74: The Last Meal of the Month

74: The Last Meal of the Month

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less

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The Last Meal of the Month

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.

~Henry David Thoreau

“What’s for dinner, Mom?” I couldn’t help the smile that broke out on my face upon hearing those words. The last-meal-of-the-month had become an eagerly awaited family adventure and I’ll admit, I enjoyed the challenge.

“I don’t know,” I answered, “but I’m sure I’ll come up with something.”

My son watched as I gathered whatever I found lurking in the refrigerator and cupboards and placed them on the counter where my imagination would magically conjure up a dinner plan.

When we moved back east we simplified our lives. But along with simplicity came sacrifices. Out west I’d helped financially support our family, but now I was a full-time mother. With one meager income and five hungry mouths to feed, plus our pets, we needed a plan.

We didn’t squabble about a monthly budget. After we paid the bills, we had two hundred dollars left and not a penny more for groceries, paper products, and pet food.

In a homesteading magazine, I’d read about a family that spent one hundred dollars a month for food. But I hated their suggested menus. Bacon gravy stirred with white rice and fried onions didn’t sound appealing. And while beans and rice are nutritious, I wouldn’t care for them night after night. I’d studied nutrition and insisted that my family would eat healthful meals without feeling as if they had gone without.

Of course it made sense that the more shopping trips we made, the more money we spent and so we shopped once a month, saving money as well as gasoline.

In order to shop the best sales we drove an hour away so that we had our choice of three competing grocery chains, all in the same vicinity. We made every penny count.

Getting the hang of this new system took a while, but if an item wasn’t on the grocery list, we didn’t buy it, period!

Buying in bulk became a necessity. We made sure we got the most nutritional bang for our buck by cutting out packaged and processed foods. Even the canned soups disappeared, replaced by rich homemade broths and creamy celery, mushroom, or bean soups. Homemade oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, whole grain muffins, or granola replaced boxed cereals. In the summer we gardened, preserving our bounty by canning or freezing our harvest. During the fall and winter I picked delicious greens from a simple cold frame crafted from an old sliding glass door the neighbor had thrown away.

We ate simple foods and only in season. When available, we purchased fruits and vegetables locally, such as potatoes or apples. Sliced potato fries drizzled with oil and seasoning made tastier, healthier fries than the frozen store-bought variety, and baked apples dotted with butter and sprinkled with a little cinnamon and sugar tasted heavenly.

At the end of the month, when the cupboards seemed bare, I found we had plenty of food left once I figured out how I could “throw” it all together. No recipes here. And while my family should have eagerly awaited that first meal of the month, when the house overflowed with freshly stocked groceries, the last-meal-of-the-month is the one that grabbed all the attention. It became an amusing guessing game as the family wondered what concoction I’d come up with next.

One evening I lovingly placed my last-meal-of-the-month masterpiece on the table. “What’s that?” my kids asked, excitedly anticipating the mystery dinner. As I removed the lid from the casserole I heard, “What’s in it?”

“Good stuff, that’s what’s in it,” I carefully answered.

My husband’s face perked up. “Not only does that look delicious, it smells incredible,” he said, sniffing the air.

The dish looked sensational, with its gorgeous, thick, spicy-green Mexican sauce, sprinkled with shredded cheese, topped with tomatoes and garnished with shredded greens — almost too exquisite to eat.

But we did eat it. The family devoured the entire meal and insisted I make it again soon.

As we cleared the table, my daughter asked, “Mom, what was in that sauce?”

With a smile on my face I proudly answered, “I made it from the leftover green peas.” Judging from my family’s bulging eyeballs and upturned noses I knew I’d made a huge mistake. I promised myself I’d never disclose my secret ingredients again.

My children are all grown, but today I still grind my wheat, make bread, and buy staples in bulk, although now I can order them online and have them shipped. Out of necessity, we still budget. Today’s food is more expensive and while we occasionally splurge on a few frivolous purchases, for the most part we eat simple, healthful food and spend far less than most people do on groceries.

Delicious homemade food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and a family tradition, but we keep it simple in our home. And believe it or not, we still eat a few of our favorite last-day-of-the-month, thrown-together meals, including tortilla crumb casserole or deep-dish pizza. Simple doesn’t get any better than that!

~Jill Burns

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