Thrifty Eats: Great Depression Recipes for Tough Times

Interior of an old and deserted house

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a time of profound economic hardship, forcing Americans to be resourceful with limited ingredients.

Great Depression food, born out of necessity, continues to inspire frugal and inventive cooking in challenging times.

Today, as we face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in these Depression-era meals has resurged, reflecting a need for the lessons and resilience of that era.

This comprehensive guide explores the popular dishes, cooking techniques, and recipes of the Great Depression, shedding light on their enduring relevance in times of adversity.

Popular Great Depression Meals

During the Great Depression, people had to be resourceful with their meals. Here are some popular dishes from that era:


Wooden plate with hot chili peppers. On a rustic dark background. High quality photo

Chili was a popular meal during the Great Depression because it was inexpensive and could feed a lot of people.

The recipe usually consisted of ground beef, beans, and canned tomatoes.

Macaroni and Cheese

Homemade Creamy Macaroni and Cheese Pasta in a Bowl

Macaroni and Cheese was another popular dish because it was made with inexpensive ingredients like pasta and cheese.


Front view of pumpkin soup on white background with olive oil and parsley

Soups were a staple during the Great Depression because they were easy to make and could be made with whatever ingredients were on hand.

Creamed Chicken on Biscuits

Close up of fresh homemade biscuits with country gravy and sausage bits

Creamed chicken on biscuits was a comfort food during the Great Depression because it was filling and delicious.

Celery Soup with Tuna Fish and Mashed Potatoes

Celery soup with tuna fish and mashed potatoes was a popular meal during the Great Depression because it was cheap and filling.

Salad of Corned Beef, Gelatin, and Canned Peas

A salad of corned beef, gelatin, and canned peas was a popular meal during the Great Depression because it was easy to make and used ingredients that were readily available.

Baked Onion Stuffed with Peanut Butter

A baked onion stuffed with peanut butter was a popular meal during the Great Depression because it was an inventive way to use up leftover onions and peanut butter.

Cooking Techniques for the Great Depression

Pouring food oil in hot pan for deep frying.

During the Great Depression, people had to be creative with their cooking techniques.

Here are some popular techniques that were used:

Stretching Ingredients

People during the Great Depression would stretch ingredients as far as they could by adding things like rice or pasta to meat dishes and using water in place of milk or cream.

Canning and Preserving

Preserved vegetables in glass jars. Top view

Because fresh produce was often too expensive during the Great Depression, people could preserve fruits and vegetables so they could enjoy them throughout the year.

Making Do with Less

Many people during the Great Depression had to learn to make do with less, often relying on inexpensive ingredients like potatoes, beans, and rice to create filling dishes.

Recipes for Great Depression Meals

Here are some recipes for popular Great Depression meals that you can try at home:

Meat and Potato Patties

Combine ground beef with diced potatoes, onions, and seasonings, then form into patties and fry in a skillet until cooked through. Serve with ketchup or gravy if desired.

Mock Apple Pie

Instead of apples, use crushed crackers as a filling for this pie.

Combine cracker crumbs with sugar, water, and lemon juice, then pour into a pie crust and bake until golden brown.

Depression Cake

This cake was made without milk, butter, or eggs, making it an affordable treat during the Great Depression.

Mix flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.

Add water, vegetable oil, and vinegar, and mix until combined. Pour into a greased baking pan and bake until a toothpick comes out clean.

Bread Pudding

To make bread pudding, tear stale bread into small pieces and place in a greased baking dish.

In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract, then pour over the bread. Bake until set and golden brown.

Modern Variations on Great Depression Meals

While many of the meals from the Great Depression were born out of necessity, they can still be enjoyed today with a few modern twists:

Healthier Versions of Classic Recipes

Try using whole wheat pasta for macaroni and cheese, or swapping ground turkey for beef in chili to create healthier versions of classic Great Depression meals.

Creative Twists on Traditional Dishes

Add your own spin on traditional dishes by incorporating new flavors and ingredients.

For example, add fresh herbs or vegetables to soups, or try using different types of cheeses in macaroni and cheese.

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.