Family Finance: Taking the Food Stamp Challenge

Denise Trowbridge
Denise Trowbridge

Ohio ranks third in the nation for food-insecure families, meaning more parents and children here are missing meals than in every state except Arkansas and Missouri, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That number is on the rise, in part, because of state cuts to the food stamp program.

It's a real and tangible problem, so my family decided to see what it's like to eat on a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program budget. We took the Food Stamp Challenge to feed our family of four for $4 per person per day, which is the average SNAP benefit, according to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Our grocery budget for one week was $112. Note this is less than the $147 per week the USDA estimates it costs to feed a family of four with two children in elementary school on its lowest budget plan.

The challenges began before I stepped foot in the store. I had to map out all the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks we'd need, while still being flexible enough to take advantage of sales. I shopped at one store, because many SNAP families don't have the time or transportation to shop around for the best prices. (I chose Aldi. It's closest.)

Armed with my menu plan and a calculator, I shopped for protein first, looking for low-cost meats that could be stretched into as many meals as possible. I chose a whole chicken at 95 cents a pound, which we roasted for one meal, then turned the leftovers into chicken enchiladas and creamy chicken soup with homemade dumplings.

One bone-in ham at 85 cents a pound was baked, then leftovers went into cheesy potato soup, navy bean soup and scrambled eggs. One pound of ground turkey at $1.89 ($1 less than ground beef) was added to sauce on spaghetti night, and two dozen eggs at 85 cents each were scrambled, hard boiled and used for baking.

We ate more meatless meals, such as vegetarian bean and corn chili with cornbread, grilled cheese with tomato soup, and macaroni and cheese. For breakfast, we had oatmeal with peanut butter, Rice Krispies or scrambled eggs. We ate leftovers, turkey sandwiches or hot dogs for lunch, and had homemade peanut butter cookies, apples or grapes for after-school snacks. We tried to have (and mostly succeeded) a vegetable each night at dinner.

I spent about $109 on food for the week, including $37 for all the meat, cheese, eggs and peanut butter. I spent $39 on staples such as milk, bread, tortillas, oatmeal, butter, flour and baking supplies, sugar, pasta and Cafe Bustelo coffee (most caffeine per buck!). Fresh, dried, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables cost $26, with another $7 spent on things that came up during the week.

We managed to make it 10 days on this food-with a lot of complaining from the kids-and the meal plan for the most part worked, although the bread and the milk ran out too fast.

The challenge made several things abundantly clear. First, it takes a lot of meal planning and scratch cooking to make it work. Second, a shoestring budget is a heavy burden for moms, 62 percent of whom are solely responsible for grocery shopping and cooking meals, according to a survey by Working Mother Magazine. With 71 percent of mothers working, many at low-wage jobs with unpredictable schedules and long commutes, modern American life is not conducive to the homemade dinners needed to maximize SNAP benefits.

Also, nothing can go to waste, and everyone in the family has to stick to the food plan. Yeah right.

Hubby foiled me from day one, when he ate all the dinner carrots as an afternoon snack. We didn't have a side dish that night. His indiscriminate snacking raised my blood pressure a few times during the challenge, and I lost some sleep worrying about how I'd make up for what he'd eaten. (The answer oftentimes was for me to skip a meal or eat oatmeal instead.)

Also, I never realized how much milk my children spilled until I was counting on every last precious drop of it.

My oldest, Captain Picky Eater, staged a sit-in during every meal he didn't like, which was everything but the grilled cheese. Managing our food, and keeping the kids from grumbling, became an all-consuming headache. I thought and worried about food constantly.

Yet it was an enlightening experience. It changed me, for the better I think, so I challenge you to walk a mile in your neighbor's shoes and try this as well. While the Food Research and Action Center designed this program to raise awareness of food insecurity, it's only step one. We donated the difference between our SNAP budget and our normal weekly grocery bill to NNEMAP, our favorite local food pantry. Only awareness combined with action can change our community.

I know I'm lucky. I only had to worry about food for 10 measly days. I had access to free recipes online, and the time and skills to bake from scratch. Some of our neighbors don't have it so easy. Their pantries are empty and so are their stomachs, and there is no end in sight.

For more information about the Food Stamp Challenge, go to

Check out recipes in the 176-page free SNAP cookbook, Good and Cheap, at

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseTrowbridg.


Oatmeal with peanut butter

Rice Krispies with bananas

Scrambled eggs with ham or cheddar cheese


Hot dogs


Turkey sandwiches




Peanut butter cookies


Baked chicken, steamed carrots and baked potatoes with sour cream

Baked ham with a steamed vegetable

Cheesy potato and ham soup

Chicken enchiladas

Creamy chicken soup with homemade dumplings

Grilled cheese with tomato soup

Navy bean soup with ham

Spaghetti with turkey meat sauce

Vegetarian bean and corn chili with cornbread

1 small ham

1 whole chicken

1 pound ground turkey

1 package sliced turkey

1 package hot dogs

2 dozen eggs

2 cans black beans

2 cans kidney beans

1 can garbanzo beans

2 cans tomato soup

2 cans cream of chicken soup

1 can enchilada sauce

1 jar salsa

1 jar spaghetti sauce

1 large can diced tomatoes

1 can green beans

1 bag frozen corn

2 bags frozen peas, corn and green beans (soup mix vegetables)

1 bag dry navy or great northern beans

2 boxes macaroni and cheese

Bag of potatoes

Bag of apples

Bag of onions






Cheddar cheese, large bag, shredded

American cheese slices

1 tub of sour cream

1 package of cream cheese

2 gallons of milk

1 jar peanut butter

1 box Rice Krispies

2 containers frozen juice (one each apple and orange)

1 container old-fashioned oatmeal

1 box spaghetti

1 loaf wheat bread

1 package hot dog buns

1 package tortillas

1 small bottle cooking oil




Baking powder

Chili powder

Corn muffin mix

1 pound Cafe Bustelo coffee

Vegetarian bean and corn chili

1 onion, diced

2 cans black beans, drained

2 cans kidney beans, drained

1 can garbanzo beans, drained

1 large can diced tomatoes

1 bag frozen corn

Chili powder

Cheddar cheese (optional)

Sour cream (optional)

Sauté the onion in cooking oil until translucent. Stir in beans, tomatoes and corn. Cook on medium heat until bubbling, stirring occasionally. Add chili powder to taste. Simmer on low for 10 minutes or until hot. Serve topped with cheddar cheese and sour cream, if desired.

Recipe by Denise Trowbridge


Easy chicken enchiladas

1 8-ounce package cream cheese

1 cup salsa

2 cups shredded leftover chicken

2 cups leftover vegetarian bean and corn chili

Tortillas (about six)

1 28-ounce can enchilada sauce

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Heat oven to 350 F. In a saucepan, melt the cream cheese over medium heat. Add the salsa and stir until mixed well. Mix in the chicken and chili. Fill tortillas with the mixture, roll them tight like a burrito and place in a baking dish. Pour the enchilada sauce over the tortillas. Cover with cheese. Bake for 30 minutes, or until heated through.

Recipe by Denise Trowbridge


Cheesy potato and ham soup

1 onion, diced

5-6 large potatoes, peeled and diced

2 cups leftover ham, diced

1 cup carrots, diced (optional)

2 cups milk

2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded

Sauté the onion in cooking oil in a stock pot. Add the potatoes, ham, carrots and just enough water to cover them. Cook on medium heat (a low rolling boil) until the potatoes are soft and cooked through. Stir in the milk and cheese. Cook on medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted. The soup will thicken as it cools.

This soup also can be made in a slow cooker by cooking all the ingredients, except the milk and cheese, on low for 8 hours. Add the milk and cheese and cook on high for one more hour. Stir and serve.

Recipe by Denise Trowbridge


Creamy chicken soup with homemade dumplings

1 onion, diced

2 cups or more shredded leftover chicken*

8 cups water

2 cans cream of chicken soup

2 bags frozen soup mix vegetables

Sauté the onion in cooking oil until translucent. Add the chicken and water and bring to a boil. Add the cream of chicken soup and stir until well-mixed. Bring to a boil. Add the frozen vegetables. Simmer on low for about 20 minutes.

Make dough for dumplings.

For dumplings:

2 cups flour

1½ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 tablespoon cooking oil

1 cup water

Mix all the ingredients together until they form a thick, sticky dough. Drop dough by the teaspoonful into the boiling soup. Cook for about 10 minutes (dumplings will float on top).

*We'd already used most of our whole chicken by this point, so to get the meat for this recipe, we boiled the carcass in enough water to cover it for a little more than an hour, let it cool, and then picked all of the meat off the bones. We used the water we'd boiled it in for the recipe.

Recipe by Denise Trowbridge


Great Grandma Straits' Easy Peanut Butter Cookies

1 cup peanut butter

1 egg

1 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together and stir until smooth. Drop by rounded teaspoonful onto a lightly greased cookie sheet. Flatten with a fork. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, until still soft and barely brown on the bottom.

Recipe from Denise's great grandmother, Ida Straits