Three Frugal Recipes Everyone Can Enjoy

by Vered DeLeeuw · 21 comments

Traditionally, people always needed to find clever ways to stretch their food dollars. I’m not talking about hunters and gatherers – they obviously had a hard time staying well-fed. But even as humans learned how to farm, grow and manufacture their own food, families were still large and resources weren’t necessarily plentiful.

The result is a fascinating collection of frugal recipes that have developed over the years, across cultures and in many different countries. I find it absolutely fascinating that very different cultures, with very different cooking traditions, all share the same basic concept when it comes to frugal recipes: the need to use leftovers, or ingredients that are not very fresh anymore, and the need to stretch small quantities of meat so that they can feed a large number of people. Let’s take a look at a few of these common tricks.

1. Using Day-Old Bread

When I was little, my late grandma used to buy a fresh loaf of bread every morning at the local store. It wasn’t a supermarket – it was a small mom and pop grocery store that carried the very basics – fresh loaves of dark, chewy bread, thick yogurt, full fat, delicious milk, fruit and vegetables, and of course candy for the kids. We used to scold grandma for throwing out the leftover bread each night and buying a fresh loaf every morning. Her response? “Thank God, I now have enough money to buy fresh bread every day.”

My beloved grandma obviously viewed the ability to throw out old bread and buy a fresh loaf daily as a status symbol. Over the years, my grandfather and she have worked hard to raise three girls and to elevate their family from poverty into the middle class. But many cultures have developed delicious recipes that utilize leftover bread. A few of those are bread pudding, bread crumbs and croutons, grilled sandwiches, and French toast. One of my own favorite ways of using day-old bread is to make grilled chocolate sandwiches: you make them just like grilled cheese sandwiches but use unsalted butter, place a few squares of chocolate between the bread slices instead of cheese, and dust with confectioner’s sugar prior to serving. Delicious!

2. Casseroles

I have a book from the fifties that aims to teach young housewives how to cook. It’s not one of the well known books of its era, but I love it because it really focuses on being frugal and on frugal recipes. One of the statements the author makes in the book is that as long as you throw in some butter and cheese, you can pretty much use anything in a casserole and it would still taste good. Now, I’m not so sure about this. I guess you COULD mix together different types of veggies, use the right seasonings, cream it all with some cream and cheese and it would taste OK. But I tend to believe that sometimes, frugal cooking means sacrificing a bit in the taste department, and I’m sure that for many generations before us, that was considered a worthy sacrifice if they could feed a large family and avoid wasting leftovers.

3. Stretching Meat with Starches

Another favorite childhood memory: my grandmother’s Cholent, a Jewish Sabbath stew that cooks over low heat for many hours and is served for lunch when families return from the morning service at the synagogue. I loved my grandmother’s Cholent. It’s a classic winter comfort food -meat, potatoes, beans and eggs, cooked overnight on very low heat until everything is caramelized and browned and melts in your mouth. It is an amazing dish, and it took me years to realize that it uses an ancient trick – using cheap ingredients such as beans and potatoes to stretch small quantities of meat and feed a large family.

Of course, you can find similar dishes in other cultures. My daughter used to have a Japanese friend, and one night we were lucky enough to receive a dinner invitation. We made them promise that they would serve us just what they would make for themselves rather than try and cater to our western taste. We were served bowls that contained steamed white rice, a little seaweed and little pieces of fish – it was fascinating to see how little fish they used in that dish compared to what you usually get at a Japanese restaurant here in the States. The meat was used sparingly, like a condiment, and the meal was stretched with the starch – in this case rice.

Frugal Cooking is Eco Friendly and Healthy

Even today in the western world, where many of us enjoy fresh ingredients and eat meat daily, it’s important to remember that frugal cooking is actually better for our health and for the environment. We don’t really need to eat 8oz of freshly cooked meat each night! Since the manufacturing of meat is so harmful to the environment, and since our bodies need way less protein than we get in a typical western diet, it makes a lot of sense to stretch our ingredients, avoid waste by using leftovers, and treat meat as a condiment, consuming it in very small quantities.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • mollyoo says:

    There is nothing listed here that a human should eat, not one.

    Since arriving at the decision that more than 90 percent of us are indefensibly and insensibly stupid, we won’t explain, only encourage each of you to learn why cooked food is NOT what humans were designed for, mechanically or chemically.

    Please, throw this author over the back of the boat when no one is looking. What a murderous creep.

  • Susan says:

    Pita Bread recipe sounds great. But I am the quick cook kind of gal. Can I make it with already prepared bread dough? This summer heat, surprised if anyone eats at all.

  • CreditShout says:

    My mom used to make the weirdest casseroles with leftovers and whatever else was in the kitchen on Monday nights. They always tasted good, but I never asked what was in them; I was afraid of what she would say.

  • Susan says:

    Dear Vered and Tracy: What great recipes. Thank you both very much. Summer time heat is a way to bring out the frozen leftovers in the freezer left from winter. As long as you don’t have to turn on the oven. Microwave or frying the way to go.

    • Tracy says:

      Susan one recipe I make a lot during the summer is Vered’s pitas ( I make them in the morning before it gets hot and they are indeed fabulous. I’ll then pick up a rotisserie chicken from the market and all sorts of vegetables like lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, carrots, bell pepper, tomatoes, fruit for dessert and make a big batch of hummus.

      Then we have a feast. And all the leftovers make a great lunch the next day. It’s a good watch to stretch one chicken to feed a family of 7 and so easy to just put out on the table and let everyone make their own.

      I read in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian that you can make pita bread on the stovetop in a cast iron skillet but I’ve yet to try it. Maybe I’ll do the next batch that way and report back.

  • Tracy says:

    When I have fruit that is looking like it might not be eaten in time, I freeze it and use it later to make smoothies.

    One of my favorite ways to use up a small bit of leftover meat is to make fried rice the next day. You only need a tiny amount to feed a lot of people and can clean out your veggie bin at the same time. If it looks like it won’t be hearty enough, you can add a couple of eggs. So delicious and easy and if you make it at home it doesn’t have to be as oily and salty as the restaurant version.

  • Vered DeLeeuw says:

    I 100% agree that it’s perfectly fine to spend entire summers eating fresh, raw foods and avoiding cooking altogether.

  • Susan says:

    In the summer time I try not to even turn on the oven. Everything is strictly stove top. Or I use the frying pan, counter top convection oven, or wok. Of course, my crock-pot. Sometimes, clean up is simple. Helps keep the heat inside the apartment down. Saves energy.

  • says:

    Good ideas for leftovers. In summer when it is hot, my wife and I do not even like to cook. We usually just eat sandwichs or cereal. Simple and no frills. We do not spend a lot on groceries and do not run a lot of appliances at home. Plus we do not overeat.

  • Cath Lawson says:

    Hi Vered – I never thought of trying chocolate sandwiches but I do love pain au chocolate.

    I always include more starches and fruit and veg than meat in my meals though. I totally agree with you on meat – many people eat far more than is necessary and we really don’t need that much.

  • Benjamin Bankruptcy says:

    For old bread my favourite thing to do is to make Gnochi with it. Gnochi traditionally is just whatever root vegetables (sweet potato, pumking, potato etc) mixed with old bread until you get a dough.

    The other thing is to make bread crumbs and toast them with some garlic, olive oil and salt, sprinkle them over pasta. Freaking delicious

    My favourite cook books are the CWA (country womans association) cookbook and the Common Sense cook book. Both were published before 1930 but all the ingredients are (flour, salt, milk, eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg) there’s not (foie gras, or 5 different types of soy sause etc)

    I need a recipe to deal with left over fruit. Any suggestions?

    • Vered DeLeeuw says:

      A friend of mine has taught herself how to make jam. It’s delicious, but I’m not sure it’s such a great solution becuase now we’re all stuck with large quantities of jam and really, there’s so much jam a person can eat in a lifetime. πŸ™‚

  • Susan says:

    Great ideas about leftovers. I would like the recipe of Cholent. Sounds filling and something you can make in crock-pot. My crock-pot recipes I usually get a couple leftovers off them.

  • Cd Phi says:

    Recently, my family and I changed our entire meal plans. We’ve started eating really healthy chicken breast/salmon/tofu with a serving of steamed vegetables and soup to top it all off. This is actually really simple and extremely healthy as well.

  • KM says:

    When I lived in the Moroccan Sahara desert, I was actually surprised how the locals wasted food. No one kept any leftovers, and even though they had refrigerators, most of the food was not even stored in it, thereby causing it to spoil in the heat. I had to make the effort to inform everyone to not throw away the plate I put in the fridge and that I want to eat it for breakfast the next day if there was something left from the dinner. I was raised to not throw anything away, which usually meant eating everything, but later modified to storing it for later instead of stuffing yourself. So it was very surprising to me that in such a poor place where fruits and vegetables are so hard to grow because of the dry climate, people were still throwing food away.

  • kt says:

    it is not healthy to eat meat all the time. I read somewhere that the body just takes the protein it needs from a single meal and the rest is disposed of-which is a very little amount. I like meat but i dont eat so much of it. Another upside is that my veins wont get clogged up when i am older. Nice post btw.

  • heaps! says:

    This is great because it promotes people to use all the resources they already have. In the western culture, waste of food is a large problem. Buying in bulk i probably one of the biggest culprit of wasting food.

    Fruits and Vegetables are perhaps the biggest examples of how food can be wasted. People tend to buy quantities of which they will not use in full until they are spoiled.

    One trick would be to use over-ripe fruits and vegetables in baking and cooking. They might not be so appetising when eaten raw, but when they are used as ingredients in recipes they won’t be noticed for their over-ripeness, and will not be wasted.

    Of course, it is important for people to think of how much they will actually use of a certain food item before they purchase it. it will be a complete waste if it is not used in full before it expires or spoils.


    • Vered DeLeeuw says:

      So true. I just had to throw away a couple of moldy peaches. πŸ™

      • CB says:

        Get a dehydrator. My excess gets dried and used later. Just start fruit when not too over ripe. Dried Veggies are great to snack on or use in soups and casseroles.

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