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Once upon a time, we were poor. We were unemployed. We had three small children. We had one car and it was on its last leg. And we lived way out in “Egypt”. Being economical wasn’t an option. It was a necessity.

We were fortunate to get food stamps for a time. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, Though.  I had to go in to a government office every few months .I had to take in important documents like my unemployment checks, birth certificates, Social Security cards, proof of expenses. I also had to take the children with me because I couldn’t afford a babysitter. Sitting in a government office with three small children was never the highlight of my day but I was thankful that my children were well behaved and I was also thankful for the extra help and I learned several ways of stretching what I received go as far as I could.

A few lean years later, our situation had improved somewhat. We had a job. We had two cars that ran most of the time. We had two more children. And we still lived out in “Egypt”. Being economical was still a necessity.

One evening, we had another family over for dinner. This was a larger family, like ours,  and as we were putting away the leftovers after the meal, one of our guests commented that “I sure knew how to stretch a bean.” I had to think about that for a little bit and as I did, to agree with them. I had just served a dinner to 14 people. Everyone had plenty to eat and we even put away leftovers. I wasn’t stressing about not having food later because I had had a party today.

How did I do this? How do I Stretch a Bean?

Tip # 1:  Multitasking Meats

We don’t eat a lot of things like steaks or even plain hamburgers. When I go shopping for meat, I I buy larger cuts or packages of meat and divide them up. I consider what sort of things I can do with those pieces or packages of meat and plan menus around them. A large roast can be stretched by dividing it into a smaller roast, finely sliced strips for stir-fry, or chunks for soup or stew. A bag of chicken quarters can be divided into legs and thighs for grilling, shredded for tacos or chicken salad while the meat and bones of some other pieces become soup.

Once a month, my favorite grocery store does a” BOGO for 1 cent” and often there’s a roast involved.  One of my favorite deals like this happens around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. They offer a deal of “buy a ham, get a turkey free.” I buy the largest ham I can find. Then I get the largest turkey they will let me have free. I usually freeze the ham and cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. And occasionally I repeat this for Christmas.

This past Thanksgiving, I had a whole house full of people for dinner. I had 21 guests so I fixed both the turkey and the ham. After everyone had eaten, and some of the people had fixed plates to take to work the next day, we still had a lot of food left oven. In fact, we had enough ham for another ham dinner,  a casserole with ham, ham sandwiches, and a big pot of soup. I also had enough turkey left for another turkey dinner, “Goodbye Turkey” casserole, turkey sandwiches, and big pot of turkey noodle soup. I figured that I got 14 meals out of $32 worth of meat.

I don’t always do quite that well, but I really embrace the idea of multitasking meat.

Tip # 2: Adventurous Vegetarian

Many years ago, my best friend was a vegetarian.  One of our favorite things to do when we were out was to stop at the whole foods market and check out all of the amazing dried beans and rice and grain products available. She taught me quite a bit about vegetarian cooking and shared a number a recipes, many of which became family favorites. She taught me about combining grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and dairy to create flavorful, protein packed, meatless meals. These meals were very filling and very economical.

During that time when we were unemployed, I did quite a bit of vegetarian cooking. One of our favorite recipes was a beans and rice dish with an Italian flavor to it. The recipe made quite a lot and even froze well. While we enjoyed eating it, there came a day when even my ever-patient husband requested that I retire that recipe from my collection. I’ve since tried to cut it down, but It still makes more than we feel like eating.

Vegetarian foods are very versatile, too. Beans and grains can be combined to create meat substitutes such as veggie burgers or veggie loaves.  Most ethnic cuisines have some vegetarian dishes worth trying and often, just changing the seasonings of a dish can add an ethnic flavor to beans and rice.

When I am planning my week’s meals, I plan for at least one Vegetarian Adventure.

Tip #3: Super Soup

I can’t say enough positive things about soup. It’s hot, filling, versatile, and economical. It can be served hot or cold, winter or summer. And remember those bones from the turkey and ham? Here they are again!  What about those vegetable proteins, those beans and rice? Here they are again, too. I think soup is a culinary Super hero.

Soup is an excellent way to stretch out smaller portions of meat, use up those less-than-perfect vegetables that got shoved into the back of the fridge, and even revitalize leftovers. Half a pound of ham is plenty to add to Split Pea with Ham or Navy Bean Soup.  A variety of chopped vegetables, broth, and seasonings creates an amazing minestrone or other ethnic soup. And while this idea may not work for you, when we were short on funds, I tried to waste as little as possible. I kept a large plastic container in my freezer where I collected all of the leftovers that were insufficient for another meal or hubby wouldn’t be able to take for lunch.  When that container was full, I would thaw it out, heat it up, and we’d have “Whatchagot Stew”. It was never the same, but it was tasty and filling.

Soup is super versatile, economic, and deserves to become a Super Star in anyone’s cooking repertoire.

Even if you’re not strapped for cash, may I suggest learning how to Stretch A Bean? Plan meals using multitasking meats, become adventurous with the vegetarian eating and embrace those super soups. Your family and your pocketbook will thank you.

Once upon a time, when I was a child, I received an allowance. Each week, I received a little bit of money. It wasn't a lot, probably a dollar by the time I was eight. I don't recall that it had any chores attached to it, so it probably didn't. It did have some stipulations though, which meant that some of it wasn't really mine. Ten percent went into the collection basket Sunday school each Sunday. Another ten percent went into a little metal book shaped bank. That bank had a lock on it and I didn't have the key. The money in that little bank was my college fund. Mom and Dad wanted to get us kids on the right track, financially, bright and early.

Back in the day, eighty cents went further than it does now, but not that much further. I still had to save my money if I wanted something other than candy. Of course, I did want more than candy.

Enter the five and dime store. By the mid-1960s, the stores were no longer actually five and dime stores. Those officially vanished in the mid-1930s, but they were replaced by Woolworths, Woolco, and similar variety stores. They carried a wide collection of products from tools to toiletries to household goods, and all at bargain prices. They were the Walmart or Dollar General of the day.

I remember a couple of those stores. When I was in elementary school, we lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We had plenty of stores there, but every once in a while we would go to Denver to shop in the mall. That was a big deal for me because then I could go to the Woolworths store. I liked looking at the toys but the best thing about Woolworths was the lunch counter. Sitting on those red stools and pretending to read the menu made me feel very grown up, and sometimes, we would actually eat lunch there. My favorite sandwich at the lunch counter was grilled cheese with a pickle. Never mind the fact that I could have grilled cheese at home, Woolworth's lunch counter with its stools was the ultimate treat.

Then there was the Ben Franklin's store. It was in Cheyenne, in the same shopping center parking lot as the fabric store, the grocery store, the stationary store, a dress shop, and RadioShack.

Ben Franklin's carried all sorts of things, but the two I remember most were the plastic bridal shower favors — inch and a half plastic dolls in antebellum type skirts —

and little plastic ballerina figures.

All of these figurines reposed in bins in the party favor aisle, and even when I wasn't buying anything, which was most of the time, I would pick through them, choosing a bridesmaid in each dress color or ballerina to dance across the shelf above the other selections in the bins.

Once in a while, I would buy a couple of the little decorations. Of course, what I really wanted was the bridal pair and the plastic carriage, but I suppose it wasn't that important to me — I never saved my money for it, and no one ever got it for for my birthday, either.

 

I got older and my purchasing choices changed. I discovered books and that's where my allowance began going. Ben Franklin's carried books, but they weren't to my taste. And then, when I was in high school, we moved to Dallas with its plethora of malls and shopping centers and specialty stores. I finished school, got married, had a couple of kids, and moved a few times. I never gave Ben Franklin's, or any of the other small variety stores of my childhood, another thought.

That is, until the afternoon when I woke from a nap, hot, and soaked with sweat. We had no air conditioning. It wasn't that the air conditioning was out: we had no power at all. Here I was, on a hot summer's afternoon, with three small children, one of which was a newborn, and the temperature in the house was pushing 95 degrees. I called the electric company to find out was going on and when I could expect the electricity to come back on.

Oh my, was I embarrassed, and upset, when they told me that they would turn it back on after I paid the bill. Two months worth of unpaid bills plus a reconnection fee. How did I miss that?

"Where do I go to make the payment? I need the power back on as soon as possible."

It turned out that  I had two choices — the main office, which was about 40 miles away, or payment office in the neighboring city, about 20 minutes away in the opposite direction. But I would have to make the payment before 4:30 that afternoon and it was already 3 o'clock. I hustled two sweaty, cranky children into the car, collected the baby and his diaper bag, and we set out for the neighboring city — a place I couldn't recall having ever been to before up to that point.

I found my way to the store with no problem. (The highway almost dead ended right into its front door.) And low and behold, the payment office for the electric company was inside a Ben Franklin store. I was surprised, pleasantly. It brought back fond memories of my childhood. I quickly unloaded the children and we ran into make the payment. I had made it with barely 10 minutes to spare. The clerk reassured me that they would get the power turned back on right away. I was relieved. Now I could relax.

Once my business was completed, we took a few minutes to look around the store. It had changed somewhat from what I remember, but then, childhood memories aren't always accurate. It felt newer, but smaller. They still had craft supplies, kitschy home decor, kitchen gadgets, stationery and greeting cards, cheap toys, and candy. I let each child pick out a piece of candy as a "thank you" for putting up with my need to drag them around in the heat.

Unfortunately, that store did not remain there too much longer. Within a year or two, it closed and its place was taken over by some other store. But I was still delighted to have found a Ben Franklin store that brought back memories of when I was a little girl