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Feed Your Family Healthfully on a Limited Budget

Contributors: Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD 

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team 

Published: March 02, 2018

Reviewed: December 11, 2023

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When resources are tight, many families must choose between paying household bills or buying food. Poor nutrition can impair health and immunity, lower productivity, and hinder development and learning. If a limited budget makes it difficult for you to buy food, there is help for you and your family.

Find Out about SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides help for those in need. Eligible families can buy fruit, vegetables, bread, cereal, meat, fish, poultry and milk with this monthly benefit. Plus, grocery, convenience and specialty stores accept the SNAP debit card. And, some stores provide special discounts if you purchase fruits and vegetables with your SNAP card. SNAP also offers resources on stretching your food dollars. Online information includes grocery lists, recipes and cost estimates for dozens of recipes. Even if you don’t qualify for SNAP, these resources can help you prepare healthy, easy meals on a budget.

Look into the Local Food Bank

Food banks receive surplus foods from national sources, as well as local donations from charities, church groups and individuals. Some distribute prepared boxes with a variety of foods. Others allow you to walk through the warehouse and fill a box yourself. Food banks are a good source for staples such as rice, pasta and canned goods.

Visit Your Local Farmers Market

If your neighborhood doesn't have a supermarket, check out other options for buying fresh produce. For example, farmers markets are sprouting up in many underserved neighborhoods. These markets provide fresh, locally grown produce that you often can purchase with SNAP dollars. And there's another perk: Some states will give additional dollars for SNAP participants who use farmers markets. Or, plant a simple garden. Even if you live in an apartment, you and your kids can grow your own vegetables. Plant your family's favorite veggies in a clean clay or plastic pot, trash can, bucket or another container and place it on a porch, balcony, windowsill or sunny spot.

Food Sharing

Many families and friends use informal food sharing to stretch their budgets. For gardeners and farmers, it may mean exchanging crops. Or, suburbanites might split the cost of foods bought in bulk at discount grocery stores. Another option is to exchange cooked meals once or twice a week, which also saves you meal prep time a day or two a week!

Check Out WIC — If Kids Are Age 5 or Younger

WIC is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. This program provides services for low-income, pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women. WIC also serves infants and children up to age 5 who are at risk for poor nutrition. If you're eligible, you'll receive:
  • Foods to help meet the nutrition needs of yourself and your young children. For example, iron-fortified cereal, whole-wheat bread, eggs, milk, cheese, beans, peanut butter, canned fish, fruits and vegetables and vitamin C-rich fruit juice.
  • Foods for young children such as baby food, iron-fortified infant cereals and iron-fortified infant formulas.
  • Referrals to health care providers.
  • Education about nutrition and breastfeeding.

Give Your Kids a Head Start

Head Start is a program for preschoolers. Eligible 3- and 4-year-old children attend Head Start to help get them ready for school. Typically, kids can eat breakfast and lunch at this preschool program which also helps stretch the family’s food budget.

Take Advantage of School Meals

Depending on your family's income level, your child may qualify for free or reduced cost meals at school. Overall, school meal programs may provide breakfast, lunch and snacks. Specific offerings for school meals vary by district. School meals are healthier than ever — many districts now serve lean meat, low-fat dairy, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. For children with parents who work shifts during the evening meal, after-school meal programs may be available, providing many children with a nutritious dinner. And, when school isn’t in session, the Summer Food Service Program provides nutritious meals to fill the void.

Learn More

Check out the links below for additional information about these programs.

You don't have to sacrifice health when you're shopping on a budget. Utilize various programs, such as SNAP, WIC, food pantries and farmers markets to stretch your dollar.

Theresa Gentile, MS, RDN, CDN

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson
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