Here in America the national conversation on food is never-ending, but the big takeaway always seems to be that healthy eating is necessarily expensive.
As a personal finance blogger with an interest in nutrition, that really irritates me. Not only does the advice to simply go forth and buy leafy greens often ignore the financial constraints that many grocery shoppers are facing—convenience foods are cheaper and last longer and are more likely to offer coupons—but it also doesn’t take into account the intimidation factor of eating outside your comfort zone.
This is why nutrition experts recommend that you add healthy foods one or two at a time to your current diet. Rather than an all-or-nothing approach that will not only be expensive and doomed to failure, you can simply start picking up a couple of inexpensive nutritional powerhouse foods each month to try out. Here are ten of the best cheap and nutritious items to add to your repertoire—as well as some cooking suggestions to get you started:
We all know that these lunch-time staples are cheap and good for you. You can generally buy them for around 50 cents a pound, so they’re an easy addition to your grocery budget. Even though they make for excellent natural energy bars (and even come in their own wrapper), not everyone has the taste for these potassium-rich fruits. That’s why they’re great as dessert.
You might have seen ads for Yonanas soft-serve, but you don’t need a special gadget to make this delicious ice-cream alternative. Just cut up your bananas into slices and freeze them. Throw the slices into a blender or food processor with a little milk and some blueberries or strawberries, and you have a satisfying and good-for-you dessert.
2. Winter Squash
Winter squash—including the acorn, butternut, and spaghetti varieties—can be somewhat intimidating if you have no experience cooking these thick-skinned veggies. But at $1.35 per pound, and full of vitamins, fiber, and potassium, these delicious vegetables can make over your meals. You can roast butternut or acorn squash with a drizzle of salt and olive oil for a satisfying side dish, and roasted spaghetti squash makes for a delicious and low-carb pasta replacement.
The toughest thing about cooking winter squash is learning how to cut them up. It’s a good idea to check out some YouTube tutorials for learning the most effective (and least likely to draw blood) methods for accessing the squashy goodness.
credit: Connoisseur 4 The Cure
I had never heard of this particular leafy green vegetable until I was well out of college, and it took me another couple of years to get up the courage to try it. A single bunch costs about a dollar, and has any number of uses. I started by substituting kale for lettuce on sandwiches and adding it in to my more familiar romaine and spinach for salads. Now, I will often throw kale into a breakfast smoothie (along with bananas, strawberries, and milk) or add it to a stir-fry. Another favorite treat is kale chips, which goes great with a sandwich, crumbled over a baked potato, or by itself.
4. Canned Tuna
If all you ever do with tuna fish is douse it in mayonnaise and spread it on white bread, you’re really missing out on both the nutrition and taste available with from this great source of intelligence-boosting Omega-3s and lean protein. A can of chunk light tuna (which is lower in mercury levels than white Albacore tuna) generally costs less than a dollar, and clocks in fewer than 100 calories for four ounces. The fact that it is a non-perishable that you can stock up on when it’s on sale and keep on hand forever makes this an excellent low-cost healthy choice.
If you love tuna salad, a healthier alternative to mayonnaise is Greek yogurt. Add some chopped veggies (carrots and celery are delicious), and you have a filling and delicious lunch. Alternatively, filling a hollowed-tomato with tuna straight from the can makes a great low-carb and low-fat lunch.
The one caveat about tuna fish is the mercury concern. Pregnant women should limit their intake to one can or less per week, and everyone should rotate tuna in and out of their diet to reduce mercury risks.
5. Garbanzo (and Other) Beans
Even though I have never gotten the hang of soaking dried beans, the canned variety is still extremely nutritious and inexpensive. (The only nutrition concern with canned beans is the higher sodium content). At less than a dollar per can (and usually closer to 50 cents or less if you purchase the store brand), a can of garbanzo, black, kidney, navy, or your favorite beans is a great source of protein and fiber.
Garbanzos and black beans are my favorite, and I make a habit of throwing some into any number of recipes—salads, soups (especially chilis and stews), and casseroles. Or, whip up a can in a food processor with a little garlic and some olive oil, and you have a delicious dip.
Cabbage gets a bad rap, in part because it is so nutritious and inexpensive. Living off of cabbage is almost a frugal cliche, but it is truly a cheap nutritional powerhouse that’s rich in fiber and vitamins. It can extend any number of recipes, and is easily boiled, steamed, or pickled–but your only experience with it might be from the kitchen of your grandmother whose house always smells of cabbage.
That’s why you might not know that a humble head of cabbage, which costs about $0.50 per pound, can be made into some incredibly delicious meals. In our house, we love to saute cabbage in olive oil, add a little soy sauce and chili sauce, and serve it over rice, sometimes with an over-easy egg on top.
credit: Makuahine Pa’i Ki’i
These are still outside of my own personal comfort zone, but I’m definitely going to be trying them soon. These naturally sweet veggies generally cost about $2 per pound and can easily be sliced and added to salads. In addition, roasting beets (just like you would bake a potato) is a great way to bring out their natural sweetness. Just peel the beets when they’ve finished roasting and serve them sliced and drizzled with olive oil.
If you think of oatmeal as something that comes in little pre-portioned packets, then you’re really missing out. Steel cut oats are both delicious and much better for you than the instant kind that you just add hot water to. However, if mornings are hectic, it can seem like a major pain to take the ten minutes to cook old-fashioned oats. That’s why we will often make muesli for breakfast the night before. We put the oats, raisins, nuts, and sliced apples, along with enough milk to cover it all, in a Tupperware container overnight, and by morning it’s a delicious and ready-to-go breakfast.
Also, don’t forget that oatmeal makes a great and nutritious substitution for any recipe that calls for breadcrumbs.
This is a favorite in our house, not only because it’s an inexpensive snack/side dish/appetizer, but also because it’s easy to make and fun to eat. Edamame are immature soybeans, and you can generally find them frozen for under $2 per bag. Some bags are microwavable, and some will require you to do your own steaming, but either way, when they’re done, just sprinkle them with a little salt and enjoy popping the beans out of the pods. (Remember, the pods are completely inedible—something I wish I had known the first time I encountered edamame at a Japanese restaurant when I was a teenager.)
You can also find shelled edamame to add to stir fries and casseroles, although expect them to be more expensive than the regular variety.
10. Dried Lentils
Of all the dried beans, lentils are the easiest to use, since they only require about 20 minutes of cooking to become recipe ready. They’re an excellent source of protein, and at only 10 cents per serving (a 16-ounce bag generally costs about $1.30 or less and will yield 13 servings), it’s an economic no-brainer.
If the only way you’ve ever eaten lentils is in your Aunt Edna’s mushy soup, remember that these beans make for great meat substitutes in things like chili and curry. You can also mix lentils with rice and your favorite spices for an easy, inexpensive, and nourishing meal.
The Bottom Line on Cheap Healthy Foods That Fill You Up
Adding great nutrition to your family’s diet doesn’t have to be expensive or overwhelming. Even if you’re on a tight budget, you can choose one of the nutritional powerhouses on this list to try this week. You might find you have a new favorite that’s cheap and good for you.
What are your favorite cheap healthy foods that fill you up?