I first took the Food Stamp (or SNAP) Challenge in 2007, shopping for two with a budget of $1 a meal per person for a week. My husband and I did variations on the Challenge for over three months, with such success that I started the Cook for Good project and wrote the book Wildly Affordable Organic. Since then, we’ve tried many variations on the Food Stamp Challenge, including one where we focused on local food and a heart-breaking one where we tested the impact of cuts for SNAP benefits (see my menus, shopping lists, and insights on the SNAPcut Challenge).
I had a running head start as an able-bodied person with access to a kitchen and good ingredients. After a few years, I cooked as best I could through a serious illness and then a concussion. These experiences deepened my sense of the hardship that many face, but I still knew I could stop any challenge at any time.
The Cook for Good project supports the goals of the Food Stamp Challenge. People need enough money to buy healthy local food and not everyone has the time, place, ability, or equipment to cook it. But many people also need help picking ingredients that will get the most delicious value for their food dollars and more help cooking healthy meals.
7 Tips for Thriving on a Food Stamp Budget
- Make a menu and a shopping list. Keep a running total as you put items in your cart so you aren’t shocked by the total at the cash register. Be flexible if you spot bargains at the store.
- Cook from scratch. Even homemade bread can be easy. During my summer experiment, I developed a recipe for homemade bread that takes only 20 minute of active time and that doesn’t require a bread machine or kneading.
- Choose sturdy, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Think cabbage, potatoes, carrots, peppers, squash, and onions. Bananas are often the least expensive fruit anywhere, year round. Add variety with apples in cool months and melons in the summer. Your farmers’ market may have the best prices. Look for good deals on “ugly” or very ripe produce. If you get 50% off a basket of “ice-cream peaches” and can use 80% of them, then you got a bargain.
- Cook once and enjoy twice (or more!). My beloved mother-in-law often said it was no more trouble to cook for 10 than to cook for 2. Her love for her family may have inspired her to exaggerate a little, but it’s true that cooking a double or triple batch of beans, rice, or pasta sauce takes little extra work. Let the meal you cook today help you out tomorrow.
- Don’t waste anything. Cut up stems from your greens and cook them for about five minutes before you cook the leaves. Save water used to boil pasta and vegetables for a free vegetable broth. Start a Stoup container to make stew/soup from scraps.
- Cook low on the food chain. A serving of organic black beans, cooked from dried beans, costs 20 cents at the Whole Foods here in Raleigh. That’s a bargain for a main-dish anchor for a meal. Skip the meat, fish, eggs, cheese, and other dairy. Animal products are expensive to buy and in the long run increase your risk for expensive health problems.
- Drink water or home-brewed tea. Family-sized tea bags are often a bargain. Don’t let a venti Frappucino blow your budget.
7 Common Mistakes People on SNAP Challenges Make
I’ve wasted money myself on some of these. Others I’ve read about from other people on SNAP challenges.
- Scrimping on breakfast. Try peanut butter on toast or overnight oatmeal for high-protein, satisfying starts.
- Buying dangerous trans fats to save money. I’d rather use olive oil on toast than margarine with trans fats. The cheapest peanut butter sometimes has trans fats too.
- Buying empty calories. Instead of white noodles or ramen, buy whole-wheat noodles. Have fruit or a baked sweet potato with cinnamon for an easy, healthy dessert.
- Buying canned or frozen potatoes instead of fresh ones.
- Buying processed foods instead of real ingredients.
- Buying small bags of designer coffee. Cheap tea tastes a lot better than cheap coffee.
- Buying just “the good stuff.” It’s hard to make it on a SNAP budget if you buy baby carrots instead of large carrots or broccoli florets instead of the whole stalks.