Many of us grew up in families that didn't necessarily have a lot of money. Living paycheck to paycheck often meant having to improvise on a lot of things, especially meals. Thankfully, some "poor meals" weren't that bad; in fact, we might still enjoy them today, even if we are better off. Here are some of the internet's favorite "poor meals":
#1 For Sweet Tooths
Cinnamon sugar toast. The best cure for a sweet tooth! Reminds me of how my dad and I would hollow out fruit and fill them with sugar when I was little. We called them sugar bombs! My dad would do this by rolling and pressing a navel orange on the counter, cutting a square hole in the center, and stuffing two to three sugar cubes in. Then we would squeeze it dry. “Fresh squeezed orange juice.”
#2 Souped Rice
Soup boiled down with rice to bulk it up; almost like a porridge or congee. When I'm sick, I boil rice in chicken stock and just eat it that way; no soy sauce or anything else, so it's easy on my stomach. It's a really comforting thing to eat. My mom taught me to do that. Kind of like a "cheat" risotto but more cooked. When I was at university, I lived off it with chopped hot dogs stirred into it... I'm surprised I didn’t get scurvy, now I think about it.
#3 Life's Struggles
I hated those days when I was hungry and the only way to relieve the hunger was to force myself to sleep. My childhood had days like this. I grew up with a single parent in the projects or Section 8 housing for most of my childhood. I’d wake up hearing my mom crying in her room because I was hungry and we had to go to bed early since we had no food. Life was hard, but as an adult, it helped me appreciate the little things more. My wife and I are holding off on children until we are financially secured so stuff that I experienced never has to happen to us. I appreciate the kind words.
#4 Pot Of Beans
I remember a big pot of beans living in the fridge. Hungry? Get some beans. Don't like what was for dinner? Get some beans. Upset stomach? Beans. That was 100% my grandmother growing up. Anytime you said you were hungry, beans. If you were lucky there were cold biscuits left from breakfast, too. In the southern US, biscuits are a heavenly baked good that’s eaten sort of like a dinner roll but they taste a million times better. We call those little flat desserts "cookies." They’re also good, but the biscuits are DELICIOUS.
#5 Southeast Inspo
Steam white rice, then crack a raw egg in it while it's scorching hot. Stir aggressively and add a dash of soy sauce. If I have some, I toss some roasted seaweed in that. Super cheap breakfast, but oh man is it filling and delicious. Sesame oil, Ume (pickled plum), furikake (rice seasoning), spam, and cabbage are all on my list of ingredients to mix and match! By the way, I'm not Asian, I'm white. I do very much enjoy cooking, especially southeast Asian dishes!
#6 Cheese Hunters
A grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese, in particular, is great at pretending to be bougie food. My brother and I used to go to the store together and splurge on fancy-ish cheese (i.e. still the pre-cut stuff in plastic in the dairy section, not the high-end stuff in the deli section or the fancy cheese cooler) and we would see who could come up with the best combination of cheeses and bread from the bakery section. I think we settled on sourdough, smoked gouda, Havarti, and cream cheese.
#7 Mix And Match
Stew. There could be anything in there, but it's still delicious. My grandma (who grew up during WWII) taught me that you can make soup from almost anything. At least once a week, I just throw a bunch of scrap veggies, leftover meat, rice, and whatever other random bits are leftover from the week’s meals into a pot with some stock. I boil it all together, and bam.
#8 A Lazy Man's Meal
In my family, we save the bones from every meal that had animal protein in it, then boil them to make bone broth. Super filling and nutritious. Then, we can store the broth because it keeps forever. If you're too lazy to cook, you just dump a jar of broth, cup and a half of rice, bag or two of frozen veggies into a crockpot and walk away. Soup in two hours.
#9 The Indomie Craze
Ramen. Actually, I'll one-up that with Indomie specifically. If you haven't heard of it, you're missing out. It was so popular in Nigeria it practically replaced the word "noodle" (despite Indomie being an Indonesian product, 11,688 km away). I brought it to an international summer camp in Finland where all the delegates from other countries pretty much lapped up the serving tray like dogs.
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#10 Those Brown Noodles
Coming from a Korean family, we eat noodles all the time! If you like the ramyun, you should check out jjajangmyeon or brown noodles. It's different from the ramyun as it has no broth, but it's easily one of my family's top three foods. If I can find the Amazon link to the instant brown noodle packages, I'll let you know... but it's a serious recommendation if you're a fan of Asian noodles.
#11 Repurposed Fast Food
One thing my wife and I still make is fried pizza leftovers. You take the leftover pizza, McDonald's, or whatever else, dice it up, and throw it in a hot pan. It cooks in its own grease and tastes amazing and crispy. A good way to take advantage of two-for-one deals and such since otherwise, you have to microwave it onto a rubbery mockery of what it was the night before.
#12 A Thing Called "Goup"
It's a thing called "goup," which is something my father came up with when he was super poor after leaving the army in the '80s. It was a time when the economy was a mess, and it’s now like a staple in our family. It’s like a stroganoff or something I guess; the recipe is one can of cheap cream of mushroom soup, one of those 80-cent things of sour cream, the empty soup can full of milk, a dash of $1 steak sauce, seasoning, and cheap ground beef over noodles. It costs just a couple bucks to make and feeds an entire family of four.
#13 Squash And Eggs
We used to eat squash and eggs growing up. We grew the squash, and eggs are cheap enough (or we'd trade with the neighbors). You just cut the squash into a thin round and cook in a pan with a little oil until they're just soft. Scramble the eggs with the squash, add a bunch of pepper, some salt. Sometimes we ate it over noodles or rice.
#14 Struggle Nachos
I still regularly eat my struggle nachos—tortilla chips with slices of American cheese on top. I heat it in the microwave. Now that I can afford it, I’ll throw taco meat on top every now and again but still very much enjoy just the chips and cheese. If you're really feeling like a big shot, use some chorizo instead of regular taco meat. That stuff is the bomb.
#15 English Muffin Pizza
English muffin pizza. A jar of pasta sauce, English muffins, mozzarella, and toppings of your choice. Fresh produce is dirt cheap. The pasta sauce is the most expensive part, and if you make it, and the English muffins at home, each mini pizza is like 30 cents. By the way, I need to call out my privilege here. I grew up broke, but I grew up adjacent to an affluent white neighborhood. Produce isn't dirt cheap (or even available) everywhere, but it should be.
#16 A Top-Tier Choice
I had a PB&J recently and I felt like a freaking fool! Why did I stop eating these when I became an adult? Society led me to believe this was the way. It is not! I've been having PB&J a couple of nights a week since. I refuse to let societies unenlightened views dictate my dinner choices! PB&J is a top tier dish for any occasion.
#17 Pizza Origins
Pizza in Italy was originally only eaten by poor people who couldn’t afford proper meals, and so they used the basics of flour, tomatoes, and other cheap items to come up with pizza. However, instead of the meat and other things on modern pizza, the basic vegetables make the pizza just as tasty and I always enjoy eating it.
#18 Tamil Congee
There's a South Indian dish called Kanji, which is pretty much just rice put in water and cooked for a really long time. Sort of like rice porridge. Then you put different food items and curries inside for flavor. I still make it all the time, especially when I'm sick; though it really was something different when my mom made it for me. Every time I eat it, I think of her.
#19 The Nice Lady
My great-grandmother ran a boarding house during the depression. Hobos that rode the trains knew if they needed a meal, to go to the back fence. She fed them "Hobo Sandwiches" which were whatever she had left; homemade bread slices toasted in the skillet with a fried egg, slice of cheese, pat of butter, leftover slice of roast or ham or sausage or brisket. Whatever she had, she shared. There was a mark on her back gate post that said: "Nice lady here will feed you."
#20 Helping The Poor
My great-grandmother fed hobos in South Dakota. I grew up on these stories. There’s being poor and able to feed others, and being so poor that all you have to give is gratitude. My great-grandmother's stories embody that very situation. Our country grew on the backs of those people and we’ve forgotten. We see burdens when we should see broad shoulders. God bless.
#21 Samp And Beans
I'm South African and for me, that's samp and beans (samp is corn). Both are soaked overnight and then pressure cooked with spices and some cheap meat served with melted butter, salt, and black pepper. It doesn't sound like much, but I swear, this is S-Tier comfort food that I'd pick over high priced sushi any day. I'd say the closest thing to it that I also eat would be something like mashed potato with melted butter. It's also super filling and dirt cheap so it's a nice budget meal.
#22 A Good Coddle
In Ireland (specifically Dublin), we have a dish called coddle. It's a salty, white stew from the days of the poor tenements. It's made with leftover sausages, bacon, potatoes, and variable other veggies and grain such as barley. It is an ugly dish to look at but it is so tasty, wholesome, and filling. I make this a lot. Usually, when the carrots are starting to go a bit bendy I'll throw them in there too. I'm Australian with an Irish mother so we ate this a lot. My husband had never had it, but now he loves it and my son requests it a lot too. I haven't hit them with the bubble and squeak yet though. I'm still trying to repress that one.
#23 Migas For Your Amigas
Migas! Corn tortillas fried crispy, then scramble in some eggs and add a fistful of cheese. Serve with ketchup, hot sauce, or both. Also, cook a cup of rice, put in a pan with a can of black beans, and cook it all together with salsa. I'm gainfully employed and make good money and I still eat both of these at least three to four times a week. If you're feeling adventurous, it's also good with any leftover meat like turkey, weenies.
#24 Government Cheese
Ketchup and cheese sandwiches. Bonus points if you use the big block of government cheese (though, government cheese is not available any longer. It was the result of a dairy surplus in the '80s and '90s due to farm subsidies. There was so much stockpiled that Reagan's administration decided to incorporate it into the national food program, which continued into the '90s). Or a baked potato. When I was a poor adult, I could buy a big bag of potatoes, eat a couple of baked potatoes a day, and I was good. Well, not "good," but I wasn't hungry.
#25 PB&J Addict
PB&J. I actually eat it at work for weeks on end for lunch. I just leave a loaf of bread and the peanut butter and jam in the fridge and make my sandwiches there. Some guys think it's weird that I'll eat the same thing for lunch for days or weeks, but I'm pretty indifferent to it. It's funny because I definitely can afford better meals, but I just keep going back to the PB&J.
#26 Improv Ratatouille
Two cans of petite tomatoes with garlic and olive oil already mixed in, usually from Best Choice, Demonte, or Hunt's. Just not the cans with 50 different things in them. Coin a couple of yellow squash or zucchini with diced yellow onion. Layer each ingredient in a deal dish, with layers of your choice of wheat noddles. The last layer is petite tomatoes. Not meat or cheese but really amazing and full of flavor.
#27 Midwestern Classic
Kraut bierok. Cabbage, onion, beef or lentils, and garlic, cooked down and stuffed into slightly sweet enriched yeast buns and baked. They were a pretty popular midwestern and Mennonite working-class food because it was self-contained, mess-free, and easy to eat with one hand. It's incredibly cheap and freezes well.
#28 Getting Creative
When we were younger, we would eat either tomato or cucumber sandwiches. It has to be with what I call the “good bread” which is pretty much anything other than American toast bread or white bread. Next, my mom would add butter and then pick from the garden either a cucumber or a tomato and onion. The country we grew up in was communist when we were younger, so my mom would get very creative with what food we had. To this day, I still love eating these sandwiches, but now I’ll add ham and Swiss cheese to them.
#29 "French" PB&J
“French peanut butter and jelly” - make a PB&J sandwich, dip each side in beaten egg, fry in a pan like French toast. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. Eat with a fork. This was a treat in my house when we were low on everything else and the confectioner's sugar made it feel extra fancy. It is still one of my favorite meals, hands down.
#30 A Winning Concoction
Fried rice with tinned sardines with the juice sauce the sardines came in added. I did a refugee fundraising challenge where we were given beans, lentils, chickpeas, rice, and sardines to last a week (essentially living on what an average refugee in a camp survives on). And this was the only meal I came up with that I'd repeat without being on the challenge.
#31 Hobo Dinners
Potatoes. I love them. They’re stupid cheap and stupid versatile too. Baked, mashed, fried, scalloped, grilled, hash browns, French fries, hobo dinners, whatever. I’ll always have plenty of starch in my diet, and if I had to pick one food that I had to eat every day for the rest of my life, it’d be potatoes. Just because of their versatility, it’s a little harder to get burnt out on them than it is most foods.
#32 Beans And Weenies
Beans and weenies! So good. I cut my hotdogs in slices and brown them, I need that little bit of color and crunch. Get a can of baked beans with a little more brown sugar than you think need, then drop the dogs in and heat through. It's sweet and savory, filling, cheap and quick! That's a weeknight fallback for me when I don't really feel like cooking.
#33 Leftover Creativity
We make quesadillas at least once a week. I have two boys, ages eight and ten. We will use any type of shredded cheese we have, toss in a little green onion, leftover taco meat if there are any, or black beans. Basically, I try to add whatever I can to turn it into a meal. Leftover rotisserie chicken and olives, leftover bacon and eggs, quesadillas are so versatile.
#34 Stuff On A Shingle
Creamed chipped beef on toast or "Stuff on a shingle" as it’s sometimes called. Those packages of beef like Carl Buddings are usually 50 to 70 cents each. You can get a loaf of bread still for under a dollar, same with a bag of flour, and a half-gallon of milk is usually pretty cheap. The most expensive item would be butter but you can always get margarine which can be as low as a dollar.
#35 Texas Hash
Something we can Texas Hash. One can of Campbell’s tomato soup, one box of Kraft mac and cheese, one pound of ground beef. Brown and drain the beef, boil and drain the noodles, mix everything into one pot (beef, noodles, mac powder, and soup). It's delicious and it fills you up. I think it can even feed you for two or three days.
#36 The Meat Glow-Up
Red beans and rice. The cheaper the pork, the better. Leftover ham bone is prized pickings. Nearly all of the great foods from any culture are derived from the impoverished classes. Coq au vin, a recipe for using old rooster meat too tough for anything else. Gumbo, stewed meat flavored with simple and available ingredients. Red beans and rice, when slaves were given the leftover hambones. Barbecue in all of its regional dialects. Taking the toughest, least desirable cuts and turning them into decadent morsels.
#37 The Ramelette
The Ramelette. You take ramen noodles and cook them al dente, drain well, then put in a pan on medium-high heat with a little butter or oil, add about half the seasoning packet and combine well. If you have an egg or two (difficult in these trying times) then you can crack that into the noodles once they start to get a little crisp on one side.
Mix the egg in, cook to the desired level of doneness, add cheese if available, and a condiment of choice if desired... personally, I like hot sauce. Got a date and you’re cooking at home? No problem. Do the same thing, except this time dice up bell pepper and add it when you add the noodles to the pan. Get some green onions, dice, and mix them with the egg when added.
Save a little to sprinkle on top for garnish. If your date likes it spicy then try using sriracha sauce drizzled decoratively on top. Not a lot, but enough to add some color and flair. Your date can always add more later. Additional tips: go very easy on the salt as the seasoning packet has a ton in it. Black pepper works well with this dish.
Watch your heat if using butter so it doesn’t burn. If you can use a higher temp oil, then start the noodles off at a higher temp to get a better crisp, then turn the heat down before adding your eggs. This dish pairs well with Bloody Marys, darker beers, and cheap vodka.
#38 The Versatility Of Spam
Spam. I grew up on it and we used it in so many ways. I still always have to keep two cans in my pantry for those days I can't be bothered to thaw meat, cook a healthy dinner, or need a quick-ish snack. We'd dip it in egg and pan fry it, then eat it with rice. We'd eat it with leftover spaghetti noodles reheated with butter and added fish sauce, garlic powder, scrambled egg, and gochugaru (Korean crushed chili peppers). We'd coat it in brown sugar and bake it. We'd add it to Korean soups, fried rice, ramen, as a side dish, make spam grilled cheese sandwiches. To this day, if I cook any of those things, I'm instantly back to my childhood.
#39 Pennies For A Plateful
I can't eat any of my favorite poverty meals anymore, because I have severe IBS/IBD and it so limits what I can eat that I can't cobble together any whole cheap meal. It used to be white rice (because it's cheaper than brown), black beans made from dry bagged, and homemade salsa from homegrown tomatoes and peppers. That meal is pennies for a big plateful; very tasty and satisfying. It's somewhat light on nutrition, but if I had other garden veggies I'd cook them up and mix them with the beans to help (zucchini and spinach are good choices there).
#40 Stretching Dollars
I grew up poor, but my mom sure knew how to stretch a dollar. She would make steak fingers out of the cheapest cuts she could find. She'd tenderize them, fry them up, make gravy out of the drippings, and serve it with mashed potatoes. The whole meal probably cost less than five bucks in '70s dollars, and I'm telling you nothing tasted better. I made it for my kids when they were growing up and they still ask me for it sometimes. She would be 94 today.
#41 Open-Faced Grilled Cheese
Cheese toast. Put a slice of American cheese on a piece of bread, broil it until the cheese is a little crispy, and voila! My mom made it a lot when we were kids, and her mom made it before that. Never knew it was a poverty meal until I told some friends about it in college. We always called that an open-faced grilled cheese. We'd cook it until the top layer of the Kraft single would basically bubble up into this huge brown and crispy bubble. Pulling it out of the oven, we'd pop it so it would deflate, and then you'd have these crispy and chewy browned cheese bits on top of the gooey melted cheese.
#42 The Odd Brekky
Butter and cheese. I did not grow up too poor but my whole family was literally fed with one cow. We'd take some cow cheese, put it in a plate, salt it a bit, melt some butter in a frying pan, and when it got its brownish color, we'd pour it over the cheese. The second one: we'd take some bread and tear it up into a bowl, add some sugar, add around the same amount of coffee, and pour warm milk over it. That has been my brekky my whole childhood.
#43 Never Forget
Plain egg noodles and ground beef, lightly salted. We ate it when we were 21 and living in a broken-down trailer. We still get the craving for it from time to time in our mid-50s living in what we would have considered a mansion back then. Never forget what you went through and sacrificed to get to where you are.
#44 In Grandma's Memory
Rice and beans soup. Literally, just a can each of kidney, black, and white beans, juices and all, served atop a bed of any type of rice. It's something my grandmother made during her poverty years in the Netherlands, and my mom made it for her family all throughout childhood. Sometimes we would be able to put sliced up hot dogs into the soup and whip up some pickled cucumber slices to top each bite with. It's a recipe I still carry with me, and even though we are far better off now, we still eat it often!
#45 Raw Eggs
Tamago Gohan (raw eggs mixed with rice). It’s a Japanese dish since forever ago. Everyone in Japan has had it as a kid and still enjoys it as an adult. A splash of soy sauce or salt is all it takes. Also, if you’re doing this outside of Japan, use fresh eggs and steaming hot rice. It’ll cook the egg a bit. In Japan, we don’t have to worry about raw eggs because they have better regulations.
#46 Cheap And Delish
Chorizo and eggs. I know this doesn’t sound like a struggle meal, but you buy the chorizo for $1 and it lasts for like four or five meals. Then throw a couple of eggs and warm up a tortilla or two, and you’ve got yourself a seriously cheap and delicious meal. Now if you’re not trying to die, you can get Soyrizo which is not as good (obviously), but throw some garlic powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper, onions, etc. in the mix and it ain’t half bad. You won’t immediately clog your arteries.
#47 Quick And Simple
Pasta Aglio y Olio (garlic and olive oil). Cook the pasta and sautee some sliced garlic in the olive oil until it's just barely browned. Add some red pepper flakes to taste, some chopped flat-leaf parsley, and a squeeze of half a lemon to finish it off. Very inexpensive and ridiculously tasty. Fast to make, too. 15 minutes from a dead start to the table (most of which is 10 minutes boiling the pasta).
#48 Burrito Bowls
Burritos or burrito bowls if you don't want to buy tortillas. A cup of rice, a can of black beans, a large onion, a few cloves of garlic, and a couple of bell peppers. Roll it up in a tortilla with some sour cream, and salsa if you have it, or just eat it as is. Feeds me lunch and dinner for four to five days for around $20. Even less if you already have the rice at home.
My mom's "Whatchamacallit." I don't know what it's called; even she doesn't know what it's called, but you just go get some good noodles, corn, ground beef, and a pack of stroganoff mix and...It's like a very cheap beef stroganoff....but it's very clearly not. But it's dang good and I eat it at least once a month. If you know the name of this meal, please don't tell me, it'll always be.
#50 Latino Staples
Everyone with Latino parents will know these foods. The first poverty meal is eggs with sausage. My mom would make me this every day so it became one of my favorite meals and obviously still is. Another one I know is a tortilla with a ton of salt rolled up. It wasn’t my favorite but a good snack. If we didn’t have meat or anything else, my mom would pull out the beans with rice and we would eat that with tortillas for dinner. Fortunately, these meals weren’t something we ate every day, but yeah those are poverty foods I enjoy.