Choice and Challenge
Before anyone gets impressed by our accepting of a week-long SNAP challenge, it’s important for me to acknowledge some of the interruptions that have affected our family’s experiment. It’s Wednesday confession time.
The temptations to stretch the budget started before the challenge ever began: Mother’s Day. That’s was the official start date of the project, but we were hosting my husband’s parents and grandparents for lunch. Easy enough. We’ll start on Monday, right? And we did, but we started with a supply of leftover pork tenderloin in the refrigerator. It would be wasteful to not eat it, so it meant that on Monday, I didn’t really have a cost to count for my husband’s lunch. That we were within the budget is only because my father-in-law smokes a mean pig and my mother-in-law does what all good mothers do and leaves the leftovers in her child’s fridge.
Monday’s dinner rolls around and I plan to cook enough to have leftovers for several lunches. We grilled a whole chicken and some zucchini that was on sale – 3 for $.99. We should have some chicken left to eat on a salad and the zucchini will be around for sides. I made a big cucumber salad that would only improve as it sat in the refrigerator. Doug and I would eat on that all week. It was a good plan, but at the last minute my husband invited a friend over for dinner. It was a good time and I’m glad we had extra on the table, but if we are going to stay within the budget for the rest of the week, we will have to be a little creative. There was just a little chicken left – but plenty of vegetables since 3 people at dinner really didn’t eat any! (uh hum)
Tuesday arrives and the lack of leftovers becomes less of a problem. Last night my in-laws really wanted to take us to dinner at our favorite Mexican place for a small celebration of some good news. Let’s just say that my guys were way more excited about a plate of nachos with a soft drink than they were about a bowl of red beans and rice. While we were eating, my younger son looked over at my plate of tamales and realized I would be taking home leftovers. He quickly claimed the extra tamale for his lunchbox saying, “Mom, I just can’t eat Ramen again tomorrow.”
And that’s when it hit me. For many, eating on a small budget means a lot of repetition. Buying in bulk saves money, but it also limits your options. Some folks are really creative with leftovers, but others of us are doing well to get something on the table after working, doing laundry, and helping with homework. I bought a case of Ramen because it’s cheaper that way and the plan was that the boys would eat it every day for lunch. Two days in and my little guy (who just got taller than me) is already craving some variety. I get it. I want variety too, but the lunch budget has already been spent. If we are true to the plan, there is no digging in the back of the pantry for the jar of peanut butter. Feeding a family with SNAP benefits means buying what is on sale, inexpensive, simple, and accessible. Choice is a luxury. My family is just beginning to learn how much that rainbow in the fruit bowl and the option of turkey, salami, Swiss, and provolone cost.
When you are really feeding your family on SNAP benefits, if you want a special meal for Mother’s Day, you have to find the extra money somewhere else. If you want to have friends over for dinner, you have to figure out how to get another serving out of what you planned. Living on SNAP means your family celebrations probably won’t include dinner at a restaurant, and when the teacher asks students to bring in snacks and soft drinks for an end of the year party, you try to come up with something so your child doesn’t go in empty handed, but it’s hard. We’re only three days in and the choice that keeps steadily presenting itself to us is will we stick to this optional budget and see what we can learn from it, or will we do what is convenient, fun, and comfortable? And that choice, is nothing like the lack of challenge of making this budget work day in and day out.