September just passed and was National Hunger Awareness Month and with that on my mind, I was inspired to participate in a week-long SNAP challenge. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides assistance to 45 million low income Americans, making it the largest hunger assistance program in the nation.

SNAP provides low income families with money to purchase food, and collaborates with state agencies, nutritionists, and organizations to aid people in making informed nutrition/monetary decisions regarding their benefits. Many of these low-income households are forced to make tough decisions on where to allocate limited income. While SNAP is meant to provide supplemental funds to purchase food, the reality is many households are having to rely completely on SNAP assistance with an average of $30 per person per week – or $4.50 per day.  I don’t know about you, but I can easily spend that daily allocation of $4.50 at a local coffee shop for my morning brew.

So what is the SNAP challenge?

Anyone doing the SNAP challenge is limited to purchasing food using the monetary equivalent of what a family would receive on SNAP benefits. For me, a 1-person household, my budget would equal $31.50 a week.  When I decided to do this challenge, I had two goals in mind: staying under budget and meeting the daily dietary nutrition guidelines. As a Nutritionist for the Houston Food Bank, this issue is close to my heart and is of importance to show how it’s possible to eat healthy on an extremely limited budget.

Below are the SNAP challenge rules and self-imposed parameters:

-Only eat meals from my allotted budget. In Texas, the average weekly allowance is $31.50 per week /person.

-Stay at/or under budget.

-Meet all nutrition recommendations from the American dietary guidelines for a woman of my age:

2 cups of fruit

2 1/2 cups of vegetables

5 1/2 oz of protein

6 servings of grains, with 3 servings of whole grains

3 cups of dairy

2 servings of fish/seafood a week

Let’s walk through my week!

I started the challenge, Monday September 17. My week began with planning once I narrowed down the recipes I wanted to make for the week. Afterwards, I went online and shopped to confirm I could afford to make what I wanted with my budget.  This task took several hours – no joke – as I found myself having to go back and forth between the recipes and the online shopping tool. Based on the price of several ingredients, I had to slightly adjust the recipes. After toiling for hours, I was nearly there and felt confident I could make it work.

This feeling abruptly changed when I went to the physical store to buy my groceries.

I anticipated getting my shopping done quickly due to spending so much time “shopping” online, but unfortunately this was not the case. When I got to the store, the prices had changed, and certain foods were out of stock.  Now having to recalculate costs, I also had to cut back on quantity. This added an additional 90 minutes at the store to make sure I didn’t go over budget.

My original plan for Sunday was to get to the store relatively early, shop quickly, and get home with plenty of time to do all the food prep I needed. As you may have already guessed, that did not happen. Surprise, surprise!

My day was so busy with the errands and other responsibilities that I didn’t get to the store until 6:30pm and home by 8pm. By the time I had got home from my not-so-great shopping experience, I was exhausted. But this challenge doesn’t care if you are tired and neither does life.

Luckily, I had enough time to prep the biggest meal I would eat over the week, as well as, complete other tasks like cooking hard-boiled eggs and washing fruits and veggies. By the end of the night my confidence had faltered (mostly due to exhaustion) and the challenge hadn’t even started yet! But tomorrow is always a new day; so I went to bed with this mantra.

The silver lining to my exhausting experience is knowing all the work I put into planning paid off immensely! I was able to purchase 29 food items for $29.70 which consisted of an abundance of healthy and fresh food. Insert hashtag here: #winning!


Menu For My Week

One Pan Mexican Quinoa
delicious and filling; yields so much food!

One Pan Mexican Quinoa

Minestrone Soup
A low-cost dish packed with cabbage, garbanzo beans, carrots, celery and other veggies. With the recent abundance of rain and slightly cooler temps in Houston, now feels like a good time for soup. Weather changes like this make me want comfort food, and a hearty soup can be very filling.

Minestrone Soup

Brown Rice Stir Fry
A classic, easy-to-make recipe that provides lots of vegetables, whole grain, and protein.

Brown Rice Stir Fry

The three recipes above were my main dishes, but I had many other foods to cook and enjoy throughout the week to keep me full and help me reach my nutritional requirements.

Whole grain corn tortillas for breakfast tacos

Breakfast Tacos

Made-from-scratch hummus with veggies and tortilla. Added sautéed cabbage and apple.

Hummus and veggies

Tahini, one of the main ingredients in hummus that gives it it’s delicious nutty flavor, is EXPENSIVE. Needless to say, I could not get it, but had some peanut butter in my pantry that I was allowed to use per the SNAP challenge guidelines (condiments are okay to consume). Tahini is sesame seed butter, after all, and still in the nut butter family. It was delicious, a little sweeter and thicker than traditional hummus (I had to add a lot of water), but definitely a snack that kept me happy all week.

Part of the Dietary recommendations is having fish at least twice a week – omega 3 fatty acids are important! The only fish I could purchase was canned tuna but didn’t mind as I enjoy canned tuna. 2 cans= 2 servings so I easily checked that recommendation off my list. #seafoodsuccess

At the store, I purchased all the dairy staples to meet my nutritional needs for the week: milk, cheese, yogurt. Without the cheese I don’t think I would have met this requirement. The recipes I chose for the week did not call for milk nor am I’m a big milk drinker, but I still consumed at least one cup a day. This helped me to accomplish the nutritional dairy requirement with different meal combinations using yogurt and cheese.

You don’t have to tell me twice to eat cheese! The best part of this challenge is that a little bit of cheese can go a long way. Cheese is a dense dairy food with 1.5oz (about one size of sliced cheese) is equivalent to 1 cup of milk.

Overnight Oats
A great way to get dairy, whole grains, and fruits for the day.

Overnight Oats

As you may have noticed, the only animal protein I am eating during this challenge is egg and tuna. This was purposeful as meat can be expensive. I knew I would have to forego purchasing other items like chicken or ground turkey; so I was looking for quantity here. The last thing I wanted was not to have enough food for the week due to a good percentage of my budget being spent on either of these items.

This is not to say that people with limited means shouldn’t eat animal proteins. Definitely not. But I was able to get all the protein I needed from the egg, tuna and plant proteins such as beans.

The success in not choosing the more expensive items resulted in having A LOT of food. I have read other blogs and accounts of people doing this challenge and the number one issue is hunger. I had so much food that I even had a some left over in the freezer. This could rollover to the next week, which would allow me to buy chicken or turkey.

Not once this week did I feel like I was hungry. That is a HUGE win, and I cannot stress it enough. When a person is hungry, it affects every part of their life, and I don’t just mean “I forgot to eat lunch, now it is 5pm and I need food now.” I’m talking about the kind of chronic hunger that consumes every thought.

Feeling secure that you have enough food goes a long way in keeping spirits up to do something like this challenge. Trust me, this blog could have had a way different tone. So, cheers to a successful week! I met my nutritional needs and requirements; I was under budget; and I was full! My SNAP challenge is a success in anyone’s book.

But here’s the thing…

I am a Nutritionist. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition, have been a professional in my field for several years now and my job at the Houston Food Bank has sharpened these skills vastly. This is what I do every day for my job: teach people the importance of nutrition, how to understand what we eat, what portion sizes looks like, and how to understand food labels to make informed and nutritious decisions. I teach people how to eat healthy, shop healthy, and cook healthy on limited budgets. I have been cooking since I was a kid and I am very comfortable in the kitchen. All these skills are something I have acquired over years of experience. So, this challenge should have been a success.

Now, I am not saying my week was perfect – definitely not! The challenges I had this week gave me the most perspective. There is one challenge in particular that stands out. I mentioned earlier that I am comfortable in the kitchen, and even if I am trying a new recipe, it usually turns out well. I wasn’t particularly worried when I decided to try a new recipe this week: the soup. I have made soup before, mostly stew and chili. Well, as fate would have it, this recipe did not turn out well.

The first mistake: I over-cooked my garbanzo beans – a major component of the soup. I didn’t have time to prep the beans on Sunday, so I had to do this during the week. Rather than soak the dried beans for hours, come home from work and cook them, I cooked them in a crock pot for 8 hours while I was working. Unfortunately, I had to stay at work longer than I anticipated, which meant the beans cooked too long. So, now I had mushy beans.  Not a good start and not a fan favorite. (I don’t like anything mushy.)

Secondly, I wanted the soup to yield many portions and be packed with nutrients; so I doubled the vegetables, beans, and whole grain pasta, but I could not double the broth. I only had 4 cups of broth and had already spent most of my budget and couldn’t go to the store and get more. What did this mean for my soup? Well, 4 cups of water later, I had myself a very bland soup. Considering that I also needed to meet the sodium recommendation of 2300 mg a day or less meant that I could not save my soup with lots of added salt.

I was able to add spices and leftover cilantro to help, but this still did not save my mushy beans. The pasta also turned out overcooked/mushy. I was disappointed to say the least. I had used so much of my food on this soup, and I was stuck with something that I didn’t like for days. Worst of all, I couldn’t just buy more food to replace the failed recipe.

This is what gave me the most perspective and a lot to take away from this challenge.

I have experience cooking, and I still messed up. I thought about the people who live with these restrictions and realized how intimidating cooking a healthy recipe would be. A lot of the time people perceive healthy recipes as being unsatisfying and flavorless.  It would be demoralizing to spend a quarter of the weekly budget on a recipe that didn’t pan out. Now you and your family are stuck eating a bad recipe for the next couple days. If I was not a Nutritionist and if this were my reality, I would not be jumping at the next chance to try again, especially if a $1.00 fast food sandwich is easier and a tried-and-true meal. I can understand that.

The other big challenge was the cost of my time (and that cost was high). I added up the hours spent planning, shopping, food prepping, cooking, and calculating my nutrition. I spent roughly 14-15 hours this week, an average of 2 hours a day. Two hours might not seem like a lot, but if you put it into the context of dedicating 2 hours after you get home from work – that takes up a lot of free time.

There are a lot of logistics that go into cooking and prepping meals for a week. You need to know things like when to cook the recipes and food safety, such as how long to keep the food before it needs to go into the freezer. Thoughts revolved around “if I eat this particular food now what will be left for the rest of the week? What if I run out of food? Am I going to be satisfied?” Even though food didn’t consume my thoughts in the traditional sense of being hungry, I was consumed with the logistics.

Thoughts of food in all its facets took over.

Here are my final thoughts. This isn’t easy and definitely not something that can be successfully sustained long term. It takes dedication, time, skills and a positive attitude. BUT IT IS POSSIBLE! The more investment you put in, the more you will get out. If you find yourself with limited means and getting by with SNAP benefits, there are resources available. Organizations like the Houston Food Bank and people like me are here to help and empower you to live your best life – no matter your income.

By: Hannah Sims- Nutrition Educator, Houston Food Bank