In 2012 the official poverty rate in the United States, according to the US Census Bureau, was 15 percent, or 46.5 million people. Of that 15 percent, 30.9 percent were families with a female head of household. A mother’s time is spread thin no matter her socioeconomic status; however, when a mother is the sole provider and carer for the household, and carries the financial worries, it’s not just her time that is spread thin but energy as well. This makes providing a healthy diet for your family that much harder. Not all who are under the poverty level are receiving assistance but qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, can be an incredible help, particularly to those who know how to optimize it.
The food stamps program, as many know, does not cover all of a family’s food expenditure, and nor is it meant to, it is designed to be “supplemental,” as the name implies. Unfortunately, a lot of the time what it is “supplementing” is not very much in the first place, which means people have to rely on their monthly allotment of food stamps a lot more than they would perhaps like to.
Making your food stamps stretch as far as possible and supplying the best diet you can for your family is not just a physical challenge but a mental one as well. And the challenge presents very differently depending on what side of the food stamps coin you’re coming in from. Extremes of food stamp users are, firstly, those who are not new to being below the poverty level and have always shopped according to what is the cheapest and will go the furthest. The second group are those who are new to the budgeting gig, perhaps from job loss or a similar issue, and are having to learn quickly just how much financial restrictions impact food choice.
Regardless of the camp you find yourself in, the path to successfully eating the best you can and the most you can on food stamps is learning how to find the middle road. Eating the cheapest food that goes the furthest might see your allotment stretch further, but in the end it can cost your family their health. Eating organic, natural food with the best and freshest ingredients might be the most beneficial for your health, but your food stamps would be spent long before your month was up. The fact is that higher quality diets that consist of more fruits and vegetables, which is recommended by all health professionals, are higher cost, as found in a study published in the November 2011 edition of the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.”
So how do you provide the best that you can for your family with limited time and limited budget? You change your way of looking at the situation first, and then you introduce a new practice a step at a time. When you are a mother already split in 500 different directions, trying to change everything all at once is overwhelming and won’t stick, so start slow and implement what you can handle until you find what is comfortable for you and your family. Perfection is not the goal, doing the best by your family with what you’ve got is, so here are some simple suggestions which will help make your food stamps stretch as far as possible, buying the best food possible. Again these are steps that do not have to be put into action all at the same time, each will save money and help nutrition in their own way, and more importantly start to change your outlook. This coming from someone who has had to adjust her approach to food and finances drastically, achieving change a little at a time while trying to maintain quality family life and sanity! (Note: the latter was never fully intact to begin with!)
1. Meal Planning
Meal planning is a regular on lists of how to save money and how to grocery shop effectively, and there’s a reason for that: it works. However, if you are not used to meal planning, it can be difficult to know where to begin. According to an article in the October/September 2013 edition of “American Fitness” checking what you already have in your pantry is a good place to start. You might have the basis for several main meals and only need a few supplemental ingredients.
Have a look at the ads for your local grocery stores and see what’s on sale then plan meals around the sale items. If you are not sure how to use a particular item that is on sale, look up recipes online by using the ingredients, same goes for how to prepare a food that you are unsure of. There are even step by step videos on YouTube for those who need more visual aids.
If a fruit or vegetable that you need is not on sale, look at the canned and frozen counterparts or possible substitutions. At this point you have to balance the meal preparation times with the amount of time you realistically have. Fresh ingredients are always the best but can take a lot longer to prepare, so if you need to save time by using frozen or canned, at least you are still getting the substance into your meal.
2. Get to Know Your Stores
Every store has a clearance section of some kind. Some stores have more than others even if they are in the same chain, so it takes some investigating. Don’t be afraid to ask a store employee where their clearance items are as they can be in more than one place. For example, one store might have one very obvious clearance section that sells reduced items from all of the store’s departments, whereas another store will have individual clearance sections within specific departments, such as bakery, produce, etc. There are also regular days that the items are weeded out and put on sale for reduced price, again ask a store employee about this. You will have a better chance of finding more that is useful to you if you can coordinate your shopping trip with the days the clearance section is “restocked,” so to speak.
Great things to pick up in clearance are canned and boxed items from dried goods and meat and fish from fresh produce. Often when fresh produce is reduced, it perhaps only has one day or thereabouts left on its sell by date, so you can take it home, freeze it, then use it when you need it. Again, plan your meals around the ingredients that you find.
Coupons in general are going to save you money by their very nature, but if you don’t have a lot of time, there are two things that you can do in couponing that will save you the most money. Firstly, try and use coupons with sale items, that’s where you get the biggest reduction in price. This includes buy one get one free items. You can use two coupons, one for each item, in this instance and get the money off from both of the coupons as well as the free item.
Secondly, wherever you shop, sign up to their members loyalty program and make sure you follow up the in store registration online. Fill out your address and sign up for their mailing lists. The stores will regularly mail you their own coupons which can be used in conjunction with manufacturer coupons, saving even more. A lot of stores also have electronic coupons you can add onto your store card from your online account; however, it’s important to pay attention to the coupon amounts because most of the time these are counted as manufacturer coupons and they get used automatically if they are on your card. This means if you have a paper coupon that is worth more than the electronic one, you can’t choose to use it if you have already loaded the other, but you can take the electronic coupon off your card if you need to and then use the paper coupon before you go shopping.
4. Stock the Basics
Although it is less time consuming to cook the ready-made meals, it is also more expensive and not as healthy. For most family favorites the homemade versions are not that difficult but do require staple ingredients like pasta, rice, flour, spices, herbs, sugar, eggs, milk, etc. When you have these on hand, it might only take one or two items from the store to make a meal. It can be initially hard to wrap your head around buying in bulk or larger quantities, particularly if you have a small family, but in the end it is more cost effective, particularly when you buy the food when they are on sale and you have a coupon! This is true with fresh produce as well. The larger family packs of meats and fish are cheaper per ounce than the smaller portions, and if you don’t need the whole amount at the same time, portion it out and freeze it. Similarly with fruits and vegetables, it is better to buy them whole and divide them into the sizes you need, as opposed to already washed and prepared, which is more expensive. A lot of time and money is saved when you can just pull what you need out of your supplies and cook it up, as opposed to making lots of little dashes here and there to the store.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things
Whether it’s a new recipe you’re trying with ingredients you’ve never used before or a different food label than you are used to buying, it’s important to branch out. This isn’t just the case with generic brands versus manufacturer brands, but you might find a labelled item on sale that you have a coupon for and it might be cheaper than the generic equivalent. The same goes for foods in different packaging than you are used to. Spaghetti sauce in a can is not inferior to sauce in a pretty glass jar. It will take trial and error to find out what works for you and your family, and it’s important to allow yourself time when you are trying new things. Your cooking, shopping and lifestyle cannot be changed all in one day, but if you can implement even one of these suggestions you will find your food stamps go a little bit further and you can build from there. Good luck!