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Best healthy foods to buy on a tight budget

By Kerri-Ann Jennings, August 21, 2012 - 9:18am

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Best healthy foods to buy on a tight budget

With so many factors to consider—health, environmental impact, cost, taste—choosing healthy foods can seem like a mission impossible. Enter the Good Food on a Tight Budget guide from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This brand new guide, which helps you buy the most budget-friendly, super-healthy eats, comes from the same group that brought us the Dirty Dozen (a compendium of the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides).

Related: The Dirty Dozen Plus: 14 Foods You Should Buy Organic

To compile this budget guide, which you can find at ewg.org, the EWG analyzed over 1,000 foods, first ranking them for how nutritious they are and then screening them for cost. Foods that scored high marks were then further screened for three more factors: pesticides, packaging chemicals and how much they were processed. The guide is a handy reminder that a healthy diet can be affordable when you focus on whole, unprocessed foods.

Here are the “best buys” or the most affordable, nutritious options in each food group:

Must-Read: 12 Superfoods for $1 or Less

Fruits
These fruits offer the most vitamin C, fiber, folate and potassium for the lowest cost:
• Banana
• Prunes
• Raisins
• Orange juice

(Just a reminder: the majority of your daily recommended fruit intake should come from whole fruit, not juice.)

Vegetables
Eating vegetables from a spectrum of colors helps you get a nice variety of nutrients. The EWG reminds us that 7 out of 10 Americans don’t eat enough vegetables. Up your intake with these choices:
Dark Green: Broccoli (frozen tends to be a cheaper buy), collards, romaine lettuce, mustard greens and parsley.
Red/Orange: Calabaza (Spanish pumpkin), carrots and tomato juice were the best buys here. (Again, the majority of your daily vegetable intake should come from whole vegetables, not juice.)
Starchy: Potatoes.

Related: Save Money: 15 Fruits & Veggies You Don’t Need to Buy Organic

Grains
Think beyond bread and other more processed grains, such as pasta, for this category.
Breakfast Cereal: Puffed corn and toasted oat cereal were the EWG’s best buys.
Rice & Other Grains: Barley is the “best buy” pick in this category. It’s a relatively quick-cooking whole grain that makes a great addition to soups or can stand in as an alternative to rice in pilaf.

Protein
This list is a good reminder that there are many healthy options out there. Take advantage of the variety and get cooking!
Seafood: Perch, tuna, squid, whiting or silver hake. The EWG recommends limiting perch and tuna to just once a month to limit exposure to mercury and other contaminants, a more stringent guideline than that suggested by the FDA.
Beans & More: The most common beans made the list as best buys—black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, pinto and red kidney beans. And with good reason: they’re high in protein and fiber and deliver a decent amount of iron. Eggs also fit the bill as a best buy.
Nuts & Seeds: Hazelnuts, peanuts (roasted and unsalted), sunflower seeds and walnuts made the list. Walnuts are a particularly good choice, offering heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
Meat: Turkey—don’t save turkey just for Thanksgiving. It’s a bargain year-round, says the EWG.

Don’t Miss: The Best & Worst Protein Choices for You and the Planet

Dairy
Milk: Low-fat and nonfat dry milk are the best buys. Regular (fluid) low fat or nonfat milk are still a thrifty choice, according to the EWG, but not a “best buy.”
Cheese: Cottage cheese, queso fresco and ricotta are the best buys in the cheese department.
Yogurt: Nonfat plain yogurt is the only option in this category. The EWG recommends sweetening it with fresh fruit (so do I).

Cooking Fats & Oils
• Canola, corn and soybean oil are the best buys on the EWG’s list.

Recipes to Try: Healthy Weeknight Dinners for $3 or Less

Photo Credit: Environmental Working Group

What favorite healthy foods do you consider a good value? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Kerri-Ann Jennings, Food News Blog, Budget meals, Health, Nutrition, Wellness

Kerri-Ann Jennings
Kerri-Ann Jennings is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University.

Kerri-Ann asks: What favorite healthy foods do you consider a good value?

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