If you’re on a tight budget, it can be difficult to eat healthy— and no, it’s not a myth that healthy food is more expensive. In fact, the high cost of nutritious food is one of the most common reasons people report overindulging in fatty, salty junk food.
But difficult is not the same as impossible, and there are a few simple ways you can eat healthy for less. Meal planning, sticking to a list at the grocery store and buying produce when it’s in season are all good ways to spend and waste less. You could also make a habit of purchasing some of the high-nutrient foods on this list, which are either inexpensive or go a long way.
If you’re trying to stick to a high-fiber, high-protein diet, beans should be your best friends. For a half-cup serving, black beans pack in 8 grams each of fiber and protein for less than 150 calories, practically the definition of nutrient-dense. That’s important: Foods with high nutrient values for relatively few calories keep you fuller longer than high-calorie foods with little nutrient value.
At an average of $1 per pound, dried beans are cheap too, but the downside is they take some time to rehydrate. If that’s not your style, you can get canned beans for nearly as cheap— they’re just as nutritious. Just make sure to rinse them before using to reduce the sodium content.
People don’t often think of potatoes as a health food, but that’s not the spud’s fault. Most of the time, potato dishes that are fatty or high in calories are so only because of the way they’re prepared, with lots of butter, oil or cheese. If you strip all that away, what you’re left with is a cheap vegetable packed with potassium that is grown year-round. To top it off, russets have 7 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein for a typical large potato.
Seafood is packed with protein, and when fish is fatty it’s usually that good fat we’re all supposed to get. Experts recommend two servings of fish per week at minimum to get enough omega-3s. If you live inland, fresh or even frozen fish can be expensive, but canned tuna and salmon is pretty affordable at about $2 to $3 a can.
So if you find yourself craving fish but don’t have the cash to go fresh, give canned a try. Salmon is a good choice because it goes great in dips or salads and has more omega-3s than other varieties. And with 27 grams of protein per serving, salmon’s healthy staying power can’t be beat.
Processed and packaged foods are rarely healthier than whole foods, but fortified cereals are an exception. Whole grain cereals like Total-100 or Kellogg Complete are fortified with a day’s worth of calcium, iron, and other essential vitamins and minerals. So on top of the fiber from whole grains, you’re also getting micronutrients that can be hard to get enough of from food alone. At about $4 to $5 a box with 12 servings, the price is budget-friendly too.
Another great source of protein is soy, which also takes form in tofu and edamame. One of the least expensive ways to get soy, however, is in the form of a nut, which is also high in fiber. Soy nuts are just the beans of the plant that have been dried and roasted, and they’re pretty cheap in bulk at about $4 to $6 a pound. Don’t eat the whole pound, though— like other nuts, due to their high fat content, these should be enjoyed in moderation in 1-ounce portions.
One of the keys to making healthy food taste delicious is flavoring it well with herbs and spices. Turmeric is a great spice to choose because it is colorful and flavorful, but it is also really good for you. Often found in Asian cuisine, turmeric contains the antioxidant curcumin, which is also found in the spice cumin but at lower levels.
Curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties, which is great because internal inflammation is increasingly connected to obesity, depression and several other conditions. Not only that, but it may have anti-cancer and heart-related benefits, according to some animal trials, though more research is needed to know whether this is true in humans as well.
If you want to buy produce out of season, consider going frozen. When fruit and vegetables are frozen, they are usually done so right after being picked, when they are freshest. This seals in all of the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals so they’re intact when the food finds its way to your plate. At $2 to $4 a bag, frozen produce is affordable as well.
When it comes to versatile grains, brown rice may be the healthiest. It’s chock-full of fiber and protein that will keep you feeling satisfied, and it’s a good source of three B vitamins. For just $1 to $ 2 a pound when you buy in bulk, brown rice is a steal and, because it is absorbent, it will take on any flavors you add to it.