Grocery Shopping on a Budget: Planning Balanced and Tasty Meals

What’s it like to live on $35 worth of groceries for the week?

We likely all have a budget in mind when we head to the store to buy our groceries, but for the nearly 47 million people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, shopping on a tight budget is a reality of everyday life, and this is what the average person receives. So this September, for Hunger Action Month, when ABC7 Chicago asked me to take the SNAP Challenge to see if I could make balanced, nutritious meals on $35 for the week, I said yes. (Read more about the challenge from the Greater Chicago Food Depository and check out their sample grocery list too!)

How did I do it? By planning meals and finding recipes ahead of time to help ensure choices consisted of nutrient-rich foods and included every food group. Here are the steps I took that many of you likely share with your patients who shop on a budget – and perhaps follow for yourself as well!  Here’s what I did:

1. Plan ahead. It’s essential to know how much you need for the week to create meals that meet your nutrient needs.  Calculate your basic needs through the Super Tracker at There are budget tips and recipes/sample menus available on this site, too.

2. Think seasonal. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of any menu and by focusing on seasonal favorites like I did with apples and squash, menus can be interesting, tasty, and wallet friendly.

3. Think variety. In addition to fruits and veggies, choices like low-fat or fat-free milk, reduced fat cheese, yogurt, oatmeal, and other foods that are delicious and easy to eat on their own or as part of a recipe are great time savers in addition to being versatile, nutritious, and tasty choices the whole family will love.

4. Find simple recipes. I used several from SNAP-Ed Connection that were easy, took just about 30 minutes or less and most include the nutrition information and the cost per recipe and per serving. Here are the recipes I used for the challenge:

  • Pumpkin Soup: For this recipe, I used roasted butternut squash in place of pumpkin
  • Vegetable Cheese Soup: In this recipe, I used several pantry items including corn starch and seasonings. I also used the reduced-fat cheese I bought in place of the Swiss cheese the recipe called for.
  • Tomato Basil Soup: With this recipe, I skipped the onion and used garlic powder instead of fresh garlic.  I also used the can of no salt added stewed tomatoes which have flavor built right in, so those skipped ingredients weren’t missed.  One thing to note is that the recipe is made with milk to add nutrients including protein.
  • Basic Quiche: I made this crustless and used frozen mixed veggies

5. Think ahead. A well-stocked pantry made it easier to extend my groceries as you’ll see from the wrap up.  Flour, sugar, spices, and reduced -sodium bouillon are things I have on hand to make everything from casseroles to muffins or pancakes. Dedicate some dollars on your next shopping trip to building the pantry.  This will make future shopping trips easier.

When budget is tight, every dollar and every calorie counts. Helping your clients and patients plan ahead and use everything they buy will help stretch those dollars while providing the necessary nutrient-rich foods needed from every food group. Make sure to check out the full challenge recap on ABC7 Chicago to see the results of my SNAP Challenge and for tips on how to put together a grocery list on a tight budget. What’s your favorite budget tip for grocery shopping? Please share your ideas and recipes with us!

For more budget information, ideas and recipes, please visit our partner pages found below: