10 Cheap & Healthy Foods to Buy, According to a Dietitian
Our series, Good Food for All, examines the barriers to putting healthy food on the table and what is being done to help.
When trying to cut back on your grocery bills and purchase food that's inexpensive, the first thing that may come to mind is food that is unhealthy, ultra-processed and high in sodium and sugar. But there are lots of healthy foods that are more affordable than acai bowls and organic kale salads. That said, trying to feed your family nutritious foods without breaking the bank can be a little bit of a struggle, so we wanted to make it as easy as possible. We've compiled a list of 10 super-budget-friendly healthy foods, plus tips to help you keep those grocery bills down.
1. Canned Tomatoes
Canned tomatoes are frequently used in many households. They're extremely versatile and very inexpensive. An average can of tomatoes costs less than $2 and has a very long shelf life, which can help to reduce food waste.
In addition to being a staple ingredient in many delicious recipes, canned tomatoes pack a significant nutritional punch. They're a great source of vitamin C, as well as lycopene, which is an antioxidant that may reduce inflammation. Consuming tomatoes has also been linked to reducing "bad" LDL cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Canned tomatoes can easily be added to soups, casseroles, stews and pasta dishes.
Oats are a great nutrient-dense food to have on hand. They are super affordable and offer an easy way to provide your family with an impressive amount of nutrients. A large container of plain oats is not only cheaper but also more nutritious than packets of prepared flavored oatmeal, which are more processed and often have added sugar. Whole-grain rolled oats are rich in fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels and helps keep you full and satisfied. A serving of oats also contains B vitamins, iron, manganese, phosphorus, zinc and magnesium.
Oats are typically eaten for breakfast, but they can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Add them to casseroles for an extra source of fiber, or mix it up with a bowl of savory oatmeal.
3. Peanut Butter
Peanut butter is a staple in most homes because of its integral role in the classic PB&J sandwich. Peanut butter is very cost-effective, delivering a lot of nutrition in a tiny package. A serving is 2 tablespoons, which means that one jar can last for quite a while. Plus, it's a great source of plant-based protein as well as heart-healthy fats, vitamin E and B vitamins. When choosing your peanut butter, try to look for options without added sugars.
Besides the popular PB&J, peanut butter can be used in a variety of recipes. Stir it into a bowl of oatmeal or swap out your pasta and red sauce for some tasty peanut noodles.
4. Canned Beans
Canned beans are budget friendly and very nutritious. There are several types of beans to choose from and many of them cost less than $1 per can. (You can save even more money by choosing dried beans, but they do require more time to cook.) Beans contain a significant amount of fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals, including folate, iron, magnesium and potassium. They're also a great source of plant-based protein. One cup of canned (or cooked) beans contains about 15 grams of protein, which is essential for lots of bodily functions, including building and maintaining muscle strength.
Beans can be incorporated into almost any dish. Try them in soups, salads, tacos and burritos.
Every household should definitely keep potatoes on hand. They can be served in a variety of ways, and they typically cost less than $5 for a 5-pound bag. While they have a bad reputation, potatoes are packed with nutrition. Potatoes contain a significant amount of potassium, a mineral that's very important in our bodies, helping to regulate fluid balance and muscle contractions, among other functions. (Learn more about the signs you're not getting enough potassium and what to do about it.)
If you want an added boost of nutrients, try using sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. Sweet potatoes are also high in potassium, but they contain a little more fiber as well as beta carotene. Both types of potatoes are versatile. Try making homemade french fries, mashed potatoes, or serve up a baked potato bar with your favorite toppings for an easy, family-friendly dinner.
Lentils are popular in many plant-based diets. They are very affordable and provide a great source of protein, fiber, iron and manganese. They also contain antioxidants that may help to fight inflammation and reduce the onset of chronic diseases.
Lentils can be used in a variety of ways and are very easy to prepare (get inspiration from these healthy lentil recipes). Simply rinse dry lentils to remove any debris, place them in a large pot and fill it halfway with water. Let the lentils simmer until they're tender, then enjoy! Lentils can be used to make veggie burgers, soups and stews.
Popcorn is often associated with binge-watching your favorite TV show or movie, but it can be enjoyed as a healthy snack any time. This snack food typically costs less than $2 for a pound of kernels, and it actually contains some really great health benefits.
Popcorn provides fiber, magnesium and several disease-fighting antioxidants. Plain popcorn is also very low in calories, making it a helpful snack for those wanting to lose weight.
The great thing about popcorn is that it's very versatile. You can add toppings such as sea salt and cheese for a savory treat, or cinnamon and sugar for a delicious sweet treat. It can be expensive to buy pre-popped popcorn in bags or microwaveable pouches, so purchasing kernels helps make this nutritious snack more affordable. You can pop the kernels yourself in the microwave with just a brown bag.
8. Frozen Berries
Frozen berries are easy to keep on hand and can be very cost-effective when compared to fresh fruit. Frozen berries can last in the freezer for several months and usually cost less than $4 per bag. A couple of great choices to keep on hand are frozen blueberries and frozen strawberries. Check the bags and buy berries without added sugar.
Blueberries may be small in size, but they are rich in nutrients and are a good source of vitamin C and dietary fiber. Research shows that blueberries have been linked to improved cardiovascular health and can contribute to an overall healthy lifestyle.
Strawberries are also high in vitamin C and fiber, as well as folate. They are rich in antioxidants, which research shows can help to reduce the risk of chronic disease and help keep blood sugars in a healthy range.
Add frozen berries to your favorite smoothie recipe or make a yogurt parfait with them. Frozen berries can be used to make jams, pies and other desserts.
9. Canned Tuna
Tuna is a smart choice for those wanting to increase their fish intake while still keeping their groceries affordable. Most 4– to 5-ounce cans of tuna cost less than $2, which is significantly cheaper when compared to fresh seafood that can run over $20 a pound. Tuna is a great source of protein, and it also contains some omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health and reducing inflammation. Tuna also provides a fair amount of the minerals selenium, phosphorus and potassium.
Choose canned tuna for salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Try these 20 tuna recipes for dinner.
Eggs are a staple item in most homes. They're extremely nutritious and typically cost less than 20 cents per egg. A whole large egg contains 6 grams of protein and delivers some vitamin D as well. Eggs also contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which support eye health and decreased risk of age-related macular degeneration.
We often think of eggs for breakfast, but they can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Look to eggs to make a savory dinner quiche, vegetable-packed fried rice or egg salad sandwiches.
5 Tips to Help You Save Money on Your Grocery Bill
Now that we've got a list of healthy, budget-friendly foods to keep on hand, let's explore a few more ways to help you save even more money on your grocery bill.
- Stick with store brands whenever possible
Most people don't realize this, but the ingredients in store-brand products are usually similar to the brand-name products. So, instead of paying extra money for well-known brands, look for generic or store-brand products instead.
- Take inventory of what you have on hand
Before you head to the grocery store, take inventory of everything that you have on hand. You may be surprised to find a few extra cans of chickpeas, or some leftover broccoli that may be on the verge of going bad. To help avoid food waste and to save a little money, try to make recipes with these items first. Get creative with what you have. If you need inspiration, this Clean-Out-the-Fridge Vegetable Stew is a good place to start.
- Buy in bulk
Nonperishable items, such as grains, rice, nuts and beans, are typically cheaper when purchased in bulk or larger containers. Even though a larger container of rice will be more expensive, look for the unit price when you shop. That will tell you how much you're paying per pound (or ounce) so you can compare packages and get the best deal. When you bring bulk items home, distribute them into smaller portions to help with storage, then use as needed.
- Buy in-season produce
Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season can help keep the price down. Sometimes, but not always, shopping for local produce at your farmers' market can be more affordable. To help fresh produce last longer, some fruits and vegetables, like strawberries, peaches and onions, can be frozen (see how to freeze 16 different fruits and vegetables). You can try washing and storing them in a freezer bag, and placing them in the freezer until you're ready to use them. When fruits and veggies aren't in season, stock up on nutritious frozen produce.
- Meal-prep food for the week
Meal prepping is a great way to save money. Planning your meals can help prevent those unnecessary grocery trips during the week. Meal prepping doesn't have to be hard. It can be as simple as preparing a big batch of soup on the weekend, and portioning it out to last throughout the week.