Eating on $4 Per Day – Can You Do It?

Photo: Thinkstock/sergeyryzhov

In the United States, nearly 1 in 8 people struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America. As a former grocery store dietitian, I often saw the subtle signs of food insecurity when customers would tell me they had to wait until the following month to purchase the products I would recommend.

It’s a dietitian’s dilemma: We know strategies to shop healthfully on a budget, but do we know what it feels like shopping in the grocery store on a budget?

Federal programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formally known as and commonly referred to as food stamps, provide more than 9.5 million Americans access to purchase nutritious foods in grocery stores, convenience stores and some farmers markets. Access is the key word, as SNAP does not have strict parameters around what foods a customer can choose. The average monthly SNAP benefit is $126 per month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which works out to about $4.20/day, or $1.40 per meal!

So, the question becomes, is it possible maintain a healthy diet, much less grocery shop, for under $30 per week? 

Using the My Plate standards as the baseline for “healthy,” I challenged myself to better understand the stresses that 12 percent of Americans feel every single day. Here is what I learned from my SNAP budget:

Develop a Plan

It sounds easy, right? Reality check — weekly ads are overwhelming and will often feature premium items that are on sale. If you want to stretch your dollar, store brands are usually the safest bet. This is especially true for whole grains such as cereal, rice and pasta. Pre-shopping online was my best strategy, as I could see all products in a category to determine the best price.

Seasonal vs. Canned and Frozen

I am a believer in buying in-season produce for the best price, but canned goods were on sale at my grocery store. While I picked up a few fresh produce items, I got the most mileage out of canned and frozen goods to meet my five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Buy in Bulk?

Buying in bulk is great for a family as you get the best unit price per pound, but what if you are a family of one? Unless you want to eat chicken drumsticks all week, I suggest buying smaller quantities to fit your budget. Buying dairy in larger containers makes sense to get the recommended three servings per day for yogurt and milk. Individually packaged items (think yogurt) can be a waste of budget as you pay for the extra convenience of packaging.

Portion Control

Dietitians know portion control is a difficult thing to teach, yet it’s another added pressure when someone is already trying to manage a budget. For instance, a can of tuna technically serves two, but how many times does anyone eat a half can of tuna? It’s a difficult balancing act, so tread lightly and apply techniques such as mindful eating or the hunger scale to slowly teach clients to incorporate portion control.

Flavor

At the end of my shopping trip, I realized that my cart contained no herbs, spices, onions or garlic to jazz up my meals. My recommendation is to find an affordable spice blend and purchase it with leftover funds at the end of the month. A little bit goes a long way with stronger flavors — another budget hack.

Celebrities, politicians and dietitians alike have tried the SNAP Challenge. As health professionals, it is important to understand the barriers and challenges of eating healthy on a budget before we can truly help our clients live healthier lives.

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LaChell Miller
LaChell Miller, MS, RD, CC, is a Delaware-based dietitian who works as a nutrition specialist at the American Dairy Association North East.