26 Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget


View as:

woman putting groceries in back of hatchback
Photo credit: PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura/Getty Images


It isn't all that difficult to eat a healthy diet on a budget, but the biggest question here is not so much about the budget as what constitutes optimum nutrition. What's considered healthy changes all the time. First eggs were evil, now they aren't; same with fat (as long as it's unsaturated); and it is a fairly sure bet that carbs, once sainted, now tainted, will go the same way.

Author Michael Pollan breaks it down into three simple phrases: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. By food, he means real food that your great-grandmother would recognize as food. In other words, food that is a plant or comes from plants, rather than food that is made in a plant. Unfortunately, manufactured food is cheap. Eating nutritious foods may take a bit more time and effort than stuff that comes in a box, but it's better for you and also budget-friendly. Each of these 26 healthy foods and meals will cost about $1 per serving or less.

For more great food and health tips, sign up for our free newsletters.

Herbed Frittata
Photo credit: Tatiana Volgutova/shutterstock


Eggs are one of the cheapest sources of protein: a dozen, which will feed six people, cost about $4 (a little more if they're organic, free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free). And there is no need to fear them. They used to be considered a risky choice because they are high in cholesterol. But researchers have found that eating high-cholesterol foods is not necessarily bad as long as the foods are low in saturated fat. Eggs are low in fat, and contain many nutrients, so they make a good meal — and not just breakfast — when combined with other nutritious foods. There are many ways to make eggs into a meal, with frittatas, soufflés, and stratas that add vegetables to the mix for not a lot of extra money.

Cuban Beans and Rice
Photo credit: Fanfo/shutterstock


Black beans are extremely protein dense, high in fiber, and extremely cheap, at about $1.50 a pound (dry). They also have no cholesterol and are virtually free of saturated fat. Other varieties, such as pinto, cannellini, garbanzo, and kidney beans are equally inexpensive and healthy. All dried beans need to be soaked overnight before cooking, so many people opt for canned beans, which are equally nutritious and run about 30 cents per serving. Beans can easily be used to create hearty soups, salads, chili, and many other recipes.

Photo credit: Brent Hofacker/shutterstock


Buying hummus in a container is not so cheap, but making your own out of canned chickpeas is. (Canned chickpeas are better to use than dried because dried ones need to be skinned after cooking — every single one.) Hummus is not just a dip, either. It can be used instead of mayonnaise on sandwiches, as a spread for flatbread pizza, or as the basis for a homemade version of that Chinese classic: cold noodles with sesame sauce.

Indian lentil curry
Photo credit: OksanaKiian/istockphoto


There are many kinds of lentils from the super-cheap brown lentils to red lentils to the arguably superior French green lentils, which are pricier but still cost less than 50 cents per serving. The advantage of lentils over beans is that in dried form, they do not need to be soaked overnight and don't take as long to cook. In fact, red lentils cook very quickly. Like beans, they are also an excellent source of protein and fiber, and do not contain saturated fats. Lentils can be cooked into soup, as a curry over rice, or even as a sauce over pasta.
peanuts split from bag
Photo credit: MaKo-studio/shutterstock


In their shells, peanuts cost about $3 a pound, and though they are not actually nuts, they have similar health benefits as nuts that come from a tree. High in monounsaturated fats, they are heart-healthy, as well as a good source of protein. But they are also high in calories, so an ounce is a good-sized portion. Most people get their peanuts in peanut butter form, so they may be getting a major dose of white sugar along with the peanuts' nutrients. Some supermarkets have peanut butter machines that will grind the nuts, so you can avoid additives. Peanuts can also be eaten boiled and salted out of hand, as a topping for cereal or salad, as an ingredient in Thai and Chinese recipes, and many other dishes, too.
Whole grain carbohydrates
Photo credit: fcafotodigital/istockphoto


Carbs have gotten a bad rap lately, with paleo, low-glycemic, and gluten-free diets taking pride of place in the diet world. However, not only are carbs not bad for us, they are essential. There is no such thing as a vegetable that is carb-free, for instance. There are, however, "good carbs" and "bad carbs." Nutrition experts agree that the complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, brown rice, potatoes, and legumes are good carbs, while anything containing refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or processed grains should be eaten sparingly. This includes virtually all processed foods, like cookies, convenience foods, most crackers, chips, and all those foods that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize.

Bowl of brown rice
Photo credit: vm2002/istockphoto


Brown rice is high in nutritional value and has loads of fiber. Anyone who was alive during the '70s got their fill of it at that time: sticky, gluey, bland, and cooked into everything. Since then, cooks have learned to dress it up a bit, and at about 20 cents per serving, it's a good source of healthy carbs. Brown rice can be used on its own as a side dish, like this one from Food & Wine, which has plenty of garlic, herbs, and lemon to give it additional flavor. Or, it can be used as the basis for a chicken and broccoli casserole that uses yogurt instead of canned soup as a base.
Penne pasta with vegetables
Photo credit: fcafotodigital/istockphoto


Pasta is the star in so many cheap meals. Since it costs about 25 cent per serving, we forgive the fact that it contains white flour. There is also whole-grain pasta that costs slightly more, but is still well within our $1 per serving price limit. Any pasta can be the basis for healthy meals, since it can be mixed with nutritious ingredients. Pasta e fagioli is a classic Italian soup; this recipe uses canned white beans and escarole, which might be pricey or hard to find — spinach is a good substitute. Pasta with broccoli walnut pesto uses the nuts as a source of protein to make this a complete meal; and penne with vegetables is good as a side dish, or it can be a full dinner with some leftover chicken or pork added into it.

Bowl of oatmeal with bananas and blueberries
Photo credit: Diane Labombarbe/istockphoto


Whole grains, such as oats, barley, and wheat are beneficial because they have a lot of fiber and help lower cholesterol. Some grains, such as quinoa, farro, and buckwheat, also contain protein and small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. So whole grains are basically healthy, but not if they are also mixed with high-fructose corn syrup, as some whole-grain packaged breads and cookies are. The less-adulterated, the better. So oatmeal can be great, but not as great if it is heaped with butter and sugar. Generally speaking, grains are quite inexpensive. Most of them cost between 10 cents and 25 cents per serving.
Popcorn in a paper bag
Photo credit: bhofack2/istockphoto


That bag of microwave popcorn may cost a lot, but grab a bag of plain kernels for about a buck. You can still nuke them. Put them in a large bowl, cover them with a plate and heat on high until the popping stops, or they can be made in a paper bag. Add a bit of salt and skip the butter for a healthy treat. Eaten this way, popcorn is a good source of fiber, low in fat, and has other benefits of any whole grain.
bottle pouring virgin olive oil in a bowl
Photo credit: DUSAN ZIDAR/shutterstock


Some fat is necessary for a healthy diet, as long as it is not saturated fat or trans fat, the kind that is often used in processed food. It may not seem as though olive oil is cheap, since it can cost as much as $20 for a bottle of extra virgin, first cold-pressed stuff, but it can cost much less. Olive oil is low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which can help lower cholesterol and are beneficial for blood-sugar control. Plus, it tastes really good. In addition to using olive oil as a base for stir-fry and salad dressing, it can be used as an ingredient for things like chocolate olive oil cake, which uses almond meal instead of white flour for those who have issues with gluten.

Greek Yogurt
Photo credit: Dani Vincek/shutterstock


Like most dairy products, yogurt has several things going for it nutritionally — protein, calcium that helps maintain strong bones, and it's low in sugar, provided that it's plain and not mixed with fruit. But yogurt has something that milk, for instance, does not — it is fermented with live bacteria cultures that are considered probiotic, and can therefore promote intestinal health. At about $4 for a 32-ounce container, each half-cup serving costs about 50 cents. Greek yogurt is somewhat more expensive, but it can be made easily by straining regular yogurt through a coffee filter for several hours, or until it is thick. Add berries or other fruit, sunflower seeds or other flavorings to yogurt rather than buying it flavored. It will be lower in sugar than pre-flavored yogurts.

Photo credit: Nataliya Arzamasova/shutterstock


How are vegetables good for us? Let us count the ways. They do reduce our risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, some forms of cancer, and diabetes. They're the best sources of most of the nutrition that we need daily. They're low in fat and calories, and high in fiber. And they are not too expensive, either. A bunch of spinach, for instance, costs a little over a dollar, so does a bag of carrots. In winter, some vegetables can get a bit pricey. However, in their frozen form, they are just as nutritious as fresh.

The biggest issue with vegetables is access for people who live in inner cities or other areas known as "food deserts," where there are few supermarkets or farmers markets nearby. But community gardens and other urban farming facilities are springing up all the time, and increasingly more people are growing their own vegetables — by far the cheapest way to get them.

Broccoli salad slaw
Photo credit: fusaromike/istockphoto


Broccoli can be eaten on its own as a side dish, and a head can feed four people at about $1.75. Consider adding this antioxidant- and nutrient-rich vegetable to all sorts of meals, from egg dishes to salad to casseroles. And when it's hard to find, a box of frozen chopped broccoli can be found for $1 or less.
Baked Sweet Potato Fries
Photo credit: Brent Hofacker/shutterstock


The health benefits of sweet potatoes, which cost about $1 per pound, are many. They are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and they help regulate insulin. Regular potatoes, while they are low in fat and not high in calories, do not offer the same advantages. Of course, sweet potatoes can be made into pie or with marshmallows, sugar, and butter, but they can be used in other healthier ways, as well. They add heartiness to soups and stews. They can be combined with beans and spinach to make nutritious burritos, mixed with a variety of exotic herbs and spices, with protein filled chickpeas and yogurt to create an Indian chana masala, or simply roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper for a healthy version of fries.
Cauliflower crust pizza
Photo credit: Fascinadora/istockphoto


Cauliflower may overtake kale as the vegetable of the hour. This humble plant in the mustard family has become the darling of the paleo set, acting as a substitute for rice or couscous. It has even been touted as a good basis for pizza crust. While a whole cauliflower can cost up to $3 a head out of season, that head can easily feed four people when mixed with other vegetables in a stir-fry, or roasted as a side dish. An interesting cauliflower cake is a different take on a frittata.

Bowl of edamame
Photo credit: taka4332/istockphoto


Edamame — basically young soybeans still the pod — are filled with fiber and protein and make a great afternoon snack. A half-cup serving costs about 50 cents, and when they're steamed and sprinkled with salt, they fill the same satisfaction niche as chips.

three Gala apples
Photo credit: topseller/shutterstock


When eaten in their pure form and not squeezed into juice, fruits are one of the big building blocks of a healthy diet. Although fruit contains sugar, it acts differently on the body than, say, high-fructose corn syrup does. Fruit contains several beneficial nutrients such as fiber and antioxidants that promote health. It's hard to find a snack that's healthier than an apple, clementine, or pear, each of which will cost under $1 in season. Berries, also budget-friendly in season but less so when they're frozen or transported from South America, are a tasty addition to whole grain cereals as well as being delicious eaten by themselves. Bananas, which run about 70 cents a pound, should be eaten when their skins are turning brown
Avocado Toast
Photo credit: NatashaPhoto/shutterstock


Avocados are a fruit that holds a special place in the food universe. While a whole avocado costs more than $1, it can easily spread over two or more servings. Avocados, unlike other fruits, contain large quantities of monounsaturated fatty acids, in other words, good fat, like olive oil. Avocados have several nutrients that support not only heart health but also cancer prevention. Avocado toast is a popular lunch, but for a real nutritional power meal, spread it on a baked slice of sweet potato. Avocado, because of its mild flavor and soft texture, is a good food for babies, too.

mixed nuts and dried fruit
Photo credit: Premyuda Yospim/istockphoto


Nuts and seeds pack a lot of nutrition in a small handful. In fact, a serving size of nuts or seeds is only about 1 ounce. While they are very nutrient-dense, they are also rather high in calories. They are proven to support cardiovascular health and are great sources of protein, monounsaturated fats, fiber, and vitamins and minerals. Some nuts can be very expensive (pine nuts, for instance cost about $35 a pound), but almonds and walnuts run about $5 a pound if they're bought from the bulk bin. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are about the same. Nuts can be toasted, chopped and used in salads, stir-fries and whole grain cereals to add crunch. Helpful tips: Keep them in the freezer because the oils in them can go rancid after a while; and if you prefer them toasted and salted, do this yourself to save some bucks. They're also good mixed with other spices, such as chili, garlic powder, or rosemary.
Healthy bowl with grains, avocado, and chicken
Photo credit: Magone/istockphoto


Famously, Thomas Jefferson said that he ate meat only in small quantities, using it as a "condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet." This approach by the Sage of Monticello fits neatly with Michael Pollan's advice to eat food, not too much, and mostly plants. However, for those of us who aren't vegetarians, meat adds a level of satisfaction that few other foods can. Meat from cows is very high in saturated fat, so its intake should be limited. Protein, the principal nutrient in fish and animal foods, should make up about 20 percent of daily calories from all sources. A serving size of meat is about 3 ounces, which is less than a quarter-pound burger. Eating this way makes a little meat go further.

Beef stir fry
Photo credit: LauriPatterson/istockphoto


Ground beef can be found for as low as $3 a pound when bought in quantity on sale. This will not be particularly lean, though. Usually it is about 85 percent lean (which means it's 15 percent fat). Stretching it to feed at least four people is an easy task when it's mixed with many other foods and not eaten as a hunk. Mix it with vegetables in a Korean rice bowl, in a stir-fry, or combine it with ground pork to make meatballs in an Italian Wedding soup.
Pork loin over vegetables
Photo credit: NoirChocolate/istockphoto


When considering foods that come from pigs, many people immediately think of bacon. It can be found for under $5 a pound these days, putting it within our price limits. One slice is often considered one serving, and that may be about all anybody should eat, once in a while, since it's loaded with fat, salt, and little else but crunch. Pork loin, on the other hand, is low in fat and high in protein and is also one of the cheapest forms of animal protein there is, at about $2.50 a pound. It's a very neutral flavor, so it takes well to being zipped up with peppers or chili paste and mixed with vegetables in a stir-fry.
Chicken Tacos
Photo credit: Joshua Resnick/shutterstock


Chicken breasts get all the glory, but it's chicken thighs that have actual flavor. Of course, it's cheaper (usually about $3 a pound) to buy a whole chicken rather than its parts, and cut them up yourself. Chicken breasts get the good rep because they are lower in fat than thighs, but in a 3-ounce serving, there's not that much difference. Either of them can be chopped up and mixed with vegetables in a stir-fry, simmered in sauce for a tikka masala, cut into strips and mixed with taco seasoning for burritos, or mixed into fried brown rice with any choice of veggies. Ground chicken or turkey, both about $4 a pound, can also be used in tomato sauces or green chili. Then of course, there's soup, a gallon of which can be made with one chicken or a turkey carcass.
Tuna and white bean salad
Photo credit: NelliSyr/istockphoto


Canned tuna is often on sale for about $1.25 for a large 5½-ounce can that will serve 2 people. It's a source of protein that is high in omega-3 fatty acids. It's also low in fat, as long as it's not mixed with mayonnaise. Fortunately, there's a world of things that can be made with tuna. Tuna and white bean salad is an Italian staple; a tuna and olive pasta feeds three people with one can; and tuna and corn salad is be fresh tasting with summer vegetables straight from the garden or farmers market.
Shrimp pasta with vegetables
Photo credit: mpessaris/istockphoto


Outside of tuna in a can, it can seem pretty hard to find any seafood that fits into the frugal lifestyle. Shrimp used to be on the no-eating list because it's high in cholesterol, but like eggs, it is now considered okay, because it is very low in fat. It is a bit of a splurge, even on sale costing about $6 a pound. This recipe for pasta primavera with shrimp only uses 8 ounces of the crustacean and is loaded with vegetables that are fresh and in season in spring. Other inexpensive seafood options that can be healthy and sustainably caught, include mackerel, porgy, sardines, and catfish.

Cheapism.com participates in affiliate marketing programs, which means we may earn a commission if you choose to purchase a product through a link on our site. This helps support our work and does not influence editorial content.