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How to Eat on $200 a Month

Photograph by Getty Images

Several years ago my life took a difficult turn. Within a short period of time, I was newly divorced and newly unemployed. I was raising a young child with special needs—essentially on my own—and realized that another new experience for me would be to ask for support from social services. A day at the social services office applying for food stamps clarified for me that my life had taken a tremendous detour. I would need to make changes in nearly every way imaginable to successfully manage a budget of $200 a month for food.

After negotiating my new restrictions, I learned there are a few rules when you need to feed yourself and your child with such limited means. Yet, it can be done. Here are a few rules I followed, and lessons I learned while striving to nourish my family within my means.

The Word on Dining Out

Because of my new limited budget, dining out was no longer an option. Ever.

Shop Smart

Having committed to preparing all the meals for my son and myself, I turned my attention to our health and well-being (which I knew were closely connected to the food we ate). And so I decided to try removing all processed foods from both our diets. I began by eliminating flour, wheat and sugary products. This was an easy decision because my son had recently tested positive for wheat allergies. Removing all processed foods proved to be a great budget choice (you’d be surprised) and to have tremendous health benefits as well. Within six months I dropped 35 pounds and my bad cholesterol dropped 50 points. My son started eating more fruits, homemade blended smoothies, and freshly prepared foods than he’d ever consumed before.

The benefit of gathering tomatoes, chard and lettuce from our backyard was priceless.

Plant a Garden

With our new diets, growing some of the vegetables we ate regularly not only stretched my budget, but it created a great activity for my son and me to learn together. Or at least I thought it would. I couldn’t believe it when he refused to put his hands in the dirt! Nor could I believe how exhausting gardening can be and how much abdominal strength is needed. After a day of digging and planting, my body felt like a Mack truck had driven over it, especially since my little one’s aversion to dirt and worms left most of the work for me. Nonetheless, the benefit of gathering tomatoes, chard and lettuce from our backyard was priceless.

MORE: What It REALLY Costs to Raise a Child

Hit the Farmers Market

I also learned that I love the farmers market. It’s like Disneyland for me—the happiest place on earth. I started spending several hours each week shopping at local farmers markets, which has been even more rewarding than gardening. I’ve learned from actual farmers that nature gives us what we need to heal our bodies and stay healthy. It was so cool to me to discover that citrus fruits, which are high in vitamin C, are harvested in the winter when our immune systems most need the vitamin to fight cold and flu. The farmers markets where I shop are like local villages that have become like family for me. I come away not only with fabulous fresh produce, but also an education and an experience of community. When was the last time you felt uplifted walking out of Ralphs? This has enhanced our lives beyond belief.

Find the Good

Changing our diets and shopping habits has really changed our lives—my son and I have learned a wealth of unexpected lessons (like how to do more with less), and we’ve gained new relationships that will last a lifetime. I thought that relying on food stamps was just one more challenge, but it’s taught me that I can make a difficult situation a good one if I’m willing to find the jewels life has to offer.

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