Trying to live on a food budget of about $4 per day can be quite a challenge. People quickly discover this when they take the Food Stamp Challenge and try to learn what it's like to be poor for a week.
The challenge mirrors what someone can get through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the federal program that helps low-income people buy groceries. One in seven Americans receive the benefits, which were significantly reduced by Congress in November.
To qualify, a family of four can have an annual net income of up to $23,556, which puts them at the federal poverty level. They would then receive up to $632 a month in SNAP benefits, which equates to about $5.25 a day per person for food. The average SNAP recipient receives $4 per day, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
While getting this extra money can mean the difference between eating and going hungry, the limited funds can make it difficult to choose which food to buy. Getting the most nutrition for your money can be hard when you don't have a lot of money for groceries, but it's not impossible.
According to dieticians and nutritionists, some foods are better than others when you're trying to stretch a dollar. Here are seven that you should consider when funds are tight:
Brown rice. The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are some of the benefits, but one of the biggest pluses may be that the high amount of fiber in brown rice helps slow digestion and fill you up for a long time.
"Fiber is one of the best [nutritional components] that helps with satiety, or the feeling of fullness," says Rachel Begun, a food and nutrition consultant in Boulder, Colo."They also help to spread the food dollar because they're a component of meals that can help you make a fulfilling dish."
Beans. Like many items at the grocery store, buying in bulk can save a lot of money. Dry beans can cost about $1 per pound and expand to three times their volume when cooked, turning three to four cups of dry beans into nine cups when cooked, says Carol Wasserman, a certified holistic health practitioner in Manhattan.
And beans, like rice, can be flavored with spices and herbs to make the main portion of a meal.
"We have to kind of shift our thinking from having the meat be the center of the plate," and be more creative with other dishes, such as rice and beans, says Julieanna Hever, a plant-based dietician in Los Angeles and host of a healthy living talk show on Veria Living.
Beans are also a very healthy choice. They are high in fiber and protein, low in fat and sodium and have minerals such as iron, potassium, magnesium, copper and zinc, along with vitamins such as folic acid, thiamin, niacin and B6.
Potatoes. These versatile vegetables can be added to casseroles and used in a variety of ways, and they're every bit as nutritious as colored vegetables, Begun says. They contain 45 percent of the recommended daily nutritional intake of vitamin C, 18 percent of fiber and 18 percent of potassium, a mineral that regulates blood pressure, she says. They've been found to have the lowest cost source of dietary potassium.
The average potato is virtually fat free, with a high water and fiber content to make it ideal for weight-loss at 200 calories for an average baked potato, according to information from GoIreland.com. Be careful how you cook them. Frying a potato raises fat content from 0 to 8 grams.
[Read: 5 Secrets of Frugal Grocery Shoppers.]
Green vegetables. Any leafy greens, such as broccoli, spinach and kale, have lots of nutrients per calorie and help protect against inflammation and disease, Hever says. Some lettuces can be bitter, she says, but can be offset in a salad with carrots, beets and other sweet vegetables.
"People aren't really used to it," she says of bitter greens such as kale. "It's kind of a taste bud transition that some people have to get used to."
Instead of buying an expensive dressing for any of these foods, Wasserman suggests mixing a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil with juice from half of a lemon or lime.
Frozen vegetables. Buying fresh vegetables in season is an inexpensive way to get them, but frozen vegetables are a good option too, Begun says. They're picked at the peak of their flavor and aren't nutritionally inferior to fresh ones. The downside of fresh vegetables is they might be picked before their height of ripeness and often travel many miles to a grocery store, she says.
Peanut butter. This is another economic source of protein, rich in healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Peanuts contain resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, says Sharon Palmer, a Duarte, Calif.-based food and nutrition writer who covers plant-powered diets.
Protein bars. You may not want to make them the only part of your diet, but they obviously have protein in them and cost about $2 each. Andrew Ross and his wife, who live in Baltimore, eat a Quest protein bar from GNC every three hours from when the time they wake up until when they go to bed. They started this habit in April and he's lost 78 pounds so far.
They also eat Power Pak pudding once a day, which contains 30 grams of protein per can and less than 200 calories. The protein bars have 20 grams of protein and less than 200 calories. Ross estimates that they spend less than $400 per month on food and drinks, saving money by buying in bulk during sales.
The best answer to getting the most nutritional foods for your buck may be to simply buy fresh food that's in season and not to fall for the theory that fast food is cheaper than what you can purchase at the grocery store. "People don't think out of the box," Wasserman says. Fast food may be quicker than preparing a meal at home, but it won't beat buying fresh fruit and vegetables in taste or cost, she says.