This week, my family is attempting to live on a SNAP (food stamps) budget of $4.50 per person per day for food. We’re only on day two and already this experience is having an impact.
I must admit, when first posed with this challenge, I wasn’t concerned. After all, I love to cook and as a Cooking Matters alum (and frugal Mom of two boys), I know how to stretch a dollar. So, armed with confidence and some measuring spoons, I planned our meals for the week and prepared my grocery list. A task that normally takes 20 minutes, took an hour. I made a list of what we would eat each night of the week, keeping in mind that my husband and I would use leftovers for lunches, and made a list of all breakfasts, snacks, and beverages.
Then, using my laptop and internet connection (a luxury not every family has), I looked up the prices of all the items at my local supermarket because I didn’t want to feel embarrassed by having to put items back. I had to make several adjustments from my regular purchases. The biggest change came from the fact that I couldn’t afford organic food.
Here is my list of week-night dinners (all made from scratch):
- Sunday: Baked chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, green beans (canned)
- Monday: Tacos – ground beef, black beans, brown rice, green pepper, onions, tomatoes, cheese
- Tuesday: Breakfast for dinner (eggs, toast, fruit)
- Wednesday: Macaroni & cheese, peas, tomatoes & cucumbers
- Thursday: Lasagna with spinach & homemade tomato sauce, broccoli
- Friday: Pizza with onions, green peppers, eggplant, cheese
Lunches: Leftovers for me and my husband, plus salad items. The kids, THANK GOODNESS, get school lunch. But they were not pleased that they had to have hot lunch every day, even when they didn’t like what was being served.
Snacks: Apples, clementines, red grapes (all 3 fruits were on sale this week!), crackers, peanut butter, cheese, peanuts, pumpkin bread (homemade), black bean brownies (homemade), carrots, celery, yogurt.
Breakfast: 2 boxes of cereal, English muffins, eggs, strawberries, bread
Beverages: 1 container of 100% juice, 1 container of vegetable juice, 1 gallon of milk
I also had a few pantry items that needed to be replenished: hot sauce, sugar, rosemary, coffee. This is a Cooking Matters tip. If you buy 3 – 4 pantry items each week, you can keep a fully stocked pantry, even on a limited budget.
My total grocery bill? $127. I only had $102 to spend (Sunday night – Saturday morning), but, I had to buy an additional $25 worth of items that SNAP doesn’t cover: napkins, dishwasher detergent, soap, toothpaste. Where do families get the money to pay for these essentials? I now have a better understanding of the stories I hear from food pantry directors about how many low-income Mainers are forced to sacrifice personal hygiene.
So, I did manage to stay within my $102 food budget. Was it easy? No.
It was certainly time consuming – I spent 3 hours on Sunday and 2 hours on Monday cooking the meals for the nights that I knew we’d be home late, plus making snacks because I couldn’t afford ready-made items such as granola bars. I also realize how fortunate we are that we have no food allergies or health concerns to further complicate the menu and increase the cost.
After two days, I am struck by several things. This is harder than I imagined, and I love to cook, remember? And I’m realizing how lucky I am that I have everything I need to make this work: time, a fully applianced kitchen, a supportive spouse, and most importantly, a Mom who taught me how to cook.
I’ll check back in after the week is done to let everyone know how we fared. While this is a challenge for my family, we’re all keeping in mind that for us, this is just a simulation. It’s eye-opening to think about the tough choices many families are forced to make every week of the year.
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