Food Rationing: Frugal Living Lessons From World War II

by Marianne Giullian
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Most of us can only imagine what it would be like to live with the food rationing that occurred during WWII. But there are a lot of lessons we can learn from that experience that can help us make it through hard times today.

Life on the home front during World War II was a challenge. The economic recessions we have had don’t compare to what they had to go through.

Women had to deal with food rationing, working out of the home for the first time for many (because the men were off to war), and raising and preserving a victory garden to have enough food to feed their families.

What would it be like to prepare nutritious meals based on World War II rations and is it possible to live with the same restrictions today? We can learn lessons from their experiences to help us to make it through tough financial times.

Could You Get By on Less Meat?

Most rationed items during WW II can be put into one of the following categories: meat, dairy, sugar, and canned food items.

Casseroles became popular in order to make meat last longer. Each person was allowed a limited amount of meat per week. People learned to cook with more beans and lentils. They ate more peanut butter, fish and chicken, which weren’t rationed most of the time.

During this period of time, women probably had to make some adjustments to their menus and recipes. Many of us who have been affected by recent events have also had to make changes in our menus and recipes.

Even though people in WW II probably viewed the significant reduction in meat as a less-than-positive change, I believe the amount of meat given per person during that time was a reasonable amount. The forced reduction in meat consumption was beneficial perhaps for their health because meat intake should be limited.

I believe that we could live within those restrictions today without much difficulty if we are used to eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.

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What If You Had Limited Access to Canned Goods?

People were allowed ration points per person per month. For example, this amount could possibly get two cans of applesauce, but it wouldn’t be enough for a can of tomato paste. It would take some planning to figure out where to spend your points so you could get the most value for your points.

Because I cook from scratch and buy fresh produce, it wouldn’t be as hard to live with this restriction as it would for people who eat a lot of canned items, although I would miss tomato paste and orange juice. Because we have so many canned items available and are not used to being limited in our selection and quantity, rationing canned foods would be challenging for us living in these times.

What Substitutions Could You Make?

Sugar was one of the major items rationed in the war. People were allowed about half of a pound of sugar per week in various forms.

If these same rations were imposed upon us, we would also need to change the recipes we use regularly to adjust to the ration of sugar they had back then. Shortages of sugar and fats would make sweet breads, muffins, cakes and cookies a challenge, especially on birthdays, weddings, and holidays.

There were sweeteners such as honey, molasses, maple syrup and corn syrup that were not rationed. If you were willing to substitute these, you would have a larger variety of sweets to eat.

People who canned their own produce were allowed additional sugar. Dehydrating food would be a good option if sugar would be limited. It is wise to limit sugar for your health, but it would be a challenge, and you would have to make careful calculations to figure out how to use a limited amount of sugar best.

Could You Make Do or Do Without?

Butter, milk and cheese were rationed.

The milk ration was similar to what our family uses on a regular basis.

Cheese would be a difficult item to cut down, especially if we were given a ration of one ounce per person per week. We love pizza, soup, and Mexican food that all use cheese.

Because of butter rationing, people used more margarine and shortening, which were easier to come by.

Some say eggs were rationed to one per person per week. Others say they weren’t rationed. Eggs would be one of the most difficult items for me to have rationed since they are used in so many things. Managing on just one egg per person per week would be next to impossible. If they were rationed, I would have to make bread recipes with very little fat and no eggs, like pita bread and bagels.

Substitutes for eggs can be used in recipes, but there is a difference in the way things turn out. They just don’t taste quite the same. If eggs weren’t rationed and if you could easily get other types of fat like shortening, margarine and oil, we could live within the WW II food rationing program by making do with the items that were not rationed.

There were several items that were not rationed at all. Some were cabbage, turnips, fish, carrots and potatoes. You could get healthy meals each day if you were to use these items, but it would get old fast.

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Lessons We Can Learn From the Food Rationing Challenges of WW II

There are lessons we can learn from the past, especially from those who dealt with the challenges of food rationing in WW II.

First, it is very important to have a garden and learn the skills necessary to preserve the food so you can have variety in your diet and have enough to eat if things get really bad. In addition, planting fruit trees in your yard is very beneficial.

It is important to have seeds to grow your garden and the equipment and supplies needed to preserve food. If you can and freeze your own produce, you would have more variety of food items to choose from for very little cost.

Learning to cook would be a valued skill to have. Spices would be an important item to stock to help put variety into food.

Having a well-stocked pantry with items you regularly eat is a huge benefit if the economy takes a downturn. That way, you are covered temporarily if anything unexpected occurs.

I like having the freedom to buy what I want at the grocery store, but I think that people these days could do just fine with food rationing if we had to. If you cook from scratch and make a conscious effort to eat healthy food, it would be easier than if you are used to eating many processed, canned and fast foods.

If we ever have to use food rations, it would be important to plan menus and purchases very carefully to get the most nutritious and well-balanced meals you can, but I believe we would do just fine.

Reviewed December 2023

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