Like disappointed personal shoppers, Ann Hamilton and I were staring into a grocery cart after trying our hands at shopping on a limited budget during a "hunger simulation" at the Salvation Army. It was an exercise in skimping, the opposite of Supermarket Sweep.

With $62 and five mouths to feed each week, a family's shopping cart might be filled with jars of peanut butter and jelly, cans of corn and spaghetti noodles with marinara sauce.

At least, that's what we'd come up with.

Like disappointed personal shoppers, Ann Hamilton and I were staring into a grocery cart after trying our hands at shopping on a limited budget during a "hunger simulation" at the Salvation Army. It was an exercise in skimping, the opposite of Supermarket Sweep.

The activity illustrates the difficulty many families are having, especially in the current recession. That's the reason the mock store was set up by the Children's Hunger Alliance, which works with schools to establish and enhance year-round nutrition programs and advocates for more public help for hungry families.

Hamilton is the board chair of the alliance, though she had no hand in preparing the simulation. She and I were overwhelmed by how far we had to stretch $62. Even after subtracting the meals "the kids" would get at school, we still needed to come up with 75 individual meals and 41 snacks.

We stepped in a bit hesitantly and attacked dinner first, settling on lots of "just add meat" boxed meals. Canned peaches and corn were a steal over fresh fruits and veggies on our budget, and waffles won over cereal and milk any day.

After scrapping some applesauce, it all came in at $62.02.

Our family wouldn't be full or nutritionally fit, Hamilton and I reasoned, but we hadn't done half bad.

We started to worry when registered dietician Julia Hansel analyzed our shopping cart, fearing that she'd give us a hard time for eating waffles for breakfast six times a week. She wasn't too harsh, instead fielding questions from fellow shoppers about whether our imagined families might comparison-shop for the best prices, or work from recipes instead of Hamburger Helper boxes.

Families she works with in poor neighborhoods and school districts almost never have the time, appliances or knowledge to do those things, Hansel said.

Meanwhile, I realized that we had completely overlooked buying our "family" any snacks.

Dollar sign of the times

Julia Hansel suggests these meal-planning strategies for balancing health and budget:

* Cook with rice and beans, which have filling fiber; look for three grams of fiber per serving

* Limit red meat to twice a week, which could help lower cholesterol

* Eat fish as often as possible

* Microwave dry oats and water, then mix with brown sugar or cinnamon instead of buying pre-made oatmeal packs