A Prairie Farmer’s Meal Plan: Eat for a Buck or Two a Day

Photo: Judith

The lost art of cooking for pennies usually comes in the form of cheap spaghetti dinners in the pages of women’s magazines and internet forums. All of this is well and good, but what if it becomes necessary to eat for even less? How can a person learn to cook even cheaper and sustain their needs in a way that a box of Hamburger Helper just can’t deliver? I found all of these answers in a gently used copy of A Prairie Kitchen: Recipes, Poems, and Colorful Stories from the Prairie Farmer magazine, 1841-1900.

I won’t lie and tell you that the eating is fabulous in this book. These are recipes from the prairie. Cooks of that period didn’t have the kinds of staples found in most kitchens today. They did, however, have more time and patience for making meals at a low cost. With an absence of MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, and salty additives, the food might not taste as flavorful as what we’re used to. The simple fixings of a prairie kitchen, however, carry the sweetness of saving money!

A blend of history with down-home advice, I love the book’s versions of Johnny Cakes and Tea Rusks. And while I’m not up for the task for making my own Potato Yeast just yet, it gives me even more appreciation for the work that my ancestors put into their meals. The cheapest meals do without eggs (which are ironically becoming a commodity in today’s kitchens, as well.) Many omit meat and instead use beans.

Included in the book are the notes of an Iowa housekeeper, who devised a meal plan for 3 cents per meal. While 3 cents won’t buy a paperclip where I live, the meal plan can be adapted to feed a person today for probably around $1-2 a day.  It’s not glamorous, and calls for bread and gravy, mush (which is a lot like grits or oatmeal), and potatoes. It would be similar to the typical poor college fare of Ramen noodles and generic mac and cheese (but might actually keep you full longer.)

For a more modern approach on the “bare-bones” diet, you might find the Hillbilly Housewife a better resource. Her emergency meal plan can feed a family of 4-6 on about $45 a week. That’s not that bad, and her recipes aren’t either. While I couldn’t eat that way for too long, it is a nice emergency plan with plenty of recipes for things like tortillas, biscuits, and refried beans.

As the daughter of a Nebraska farmer, and the granddaughter of one stubborn Dane, I’m aware that our typical meal plan is a far cry from what I really need to survive. And while I’m not ready to ditch all my prepared foods in favor of mash and beans, it’s nice to know that there are options to the high-priced convenience products I’m comfortable buying.

Until my trip to the store gets too costly, or my manufacturer’s coupons don’t cover the cost of inflation, I’ll continue to enjoy a few treats every now and again. But it’s always good to be educated on how to prepare for the future!

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Julie Rains's picture

I love the emergency meal plan -- a great way to have a low-cost grocery week.

Guest's picture

Google 'self reliance' or 'food storage' for a wide variety of low cost eating sites. Most are based on storing a year's supply of basic foods but will give you many ideas including making your own mixes to replace Bisquick, Cream of soups, puddings, etc. By not buying prepared foods but cooking from scratch you'll not only save money but have healthier food.

Guest's picture

This is a great resource for those who haven't gotten their bill down very low. There are a great variety of frugal blogs out there that involve couponing, etc that can get a normal bill down below 45 for that size family. I would love to invite you to stop by my blog to see what I'm doing that relates to this post :) Thanks for the great blog! I love the variety of authors :)

Guest's picture

As a writer with a limited income, this post is great, especially since we've just been hit in Spain with a truckers strike and the stores might not be getting deliveries this week...

Guest's picture

I liked the emergency meal plan but stopped when I got to the shopping list - no way could I buy all that for $45 where I live in New York city! That would be at least $100 here, if not more. Anytime I stop in for a few odds and ends at the grocery store the bill is always $30+

I'll try some of those recipes though! Beans are indeed cheap and good, especially when you buy dried rather than canned.

Guest's picture

One of the recipies on the hillbilly housewife page is for peanutbutter noodles of some sort. Everything else is good and/or eatable. The noodles however were *so* bad that even during our crunch time we washed the peanut butter off and just had butter and noodles.

It's the only dish my wife ever made which I genuinely wouldn't ever try again.

Guest's picture

I found you through Jen, who found me through my BabyCenter blog. I am all about frugal, healthy eating. This is such a great tip for me as a mom, as well as for others who want to eat well. Thank you so much!

Guest's picture

I think that the book How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher is an interesting read -- about how to stretch food during World War II when many foods, including meat, dairy were rationed in the US. This was back when the government encouraged people to garden for their own consumption & taught its citizens how to really economize.