It’s a deceiving myth that has circulated for years: Eating healthy is expensive. The truth is, both healthy and unhealthy food options can be costly. If you can seek out the less expensive versions of the healthiest foods, however, you can be good to your heart and your budget all at once.
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that cooking is one of the first things to go when my life gets hectic. That said, I always try to keep healthy staples (like the ones below) in my house so I can whip up a quick and wholesome meal or snack in the midst of my whirlwind schedule. On top of plenty of fruits, veggies and whole grains, here are some cheap and healthy food essentials that won’t break the bank.
No Pre-Cut Veggies
Forget the bag of baby carrots and grab the bag of full-sized carrots instead. A bag of regular old carrots can be as much as 70% cheaper than a bag of baby carrots. There have also been rumblings that baby carrots aren’t as nutritionally-dense as their more natural form. Whether or not this is true, it’s well known that foods are healthier when they arrive in your hands as close to their original natural state as possible. Baby carrots and other pre-cut veggies must have gone through some process to arrive in that perfect, petite form—we just don’t know what that process was. Even though you have to peel and chop the full-sized veggies, it’s a better bang for your buck and more nutrients in your system.
If popcorn were a drug, I would have been sent to rehab a long time ago. Popcorn is my go-to snack on the weekends, at night, a mid-afternoon snack…who am I kidding, I eat way too much popcorn. Good news, though: popcorn is actually quite good for you. A whole-grain and packed with fiber, these little kernels have gotten a bad-rap over the years since they are best known when cooked in oil and slathered with butter and salt.
You can, however, make popcorn better with this quick, healthy trick: Throw some plain kernels in a brown paper bag, fold the top down, and place the bag in the microwave. It will pop like those store-bought bags of popcorn, just without all the preservatives, oils, and butter.
Whole-grain oats of any kind (old-fashioned, steel-cut, quick, barley, etc.) are a great addition to any healthy pantry. They can be used for all sorts of meals and can keep you full for hours at a time. Oats have become popular over the years since they are so good for your heart. If you swap regular, sugary cereal for oats in the morning, it could also help lower your cholesterol. On top of that, oats can be added to just about any breakfast meal. I love to add oats to Greek yogurt or sugar-free pudding or just make it the old-fashioned way. Not only are oats a very budget-friendly addition to your daily meals, but this super-food is also great for your body.
Dry Beans and Lentils
Protein is an important nutrient that we all need to stay healthy and strong. However, many protein sources like meat, fish, and dairy can be expensive. The perfect protein substitutes are beans and lentils. Many of you probably know that beans aren’t only just protein-packed, but they’re also fiber packed (and much less expensive than those popular fiber bars). Beans can be added to any diet, whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or full on omnivore. Add beans to your favorite soup or salad or just eat them as a side dish. Dry beans may seem daunting, but just throw them in boiling water until they’re soft and you’ll have ready-to-eat beans before you know it. At just a couple dollars per bag, beans are a cheap and healthy addition to any meal.
Garlic and Onions
Even though I already mentioned full-sized, fresh vegetables above, I wanted to add my favorite veggie “seasonings” to the list as well. Not only can garlic and onion add a powerful and tasty spark to your meals, they are also very inexpensive. One fresh garlic bulb usually costs me about 35 cents at the store and with as many as 20 cloves, it can usually last me several weeks. Purple, white, or sweet onions are a great addition to any pasta, salad, or Mexican meal and are also very cheap. Choose these fresh, antioxidant-packed options over the powdered seasoning versions to save yourself cash and avoid any preservatives found in the processed versions.
Even More Healthy Options
Although the foods I listed above are a few of my favorites, here are even more healthful options that won’t hurt your wallet:
- Plain Yogurt: Add a dollop of honey to sweeten and get a dose of calcium and protein.
- Natural Peanut Butter: Get your healthy fats this way and look for brands without added sugar.
- Canned Tuna: Cheaper than the fresh version, but look for water-based and with few added ingredients.
- Dry Rice/Pasta: Avoid pre-cooked versions and choose whole grain or wheat varieties.
- Frozen Vegetables/Berries: Often cheaper than fresh versions; just make sure that there is just one ingredient listed (the veggie or berry you’re buying).
- Green Tea/Coffee: Decaf and regular versions are both packed with antioxidants.
These are just a few items that are always in my pantry and are never out of my budget. It is possible to eat healthy on a budget; you just have to know where to look. Remember to choose minimally processed foods that are closest to their natural state so you’ll be able to eat well and maintain your budget.
What are some of your favorite healthy and inexpensive meals and treats?