11 Budget-Friendly Depression-Era Recipes That Are Still Delicious

Chef John's Prison-Style Meatloaf
Photo: Chef John

To say the Great Depression changed the way Americans ate would be an understatement. Home cooks dropped or reduced the use of costly ingredients like meat, dairy, and eggs. Today, while these foods are more plentiful and budget-friendly than before, we can still look to the Depression-era for inspiration for low-cost meals and dishes. Throw together a pot of lima bean soup flavored with ham bone, stretch your meat budget with meat ball-inspired meatloaf, or add zip to your meals with cost-effective homemade pickles.

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Chef John's Stuffed Peppers

a white ceramic baking dish holding 6 baked stuffed red bell peppers
Chef John's Beef and Rice Stuffed Peppers. Chef John

"This recipe's roots can be traced back to the Great Depression, when farmers first began selling the unripe peppers out of necessity," says Chef John. "Of course, we did what Americans always do when faced with a new variety of food, we stuffed meat in it." Use green bell peppers to keep the dish traditional, or opt for ripe red peppers to create a colorful meal.

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Penne Pasta with Peas and Prosciutto

Penne Pasta with Peas and Prosciutto
Mike G

This simple pasta is bulked up with beans and peas, while a meaty flavor is infused into the whole dish from a few slices of prosciutto. No prosciutto on hand? Many reviewers have had success swapping in bacon instead.

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Chef John's Bread and Butter Pickles

Chef John's Bread and Butter Pickles

"At the end of summer during the Great Depression the excess cucumber crop was sliced, salted, pickled, and put up in jars for the cold, lean months ahead," shares Chef John. "I can just imagine what a treat it was to fill a sandwich with these sweet crunchy coins (bread and butter pickles, as they came to be known). I'm sure it was a wonderful break from what must have been a fairly flavorless existence."

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Tomato Cakes

Tomato Cakes on a paper towel
Safire Arista Browning

Only a handful of ingredients are needed to create these crispy golden cakes. Each bite is made from a combination of crushed Saltines, chopped onions, and diced tomatoes, all fried up in a little oil. "Tasty and cheap, this is a recipe from the Great Depression," shares STORMBORN.

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Dad's Lima Bean Soup with Ham Bone

Dad's Lima Bean Soup with Ham Bone

Soup is normally a meal that's easy on the wallet. Simply add in a few extra veggies and more broth to magically double up your servings. This recipe follows that idea, using a ham bone for a distinct meaty flavor throughout.

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Deb's Cloverleaf Rolls

close up of Deb's Cloverleaf Rolls

These fluffy oat rolls are a recipe that has been passed down through generations. Deb shares, "My grandmother, in the Depression, had five children and not a lot of income. So she had to get up quite early in the morning and make loaves of bread and rolls to sell so that she could supplement the income and keep the family going."

07 of 12

Ham Cups and Eggs

Ham Cups and Eggs

This filling dinner, described as a recipe that "came out of the hard times of the Great Depression," works as an easy way to use up leftovers. Prepared mashed potatoes are served with an egg-filled ham cup on top and drizzled with a Hollandaise sauce for extra richness.

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Chicken and Sliders

Chicken and Sliders on a grey plate

"This recipe is an old French Canadian recipe which originated during the Depression. It consists of tender pieces of chicken and homemade noodles swimming in a delicious gravy," says Sharon Howard. This stick-to-your-ribs meal is perfect for a cold evening.

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Chef John's Meatball-Inspired Meatloaf

Chef John's Prison-Style Meatloaf
Chef John

"During the Great Depression this type of dish was a popular strategy for stretching what little meat you had into as filling a meal as possible," says Chef John. This recipe has all the classic meatball mix-ins — breadcrumbs, eggs, onion, and cheese — to create a filling dish without too much meat.

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Lighter Potato and Leek Soup

Lighter Potato and Leek Soup in a white bowl

Made without cream or butter, this velvety soup was created by user wamsley's grandmother as a cost-effective meal during the Great Depression. Each bite is studded with creamy potatoes, savory leeks, and flavorful garlic.

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Spaghetti Sauce with Cauliflower

Spaghetti Sauce with Cauliflower
Alberta Rose

Recreate the hearty texture of Bolognese with coarsely chopped cauliflower and sweet onions. "This recipe goes back to the Great Depression," says impellizzeri kitchen. "My large Italian family gathered in the kitchen and tried many ways to prepare Sunday dinner on a tight budget. My friends and family couldn't believe that there is no ground beef in this sauce."

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