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Healthy Eating

Pantry Essentials: Eat Healthy on a Budget With These 17 Cheap Staples

Don't let expensive prices on healthy foods scare you away from shopping for nutritious produce and pantry products. With these budget-friendly foods, you can eat well, fuel up on key nutrients and spend significantly less.

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Sure, you can subsist for dollars a day on ramen noodles and boxed mac n’ cheese. But eating healthy on a budget? That’s a different matter. Filling your shopping cart with organic produce, gluten-free packaged goodies, non-dairy drinks and all of the other healthful foods you love can add up fast, bringing your weekly food spending to sky-high totals. However, it’s totally possible to slash your grocery store budget and still eat well. 

Even with minimal food funding, you can maximize your meals and get plenty of flavor and nutritional bang for your buck. You just need to stock up on the right budget-friendly staples. If you have any of the following cheap foods on hand, you’ll be able to stretch your money and feed yourself good-for-you meals that are as satisfying as they are nutritious. Put these foods on your shopping list to save without skimping on your health. 

1. Cabbage

Like all crucifers, cabbage is rich in compounds that reduce the risk of lung, colon and other cancers. And, at around a dollar a pound for organic varieties, it’s less costly than other crucifers. Red cabbage is slightly more expensive (about $1.50 a pound), but higher in antioxidants. It’s particularly rich in anthocyanins, which have been shown to lower inflammation, balance blood pressure and protect the heart.

2. Eggs

As a versatile, low-cost source of protein, eggs are hard to beat. Plus, they’re rich in iron, folate and vitamins A, D and E, as well as potent antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin that keep eyes healthy and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Cage-free and organic versions range from about $3 to $4 for a dozen, or less than 35 cents per egg – making them cheap, cheap. 

3. Carrots

Carrots are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and beta carotene, an antioxidant that protects vision and lowers your risk of heart disease and cancer. Organic carrots run about a dollar a pound, a price that’s super budget-friendly. Yellow and red varieties are a bit pricier, but they’re also rich in other kinds of antioxidants, like lutein and lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that protects the heart and lessens the likelihood of skin and other cancers.

4. Potatoes

Versatile potatoes are high in fiber, potassium, magnesium and other nutrients, but they also offer plenty of resistant starch, a type of fiber that feeds beneficial gut bacteria. Red-skinned potatoes and purple potatoes are also rich in disease-preventive anthocyanins, while sweet potatoes are loaded with beta carotene. Potato prices range from $1 to $3 a pound, depending on the variety; buy larger bags and store your extras in a cool, dark location. 

5. Flax seeds

Cheaper than chia, flax seeds have almost the same lineup of nutrients: protein, fiber and omega-3 fats, which fight inflammation and protect your brain and heart. And flax is rich in lignans, plant compounds that reduce the risk of heart disease, breast cancer and prostate cancer. You’ll find organic brown flax for about $3 a pound; or, buy the seeds in bulk for even more savings. 

6. Greek yogurt

High in protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and other nutrients, yogurt is an excellent source of beneficial probiotics that can enhance immunity, lower inflammation, boost digestion and improve gut health. And at around $3 a pound for organic versions, it’s a screaming deal. Single-serving cups are pricier, so skip these convenient products. Instead, buy large tubs for bigger savings, and repack in your own smaller containers.

7. Onions

Onions are packed with anti-inflammatory compounds, including quercetin, a powerful antioxidant shown to dampen inflammation, support immunity, protect the heart and reduce your risk of cancer. Yellow and white varieties cost as little as a dollar a pound; red onions are just a bit more expensive but high in heart-protective anthocyanins. Buy them in bags for additional savings, and store them in a cool, dark location. 

8. Sardines

Most fish far exceeds the limits of the average weekly budget (and raise sustainability concerns). A better option: wild-caught sardines. These little fish are loaded with the same omega-3 fats as salmon and tuna, but they’re lower in toxins and more ocean-friendly. And at only about $3 for a 4-ounce package, they’re crazy cheap. Look for water-packed varieties, and choose bone-in for extra calcium. 

9. Apples

Fruit is one of the pricier produce selections, and fancy fruits like figs and off-season berries are too costly for everyday eating on a budget. Apples, however, are high in fiber and antioxidants, including quercetin and catechins, the same potent antioxidants found in green tea. Organic apples average around $2 a pound, depending on the season. Other nutrient-dense, economical fruits you can try include oranges, pears, bananas and grapes.

10. Sunflower seeds

Less expensive than pumpkin seeds but similar in nutrition, sunflower seeds are high in B vitamins, vitamin E and selenium, nutrients that are linked with enhanced immunity and a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and cognitive decline. Organic versions average about $5 a pound, but you’ll spend less if you buy your sunflower seeds in larger containers. Stock up, and stash your extras in the freezer to keep them fresh. 

11. Tofu

Tofu is a protein-rich substitute for meat, but it’s also packed with other nutrients, including magnesium, selenium and calcium. One serving contains 440 mg of calcium alone, delivering almost half of your daily requirements. It’s also high in soy isoflavones, which have been shown to improve blood vessel health and lower the risk of stroke. Organic tofu runs about $2 a pound; choose firm and extra-firm varieties made with calcium sulfate for added calcium.

12. Kale

Rich in calcium, magnesium, vitamins A, C and K, kale is one of the most nutrient-dense plants in the produce aisle. And it does double duty as a cruciferous vegetable, with the same cancer-preventive compounds as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Less pricey than lettuce or spring greens, organic kale typically costs under $2 per bunch. Other leafy budget buys that will work for your budget and your nutrition include chard, spinach and collards, all of which have similar nutrient profiles.

13. Peanut butter

At about half the price of almond butter, peanut butter’s the cheapest game in town. And peanuts are an excellent source of healthy monounsaturated fats, plus vitamin E, magnesium, B vitamins and heart-protective resveratrol. You’ll find organic peanut butter for around $4 a pound, but you can spend less if you buy larger tubs. Just make sure to store them in the fridge for freshness and longer-term savings.

14. Canned tomatoes

Cheaper than their fresh counterparts, canned tomatoes contain the same powerful nutrients, including vitamins C and K, potassium and lycopene – and some research suggests lycopene is actually more bioavailable in canned tomatoes. Organic diced tomatoes average about $1.50 for a 15-ounce can; buy a variety of forms, including crushed, sauce and tomato paste, to maximize your canned goods’ versatility.

15. Beans

When it comes to low-cost protein, you can’t beat beans. A one-cup serving has between 14 and 16 grams of fiber – over half the daily recommended total – plus disease-preventive lignin. Dried beans are way cheaper than canned, averaging around $2.50 a pound for most organic versions. Plan ahead; cook a big batch and freeze for easy meal prep. Or, buy fast-cooking lentils for the same lineup of nutrients and less time spent in the kitchen.

16. Brown rice

A versatile addition to any meal, brown rice is high in magnesium, selenium and B vitamins, essential for energy, proper nerve function and balanced mood. Plus, rice paired with beans is a complete protein, which makes it ideal for plant-based diets. Organic brown rice costs as little as $2 a pound; look for it in the bulk section for even greater savings.  

17. Organic chicken thighs

Meat is pricey, but chicken thighs are cheaper than breasts and packed with protein, plus selenium, zinc and a range of B vitamins. Boneless, skinless organic chicken thighs run about $5 to $6 pound; stock up during sales and freeze extras. Other economical meats include organic ground turkey, grass-fed ground beef or lean stew beef. For the most mileage, add meat to stews and stir-fries or pair them with beans, instead of serving solo. 

Master your weekly budget with even more money-saving tips: