Oh, SNAP! Living On Food Stamps

I did it for four years, feeding myself and my three children. We never went hungry, ran out of food, or had to hit the soup kitchen or local food pantry. Now, I know that there are people who will take what I’m writing here as “proof” that the program is overly generous and try to use my words as justification to cut the program further. (Probably the same people who think that JK Rowling’s success with Harry Potter means that every mother on welfare could write a best-selling book series, if she just wasn’t too busy being a parasite. Sigh…after you, Governor.)

I don’t mean this advice as a criticism.  I want to share these basic principles to help. Been there, done that. This stuff worked for me.

Start with Breakfast

Stop buying sugary cereals. Yes, if your kids are accustomed to them, they’ll probably complain, but stick to your guns. If they just have to have that sugar buzz, buy the sugar separately and sprinkle it on. It’s a lot cheaper. The cheapest breakfast of all is oatmeal (please don’t gag). In my experience, the 5 minute kind digests slower than instant, but oatmeal all by itself doesn’t stick to your ribs very long. Add a tablespoon of peanut butter or some sunflower seeds (The cheapest nut on the shelf.) to complement the oat protein and add a little fat. Brown sugar or a drizzle of light molasses goes a long way to perking it up. Oatmeal cooks up creamier if you add the oats to cold water, then heat to a boil. Got raisins? Throw a few in while it’s cooking.

Got stale bread, an egg and a little milk? French toast. Top with canned peaches.

There is such a thing as a free lunch.

If you qualify for food stamps, your school-aged children qualify for the free lunch program. That’s five meals per child, per week that you don’t have to stretch your food budget to cover. Mom and Dad, on the other hand, need to pack leftovers rather than hit the burger stand.

DIY

There’s a line from an old made-for TV movie called The Electric Grandmother. “When you get right up close, Love looks a lot like paying attention.” So does cooking. Even if you are thinking, “If it’s not heat-n-eat, I can’t handle it,” start small and just pay attention to what you’ve got on the stove until it’s ready to come off the stove.

As much as possible, cook from scratch. Trust me, the guy running the StoveTop machine (my brother-in-law) doesn’t work for free. The more basic the ingredients, generally the cheaper the finished dish will be. These days I buy store brand spaghetti sauce, but with a little elbow grease you can make your own with a big can of plum tomatoes and a little can of tomato paste. (Yes, like my Italian aunt.) Unless the jarred kind is on sale, you’ll save money. Saute some chopped onions and/or garlic in oil. Squeeze each tomato over the pot, then drop in the tiny bit of pulp left in your hand.  Think it’s gross to squeeze tomatoes? That’s why God made small children. They think it’s a hoot. Make sure they wash their hands first, and you might want to have them squeeze over a bowl (and maybe the bowl should stand in the kitchen sink) to avoid hot oil spatters, which is more of a howl than a hoot. Add the tomato paste, bring to a boil, then simmer for a bit. Boom! Spaghetti sauce! You can use dried onion or garlic. Italian seasoning is great, if you have it. In a real pinch you can just go with the tomato paste and enough water to bring it to a saucy consistency.

Same thing with most other things. Bisquick is cheaper than Mr. Poppin Fresh. Flour and baking powder are cheaper than Bisquick.

I have no illusions that everybody on food stamps is just sitting at home on their butts with hours to spend in the kitchen. If you are lucky enough to work for Walmart or McD’s (and I mean that ironically) you just might find it hard to have enough time to sleep and shower between the collection of jobs that keeps you off the streets. So plan a little. One afternoon a week is my cooking time. I’ll cook a big batch of something and divvy it up into old margarine tubs for my week’s lunches. Some of those tubs will go into the freezer, so I can alternate this week’s and last week’s leftovers and have a little variety. Make it a family affair. Parcel out the tasks. Many hands make light work.

And here’s a delicate discussion: If the macroeconomic grinder that put you on food stamps has left your family with an unemployed male former breadwinner and a working wife, for God’s sake, sir, just get over that whole ego trip about cooking being a “wifely” duty and beneath you. All the great chefs are men, dammit. Step up to the plate and support her with a home-cooked meal when she gets back from work, just like she did for you.

Beans are your Friends

Americans have this insane terror of not eating enough protein. Back in World War II the Army researched it thoroughly and found that a 150-pound man in combat required 150 grams of protein a day. That’s a serving the size of a hockey puck. And that’s per day, not per meal. Arnold Schwartzenegger, in his bodybuilding book, suggests 10% of your calories should come from protein, when in bulking-up mode. The UN says that 5 to 8% is about right for those not into ornamental muscle growth. Let me give you an example of a food that gets 10% of its calories from protein:

cantalope.

Yes, you read that right. By comparison, lentils hold 50% their calories as protein.

Cows, according to my local billboard, want you to eat chik’n instead. I’m pretty sure that if I bothered to ask a chicken, she’d suggest I go eat a cow. The seas are being over-fished. You can help with all of this, while saving money. Here’s one of my kids’ favorite dinner recipes:

Bean Dip

1 can refried beans (cheaper if you just buy a can of pinto beans and mash them)

1 cup frozen corn or drained canned corn

1 can diced tomatoes with chilis, drained

Optional: fat-free sour cream, sliced jalapenos

Grate or slice about 2 oz cheese

Layer ingredients in an 8 x 8 baking dish in the order given. Bake at 300° for 15 minutes, or until bubbly. Serves 4

Serve with corn chips, or if you want to economize, buy a bag of masa (tortilla flour) and follow the package directions to make tortillas. (I always have to add about a tablespoon of water to what the package calls for.) Press or roll them out between two layers of waxed paper or plastic wrap and heat like pancakes in an ungreased pan. (Get the kids in on this.)

I’d always let the kids scoop it right out of the baking dish with the chips, after carefully putting cut lines to delineate each person’s portion.

Here’s another simple one:

1 pound bag of mixed dry beans (or any type of bean you prefer.)

1 big bottle of spicy V-8 or tomato juice

2 quarts water

Sort the beans, discarding any stray pebbles. Put in a big pot with the water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about half an hour. Dump the water and rinse off any scum. Put the beans back in the pot or a crockpot and add the juice, adding onions and /or garlic, if desired. Bring to a boil, then cook on low until tender. You can take off the lid and let it thicken to make chili (add cumin) or leave the lid on to serve as soup.

Leftovers!

Save stuff: gravy, the juice I just told you to drain out of the diced tomatoes with chilis, packing water from canned vegetables, cooking water from fresh or frozen vegetables. Add it to other stuff: make gravy from leftover cooking water, make soup from gravy, add cooking water rather than plain water to canned soups, and throw in your leftover veggies. The important thing is to refrigerate promptly and use within a day or two. You’re not saving money by conducting science experiments in the fridge. Here’s the world’s simplest soup, with gourmet cred, to boot:

French Onion Soup

2 lbs onions, sliced thin. (This is about 2 to 3 really big onions.)

2 tbs Butter, margarine, or oil for sautéing

Leftover gravy, beef is nice if you have it. (Stew gravy, too, or, after you remove the fat from the pan after cooking burgers, pork chops, or chicken, add water to the pan and cook the stuck bits loose. Add a bouillon cube if you don’t have enough. )

4 cups water or leftover veggie broth

salt

Stale bread

Grated cheese

Saute the onions on medium-low heat. Let them cook into golden brown almost-mush for the best soup, but I’ve let them go until just wilted and then thrown in the liquids and it’s still good. The browner the onions, the stronger and more meaty the flavor will be, but they should be soft, not crispy. Cook them too hot and they will harden.

Add the gravy and water. Simmer on low heat for half an hour or so. Salt to taste.

Put a thick slice of bread (or 2 normal ones) in the bottom of each soup bowl. Cover with a layer of cheese. Ladle on the soup.  Serve with a salad and some crusty bread, if you’ve got it, or home-made biscuits. Seriously good eatin’.

What’s for Dessert?

Well, if you stop buying all that sugary crap, not only will you save money, you’ll be a whole lot healthier. (Don’t underestimate the addictive power of sugar and fat, particularly if you’re used to eating processed foods. But they’re treats, not daily fodder.) Fruit is always good, fresh or canned. Serve topped with yogurt or cottage cheese if the meal was light. Any store-bought baked goods should be rationed. In our food stamp days, we each got 4 cookies, when we had them.

Here’s a recipe from my mom, who as a teenager not only lived through the Depression but supported her family after her dad lost his factory job in 1929.

Bread Pudding

Save your bread heels and stale bread in a bag in the freezer. When you have enough of them to fill a baking dish, cut them in ½ inch cubes and put them in a casserole dish.

In a mixing bowl, beat an egg and add enough milk to cover the bread cubes. If you’re not sure, err on the scant side. You can always add more milk later.

Add sugar, about ¼ cup for each cup of milk you use.

Pour the egg/milk/sugar over the bread cubes. Wait a minute, then stir to moisten the top cubes and add more milk if needed. (Rinse the sugar dregs out of the mixing bowl with the additional milk.) The liquid should just come to the top of the bread. You never want to feed your family spoiled food, but if the milk is just starting to taste stale (not sour!) it will work for this recipe.

Dust with cinnamon or nutmeg, if you have it.

Bake in a 350° oven for 45 minutes or until golden brown. It will puff up magnificently, but collapse as soon as you take it out of the heat. Poke it a little to make sure the liquid is all gelled. If not, give it a few more minutes in the oven. Let it cool and serve. You can top it with fruit or make a lemon sauce. Leftover, it’s good for breakfast the next morning.

Lemon Sauce

½ cup sugar

2 Tbs cornstarch

½ cup lemon juice

½ cup water

Put ingredients in a saucepan in the order shown, stirring between each addition.

Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium-low until it thickens. Let it cool enough to eat and serve over the bread pudding.

Shop Smart

If you’ve mastered the art of couponing, don’t stop just because I said so. Personally I think coupons are generally overrated. I’ve rarely seen a brand name come in cheaper with a coupon than the store brand at its normal price. There are exceptions to the rule, however: Any time you have a coupon that will give you a discount off your total order, no matter what you’ve bought, by all means, use it. Ditto for any double coupon offers. And that loyalty thing they do every Thanksgiving where you get a free turkey for shopping at the same chain every week for a month or two? Grab it with both hands.

Some other hints:

Never go shopping hungry. You’ll buy too much, and the wrong stuff.

Before you go, review your food stash and make a list. That way you won’t buy stuff you don’t need, and forget that one ingredient for the thing you were going to make for dinner.

Shop specials. If there’s a deal on canned goods, buy an extra can or two while it’s cheap.

Whenever possible, buy in bulk. If you’re using the hints above, you should get to the point where you can buy the family-pack of chicken or whatever, rather than paying 50 cents to a dollar more per pound because you can only afford the smaller pack. Get some sandwich or quart-sized bags or plastic wrap and divvy the big pack up and freeze it in meal-sized portions. (Even though I talked about eating beans earlier, I’m assuming you’re a normal American and you’ll be eating meat at least sometimes, if not most times.)

Forget lunch meat. It runs about $7 a pound. That’s why the prices are always listed by the half pound. Light chunk tuna is cheaper, and sardines are even cheaper than tuna, peanut butter cheaper than either. I found that you can mix crumbled tofu up to half and half with canned tuna to make acceptable tuna salad. Throw in some minced onion or pickle relish to amp up the flavor. Leftovers make better lunches than cold cuts.

Keep an eye out for markdowns in the produce section. Shop carefully. You’re not saving if you have to throw out a bigger percentage than the markdown.  You’ll have to eat them right away, but those slightly wilted greens could save you some green. (As soon as you get home, cut off any brown bits and stick them in water to rehydrate.)

And last of all:

Don’t take your kids shopping. Figure out something. Swap child care with a friend so you can both go shopping solo. Seriously. They will wear you down. They will want, want, want stuff. Why? Because they saw it on TV! I swear, they would want you to buy dog poop if a cute cartoon character told them too.

A Log in Your Path

You’ve got a lot of ways you can respond to this log in your path. You can trip over it and fall on your face. You can let it stop you cold. Or you can use it as a bridge to get you to a better place.

Hope this helps. Good luck!