I applaud your willingness to show empathy to those living in poverty by way of buying groceries on a food stamp budget for a week. I also thank you for your honesty in detailing just how difficult that task proved to be. It just so happens that this very site was inspired by a similar challenge. About one year ago, several of my Facebook friends were taking part in something called the “SNAP Out of It Challenge“. Throughout the week, friends were commenting and posting pictures to share ideas for eating on this budget. Having grown up homeless, I took some time to offer tips on food spending (as well as other budget areas). The women had many questions, and many of them asked if I would teach a class on the topic. I started this blog instead.
I was hoping that you might consider taking on the challenge again. I can be your guide. Here are my tips on how to survive for one week on a food stamp budget.
Eat the Same Thing Every Day
This is, by far, the most important tip that I have for you. You see, it’s much cheaper to buy more and more of the same thing than it is to buy a bunch of separate meals. What you need to do is decide what you are going to eat every day for breakfast, every day for lunch, and every day for dinner. The fewer ingredients you need to make each meal the better. Bonus points if those ingredients can be purchased at the right proportions so that you don’t end up with extra ingredients that you cannot use. You can learn all about this method in a post I wrote called “Save by Eating The Same Thing Every Day (without actually eating the same thing every day)“.
Try Two Bigger Meals (instead of three)
While you are at it, it helps if you can limit your diet to two meals instead of three. Unfortunately, this typically means skipping breakfast. Yes, I know that breakfast is supposed to be the most important meal of the day, but skipping breakfast is so much easier than skipping lunch or dinner. This works even better if you can sleep for a larger portion of your day because then you won’t realize how hungry you are. Save your last meal to as close to bedtime as you can stand, go to sleep, and then try to stay asleep for 10 hours. (Funny thing, I still need 10 hours of sleep to this day). Sleeping through breakfast is preferable, but that won’t be as easy for your children that have to go to school in the morning. Check with their school to see if they provide a free breakfast program.
Stay Away from Perishables
I noticed that you purchased a lot of produce. That’s a beginner’s mistake, and you can really only afford to make it once. The following week you will understand that perishables are far too risky. Produce is really only an option if you grow that produce yourself. That is possible in the more rural settings I was born into, but not at all possible in the urban settings I grew up in. This was particularly true when I was homeless. Also, go with dry milk. It’s gross, but far cheaper and nonperishable. The eggs were a super good choice if you can rely upon your refrigeration. Cans of tuna fish are a good alternative if you don’t have refrigeration to count on.
Be Creative with Random Ingredients
For starters, you will learn pretty quickly that you can mix pretty much everything with either noodles or rice. Those will be the foundation of pretty much every meal you will eat the entire week, and you will eat proportionally more of either noodles or rice than any other ingredient on your plate to help fill your stomach. You will then learn that you can mix together a surprising combination of other ingredients to form a meal if you are creative. This might be the one fun thing about living in poverty. It’s at least the skill I learned that I am the most proud of. I once had rice, a chocolate bar, a can of tomato paste, and an avocado I swiped from a tree in someone’s yard on the way home from school. That meal was incredible. I even used this skill last night. I didn’t want to go to the store, so I pulled random bits out of the freezer including: 1) frozen cherry tomatoes that my good friend’s mother grew, 2) tofu that I had left over from breakfast I made for a friend, 3) spaghetti noodles, and 4) whatever random spices I could find. The end result was so delicious. I’m now referring to it as my “Sunk Cost Spaghetti”.
Learn New Ingredients
While you are at it, you should consider thinking outside of your typical cuisine choices to find new sources of protein and flavor at drastically lower prices. One of my favorites growing up was chicken feet. They are dirt cheap, and, don’t worry, you don’t actually eat them (though you could). You boil them up to make a chicken broth. Add some noodles or rice and a can of vegetables, and you have yourself a feast!
Try Different Stores
How will you learn about these new ingredients? One great way is to go to stores that cater to different cultures. That could be easier than you think because ethic grocery stores are more plentiful in the neighborhoods with rent cheap enough for those living in poverty to sustain. I would frequent the San Marcos Market because you can get chicken feet at any Mexican grocery. Asian grocery stores will also have some great low cost options for you to check out as well.
Quit Working Out
I know you love your exercise. However, to survive on this little you need to do everything you can to keep those calories of energy in your body for as long as possible. That would be challenging if you were really living in poverty because it is likely that you would need to use your body’s energy to get you from point A to point B. When I was 10 years old, I rode my bike 3.6 miles one way to school each day. We never had a car, and the bus routes in Southern California were just awful. That meant that getting food (or anything else) also meant walking to the grocery store that was over a mile away (or exactly one mile if you hoped two fences and hurried through some private property before anyone saw you). That won’t work on the way home because you are hauling those bags of groceries and you must do everything you can to make sure they make it home unscathed. Make sure to have the cashier double bag those groceries so that the bags don’t break. Eggs are likely too fragile to make the journey, and I am sure you can see by now why perishables aren’t such a good idea.
Get Comfortable Being Hungry
Here’s the final tip I have for you, Gwyneth. Even with all of those other tips, there is no way possible that you will survive the week without hunger. You will just have to become comfortable with that feeling until, eventually, it starts to blur into the background of your day similar to the hum of electricity that is ever present but typically goes unnoticed. Because here is one thing I know about hunger that you will not learn from a one week challenge. I know the desperation of not knowing when that hunger will go away. You see, starving doesn’t feel like hungry. If you haven’t eaten in a while your stomach will make some noises, and you might even get a headache, but you know that food will come eventually. You might say that you are starving, but you’re certainly not. It might be an hour or two, maybe even a day, but you know you will feel the pain of being full again eventually. Let me explain to you what it feels like when that moment doesn’t come.
When you are starving, eventually your stomach stops growling. Once the headaches and the dizziness go away, a deep black emptiness will engulf you whole. This is when hungry becomes a medical condition. Your hair starts to fall out, and your need for sleep becomes primal. At each mealtime you have nothing but your fantasies to feed you, and it’s those fantasies that will keep you alive or kill you. It’s those fantasies that help you figure out how to make a meal out of an avocado, rice, and a chocolate bar. You need to be careful, though. It’s those same fantasies that will try to convince you that maggots growing on warm meat in the dumpster behind the grocery store might actually be okay if you cook it long enough.
Starving makes you stupid. Yes, a challenging lesson at school could make anyone want to throw their head against something hard. Try learning that same hard lesson when you are starving, though. Forget that, even basic arithmetic is too challenging for the truly hungry. I once spelled my own name wrong when I had gone too long without food. I even called a friend’s house and asked if I could speak to myself.
Then there is the pain. Yes, there is the physical pain you get that feels like someone angry has taken a fierce grip on your stomach and won’t let go. Their sharp nails begin to dig holes into your stomach’s lining. That’s not the worse pain, though. There is no other pain like watching your children’s stomach become distended due to lack of food or watching their muscles waste away . You will actually begin to hate your own children because they will become the worst possible version of themselves and you will become the worst possible Gwyneth. You will become impulsive, you will become irritable, and, for some odd reason, you will become both exhausted and too hyper to sleep all at the same time. Then your children will start to cry, and there will be no way to stop those tears. Starving tears are always the most painful ones to listen to.
I hope this helps, Gwyneth. Call me with any questions.