In a world full of overpriced organic food chains, it’s easy to get discouraged about eating healthily. But believe it or not, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat well.
Here are ten foods that will help you meet the task without busting your budget.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and veggies are a great snack on their own, but you can also use them to make smoothies, supplement a meal, or serve as a main course in dishes like vegetable lasagna or broccoli salad.
Buying fruits and veggies from the frozen section is much more affordable than fresh. For example, the average retail price for a pound of fresh blueberries is $4.73, while the same amount frozen averages only $3.64. And since you don’t have to worry about them going bad if you don’t eat them right away, the chance of wasting money is slimmer. While it’s true for certain produce that the nutrient composition can change marginally when freezing fruits and vegetables, the difference is negligible, according to a study by researchers at the University of California-Davis.
You can’t keep your frozen fare indefinitely, but you can keep it a long time. A University of Georgia study found it typically it takes eight months to a year before nutrients start deteriorating in your freezer, so you’re unlikely to overbuy.
Rice is affordable, but because it’s a carb, it’s also very filling. A little goes a long way, with one cup of dry rice feeding a family of four. It’s one of the few readily available carbs that doesn’t contain gluten, making it an affordable alternative to specialty breads and flours for those with sensitivities.
When it comes to carbohydrates, brown is better. In the case of brown rice, it is not as fully refined as white rice. Rice is a seed, and brown rice retains a part of the seed’s hull. This protective layer helps it maintain the nutrients inside the seed so they don’t cook away.
Brown rice can be enjoyed on its own, but it can also be used as a side or as a main ingredient in a dish. One go-to for an easy meal is a mushroom chicken rice bake. Use 3/4 cup of rice, mix in one can of cream of mushroom soup and 1 cup water. Throw frozen chicken on top and bake, and you have a full meal — as long as you pull out one of those frozen veggies as a side.
Whole-wheat bread is an affordable, multipurpose carb. Use it for sandwiches, and you can add protein with meat or nut butter. Use it for toast in the morning to get your metabolism started for the day. It’s incredibly easy to pair with other foods and is a staple of a frugal pantry.
Bread doesn’t tend to keep well, though. To make sure yours doesn’t get moldy, keep in a dry place at room temperature. That includes keeping it away from heat sources like your fridge or dishwasher. If you’re a serial offender when it comes to bread and food waste, consider freezing half the loaf so it will last longer.
Much like brown rice, whole-wheat bread is more nutritious than its white counterpart because of the refining process.
While the price of pasta has gone up over the past decade, it still makes for an affordable meal. Heavy in carbs, it fills you up quickly, and it can be supplemented by vegetables and marginal amounts of meat soaked in sauce.
Because whole-grain pasta is made with whole-wheat flour, it retains a lot more of its vitamins, minerals, and fiber than its “regular” counterpart, which is made with refined flour.
Beans are a nutrient-packed protein and almost always cheaper (and sometimes healthier) than meat. If you want a super-frugal meal, use your beans, rice, and frozen veggies. You’ll have your food pyramid pretty much balanced.
Dry beans are more cost-effective than canned. When you buy canned, you’re not only paying for the weight of the beans — you’re also paying for the liquid they’re submerged in. Canned beans can cost twice as much as dry, but know yourself. If you don't take the time to prepare the dry beans, you won’t reap any of the nutritional benefits. That being said, canned beans are still cheaper than meat, and take a lot less time to prepare.
Regardless of packaging, you don’t have to eat your beans plain. You can bust out the slow cooker and make some chili. Add them to a soup or salad and suddenly your light fare becomes filling and nutrient-rich. The possibilities are endless.
If you appreciate that beans have protein, but still want to eat meat, those economy-size bags of frozen chicken are an affordable alternative.
You can purchase either chicken thighs or chicken breasts. Breasts are marginally healthier. In the past thighs have been dramatically cheaper. In the past decade, though, the price of thighs has caught up to the price of breasts, making the amount you pay at the checkout line virtually identical. Pick whichever tastes best to you.
When making your purchase, be sure to look for chicken that has been “air chilled.” This means that no water was used in the freezing process and that you won’t be paying for the associated ice. Every ounce you’re paying for will be pure chicken.
Chicken can be used in salads or rice bakes, or as the main course itself. It’s extremely versatile, so you will be able to turn it into a meal no matter what else is left in your cabinet.
The price of eggs can fluctuate greatly. Regardless of these fluctuations, they’re still a great pick for healthy and affordable meals. They provide a lot of protein and serve as a leavening agent in baking. Whether you’re making an omelet or baking a birthday cake so you don’t have to pay over-inflated prices at a bakery, eggs are a staple you’ll need on an ongoing basis.
Egg producers put a lot of different labels on their packaging to convince you that their product is the healthiest. While it’s true that “cage-free” eggs may be marginally healthier, there’s no organization that oversees this certification. Omega-3 is good for you, but “omega-3 enriched” eggs often have the exact same amount of omega-3 as regular eggs — with quite the markup.
As far as actual health benefits go, the only certification that is monitored is “organic.” The USDA audits these egg producers every year, ensuring that their hens are eating food that is free of antibiotics, pesticides, animal byproducts, and GMOs.
If you’re going to spend more money on specialty eggs for health reasons, “organic” is the only label you can really trust.
Much like rice, oatmeal is a gluten-free carb that can help you feel full by eating a relatively small amount. It’s also full of minerals that your body needs, unlike the refined carbs found in sugary cereals.
Because it keeps you full longer, oatmeal is a common component of many weight-loss diets, but it has other health benefits aside from fighting obesity. The fiber in oatmeal helps regulate cholesterol, aiding heart health. The fiber also helps improve intestinal health.
The best way to purchase oats is in a large container. Those small, microwaveable, flavored packets may be convenient, but they’re more expensive and reduce the oats’ versatility.
You can make oatmeal for breakfast, adding your own milk and spices, or you can add it to your yogurt for a nutritious morning meal. If you bake your own bread, oats are a great way to add even more nutrition to a whole-wheat loaf, and for those occasions when you indulge in baking desserts, oatmeal adds texture and helps make you feel like you’re doing something a little better for your body than you actually are.
Nut butters — like almond, cashew, and peanut — are high in protein, keeping you full longer. They’re commonly used in weight-loss diets for this reason, and can also help combat high cholesterol. They can be used in sandwiches or on toast, and can encourage more fruit consumption as nut butters make a phenomenal dip.
Nut butters can be expensive, though. Almond butter has one of the lowest calorie counts, but it also comes with a high price tag. If you’re not loving the price at your regular or specialty grocer, check to see if there’s a food co-op in your area.
Food co-ops sometimes require membership, but sometimes don’t. They typically provide exclusively healthier foods and have a strong emphasis on organic or locally sourced products. When compared to large chains, their prices tend to be lower, allowing you to get all the benefits of products like nut butter at a lower price.
Oil is a necessary part of any diet, but which oil you choose can greatly impact your health. Pick an oil with too much trans fat, and your cholesterol levels are likely to get out of whack. Pick one with the right mixture of healthy acids, and consumption could actually boost your immune system.
Coconut oil is a good choice because it has lauric acid — which is known to fight illnesses and boost the immune system. Make sure to purchase a product that has not been partially hydrogenated, though. Hydrogenated oil is a trans fat, and can negate some of the benefits you’re reaping by using coconut oil in the first place.
Don’t like the taste of coconut? No problem. Refined coconut oil has very little taste and is actually better than the unrefined version when you’re doing stovetop cooking. Unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees, while refined coconut oil’s smoke point is 450 degrees. This is also higher than the extra virgin olive oil that has long been a staple of the healthy cook’s repertoire. Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point is 410 degrees, making refined coconut oil the best choice for cooking.
Coconut oil has become increasingly integrated into mainstream grocery stores, but if you’re still struggling with price, keep an eye out for lower prices while you’re picking up your nut butter at your local co-op.
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