26 Secrets for Eating Healthy on a Budget

26 Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget


Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
26 Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget

Healthy Savings

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 manufactured — which is, unfortunately, usually cheap and easy.

Eating nutritious foods can take a bit more time and effort than stuff that comes in a box, but it's better for you and can also budget-friendly. We show you how with these cheap, healthy foods and meals. We show you how with these healthy foods and meals that cost about $2 per serving or less.

Related: 12 Healthy Meal Hacks for Hectic Households

Herbed Frittata
Tatiana Volgutova/shutterstock

1. Don't Be Afraid of Eggs

Eggs are one of the cheapest sources of protein: A dozen, which will feed six people, cost a bit above $2 (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 money. 

For more great meal ideas and grocery tips, please sign up for our free newsletters.

Cuban Beans and Rice

2. Look to Beans as a Great Protein Source

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, making them perfect for healthy eating. 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 40 cents per serving. Beans can easily be used to create hearty soups, salads, chili, and many other recipes

Related: 30 Creative Rice and Bean Dishes From Around the World

Brent Hofacker/shutterstock

3. Hummus Can Be More Than a Dip

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 or as a spread for flatbread pizza.


4. Lentils Are Easy to Fix and High in Protein

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 about $1 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.


5. Peanuts Are an Inexpensive Protein and Easy Snack

In their shells, peanuts cost about $2.50 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.

Not All Carbs are Bad

6. Not All Carbs Are Evil

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 such as cookies, convenience foods, most crackers, chips, and all those foods that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize.  

Discover Variety in Brown Rice

7. Discover the Versatility of Brown Rice

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, such as 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.  

Pasta Can Be a Healthy Foundation

8. Pasta Can Be a Foundation for Healthy Meals

Pasta is the star in budget-friendly meals. Since it costs about 25 cents per serving, we forgive the fact that it contains white flour. There is also whole-grain pasta that costs slightly more, but is still under $2 for a 16 oz. box. 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.

Experiment With Your Grains
Diane Labombarbe/istockphoto

9. Diversify the Grains in Your Recipes

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.

Try Healthier Popcorn

10. Try a Healthier and Cheaper Approach to Popcorn

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.  

Olive Oil (Extra Virgin, Store Brand)
DUSAN ZIDAR/shutterstock

11. Olive Oil Offers Versatility, Flavor and Health Benefits

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  also 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 such as chocolate olive oil cake, which uses almond meal instead of white flour for those who have issues with gluten.

Greek Yogurt in a Decorative Glass Bowl, Selective Focus, with a Wooden Spoon, on a Wooden Serving Plate with a Light Blue Checked Napkin
Dani Vincek/shutterstock

12. Yogurt Offers Digestive Benefits

Like most dairy products, yogurt has several things going for it nutritionally — protein, calcium that helps maintain strong bones, and low 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.  

Nataliya Arzamasova/shutterstock

13. Eat More Vegetables Daily

How are vegetables good for us? Let us count the ways. They 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 less than $2, so does a bag of carrots. In winter, some vegetables can get a bit pricey. But they are cheaper frozen, while still being 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 grow their own vegetables — by far the cheapest way to get them. 

Broccoli salad slaw

14. Discover the Flexibility of Broccoli

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 about $1.50.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries
Brent Hofacker/shutterstock

15. Trade Up to Sweet Potatoes

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 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

16. Find Out Why Cauliflower Is Suddenly Trendy

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 over $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.

Start Snacking on Edamame

17. Start Snacking on Edamame

Edamame — basically young soybeans still in the pod — are filled with fiber and protein and make a great afternoon snack. A half-cup serving costs about 60 cents, and when they're steamed and sprinkled with salt, they fill the same satisfaction niche as chips.

Eat Your Fruits Whole

18. Eat Your Fruits Whole

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 75 cents a pound, should be eaten when their skins are turning brown.

Avocado Toast

19. Avocados Are a Worthy Purchase

Avocados are a fruit that holds a special place in the food universe. While a whole avocado can cost 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.

Give the Gift of Snack Delivery
Premyuda Yospim/istockphoto

20. Enjoy Nutrient-Dense Nuts in Moderation

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 $40 a pound), but almonds and walnuts can run about $5 to $10 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.

Eat Meat Sparingly

21. Find a Healthy Balance With Meat

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. For those of us who aren't vegetarians, though, meat adds a level of satisfaction few other foods can. Meat from cattle 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% 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.

Stretch Out the Beef

22. Stretch Out the Beef

Ground beef can be found for $4 to $5 a pound when bought in quantity and on sale. This will not be particularly lean, though. Usually it is about 85% lean (which means it's 15% 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.

Look Beyond Bacon with Pork

23. With Pork, Look Beyond Bacon

When considering foods that come from pigs, many people immediately think of bacon. It can be found for $4.25 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, often about $4 a pound or less. 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 Marsala

24. Get Creative With Poultry

Chicken breasts get all the glory, but it's chicken thighs that have actual flavor. Of course, it's cheaper (usually about $1.50 to $1.75 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 $3 to $3.50 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. 

Related: 50 Cheap and Easy Chicken Recipes

Consider New Tuna Recipes

25. Consider New Recipes for Tuna

Canned tuna is often on sale for less than $2 for a 5-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 fresh tasting with summer vegetables straight from the garden or farmers market.  

Expand Your Seafood Horizons

26. Expand Your Seafood Horizons

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 $9 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.