How They Did It in the Olden Days – Feeding Lots of Children on a Tight Budget

I recently had the pleasure of spending the day with two great wise women who had raised about seventeen children between the two of them.   They saw their share of hard times, but they found ways to make ends meet.

They both lived in Phoenix in the early 60s and money was tight.  They never asked for a handout from the government, instead they found ways to make the limited funds stretch.

One lovely lady, I’ll call her Mrs. Simone, explained how she would visit the farms in the surrounding areas, and ask the farmer if she could buy produce right off the land.  Often she paid one dollar for a case of vegetables, one time it was cauliflower, another time it might be melons.  Another time she arrived at a field where they were harvesting cabbage and the truck loaded with produce had already pulled out.  Mrs. Simone asked, “What about the cabbage left in the field?” She was told if she paid one dollar and harvested herself, she could have as much as she wanted to pick. She asked for a knife and got busy.  Mrs. Simone owned a station wagon and filled it to the brim!  It was January so she stored it in her garage.  She told me not only her family, but friends and her neighbors ate cabbage for months!  They had cabbage rolls, cole slaw, cabbage in soup, they had cabbage every way you can think and they were happy for it.

This story is astonishing to me because we lived in Phoenix during these same years and my mother never knew about buying crates of food directly from the farmers.  Gas was a lot cheaper back then and sometimes we’d take a drive through to where there were fields of produce.  My mom recently confessed to me that on two occasions she visited those fields to “borrow” a head of cabbage because she had no money to buy food. I wish she had known what Mrs. Simone knew, it would have made our lives easier.

Another thing Mrs. Simone would do would be to ask for the throwaway produce from the grocer for their chickens and goats.  Half the produce in the throwaway bucket was perfectly fine, so she would sort out what had truly perished beyond human consumption and give that to the animals, and use the rest for her family.

Another of the women, I’ll call her Mrs. Marlin told me of a store she shopped that had dented canned goods which were often missing the labels.  She said she got to be pretty good at guessing what was in the cans by shaking and listening to them but sometimes dinner was a big surprise because they would expect to be opening four cans of creamed corn, but end up with beets, peas, green beans and carrots. “That’s when you had to get really inventive!” Mrs. Marlin exclaimed.   She also found a butcher who was willing to give her all the chicken backs, necks and wings for ten cents a pound.  Soup bones were free for the asking from the butcher.  She would put a big soup bone (which usually had meat left on it) into a pot of water, add an onion, some celery and carrots and cook for a few hours.  That made some great stock to which she would add hamburger or leftover pieces of meat, and more vegetables.  Finally she’d make a big batch of biscuits and dinner was served!

From the time I was in my early twenties, which was in the 80s, I used to keep a container with a lid in my freezer to toss in leftovers.  Then once a month I would make soup using the leftover ingredients.  I remember back then we could still get “dog bones” free from the butcher, and they were pretty meaty. Nowadays you pay two dollars or more a pound for a soup bone that’s stripped bare of any meat.  I guess the stores got wise to all the money they were losing by giving away those bones. You could also get chicken wings super cheap, but then “hot wings” were invented and now chicken wings are pricey.

Do you remember any extreme food saving tips from your parents or grandparents?  Share in the comments, I love hearing about the olden days.



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8 comments to How They Did It in the Olden Days – Feeding Lots of Children on a Tight Budget

  • There were times when my working class family wound up getting “Abundant Foods,” the predessessor to Food Stamps. It was interesting because that was the only time we got real butter and as much cheddar cheese as any 12 families could use. I remember that the most disgusting food (if you don’t count the skim milk powder!) was ‘potted meat.’ However, my father had learned to love the stuff during his time in the military, so he ate it on crackers as a snack.


  • S J

    For as long as I can remember, Wednesday has been (and still is) soup day. We were living in Tucson during the 60’s and it was grim. Our food budget for a family of 5 was $16 per week. My mom worked night shift at the hospital and brought home $32 per week. We were lucky because that was a steady income. We ate so many biscuits that I cannot look at them without remembering those hard days. I was married 20 years before my husband even knew that I knew how to make biscuits. My best friend and I sewed all of our own clothes and made shirts for our brothers. We knitted hats and sweaters and darned socks. All through high school, we packed our lunches because we couldn’t afford the school lunches. We never got government cheese or any help. Once a month we would take a 25 pound bag of rice and a 25 pound bag of dried pinto beans to the migrant camps on Nogales Highway. No matter how hard it was for us, the migrant camps were so much worse. Those trips kept things in perspective. And the frugality learned during those hard days serves us well given today’s worries.


  • Abee

    My grandparents kept a milk goat on their city lot. They had plenty of kids to raise during the Depression, but both came from farming families so they already had frugal mindsets. The hard times during the Depression made an impression on my father that never left him. Wasting food was a huge offense in our family, when you have gone without you never ever forget going to bed hungry. The kids would also go down to the creek and pond and gig for frogs, bring them back to the house and the women would cook them up. Same things for crawdads and squirrels. Kids contributed then to the survival of the family in a way few would imagine doing now.


  • My parents lived very frugally with huge gardens when I was growing up.


  • It’s too bad businesses got wise to those frugal ways… A friend of mine is Chinese, living in Australia. He says when his parents first moved to Australia, they could go to the fish market and get all the fish heads they wanted, free! Where they were from, fish heads were typically eaten and enjoyed. In Australia, not so much.

    Now, the days of free fish heads are gone, as the Australian fish sellers learned that they *could* sell the heads to all of these new immigrants…


  • Robert Miras

    I was living with my grand parents when I was a boy. The place were far enough to the market so we cannot have fish for food everyday and sometimes,depending on seasons, we can’t afford to buy. During a season were fish can be bought in a cheap prizes, my grandma bought a bunch of it and store them in a tight container with lots of salt to preserve them in a longer period of time.


  • My grandfather left behind a little bio of his childhood before he passed. Growing up in the depression, they hunted for food and went fishing A LOT for their protein. Apparently they did a lot of fresh, homemade juices, too.


    Mrs. Accountability Reply:

    @femmefrugality, very cool, thanks for sharing that bit of history about your grandfather with us! 🙂


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