Archive for Monday, June 14, 2010


Food-stamp shopping: Could your family eat on $68.88 a week? One parent gives it a try

Lawrence resident Jenn Hethcoat used these purchases to feed her family for a week.

Lawrence resident Jenn Hethcoat used these purchases to feed her family for a week.

June 14, 2010


Lawrence resident Jenn Hethcoat used these purchases to feed her family for a week.

Lawrence resident Jenn Hethcoat used these purchases to feed her family for a week.

Eating cheap

What it looks like to eat on the cheap

An sample menu from Lawrence coupon expert Jenn Hethcoat at Here’s what Hethcoat, who strives to spend $50 per week on groceries for her family of 5, had planned for dinner the week of March 21 to 27, 2010:

Sunday: Leftovers

Monday: Roast, red potatoes, carrots, homemade dinner rolls

Tuesday: Ravioli lasagna, homemade French bread.

Wednesday: French dip sandwiches, broccoli and cheese

Thursday: Chicken Tetrazzini, asparagus

Friday: Fish stick tacos, chips and guacamole

Saturday: Date night for the parents, leftovers for the kids.

Her shopping list:

• Asparagus

• Cole slaw mix

• Mushrooms

• Apples (for a later apple crisp)

• Tortillas

• Chips

• Guacamole

• Rice milk

• Ravioli

• Fish sticks

• Adobo peppers

• Orange juice

Notes: Monday’s roast was made from venison already on hand in the freezer, and the carrots and potatoes were already purchased. Wednesday’s sandwiches are made using left over venison roast, and the broccoli and cheese is on hand from a recent sale. Thursday’s chicken is on-hand and frozen.

How much do you spend on groceries each week? $100? $150? $200?

Ever spend just $68.88 for the entire week? How about that amount for a family of four? That’s $17.22 to cover 21 meals per person.

Seem like a tough task? That’s reality for more than 38 million Americans on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also know as food stamps.

That amount, $68.88, was the national average assistance for a family of four enrolled in the program at the end of 2009. In Kansas and Douglas County that number is almost doubled, says Michelle Ponce, director of communications for Kansas SRS. She says the numbers for April 2010 indicate that the average four-person household in the state receives $117.45 and families in the county see a smidge more at $118.73 per week.

Still, not very much to bring home the bacon.

Of course, food stamps are meant to supplement a shopper’s food budget, not be the sum of it. That said, local coupon expert Jenn Hethcoat says it’s possible to eat well on a food-stamp budget.

In fact, her family of five eats on less than half the Kansas average and almost $20 less than the national number.

“When I started couponing two years ago, my family spent $900 a month on groceries. And now we spend $300,” says Hethcoat, who blogs and writes about coupons as half of the Journal-World’s Shop Talk team. “It cut back pretty quickly, but I’d say it took me a full year to get down to be able to spend $50 in a week.”

Hethcoat says that with a little willpower and skill, it’s possible for anyone to eat well on the amount doled out by food assistance programs or even less. Here are some tips:

Plan, plan, plan. This is the cornerstone of Hethcoat’s money-saving method and is something she suggests anyone should implement, limited grocery budget or no. She plans dinner seven days a week and even breakfast, lunch and dinner on the weekends.

“Just sit down and make menus,” Hethcoat says. “Look around the house and see what you have, make menus for the next two weeks, and then you have a game plan to go off of.”

Try cooking from scratch, but cook what you know. It’s both healthier and more economical to buy ingredients rather than processed foods or whole meals. Bulk rice and fresh veggies are always going to be cheaper per meal than a frozen, processed rice bowl.

That said, one of the big mistakes new home chefs often make is gathering a lot of new recipes filled with ingredients they don’t have on hand, Hethcoat says. And that’s a recipe for a huge grocery bill.

“Go with what you know,” she says. “And if you see all these neat things you want to try, try one a week. And don’t make it anything extravagant.”

Avoid unnecessary calories. Linda Rippetoe is a registered dietitian with the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department who works with mothers in the county’s WIC program. Many of the women receiving WIC benefits are also on food stamps and will often be on a strict grocery budget. Because of this, Rippetoe and WIC advisers often recommend cutting excessive items.

“If their child is drinking a lot of juice or a lot of milk, we tell them, ‘You really don’t need to be buying that much milk, you can cut down and save that for some other choices in the food budget,’” she says.

Let nothing go to waste. One of the benefits of planning is the chance to schedule meals that use similar ingredients so that nothing goes bad waiting to be used up, Hethcoat says.

“Plan your menus and look at what your ingredients are and plan your next week’s menus, so that they kind of correspond,” Hethcoat says. “So, if you’re (making) something that only uses half a can of something or half a carton of cheese or whatever, then you can utilize that right away instead of buying more for something else later.”

Another tip for avoiding waste? Buy frozen veggies rather than canned or fresh, Rippetoe says. That way, there’s no stress stemming from needing to finish up what wasn’t used.

Have leftovers? Hethcoat recommends planning for a stir-fry or casserole that utilizes what you have already prepared.

Take a calculator. Bring a calculator to the store, but don’t start adding up your purchases. Rather, start with your budget as a baseline and work your way down to zero. Hethcoat says that way you’ll be much more discriminatory with your purchases.

Another use for the calculator is sitting down with your grocery bill and list after a shopping trip. Add up every item that wasn’t on your original grocery list, and it’ll be easier to stick to your list the next time after seeing what straying will cost you, Hethcoat says.

And don’t fret about the about money you’re not spending — just because your grocery bill isn’t huge doesn’t mean it’s any less nutritionally sound, assures Hethcoat.

“We eat better than we did before,” she says.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


headdoctor 3 years, 10 months ago

Nothing wrong with people being concerned about what they are eating such as paying attention to sodium content, etc. What cracks me up is there seems to be this thought that cooking from scratch at home all of a sudden makes the food not only cheaper but low sodium, low calorie, and such. Which it can be if you tailor it to your desired health needs and I know some who really try to make healthy food. The kicker is when some of these people start cooking up old family favorites and home comfort food. Some of those creations may taste fabulous but have enough sodium, fat, or sugar in them to make some of the worst processed foods blush for shame.


rocketmom67 3 years, 10 months ago

I used food stamps when I was in college and my son was little. You can use them to buy fruit and veggie plants and seeds as well as produce at our farmers market. Some families supplement their food budget by using local food banks, summer meal programs for kids and meal sites like LINK. Now, as a single mom with a diabetic teen we are on a tight food budget. I have a garden with greens that will produce all season, I frequently take advantage of .19 bananas at Checkers, I buy mark down produce at the Merc so it is high quality but cheaper. We avoid dairy and gluten for health reasons but that also saves on our grocery bill too. Our staples are dry black beans, brown rice and eggs. I buy one large local meat item per week like a chicken or roast. Then use it to make tacos, with homemade corn tortillas or a casserole or fried rice. We rarely eat out and snack on fruit and natural peanut butter. We also take advantage of seasonal produce from Rolling Prairie and local farms. Some weeks are tighter then others but I try to always keep beans and rice around.


Multidisciplinary 3 years, 10 months ago

The reason the nutritionist may say frozen foods are more my that the processors can buy and process in bulk, where as you as an individual are buying your fresh produce often as one head, stem, etc. Very hands on in the 'fresh' category. You also can buy the frozen in a larger package, saving even more money if you can make use of that option, spending less per ounce. When we had a large family, we could easily use the larger package of frozen vegetable before they were harmed in the freezer, just buy twisting the top and using a wooden clothespin. Plastic pins snap when cold.

Irish..for $3 you can buy a cilantro plant in the garden center at Walmart. Plant it in something, even a butter tub with holes if you have no planter. Then, you can pinch off what you like, and grow it on your terrace or patio. They grow from seeds for those who have gardens and can start them earlier than this.


Liberty275 3 years, 10 months ago

As an undergrad, I could and did live on $10 a week in food, sometimes less.


beatrice 3 years, 10 months ago

We need to bring Home Ec. back to school. Teach kids how to cook again, and not just heat. Remember, the microwave is evil -- anything that can make stuff that hot without involving fire must be from the Devil. (okay, I stole that one from Ellen.) Also, basic money management. I'm amazed at how many people who don't know how to set a simple budget or even balance a check book.

Interesting article, although too much packaged stuff. How much sodium was in the packaged quac? I'll bet it was through the roof. Which of these foods had high fructose corn syrup? These are the things that can contribute to obesity and high blood pressure.


Darwin 3 years, 10 months ago

The first thing I thought of about Food Stamps was people using them for beer and cigarettes and driving a pretty nice vehicle. I remember seeing alot of that going on when I was growing up. I've never been on Food Stamps, but I do understand people being in a place in their life where this is needed. As a tax payer, I have no problem with resources going to where they are needed, but haven't any sympathy for those who squander it.

Kind of along the lines of catfishturheyhunter...I believe we should take care of our on people first. If we have any leftovers, then that can be divided to the other counties. U.S.A. first!


catfishturkeyhunter 3 years, 10 months ago

You can buy a package of Ramen for like .25 cents so yeah its possible. Taste like crap, but you can live on it.

With that said, maybe if we didnt have to feed countries that are blowing up the very soldiers that are handing them food we could afford to give our own people more than $66 dollars a week to feed their family of 4.. Just sayin.


not_that_crazy 3 years, 10 months ago

Great concept. Silly idea to self promote the LJW coupon blog.
Buy the paper to get the coupons!


Bobbi Reid 3 years, 10 months ago

The only place in town where you have to pay tax on coupons is Dillons. I receive foodstamps, and have seen my grocery bill cut in half when I use coupons. Last week my total before taxes was $197.00 after coupons it was $120.00 That will feed us for about 2 weeks.


George_Braziller 3 years, 10 months ago

My grocery bill runs about $75 a month. I buy large inexpensive cuts of meat like uncured picnic hams (last winter they were less expensive than hamburger or chicken) and throw it into the oven on Sunday afternoon for three hours or so along with eight or ten potatoes wrapped in foil. At the same time I'd hardboil a bunch of eggs or make a big pan of herbed rice. With just those few items I have the basics for different meals for the entire week and still have enough ham left to put some in the freezer.

You can also make your own pasta for about 25 cents worth of ingredients. It's not difficult, only requires a rolling pin, takes about ten minutes to make, and is so much better than store bought.


Leslie Swearingen 3 years, 10 months ago

When you use coupons with food stamps you have to pay the tax on the coupon. I make guacamole with fresh cilantro but it always goes bad before I can use the whole bunch. I can use the onions, tomatoes and lime juice in making a lot of dishes. Try thinking foreign as people in India and Mexico, just to name two, have come up with a lot of different ways to use basically the same ingredients. I overheard a woman at the store saying that her mother had taught her that cooking is a menial, boring chore and that is why she never does it. Her small children looked wistful. There are many different kinds of omelets. Anyone have a fried egg sandwich?


LadyJ 3 years, 10 months ago

Skimmed over the article and I don't believe this has been mentioned, could be wrong. Anyway, many people that receive food stamps do not realize that they can use coupons with the food stamps thus stretching them farther. If you go through a lot of milk, many times I buy the marked down milk at Dillons, some of the other stores may do this also. So it expires in two days, it will be gone in one. Another suggestion I read years ago was to keep a container or bag in the freezer to throw in the small amounts of vegetables, meat, beans, rice or even pasta that don't get eaten but are too small to save in the fridge. When you get enough you can make a nice pot of soup.


gatekeeper 3 years, 10 months ago

I think one main thing not mentioned at all is that a lot of people on food stamps don't just work one job and come home and have time to cook. How about the single mom working two jobs just to pay the bills? Think she has time to spend online looking for coupons (can't afford fancy computers and online services). Does she have time to spend cooking most days? Does she have time to scan all the ads to catch all the sales. She barely has time to take care of her family, let alone scan everything for the best deals each week.

If you want to do a realistic article, limit yourself to the food stamp budget for a month. Do it w/out using coupons. Follow your own rules and don't buy processed foods. Don't spend hours analyzing all the ads. Let's see how well you do.


rodentgirl16 3 years, 10 months ago

Oh Jenn, boxed guacamole, really? So much for avoiding processed food. That stuff costs more than grabbing a couple of avocados and a lime and guacamole is so simple. I'm busy too, but geez louise.


canyon_wren 3 years, 10 months ago

Made_in_China--you bring up some good points. However, I imagine MOST of the people on food stamps DO have some way to cook stuff. I agree that lots probably don't have a freezer, but there are certainly ways to manage better. And this exchange here is useful for all of us who want to "try to improve our own lives," as your post recommends. The more we accomplish in that direction, the more we will be able to help others. I don't think there is a single poster here who is assuming everyone is as well off as we are--but we have to start somewhere, and these suggestions may help a lot of people--poor or not.


impska 3 years, 10 months ago

I was disappointed in this article. I don't know whether the blame lies with Jenn or the article writer. Clearly, if Jenn is using leftovers and stockpiles, then the challenge isn't really genuine. Anyone can live on food stamps for one week, because just about everyone has a stockpile in the pantry and twenty bucks in their pocket for a date night. That is, until they've been on food stamps for a month.

It's not clear, but I'm not sure there was even a challenge issued to Jenn, or if the journalist just said "Hey, look at her weekly budget, people should quit whining about food stamps."

I question whether it's realistic to assume that people on food stamps can afford a chest freezer in which to stockpile things, or even afford to stockpile in the first place. I also think it's unrealistic to assume they are supplementing their meals with hunting or gardening (though clearly that would be ideal).


somedude20 3 years, 10 months ago

You should see how much The Spacehog spends on his greens a week. The sweat leaf goes for $50-60 just for an eighth

Free the Hog !!!!


Paul R Getto 3 years, 10 months ago

Good commentary here; some of it useful. Those of us in our comfortable bubbles sometimes forget many of the poor don't live in a place with a full kitchen; they may even be in a place without utilities. Being parsimonius is a good example for us all, and many people waste food and money. It's easy to give advice, but one should remember the old proverb: "Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his boots." Of course, the great ESSENE teacher, aka Joshua, suggested we never judge others and concentrate on our own failures as we try to improve our own lives and the rest of the world.


canyon_wren 3 years, 10 months ago

headdoctor--good suggestion about the vacuum sealer. I have heard they work well. As far as frozen produce vs. fresh is concerned, SUPPOSEDLY the frozen is processed at its peak and should be better than fresh, but fresh seems best to me, anyway.

formerlyanonymous--sounds like you have the system down pretty good! There certain are cheaper things than fish sticks, especially. You guys are lucky--a good sale here in SE Utah on Bell peppers, cukes, etc. is 10 for $10, and "cheap" bananas are 59 cents a lb.. Fortunately, organic stuff is getting cheaper all the time, so sale prices on those things are almost matching the non-organic.


formerlyanonymous 3 years, 10 months ago

Actually, we do spend about that amount of money to feed our family of 5 (with no help from the government, btw).

If she really has that little to spend, why is she buying canned beans, fish sticks, guacamole and other expensive items? Homemade pizza + salad, stir fry over rice, homemade burritos with beans cooked from scratch in the crockpot, etc. are more realistic for making 21 meals + 7 snacks for the family for $70.

We buy tons of fresh & frozen produce--Checkers usually has awesome sales. Last Thursday I not only got the .19/lb bananas sale that they always run, but also cucumbers & green peppers at 3/$1. Fresh fruit and veggies make awesome snacks that are way cheaper than non-foods like fruit snacks or cheese crackers.


imastinker 3 years, 10 months ago

Who are these people? My family of five has been living on $300/month for almost two years now. We run out on some paychecks, but have a full freezer and pantry to get us by for a while. Generally running out means that we don't have eggs and milk.


canyon_wren 3 years, 10 months ago

headdoctor--thanks for the good tips about coupons.--and about not wasting the color cartridge. I just recently got a color printer so might have not thought of that. I do make lots of things and divide them for freezing--like pancakes, etc.

thinking_out_loud--cooking for one is not a problem, but gearing down to shop wisely for one IS a problem for me when I had been used to buying economical quantities. What probably galls me most is buying a small can of Crisco, but I don't make the number of pies I used to in the past!

George--you are right about stir-fry. It is really a good way to go--cheaper and better for us.

I guess "freezer burn" might not be the correct term for my veggies in previously opened packages, but just exposure to the air upon opening makes them looks much less appetizing when the package is opened again. I am probably too picky!


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Chengdu808 3 years, 10 months ago

If you have been convinced that you need milk to build strong bones, consider this: Horses have some of the strongest and biggest bones. What do they eat? Milk? I think not.

Dairy -free is a healthy choice.


George_Braziller 3 years, 10 months ago

Stir-fry is a great inexpensive and easy way to whip up a meal in about 20 minutes. Best part is there isn't any set list of ingredients so you can use just about anything you have on hand.


Adrienne Sanders 3 years, 10 months ago

Funny how many people think you have to drink milk and orange juice. No, you don't have to, and what's more, if you don't have the money you simply don't have the option of having those things.

I think the advice about frozen vegetables is good- i don't know what's up with all of your freezers, but i never have a problem with freezer burn unless something's in there for months on end.


canyon_wren 3 years, 10 months ago

you are right, headdoctor--we all can save plenty by planning and not being wasteful. I finally realized that I was wasting a lot of money by buying stuff on sale and stowing it away but not planning menus around what IS on sale, each week. I have records of expenditures over the past 40+ years and have found that the way I shopped with a family is not practical now that I am alone--I can no longer buy in big quantities and not waste stuff.

I am lucky in that our stores have regular sales on paper goods, etc. and don't have a limit. I don't know if Lawrence stores still have the practice they had many years ago when we lived there--of limiting the shopper to ONE of the sale items with a (then) $10 purchase, but it surely made wise shopping difficult.

I do put bags of frozen vegetables in an additional Ziploc freezer bag but still have trouble with freezer burn--and prefer fresh produce anyway. I seldom use coupons because most of the ones I get in the mail and in Sunday supplements are for prepared foods and I very seldom buy those. I think one of the most impractical purchases is microwave meals--even the best are scarcely fit to eat and so costly, compared to what a person can make from scratch--and there are plenty of simple menus that can be made from scratch.

Lots of good posts here full of useful ideas!


headdoctor 3 years, 10 months ago

There are coupons out there for fresh produce as well. If you are getting freezer burnt vegetables, I suspect the problem is not keeping track of what is opened and getting it used before it freezer burns.

Every family has their own schedule, tastes, income, etc. What works for Jenn, myself or others may not work for you and your family. Even if you are dead set on fresh produce year round you can still cut the cost of your grocery bill if you coupon. Reducing the cost of paper goods, personal hygiene products, household cleaners and products, and other non fresh food items is a very good way to save a chunk of money that you could just chalk up as savings or put on buying fresh produce.

You may not see the $68 a week grocery bill but you can still save a bundle of money every month if you choose to do so.


TheEleventhStephanie 3 years, 10 months ago

The mere thought of fish stick tacos just made me feel a little bit ill.


Blessed4x 3 years, 10 months ago

The key is to actually cook, a skill that many have lost in this day and age of microwave burritos and frozen pizzas. I am lucky enough to be married to a wonderful woman who can cook up a storm! We are a family of 6, myself, my wife and 4 kids ages 13, 9, 8 and 3 and we spend $100/week, not too far past the $69 mentioned in the article for a family of 4 and that includes non-edible items such as laundry soap and toilet paper. We probably spend another $15-20 per week on milk and items that we forgot or ran out of.

What the article fails to mention is any monetary contribution by the shopper. Is the food stamp program really intended to remove ANY expenditure by the consumer or is it rather a supplement to the available funds that the person has? I am certainly not against helping people out where they need it, but don't expect the government to meet your every need. God bless the people that are in need of these services and may they soon find themselves beyond such need.


canyon_wren 3 years, 10 months ago

denak and mom of three--you are right. I didn't bother to read her menu. It makes the article extremely unrealistic. I guess I was only responding to a couple of comments within the article itself--mainly those suggesting planning and using what you have (having things on hand which CAN be used more than once is key). I do disagree with her suggestion that using frozen produce is wiser than fresh, as so often once a bag of frozen vegetables is opened, it gets freezer-burn, especially in a self-defrost freezer. I have always been interested in wise grocery shopping and meal planning and am beginning to teach a money management course for a local pregnancy center. If either of you have some good shopping tips you would care to share with me, I would appreciate receiving them--just send them to me specifically, rather than putting them in a post. Thanks!


mom_of_three 3 years, 10 months ago

Another item the article didn't mention was the age of the family members in the family of 4 or even a family of 5. Parents and 3 kids under 10 will not each as much as parents and 3 teenagers. That makes a lot of difference of what you are buying.
And make a casserole - in the summer - in my kitchen? My house is small and using the oven during a hot, steamy day heats up the entire house, making the AC work harder.
And I would agree about the gallons of orange juice and milk. I have three teenagers, and they don't drink as much milk as three younger kids, but I still have to buy at least two gallons a week.
I admit planning would help, but fresh fruit and veggies alone for my family puts a big dent in the budget.
There was an article in the KC Star last year about a reporter who fed her family on the foodstamp budget, and it was extremely difficult for her. It's possible, but extremely difficult.


denak 3 years, 10 months ago

Except it wasn't. First of all, lets look at all the things Jenn did not buy that she already had on hand: Venison, chicken, broccoli, cheese and potatos. If she had to buy these things, how much would her bill have been then?

Secondly, if you are going out on date night, you have to add the amount you spend on dinner to your food/entertainment budget. Even if you split it in half, you are still spending at least $20.00 You have to add that to your overall food budget.

Third, she only gives examples of seven meals. What about the other 14 plus snack????

Also only one gallon of milk or orange juice for a family of 5 for a week? I don't think so. Even if the kids are drinking water in between meals, a gallon of milk isn't going to last a week. Add in, at least, another gallon of each.

Jenn has some good tips ie plan your meals but why didn't someone go out, go to Checkers or Dillons or HyVee and actually try to purchase 21 meals for 68.88?.

That would have given the readers a more realistic idea of just how hard it is to feed a family of 4 on $68.88.



canyon_wren 3 years, 10 months ago

What a good and useful article!


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