SNAP Challenge Meals

Following our SNAP challenge blogs throughout the month of March, I received some requests for details about the foods I purchased and how I put them together into meals. I allowed myself $28 and I spent $25.01 so that I could use a few things from home (cooking spray, margarine, salt and pepper).

Breakfasts

Baked eggs (raw)Baked eggs (cooked)

Given the cost of meat, I tried to get protein from eggs each day. I made baked eggs twice during the week and ate one or two each morning with a slice of whole wheat toast with margarine, a banana and a cup of milk. My baked eggs recipe is quite simple.

Baked Eggs

  1. Spray a muffin tin with non-stick spray or rub with a bit of vegetable oil.
  2. Put a thin slice of ham in each cup and crack an egg inside the ham.
  3. Bake at 375 degrees until eggs are totally set. This typically takes about 15 minutes.

Lunches

I went to work on five of the seven days of my challenge. I knew I would dwell on food a bit during this week so I wanted to choose lunches that would be very filling. Carrots and celery were the most affordable vegetables at my store, so I needed to base a lot of meals around them. At the beginning of the week I made a vegetable salad with garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas) that I ate for lunch with two or three clementines. I made all of the salad at once to get ready for the week. The full salad recipe was 4 cups of chopped carrots, 4 cups of chopped celery and two cans of garbanzo beans (drained and rinsed). Salad dressing did not fit in my budget so I topped my salad with about a tablespoon of reduced fat mayonnaise seasoned with salt and pepper when I sat down to eat each day.

On the weekend days when I was not at work, I ate leftovers from dinner.

Dinners

My twenty eight dollars did not give me room for a lot of variety during my week. There was much repetition. I chose two basic dishes and made them in large enough quantities to provide me with seven dinners plus a bit leftover. These dishes are not really recipes; they are just simple combinations that allowed me to eat relatively healthy for very little money.

The first was a meatless meal of whole wheat pasta with jarred pasta sauce topped with some grated cheddar cheese. This was not a particularly exciting dish, but I was able to get 4 single-serving meals for just $3.87.

The second dish was based around the fact that my store had a special on chicken thighs that made them the most affordable meat option for me. I bought a package of six thighs for $3.88. I built the dish around the chicken and stretched it with some additional ingredients.

Chicken with Rice and Peppers

  1. Individual servingsSeason chicken thighs with a bit of salt and pepper and roast at 425 degrees for 50 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads 165 on a food thermometer.
  2. While chicken roasts, chop three bell peppers and cook them in a skillet over medium heat for about ten to twelve minutes.
  3. When the peppers are cooked, add a can of pinto beans that have been drained and rinsed. I used a 24 ounce can. Season with pepper and a pinch of salt.
  4. Cook brown rice according to package instructions. I made four servings, but this is flexible based on how many people you’re trying to serve.
  5. When chicken is done. Remove the skin and pick meat from the bones.
  6. Combine rice, peppers and beans, chicken and two cups of thawed frozen corn in a large pot. Cook over low heat until everything is combined and heated through.

This dish made six large servings and cost just under $10. It could easily serve eight if some sides were also being served.

SNAP Challenge PurchaseAs you can see, the volume of food available for my $28 budget was not too bad, but eating the same dish over and over again did get boring. I also ate less dairy and fruit than would be recommended. I also did not have room in my budget for any beverages beyond milk and water and I did not purchase any snacks.

My menus were largely built around the sales at my store, I chose proteins and vegetables that were at a good price and then filled them out with some whole grain products that are generally inexpensive. Since the challenge, I have continued to think this way when I determine meals for the week. My $28 budget allowed me to purchase most of the foods I needed for a week, but left no room for convenience items or snacks. This meant I spent a lot of time preparing my food and I chose only foods that gave me the nutrients I need.

 

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Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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The Rhoads’ SNAP Challenge

Vickie Rhoads decided to do the SNAP challenge with her family and share their experience to call attention the fact that nearly 13 % of Iowans are food insecure, meaning they do not have the ability to acquire nutritionally adequate and safe foods in socially acceptable ways. Vickie shared, “We have had friends and family whose income has been reduced due to job layoffs or family deaths”. A one-week challenge certainly does not replicate the complexities of poverty, but it is one way to better-understand the reality many Iowans face.

Rhoads SNAP
Photo courtesy of Captured by Heidi Photo

Paul Rhoads may be the coach at Jack Trice Stadium, but Vickie is in charge at home juggling all of the family’s needs and three very busy schedules. The Rhoads have two sons, one of whom lives at home and the other is at college. Vickie began her challenge by going grocery shopping with her teenage son, Wyatt. He is a high school wrestler and must be careful about his diet, in fact he was preparing for the state wrestling tournament during the challenge.

Vickie’s reflections on this experience included several meaningful realizations:

  • “It’s amazing how much you think about food when it is limited.” This is a quote from Vickie’s reflection log on day 1 of the challenge. This thought points to the importance of food beyond nourishment. We all have routines and habits built around food and when those are disrupted it is uncomfortable.
  • Vickie and Wyatt began by purchasing the foods Wyatt is used to eating to ensure that he would get what he needed for wrestling. Reflecting on the experience, Vickie mentioned, “I didn’t plan for myself very well”. This is a common reality for families working with a tight grocery budget. Children are often prioritized meaning Mom and Dad make some additional compromises.
  • Vickie shopped carefully and did a fair bit of scratch cooking to get the most nutrition for her dollar. She cooked a larger amount of food several times so that she would have leftovers for future meals. The only food they really missed was fresh fruit and vegetables. The budget did not allow for the fresh produce they are accustomed to.

On the last day of the challenge, Vickie reflected back on the week, “It took a lot more planning on my end”.  She also shared that she will do some things differently going forward. First, Wyatt enjoyed the grocery shopping and it was a good learning experience for him. She plans to include him in shopping more often. Second, the experience helped her identify how she could minimize food waste at home by making better use of perishable foods. Third, she has learned about various resources available to families struggling to eat healthy on a budget. “I hadn’t really thought about the programs that are available in Ames for people who need help.” Iowa Food Assistance and WIC provide benefits to families who meet income qualifications. In addition, local food banks and pantries provide food to needy families. To learn how to receive help from a food pantry or make a donation, visit the Iowa Food Bank Association’s website. For families trying to eat healthy on a tight budget, ISU Extension and Outreach offers programs to help you build your nutrition knowledge as well as shopping and cooking skills. Visit our program website for more information.

In this three-part blog series we have looked at the knowledge and skills necessary to eat healthy on a budget. We have discussed planning and strategy as well as the social and psychological role food has in our lives. If you are interested in these themes and hunger-related issues, you can visit the Feeding America website to learn more. Thank you to the Rhoads and Litchfields who shared their stories with us this month!

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Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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A Week in Someone Else’s Shoes

002Last week I wrote about my experience with the SNAP Challenge. I limited my food budget to what I would receive if I participated in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). I learned a lot and put my cooking and shopping skills to the test! Dr. Ruth Litchfield is a friend and colleague of mine who is a dietitian and teaches nutrition courses at our university. She took the SNAP challenge as well. I was fascinated to learn about her family’s experience.

Ruth is married with two children. Her daughter is away at school and her son is at home, so her budget for the week was for three ($84). Ruth teaches college courses about nutrition including food assistance programs but has never “lived it” herself. This gave her the opportunity to practice some of what she teaches.

Given Ruth’s extensive knowledge and background in nutrition, she was able to approach the week with a lot of strategy and planning. Ruth also had the advantage of being an experienced cook. So with all of this knowledge you might wonder what she chose to buy.

Breakfast

Ruth described breakfast as a challenge, “We are accustomed to more convenience items for breakfast including cereal and instant oatmeal.” Those foods didn’t fit in the overall budget so they stuck with toast, canister oatmeal, and pancakes.

Lunch

Typically Ruth packs sack lunches for everyone in her house. If her family actually qualified for SNAP, her son would receive free lunch at school. As part of this experience, he ate school lunch for the week. He enjoyed the lunch provided at school, but the weather threw the whole family a curve ball. Winter weather meant one day of no school, two early dismissals and one late start. Ruth described how this unexpected change created some problems with her plan. “That meant two additional noon meals at home that I had not planned on, if I had been really depending on the school meals that would have been a big issue,” she said.

Dinner

Chicken hindquarters were on sale at Ruth’s grocery store, so she purchased a large bag and built several meals around using this chicken. She chose meals that would stretch the meat as much as possible like chicken noodle soup and wild rice soup with chicken. In addition, she planned some meatless meals like egg casserole and pasta with tomato sauce.

Ruth’s experience was similar to mine in that she had to fall back on her cooking and meal-planning skills in order to make the budget work and feed her family nutritious meals. They also had to make a few changes to their usual habits.

  • She reduced their usual variety of fruits and vegetables. They ate a mix of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and veggies throughout the week based on what was available at a good price.
  • She avoided convenience foods and replaced them with less-expensive options.
  • She built meals around items that were on sale and stretched more expensive items like meat as much as possible.
  • Her son ate school lunch instead of his usual sack lunch.

Though Ruth’s family had enough food to get through the week without going hungry, Ruth shared that she was preoccupied with thoughts about food during the week. “I was thinking about food much more that week than I typically would, it was surprising how much food occupied my thoughts.”

We would love to hear your cost-saving strategies in the comments section below. Do you have some go-to-meals that help you save money while still eating healthy?

Be sure to check next week’s blog for another SNAP challenge story. We’ll hear how Vickie and Paul Rhoads as well as their teenage son Wyatt took on the challenge.

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Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Challenge Accepted: Eating on $28 for a Week

Hradek_Christine072913Occasionally I see articles on the news or social media about a politician or celebrity taking “the SNAP challenge.” It sounds like a new reality show, but it’s actually a fascinating process. During the SNAP challenge participants limit their food budget to what they would receive if they participated in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). I’ve always been interested in people’s motivations for doing this and the realizations they come to while trying to eat well on a very tight budget.

I coordinate two nutrition education programs for Iowa families who are trying to eat well and stick to their budget. The programs are called EFNEP and FNP. We help families build their knowledge and skills so they can make the most of limited food dollars. You can find more information about these programs on our website.

I decided to turn my curiosity into action and take the challenge myself. As a single person, my budget for the week was approximately $28. SNAP is meant to be supplemental, but for many low-income families it is their primary source of food dollars so I limited myself to the $28 amount. My goal was to buy seven days’ worth of healthy meals, snacks, and beverages for that price. I have spent several years working to understand the needs and desires of the families we serve and going into this I felt pretty confident that I had a good handle on what eating well on a budget was like.

I came to understand that the knowledge and skills we teach are vital, but knowing what to do and how to do it are not enough. Time became the most important piece of the puzzle for me. In order to stay within my budget and eat healthy, I had to commit significantly more time to planning my meals, shopping, and preparing food from scratch than I would typically do. I did this for a week and I recognize it doesn’t compare to families who do it on a continuous basis. As I wrapped up my challenge, I reflected on the experience and a few realizations rose to the top for me.

  1. SNAP ChallengeCooking is a critical skill. I could not have done this if I was dependent on convenience foods. It’s as simple as that. I had to cook and I had to get creative about meals. If I did not feel confident to prep food myself and make the most of ingredients, I would have gotten far less for my money. I had to stretch my more expensive ingredients like meat and vegetables with less expensive ones like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and beans.
  2. Shopping smart takes skill, time, and strategy. I started my shopping trip with a rough plan for what I wanted to buy, but I had to stay flexible at the store as I saw prices and sales. I figured unit prices for items sold in different forms (fresh/frozen/canned) and calculated my total as I moved through the store.
  3. Food nourishes our bodies, but it does more than that. It tends to be central to our family traditions and a huge part of our routines and lifestyles. I did not go hungry during this challenge, but I did find myself fixated on the foods I could not afford and the things I couldn’t do because of my limited budget. I worried about running out of food and found myself referencing my meal plan regularly to make sure I was covered for the rest of the week. I can see this stress being magnified if I was responsible for feeding a family.

The SNAP challenge is an eye-opening experience. As I planned, shopped and prepared meals on a limited income, I fully appreciated the resources we make available on the Spend Smart. Eat Smart website.

Our blogs for the rest of the month will focus on experiences others have had with the SNAP challenge – including a dietitian and nutrition professor, and a very well-known Ames family. Try the challenge yourself; you can find more information at the Feeding America website.

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Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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