Surviving and Thriving on an Extremely Small Food Budget

When I first started writing for The Simple Dollar, the then-governor of Oregon, Ted Kulongoski, made a big splash by choosing to eat for a week on $3 a day. This was in response to Oregon’s “food stamp challenge,” which challenged citizens to do just that and discover how hard it was to actually survive on such a small amount of income for food.

I thought about that challenge myself and decided to see if I could do it. Back then, our family consisted of just me, my wife (who was pregnant at the time, though I don’t think I knew it yet), and our oldest child who was then a toddler.

Could we pull it off and still eat healthy? At the time, several years ago, I found that we could just make it, provided we were able to find fresh produce in season.

Let’s roll this forward to today, though. Today, we have five people living in our home. Could we actually survive well on an extremely small food budget?

The first question, obviously, is “what constitutes a small food budget?” You’ll get lots of answers to this question, of course, but I wanted to get an impartial answer. I started by finding out what SNAP benefits were available for a family of five. This quick guide to SNAP eligibility and benefits, and it turns out that for a family of five, the average SNAP benefits added up to $556 a month.

Let’s put that into context. Over the course of 30 days, I’d have to feed five people 90 meals each, which adds up to 450 meals. That breaks down to a cost of about $1.25 per person per meal.

For comparison’s sake, this amounts to a single person living off of about $26 for a week for food.

So, let’s use that as a threshold. Let’s say you’re moving into an apartment for the first time in your life and you need to survive on about $1.25 per meal going forward. Let’s also assume that you have a stove and a microwave and a handful of basic pots and pans to cook with, along with a few plates and bowls to eat out of. (If you don’t have those things, head down to your local Goodwill, where you should be able to find all of those things except the stove for pennies.)

How can you and your family survive on $1.25 per person per meal?

It’s worth noting right off the bat that it’s easy to find enough really unhealthy foods to meet a person’s basic caloric needs for under $1.25 a meal. One could live on a steady diet of ramen noodles and have enough calories with which to live and spend far less than $1.25 a meal, for example. The only problem here is that a really unhealthy diet adds long term medical costs into the equation. A diet consisting of ramen noodles is likely to result in weight gain and hypertension along with some serious malnutrition. It’s not a functional and healthy long-term diet.

So, here’s the real question we’re asking here: how can you and your family eat healthy meals and thrive on $1.25 per person per meal?

Here’s what I would do in this exact situation.

Supplement the foods you can buy with a food pantry. If a person is in a position where they’re trying to survive on $1.25 per person per meal, it’s likely that they’re eligible for the benefits of a food bank or food pantry. My first step would be to identify where the local food pantry was, stop by during operating hours, and see what I need to do to get food regularly.

At our local food pantry, you’re allowed to get a bag upon your first visit, but in future visits, you have to provide proof of annual income (a tax form works, or some other proof – they can guide you as to what works) and proof of residence (a bill works) in order to keep getting food. In other areas, there are even fewer requirements.

Remember, if you are eligible to get food from the food pantry, you should; you are the reason the food is there. People want to help you get through this tough time and get back on your feet as fast as possible. Let them help!

Figure out whether you’re eligible for SNAP and sign up if you are. The easiest place to go to find out about this is to visit BenefitsCheckUp, which will help you identify, with a few basic questions, which programs you’re eligible for. Just choose the “Food and Nutrition” option when it asks you what kinds of benefits you’re looking for.

If you’re eligible, SNAP benefits typically come in the form of a debit card that you can use for groceries, enabling you to buy a certain amount per month. If you qualify for full benefits, this should provide you the $1.25 per meal (roughly) that’s discussed above.

Again, as I said earlier, if you are eligible to get benefits from SNAP, you should; you are the reason this program is there. People want to help you get through this tough time and get back on your feet as fast as possible. Let them help!

Of course, knowing about these programs is great, but how do you actually use $1.25 a meal to put food on the table?

Start with what I call the “big eight.” There are eight very inexpensive staple foods that are what I consider to be the backbone of an inexpensive diet.

First, eggs. You can find them for as little as $0.50 a dozen depending on where you live, though prices vary a lot. An egg has eighty calories in it and is a protein and nutrition winner. Make a dozen scrambled eggs and you have a main course for three or four people for $0.50.

Second, dry rice. It’s incredibly easy to cook rice. You just put some in a pan with a lid, add some water, and let it simmer for a while. You need to get the proportions right, but you can easily look that up online based on the type of rice you buy. Dried rice is dirt cheap at the store, accompanies practically anything, and is incredibly easy to cook.

Third, dry beans. You can almost carbon copy everything I said about rice. Even better, there are lots of very different varieties of beans, from the tiny lentil to the large chickpea. Buy them dried, let them soak in water overnight, then boil them up and you’ll have the backbone of many amazing meals.

Fourth, on-sale fresh produce. Many, many grocery stores use fresh fruits and vegetables as loss leaders to get customers into the store. Just go into the fruits and vegetables section of your preferred grocery store and pick up whatever’s on sale. Take it home. Figure out how to prepare it. Try it.

Fifth, whole chickens. This is where you get your money’s worth when it comes to a chicken. Just cook the whole thing in a pot and enjoy it for dinner, saving the broth it’s cooking in for later use in a soup. Eat all the meat, then make more broth with the remaining bones. Use that broth with cheap vegetables and cheap rice and cheap beans to make an amazing soup. You can get so much mileage out of a whole chicken!

Sixth, ground turkey. This is a healthy and cheap substitute for ground beef, as you can use it as a substitute in almost any recipe that calls for ground beef. While this is likely the most expensive thing on the list here, it’s still quite cheap and it covers one of the big staples of many American diets in a low cost and healthy way.

Seventh, pasta and tomato sauce. Pasta paired with tomato sauce or diced tomatoes is a great simple meal that almost anyone can make, and it feeds a family quite well and usually provides leftovers. You can get a box of spaghetti, a can of tomato sauce, and a can of diced tomatoes for $4 and it’ll feed a family of five easily.

But how do you make it taste good? That leads us to the next item.

Finally, bulk spices. Alone, all of these options would be bland. Find a store in your area that sells cheap bulk spices (start by checking out ethnic grocers) and get a variety of things to use. Think of dishes you’ve loved, look up how they’re spiced, and then buy those spices. Keep them sealed up so they stay fresh for a long time. Don’t buy those overpriced little jars at the grocery store.

Learn how to cook the “big eight” in a variety of ways. The items above are on this list because they’re inexpensive and very flexible. You can prepare them in a lot of ways. You can spice them in a lot of ways. You can mix and match them in nearly countless ways. The trick is knowing how to do it, and that takes practice and time in the kitchen.

So, the next step here is to simply cook a lot of meals at home focusing on these eight ingredients. Learn how to prepare seasoned rice and vegetables. Learn how to make killer rice and beans. Learn how to make egg drop soup. Learn how to make killer pasta with ground turkey meatballs. Learn how to make hard-boiled eggs for quick breakfasts. It goes on and on and on.

You’ll gain a lot of skills this way and really learn how to use what’s in your kitchen. Cracking eggs and cutting up chicken will become second nature to you. Cooking rice and cooking beans will feel like a nearly automatic task.

When you reach that point, preparing foods at home will begin to feel simpler than going out. Trust me – that’s where I’m at these days. I’d far rather make a bunch of pasta and some steamed vegetables than take my family out to dinner. I’d honestly do it that way if I were single, as I could stow away a bunch of meals in the fridge.

Pick up a few basic helpful tools from the dollar store or Goodwill. At the beginning of this article, I made the assumption that you would likely have only very basic stuff in your kitchen – a stove, a microwave, a couple pots and pans, a knife, plates, bowls, and silverware. There are three other tools that really come in handy when it comes to preparing food at home, and you can get all of them at many Goodwill stores or off of Craigslist for just a few bucks, or at your local dollar store. These are going to save you money, because they save you so much time that they take away the incentive to buy more expensive convenience foods.

A slow cooker enables you to fill it with food in the morning, turn it on low, and come home in the evening to a prepared meal. It works really well for some things – it can make a mean slow cooker lasagna, for example, or soups and stews, or a roast. It doesn’t make everything well. You can find one at most Goodwills or general secondhand stores for just a few bucks. You might want to stop by the library and pick up a book on slow cookers and slow cooker recipes to get started.

A rice cooker is just something I find convenient if you have a lot of meals involving rice. You just put the rice in, put the water in, close the lid, touch a button, and wait twenty minutes and you have perfect rice. It makes rice almost impossible to mess up; rice becomes something so simple that it barely requires any thought at all. Again, you can often find these at secondhand stores for just a few bucks. You may need to find the manual online, which shouldn’t be too hard.

Reusable containers enable you to save leftovers in the fridge after a meal. Smaller containers make it easy to subdivide leftovers into individual meal-sized containers that are perfect for reheating for lunch the next day or for a quick dinner down the road. You can pop most individual meals in the freezer for later thawing and reheating, too. You can find such container quite cheaply at the dollar store, though those tend to warp after a while. Make sure they’re freezer safe before popping them in the freezer and microwave safe before microwaving them!

Figure out which store in your area is the discount grocer and use that grocery store for as much as possible. Another valuable step in keeping the cost of food low is to make sure that you’re buying your food from the store that offers the lowest prices in the area. Some grocers charge higher prices than others and do this by having fancier displays, more open space, and a better location; other grocers charge lower prices, but might have narrower aisles and less attention paid to displays and product selection.

Check out the stores in your area and judge them by their regular prices on staples. Stick with the store that has inexpensive rice and beans and pasta and milk and whole chickens – the kinds of low cost staples that you need to center your diet around if you’re trying to stay healthy and keep costs super low.

Use that grocery store flyer! Make sure that, each and every week, you’re checking out the flyer from that preferred grocery store. The store flyer lists sales that the store has that week, which, if you’re using a discount grocer, means pretty low prices. Use that information.

You can use it to get discounted fruits and vegetables (remember, I mentioned these as a staple earlier). You can use it to identify other ingredients that are exceptionally cheap this week. Remember these. They’re important. Keep reading.

Check other flyers, and use their loss leaders if the deal is good. Don’t just stop with the flyer of your primary grocer, either. If other grocers are convenient to you, check out their flyers, too, and look for loss leaders – items that are exceptionally cheap and intended to attract customers. It may be worth a stop at that store just to pick up the loss leader.

Plan your meals in advance of going to the grocery store, and make a list off of that meal plan. So, you have a bunch of cheap staples that you use to base your meals on. You know a bunch of very inexpensive items that are on sale this week. Maybe you have some odds and ends from the food pantry to boot. What can you do with those things to make meals for the week? That’s the big challenge of eating so cheaply.

Start thinking about how those items fit together. Can you cook some of the fresh vegetables with rice? Can they be turned into a soup? What kinds of neat things can you do with those items that are on sale that’s a bit unusual for you? What on-sale items pair well with the spices you have?

If you’re struggling, type some ingredients into Google or into All Recipes and see what turns up. You might find some interesting combinations that you hadn’t thought of.

As you come up with those meals, start slotting them in throughout the upcoming week. Slot in slow cooker meals or easy meals on nights when you know you’ll be busy in the evening. Slot in meals with a bit more prep work on other nights where you’ll have more time. If you can, plan on doing some of the prep work for later meals on the weekends or on particularly open evenings, so you can just grab some already-sliced peppers (for example) later on when you need them.

Once you’ve figured out meals that cover all of your needs, make a grocery list. Write down everything that you think you might need to make those meals, keeping in mind to not write down the things you already have. If you’re not sure, write it down and check later – you can always cross it off.

Then, when you run off to the store, you actually won’t be there very long. You’ll just be grabbing stuff off your list instead of wandering about (as you would do without a list). Because of that, you’re also less likely to put unplanned items in the cart, which will save you money – the fewer spontaneous items that wind up in your cart, the easier it is to meet that $1.25 per person per meal goal.

Even with all of this information before you, being able to survive and thrive on a very small food budget boils down to one thing: stepping back and being thoughtful about every dime you spend on food. That’s really what all of this is about. It’s about a transition from just grabbing food at the grocery store or the fast food joint or the takeout place to considering where your dollars go in terms of food. It’s about a transition to thinking about your food purchases when you’re outside the heat of the moment – planning ahead, thinking about recipes, choosing healthy and low cost ingredients, setting yourself up to succeed in your kitchen. That’s the key.

You can survive and thrive on a very low food budget. You can feed your family well with surprisingly little. It just requires you to step back and think about things a little and it requires a willingness to do a bit of planning and become a little more proficient in the kitchen.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.