The United States has been called the land of plenty, and for many people, it is. But even in this wealthy nation, many people have trouble just getting enough to eat. According to Feeding America, roughly 37 million Americans are food insecure.
That’s why the U.S. government created the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It’s the same program formerly known as food stamps, but it now takes the form of an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. In a typical 2018 month, more than 40 million Americans used this program to get the food they needed, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
If you’re an American having trouble putting food on the table, applying for SNAP is your obvious first step. However, qualifying for benefits doesn’t mean all your problems are solved.
The CBPP also notes that based on 2018 data, a SNAP user in a household of one only gets around $134 a month in benefits — a little less than $4.50 per day. Feeding yourself on that amount of money isn’t easy, especially if you’re trying to eat healthy foods like fresh produce, nuts, and fish. A 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that a diet with plenty of these foods costs about $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy diet with lots of meat, refined grains, and processed foods.
That means that once you receive your EBT card, the real challenge starts: figuring out how to make healthy meals with the amount of money SNAP provides.
How to Use SNAP
Using your EBT card itself is pretty simple — much more straightforward than the old paper stamps. However, you can expect a bit of a learning curve as you figure out where you can use it and what you can use it for. There are strict rules about what SNAP does and doesn’t cover, and the supermarket checkout line isn’t the best place to discover which products are off-limits.
Using Your EBT Card
Each month, the government automatically transfers your SNAP benefits for the month onto your EBT card. It works just like a debit card: You swipe the magnetic strip through the store’s card reader, type in your personal identification number (PIN), and the money comes directly out of your account. Your PIN protects your account so no one else can steal your EBT card and use your benefits. Keep this PIN a secret just as you would with the PIN for your debit or ATM card.
You can use your EBT card at most food stores as long as they have a card reader. If you’re not sure where you can use your card, you can search the USDA site to find retailers in your area that accept it. In many areas, you can use your card at farmers markets as well. Most restaurants cannot accept SNAP benefits, although in some areas, restaurants are allowed to take them from people who are elderly, homeless, or disabled.
After you buy groceries with your EBT card, there is a line on your receipt showing how much of your monthly SNAP benefit you spent and how much you have left. Keeping these receipts helps you track how much you have left in your SNAP account to get through the rest of the month.
Foods You Can Purchase With SNAP
You can use your SNAP benefits to purchase any type of groceries for your household. That includes not only healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, but also junk food, such as soda pop and potato chips, and luxury foods, like steak or seafood. As long as it’s considered a food item, it’s allowed.
You can also use SNAP benefits to buy seeds or plants for your home vegetable garden. Doing so can stretch your benefits much further since spending $3 on a single tomato plant in the spring can give you many pounds of tomatoes in the fall, which could cost $3 a pound if you bought them at the store. However, it also means a delay of several months between spending your SNAP benefits and actually getting to eat the food. If you only have enough money to feed your family in April, you can’t afford to spend it on a plant that won’t feed your family until September, even if it can save you money in the long term.
Products You Can’t Purchase With SNAP
Not everything sold at a grocery store counts as groceries under SNAP. You can’t use your SNAP benefits to buy:
- Alcohol. Alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, and liquor, aren’t considered food under the SNAP program. You can still buy alcohol with your own money — you just can’t spend your SNAP benefits on it.
- Nonfood Items. You can’t spend SNAP benefits on anything that isn’t food. That includes cigarettes, other tobacco products, soap, toothpaste, paper products, household supplies, medicines, and pet food.
- Prepared Foods. You can’t buy any hot foods, such as a rotisserie chicken, with SNAP benefits. You also can’t use SNAP for any food you eat in the store, such a prepared meal at a store that has a cafeteria section.
- Supplements. You can’t use SNAP to buy vitamins or other supplements. Energy drinks are OK as long as they have a nutrition facts label, but if they have a supplement facts label instead, they’re not allowed.
- Live Animals. You can’t use SNAP to buy live animals, such as a chicken. However, live fish, including lobsters and other shellfish, are allowed.
Some items sold in stores, such as gift baskets, contain a mixture of food and nonfood items. You can buy these with SNAP benefits only if food items account for at least 50% of the purchase price. The same rule applies to birthday cakes that have nonedible decorations.
Eating Healthy on SNAP
Preparing healthy meals on a SNAP budget can be a challenge. Healthy foods like fresh produce and whole-grain bread are often more expensive than less healthy processed foods, like potato chips and white bread. In fact, several well-known people have gone on the SNAP Challenge — deliberately limiting their food budget for a week to the average amount SNAP provides — to show how difficult it can be to eat well on a SNAP budget.
However, since the government bases SNAP benefits on the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, it is definitely possible to eat a healthy, affordable diet on SNAP. It just takes a little planning and creativity. Strategies to stretch your SNAP budget include:
- Cooking at Home. Preparing your own meals is much cheaper than eating out, even off the fast-food dollar menu. SNAP provides enough money for a month’s worth of home-cooked meals, but not enough for restaurant meals — and most restaurants don’t take SNAP anyway.
- Cooking From Scratch. Convenience foods, such as frozen dinners, are much more expensive than a similar meal cooked from scratch. Likewise, foods that are partly prepared for you, such as boneless chicken breasts and bagged salads, are more expensive than less processed foods, such as whole chickens and heads of lettuce. In general, the less processed the ingredients you use for cooking, the less you spend on each meal.
- Cutting Down on Meat. Meat is one of the most expensive foods to buy at the store. Build your meals around grain products, such as rice or pasta, with small amounts of meat to add flavor and protein. Examples include spaghetti with meat sauce and stir-fried veggies with pork served over rice. You can also prepare meatless meals that include eggs, cheese, or beans as a protein source.
- Planning Your Meals. Before you do your grocery shopping, plan out what you want to cook and eat. Check your fridge to see what you have left over from last week, and plan meals that use these leftovers to reduce your food waste, which can save you money. You can also plan meals to create leftovers on purpose, such as a beef pot roast that leaves you with extra meat for stew or sandwiches later in the week or a large batch of chili or casserole you can freeze portions of for later use.
- Choosing Cheaper Ingredients. You can save money on fruit and vegetables by choosing what’s in season or choosing large bags of frozen veggies, which are just as nutritious as fresh ones. To save on grain products, choose regular oatmeal and rice instead of quick-cooking varieties, and see if your store offers special deals on day-old bread. Get your protein from less expensive sources, such as dry or canned beans, canned fish, and chicken legs.
- Choosing Store Brands. If you have a choice, buying the supermarket’s store brand versus the name brand nearly always costs you significantly less. Also, according to Consumer Reports, the quality of these products is often as good or better. However, occasionally, a name-brand product can be cheaper than the store brand if there’s a really good sale, so compare prices before buying.
The USDA offers additional tips for eating healthy on a budget through its SNAP-Ed Connection, an online resource to help SNAP users get the most out of their benefits. You can find all kinds of resources here on nutrition, shopping, and cooking. Another excellent resource from the USDA is Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals, a booklet that offers a complete guide to eating on the Thrifty Food Plan. It includes advice about shopping, cooking, and food safety as well as specific menus and recipes you can prepare on a thrifty budget.
Recipes for SNAP Users
If you’re not used to cooking your own meals, just figuring out where to start can be a bit overwhelming. The recipes in the USDA guide can help you get started, but an even better resource is a good cookbook — ideally, one that focuses on low-cost recipes.
One of the best cookbooks for people on a SNAP budget is “Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day” by Leanne Brown. After working with people living on SNAP and observing what they ate, Brown set out to design healthy meals you can make on just $4 a day, the average benefit for SNAP recipients at the time. You can buy “Good and Cheap” for about $10 at most online bookstores or download it as a free PDF in either English or Spanish from Brown’s website. You can also check out Brown’s recipe index for individual recipes from the book.
For your first week of home cooking, don’t get too adventurous. Start with some simple few-ingredient recipes and work your way up from there. These cheap and easy vegetarian recipes are an excellent starting point.
Vegetarian Broccoli & Mushroom Stir-Fry
Stir-fry is an extremely versatile dish. This version uses cabbage, mushrooms, and broccoli, but you can make it with pretty much any veggies you have on hand. All you have to do is add the heartiest veggies — such as celery, carrots, broccoli, and cabbage — to the pan first and work your way up to the most delicate ones, such as tender greens, scallions, and bean sprouts.
- 1 (8-ounce) block firm tofu
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 tablespoon (1-1/2 teaspoons) cornstarch
- 6 ounces broccoli florets
- 8 ounces cabbage, shredded
- 3 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
- 2 scallions, sliced (white and green parts)
- Rice, cooked according to package directions (for serving)
- Place the tofu on any firm surface between two layers of paper towels or clean dishcloths. Set a cutting board on top, then weigh it down by putting a bowl or a large can on top of that. Let it sit for about half an hour. This step removes excess water from the tofu.
- Cut the tofu into small cubes and toss it gently with 1 tablespoon of soy sauce.
- In a large skillet over high heat, preheat the canola oil. Add the tofu and fry until it’s browned, turning the cubes often. Remove the tofu from the skillet and set aside.
- For the stir-fry sauce, combine the garlic, sesame oil, sugar, 3 tablespoons of soy sauce, and the cornstarch. Whisk well to combine and set aside.
- Heat the same pan used for the tofu back to high heat. Cook the broccoli for 2 minutes, then add the mushrooms and cook them until they start to lose water, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cabbage and cook everything for 5 more minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the cooked tofu to the veggie mixture. Remove the pan from the heat, add the stir-fry sauce, sprinkle on the scallions, and mix. Serve with rice.
Pasta With Red Beans
There are tons of different ways to cook rice and beans. However, this recipe puts a twist on the traditional dish by using pasta in place of rice. If you want to save even more money, replace the canned beans with dry beans, soaked and cooked in a slow cooker or pressure cooker.
- 1/2 pound dry penne or rotelle (wagon wheels)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small mild white onion, diced
- 1/4 pound button mushrooms, sliced or 1 (4-ounce) can sliced mushrooms, drained
- 1 large stalk celery, diced
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced or 2 teaspoons jarred minced garlic
- 1 (14-ounce) can kidney beans, drained
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Cook the pasta according to package directions until it is al dente (firm to the bite rather than completely soft). Drain and set aside.
- In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, preheat the olive oil. Sauté the onion, mushrooms, and celery for 3 to 4 minutes until they just begin to soften. Add the garlic and sauté about 1 minute more, or until fragrant.
- Add the beans and cooked pasta to the saucepan. Stir to heat evenly.
- Toss well and add salt and pepper to taste.
Skillet Potato Kugel
Potato kugel is a traditional Jewish dish made from potatoes, onions, flour, and eggs — all very inexpensive ingredients. The name “kugel” means “ball,” but you bake this version in a cast-iron skillet, which is quicker and easier.
- 3 medium potatoes, any variety (about 1 pound), grated (skins on)
- 1 medium onion or leek, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- Applesauce (for serving)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- In a large bowl, combine the potato and onion or leek with the flour, salt, and beaten eggs.
- In a large cast-iron skillet or oven-safe 9- or 10-inch nonstick skillet over high heat, preheat the oil. When the oil is hot, add the potato mixture. Flatten it down to fill the whole pan, and cook it on high for 2 more minutes, or until the kugel is roughly set on the bottom. (When you shake the pan, it will slide back and forth as one piece.)
- Transfer the pan to the oven and bake it for 20 minutes.
- Carefully remove the pan from the oven and flip the kugel by sliding it from the pan onto a large plate, then covering it with a second plate, inverting it, and sliding it back into the pan.
- Bake it for another 10 minutes, or until firm. Remove it from the oven and let it cool slightly. Serve with applesauce.
When it comes to eating healthy, the challenges SNAP users face aren’t unique. They’re the same challenges anyone on a tight food budget faces — and for both groups, the solutions are the same. Cooking your own meals from scratch, planning your meals carefully, and choosing the cheapest ingredients are the best ways to stretch your food dollars to get you through the month.
If you find your benefits running low before the month is out, consider doing a pantry challenge. That simply means finding ways to make meals from all the food you currently have in the house rather than buying more groceries. By using up food that would otherwise sit uneaten, you can save money, avoid waste, and save yourself a trip to the grocery store. And who knows — perhaps the lentil-peanut butter loaf you invent to use up your pantry contents will end up becoming a regular family favorite.
What are your favorite strategies for eating healthy on a tight grocery budget?