How to Make a Survival Casserole

Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
How to Make a Survival Casserole

When I first started prepping, I was totally engrossed in learning as much as I could about survival tactics from the Great Depression.  For one reason or another, I have renewed this interest and have been spending my spare time reading books as well as watching some of the classic films and documentaries that depict the era.

Something I have learned is that women of the era were creative in the kitchen and took dibs and dabs of this and that and in order to create tasty meals as best they could.  That said, it wasn’t until the 50’s that the ubiquitous tuna casserole came into prominence, most likely due to the ease of preparation using pantry staples.  On the other hand, meals created from pasta or potatoes plus a vegetable and a scrap of meat were quite common during the Great Depression.

How to Make a Survival Casserole | Backdoor Survival

Bringing things forward to the 21st century, I like to prepare what I call “Survival Casserole”.  This is my amalgamation of the lean pantries of the Depression coupled with the casserole mania of the 50th.

With that introduction, today I share how to make a survival casserole that is easy, delicious, and a cinch to make with items in your preparedness pantry.

Survival Casserole is Not Your Mama’s Tuna Casserole

The inspiration for the Survival Casserole that I am sharing today was the book Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression which I reviewed in the article Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen. Taking a hint from Clara, I not only use existing pantry items, but also odds and ends of leftover items that are hanging out in the refrigerator or on the counter.

This is good, wholesome food that is also filling, tasty and budget friendly.    While it is similar to the ubiquitous tuna casserole our mothers and grandmothers made in the 50’s and 60’s, it is not your mama’s tuna casserole.  How long has it been since you have had this comfort food from days gone by?  I know that I hadn’t even thought about it for years.

Survival Casserole


1 package of dried pasta; typically a pound
1 can of tuna or canned chicken; can be doubled (see note below about tuna)
1 can condensed cream soup; mushroom or chicken; can be doubled
1 cup shredded or crumbled cheddar or other type of cheese (reserve half for the topping)
Odd and ends of leftovers from your refrigerator or pantry


Breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs, depending on what you have on hand


Cook the pasta. The exact amount does not matter. I happen to like whole wheat spaghetti so that is what I use. Also, I have made this casserole using less than a full package and more than a full package. This allows for flexibility to use whatever you happen to have on hand.

Grease the inside of a 9 x 13 baking pan, 12” cast iron skillet, Dutch oven with cooking oil, coconut oil, or some other fat.

Preheat your cooking source to about 350 degrees.

Combine all ingredients, holding back half of the cheese.

Mix well, then pour into your pan. Sprinkle the remaining cheese plus the breadcrumbs or crushed crackers over the top.

Bake for about 25 minutes until bubbly.

This is the basic recipe but as I indicated earlier, it is very flexible.  Let me share a few of my personal notes.

I have made this using cheese right out of the refrigerator as well as rehydrated, freeze dried cheese from cans in my food storage.  The taste is the same.  I have also used rice instead of pasta, a combination of cheeses, and have added a few hefty shakes of Tabasco or other hot sauce for flavor and bite.  On occasion, I have added a can of peas or a can or corn (thanks, Clara!), although most frequently I use leftover cooked broccoli.

Whatever I do, I can not seem to ruin my Survival Casserole.  It is always tasty and filling.

A Word About Canned Tuna

Whether you choose to consume canned tuna is up to you and a matter of preference.

Although I still have a dozen or so cans of tuna left from the pre-Fukushima days, my canned tuna eating days are almost over.  In spite of what the so-called officials say, I believe the likelihood and risk of radioactive waste contaminating our seafood is too great for my way of thinking.  Luckily, I find canned chicken to be a great alternative.  In addition, it is readily available at a reasonable price.

What you do is your own personal business but for me Pacific seafood of any type is off the plate, so to speak.  I simply do not want to chance it.

3 Tips to Remember from the Great Depression

There are three takeaways from reading and studying depression era cookbooks:

Keep things simple using a few ingredients as possible

Prepare one-pot meals that can be cooked in the oven, on the stove top, or in an outdoor cooker

Insure that the meal is budget friendly so that you can feed a houseful without breaking the budget


    The Final Word

    Prepping is not always about preparing for a SHTF situation.  Instead, survival means being prepared for the small bumps in the daily road of life.  Some days, actually many days, that road is a rocky one.

    Sometimes the budget is tight due to raising prices, unexpected bills, loss of income or all three.  Other times there are hungry mouths to feed but no time to shop, or the grid is down due to a winter storm.

    Whatever the reason, it can be fun to mix a bit of pasta, protein and canned soup to come up with your own special creation and call it “Survival Casserole”.  Have fun with the idea of creating unique, budget friendly casseroles that are different each time your make them. 

    In the meantime, if you already have your own special casserole recipe or even fond memories of times gone by, be sure to share in the comments below.

    Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

    If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to email updates.  When you do, you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-Book, The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

    You can also vote for Backdoor Survival daily at Top Prepper Websites!

     I put some thought into the things I would want to have if or when there is another Great Depression. These are all items I currently own.

    Cast Iron Skillet with Hot Handle Holder: I feel that everyone should own a basic, 12” cast iron skillet.  In spite of the myth, they are easy to care for and over time, will become a family heirloom.  On grid or off grid, cooking with cast iron is the way to go.

    cast iron ringer 250

    The Ringer Cast Iron Cleaner – Stainless Steel Chainmail:  I purchased one of these in October and it is friggin’ fantastic.  You will never ever have to scrub cast iron again.  I can’t say enough good things about this gizmo.  You want one (and I definitely need to do a review).

    Growing Up in the Great Depression: If you liked Clara’s Kitchen, you are going to love this book.  Written by 93 year old Delores Mixer, learn about her life growing up during the Great Depression.  The ways that she and her brother contributed to the family “kitty” are ingenious.  (Going to the Ice Warehouse, picking up pieces that fell off the ramp, then selling them to neighbors for a few cents a chunk – that is just one example.)

    Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression: If you don’t know about Clara, be sure to read Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen.

    Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking: At an average cost of 50 cents a loaf, this bread is easy, delicious and inexpensive to make.  Making your own bread is a skill everyone should have.

    Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients: Ditto.

    How to Live on Wheat: Everything you need to know about wheat.

    Morakniv Craftline Q Allround Fixed Blade Utility Knife:  Also known as the Mora 511, this is now my favorite knife. It is made of Swedish steel and is super sharp.  Many Backdoor Survival have emailed me indicating this is now their favorite knife too.

    Kershaw OSO Sweet Knife: This “oh so sweet” knife is a solidly built, stainless steel knife that comes razor sharp right out of the package. It will pretty much cut through anything the price is amazing.

    Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets (Pack of 10): I do believe in helping my neighbors in the community so a supply of these will be handy to hand out to those in need. You will be surprised at how warm these will keep you. Be sure to test one out in advance so that you have the confidence to trust the blanket in an emergency.


    Help support Backdoor Survival. Purchases earn a small commission and for that I thank you!


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    38 Responses to “How to Make a Survival Casserole”

    1. Wow! Usually, I don’t spend much time in my life reading food recipes. However, you got me looking at your “Survival Casserole” by mentioning “Mama’s Tuna Dish”… because I CRAVED Mom’s tuna casserole all through my kidlet years.
      Then, when I read the ingredients for your “Survival Casserole”… OMG! I realized that I’ve actually got all the ingredients! Which also means that I’ve found a new way to eat some of that Costco canned chicken! What a dream come true! (Er… that’s probably more a bachelor’s culinary delight, eh?)

    2. Oh gosh, I had to giggle a little at this. My 91 year old grandma gave me a recipe similar to this that she would feed to her six sons when they were little. They loved it and we love it now. I will have to try your version! Thanks!

    3. It’s good to know about the cheeses, my goat cheese isn’t real popular by itself so I’m going to try this and mix goat cheese with some cheese powder. Thank You!

    4. I recently made a very similar casserole. It had pasta (short spaghetti), tuna, cream of mushroom soup, onions (could have used dehydrated), and peas (again, could have used dehydrated), no cheese. I like to find ways to add vegetables however and whenever I can.

    5. This recipe brings back great memories! I grew up on tuna casserole. My girls did too! It’s actually a very economical meal and would be great to store the items in our food storage. I love this recipe! Thank you, Gaye!

    6. Thank you so much for recommending Ted Koppel’s book, “Lights Out”. I’m telling my pepper friends about it. I have purchased several books you have reviewed. Keep up the good work.

    7. Here’s what Italians eat on the cheap using all pantry items.
      1 lb. small soup pasta
      48 oz. can chopped tomatoes
      1 carton chicken broth
      2 qt. water
      Two dashes liguid smoke
      2 15 oz. cans small white beans
      4 T. Chopped dehydrated onion
      Garlic powder, dried oregano, dried basil and S & P to taste
      Optional: canned spinach drained
      After cooking,
      Enjoy a bowl topped w/ parm. cheese if wanted.

      Also super quick no cook pantry meal from college days,
      1 can black beans
      1 can chopped tomatoes
      1 can drained corn
      1/2 pack taco mix
      Stir it up, eat it up!
      You’d be surprised how good this is!
      College kids used to call it international stew!

      • Jo, this looks delicious. An even quicker meal that I enjoyed when visiting Rome years ago on a student budget was even quicker and easier. Eating at a sidewalk restaurant on a June evening, sipping a glass of CHEAP white wine, this is one of my favorite memories


        Grated cheese
        Crushed red pepper flakes
        Frozen peas—I pour the amount of peas I need into the cooking water for the last 2 minutes I am cooking spaghetti.

        Cook spaghetti to there is still some bite to it. Toss with butter, grated cheese and cooked peas. Sprinkle red pepper flakes. Salt and pepper to taste. Eat and serve.

        My son spent a semester in Rome. He said he ate this 1-2 times per week, or whenever he had no other food in the house.

        Mangia, y’all.

        My son studied in Rome about 10 years ago, and said he ate this at least 1-2 times per week, or whenever funds were tight.

    8. My mother would make what she called “GARBAGE” out of leftovers.
      It was always good and never the same twice. Raising 4 children
      I also made “GARBAGE” and no leftover became that toxic mess in the refrigerator.

      You do have to be adventurous and able to dump fearlessly. I think a cast iron
      skillet helps too. My children loved it.

      • We do something similar only we make GARBAGE soup. We accumulate leftovers of all types in the freezer then periodically gather them and add to a pot of homemade chicken or turkey stock. I must admit it is strange to see spaghetti and meatballs in my soup.

      • Boy – I thought I was the only one who made “Garbage Soup”. I did this back when I had four large hungry boys and very little money. As long as it was thick & tasty, they didn’t question what was in it. Different spice/herb combos help a lot.

      • I grew up on garbage soup. Both my mother and step-mother made it. Also the ever-changing Friday night casserole made up of whatever leftovers happened to be in the fridge from the week, mixed with rice or pasta and any appropriate seasonings/liquids. Although (unlike my mother and step-mother) I did not grow up with wartime rationing, I do the same today – both garbage soup and mystery casserole.

        Another favourite recently discovered: we cannot get tinned tamales in Canada, and I tried them when visiting a friend in the US and loved them. So now whenever I visit the States by car, I stock up on many tins of tamales. When I need a quick meal I open a tin and chop up the tamales into bite sized pieces, add a tin of sweet corn (I save the drained liquid for garbage soup), about 1/3 jar of mild salsa, and quite a lot of shredded sharp cheddar cheese. So yummy, it is very hard not to eat the whole thing in one sitting!

    9. One comfort casserole that I have making for over 30 years combines ground beef, minced onions and celery,( I have also added cabbage and /or zucchini depending on whats available.) These are mixed with a pound of cooked noodles, a can of cream of tomato soup, a dash of tabasco, salt and pepper and whatever cheese you like ( I usually use about a cup of cheddar. The above are combined, sprinkled with another bit of cheese and baked at 350 until browned and bubbly. The original recipe called for 1/2 cup green olives- I like black olives better. The seasoning can of course be varied to your taste. This is a nice, filling casserole ands there are never any leftovers.

    10. When we were small my dad lost his job. Here’s what Mom would make to keep us filled up for dinner. Not sure of the exact measurement of the cooked rice but it would fill the Large Pyrex mixing bowl, 2 Cans of chicken gumbo soup mixed in, If we had cheese, she would add that to the rice mixture and bake in 350 Degree oven til it was hot and the cheese was all melted. If we had bits of veggies or meat(rarely)left over from a previous meal it would be added to the Slumgullion as she called it. With 7 to feed, I learned a lot about how my parents grew up during the Depression from the foods we ate when Pop lost his job back in the 50’s. I’ve taught both my sons how to cook from scratch and they’ve come up with some very interesting dishes, just by “creating”. Yep, Both of their wives are VERY glad I taught the boys to cook (and clan, sew) 😉

      • I used to do this too, just add as much rice as I could to whatever soup I had on had (our favorite was cream of celery!), a little salt and pepper and maybe some cheese. We just called it “ricey soup”. The kids loved it, and still talk about it… “remember when we were “poor”, Mom, and would eat ricey soup?”… And if I didn’t have rice, it was noodles, then called noodley soup! Yum! Still have it from time to time when I’m hungry 🙂

    11. Another good source is from WWII Britain: // There are several sites, but I found this one ‘user friendly.’

    12. Wow this is a great post and great topic. I love to read everyone’s ideas. Here are mine. 1. Progresso Beef Barley soup heated and spooned over white rice and topped with grated cheddar or any cheese. 2. My husband likes to make the casserole on the back of cream of chicken soup. But he didn’t have any breadcrumbs. So he topped it with couscous. It was perfect. Tasted much better than breadcrumbs and more filling. I think he cooked the couscous first. After that he doesn’t get away with claiming he can’t cook.

    13. I love to throw together leftover “stuff” to create new “stuff”. It is not only economical, but many times the new creation tastes better than the originals did! When we were kids and times were tough, my mom would fix what I called poor-people pasta by simply cooking whatever type of pasta she had in the kitchen, covering it with home-canned tomatoes and some sauteed garlic and sprinkling it with grated parmesan cheese. I hated it as a kid! (It meant the cupboards were bare.) But now i love it’s simplicity and great taste. I make it now and sometimes jazz it up with green olives, celery, eggplant, zucchini, leftover cut up chicken, capers … or whatever is handy! Delish!!

    14. I’m sure my mother’s tuna noodle recipe came from Campbell’s or a sponsored site, because it’s all canned items except for the egg noodles and bread crumbs. But it has the advantage of being all shelf-stable items that store for at least a few years. I’ve even cooked this recipe in a Sun Oven.

      1 bag of egg noodles
      3 cans cream of mushroom soup
      1 can peas (small or large as your taste dictates)
      1 small can of cut mushroom pieces
      1 can of tuna (can be skipped for a vegetarian version, and I often skip it because I just forget to add it!)
      breadcrumbs (optional depending on cooking method)

      Cook pasta el dente, mix in other ingredients and top with breadcrumbs to avoid over crisping the top layer (can be skipped if cooking in a Sun Oven) Bake in oven at 375F for 40 minutes in a french white casserole dish. In a Sun Oven, just make sure it’s in a dark container and check temperature to make sure it’s hot enough to be safe – I aim for 160+ in the middle of the casserole. If you don’t have an instant read thermometer that’s working, just look for steam if you poke a hole in the middle of the dish.

      Only problem is I’d have to half the recipe for a SHTF event unless I had guests as this makes too much food for two folks to finish without leftovers and very few events that require SHTF planning will leave us with refrigeration outside of winter…

    15. dmwalsh568, I have a friend that dehydrates his cooked and put together lasagna for short time storage. don’t know if that would work for your casserole but it may be something you could try.

    16. This is just about THE scariest post I’ve read here so far (slightly, tongue in cheek). I knew people who lived through the last Great Depression, and spent a great amount of time around them, I think I ate every form of casserole from that era you can think of at Pot-Lucks and such. …Some of their children still – to this day – cannot even stand to look at a squash. Having had to ate it so much for so long.

      You all seem to have what-it-takes to survive.

      I hope I Never have to eat another casserole again.


      Did I mention I once interviewed a neighbor of mine, for a history class I took, who went through the last Great Depression? No? Well, the one thing that stood out for me all these years later is that he was amusingly frustrated that his wife had a lead foot and kept crashing all his cars.
      I wonder,…do you all have lead foots?

      [Just kidding, on the lead foot thing.]

    17. I think we will have a chicken, casserole tonight!! Thank you for common sense ideas about cooking and about the hazards of radiation/lead etc. poisoning of the Pacific. We can make small changes in our diets that will help protect us against some of these contaminants.
      Something I hope to see in a future article here is the importance of knowing the country of origin of our food stuffs. We need to demand from our legislatures that this bill be passed. So far, the lobbyists, big money, have kept the bill from passing. Wouldn’t you like to know where that apple juice comes from that you are feeding your baby or grandbaby?

      • Often, the “Big Money” that we are talking about in these situations is actually FOREIGN money. No surprise they want to stay secret.

    18. Many casseroles use canned, condensed cream soups, all of which that I have checked so far contain flour, making them off-limits for those who can’t eat gluten. Since my son can’t eat gluten, I found recipes online for making your own powder base for cream soups where gluten-free flour substitutions can be made. I’m fascinated by the potential this has for prepper food storage (gluten-free or not). You make a basic powdered white sauce base and add dried ingredients for the various cream soups. I haven’t done it yet, but it’s on my to-do list to add to food storage. It’s cheaper than buying canned soups, takes up less space, and weighs less. I’m excited to get at it!

      • Have you done it yet, Gail? I have used some of those recipes to accommodate my son’s gluten intolerance. They worked well. I haven’t thought of making dry mixes to have on hand or for prepping. Thanks for giving me the idea.

    19. a college friend used to make what he called “peasant food”: brown some hamburger in a skillet, drain out some of the fat (not all), add rice and enough water to cook it, then shortly before the rice is cooked, throw in some peas. with a little salt and pepper, this makes a great meal.

      • That ‘peasant food’ is very similar to my ‘starving student casserole’ from my college days. Everyone else was eating instant noodles and Kraft dinner, but I tried to prove that you could eat just as cheaply and much more healthily by spending the same money on:
        1 small bag of brown rice
        1 small bag of dried lentils
        1 pound hamburger (in those days it was 99 cents a pound – now it is quite expensive!)
        1 – 2 large tin chopped tomatoes
        1 cabbage

        Chop and cook all together and season with salt, pepper, and whatever other condiments you happen to have around. This recipe provided a whole week’s worth of meals when i was a student.

    20. My mother used to make SOS. (Shit on a Shingle) for us when I was young. It consisted of any kind of thinly sliced meat; she usually used chipped beef, a can of cream of celery or cream of chicken soup with some milk added, hard boiled eggs all put in a pan together to heat up. Then make some toast and put mixture of soup & milk, meat, eggs all on top of the toast. That was a dinner for us on many nights growing up. Our grandfather had a farm, so we always had nice fresh eggs.

    21. Is there anything better than a 60’s or 70’s recipe? Not to me….. Thanks for the reminder of this one! Mmmmmm!!!!!

    22. We used to eat a glass of bread torn in pieces with milk sometimes sugar and maybe cinnamon befor bed and thought it was the greatest.

    23. Granny’s Soup is what she gave us. It has been passed down. It is a soup her mother made during the depression.

      Fill pan 3/4 way up with water.
      Add, one whole medium onion (not chopped).
      Add one stalk of celery, not chopped.
      One canning jar of whole tomatoes. (You can use a 28oz can)
      Salt and Pepper to taste.
      Bring to a boil and cook about 25 minutes.
      Add as much Pasta as you want. I don’t do too much. I like the broth. Macaroni or Spaghetti.
      Continue boil until pasta cooked.
      Add 2 Tbsp of butter.
      Add 4 slices of cheese. I use velveta.
      Let melt and blend with broth. Stir constantly until melted.
      There you go. Oh we also find that it does well for anyone who wants to clean their pipes.

    24. When I was young, my mom made creamed tuna or creamed chipped beef on chow mein noodles. Another easy and cheap meal my family still makes is goulash:

      Cooked pasta
      1 pound cooked, drained hamburger
      1 can Spaghetti sauce
      1 can drained corn
      Add 1 cup cheese of choice (we use cojack)

      It is filling and delicious! My daughter makes it for family. It’s one of their favorite meals.

    25. Here is a recipe for cheap eats that is easy to scale up and uses pantry items (except the ground beef, unless you can your own like we do). My kids always called it Jenny’s Helper. We have served it to some notoriously picky people and have NEVER had anyone dislike it.

      1 box generic Mac-N-Cheese
      1 8oz can tomato sauce
      1/4-1/2 pound ground beef
      1 Tablespoon dehydrated onions
      1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
      1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
      1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

      In a skillet, brown very well (that adds flavor) ground beef with onions, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Drain if there is excessive grease.
      Meanwhile, bring pot of water to a boil. Add remaining 1 teaspoon salt and pasta from Mac N Cheese mix. Cook until done but firm. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water. Drain pasta and return to pot. Dump tomato sauce over macaroni, add cooked ground beef (with some of the fat), and sprinkle cheese sauce packet over all. Stir/fold all together to combine, adding reserved pasta water as needed. Return to low heat and stir now and then, until hot -OR- turn into a casserole and top with cheese, if you have it; if not, cover with foil to keep from drying out. Bake 20 minutes in 350* oven or until heated through.

      Variation: mix in 1 can corn (drained) or green beans or mushrooms or diced green chilies (or mix and match as your fancy suits you).
      Add ons/condiments: red pepper flakes, Tapatio sauce, Tabasco, jalapenos, chives, etc.

      For 4 hungry teenage boys and 2 adults, we use the 3 box version with a side vegetable and had a little left over. It’s easy to increase the batch: 2 boxes mix, 2 cans sauce, 1 pound beef or 3 boxes mix, 3 cans sauce, 1 1/2 pounds beef, etc.

    26. My Mother used to make Garbage Soup every Friday. I grew up mostly eating a big mid-day meal and having leftovers for dinner. We lived with my grandparents until I was 5-1/2. I used to make Mac and cheese, and add cream of chicken soup and a can of tuna or some cooked ground beef to it. Hubby and I still eat what we call Chili Mac. Mac and cheese and a can of chili mixed in. We use the Mild chili now. Can’t take too much spices anymore.

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