Cooking challenge on a Food Stamp budget

Joined Jul 18, 2011
Hi all,

I have a rather unusual request for you in this forum. I'm a teacher in the Bronx and my kids are suffering from really bad diet choices. Parents are overworked and have little time to put together a healthy, nutritious meal for breakfast and dinner. I recently revamped my diet based on how little time I have to spend on cooking and found myself healthier and happier in just a few months. Turns out it was also cheaper than what I used to pay. I ultimately want to slate these into a calendar to be a resource for the parent coordinator at our school. Not only will recipes be readily available, but also a hassle free schedule of great food so time (such a precious commodity for parents holding down 2-3 jobs and raising kids) is even less an issue.

What I'm looking for:

Simple, healthy meals that provide tons of nutrients, are filling, and can feed a family for a few days. I'm thinking if a parent only needs to cook once or twice a week they will be more likely to cook healthy (I certainly am!). Further, simple meals might be able to be made by high schoolers getting a feel for the kitchen, which can boost self esteem!

The challenge: a family of four on food stamps in NYC gets $668 a month to eat. Let's call this $620 for the family after incidentals. Break that down into four weeks and you get $155 to provide breakfast and dinner.

Based on this, can you cooking gurus out there with families or expertise cooking big come up with some meals so I can create a recipe master list? The more the better. Some can last a week, others can last a few days. The idea is to cook cheap, nutritious, yummy food that lasts a few days. Let's keep it simple and say there are two adults and two kids (both late elementary-high school age: 10-18 yrs) and there are no dietary restrictions. 

So, get to cooking and any feedback/recipes would be greatly appreciated.

Cook on,

Joined Feb 1, 2007
Even in New York, $155 for two meals for four people shouldn't be a particular hardship.

Forget breakfast. There is no way you're going to break the cold cereal and milk habit, for those kids who even get breakfast. Certainly there's no time to cook, even if the desire is there.

Given your other criterion, stews, braises, soups, and other slow-cooked meals are the way to go. Not only do they meet all the requirements, like love, they're actually better the second time around.

As an added plus, less expensive cuts are tailor made for those kinds of dishes. We're talking chuck, and bottom round, and ox tails. And, of course, chicken.

And do look at previous threads, such as the one Phil links to. Lots of good ideas there. F'rinstance, in either that one, or one similar to it, I detail how I produce 21+ servings from three chickens. Not everything I do is directly applicable, because most of the folks you're talking about won't have freezers. But, still, many of the ideas are transferable.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
Fortified Cold Cereal and milk have been the staple nutrition of this set of kids  in many studies. While frightening to us here on one level, the commercial food system is doing some service here at least at relatively affordable prices.

Menus are a helpful start, but there is an assumed skill and equipment set that you're also going to get from us here.  Time learning to shop differently, and actually shop. Knife and developing some basic skills with it are a cornerstone for cost efficient cooking.  The multitasking of simmering pots while you do other work or activities at home. Low price quality food usually involves some time in prep and on the stove. Learning to time shift some of this so you can complete the meal in the time you do have, like cooking beans one night for use later in the week, or weekend cooking and storing/freezing for later time constrained use. Many of these people would essentially be learning to really cook for the first time. covers much of that territory for a budget minded college student.
Joined Aug 13, 2006
Mictures of legumes and grains, legumes and seeds, seeds and grains and any of the above and a little bit of animal protein (egg, cheese, milk or meat) makes for full useable protein. 

Look at all the traditional peasant dishes

from the italian tradition

rice and peas (risotto) - second day you can add an egg and some grated cheese and roll in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and make rice balls

pasta and beans (pasta e fagioli)

pasta e ceci (pasta with chick peas)

letnil soup poured on old bread, toasted and a piece of garlic rubbed on it

lentil soup with rice and spinach


the same minestrone, run through a blender or a food mill (even finicky kids usually will eat it like this)

pasta with cauliflower

pasta with broccoli

pasta with zucchine

pumpkin or squash soup

I believe il;ve posted most of these at some point on these forums

all are very healthy, don;t need a lot of fussy preparation, and can be used for several days. 

My favorite - zuppa di scarola (escarole soup - wioth or without little meatballs)
Joined May 29, 2011
Edit: Basically repeating what Siduri said hahaha

I think you need only look toward food cultures based on peasants. I will use Italian cooking as a example. We never waste anything. Do yourself a favor and buy Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.    The other most important thing you can teach is portion control. It is soooo important to a budget and good health. Every restaurant has to control portion size in order to maintain a healthy food costs. Also plan the meals a week or even a month in advance and only buy what you need for that meal[other than staples like flour, rice, beans and such] unless you can generate a surplus in your budget to buy in bulk and in advance.


Frittate... This is where your leftovers go... eggs, veg, meat, cheese, salt pepper... Super easy, fast and can be made ahead of time and reheated in a toaster oven for an amazing breakfast.

Hotcakes... again, cheap, easy from scratch, can be made ahead of time and frozen to be popped in the toaster oven. You can add whatever flavors you like. I add peanut butter and chocolate chips and my wife loves me so much she does all the chores :) jk

Syrups... Again, very easy and super tasty... Fruit and maybe a bit of sugar if it is needed... Jellies can be made into syrups just by not putting in enough pectin. With the cores and skins on 6-7 apples you can make 3 pints of apple syrup super easy.

English muffins... CAAAAAN be cheap if you know where to look for them.... They make great snacks too with some left over marinara, mozz cheese and sausage, pepperoni or ham.

Dinner options:

Polenta... What a wonderful and EASY dish to prepare. If you make it as soft polenta to start you have an amazing dinner option. Leftovers can be spread out on a board and left to cool. You can then cut it up and freeze/refrigerate for morning potenta cakes or used the next night as a fried option.

Pasta... You can cook a couple boxes at a time and when it is mostly cooked start taking out what you are not going to use for that dinner and put it in baggies in the fridge. You will have pasta that can be added to a pan and with a bit of water and or sauce finished off in no time for a quick meal. Home made pasta is loads of fun for kids to help with and is REALLY cheap and simple to make. Left over meat, veg and cheeses can be added together to create a filling for tortolini, ravioli and the like. Remember to save a pint or two of the pasta water when you drain for reheating your leftovers. 

Beans... OMG these things are amazing and can be used in soooo many different ways.

Soups... These are amazingly quick and simple to make and SUPER cheap. Keep all your bones and make stocks... you can freeze stocks in old yogurt cups or icecube trays. Once frozen transfer to large ziplok bags for easy use. Start soaking beans in the morning before school, when the kids come home they can change the water and put them on to start cooking while peeling, and cutting vegetables[cut gloves are great for kids and will keep their little fingers intact... and always have very sharp knives]. You can add leftover meats in the last half hour to an hour or so to get things up to temp and serve with a touch of grated cheese. Grating harder cheeses fine will help them last longer and will taste sooo much better.

Sauces... You can make sauces very easily at home on the cheap. A secret is making them thicker so you can add to your precooked pasta with a bit of leftover pasta water you saved from when you drained the pasta. I make Alfredo sauce with heavy cream and cheese... that's it... I make a bunch and put it in pint bags and spoon it out of the bag into the pan with pasta and a shot of pasta water, stir, cover and wait a minute or so, take off the lid and finish it up and plate it.... DONE! If you want some veg throw in some broccoli or whatever when you are starting out... you will need a bit more sauce with some veg though.

Chicken... Easy and cheap if bought on sale. It can be made as easy as setting the oven to 350, washing the chicken, rub salt and pepper all over it and stuffing 2 smaller lemons in it after softening and poking about 20 holes in it with a fork or toothpick. close up the cavity with toothpicks and put the lemons in the cavity. Start baking breast side down[no fat needed as it is self basting, after 30 minutes turn it over and finish it off at 400 until done... about another 30-40 minutes. Awesome chicken and super easy to do. 

Ground beef... Cook it up loose or make patties. Very versitile

Here is a blog my wife follows that has TONS of recipes and tips.

Best of luck to you guys.

Here is something my wife and I do with friends and family... we have a costco group that get together and pool moneys for stuff. Most urban housing does not have enough space for a huge pack of toilet paper... BUT if you can get a few people together and share the pack it saves us all money and we have room for a couple packs. You can get heavy cream and cheese in bulk... make the sauces all at once and share the costs and supplies. If you have access to a industrial kitchen they can get a huge amount of work done at once and everyone gets a bit of the pie so to speak. This works as a sort of team building exercise too.
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Joined May 29, 2011
Hell, where you live you should be able to find a few Italian grandmas that will come teach you all a thing or two about how to feed a family on a budget... damn Catholics and their kids ;)
Joined Jul 18, 2011
Guys, this is fantastic - there's a level of thought in this forum that I really appreciate. I just read the two threads you guys posted above and you have me brewing with ideas. Since I posted this on a few different forums last night, I've already started rethinking and wanting to rework the ideas I posted. I still want to be able to provide a go to calendar for meals and recipes for families, but like you guys said, there's a basic set of skills needed as well. And a high schooler will definitely not have those - soooo, I think as this project grows with time, I'm going to create a wiki for recipes, techniques (Phil, thanks for those great links and suggestions for youtube!), and a calendar for recipes - shouldn't be hard to link in a google calendar with repeating recipes once or twice a year

So, keep up the recipes - I think I might have a bevy of homemakers to test out recipe combinations to see if we stay under budget... should prove an interesting venture!

And yes, the crazy Italians know how to cook it up. I'm in Astoria and know first hand the Greeks know how to boogey down as well. I make a mean Peasant's Salad if anyone is in the area :) Now if someone can only teach me how they make the fried cheese... mmm
Joined Feb 26, 2007
Siduri,Phatch and RGM2 - excellent suggestions :) plus the links.

We're going thru a thin patch at the moment and are having to budget hard.  No bread is ever wasted.  It gets used for filling in sausage meat "burgers", for crumbing small portions of chicken, which then makes it looks bigger but is appealing to the eye and the mouth, eggs are always great value for money protein especially, as has been mentioned, as a frittata with leftovers from the day before. 

Spice things up.  A decent amount of S&P can make a dish much tastier.  Paprika and oregano (dried) make for lots of flavour.

Tinned fish can be used in numerous ways.  Like a simple mornay in white sauce.  Add a bit of cheese if the budget allows.

Cabbage is great.  Look for anything in season, find a reliably cheap greengrocer/market where you can find discounted items.

Plain branded tomato soup is a good standby too.  It can go over pastas or rice with some frozen veg chucked in, plus some home brand bread.

Baked beans/spaghetti in sauce over pasta. 

Stir fries over rice are good too. Choose the best price veg you can find.  You always get some left (well maybe :)  ) .  Re-heat the next day with soya sauce and maybe an egg or two stirred in at the end of heating.

Good luck with the budget and let us know how it goes.  :)
Joined Aug 13, 2006
I think one of the things you have to consider here is that you need to find some suggestions that are sustainable for a real-life family, not an ideal family.  So i'm afraid I disagree with some of what RGM2 has to say.  Portion control??? make a pot of lentil soup and let the kids eat all they want!!!  you don't want to control portions of good, healthy food.  And planning for a month?  we're talking about families here, with all the vicissitudes of everyday life, kids getting sick, parents getting sick, kids having after school activities, kids going to a friend's house for dinner, or a relative's, how can you plan a month in advance?  Only restaurants can be expected to do that.  I can't plan from this morning to tonight, so planning a month in advance is not going to be something you can easily get people to do. 

But something more useful for REAL life is that  you can make lists of staples that can make a meal at any time.  What should be BOUGHT every week, or should be in the house. 

Some will have to be quick things made at the last minute.  Some can be for a day when someone in the house has the time or inclination to make a big pot of something for a few days.

Celery, carrots, onions, garlic, oil, dried lentils, canned chickpeas (why canned? because if you're trying to get people to cook who usually just open a can, you'll have to make it easy.  No one who never cooks is going to soak chickpeas overnight), pasta, rice, eggs, flour, potatoes, maybe frozen spinach, frozen peas, salt, pepper, favorite seasonings (these are cultural factors, people like what they like),

Cornmeal, buckwheat, cabbage, okra, eggplants, etc, are probably more culturally determined too - you can't change a person's style of eating overnight, nor should you.  There should be recipes for every culture, that will appeal to every culture.  Yoiu could get your kids to ASK THEIR GRANDPARENTS, NEIGHBORS, FRIENDS for recipes, maybe get THEM to help you make the cookbook for them.  That sort of participation will be a big incentive, to be involved in the process

Then some of the easier things to make from scratch should be taught.  Tons of people think you can only make mashed potatoes from a box.  It isn;t hard to make them fresh.  If you peel and cut up the potatoes first, it isn;t too time consuming (tired mother coming home after a long day doesn't have the time to boil whole potatoes, then wait for them to cool enough to peel)

Pancakes can be made every bit as easily from scratch as from a mix, etc.  I agree that breakfast has to be easy and fast - kids are unlikely to want to eat, and parents to cook, before getting a family out the door in the morning. Some special treats should be included, easy sweets that kids will enjoy making.   You could also get them to make stuff like banana bread (easy and cheap) that can be brought for a snack to school or makes a good breakfast with a glass of milk.  (most Italians have cookies for breakfast, when they eat it at all.  Toast with jam is mainly wheat and sugar, cookies too, what;s the difference?  But cookies go well with milk, and that's a good breakfast food)

Be careful of what appliances you presume the families have.  Most won;t have a blender, food processor, maybe even cheese grater.  I bet in this age of heating up in the microwave, many won;t even have a real oven. 

Lunches are a big problem i hear, in the states, to the extent that a friend in california said her grandchildren were made fun of because they brought peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch and told they were eating 'HEALTH FOOD'!!!   Yeah, it;s healthy, but when i was a kid it was a treat! 

I think also you should look into the british cook who's set up a program for teaching poor kids to cook - Jamie Oliver.  I haven't read his stuff or watched anythijng of his but I know he's involved in a program to get kids to eat better, and teaching them to cook.  There are surely others, too, who could be a source and resource for recipes and ideas. 
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Joined May 29, 2011
I am sorry but you can portion control and you should IMHO. Some may not agree, and that's OK, but if you teach them good healthy habits as they grow up they do not have to learn it on their own or live with the consequences later on. This is one of the keys to Jamie Oliver's philosophy actually. It does not mean that everyone has to eat the same size meal, just that you take portion size into consideration when you create a meal. 

The idea for the meal planning is important for many reasons. You really need to know what you are going to make so you can buy what is needed. It prevents you from buying whatever floats your boat at the store and spending money on crap you cant afford. It also stops you from looking in the pantry and convincing yourself there is nothing to eat... which kids in the USA are famous for saying. The other thing is that it helps you manage your kids time when they are home and the parents are not... another important thing when you live in places like NYC. So I am sorry, but I have to disagree with the idea that portions and menus are not very important. I have 2 children(16 and 9) of my own and it works great for us.:)

But anyway, run through the Budget Bites Blog  for more recipe ideas. It is a very cool resource and has some great step by step instructions along with a cost breakdown based on portion size. Use the 'labels" list on the right for helping narrow down some of the lists.  
Joined Jul 18, 2011
Hi guys and gals - so I've been hard at work today on trying to provide more clarity with my vision of this thing - and here's the result.

Still super early, but I think you can get a sense of where it can/will go - weekly menu suggestions and broken down shopping lists for the family so they have ideas of when to cook and what exactly they'll need. Of course, people can always change things, etc - but this is a resource and guide - eventually, get enough meal combinations together and shopping lists and families can get super organized - which means cheaper meals. I hear what you're saying RGM - I never go into the supermarket without a weekly plan, but planning for a month can be tricky, especially if families are in crisis and are in reaction mode. The idea behind the calendar and concrete lists and recipes is to help people with no time/energy to really make the most incredible meals for their families. I'm tired of seeing students show up to school each day with two Monster energy drinks and a bag of chips. That's their breakfast. And it cost them $6-8 dollars for one kid. So, by being able to give out hard copies at school and having an online resource like this wiki, I think some eating habits can be changed for the better.

And yes - lunch food is awful... unfortunately changing that requires political energy and it's slow moving. This however, I think, is a better place to start. 

So keep the links and recipes coming. 
Joined May 29, 2011
If you are wanting to really commit to this hardcore you can also try and get in touch with Mario Batali, and/or the Mario Batali Foundation. I think your goals and theirs seem to be in direct line with each other. 

You might also consider contacting Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation. The foundation is working in Brooklyn atm.

These are just a few ideas for some serious help that has a face in the public eye.
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Joined Aug 13, 2006
RGM2 I can understand what you mean,.  And Thesavillian, also i can see your point in making menu plans. 

But i can imagine that someone in crisis, someone who has kids and doesn't know what to do with them, has too many hours of work for too little money, is freaking out and barely able to keep things together (which is true even of people with lots of resources a lot of the time, much more when there just isn;t enough money for the simplest things) would be overwhelmed by a specific daily menu suggestion. 

And for sure the opening of the cupboard and not finding anything has to be fixed, but there are some good basic shopping lists that can go for a large variety of meals. 

I would be more for giving a suggestion for a series of meals, rating them by the time available, and with suggestions for what to do on the successive days - e.g. make a lentil soup one day and eat it on toasted bread - next day add a box of frozen chopped spinach, cook it till the spinach is defrosted and cooked a little and serve it with rice in it, third day, use the lentils which will have thickened more as a side dish with a non meat dinner (potatoes, pasta, eggs or something) - or something like that.  That's just off the top of my head.  I wonder if you could have a series of menus that could be slotted in to the calendar by each person, which would automatically fill in the following days with the leftover suggestions. 

Also, do the people you';re talking about have home computers?  Would this be a menu that's interactive, as the one you show, or would it be printed out? 

What about cards that can be put in menu slots in a printed menu - like a card could cover two or three days, have the shopping items that are not on the basic staples shopping list, that should be bought that week for that dish, etc.  A calendar could be made with a kind of pocket along the week where menu cards could fit. Then there could be a bunch of really easy but healthy and cheap meals that can be made when there just isn't time.  Like today was supposed to be lentils day, but I had to do overtime or one of the kids had to go to the doctor, or something, and i haven;t got the time.  So tonight is frittata day - there are potatoes, there are onions, there are eggs, always in the shopping list, so in fifteen minutes there are frittatas and the lentils go to tomorrow. 

I also think that to make it too artificially "fun" and "happy" might be felt as artificial and even condescending (now you get to do all the prep for the week, yay! - I wouldn;t say "yay" if i had to do all the prep work for the week, much as i already LIKE to cook, and especially if i had been working ten hours a day on some demeaning and low-paying job all week.)   (I'm just trying to get into the head of the person who would be receiving this - you don;t want them to discard it in a huff - and basing this on the principle that these parents are just like us, and don;t like to be patronized, just like us, and are stressed just like us, or just like we would be in their shoes.) 

Maybe you can break down menus to tasks kids can safely and easily do, so stuff can be prepped by the family before the adult or older kid who does the main cooking comes home. . 

When i was in school in the states, the laws forbade any drink being offered that wasn;t milk, and all the meals had to have some sort of balance (and while some of the lunches i remember were very starchy, they were certainly healthier than the ones today, when the states have decided not to protect the kids from greedy food companies. 

And we also had a class where they talked about nutrition and we had to make menu plans that were graded on whether they were balanced. 

The kids themselves could make up calendars and some of the menu cards, and they would have to be the kinds of foods their family likes.  They could research recipes - you could get cookbooks as donations for a small class library, and use internet if the school has it.  I can imagine kids saying "Hey THAT looks good"
Joined Jul 18, 2011

Fantastic breakdown and thoughtful ideas. RGM, I'll check out those sites tomorrow - I think Oliver is another good person to check in with, I know Pam Anderson, so I might be able to get her on board with this, and there miiiight be a nutritionist or two who will help balance the meals... so thank you for the links - they might just rock my world. 

My experience with families in crisis (and on a side note, over programmed parents from insanely affluent communities who want to volunteer) is that if you can give them concrete instructions and say "do" then it gets done. If they know something good will come from it, then it happens. If there's any sort of ambiguity, then people tend to falter. However, if you break something down into discrete tasks, it becomes far less overwhelming. There's a great book called Crowd Sourcing that discusses the idea of breaking things down into teeny tiny bits that anyone can pick up and do - that's sort of the idea of the shopping lists and recipe instructions.

And yes! I love the idea of staples. These could be the go to's for snacks. For instance, in my wee lil' household of one, I buy almonds, pita, and hummus. That's what I eat if I'm craving something after a few bottles of beer :) And it works. Certainly better than cake. 

You're absolutely right about the cheery/goofy nature of the descriptions - that was more a product of me trying to re-learn php for 4 hours today and then get the brainstorm that this technology is already in place and to see it so clearly linked together on that site. I was ecstatic. I think the final will be a more instructive than anything - but I get what you're saying about empathizing and setting the right tone. 

It would be my hope that this type of info could be printed out at school and given to people without computers (because there's definitely that population) - the school is a gathering place of the community and parent coordinators or the PTA should encourage healthy eating at home to support the children - and in the age of smart phones and the number of kids who like to interrupt my class to talk on Facebook, I reckon people could download shopping lists and view them directly on their phones :) This is also the type of resource that could get distributed among shelters and after school programs - why not? Once it's online and there's a year's worth of food in place - it becomes a real resource for folks. It just becomes a matter of getting the word out. And I'm pretty loud. 

I think what's tricky is that you guys are so good with cooking that you don't even think about it - it's an art to you - and as an art educator and artist, I get it. You understand the materials in a way most folks don't. The lentils thicken? Whaaaat? Brilliant, yes, but I never would have thought of that as a step. That's part of the learning the materials. By giving such easy steps each week, even the most basic of cooks can eventually learn the skills. But the site should remain consistent with the quality it presents. 

At the end of the day, if I can help 20 (totally an arbitrary number) families save some money, time, and get healthy with their diets, then I think I'm doing something right. Now, once the system is in place, why not make that 200 families or 2000? Or more? I'm going into this thing with my program manager hat on, but hey, a guy has to dream big. 

G'night gang,

Joined Apr 3, 2010
Things have changed for the better it seems. When I was teaching in NY mom and dad were spending the food stamp money on cigarettes and beer. The standard breakfast was a bag of Wise potato chips and a16 ounce  Nedicks orange or grape soda.
Joined Aug 13, 2006
So you need some basic techniques.

Like: most recipes start with some vegetables (that can be simply garlic or onion, or a mix of those plus carrot, celery, maybe something else) that are chopped and then sauteed in fat (oil, butter, lard, whatever is the culture's preference) slowly, so they don;t get brown, but so the flavor comes out into the fat. 

Here, as a teacher, you can get the science teacher (or is that also you?) to explain how the flavors are carried in fats, and sauteeing brings the flavors out. 

Then for tomato sauce, you just throw in a can of tomatoes

For a very healthy one dish meal vegetable sauce for pasta, you sautee garlic and either zucchine in cubes or cauliflower in small pieces, very slowly until soft, then put over the hot pasta, mix well and add cheese. 

For a good one dish meal rice dish, you do the same as above, but when halfway cooked, add rice, and water or broth (about double the height of the rice) and cook slowly, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid as necessary.  A grating of cheese completes the protein. 

for lentil soup, you start with the garlic and optional onion, celery and carrot and then throw in dried lentils and water and cook till done (salt and pepper of course)

for potato soup you add peeled potatoes and water and maybe some milk

For minestrone add cut up vegetables as available (string beans, potatoes, squash, carrots, celery (in larger chunks), spinach, swiss chard, cabbage if they like it, peas in any combination according to taste) and water, and let it simmer till tender and the broth has become somewhat cloudy.  Near the end add a can of drained beans or chickpeas.  You can cook some pasta or rice or barley on the side and add at the end, so you can vary it on different nights.  For instance, if you puree it, most kids will eat it, with the little pasta added after pureeing. 

For a frittata, you sautee onion and a vegetable (usually potatoes sliced thinly, or zucchine, in thick slices or dice) are sauteed till cooked (slowly, a little more oil) and then beaten eggs with salt and pepper added, and cooked slowly then turned and finished cooking.  You turn it by sliding out of the pan onto a cover or a large dish and then turn over and cook more.  But if it sticks the pieces can be removed with a spatula and turned individually. 

This single technique is one of the most versatile, and for even a very fancy dish, you usually begin the same way. 

These are simple techinques that are the basis of cooking, and add lots of flavor. 
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