One of the comments I hear most frequently in my cooking classes and presentations is that “it’s impossible to eat healthy on a budget.” I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, and to prove my point, I decided N and I would take part in the Food Stamp Challenge. In Colorado, the challenge is organized by Hunger Free Colorado; your state will have different resources available.
While SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits vary from place to place and family to family, in Colorado food stamps amount to approximately $4.20 per person, per day. That amounts to $1.40 per meal, if you eat three meals a day, or about $29.40 per week; that number encompasses everything you consume, including drinks and snacks. (Legally, you cannot buy alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets or non-food products with food stamps, but unfortunately you can buy soda, energy drinks, candy, cakes, chips, cookies, ice cream and plenty of other unhealthy items.) This is going to take some planning, and some smart shopping.
Here’s the tricky bit, though: SNAP benefits can’t be used for any sort of takeaway food, and can’t be used for anything consumed within a store. So no prepared deli items, no to-go coffees, no rotisserie chickens. It’s easy to see why smart hunger relief experts advocate cooking classes along with SNAP benefits; to make the most of this program, you really need to know how to cook from scratch.
Since my household comprises two adults, I’ll allot us a total weekly budget of $58.80. And since I want to play in the most honest way possible, I’ll plan for the way we currently eat: we drink black coffee in the mornings but don’t eat an early-morning breakfast; we typically eat around 10AM and 4PM (it works for us). We also eat very little meat, so going mostly vegetarian won’t be much of a struggle; this budget definitely doesn’t allow for a lot of good meat. And we only eat at restaurants when we’re traveling, so planning and cooking all of our meals at home won’t stress us, either.
Scanning for sales is key to eating well on a budget.
A couple of other caveats about our food stamp challenge:
- A challenge like this is necessarily a snapshot in time. We’re doing our challenge in December, which definitely makes most fresh fruits and vegetables harder to come by in our Rocky Mountain region – and they’re certainly not local, except for onions and greens! Fresh produce would be more abundant and less expensive in late summer.
- To play fair, I am not using our backyard honey, or my own canned and frozen goods pantry. I have dozens of jars of applesauce, salsa, Western Slope peaches and other homemade canned goods, plus lots of produce in the freezer, but since I can’t truly ascribe a dollar value to these, we’re not eating these during the challenge.
- I refuse to dramatically change our standard eating style in order to adhere to the budget; I’m not going to add cheap meat or nutritionally devoid, high-sugar cereal to our shopping list just to have something on the table. That isn’t what we eat now, and I believe the point of this challenge is to make fresh, delicious, nutritious food on a limited budget – not to just eat for the sake of eating.
- As mentioned above, we’re a household of two healthy adults, and we only eat two meals a day. Your own household’s food stamp challenge will look very different, but we would love to hear about it!
Some of our food stamp challenge ingredients. Embrace the bulk department.
Here’s what I bought for our challenge:
- 12 oz. whole-bean coffee ($4.99, and it amounts to about $0.12 per cup. Worth every penny.)
- 12 oz. animal-welfare certified bacon ($4.99)
- dairy: 1 gal. local whole milk ($2.19), plain yogurt for starter ($0.59), 10 oz. queso fresco cheese ($2.49)
- two dozen non-GMO cage-free with outdoor access eggs ($5.98)
- fruit: 3 apples ($0.98), 3 grapefruit ($0.99), 1 lb. grapes ($0.97), 6 kiwi ($0.99), 3 pomegranates ($0.99), 3 pears ($0.98), 8 satsuma clementines ($1)
- grains and legumes: 0.5 lb. dried black beans ($0.85), 0.5 lb. brown rice ($0.35), 0.5 lb. dried chickpeas ($0.75), 0.5 lb. green lentils ($0.59), 0.5 lb. rolled oats ($0.35), 1 lb. linguine ($0.99), 0.5 lb. white beans ($0.99)
- 1 lb. organic tofu ($1.79)
- vegetables: 2 lb. broccoli ($1.76), 1 lb. carrots ($0.69), 1 bunch cilantro ($0.33), 12 oz. frozen corn ($1), 2 cucumbers ($1), 3 bell peppers ($0.99), 2 heads garlic ($0.66), 2 bunches kale ($1.98), 1 lb. yellow onions ($1), 12 oz. frozen peas ($1), 5 oz. salad greens ($1.69), 1 bunch scallions ($0.33), 3 zucchini ($0.99)
- staples: assorted bulk spices ($1), 0.5 lb. roasted almonds ($2.99), corn tortillas ($0.99), 5 lb. flour ($1.79), 0.25 lb. roasted pumpkin seeds ($1.25), 3 packets yeast ($1.19 with coupon), hot sauce ($0.99)
Total spent: $58.41
Thanks to savvy shopping and the discount table, this is less than $10 of healthy, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables!
And here is our simple seven-day menu plan; again, we start with a pot of black coffee and only eat two meals per day. For snacks, we eat fresh fruit or raw vegetables, plus a handful of almonds and pumpkin seeds.
- Day One: yogurt with fruit and almonds; white beans and sautéed kale with fried eggs; fresh bread
- Day Two: breakfast tacos with eggs, zucchini, peppers, onions and queso fresco; tofu and broccoli stir-fry over brown rice; green salad
- Day Three: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; pasta with bacon, garlic, zucchini and peppers; green salad; fresh bread
- Day Four: eggs on toast with sautéed greens; lentil, vegetable and chickpea soup; green salad; fresh bread
- Day Five: yogurt with fruit and almonds; frittata with vegetables, greens and queso fresco
- Day Six: oatmeal with fruit and almonds; spicy black bean and corn soup; kale salad
- Day Seven: huevos rancheros with leftover beans and rice; “favorites” (i.e. everything remaining from the week)
Remind me again why vegetables are boring?
My comments on the week:
- Our menu wasn’t really that different from what we eat on a regular basis. Each day included at least four servings of various fruits and vegetables and usually more, plus grains and legumes. Virtually everything we ate was healthy, flavorful and made from scratch. We didn’t feel hungry or deprived, but I can easily see how someone accustomed to eating at restaurants and/or eating a lot of meat might find this challenge…well, challenging.
- I chose bacon as our only meat for the week because it offers so much flavor in even tiny quantities. In addition to adding it to pasta and soups, I also used the rendered fat for sautéing vegetables and greens for extra savory punch. Skipping the bacon entirely would obviously leave about ten percent of the weekly budget for other items, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I’d rather eat a small amount of good, flavorful meat than a lot of cheap meat.
- I made four quarts of my own yogurt from one gallon of whole milk; the starter culture only has to be purchased once since you use a bit of your own yogurt as the starter for future batches. Plain full-fat yogurt made from good milk is a great source of quality protein, fat and calories, and dramatically cheaper than buying it premade.
Does it still count as breakfast if we eat at eleven o’clock?
- I also baked my own fresh bread as I do now, both for health and economic reasons. Although one could claim that whole wheat flour would be a better choice for homemade bread, I would argue that any homemade bread is far better than what you can buy, and far cheaper. Plus, stale bread becomes croutons and breadcrumbs, which add extra value and flavor; storebought sandwich bread doesn’t go stale, it just molds. (I buy my yeast in one-pound bags for $2.99 from a local restaurant-supply store; this is far cheaper than three packets for $1.19, even with a coupon. If you bake bread regularly, buy your yeast in bulk.)
- It’s virtually impossible to eat purely organic on a budget this tight. While I appreciate the virtues of organic, with so little money to spend I’d far rather eat more conventional fruits and vegetables than just a few organic ones. Value for money wins here, although some of the discounted produce was organic.
- I did miss having access to a well-stocked pantry, specifically various oils, vinegars, cooking fats (including good butter), seasonings and condiments. It’s very easy to make delicious, healthy food by just dressing it up a bit, and citrus, spices and other flavor enhancers really come in handy.
- I also really missed cheese. We eat a lot of cheese, both on its own and as a garnish for vegetables and grains, and while I love queso fresco, I really enjoy using a variety of specialty cheeses in almost every meal. Plus, good cheese can often be found at a discount at our grocery store, too!
Because we’re obsessed with aesthetic perfection and meaningless sell-by dates, it’s easy to find supermarket bargains.
Tips for success for your own food stamp challenge:
- Flexibility is absolutely key. I bought what was on sale, rather than what I necessarily wanted. If you’re going to cook well on a budget, pay attention to store advertising circulars, clip coupons and learn to adjust your meal plan based on what’s available at a good price, rather than what you feel like eating.
- Our local grocery store has recently started selling blemished or undersized produce at a discount. This produce made all the difference in our food stamp challenge; most of our fruits and vegetables came from this table, usually packed at three for $0.99. I also always search for items close to their sell-by date that the store is looking to offload at a discount; I’ve purchased a lot of healthy, cheap and still-good food this way (see photo above). Don’t ignore this option if you’re cooking on a budget.
- Also, don’t ignore frozen vegetables. They are cheap, healthy and easy to have on hand, plus they were frozen when that vegetable was actually in season. Fresh vegetables aren’t always the best option, especially on a tight budget.
- Shop the bulk department for grains, legumes and spices; skipping the inflated packaging makes a huge difference in price. Dried beans are far less expensive than canned, and they don’t contain excess salt, either. Soaking beans overnight takes virtually no time and a slow cooker makes preparing healthy food easy.
- Search out local ethnic markets. I could have spent substantially less on produce and beans if I had gone to any one of our incredible Mexican markets here in Denver. I wouldn’t buy animal products there, but I’d definitely buy pantry staples.
Pasta is oft-maligned, but it is quick, inexpensive, filling, and most importantly easy to pack with lots of vegetables.
- Get a good knife and a good cutting board and learn how to prep your own fruits and vegetables. Paying for the precut product costs a lot extra and it’s already started to deteriorate, too.
- Think nutrient-dense and lots of color: discounted spinach, sturdy kale or purple cabbage rather than cheap but nutritionally vacant iceberg; black beans over pinto beans. Whenever possible, choose the most intensely colored whole food (that Windex-colored Gatorade does not qualify).
- And think high flavor, too. I used small amounts of bacon, sharp, salty queso fresco and crunchy nuts and seeds to add a lot of flavor and texture to our dishes. You don’t need much, but they add interest. I spent money on onions, garlic, scallions and cilantro, both because they’re healthy and because they add a ton of flavor and punch without spending a fortune. Growing your own fresh herbs is a great way to enhance your meals.
- We had quite a bit of food remaining at the end of the week (both prepared and raw ingredients); this is partially why our final day incorporated “favorites.” If you want to eat on a budget, you have to make use of leftovers, too. Throwing away food is exactly the same as throwing away money.
Garlicky white beans and kale with fried eggs: pretty much perfect, in my opinion.
N pointed out that this challenge was easy for me, because I know how to prepare healthy, delicious food and enjoy doing so. While that’s certainly true, I would say yet again that the number-one best thing you can do for both your physical and your financial health is to learn how to cook, and cook often – whether or not you’re on a strict food budget. Take responsibility for your own health, and cook yourself some wholesome, tasty food. You don’t need to break the bank to do that.
If you choose to organize your own food stamp challenge, please share it with us!