SNAP Challenge: Week 1 Summary

by Beth - Budget Bytes
Step by Step

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Wow, one week of the SNAP Challenge is over and I can’t believe how many thoughts I’ve had so far. I could write a ten page paper on my feelings, experiences, and observations already… but I’ll try to keep it short (yeah, right). I also want to thank everyone for their insightful comments and support while I take on this challenge. You’ve helped me dive deeper and discover more.

Before I begin the summary, I want to discuss one aspect of the challenge. The SNAP challenge rules state that you shouldn’t use any food purchased prior to starting the challenge. I’m not following that rule because I don’t feel like it’s very realistic or a responsible way to eat on a budget. Sure, some SNAP recipients will start out with no kitchen supplies, but maybe some do. Each person’s SNAP experience will be unique and involve several variables. I can’t replicate anyone else’s experience, so I have to try to mimic what my own would be. I’m approaching this challenge as if I had to suddenly go on SNAP and will definitely utilize some of my pantry staples. Those staples will not be counted as free and as I replenish those pantry staples throughout the month, I will have to do so within my weekly budget of $30. A good portion of what I bought during week one will actually be spread out and used during the following weeks, so it only makes sense that I also would have had some things left over from previous weeks. And hey, this challenge isn’t perfect, but it’s still incredibly insightful. My goal isn’t to get every detail perfect, but to draw attention to and start the conversation about food insecurity, as well as recalibrate my own spending and food consumption habits to be less wasteful.

What Did I Buy?

SNAP Challenge Week 1 Groceries

Here is everything I bought during my shopping trip for week one. Not a whole lot, right? I bought some pantry staples from the bulk bins at Whole Foods (rice, oat bran, chickpeas, almonds), and picked up the rest of my fresh and canned goods at my neighborhood grocery store. I stocked up on some frozen greens because that’s a super easy and inexpensive way to add veggies to your meals. I splurged on feta because it ads a lot of flavor, but only used 1/4 of that block this week. The rest will be used in the following weeks.

SNAP Challenge Week 1 Receipts

Here are my receipts (with a couple notes on volumes that I made for the bulk items. I had to measure them when I got home for correct calculations).

What did I use that was already in my pantry? Admittedly, more than I planned to. I did not plan very well this first week, so I found myself scavenging through my fridge and pantry just looking for something to kill my hunger. I used soy milk, eggs (I’ll have to replenish both next week), a couple tortillas, butter, peanut butter, tea, brown sugar, cinnamon, hot sauce… well, a lot of things. Week one did not go well.

What Did I Make?

Soy Dijon Chicken Meals

My main meal throughout the week was the Soy Dijon Chicken with Sweet Potatoes, plus 1/2 cup of Seasoned Rice, plus 1/2 cup of frozen broccoli florets. I pre-portioned them out so that I could grab them and go without thinking twice, or giving myself an opportunity to think about eating something else. Each one of these bowls cost $1.49.

Slow Cooker Chickpeas

I cooked one pound of chickpeas from dry in my slow cooker (1 lb. dry, unsoaked chick peas plus 6 cups water, on high for about 5 hours). I only used half of the batch this week and froze the second half for use next week.

These super fast Curried Chickpeas with spinach are packed with flavor and nutrients, vegan, gluten-free, and filling! Plus they freeze great! BudgetBytes.com

My secondary meal throughout the week was Curried Chickpeas with Spinach. I used frozen spinach this time, less olive oil, and the chickpeas that I cooked from dry, so the total batch came to $4.25 and I got about 5 servings, for a cost per serving price of $0.85. Unfortunately, I got so busy and had so many unexpected things pop up this week that I wasn’t able to even cook this recipe until day 4.

Feta Slaw

Cabbage is super cheap and I wanted some more vegetables in my plan, so I made a half batch of this Vinaigrette Slaw with Feta. I used only red cabbage this time (half head) and halved the other ingredients as well. Luckily, I had the bottom of a bottle of Caesar dressing left over in my fridge that was waiting to be used up. This batch cost me $2.28 and I got 4 servings, for a cost per serving of $0.46.

Cut Melon

After I got home from the grocery store I realized that I had NO FRUIT in my plan for the week. I had used up all but a few dollars of my weekly budget, so I turned to this melon that had been sitting in my fridge, uncut, for almost a week. I had let the melon go and it was already starting to have that over ripe sweet smell, like it was on the brink of rotten. I was determined to not let it go to waste, so I cut it up, divided it into 8 portions, and froze almost all of it. I eat the frozen portions while still frozen, like a frozen treat, because once they thaw they are not very good. Ick. But, you have to do what you have to do. The melon cost me $2.99 the week before, or $0.37 per portion.

So, that’s what I made the first week. I realized about mid way through day two that I did not plan well and this week was going to be really awful because of it. Add to that all the drama of the home buying process and trying to show my apartment to prospective new tenants, and I had a complete disaster of a week. I didn’t get a chance to make the curried chickpeas until day 4, so I ended up filling in my meal gaps with pita, peanut butter, and eggs. It was not good. I would consider week one a FAIL.

What Did I Eat?

As I just mentioned, week one was a disaster, but it showed me how much planning and how meticulous you have to be to actually make a budget like this work. Is that level of dedication realistic? Not very much so, especially if you have a family to take care of or are working two jobs (although some people DO make it work, and I applaud you!). Even with my well stocked kitchen and all of my background with cooking and portioning, I still needed to put in more effort to make this work. There were many nights of the week that I just fought off my hunger with a pita and peanut butter instead of a real meal. After only a few days I was so hungry that I was looking for calories everywhere and anywhere. It was bad. So, here is my daily breakdown with relfections:

Day 1

  • 1 small flour tortilla $0.16
  • 1 large egg $0.21
  • dash of hot sauce $0.05
  • pinch of salt and pepper $0.05
  • 1 tea bag $0.13
  • 1/4 cup soy milk $0.09
  • 1 Soy Dijon Chicken meal bowl $1.49
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • 2 Tbsp peanut butter $0.23

Daily Total: $2.53

Reflection: Having to keep a tally of the total cost of my groceries as I picked items from the shelves brought me back to the early days of the blog, when I had to eat on a budget like this. I felt more responsible doing so, but wondered if people saw what I was doing and felt bad for me because I had to be so careful about every penny. I still have a positive outlook and am feeling good about the challenge.

Day 2

  • 1/4 cup oat bran $0.19 (1/4 cup oat bran + 3/4 water cooks up to be a 1 cup bowl)
  • 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar $0.02
  • 1/2 Tbsp butter $0.08
  • 1 Tbsp sliced almonds $0.18
  • 1 cup Cabbage Slaw with Feta $0.46
  • 1 portion melon $0.37
  • 1 Soy Dijon Chicken meal bowl $1.49
  • 1 small flour tortilla $0.16
  • 1 large egg $0.21
  • dash of hot sauce $0.05

Daily Total: $3.22

Reflection: This is the day that crazy stuff started happening with the home buying process. I was stressed, busy, and didn’t have time to calculate my daily food costs to know where I was coming in, or to make the curried chickpeas. I ate an egg in a tortilla for dinner and was hungry most of the day (except the hour or two after lunch). If I had time to calculate my daily cost, I would have known to eat more, but what? I didn’t have much in my fridge and no time to cook.

Day 3

  • 1 Spinach Rice Breakfast Bowl $0.64
  • 1 tea bag $0.13
  • 1/4 cup soy milk $0.09
  • 1 portion melon $0.37
  • 1 cup Cabbage Slaw with Feta $0.46
  • 1 Soy Dijon Chicken meal bowl $1.49
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • 2 Tbsp peanut butter $0.23

Daily Total: $4.11

Reflection: By today, my brain was screaming “FOOD!” at me all day long and seriously affecting my concentration. No, more accurately, it was screaming, “CHIPS, WENDY’S, PIZZA, CAKE!” My body wanted calories and in any form it could get them… and it’s only been 3 days. Imagine going a whole month, finally getting your SNAP benefits replenished, and finally going to the grocery store. Do you think you’d make healthy decisions? I can honestly say that I wouldn’t. My body was now in control and health was not even on the radar. I just wanted calories. I still didn’t have time to make the chickpeas today.

Day 4

  • 2 large eggs $0.42
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • dash of hot sauce $0.05
  • 1 portion melon $0.37
  • 1 cup Cabbage Slaw with Feta $0.46
  • 1 Soy Dijon Chicken meal bowl $1.49
  • 1 Tbsp peanut butter $0.13
  • 1 portion Curried Chickpeas with Spinach $0.85

Daily Total: $3.94

Reflection: I still hadn’t had time to calculate my daily food costs, so I had no idea where I was coming in. I did, however, finally have time to make the curried chickpeas and I was so happy for a change of flavor, plus they were super filling. Finally a little relief. I had woken up so hungry that I ate two eggs for breakfast. That might have been the first day that I didn’t feel like I was going to die waiting for my lunch break.

Day 5

  • 1/4 cup oat bran $0.19
  • 1 Tbsp almonds $0.18
  • 1/2 Tbsp butter $0.08
  • 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar $0.02
  • 1/4 cup soy milk $0.09
  • 1 portion melon $0.37
  • 1 Soy Dijon Chicken meal bowl $1.49
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • 2 Tbsp peanut butter $0.23
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • 1 large egg $0.21
  • dash of hot sauce $0.05

Daily Total: $3.25

Reflection: I really can’t believe how delicious every single commercial for food looks. Things I never would have been tempted by before, like Wendy’s or those nasty looking cappuccino flavored potato chips, I could seriously devour and love every second of it. It’s fascinating how hunger can change your tastes and perceptions. My body was still screaming at me for calories and blocking out most every other thought. I’m still relying on eggs/peanut butter in pita because it’s fast and kills my hunger.

Day 6

  • 2 large eggs $0.42
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • pinch of salt & pepper $0.05
  • 1 cup Cabbage Slaw with Feta $0.46
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • 1/2 Tbsp butter $0.08
  • 1 serving Black Bean Soup $0.79
  • 1/4 cup uncooked popcorn kernels $0.09
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil $0.04
  • 1 Tbsp butter $0.15
  • Cajun seasoning $0.05

Daily Total: $2.47

Reflection: Today I really started to lose it. I thought about sneaking a bag of chips from the store. No one would know, right? Ack. I can’t do that. I needed calories so bad that I ate butter in pita bread. I started scouring my cupboard and freezer for something different to eat because I was sick of the same ‘ol food. I found one last frozen serving of my Slow Cooker Black Bean Soup and ate that. It was SO. GOOD. That made me feel like I broke the rules, but OMG, I felt full and happy for a minute. I had my favorite snack for dinner: stove top popcorn with Cajun seasoning (and butter because apparently I want that on everything now).

Day 7

  • 1 Spinach Rice Breakfast Bowl $0.71
  • 1 tea bag $0.13
  • 1/4 cup soy milk $0.09
  • 1 portion melon $0.37
  • 1 serving Curried Chickpeas with Spinach $0.85
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • 1/2 pita $0.17
  • 2 Tbsp peanut butter $0.23
  • 1 oz feta $0.43
  • 1 cup soy milk $0.36

Daily Total: $3.51

Reflection: I broke into my stash of feta today because I NEEDED CHEESE. I realized that dairy goes a really long way towards filling me up and making me feel satisfied because I’ve been craving cheese and yogurt for a couple days now. I’m definitely working that into next week’s menu. I CAN’T WAIT to go grocery shopping and try a new approach next week, because this sucked. Oh, and I finally got a chance to sit down and start calculating my daily costs and saw how low I was coming in. ARG. I could have been eating more all week. *sigh* Failure.

Final Reflection

Total Consumed: $23.30

Grocery Total (incl. tax):  $28.13

This did not work at all. I’ll try again next week with a different approach. Even with all the advantages working in my favor (pantry staples, cooking equipment like a slow cooker, cooking skills, food knowledge, easy access to grocery store(S), etc.) this just did not work and was not sustainable. I wanted to eat fast food every day. I wanted to go splurge and spend 2-3 days worth of food budget on a pizza or burger. What would I do if I had children? I am full of a mix of emotions—gratitude, guilt, and sadness.

Read through my experience from beginning to end:

SNAP Challenge Intro

SNAP Challenge Week 1 Summary

SNAP Challenge Week 2 Summary

SNAP Challenge Week 3 Summary

SNAP Challenge Week 4 Summary

SNAP Challenge Final Thoughts

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  1. I’m all for help for those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, and I love that there’s advice here for making it work. The problem I have with the SNAP challenge overall is it doesn’t use real-world situations. Someone living on $4.50/day is not also feeding a family. The amount is based on members in the household, as well as income. If you qualify for SNAP and are pregnant or have children under 5, you also qualify for WIC. Older than 5 and your SNAP will increase.
    When I was newly single, with kids 4 and 8, I worked weekends only, as a nurse (I couldn’t have afforded weekday childcare). Because of our situation, I got little or no child support, so every expense was on me, on a fraction of our previous income. I barely qualified for WIC, and that was it. I missed the cutoff for reduced-price lunches by $300. So I cut back on everything I could so I could pay rent etc.
    My grocery budget has been $200/month for those 11 years since. I could spend more now, but I’m so used to it, why should I? That’s HALF the maximum benefit amount for a family our size, so the amount argument is lost on me. And unlike SNAP recipients, that includes any paper/cleaning product I buy, unless I find a good deal at Target.
    Trust me, when you absolutely do not have more money, use some sense, and actually look for ways to stretch/save (like Budget Bytes recipes!), it CAN be done :) (Sorry for comment length – ugh).

  2. I see that many of your recipes are vegetarian but I wonder what would you recommend to replace chicken that could be fit into the snap budget menu recipes

    1. I think it depends on the recipe. A lot of times I like to replace chicken with white beans, but depending on how the chicken is used in the recipe you could have other options.

  3. How much did sweet potatoes cost you? Sweet potatoes are so expensive in my country, so i was wondering how they compare.

    1. Looking at the receipt it looks like they were $1.29/lb at that time, which is on the higher end of the spectrum. Sometimes they’re as low as $0.49/lb.

  4. SNAP is a supplemental food assistance. You are expected to spend 30% of your monthly gross income on food if you are not receiving the maximum benefit. If you want to do a “SNAP Challenge”, you should be attempting to do it on the same food budget that the “Maximum Benefit” for that household size under SNAP. For a single person, the Maximum benefit is $194/month or $6.37/day. This is easily doable.

    1. Despite the fact that people on SNAP have limited incomes that aren’t often capable of that 30% after bills and rent (when not even receiving the maximum benefit too sometimes), let alone the expense of other household needs (like TP etc). Though, I’ve found ways to survive on $6 (or less) a day thanks to this very blog!

    2. Speak for yourself. I actually eat and no there is no extra 30% bowlshit. It’s $6.38 a day. Welcome to the world of eggs and rice.