Good Food for Hard Times: Lessons—and Recipes—From Wartime and the Great Depression

BY Jennifer McGruther TIMEJuly 21, 2022 PRINT

If you take a hard look at your grocery bill, you’re probably a little unnerved these days. While the cost of just about everything has increased over the past several months, food costs have skyrocketed. Food inflation has accelerated for more than a year, by whopping 10 percent in the most recent calculations. That’s a rate we haven’t seen in more than 40 years.

The rising costs are hard to swallow, but Americans are no strangers to hard times. Both World Wars I and II saw enormous shifts in how Americans ate. Sandwiched between the world wars were the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drought—times of notorious hardship and hunger.

Yet from hardship comes ingenuity, and there are a few lessons to be learned from generations who faced hard times far greater than our own.

Make Meat Last

Meat is expensive, and while the United States has always been a nation of meat-and-potato eaters, it’s often the first place to cut back. Under the World War I slogan “Food will win the war,” the government encouraged homemakers to serve less red meat and to favor pulses, poultry, game, and offal when possible. Recipes abounded for rabbit casseroles and braised tongue, as well as liver and onions.

While those might not suit your palate, the guidance of World War II home economists recommended stretching meat by combining small portions with plentiful vegetables. Cottage pies and stews made with a little meat but plenty of potatoes became a mainstay of the American diet.

During the Depression, home cooks who could afford it made meatloaf extended with plenty of breadcrumbs, franks and beans, and creamed chipped beef on toast. Plant-based proteins also made an appearance, as plenty of nut loafs and lima bean casseroles found their way to tables in those lean years.

Eat a Variety of Whole Grains

During World War I, much of the wheat crop produced in the United States was sent directly to the war front. “Wheatless Wednesdays” were popularized as a way to encourage homemakers to cook using alternative grains to ease the impact of the wheat shortage. The government advocated for eating less white flour and more whole grains, especially corn and rice.

Fine white bread was replaced with bread made wholly or in part with corn, rye, rice, potatoes, or barley. Similarly, in the UK during World War II, “national loaf,” a type of whole wheat bread that was often fortified with vitamin C, replaced fine white bread on the kitchen table.

Whole grains tend to be affordable, accessible, and a ready source of nutrients when you need to pull back on expenses. Oatmeal porridge is a timeless classic that fills the belly with little expense.

If you have the space, plant a garden. Growing your own vegetables is almost always more affordable than buying them from the store. (goodluz/Shutterstock)

Fill Your Plate With Garden Vegetables

If you have the space, plant a garden. Growing your own vegetables is almost always more affordable than buying them from the store. “Victory gardens” were a ready solution in both world wars, offering wholesome, homegrown vegetables that provided both nutrition and bulk when other foods were in short supply.

Books on wartime cooking provided plenty of inspiration, offering recipes for eggplant sandwiches, vegetable soufflées, casseroles, savory pies, and pancakes alongside guidance on gentle cooking to retain vitamins and other nutrients.

But it was in the soup pot that vegetables could really shine. Loads of vegetables cooked with a scant amount of meat and a few cups of beans or whole grains could be the foundation of an affordable and satisfying meal.

Eat Wild Foods

During hard times, throughout both world wars and the Depression, families satisfied their hunger with foraged foods. Fresh greens such as dandelion, chickweed, and nettles provided nourishment in the spring. Summer was the perfect time for foraging wild berries, while the cool weather of autumn meant gathering edible mushrooms in the woods. Dandelion salads and wild berry cobblers were mainstays in America during the Great Depression, while nettle soup fortified with potatoes was a staple in Britain during World War II.

If you’re keen to try foraging, make sure to use a good guidebook, only pick those plants you know with complete certainty to be edible, follow safe and sustainable harvest guidelines, and familiarize yourself with local rules.

A wartime poster from 1918 encourages Americans to plant gardens. ‘Victory gardens’ were common in both world wars, offering wholesome, homegrown vegetables that provided both nutrition and bulk when other foods were in short supply. (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Don’t Waste It

The soundest guidance you might find comes from a World War I poster cautioning Americans to serve just enough and to use what’s left.

In a culture where nearly every meal can feel supersized, it can feel hard to make do with smaller portions, but using food wisely also means focusing on good-quality whole foods and appropriate portion sizes. The average size steak served at a restaurant, for instance, currently weighs in at 14 ounces, nearly a pound—a far cry larger than the recommended serving of 3 ounces.

Serve small but satisfying portions of nutrient-dense foods.

With a little ingenuity, you can give leftovers a new life. Leftover chicken bones become broth. Last night’s steamed broccoli can be simmered in milk for soup. Leftover roast becomes hash or a savory pie.

In the end, cooking for hard times calls for both thrift and ingenuity. While you might not be keen on the lima bean casseroles or liver and onions that nourished older generations through some of the hardest times America has seen, a little economy in the kitchen and a make-do attitude can help your family stay well-nourished.

RECIPE: Barley Bread

RECIPE: Hearty Garden Vegetable Soup

RECIPE: Broiled Apricots

Jennifer McGruther, NTP, is a nutritional therapy practitioner, herbalist, and the author of three cookbooks, including “Vibrant Botanicals.” She’s also the creator of, a website that celebrates traditional foodways, herbal remedies, and fermentation. She teaches workshops on natural foods and herbalism, and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.
You May Also Like