My Top 10 Ingredients for a Healthy SNAP Diet

This week, Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker admirably decided to take the SNAP challenge and live on a typical food stamp budget of $30 for a week. He's most likely hungry, a tad cranky and probably sleepy. Forty-seven million people receive food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) in the United States and on average can spend $1.66 per meal per person. In a country where it's hard to buy a meal for under $10, the thought of a $30 food budget for the entire week is challenging, to say the least.

This past year, in recognition of the extreme difficulties SNAP recipients have in putting nutritious and delicious meals on the table, I formed MicroGreens in Washington, D.C. My new non-profit educates kids and families on how to cook healthy, tasty meals on a budget of $3.50 per meal for a family of 4.

I'm not going to lie. It's tough no matter how you make your budget stretch. Mayor Booker already discovered that, when he revealed his spartan grocery list and complained that he couldn't afford his morning coffee. But what food stamp recipients can and must do to get the most out of their dollar is to purchase food in bulk. When you buy a 15-pound bag of rice, your per serving cost drops to about 15 cents. When you buy 5 pounds of carrots, you get each carrot down to 20 cents. This is how a family can eat healthfully on a SNAP budget and it's what we teach at MicroGreens. It also means if you want meat, you have to learn how to work with non-traditional cuts and start butchering. You can get the cost of chicken down to almost $1.44 for one meal for 4 people if you reduce portion sizes to 3 ounces per person. But you also have to butcher a whole chicken yourself and you need to eat both the dark and white meat. On a SNAP budget, there's no room for being picky. And most importantly, when you're on food stamps, you really need to know how to cook.

So, in honor of Mayor Booker's SNAP challenge, I'm sharing my top 10 food ingredients for a SNAP diet. Food stamp recipients who make these purchases weekly will be better able to stretch their food dollar and cook healthy and tasty meals. Vegetarians like Mayor Booker, will leave out the chicken and stock up on more eggs:

  1. Brown rice

  2. Soy sauce

  3. Carrots

  4. Whole chicken

  5. Frozen veggie medley

  6. Garlic salt

  7. Eggs

  8. Onions

  9. Lentils

  10. Apples

Notice how basic my list is. No frozen waffles, bagels, milk or cereal and very little fruit. These ingredients don't look like the standard American diet nor do they look balanced. SNAP recipients can't eat much fruit because it's too expensive and they can't afford milk.

However, based on my own experiences in taking the SNAP challenge several times, I recommend a plant-based diet with whole grains and drinking a lot of water. At the end of my one-week SNAP challenges, I tended to crave meat and a sweet but I did feel full. And I knew that what I put in my body was healthy, pure and tasty because I cooked it from scratch. I lose about 3 pounds every time I take the SNAP challenge and I've learned that there are ways to mix up the menu each week. For example, one week I might substitute pears for apples or choose polenta instead of rice if the costs work and I can get it in bulk.

Good luck Mayor Booker and thanks for highlighting the difficulties low-income families have by taking the SNAP challenge. If more people would realize how challenging it is to live healthfully off of food stamps that would be the beginning of a real dialogue in America about food costs, hunger and how to eat healthfully on a limited budget.