Any cook knows that a balanced food budget is key to a balanced household budget. I did not come by this knowledge through childhood experiences however. In my childhood home, the food budget was unknown. Key to every meal was that it had to be a production. My dad was of the mind that chicken pot pie was a snack...so was a hot dog. It was steak and chicken and pork chops and roast and ham every day of the week with a big seafood or huge roast over the weekend! Casseroles were frowned upon and any meal that stretched meat was considered less than ideal as well. Despite the fact that we canned/froze/perserved our own vegetables and fruits, and had chickens to provide eggs, I recall our grocery bill ran about what my own averages now some 40 years later!
I came to a knowledge of how to stretch a food budget out of necessity during my first marriage. No kidding, our first pantry freezer meals consisted largely of ten 1 pound packages of black eyed peas given to me by an older co-worker who asked for in exchange 1 package of the 35 pounds of mullet that were in my freezer...Lunches were made from a five pound bucket of peanut butter... It took me twenty five years to even look at peanut butter and not feel ill. I've never quite mustered the strength to look at mullet since then.
Once those rations were gone and I was allowed once again to have a food budget, I happily sought ways to stretch the few dollars allotted and honey did I ever learn how! Meatless meals a couple of times a week, casserole or soup type meals that used scant amounts of meat twice a week and a few very modest meat meals rounded out the week.
The starting point of the meatless meals was to figure out how I could manage protein without using meat. Eggs thankfully were inexpensive and a good source as it happened. Quiche, omelets, stratas, souffles began to appear on our table. They sound oh so fancy don't they? Well they did to this novice homemaker at any rate and proud isn't the word for my first souffle. It was gorgeous and so good! Not nearly so difficult as I thought it might be to make either. I also learned to make a variety of scrambled egg dishes. I'd never have dreamed that cream cheese and chives could so enhance plain old scrambled eggs. And let me assure you that Huevos Rancheros is a very good dish for any supper, that's just a fried or poached egg on a crisp tortilla with salsa and cheese. Yum!
Boiled eggs too make a very good casserole. I'd never have believed this had we not had a dozen or so eggs leftover one Easter. Rather than let them go to waste sitting in the fridge, I sliced them into a mushroom sauce and topped with bread crumbs and a bit of cheese. Everyone at the table was surprised to discover that indeed this casserole was tasty enough to ask for seconds.
Welsh Rarebit (a melted cheese dish) over toast points was next on my list. And why not try fondue as well? Fun and easily prepared and requires only cheese. Then I learned to make a very good cheese sauce which meant macaroni and cheese that was rich and tasty and flavorful and filled one up.
One of my favorite Elizabeth Goudge books, The Rosemary Tree, includes the description of a first meal eaten together of broccoli au gratin. Well why not? Potatoes, zucchini, cauliflower, tomatoes are all excellent au gratin vegetables and well worth making into a main dish.
Boston Baked Beans is another dish that is virtually meat free (salt pork is called for to season but not necessary). Baked long and slow in a low oven in a real bean pot...Oh my! You've no idea how you can hunger for a meal as you smell those beans cooking all day long. An added bonus is that the oven keeps the kitchen nice and toasty on wintry days. And to finally dig into that pot of steaming beans, with a bowl of lovely coleslaw and a slice of homemade bread smeared with butter. Well! You could begin to see why a Saturday pot of beans was such a popular meal in old New England!
Leftovers will be had and are equally as good the next night for supper. Older cookbooks include sandwich recipes: Baked beans spread on toast and topped with cheese then baked until the cheese melts.
Lentils are a tasty meat substitute. I'll confess here that save one rather rotten recipe I've never made lentils in my own home, but I recently ate an outstanding curried lentil and rice dish that was brought to synagogue for our meal after service. Outstanding! There are many recipes for lentils, and I am deeply encouraged to try other recipes now instead of turning my head when I see them on the grocery shelf. Lentils may be formed into burgers, eaten in casseroles or stews.
Rice and beans form a perfect protein...And that's why black beans and rice can be such a wonderful meal to serve. My kids loved the nights when black beans and rice were on the menu because they loved the follow up meal I made from the leftovers: Black bean burritos.
Chili is excellent when made with ground beef, but skip the beef one night and use a variety of beans. I would mix up the beans: dark red and light kidney beans, big fordhook limas, black beans and season as usual for chili. I'd serve over rice to cool the spiciness for the younger children and help fill up the big kids. I've even been known to make a meatless tamale pie using leftover bean chili topped with cornbread.
My kids thought the seven layer bean dip was a treat at Christmastime. Were they ever surprised the night I prepared that dip as our supper main dish. Served with tortilla chips and a salad on the side they were happy as could be and felt they'd had a real treat. I was just pleased to find a way to combine refried beans and cheese to make yet another meatless meal.
And while we're talking beans, let us not forget that mashed beans may be made into meatless burgers. Yes, my children have eaten bean burgers. We even tried our hand at grilling them outdoors and I must say that was a little messy but we managed to eat them all the same, lol. Mashed beans, onion, bread crumbs, an egg to bind and mix as with seasonings of choice. Form into a patty and pan fry in a non-stick skillet. I usually left a few beans only slightly mashed, just for the extra texture they gave.
And that brings us to pizza...Mexican pizza with refried beans over a cornmeal based crust and topped with black olives and jalapeno peppers and cheese and served with a salsa topping. Why not vegetable pizza, because just about any vegetable goes on pizza crust. Plain old cheese works well too if the pantry/fridge are low on other toppings.
These are, of course, just a few suggestions for meatless meals but by no means the only ones. I haven't even mentioned a number of pasta dishes, nor tofu dishes (though I have eaten a granular tofu lasagna that was very tasty). I find reading through a good vegetarian cookbook can be very helpful for ideas and brainstorms. I recommend Moosewood Lodge Cookbook for one. Your local library and internet are also good sources of vegetarian meal ideas.
Consider adding at least one meatless meal a week to the menu and then build from there. You may find your family are quite happy to go for two or three nights a week without meat. I found it best to have two meatless, two casserole or pasta meals with scant amounts of meat liberally stretched, a single serving of meat two nights and a big but inexpensive meat meal (usually our grand Sunday dinner) such as ham, whole roast chicken, turkey, or roast beef. This worked very well for our budget and that 'grand' meal often was the basis of the remaining nights we served meat, so we got good use from that large cut.