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Our Little Trailer on the Prairie

In the early days of our marriage, Jim and I had six teenagers and a weekly food budget of $35.00. I am grateful that Jim is such a fine gardener, and that he thoughtfully included the children in that hobby; however, those who have fed a growing teenager, especially a boy, know how very much they can eat!
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I canned just about everything that didn't run away including fish, rabbit, fruits and veggies. I soon realized that I was going to have to cook smarter. There was no chance of running to McDonald's when I was unprepared for dinner. And the budget was not going to miraculously grow. The big items were always the ones that took the longest cooking: potatoes, rice, wheat, and beans. So I learned to be prepared.

You can turn a grain (like rice or wheat) and a legume (beans) into a complete protein. There are many recipes for simple foods using these ingredients as the main part of the dish. That was when I put two and two together. It came up five, but with a little work it got back down to four, if you know what I mean.

Once each week I would cook a huge pan of one of the above foods. Sometimes I cooked two big pans of two different foods. The beans which normally cost from .50 to $1.29 per can nowadays, can be bought dry for $1.39 a pound. That's a rough average. A pound of most dry beans turns into three or four "cans" of cooked beans. You can make that into a pot of savory soup with some tomatoes, peppers, onions and salt. You can divide it up and have bean salad one day, veggie burgers the next, and chili the next.

The same went for rice. If I already have cooked beans in the refrigerator or freezer, then the addition of brown rice (the only kind served at our house) on the side turned it into a special meal. A cup of brown rice cooks up into 3-4 cups of cooked rice, depending on the variety. I went for the long grain type because it cooked into four cups. Our favorite recipe was Cajun red beans and rice. Rice also works nicely into veggie burgers, by the way. It makes a wonderful breakfast cereal when you stir in some milk, eggs, a little sugar and cinnamon. There are lovely casseroles using brown rice with cheese, parsley and onions. And don't forget rice pudding. We buy rice, as we do the beans, in 25 pound sacks from Costco. Now that there are two of us, those will last all year.

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Potatoes are equally versatile. A big pot of potatoes cooked on Monday can be potato and spinach casserole on Monday, hash browns for breakfast on Tuesday, and potato soup on Wednesday. One of our favorites was super spuds. Just open up a mealy baked potato and start piling on whatever toppings you desire: butter (homemade because we have a cow), sour cream, chili, browned hamburger with some onions chopped in and sauteed, broccoli, cheese, etc.

Wheat went into our little mill and was ground into flour most of the time. We had pancakes, round-topped loaves of whole grain bread, and breakfast cereal from it. In those days it was around $7.00 for 50 pounds. Now it's more like $16.00, but it is still a bargain. You can get about 75 servings from one bag of wheat, however you prepare it. You can even sprout it and clip the green tops into salads. The sprouted grain itself can be stirred into bread dough to make it extra nutritious.

Learning to make $35.00 stretch for a week, even with our own dairy products, fruits and veggies, was a challenge for me, but it got to be a game. I'd hunt for recipes that used ingredients we already had on hand or could buy very cheaply. I especially treasure a small vegetarian cookbook of international recipes like onion pie and quiche. The markdown basket in the grocery store got a thorough going over for bargains. None of us had ever eaten this way before, but we had a financial goal and nothing was going to stop us from paying off our land. Nothing!

One unexpected side effect was the improved health of our six teens. Acne went away. Our too-thin son gained weight and filled out. Our too-plump son slimmed down. Our daughter who always coughed the entire winter every year of her life had some amazingly cough-free winters! And that's in spite of very little added heat in their bedrooms! We have some very cold winters here. The first year there was a 5-day period of 35-below and we slept in our coats. (I was sure they would all get pneumonia and die, but they fooled me, thank God!)

Psychologically, this was all kind of tough on us until Jim started reading the "Little House on the Prairie" books to the kids at bedtime. By flashlight. The stories helped them to see that our "Little Trailer on the Prairie" wasn't so bad. It was actually an adventure! They loved swimming in the irrigation ditch, and hauling each other around on makeshift sleds when the pond froze over, and riding their bicycles for miles.

By cutting our bills to the bare bones, we actually paid off our twelve acres in three years, AND our two mobile homes. The kids are grown now and raising their own families. It's just Pa and Ma here at home, so there's less canning to do. But I still cook pretty much the way I did in those early days. For one thing, we still need a retirement fund. If we don't use it up, we'll just leave it to those six teenagers who grew up in the country, and lived to tell the story!

By Coreen from Rupert, ID

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