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I was told that people would be interested in a series of diaries on what someone eats on food stamps. So I'm doing one. I'm not interested in getting into the theory of public assistance here; we do plenty of diaries on that on this site. This diary is not about that. This is about food, and eating food cheaply and well.

If you want a fuller discussion on what it is that I am dealing with in terms of allergies, intolerances, chewing issues, and income sourcing, please see this diary I posted about all that.

Follow me below the jump, and we'll start talking about how I feed us good, tasty food on a fairly limited budget.

The first thing you have to do once you actually get food stamps is....

No, it's NOT run to the store.

You need to make a meal plan.
And you need to take inventory of what you have.

So head into the kitchen and take inventory of your cupboards and freezer. When I finally accepted we had to do this, I had a lot of random cans of things, most of the spices I use often, and various ingredients; I just didn't have all the ingredients to cook any one thing. Taking inventory let me know what I actually had on hand. True, it's not going to hurt any thing to have extra smoked sausage, but on the other hand, maybe you needed that space in the freezer for something else. Plus, you save money by not buying what you don't need. And one of my prime aggravations is getting halfway through a recipe and discovering I'm out of something. When you can't just "run to the store for it" the poverty stings all the worse. I try to avoid those situations where I run on the pointy bits of being poor, whenever I can.

So, you did your inventory. Now to the meal plan.

You really need to be honest about this. If there's a bowl of popcorn every evening, whether actually planned or not, you'll want to put popcorn on the list in sufficient quantity for the nightly bowl. If you know the family's going to eat the entire pot of chili, don't plan for leftovers for work the next day. If you know that Sunday when you get home from church no one will want to wait an hour while you make dinner, plan something quick that dishes up when you walk in the door. If you know that Mom is going to give you dinner Sunday night, accept the free meal and don't plan to cook anything.

Then, make your plan out. It's a good idea to plan to alternate things, because most people don't want to eat the same thing three days in a row. My husband also is not fond of eating the same sort of thing. If I have him eat hamburgers, grilled chicken, and then a grilled pork chop, he will wonder if something's wrong with the oven. Change it up. Casserole one night, stir-fry the next.

This doesn't mean that you are bound to the plan. I usually decide which dish I want to do for what meal on the day that they are scheduled. It may be sandwiches and then fried chicken, or vice versa. You can always pull out that frozen lasagna when you discover that life went boom on you and added a few more things for tomorrow, and save doing the homemade pizza for a night when you can enjoy it. You can decide that you're in the mood for something and make it that day. But it gives you some structure, and when you do not know what you are doing, you can just let it tell you. This is very useful when you are stressed.

From the meal plan, you make a rough list. For example, a rough list for making chicken and dumplings is a whole chicken, onions, celery, carrots, garlic, black pepper, seasoned salt, eggs, flour. Once I've done this for each dish I'm making, I check how many times onions show up overall. There are five to six onions in each bag I buy. "Half an onion, one onion, half an onion, quarter onion, whole onion....that's three and a quarter onions, four onions in the bag I have, so I won't buy onion this month." (Of course onion keeps well in cool and dark.) Cross onion off the list. I keep ten pounds of flour (2 five pound bags) plus whatever is in the bin, so I check to see if I used the flour in the pantry. Go down the line like this, checking it against your inventory list. Eventually, you have your shopping list. I print mine out so that I can read it. Dysgraphia means terrible handwriting on lists.

Now, food stamps don't buy non-food items, or alcohol. So you have to remember to bring money for the dog and cat food, the white wine, the plastic containers and aluminum foil. I make a separate list for these things. While I do not drink, I do occasionally buy wine and beer, as they add a lot to the food.

I then tend to separate my list out by stores. I go to three.

The first is a little bitty old supermarket. But like many people locally, I don't go there to buy my vegetables.... I go there to buy my meat. They have a really good old-style meat counter, and I can get odd bits like turkey necks and beef tongues and even farm raised rabbit. Venison is a gift from relatives, and will show up occasionally. They hunt rabbit, and quail, but I rarely get any from that source; they like it too well.

The second is a large discount supermarket, Aldi's. I've heard some people have a quality problem, but I never have. I get a lot of my staples there; milk, flour, rice, cheese, etc. And I don't mind sacking my own groceries. I know who to blame when the bread gets crushed then.

The third is a regular retail supermarket, Kroger's. There I'm filling in round the edges; a can of water chestnuts, a bottle of worcestershire sauce, cat food in their preferred brand, some deli cheese.  

I try not to spend all my money at once, too. Saving about fifty dollars for later in the month buys me more bread and more lettuce two weeks from now, and that's very important.

Well. Let's go home, put this all away, and start cooking....

Originally posted to Alexandra Lynch on Fri Sep 06, 2013 at 11:12 AM PDT.

Also republished by Income Inequality Kos, Hunger in America, and Kitchen Table Kibitzing.

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