Skip to main content
Live Well. Eat Well.

Eating Well for Less

In case you were curious, the maximum monthly allowance for SNAP (aka Food Stamps) participants is this:

Family of 1: $189.00 = $47.25/week
Family of 2: $ 347.00 = $86.75
Family of 3: $ 497.00 = $124.25
Family of 4: $ 632.00 = $158.00

Whether or not you qualify for Food Stamps, with the rising cost of food, are you spending your food dollars as efficiently as possible?

Iowa State Extension has a great website with tools, resources, and calculators that lets you see what you can save if you didn't buy certain unnecessary items, gives you estimates on what you should be spending based on your family size and dining out habits, helps with meal planning, and more.

Personally, I've followed this SNAP food budget for a family of one ($47.25/week) for almost 3 years just to prove to myself and show others that it is possible to eat healthy as a SNAP participant. It was also partly due to necessity as my income as a student wasn't very much, so following this budget allowed me to save money. To see if you qualify for food assistance, click here.

Based on my experience, here are some real-life lessons I've learned which help me eat well on a tight budget:

  • Have the basics: Keep your pantry and fridge stocked with basic preparation materials, like flour and sugar, and staple foods, like rice and beans. These foods last longer than a week on your shelves, and having these materials on hand helps because you only have to buy certain items each week.

o Flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, baking soda, vegetable oil or canola oil

o Salt, pepper, my favorite herbs and spices (Tip! Buy spices when they're on sale!)

o Whole wheat bread, eggs, brown rice, beans (dry or canned), canned soup and/or broth, peanut/nut butter, milk or milk-alternative (soy milk, almond milk), whole wheat pasta, pasta sauce, salad or lettuce, canned tuna or sardines

o Garlic, onions, potatoes or sweet potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, oranges

  • Cook your meals at home: I'm not saying to never eat outside of your home, of course treat yourself or your family every once in a while and have fun! However, most of us have realized that eating away from home is more expensive than making a meal ourselves. Cooking most of my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners - and eating about 1-2 meals/week away from home - keeps me right on budget.
  • Plan your meals: For me, it is cheaper to know ahead of time exactly what I need to buy at the store and exactly what it will be used for. Otherwise, I will buy things I don't need or won't use, which may mean that I waste food (therefore, wasting money) or that I eat out because I have no idea what to make (therefore, spending money I don't have). This also means making a grocery list...
  • Buy more raw materials: Cooking mostly from scratch also lowers the cost of eating. In my experience, pre-prepared or semi-prepared foods do add up to cost more than what it takes to make something similar with the raw ingredients. And, you can usually prepare more of the meal with the raw ingredients for the lower cost.
  • Choose store brands: And use coupons, and buy whatever is on sale! All of these methods work to save money. You can also ask the store manager if there is a certain day(s) of the week that has the best deals. This means that sometimes I buy something different, but similar to, what is on my list, or try something new because I could save a few bucks. It's all about being flexible!
  • Prepare meatless meals: Meat and fish are expensive! These items alone can be 20-30% of my entire budget! I make different meatless meals to make sure I don't have to buy too much meat, for example salads, pasta, soups, beans & rice, or egg dishes like quiche. Also, following the portion suggestion for meat (about 3-4 ounces = the size of a deck of cards or bar of soap), or just eating smaller portions will make the meat last longer and let you buy less. Tip! Portion and freeze excess meat so you can use it the next week and avoid buying more.
  • Choose a weekly treat: Everybody loves snacks, and they're hard to walk away from - believe me, I know! Refusing to buy treats or snacks in order to stay on budget isn't much fun (and it isn't reality). Leave some room in the budget for however many treats you can afford, but only buy them after you get everything you need!

For extra information and resources to help you eat well while spending less, explore these USDA webpages: Eat Right When Money's Tight and Meal Planning, Shopping and Budgeting.

Wishing you the best of health,

Whitney Ajie

Extension Educator, INEP


  1. Eligibility, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),
  2. Protein food group serving size, Choose My Plate,


Today's post was written by Whitney Ajie, MS. Whitney is an Extension Educator for the Illinois Nutrition Education Programs serving Sangamon, Logan and Menard Counties. She specializes in nutrition and physical activity education for low-income audiences, shopping and eating healthy on a budget, increasing food access, and obesity prevention.