According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of families who used food banks in 2013 dropped by more than two percent, to the lowest level in five years. Unfortunately, more than one in ten American families – including military families – still rely on food banks, churches, and charities to help them get enough to eat each month. As the holidays approach, it becomes even more difficult for these families, especially single-parent families with only one income. If you’re a single mom or dad, you’ll be glad to know that there are many state and local resources you can turn to to to help you keep your holiday traditions alive. We’ve listed some options below, along with tips you can use to prepare, preserve, and serve healthy, nutritious meals to your family, while still keeping to a food budget.
We look at two ways to make ends meet over the upcoming holidays (and normal times): food assistance programs and smart budget shopping (shopping to stretch your budget).
Stretch Your Food Budget with Supplemental Food Assistance Programs…
Government Food Assistance
The federal and state governments are one of the best food resources available to you. These programs offer a stable food assistance program to millions of Americans who need the assistance. You have to be a low income household to qualify and you’ll have to specifically apply for these programs — it can take time before you are accepted. So while these programs can offer long term food assistance, they are not quick emergency food assistance like say a food bank is.
If you’re a single parent with two children, and your take-home wages amount to less than $1,700 per month, then you probably qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Once you’re enrolled in this program, you’ll be able to purchase groceries at most retailers with the EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card that your state office will issue you. You can use your SNAP benefits to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products, and bread and cereal products. You can even buy a cake or a pie from an in-store bakery to take home for a special celebration, though it might be cheaper to make your own, so be sure to check out our baking tips below. To find out if you are eligible to apply for SNAP benefits, click here. (http://www.snap-step1.usda.gov/fns/)
For moms with babies and toddlers, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program helps to provide a healthy diet for a child’s first five years. This is another national program that is run on a state level, so you need to apply through your local state office to see if you qualify for benefits under the WIC program. It’s important that babies and young children get the nutrition they need, so be sure to look into this program for help at any time of year. Find your local WIC office here. (http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/contacts)
National School Lunch Program
Don’t forget that your children may qualify for free and reduced school lunch programs like the NSLP! The National School Lunch Program has been providing healthy lunches to children during the school year and the summer vacation for over 60 years. They even provide after-school snacks to eligible school programs. Other meal programs available in many schools include breakfast, a supplement of fresh fruits and vegetables, and fresh milk for kindergarten and pre-K children. In general, the school will give you an application form to fill out at the beginning of the school year, but if you did not receive one this fall, contact the school administrator. If your children are receiving SNAP benefits they will automatically qualify for the NSLP. Click here (http://www.fns.usda.gov/documents-available-other-languages) to get information on this program.
Charity Food Assistance (Food Banks)
Food Banks are a great way to get supplemental food items for free, either over the long term (if you regularly make trips to food banks) or for one off emergency situations.
The Salvation Army Assistance (Food, Cash, Clothes, Counselling, etc)
The Salvation Army has over seven thousand offices across the country, and this is a good place to go to find out about food distribution centers, children’s programs, and even community gardens where you can grow your own food. You can use your SNAP card to buy seeds to plant, and if you have a garden plot you can plant those seeds in the spring. You should be able to harvest at least six month’s worth of fresh vegetables like spinach and other greens, potatoes, onions, beans, and squash. This is one of the best ways to save on your food costs, because a packet of seeds that costs less than a dollar can provide you with hundreds of dollars’ worth of fresh food. You do need to put time in to tending your garden plot, but many plants only need occasional attention once or twice a week. Click here (http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/hunger-relief) to find your nearest Salvation Army Center.
Food banks are an important resource for many people these days. Whether they’re run by a church, a business, or a national organization like Feeding America, you’ll probably be able to find a food bank in your neighborhood. This is a good place to stock up on staple items like rice, beans, and canned goods. Food banks are usually local resources, so you’ll have to look for food banks in your specific city. There are some websites that will help organize this.
To find a food bank: The Feeding America website lets you search for the food bank nearest you. Just enter your ZIP code here (http://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank/).
Charity Holiday Gift Packages
During the holidays (Christmas especially, but also Thanksgiving or Easter), there are a number of charity and nonprofit organizations who do offer holiday gift packages for struggling households. These sometimes come stocked with toys and food treats. This can be a great way to get an awesome Christmas dinner or thanksgiving turkey meal…for free! Typically you need to go down to a local food bank or organization that gives these gift packages out and sign up. On a personal level, my mother received a Christmas gift package when I was fifteen — we had a full stuffed turkey, a bottle of wine, popcorn, cake, and a number of other delicious treats that came part of the package. Even 15 years later, I still remember how much joy this sudden gift brought our entire family.
Local Markets for Cheaper Foods
You can often find cheaper fresh whole foods (dairy, veggies, fruits, baked goods, etc) at your local farmers market. Not only is it healthier than goods stocked in your local supermarket, but it’s fresher too AND you may be able to find cheaper prices too, if you look around.
If you don’t have a garden of your own, you can still find fresh fruits and vegetables at your local farmer’s market. Even in the fall and winter, many markets sell inexpensive vegetables like carrots, parsnips, squash, and turnips. These nutritious and vitamin-rich vegetables are easy to bake or roast, and if you make a big pot of soup on the weekend it can provide several dinners throughout the week. Most farmers’ markets accept SNAP vouchers or cards, and many cities and towns have local market initiatives to provide food to low-income families. Use the Local Harvest website (http://www.localharvest.org/) to find a market near you.
Community Supported Agriculture Producers
You’ll also find a list of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) producers. These are farms and farmers who sell their produce directly to subscribers. Check with these producers to see if you can buy inexpensive fruits and vegetables, or exchange a few hours of work each month for food from their farm.
Stretch Your Food Budget by Shopping Smart…
Your holidays can be full of tasty and nutritious food if you know where to find the help you need, and how to make the most of what you have. To save money WHILE also acquiring healthy, nutritious foods, you need to buy the RIGHT types of items at the right times (i.e. cheap protein, dried goods, frozen veggies, etc) and look for discounts.
Know What You Can Afford
Knowing what to buy is the first step to keeping your kitchen full of healthy meals for you and your family. If you’re in the SNAP program there are certain items you won’t be able to buy with your EBT card, like alcohol and most deli items. Although you can buy candy, ice cream, and other treats with a SNAP card, these items can be expensive, and they are less nutritious. Save these purchases for a special treat, and you’ll keep your family and your budget in good health.
Pantry staples like flour, sugar, vegetable oil, cornmeal, and spices are all inexpensive and long-lasting. You can use these as part of a low-cost meal that will save you money compared to ready-to-eat processed food. Unless you have the time to bake, it’s probably cheaper to buy bread. Remember that bread freezes well, so if you have the space in a freezer, buy bread on sale and stock up. If bread goes stale, it makes a good stuffing side dish or sweet bread pudding. Here’s a recipe for a quick bread pudding with raisins and spices (http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/old-fashioned-bread-pudding/790f3338-59c6-4312-a3c1-3e4d0cf6b101) that makes a delicious dessert. You can even serve leftovers for breakfast the next day!
Buy Frozen Veggies on Sale
Buy frozen vegetables on sale if you have a freezer. They’re often cheaper than fresh vegetables, and usually just as nutritious. You can add them at the last minute to soups and stews, or simply reheat them with a little oil and some spices from the pantry.
Dried Grains and Legumes are Your Friend
Dried beans and whole-grain rice are full of nutrition, inexpensive, and easy to store in the pantry. Buying dried beans is much cheaper than buying canned beans, and since you can cook dried beans in the oven or on the stove without much work, they can be an easy way to get protein into your family’s meals. Check out this article (http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-cook-beans-in-the-oven-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-102908) to find three easy ways to cook dried beans.
Eggs, Eggs, Eggs
Another good source of protein is eggs, which you can use to make main-dish suppers, cook up weekend breakfasts, or do some holiday baking. Eggs can be stored for weeks in the refrigerator, so buy them on sale and stock up, especially if you are planning on having friends and family for a holiday meal. If you’ve got bread that’s going stale, make a savory frittata that will feed the whole family. Not sure what a frittata is? Here are twenty recipes for frittatas and other egg dishes (http://www.bhg.com/recipes/breakfast/brunch/stratas-frittatas-and-omelets/) your children will enjoy.
Find Discounted Meat from a Butcher
You can sometimes find cheap cuts of meat by talking to the butcher at your local supermarket about what they have the most of, and what they are planning to throw away as scraps. It might sound funny, but often there is a lot of meat left on the bones after the butchers remove the cuts of meat, and you can simmer these in a pot of water to make a delicious broth. Add some frozen vegetables, a package of pasta, and some of the spices from your pantry, and you’ve got hot turkey soup!
Find Discounted (expiring) Perishables from Grocery Store
Many grocery stores put their discounted goods once or twice a week in the morning as soon as the store opens. Each store has a different time this happens (for example, I remember my mother would go to Safeway Thursday mornings at like 7 am) so you will have to specifically ASK an employee when this occurs and time your trip to the store. Basically, the store will put heavily discounted items on perishables like breads, vegetables, dented canned goods and other items that are close to expiring or have sustained some damage (dented cans etc). What’s bad for the store is good for you. If you come bright and early, you can save huge on normally expensive goods!
Grocery stores often offer huge savings if you use the weekly coupons offered by the store. You can sometimes find these at the front of the store in the weekly or bi weekly sales flier printed off or sometimes these fliers with coupons are directly mailed to your house. If you target your shopping to the items on the coupons, you can save big over the long run. Most people don’t bother with coupons, but if you do, you can save. A lot.