Meal stretching is the learned art of taking simple, low-cost ingredients and turning them into not just one appealing meal for your family, but with some careful planning and a few adjustments, several meals to meet your family’s needs.
This is a subject I expect that most of us, at least SurvivalBlog readers, have already acquired a fair bit of knowledge. Sometimes it’s easy to assume then, that the ability to make one meal become three is all but ubiquitous. But recently something happened, making me re-think my assumption that folks at large are familiar with ways to help keep themselves and their loved ones fed, when lean times hit.
For most of their formative years my husband and I raised our children in a lovely suburb in New Jersey. Surprising to most, New Jersey has some of the nicest, safest towns in the country. No crime. Good schools. Surprisingly conservative morals. Close-knit communities. In peacetime, that is. Not a place to be when teh SHTF. Nice folks but no prepper awareness at all.
This community, though appealing, wasn’t one I could afford to live in. I was working there as the secretary in a small Baptist church but living in a more affordable town when, to no fault of our own, the apartment complex we were living in suffered damage and we lost everything. Like, everything. We left with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. In a not-worth-rehashing detail, our renter’s insurance found a way to not cover it. So, God’s people being who they are, took us under their wing and found someone-who-knew-someone in town with a wonderful apartment to rent at far below market value. The church folks also showed up with used furniture, toys, kitchen items–the works. In three days, I had a home and all we needed. We stayed there almost a decade. I’m still grateful.
So, while we were living there, surrounded by million-dollar homes, it was clear to the neighbors and our children’s friends that we ‘didn’t have a lot’ compared to them. Especially when we took the risk of me giving up my job to go to nursing school. Things were really lean for a while. In our neighborhood my children’s lack of electronics, our beat-up old cars, even our ‘not only on Sunday’ faith really stood out. Never bothered me one bit. And while I always assumed it was noticed, it wasn’t focused on. My children’s friends gravitated to us. And I fed every kid that walked in the door.
Fast forward to the current day, having voted with our feet several years ago, we now live in a small town with which we are more homogenous. Which brings me to a recent occurrence that brought home the fact that meal stretching is not naturally occurring but a learned art.
We all know that the Covid fallout has left a lot of people in lean times. Some, apparently, for the first time ever. Like Mary. A 20-something year old in New Jersey who, along with several of her family members, has lost her job. Last week Mary sought out my daughter on social media to ask for advice on “how to make cheap meals.” Her family is really struggling. She recalled our family and sought N out as a resource. Wow. For them, and perhaps many others, this is a new circumstance and a new challenge. One for which they are under-equipped. Mary’s situation really struck a chord with me. And while it’s easy to get judgmental about that level of ill-preparedness, this may be the reason the Lord allowed our “less-than-the-Jones’’ lifestyle to be on full display to our neighbors. He gave us knowledge to share with tangible and practical advice.
As I stated, in this forum, I don’t fathom that this will be brand new information. Rather, just some good tips to be shared amongst like-minded frugal folks. And I’m looking forward to your own ideas in the Comments section as I’m always looking to expand my lean budget repertoire!
The first low-cost “go-to” meal is one I made up years ago when my kids asked for Tacos. I had a packet of taco seasoning but no money for ground beef. Through a little creativity I came up with:
Taco rice and beans
(“How to feed 4 people for about 3 dollars”.)
- ½ small onion, diced (50 cents, save other half for another recipe)
- 1 can pinto beans (50 cents)
- I can corn, undrained (50 cents)
- I cup white rice, cooked = 3 cups (1lb bag is 85 cents, save remainder for other recipes)
- About ½ packet taco seasoning (50 cents – save remainder)
- 2 T oil (I’m assuming most have some on hand, if not 85 cents for margarine)
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional – half of a $2 bag, on sale)
Cook rice to package directions, set aside. Saute onion in oil. Add pinto beans and undrained corn. Add taco seasoning. The starchy juice from the corn and the beans cooks down into a thickened sauce. Serve ¾ cup rice in each bowl with the sauteed mixture over it. Easily makes 4 filling servings.
This bare-bones recipe costs less than 3 dollars. A little more than $5 if you have cheese and needed to buy margarine or oil. Of course, it can be easily expanded upon as budget allows. Add chicken, add green onion, add sour cream. Some diced tomato. The possibilities are endless but even in it’s stripped-down form, this recipe is tasty, appealing to young ones, nutritious and very economical! And it’s the first recipe my daughter shared with Mary.
Now, that’s good for one day but kids have this habit of getting hungry every day so what’s next? I usually would find an inexpensive meat to build a meal around and then stretch that basic meal into several others. For example:
- 1 package chicken leg quarters Even now that I can afford other things – I still use leg quarters for my soup because they give it the best flavor! (usually still find a small pack of 4 count for around $4.29)
- 3 carrots, sliced (1 lb bag $1)
- Celery – inner most small stalks and leaves + 1 or two ribs, chopped (whole head 1.29 at my Walmart)
- The other ½ onion (already paid for)
- 3/4 cup rice (already paid for)
- 1/3 tsp Salt +/- depending on taste and blood pressure (26 oz container 36 cents at walmart)
- 1 bay leaf (1 container is about $1.35, can be left out but well worth it if in budget)
- About 5 quarts water
Place all ingredients in a large pot and simmer, stirring occasionally for about 45 minutes to one hour. When chicken is cooked through, turn heat off and remove chicken. Carefully strip ALL the meat off the chicken and dice. Depending on size of chicken quarters this will easily yield about 3 cups of chicken. Add about 1 ½ cups back to soup. You now have a full pot of delicious and filling soup that can generously feed 8 people. Or, feed a family of 4 dinner for two nights.
Reserve about 2 cups of the broth and the other 1 ½ cups of chicken. Now for the stretching.
Chicken pot pie filling
- 1 carrot, diced (paid for)
- 1 celery stalk, diced (paid for)
- 1 can peas (50 cents)
- 1 cup of reserved chicken stock (paid for)
- ¾ cup reserved chicken (paid for)
- 1Tbsp flour or corn starch (on hand)
Cook the diced carrot and celery in the chicken broth (or microwave) and add to a medium saucepan. Then thicken with 1Tbsp of flour or corn starch (going to assume this is on hand) add can of peas and ¾ C diced chicken. Heat through and stir.
This filling can be used in a multitude of ways. Of course, if you have the where with all to make a pie crust, you’ve got a classic chicken pot pie. Or, for an easy ‘weeknight’ dinner, empty into a buttered 8 x 8 casserole dish and add uncooked refrigerator biscuits on top ($1) and bake as a casserole.
A little more stretching…
Black bean and chicken soft tacos
- Remaining ¾ c diced chicken (already paid for)
- 1/2 c rice, cooked = 1 ½ C cooked (already paid for)
- 1 can black beans (50 cents)
- Remaining 1 cup of broth (already paid for)
- ½ packet taco seasoning (already paid for)
- 8 pack flour tortillas ($1.82 at Walmart)
- Other 1 cup of shredded cheese if you splurged on it
Make rice according to package directions. In a separate pan, heat broth, beans, chicken and taco seasoning in a pan until thickened. Line each of the soft shells with rice and then add a few spoons of the mixture and top with cheese, if available. Makes 8 soft tacos.
Through the learned art of meal stretching, the preceding was five nights worth of tasty, economical entrees for a family of four. Total cost: $17.81. I looked up current, local prices for each item. Some required a little searching, but all were the readily available ’right now’ store brand price without coupons. That’s even with current Covid inflation. This entire menu comes to 0.89 cents per meal, per person. That’s assuming you included, cheese, margarine and bay leaf. If not, it’s only 0.68 per person, per meal!
Over the years I have developed several such menus and I’ll share more of them tomorrow, in Part 2.
Meal stretching, once considered common knowledge among Great Depression-era families, is now a growing need in families all over our country. Many of whom, until recently, didn’t know they would ever seek such information but now find the presence or lack thereof may be the difference between a full belly and an empty plate.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)