorite smoked brisket has its roots in the Eastern European poor shtetls. Because it was a large, tough piece of meat that took a long time to cook, it was difficult to sell and therefore the cheapest. Jewish immigrants brought it to America, where they settled everywhere from Manhattan to Memphis to Dallas. Beef brisket kept its roots as a Jewish holiday meal but also became pastrami (in Romania, where it was developed, the pastrami was made with goose) and eventually found its way to barbecue joints.

Check out tips 5 and 6 here for some great inexpensive haircuts to try.

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During World War II, a wife and mother present her ration book to the butcher behind the counter of a delicatessen, Hyde Park, New York, 1943.

Stretch your proteins

We’re so used to adding rice to stuffed cabbage and meatloaf breadcrumbs that we hardly ever stop to wonder why. But there are three reasons why such recipes have developed. On the one hand, they used little bits of leftovers: that last ball of rice, that stub of bread. On the other hand, they lengthened the amount of meat, making more. And finally, by adding such elements, they bound the ground protein, preventing it from slipping in the sauce.

You can spread your protein grinds with everything from cheap root vegetables to crushed crackers that go stale to the last handful of potato chips left in the bag.

Replace expensive ingredients

When times are tough, some items become not only inexplicably expensive, but hard to find. We saw it in May 2021 with the shortage of chicken wings, when wings were at an all-time high of $3.25 a pound. Still, the thighs were still cheap, which confused people because every chicken has two of each, right? It’s just that thighs just aren’t as popular.

Today, poultry prices in general have fallen, but meat prices are on the rise and is expected to remain high through 2025 due to drought issues. Take note from vegans as well as Latin American cooks around the world: beans are nutritious, much cheaper, and incredibly filling.

A home cook prepares baked eggs as a meat substitute in 1942.

Universal History Archive via Getty Images

A home cook prepares baked eggs as a meat substitute in 1942.

Shell egg prices were also high, then fell and are now slowly recovering. Depending on your budget, you may not have one in the house at times. And yet, you can still make Wacky Cake ― developed during the Great Depression/WWII, it’s one of the most famous examples of how to bake without eggs, milk or butter, relying on vinegar to get it up.

Reuse your leftovers

Breathe new life into your leftovers by incorporating them into new recipes. Save the last few tablespoons of mashed potatoes, the remaining florets of roasted cauliflower, half a hamburger, or even the remains of a fish fillet. There’s always a way to combine a starchy vegetable and a protein in a hash or patty. Just add some sautéed or minced onion for extra flavor.

You can do the same with leftover rice and turn it into arancini (rice balls), fried rice, or rice salad.

Marinate and preserve

Pickling and preserving are excellent ways to prevent produce from rotting. You don’t have to be an expert canner either, or have a huge batch of anything. Also known as fridge pickles, quick pickles don’t require vacuum sealing and are great for mixed vegetables. All you need is a bath of equal parts vinegar and water with salt and sugar (adjust to taste). Add spices, a clove or two of garlic or herbs to vary the flavor.

A home cook preserves tomatoes grown in her Victory Garden in 1944.

Universal History Archive via Getty Images

A home cook preserves tomatoes grown in her Victory Garden in 1944.

Use and reuse

Don’t want to make your own brine? Reuse any brine after you finish a jar of pickles to make more. There’s no reason to throw out a perfectly good brine when you can cut carrots or red onions into it and save them. You can also use pickle brine to marinate your chicken before frying.

Ditto olive oil that comes from jars of artichokes or olives. These make great marinades as well as salad dressings.

Make flavored ice cubes

Freezing is another way to save these oils as well as wilted products, especially fragile young vegetables such as arugula or herbs. Crush them with nuts that may go rancid and/or cheese left too long in the refrigerator and pour the mixture into ice cube trays. Voila ― you have pesto cubes. Then you can drop these flavor bombs into soups, turn them into salad dressings, use them to top pastas, or add them to any other dish that needs a boost of flavor.

Save the seeds and plant a garden

During World War II, when food rationing and labor shortages had a major effect on supply chains, the government urged individuals to plant victory gardens to supplement their meals (and show their patriotism). The the pandemic has made gardening popular againwhich also helped relieve stress and anxiety.

Harry Nelson helps his Girl Scout daughter and their friends plant a victory garden during the national Food for Victory campaign in San Francisco, California in February 1943.

Universal History Archive via Getty Images

Harry Nelson helps his Girl Scout daughter and their friends plant a victory garden during the national Food for Victory campaign in San Francisco, California in February 1943.

But you don’t have to go to great lengths to reap the benefits. Every vegetable and fruit ― peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, avocados ― you buy has a pit or seeds that you can then plant. If your onions or garlic sprout before you can eat them, don’t throw them away. Plant them. If your potatoes grow eyes, ditto. And never buy cut fruits, especially pineapples, when you can buy them whole for much less money and get the top to boot. A pineapple takes at least a year to grow from its top into a plant which produces another fruit. But if you start all you eat, you can have the same amount around the same time the following year.

Clip coupons and find rewards programs

By rummaging through an envelope of coupons we cut from magazines and newspapers and collecting S&H green stamps certainly belongs to the past. But many stores now offer coupons and rewards in digital form. And there are always BOGO deals. If you don’t have enough storage space, find a neighbor to split shopping or cooking costs with, or form a warehouse club to offset the deterioration of bulk purchases. And sign up for rewards programs at your local stores or through your credit cards. You’d be surprised how much money comes back to you each year this way.


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