The Best Foods for Eating Well on a Budget
Here are our favorite affordable foods from each food group to help you eat healthy without breaking the bank.
With so many factors to consider from health to environmental impact, cost, taste and more, choosing healthy foods can seem like a mission impossible. Lucky for us, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a Good Food on a Tight Budget guide to help. This 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 highest pesticide residuals).
To compile this budget guide, 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.
These fruits are packed with vitamin C, fiber, folate and potassium to help your body support a healthy immune system and healthy heart. Since they are also some of the lowest cost fruits, they offer the most bang for your buck. Just as a reminder, the majority of your daily recommended fruit intake should come from whole fruit, not juice.
- Orange juice
Eating vegetables from a spectrum of colors helps you get a variety of nutrients important for your health. The EWG reminds us that 7 out of 10 Americans don't meet the daily recommended vegetable intake, which is at least five servings per day. 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: 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
Think beyond bread and other more processed grains, such as pasta, for this category. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommends that half of the grains you eat be whole grains, so opt for whole grains when you can.
- Breakfast Cereal: Puffed corn and toasted oat cereal were the EWG's best buys. Check the label for products with more grams of fiber and fewer grams of added sugar to make sure you are getting the most value for your dollar.
- 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.
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 & Eggs: 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: Don't save turkey just for Thanksgiving. It's a bargain year-round, says the EWG.
Several dairy foods are packed with calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and protein, making them a great well-rounded food when you are on a budget. Especially if you follow a vegetarian diet, focus on working in some of these dairy products to make sure you are getting these commonly missed nutrients.
- Milk: Dry milk is the best buy when you consider price. Regular (fluid) milk is 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).
Healthy Fats & Oils
- Canola, corn and soybean oil are the best buys on the EWG's list.
The Good Food on a Tight Budget guide from the EWG is proof that you can eat healthy without breaking the bank. They lay out foods in every food group that give you the most nutrients for your buck. They also consider the environment so that you can save money and eat healthy without sacrificing quality in your food. For more inspiration, check out our Budget Cooking Guide.