Dinner for 4 on a SNAP Budget
When NCOA decided to do the SNAP Challenge, people assumed I would leave the rest of my family out of it. Never! Since we eat dinner together as a family every night, my family was required to come along on this important ride with me.
Below is an itemization of our week's dinners -- while living off $16/day. I want to share the meals I made for dinner and how my shopping experience and choices (or lack thereof) changed because of the SNAP Challenge.
- One Pot Lemon Chicken with Green Beans and Potatoes = $8 (Dinner for 4 with one lunch leftover. However, my dog ate my lunch for the next day off the kitchen counter before I could get it into the fridge!)
- Cheese Tortellini with Pasta Sauce and Broccoli = $5
- Cheese and Potato Frittata = $5 (Dinner for 4 with one lunch leftover)
- Beef Stew = $11 (The most expensive meal on the menu but it serves dinner for 4 plus at least 2 lunches.)
- Homemade Macaroni and Cheese with Broccoli = $5
So, this doesn't look all that bad, right? Well, I think I had a few advantages that would not always apply to a family of four on SNAP. First, my kids are young, ages 6 and 3. As a result, they do not eat as much as an adult or even a teenager. If my kids had bigger appetites, I am not sure I would have been able to stretch the dinner budget so far. Second, because I had more of a budget to work with on a daily basis, I was able to buy a greater variety of food than others working off a $4 a day budget. Lastly, one major advantage is that I really love to cook and have found ways to make semi-homemade meals that can accommodate our very busy schedules.
What were some of the difficulties of the challenge?
Time: We usually do our meal planning and food shopping on Sunday. However, this past Sunday, we had a conflict that didn't allow us to get our shopping done. So, on Monday night after work, I had to scramble to the store and get the food for dinner for that night as well as for the rest of the week. That left my husband to pick up the kids, something that I usually do. Needless to say, we ended up eating dinner very late. Had we not been participating in the challenge, we would have definitely picked up carryout -- which would not have been an option for people living on a tight food budget.
Also, I did my shopping at one store and used self checkout. While I knew that a few of the items I needed were cheaper at Trader Joe's (pasta and broth), by doing all my shopping at one store, I avoided having to drive across town to get those items. Of course when I (self) checked out, I selected the wrong grapes on the screen and was overcharged by a little over $2. This week, those $2 were critical! Thus, I stood in line at Customer Service to get a refund, which added to my time in the store.
Quantities: The SNAP challenge made me feel like I had to ration food to my kids -- specifically when it came to meat and fresh produce. On the first night, my husband shared some of his chicken with my six-year-old because he still wanted more. While I capitalized on grapes and broccoli that were on sale, I needed them both to last through the week -- so nobody was allowed to freely take all they wanted.
Choice: Lack of choice was a huge challenge. I do not buy all organic food but there are a few foods items that I do prefer to go organic, such as with milk, meat and poultry. That was out of the question on a SNAP budget. Everything I bought was on sale -- especially the produce. Instead of having a variety of fruit and vegetables to choose from, we ate the same things throughout the week. Furthermore, my kids tend to snack from the cupboard while I cook dinner as they have an 8+ hour day at school. This week I had to distract them with snacks from the food I bought. Peeled carrots from the .79 cent bag of carrots (which I bought for the stew) seemed to do the trick!
Interestingly enough... A few weeks ago, I took my six-year-old son Zach to see the play Willy Wonka, put on by our local Park District Theater. As the story goes, cabbage is the main staple in the Bucket household and Wonka candy is a treat that comes only through a handout or on Charlie Bucket's birthday. While there were a lot of good morals taught in the Willy Wonka story, I used the examples around food to try help Zach understand why we should be grateful for the food we are able to put on the table. The SNAP challenge took things a step further and will act as an important reminder for me and my family.