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.
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DON'T BE AFRAID OF EGGS
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.
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. 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.
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, as a spread for flatbread pizza, or as the basis for a homemade version of that Chinese classic: cold noodles with sesame sauce.
LENTILS ARE EASY TO FIX AND HIGH IN PROTEIN
PEANUTS ARE AN INEXPENSIVE PROTEIN AND EASY SNACK
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, like cookies, convenience foods, most crackers, chips, and all those foods that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize.
DISCOVER THE VERSATILITY OF BROWN RICE
PASTA CAN BE A FOUNDATION FOR HEALTHY MEALS
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.
DIVERSIFY THE GRAINS IN YOUR RECIPES
TRY A HEALTHIER AND CHEAPER APPROACH TO POPCORN
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 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.
YOGURT OFFERS DIGESTIVE BENEFITS
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.
EAT MORE VEGETABLES DAILY
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.
DISCOVER THE FLEXIBILITY OF BROCCOLI
TRADE UP TO SWEET POTATOES
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 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.
START SNACKING ON EDAMAME
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.
EAT YOUR FRUITS WHOLE
AVOCADOS ARE A WORTHY PURCHASE
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.
ENJOY NUTRIENT-DENSE NUTS IN MODERATION
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. 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.
STRETCH OUT THE BEEF
LOOK BEYOND BACON WITH PORK
GET CREATIVE WITH POULTRY
CONSIDER NEW RECIPES FOR TUNA
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 $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.