Yes, it's possible to eat nutritious meals on a SNAP budget. But creating meals for less than $5 a day isn't easy, or even realistic for everyone.

Christine Byrne
February 17, 2021
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Credit: Getty Images / Graphics by Tyrel Stendahl

Our series, Good Food for All, examines the barriers to putting healthy food on the table and what is being done to help.

In 2019, roughly 1 in 10 Americans were food-insecure, meaning that they couldn't afford enough nutritious food to meet their needs. In 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising unemployment rate, it's estimated that this number has jumped to 1 in 6 Americans.

To help alleviate the burden of food insecurity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP benefits are meant to help low-income households buy groceries and reduce food insecurity. The dollar amount of a person's SNAP benefits varies—depending on income, state and household size—but the average recipient gets $125 per month, or $1.39 per meal. The maximum benefit for a family of four is $680 per month, which comes out to $1.89 per meal per person.

To put that into context, we're going to examine what a day of eating on a SNAP budget might looks like. But first, let's talk about why it's impossible to generalize this snapshot and assume that every SNAP recipient eats this way.

We all eat differently.

First, the obvious: Everyone has unique preferences and norms when it comes to food! We all eat differently; individuals even eat very differently from day to day. This isn't meant to be a prescriptive meal plan, nor is it a real person's food journal. It's just an example of what three meals might be on a budget of just $4.17.

SNAP recipients have varying food budgets.

Second, SNAP benefits don't necessarily make up a recipient's entire food budget. The USDA says that "SNAP households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their own resources on food." Some recipients may rely entirely on SNAP benefits, while others may be able to put some income toward food as well or supplement with food from food pantries or meal programs.

It's not just about buying food.

Third, food access isn't just about being able to afford food. Peter Murragarra, a Connecticut resident who relied on food stamps as a child, says that his late mother was often too ill to cook meals, which often left him cobbling together whatever he could find. And, while there were ample grocery stores and farmers' markets in a nearby town, his family didn't have a car and usually shopped at corner stores (which have limited and more expensive fresh foods, if any) within walking distance.

Joslyn Brenton, Ph.D., is a sociology professor at Ithaca College and the co-author of Pressure Cooker, a book examining the struggles that low-income caretakers face in feeding their families. She explains that many people just don't have time to cook meals from scratch because of unpredictable work hours and child care responsibilities. Often, they can't afford things like Instant Pots or prepared foods (you aren't allowed to buy hot foods and many prepared foods with SNAP benefits) that would make it a little easier to eat healthfully. And, meal prepping on weekends is difficult for shift workers who might work on weekends.

Nutrition isn't necessarily a priority.

Finally, for many SNAP recipients, prioritizing nutrition just isn't realistic. The SNAP program provides education on how to eat healthfully on a limited budget, but as Murragarra points out, "The struggle is a little different [for many SNAP recipients]. It's about making sure you have rent paid so you and your kids don't get kicked out, and getting a job that makes you enough to scrape by. As long as you're eating and can work on a daily basis and you seem to be healthy, you probably don't worry about eating corner store Cheetos for dinner instead of going in search of vegetables."

This too varies from person to person. In their research for Pressure Cooker, Brenton and her co-authors found that low-income caretakers generally do want to provide nutritious foods for their families, and many feel guilty over not living up to "healthy eating" standards set by SNAP-Ed and similar nutrition education programs.

As we explore what a day of eating on a SNAP budget might look like, remember that SNAP recipients are not a homogeneous group—for so many reasons, a real day of eating will look different for everyone.

Here's what a day of eating on a SNAP budget might look like for a family of four.

To put a SNAP budget into context, we came up with three meals that serve a family of four and cost around $5.67 per person, total. That's based on a maximum monthly benefit of $680 for a family of four. Because average retail food prices listed by the USDA aren't updated very frequently, we used the prices listed at Walmart in Garner, North Carolina. We list the ingredients and prices for a single serving of each meal, but all are easy to scale up to four servings for the whole family.

Breakfast: Oatmeal with Milk, Raisins and Peanut Butter

Ingredients

½ cup Great Value rolled oats: 9 cents

¼ cup Great Value raisins: 21 cents

1 teaspoon Great Value honey: 7 cents

1 cup Great Value 2% milk: 15 cents

2 tablespoons Great Value peanut butter: 8 cents

1 banana: 16 cents

1 glass Great Value orange juice: 31 cents

Total: $1.07 per serving

Taylor Bartosiewicz, an Illinois-based Women, Infants and Children (WIC) dietitian, works with many parents who receive SNAP benefits. She says that purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables is sometimes too expensive for those on a SNAP budget. This recipe makes use of raisins, which are shelf stable and inexpensive. For comparison, fresh blueberries cost about $1.05 per half-cup serving. We also added a banana, one of the least expensive fresh fruit options available. The peanut butter is so inexpensive in part because it's sold in a large, 57-serving container, which we'll make use of again for snacks.

Lunch: Turkey and Bean Burritos

Ingredients

1 Great Value 10-inch tortilla: 22 cents

4 ounces Butterball 85%-lean ground turkey (measured raw): 65 cents

½ cup Old El Paso vegetarian refried beans: 34 cents

½ cup romaine lettuce (about 1/12 head): 16 cents

¼ cup Great Value shredded Cheddar cheese: 17 cents

2 teaspoons Great Value original taco seasoning mix: 7 cents

2 tablespoons Great Value Cantina Style salsa: 7 cents

Total: $1.68 per serving

"Parents will prioritize buying food that they know their family and children will eat," Bartosiewicz says. Burritos are kid-friendly, plus they can be made ahead of time and frozen. The taco seasoning adds flavor without the need to buy lots of different spices and seasonings, although it does add 300 milligrams of sodium to each serving, roughly 13% of the recommended daily maximum for most people. Ground turkey that's 85% lean has 4 more grams of fat per serving than extra-lean ground turkey, but we chose it because it also costs 40 cents less per serving (these are the kinds of math decisions people on tight budgets often make at the grocery store). Plus, it was available in a family-size 3-pound package, so some can be frozen and defrosted to use at a later date.

Dinner: Chicken Stir-Fry with Rice and Mixed Vegetables

Ingredients

6 ounces Great Value frozen boneless, skinless chicken breast (measured raw): 92 cents

1.5 cups Great Value frozen California-style vegetable mix: 38 cents

1 cup Great Value long-grain enriched rice (measured cooked): 8 cents

½ yellow onion: 35 cents

2 tablespoons Great Value teriyaki marinade: 8 cents

1 tablespoon Great Value canola oil: 2 cents

Total: $1.83

"Strategies such as buying canned/frozen produce can help customers get the most value for their money and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they can get," Bartosiewicz says. Bagged frozen vegetables come pre-cut, which cuts back on prep and cleanup time. That can be extremely valuable for busy families. We added a fresh yellow onion for some flavor, which adds 35 cents. The chicken breasts also come frozen and in a family-size 5-pound bag, so there's far less risk of them going to waste than there would be with fresh chicken. The rice comes in a large 20-pound bag, which is great for cost but might not be realistic for someone with a small kitchen and not a lot of storage space.

Snacks: Granola Bar, Ants on a Log

Great Value Oats & Honey Crunchy Granola Bar: 24 cents

Ants on a Log

1 celery stalk: 20 cents

2 tablespoons Great Value peanut butter: 8 cents

2 tablespoons Great Value raisins: 21 cents

Total (all snacks): $0.73

It's unrealistic to think that people, particularly kids and young adults, eat just three meals a day. Inexpensive and shelf-stable snack choices like granola bars are a good bet for between meals, because they can be packed to-go.

For an at-home snack, we went with ants on a log, which repurpose two ingredients from breakfast. This helps keep costs down, but Bartosiewicz says that it can get old too. "There can be a lack of variety in the diet if people buy the same foods that they know fit in their budget and their family will eat, or if they are buying food in bulk to save money," she says.

Dessert: Oreos and Ice Cream

Ingredients

3 Oreos: 19 cents

⅔ cup Great Value vanilla ice cream: 22 cents

Total: $0.41

Frankly, it would be unrealistic not to include dessert on here. While people might not eat dessert every day, many eat it regularly.

Total cost for the day: $5.72

This day of eating comes in 5 cents over the daily allotment per person for a family of four receiving the maximum benefit. It includes what we think is a realistic number of meals and snacks, and it's relatively varied.

All that said, there are plenty of things missing here. First of all, this menu doesn't account for any beverages except for a glass of orange juice in the morning. Some people might be fine drinking only water for the rest of the day, but others may prefer soft drinks or other beverages to go along with meals. (SNAP benefits can't be used for alcohol.) It also relies heavily on frozen foods and bulk items. Without ample storage space and a working freezer, these things are out of the question and would have to be replaced with fresh or individually packaged options, which cost more. And, while the serving sizes listed above are consistent with USDA recommendations and the serving sizes on packages, many people need or want more food than that.

It's possible to feed a family on a SNAP budget, but we shouldn't overlook the significant challenges that caretakers may face.

While the above showcases that it's possible to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day on a SNAP budget, it's not the reality for most people. "With a limited budget to spend on food, [it's common that] people will want to focus first on calorie-dense foods that may not be the healthiest, but are filling—and they know their family will eat them," Bartosiewicz says. That's not unique to SNAP recipients—only 1 in 10 Americans actually gets five-a-day. Packaged foods are often an easier sell to kids, they don't spoil as quickly as fresh fruits and vegetables, and most don't require refrigeration.

Anyone responsible for feeding a family is probably also thinking that at least one person in their household wouldn't eat certain items listed above. That's another huge challenge of cooking on a limited budget: buying things that you know everyone will eat, without just cooking the same meals over and over again. Plus, all of the meals listed are cooked from scratch. All are relatively simple, but they still take time to put together. The majority of SNAP participants work outside the home, and many have unstable jobs with unpredictable hours that might overlap with family mealtimes.

Yes, it's possible to feed a family with just $680 a month. But when we talk about SNAP benefits and healthy eating, we have to acknowledge that there's so much more to it than just the cost of food.