What $29 A Week For Food Looks Like For Actual Low Income People (And Not Gwyneth Paltrow)

(Associated Press)
Fast food is fast, but it's not really cheap.

" data-reactid="144">(Associated Press)

Fast food is fast, but it's not really cheap.

Fast food isn't cheap

Another frequent conversation I had revolved around people's perception of cheap food.

A lot of the food we're told to believe is cheap isn't at all. Almost all fast food is incredibly expensive — and terrible for you — even the dollar-menu items. The calorie per dollar value just isn't there.

For instance, each box of pasta I bought at Safeway was $1 — they have eight servings and 200 calories per serving. That gives me 1,600 calories for $1. On the McDonald's dollar menu, a double cheeseburger only has 440 calories — about one-fourth the calories as my box of pasta and it cost $0.19 more.

It might seem like $0.19 isn't a big deal, but on a restricted budget every penny makes a difference.

It's not difficult to figure out that fast food doesn't give you the same value as food from the grocery store, but once you get to the grocery store, spotting value becomes a little more difficult.

I even fell into the trap when I bought canned beans for $1 each instead of a 2-pound bag of dried beans that would have lasted the month. I would have saved myself $3, but I chose to go the easy route instead to illustrate that there is a bit of flexibility when eating on a budget.

The point is that it's important to stay mindful of the choices you're making as you shop for food.

What I cooked

Actual cheap food includes things like pasta, canned vegetables, dry oats, and rice.

For breakfast, I ate quick oats with cinnamon and sugar. Funny enough, Whole Foods had the cheapest deal on them. Not including the Reese's Puffs that I splurged on during the last week, my breakfasts for the month cost me $3.72 total — and I still have some left over.

I found chicken to be the cheapest protein, but at $6 per pound for organic chicken, it was still expensive. I also mixed in some smoked sausage links and splurged on chicken meatballs in the last week when I had a lot of money left over.

Eggs are another inexpensive protein, but I don't like them. I bought a carton of six for the last week to make carbonara. I choked down the last two in an omelet for breakfast on my final day.

All of these inexpensive foods can be combined easily to make some delicious and healthy dishes. Here are a couple of meals I made:

View photos
SNAPtember 5

(Cameron Merriman, Business Insider)

Vegetable pasta with a can of diced tomatoes, half an onion, garlic, and spinach. This is one plate — I had enough for five meals.

View photos
SNAPtember 6

(Cameron Merriman, Business Insider)

The same vegetables as above, but with a chicken breast cut up and added in. Delicious over pasta or rice — I got a lot of compliments about how good it smelled when I cooked it for lunch.

I also made some spicy chicken in my crock pot and served it over rice.

There's a huge misconception that cooking a delicious and healthy meal takes a long time. These dishes took maybe a half hour to prepare and lasted about half my week. I'm not exactly Gordon Ramsay. Anything I cooked took the absolute minimum amount of effort and time, and the compliments on my lunches were endless.

Not once during the month did I find myself even the slightest bit hungry.

It's about mindset, not money

I believe food insecurity is due to a combination of issues, but after living a month on such a strict budget I don't believe money is one of them.

average SNAP benefit for California is $141.99, and for San Francisco it can be as high as $194. I completed the month on far less, and it was easy — you just need to have the right mindset and resources. Completing the challenge for one month satisfied me that SNAP provides more than enough for a month's worth of food, and that food insecurity is more of an education issue than a money issue." data-reactid="206">The average SNAP benefit for California is $141.99, and for San Francisco it can be as high as $194. I completed the month on far less, and it was easy — you just need to have the right mindset and resources. Completing the challenge for one month satisfied me that SNAP provides more than enough for a month's worth of food, and that food insecurity is more of an education issue than a money issue.

I think lack of education about good choices and how to prepare healthy meals is a big part of it. People constantly told me, "Oh, you must have eaten McDonald's and tons of processed foods." They were often shocked when I told them that these foods are too expensive to include when cooking on a budget.

Here are a few resources that helped me through this challenge a lot:

  • Leanne Brown has a free cookbook on how to live on a SNAP-equivalent budget. The book is loaded with cost-saving tips and tricks, as well as quite a few healthy, fast, tasty, and cheap recipes.
  • Budget Bytes is a blog run by a woman named Beth. I made her Slow Cooker Taco Chicken bowls for lunch almost every day. Some days I skipped the cheese, though, because cheese is expensive.
  • SNAP benefits used at farmer's markets count double — meaning that you can get twice as much food for the same price. The US Department of Agriculture keeps a list of all farmer's markets. Just type in your ZIP code and it will show you the nearest ones. They're often inexpensive, and you can get great produce and directly support farmers at the same time.

Would I do it again?

That's the real important question I faced at the end of the challenge.

I'm confident I could do it again. During this challenge, I only made one trip to the farmer's market, bought some expensive ingredients, and made minimal use of coupons.

But I wouldn't be interested on living for another month on $125 without a good reason.

My reluctance is primarily due to the arbitrary rules of the challenge — not being able to use leftover food and not being able to accept free food.

where groceries are 23% higher than the national average. " data-reactid="218">I still have salt, olive oil, oatmeal, cinnamon, chili powder, and rice left, as well as a few bucks. That may not seem like a lot, but it represents an extra $17 that I could use for another month if it weren't for those rules. I've already proven to myself that it's possible — even in one of the most expensive cities in the country, where groceries are 23% higher than the national average.

Finally, while I don't need them, I enjoy expensive foods like hamburgers, steaks, and sushi.

View photos
SNAPtember 7

(Cameron Merriman/Business Insider)
Here's the milkshake I enjoyed at the end. Now I'm at $125 for the month.

" data-reactid="240">(Cameron Merriman/Business Insider)

Here's the milkshake I enjoyed at the end. Now I'm at $125 for the month.

The way you pay with a credit card will start to change on October 1 — here's what you need to know" data-reactid="241">NOW WATCH: The way you pay with a credit card will start to change on October 1 — here's what you need to know

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