Former Kids Share The Meals That Made Them Realize Their Parents Were Actually Poor

When you don’t have money, you don’t really have a choice in what meals you get to eat. You kind of just make do with what you have and be thankful that you aren’t completely empty-handed. Fortunately, sometimes these meals become a hit with the kids, despite them essentially being symbols of poverty.

#1 The Concoction

My mom made this concoction of mac ‘n cheese, canned tuna, and peas at least twice a week. Considering the total cost of that meal is less than $3 and it fed three of us for two meals, it made sense. I tried making it for my wife once after explaining it to her and it was met with a resounding “No!” My mom called it “deep blue cheese ‘n peas.” Since I grew up in Kansas, it was exotic!

#2 Tuna Noodle Casserole

Tuna noodle casserole, mom called it. I actively eat that. The first time I made tuna casserole as an adult, it tasted really under-salted, which seemed insane for something made of canned soup. Then I remembered my mom always put crushed potato chips on top and here I was using panko like some highfalutin chef. I don’t know if you put a crunchy topping on, but if you do, get honey bunches of oats, crush it up and mix with melted butter. Spread that on top and BAM! Kicks it up a notch.

#3 Grandma’s Approval

Cheese sandwiches. It was just American cheese and bread, sometimes mayo too. My mom would always say, “Grandma eats cheese sandwiches every day. She’s probably eating one right now!” For some reason, that made me want to eat them. If it’s good enough for gramma it’s good enough for me. I figured, she’s survived this long so maybe there’s something to this cheese sandwich idea…

#4 Humble Beginnings

My grandma grew up in the Great Depression. She had us eat bone marrow sandwiches from the leftover soup bone stock. Spread it on bread, add some salt, and bam. It was actually really good, but she always told us not to tell people we ate it “because it’s what poor people eat” I’ve now been to a few high-end restaurants that are serving that exact thing as appetizers on their menus. If grandma could see how much they charge for it, she’d know it’s not poor-people food now.

#5 Different Perspectives

I told my daughter about eating cheese sandwiches (white bread, mayo, American cheese) and she thought it was just the most Midwestern thing ever. I’m white and grew up in the Midwest—she’s biracial and we live in suburban NJ. It also took me years to realize we shopped at the bakery thrift store because it was cheap instead of going there because it was nearby.

#6 Cheez Whiz Lover

I got the Cheez Whiz (only) sandwiches a lot. Also, butter and brown sugar sandwiches, which my wife still can’t wrap her brain around to this day. I still get cravings for them, though… Also, there were ground up bologna and pickle relish sandwiches. All made on Hillbilly bread, of course. 100% bread with none of those pesky nutrients. Slap some butter on that bread and toast it in a frying pan and you’ve got yourself a grilled cheese! I ate a lot of grilled cheese growing up.

#7 The Summer Of Potatoes

What I fondly refer to as “the summer of potatoes.” My dad was a teacher and was off for the summer, so he cooked dinner all summer. One year, he cooked potatoes every day, but in different ways. He was always on the lookout for a new potato recipe. It wasn’t until I was an adult buying my own groceries that I realized how cheap potatoes were. We had to eat potatoes because they were affordable, and he didn’t want dinner to be boring.

#8 In Russia…

My great-great-grandfather was a cook in the Russian army. This would have been in the days of the Czar when soldiers would come to your village and you would find that you had volunteered for the army. He spent seven years cooking nothing but potatoes and herring for the soldiers. When he found out he had voluntarily enlisted for another seven years, he deserted, made his way to America, and never ate another potato for the rest of his life.

#9 Homemade Pizza

“Homemade pizza” turns out. Nobody else considers toasting bread, then microwaving it with cheese, and adding a couple of pepperonis to be a pizza. Kind of reminds me of a common kid’s snack in NZ: bread or halves of hamburger buns topped with canned spaghetti (which has a sweet, simple tomato sauce—kind of like a cartoon version of pasta sauce) then cheddar cheese, all baked. My mother used to call it ‘mini pizza’ but it really wasn’t.

#10 Little Surprise

For a few months when I was little, we had ‘surprise’ for dinner. Not because we were poor (we were but it wasn’t why) but because my four-year-old self tore all the labels off of the cans when my mom wasn’t looking. My mom said she learned two things: 1) Cans of fruit are generally larger than cans of vegetables and 2) They bought way too many cans of beans.

#11 A McDonald’s Luxury

My father used to tell me he bought a Happy Meal from McDonald’s when in fact he just kept the box and cooked the little chicken nuggets and french fries. I always asked about them being different sometimes but never found out. Now it’s a family story about how far we’ve come. Also, for people that say that McDonald’s is cheap, It’s not as cheap in my country, and also we were so poor that McDonald’s was expensive. Put that in perspective.

#12 Celebratory Meal

Hardtack, which is flour and water mixed and hardened to stale biscuit consistency in the oven. My mother would cut it into cookie shapes, give it to us as dessert a treat in our lunches, and admonish us if we ate more than two or three pieces. I realized later that on nights we had no food in the house but flour, we could eat all the hardtack we wanted and we’d feel like we were having a special celebratory meal of cookies.

#13 Bread Preference

My family got me so used to eating hot dogs out of 100% whole wheat bread that now I do it even when buns are an option. We couldn’t afford the healthy versions of everything but at least we had bread made from real wheat. In Australia, you use white bread for everything. I don’t actually think the way I do it is very ‘Australian’ at all since I’m using real bread and a cheap hotdog, as opposed to using a real sausage and cheap bread. Totally different flavor, texture, and priorities.

#14 Dragon Soup

I’m the youngest in a big family. Some of my siblings and I were arguing once about our mom’s “dragon soup” we all remembered it having different ingredients. Finally, we went to her to settle who was right. She was confused for a minute and then said, “Oh that? It was never the same. I called it that because at the end of the month I’d be dragging cans of vegetables out of the pantry and throwing it in a pot.”

#15 Spanish Rice

“Spanish rice” was always an end of the month meal when money is was tight. It was a pile of rice with whatever was ready in the garden or leftover in the fridge mixed into it. It was different every time. For example, tomato soup and rice. The beauty of it is, if the dish was too dry, just add more tomato. Too wet, add more rice. You’d never get the mix perfect and would always have leftovers.

#16 Voila, Goulash!

My mom would make this but on purpose. It was always a couple of bell peppers, some onions, a pound of ground beef, a ton of rice, and a big can of chopped tomatoes with some random herbs. We would eat it for days. If we didn’t want “Spanish rice,” she would use noodles instead, and voila! Goulash! Same exact thing. For five more days.

#17 A Deli Invention

This is actually my dad’s story, but I feel like it belongs here. My dad is 75 (I’m 37, shut up). Setting: The Bronx, mid-1950’s. My grandfather and my dad had a lunchtime routine on the weekend. They’d walk down to the deli and get basically the dollar menu item of the time—a hard roll hollowed out, slathered on the inside with a thick layer of butter, and stuffed with raw onions. It might sound disgusting, but my dad has made it for me before, and it’s freaking disgusting.

#18 Butter Noodles

Spaghetti noodles with butter and parmesan cheese. I still love making butter noodles as an adult. Now that I am poor, I’m really glad I developed a taste for it. It’s quick, easy, delicious and horribly fattening, just like any good meal should be! We just add parmesan cheese, garlic salt, crushed red peppers, salt, pepper, and occasionally shredded mozzarella when we are feeling crazy.

#19 Cheap Meat

My mother made a lot of chicken when I was a kid. I loved it at first but after eating it six days of the week (we had pork chops sometimes, usually on Sundays) for 15 years, I really got sick of it. I was poking some fun at her one day not too long ago about how much she just loved chicken because I never saw her eat it anymore. She admitted that she actually hates chicken, but it was cheaper than any other type of meat.

#20 Poor Man’s Chips

Not a meal, but when I was a kid, all the kids I knew loved poor man’s potato chips. Basically, you take an unopened packet of ramen noodles (I liked the beef and shrimp flavors), crush the raw noodles inside, open the package and sprinkle in the flavor packet, hold the bag closed and shake it well to spread the seasoning. It was pretty eye-opening when I got older and realized that none of my friends who came from more well-off families than mine knew what the heck I was talking about when I mentioned it.

#21 From The Garden

In my childhood, we ate a lot of deer, rabbit, and Squirrel. Because we had to. My mom would dip the squirrel in flour and fry it in butter until it browned, and then simmer it in gravy with mushrooms and onions (or ramps). She would do the same with the deer as well. We always had a HUGE garden. I can say from personal experience that there is nothing that tastes better than french fries made from potatoes that have been out of the ground for less than 20 minutes.

A close second would be sweet corn pulled directly from the stalk and roasted, husk on, over hot coals of a wood fire. Another fave was when we would open up a jar of everything we canned from summer, add in homegrown cabbage, potatoes and turnips onions from the root cellar, and cut up deer steaks and barley to make killer vegetable soup. We did not really know we were poor, actually.

#22 Pancakes For Days

I remember being so stoked when we got to have pancakes for dinner, only to much later realize it was because flour was pretty much the only food we had in the house. As a single mom of three, this was my go-to meal in between checks. Once, someone called CPS on me saying I didn’t have food in the house. But I showed them a 10-pound bag of flour, milk, butter, and sugar. They asked what I could make with that. Pancakes for days! There was another single mom next door—she and I sometimes would swap food or do somewhat of a potluck. Between us, our six kids never went hungry.

#23 For The Nostalgia

Chipped beef with homemade white gravy and you eat it over toast. And now that I’ve been reminded of it, I really want some. We called this “creamed chipped beef.” My mom grew up poor, and we were never poor as kids, but I guess it was nostalgic for her, so sometimes she’d buy the Stouffer’s boxes of this and make it for dinner.

#24 Saving The Leftovers

I was freshly divorced and was working in a restaurant that ground beef daily for burgers and discarded the waste each night. But the grill cook liked fruit juice, so a few juices throughout the night from the bar turned into fresh ground beef for me. One time, I called my roommate and told him to go buy cheese. I got the ground beef and about five pounds of mashed potatoes (that also would’ve been thrown out) and we made three days worth of shepherds pie for $3.50. That beef was a daily thing… meatloaf, burritos, you name it. It got us through some hard times!

#25 A Poverty Meal

This is a very poverty meal, but my mom didn’t make it because we were poor. She just ate it when she was a child and made me try it. I loved it. It’s also extremely easy to make. Bread, milk, and sugar. You pour milk into a bowl or plate, just tear out bite-size pieces of bread, drown ’em in milk, and just put a bit of sugar on top of it.

#26 Group Feeding

Zatarain’s red beans and rice, or black beans and rice boxed meals with a can or two of cubed spam that has been browned ahead of time. We had eight mouths to feed, and for some reason, Zatarain’s was always on sale. My dad would just fill a huge stockpot with the stuff and it would feed us for two whole days. I miss it.

#27 Low Standards

Rice and beans were considered straight fine dining in our house. My little brother and I would request it multiple times a week. No salsa, no fancy extras. Rice. Beans. I imagine my parents were pretty relieved we thought it was so fantastic. Zatarain’s jambalaya was the delicious replacement when our palates became more refined.

#28 A Poor Person Meal

We weren’t super poor but definitely were living paycheck to paycheck and neither of my parents had great jobs. I loved cheese sandwiches as a kid, just American cheese and a bit of mayo on white bread. I didn’t realize that it was a “poor person meal” until my slightly horrible college roommate said that when she saw me making it one day. I don’t care, I still like them and they really are a cheap, everyday lunch.

#29 Salmon Patties

Salmon patties. I never knew Salmon could be eaten like a big, thick, juicy, tasty fillet. I always knew it as a breaded, fried, hockey puck made from shredded trimmings of the aforementioned good pieces. Salmon patties aren’t that cheap, and people actually still want to make them. I legit made them last night and ate them again today for dinner. It’s all about chopped up capers in the patty.

#30 Poor Family Cooking

My mom’s whole cooking repertoire is food for a poor family. She was one of seven kids of a grocery store manager and a school teacher in Omaha in the 50s, so once she had kids, most of her meals were pasta-heavy and her nutritional knowledge was basically “ground beef, starch, steamed vegetable, you’re set.”

My favorite is her—or I guess my grandma’s—shepherd’s pie. All she did was brown ground beef with salt and pepper, add some flour and water, put little mashed potatoes and paprika on top, and heat it in the oven. When I found out that most people put vegetables in it, I was shocked.

#31 Just A Memory

Everything my parents made was because we were poor. But the thing that stands out: pinto beans and cornbread. My dad would make that meal, or sometimes he would make the beans and my mom would make the cornbread; and he would eat it with sweet pickles on the side, a habit I picked up from him.

That’s just a memory now. Dad passed away the day before Halloween last year; mom stopped cooking anything she associates with him and it never seems to turn out right when I do it. I miss it, though.

#32 Fart Salad

My mother makes this salad anytime there is a big family get-together and she puts smashed up ramen on top… like they are croutons. She calls it fart salad because she says it always gives her gas. I have no freaking clue why she wants to make everyone at the family events full of farts. Then again, I can’t even lie, it actually tasted really good.

#33 Good Old Aldi

Not a meal, but we used to only shop for food at Aldi when I was a kid because we were poor and their lower prices were what we could afford. I remember I used to love going as a kid because they had the carts where you had to put a quarter in to get it out and you’d get it back when you returned it. I was always the one that returned the cart so my parents would let me keep the quarter.

#34 That Yummy Yum

There’s this Ashkenazi Jewish dish called kasha varnishkes that I would go crazy for whenever my mom made it. Roasted buckwheat (kasha), bowtie pasta, and sautéed onions. It’s still one of my favorite foods in the world. When I went to college, I wanted to make it one night as comfort food, and I found out a giant pot costs like $5 max to make.

#35 Easy KD

Whenever my mom would ask my dad what he wanted for dinner, he’d smile and go, “Oh… Kraft Dinner?” We’d all groan and he’d get mad. Not sure why they did this pantomime, we all knew we were poor because they’d talk about being on the verge of losing the house and having to cancel Christmas all the time. We were just too little to put together that KD was dad’s favorite because it cost $0.75/box.

#36 Simpler Times

Thinly sliced potatoes, thinly sliced onions, salt, pepper, and vegetable oil fried up in an electric skillet with sliced kielbasa. Top with ketchup. It used to tick off my mom so much that we all loved my dad’s concoction more than anything fancy she would slave over. Times were simpler. This is still one of my favorites, though.

#37 Pancakes Forever

Pancakes. A few years ago, my mom told me the origin of pancakes for dinner. There was a time when there wasn’t anything in the pantry to make a proper meal. But, she had a box of Bisquick. She came to my brother and me and super excitedly said: “Let’s have pancakes for dinner!!”. We were stoked, because, you know, pancakes. It became a regular thing after that and it was one of the first things I learned to cook myself. I was fully grown and a mom myself before she told me that story.

#38 A Hunter’s Diet

Squirrel brains. It was the mid-70s, we were poor, and lived in Cut ‘N Shoot, Texas. My dad and grandfather hunted squirrel frequently, and my grandmother would save the brains for me and scramble them in eggs. I also got to have the cleaned skulls to color on with crayons and use as finger puppets. Thinking about it now, I realize how gross that was.

#39 Milk Soup

My grandmother called it milk soup. She used warm milk and melba toast and ate it every night before bed. Variations of this were popular during the Great Depression; milk and stale bread being key ingredients. And if you warm up milk, it gets sweeter. So it makes sense that half of everyone’s granny loves it, since it was comfort food from childhood. Like mayonnaise sandwiches for the rest of us modern-day peasants.

#40 A Clammy Lie

I never really knew we were poor as a kid. We didn’t get to do a lot of the things other kids did, nor did we go to places other kids went, but we had a roof over our heads and a decent plot of land, so we were good with it. Our mealtime fare was pretty basic but the all-time special meal that we had about once every other month was Clams Casino. We had a bag of shells that we had collected, and every now and then, we’d add new ones as we found good ones at the beach. My mom would make up a prime batch of Clams Casino.

So years after moving out, I got my own place. I took this girl to this fancy restaurant down the shore. On the menu, I saw Clams Casino. I was stoked. I hadn’t had it in over a decade. I told her all about it. It arrived, steaming; five or six perfect shells with the blessed concoction awaiting my next move. I picked one up, brought it to my mouth, and slurped it up… then immediately proceeded to spit the foul, rubbery, demon-seed out on to the table. I was shocked and horrified.

My mother never actually used clams in Clams Casino. Just a little bit of clam juice to give it flavor. My most special favorite meal growing up was… breading.

#41 Car Dinners

When I was a kid my dad lost his job and then started gambling. For a whole winter, I had steamed and salted cabbage leaves. On other nights it was microwaved egg with some mushrooms. There was this diner in my city, where you drove into the parking lot and waitresses would bring you hamburgers and fries on a tray that hooked onto the cars open window. Then, as a family, you ate in the car. I had been to this diner once with some friends of mine when I was sleeping over at their place. This was the HEIGHT of excitement to me. My parents couldn’t afford to take me there, so they told me I was going to have a special supper. I sat in the passenger seat of our car parked in our driveway, and my mom brought me a plate of spaghetti to eat. So yeah, there I was, trying to eat spaghetti while alone in the car, staring at our garage door as it slowly got dark outside…

#42 The Northwest Winds

I’m pretty sure this is common, but my mom used to buy the canned Minute Maid concentrate, and then dilute it with way more water than necessary to make it last longer. It was pretty much orange-flavored water, at that point. On a somewhat less serious note, when she was upset and we asked her what was for dinner, she would respond (in Chinese) “the northwest winds”—essentially, she told us to go to the yard and open our mouths and swallow the air to feel full.

#43 Breakfast For Dinner

I thought it was the greatest when we had breakfast for dinner— french toast, pancakes, eggs, toast, etc. But that was because we always at least had bread (or flour), milk and eggs. At one point, all we had was bread and butter, so my sister and I would make tea and toast and read Harry Potter out loud. As much as we struggled back then, I miss those times.

#44 Toast And Coffee

Toast and coffee. My parents would toast whatever bread was stalest and pour a small mound of sugar into the center of a saucer. They’d pour old coffee on top of that, so we could tear off pieces and dip the toast in. We also had peanut butter and Karo Syrup sandwiches. You mix the peanut butter and the syrup with a fork until it’s like caramel. So sweet. My dad also used to fry spam and old cooked pasta together until it was crunchy. Sometimes a fried egg too.

#45 Welsh Rabbit

One of my favorites growing up was Welsh Rabbit: saltine crackers with a bit of cheese sauce (flour, margarine, milk, and a bit of cheddar) with paprika sprinkled on top. I still crave it. I think the dish it was based on was Welsh Rarebit, which is generally over toasted bread and has a richer cheese sauce. The sauce I grew up on was mostly flour and milk… but the paprika made it good!

#46 A Life Skill

Stew. It was just not-quite-bad veggies from the crisper and freezer-burned meat cooked with tinned tomatoes and whatever beans were on special. I still don’t mind it… Growing up poor made me think really creatively about food and I can make a meal out of almost anything now. It’s actually a life skill, in my opinion.

#47 Self-Taught Cook

My mom gave up cooking because she was heavily depressed about being poor etc., so I started making pasta with a chicken oxo cube mixed in. I didn’t have much of a choice as it was usually a bag of rice, pasta, some herbs or maybe one tin of beans left in the cupboard. It wasn’t the worst thing ever—at least it got me through.

#48 Tatertot Casserole

Tatertot casserole. Ground meat (usually turkey or beef… but whatever was on sale), a bag of frozen veggies of the variety of whatever was cheapest (hopefully broccoli) cream of something, and tater tots. And topped with cheese. This was the best. My husband hates it. My sister makes it with me when she comes to visit. It makes my tummy happy.

#49 Chips ‘N Cheese

My mom would put a bunch of tortillas on a plate and methodically place shredded cheese on each chip and microwave it for me. Eloquently coined, Chips N’ Cheese. It was like a reward for doing chores. Sometimes she would fill a pan and put it in the oven with shredded chicken or pepperoni on top, and we would dip them in jalapeño nacho cheese or garlic ranch.

#50 Bits And Pieces

My favorite dinner as a kid was called “Bits and Pieces.” It was literally just bits and pieces of food my mum could scrape together from the fridge and pantry and put on a plate all separately. For example… a couple of grapes, a pickled onion, some potato chips, and a boiled egg. I liked it as a kid because you got a little bit of everything and each of us kids got something different on our plates.

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