Nutrition

How to Eat Healthy on a Tight Budget

A registered dietitian shares 10 nutritious foods that won't break the bank.

If you feel like your grocery budget is under assault you’re not alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to accelerate the rise in the price of many groceries, which hurts your bank account even more if you need plenty of calories to fuel those epic workouts. While it might be tempting to turn to ramen noodles and packaged mystery meats to save a few bucks, you don’t have to send your diet on a nosedive if you learn how to shop for the foods that deliver a big nutritional payoff for a low price. Here’s a list of affordable healthy foods that can keep your nutrition plan on track.

Affordable Healthy Foods

Dry Lentils

If you’re looking to embrace the trend toward more plant-based eating, there are few better places to start than a bag of dry lentils. With a price tag of about $1.79 a pound, lentils deliver a huge nutritional bang for your buck. On top of protein (13 grams in a 1/4 cup dry serving), the legumes also offer up a range of must-have nutrients including B vitamins, magnesium, and phosphorus. Plus, there are nearly record-breaking amounts of fiber–16 grams in a cup cooked. One reason why higher fiber diets can help with weight management is that they can increase levels of certain bacteria in our guts that may make it easier to maintain a healthy weight. And unlike dried beans, lentils do not require an annoying pre-soak before cooking. Simply simmer dried green or brown lentils in a pot of water until tender, about 20 minutes.

Canned Sardines

In any given supermarket you can probably cast your line for a tin of sardines that costs no more than $2, about half the cost of white tuna. But you won’t be sacrificing an ounce of nutrition. Not only are sardines jam-packed with muscle-friendly protein, they also are a big-time source of the heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids you’ll find in more pricey seafood options like salmon. As a bonus, you’ll also get a healthy dose of vitamin D, a nutrient needed for proper bone health and muscle-functioning in athletes. You can add them to sandwiches, pasta dishes, and even salads. 

Whole Chicken

Pound for pound, a whole chicken typically costs less than any other cut of poultry in the meat aisle. For instance, a big bird will ring in at about half the price per pound than chicken breast. Best of all, the juicy meat (once cooked) can serve as the backbone to several different quick meals during a busy work week. For the most part, cooking whole chicken is a hands-off affair so consider roasting up one or two on a lazy Sunday afternoon and reap the rewards all week long. To save even more money, use the carcass to make your own chicken stock. If you’re not keen to go the whole-chicken route, you can instead choose to buy skin-on, bone-in cuts, which are typically less pricey than the skinless, boneless kind.

Traditional Yogurt

Don’t get me wrong: I love the payload of protein and delicious texture that thick Greek yogurt delivers. But the harsh reality is that it’s about 30 percent more expensive than the traditional style of yogurt (because of straining it takes more milk to make the same amount of Greek yogurt). So if you’re watching your grocery budget, don’t fret if you need to opt for less glamorous types of yogurt. Besides, the vast majority of people already get enough protein in their diet so it’s not like the extra amount in Greek yogurt is a major advantage. And regular yogurt delivers the same levels of beneficial bacteria to help keep your digestive system humming along smoothly. 

Sunflower Seeds

Almonds, walnuts, and other nuts may get all the glory, but the humble seed of the sun-worshiping plant is also no nutritional slouch. And this comes at a significant cost advantage. Most importantly, sunflower seeds contain a range of important vitamins and minerals including thiamin, magnesium, copper, selenium, and vitamin E. There is some evidence that higher intakes of vitamin E can improve brain health but, sadly, most people don’t eat nearly enough to reap its benefits. To save some hassle you can buy shelled seeds and then snack on them straight-up or toss them where you would normally nuts like cereal, salads, and yogurt. Salty seeds can also be a good way to help replace electrolytes after a sweaty workout. 

Millet

While other whole grains like quinoa and farro get all the press, millet still largely flies under the radar. But you can stock your pantry with this nutrition-packed whole grain for a budget-friendly price–a 28-ounce bag costs only about $5. Long a staple grain in Asia and Africa (and perhaps of your backyard feathered friends), millet has a great corny flavor along with a range of useful nutrients for active bodies including B vitamins and magnesium. A study in the journal Hypertension suggests that increasing the amount of magnesium in the diet is a way to help keep blood pressure numbers from boiling over. Plus, its complex carbohydrates are just the fuel your muscles need to keep up the pace. To prepare, simply simmer 1 cup millet in 2 cups water or vegetable broth and a couple pinches salt until tender and water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, let stand covered for 5 minutes and then fluff with a fork. Try mixing with chopped vegetables and a dressing for a healthy salad.

Frozen Strawberries

When in season, buying fresh fruits (and veggies!) is a good bet. But when items like strawberries have gone out of season locally, purchasing them from the frozen food section can offer considerable cost savings. For instance, a pint of fresh berries may cost $5 which is what you can get an entire bag of subzero ones for. Because frozen strawberries are picked at their peak ripeness and flash-frozen right after, their nutrients are preserved, making them just as healthy, if not more, as fresh ones that are imported from afar. Plus, you don’t run the risk of having to throw them out because they have gone fuzzy in the back of your fridge. 

Popcorn Kernels

While bagged popcorn will sucker punch you with high prices and perhaps sketchy additives and the buttery option from the multiplex comes with a massive mark-up (and calorie load), popping your own is about the cheapest snack food around. While a handful of kernels will set you back less than 20 cents, they pop up to at least four cups of fiber-rich whole-grain making it a far healthier choice than greasy chips. Plus, the puffed kernels are a surprising source of antioxidants. 

Mussels

It’s time to stop ordering mussels only off a menu. Ringing in at only about $3 a pound, these shellfish offer a fantastic amount of briny-tasting protein for your dollar. Because they have little impact on the surrounding ecosystem (in fact, they actually clean the water) and are not raised using drugs like antibiotics, farmed mussels are widely considered one of the most sustainable seafood buys you can make at the fishmonger. Not to be overlooked are the boatload of nutritional benefits they’ll give you. Namely, omega-3 fats, the antioxidant selenium, and vitamin B12 for proper nervous system functioning. They are also perfect for cooking lazoids. All you need to do is place about 1 cup of liquid such as water, broth, beer, wine. or coconut milk in a large saucepan for each pound of mussels, bring to a boil, add mussels, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer covered until they open up. 

Sweet Potato

Averaging roughly $1.30 per pound, the cost-effective orange spud is a great way to get your fill of the energizing whole-food carbohydrates that are needed to go hard for long. And we would be amiss if we didn’t drive home the point that sweet potatoes are a leading source of beta-carotene, a nutrient that can be converted into vitamin A in the body to bolster immune health.