Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, our Irish-American writer asks her mom how she got her waitress salary to feed a family when she was young—and what frugal tips she can teach us today.
Photo: Getty Images
| Credit: Getty Images

To ask my mother what she fed us when we were small and she was broke is to also inquire about the economics of the greater metropolitan Boston area in the 1970s. She’ll happily tell you about going to the Waltham meat market “where they had hamburger meat for 29 cents a pound and chicken wings for 19 cents a pound!” (She remains very enthusiastic about these price points.)

It’s a point of pride, in my family, getting a bargain. In July, when Massachusetts felt as airless and sticky as a Florida swamp, Mom would round us up to go to Frugal Fannie’s, a garish discount warehouse that seemed to stretch for miles, to get our “good winter coats.” She’d happily browse among the wool ankle-length coats in camel and forest green, insisting we try them on. “$19.99 marked down from $129.99,” she would puff proudly. “What a deal!”

Mom worked at a famous fish restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts to help support the family while my father was in law school, and they were lean times. She got good at stretching a buck. Dad was just back from Vietnam, and she was in her mid-20s raising a small baby, waiting tables, and teaching herself to cook from the back of cream-of-mushroom soup cans. She went into labor with me in Filene’s Basement, in downtown Boston, where colored stickers announced sales up to seventy percent. (I like to tell people that I literally entered this world seeking a bargain.)

Mom, for her part, inherited her frugal genes from her mother, an Irish-American partial to Chesterfields who didn’t cook much, but knew how to watch her budget. No matter how much money we’re making per annum, frugality is still a huge part of our family, and it profoundly influences how I cook. As a freelance food writer who interviews chefs a good deal, I still am always learning something new from Mom, who is an excellent cook, especially of fish. I got her on the horn to glean a few new thrifty cooking tips:

Consider Breakfast for Dinner

When she was terribly pinched for cash, it was “upside-down meals,” or pancakes and eggs for dinner, for “tremendous savings,” she says. We kids loved it, and if you can sell it to your family, it’ll generally save you both money and time.

Freeze it

That beef and those wings that cost pennies? She’d pick out a little bit to cook that week, and freeze the rest. Nowadays she’ll make dozens of meatballs while the meat is fresh, and pluck out just a few at a time for meals.

Call Cheap Eats Funny Names to Sell the Kids

“Hot dogs are terrible for you but they’re cheap,” recalls Mom. “We’d call them ‘Texas hot dogs’ and I’d fry them and split them and put some American cheese down the middle.” When I inquire as to whether this was actually a Texas thing, she admits that she has no idea, but that “your brother thought it was pretty cool.”

Avoid Packaged Snacks

A distinct childhood memory my brother and I share is going to friends’ houses to open their cabinet doors simply to gaze at all the cookies and chips in bags. We didn’t have those in our house. “You think about that,” huffs Mom. “$3.99 per box, $3.99 per bag. I’d have a bag of apples, a bag of potatoes.”

Know How Many Meals That Meat Will Make

Consider a roast, which will usually be cost-effective and a time-saver, but don’t strictly look for what’s on sale; seek out the big hunks of meat that are well-trimmed and will last you several meals. Even if the sticker shock is a bit much, “If you can get a [fairly lean] roast that you know you can get two or three meals out of it, that’s fine.”

Rice Can Make It a Meal

At the restaurant, other waitresses would take the cooked fish scraps from the meal the managers served at night’s end and bring them home for their cats. My mother would bring hers home to her family, serving them up the next day over rice.

So Can Crackers

Consider a three-quarter pound fillet of sole. Stuffed with plenty of Ritz crackers and parsley and served alongside a hearty starch such as potatoes, bread, or rice and a salad, that’s a meal for two, and in New England, where my folks live, they can pick up the fillet for $6 flat.

Slow Cookers Can Help With Tenderness

For tough pieces of meat or stew meat, my mother would look to her crockpot. When I ask what she used as a marinade, she admits, “In those days I used a lot of cream of mushroom soup. For everything.”

Do You Really Need Dessert?

At my folks’ place, they don’t typically have dessert kicking around. “Once in a while we’ll buy ice cream if it’s on sale,” says Mom, or if the grandkids are visiting. (For my part, I can’t have it in the house because there is no such thing as a single serving of ice cream.)

All this wisdom aside, says my mother, “You should definitely include that because of this frugal eating, any time you were out of my sight you guys went nuts.” Let’s just say we know how to take advantage of an all-you-can-eat buffet—not to mention those packaged cookies.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.