Shopping for WIC-approved foods can be a bit confusing at first. You’re strictly limited to specific types of products, dollar amounts, sizes or weights, or even particular brands due to nutritional content. And many non-WIC foods are similar in size or look to WIC-approved foods, so if you’re not careful, they won’t be approved when you go to check out.
But once your local WIC office approves you for WIC, you need to get the most you can out of the program benefits. Strategies like familiarizing yourself with approved WIC items and using coupons can help ensure you make the most of your monthly allowance. But those aren’t the only ways to stretch your WIC dollars.
How to Get the Most From Your WIC Benefits
The process gets easier over time, but there are some steps you can take to make the most of your WIC benefits and eat healthy on a budget.
1. Understand Your eWic Card
Do you remember your first WIC appointment, when a caseworker examined you and your family members to determine your eligibility for WIC food benefits? After approval, they gave you an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card called eWIC.
Your eWIC card works just like a debit card, and it takes the place of the WIC checks the government phased out nationally in 2020.
Your benefits will automatically load onto the eWIC card each month, and they will expire at the end of your monthly benefit period. Benefits do not roll over each month, so it’s essential you keep track of your benefit balance and when those benefits are due to expire. You will lose any funds that go unused at the end of the monthly cycle.
2. Read Your Shopping Guide
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved many foods for WIC participants. However, it’s essential to realize that WIC is organized and run at the state level, so WIC-approved foods and brands differ depending on where you live.
That said, you will be able to purchase some if not all foods in the following categories:
- Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals
- Infant cereal
- Infant fruits and vegetables
- Infant food meat
- Infant formula
- Whole milk and reduced-fat and nonfat milk
- Soy-based beverages
- Canned beans or dry beans
- Peanut butter
- Fruits and vegetables
- Canned fish
- Whole-wheat bread and other whole grains
- WIC-eligible nutritionals (certain non-weight-loss meal-replacement or -supplement shakes and bars, such as Ensure)
Your local WIC agency or WIC clinic should provide you with a shopping guide that details which foods are eligible for purchase through WIC and which aren’t (see an example from the state of Tennessee). Read through your shopping guide before you go to the store so you’re familiar with what’s available.
Your WIC caseworker or nutritionist can also answer questions about WIC-approved foods during your initial appointment and subsequent visits for recertification or nutrition training. Write questions in a notebook so you’ll remember to ask.
You can also call your caseworker between appointments or nutrition education classes if you have a question about anything in the WIC program.
3. Plan Your First Trip
It helps if you plan your first shopping trip for a day when you have plenty of time to read labels and become familiar with where the store stocks WIC-approved foods. You’ll also be able to plan your purchases to avoid overbuying for the month.
Or download the WICShopper app to speed up and simplify your shopping experience. The app allows you to scan products to see if they qualify for WIC. But ensure you read through the instructions carefully. The WICShopper app is only available for some states, and not all features are available for all states.
Either way, you don’t have to purchase all your WIC-approved foods in one visit. You can buy as many or as few as your family needs for the days ahead.
4. Check for Sales & Coupons
You can increase your purchasing power and save money by using coupons for WIC foods or checking store flyers to see what’s on sale. If a sale item is out of stock, you can ask for a rain check. That allows you to pay the sale price when the store has the product back in stock, even if the sale is officially over.
You can maximize your WIC purchases with buy-one-get-one-free sales and coupons. Your WIC benefits will pay for the first item, and then you get the second one free, which doubles the amount of food you get. It’s a great strategy to save money at the grocery store and make the most of your food budget.
To save time, download an app like Flipp, available for iOS and Android. This free app allows you to read through weekly ad circulars from local stores. There are thousands of stores available to choose from, such as Walmart, Dollar General, Kroger, and Publix. The app also allows you to find and download coupons to your store loyalty cards to save even more.
5. Purchase In-Season
WIC provides a monthly dollar value allotment for fresh fruits and vegetables. This amount can range from $8 to $11 per month per person, depending on the food package you qualified for.
You can stretch this benefit by only purchasing seasonal produce. Fruits and vegetables that are in-season cost less than those that aren’t. You can see which fruits and vegetables are in season on the USDA’s seasonal produce guide.
6. Purchase Extra Fruits & Vegetables
Because stores typically price fruit and vegetables by weight, it’s tempting to err on the side of caution and purchase only a few items to avoid going over the limit of your monthly allotment for fresh produce. However, that strategy can lead to wasted funds at the end of your benefit cycle if you’re not careful.
Instead, purchase extra fruits and vegetables at the middle or endpoint of your benefit cycle and pay the difference from your own pocket. That ensures you fully use your monthly allotment for produce instead of losing benefits because they went unused.
And remember, you might be able to use WIC at your local farmers market. Farmers markets often sell locally grown or organic produce for less than you pay at the grocery store. Shopping at the farmers market can help you stretch your WIC benefits and get more food for your family. You can save even more by showing up to purchase foods right before the market closes. Vendors are often more willing to negotiate a lower price at the end of the day.
Everyone can stand to eat more fruits and vegetables anyway. If you can’t eat them right away, it’s imperative you learn to store produce properly. And you can always preserve leftover produce with methods like canning, freezing, fermenting or pickling, and drying so it’s edible for months to come.
7. Don’t Buy WIC Foods With SNAP Benefits
Many people who qualify for WIC also qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
To maximize the benefits you get from both programs, don’t purchase WIC-approved foods with SNAP benefits. Use your WIC benefits before you have to buy any of these items with SNAP.
If you’re checking out and need to pay with both eWIC and SNAP, always put your WIC-approved products first, and pay with your eWIC card before paying with SNAP.
8. Use Beans & Meat Together
You can stretch your meals further by using beans with meat in some recipes. Beans add protein and filling fiber, and they can bulk up a recipe enough to feed several extra people when needed.
For example, you can add a can or two of white beans, which have a creamy, neutral flavor, to bulk up a beef stew or turkey chili recipe. You can also add kidney beans to a meaty spaghetti sauce or salad for additional protein and fiber. If you’re making stuffed peppers with meat, add a can of black or pinto beans to make it go further.
Taste of Home has many recipes that use beans to bulk up meaty meals.
9. Know Where to Shop
You can also save money and extend your benefits by knowing where to shop. Some local stores and national chains are well known for being outrageously expensive, while others provide consumers with consistently great deals.
Make sure you shop at the retailer with the lowest prices in your area. In many locations, Walmart offers the best deals on produce and shelf-stable food. However, this isn’t always the case. For example, Consumer Reports found regional stores like Market Basket, Save a Lot, and Wegmans consistently offer the lowest prices compared to other competitors.
If you have time, you can also shop at multiple stores to snap up each market’s best-priced products.
10. Separate WIC Food Items
When you’re ready to check out, choose a lane set up to handle eWIC payments. In most large national chains, every lane can process WIC. However, smaller stores usually only have one or two dedicated checkout lanes for WIC.
You may or may not need to separate your WIC-approved foods from the rest of your purchase. Larger stores can process them together, but smaller stores often need to process two separate transactions.
Either way, in the beginning, it can help to separate your WIC foods so you can better see what you’re buying and how much these purchases affect your monthly allotment.
Before you leave the store, check your receipt carefully to make sure it’s correct. And keep the receipt with you until your next trip to the store, as it shows your remaining eWIC balance as well as the monthly expiration date for your benefits.
For more information on how to use your eWIC at the grocery store, see the eWic YouTube video produced by Massachusetts WIC. While some of the information might be different from your state, the video still provides a good overview of what it’s like to shop with WIC.
The purpose of WIC is to help ensure that parents, infants, and children have enough healthy, nutritious food to get through the month. And WIC staff are there to help you with meal and nutrition planning to make the process easier.
If you’re not used to cooking meals from scratch, it might feel challenging to find recipes to use all your WIC-approved foods. However, with a bit of planning, you can make sure you use all your benefits and avoid food waste.
You can also check out the free WIC recipe book put out by Utah WIC, which has useful recipes organized by each WIC food category and includes homemade baby food. Your local WIC office might also have WIC-friendly recipes available.