11 Cheap, Healthy Foods You Should Totally Have in Your Kitchen
When you live in a dorm or apartment and have to cook meals for one, being frugal is tougher than some might believe.
You can’t stock up on fresh food when it’s on sale because it’ll go bad faster than you can eat it.
A tight weekly budget and even tighter space makes buying in bulk seem impossible, so you feel like you’re stuck with single-serve junk food, carbolicious boxed meals or restaurant meals outside of the house.
But you don’t have to be.
Keep a small shelf or corner of your mini-fridge stocked with these 11 staples, and you can eat healthier than you think.
And you can buy all of this cheap, healthy food this week for less than $30!
1. Brown Rice
Though similar in calories and carbs to white rice, brown rice is a whole grain and a good source of fiber and several vitamins.
It’s also a budget’s best friend.
Get a pound of brown rice for only 89 cents.
If you hate the time it takes to cook, grab a 14-ounce box of pre-cooked brown rice for $1.99. That’s still a pretty good deal, and you can even cook it in a microwave if you don’t have access to a stovetop.
Pick up a 30-ounce bag of Simply Balanced organic quinoa for $9.55.
It may seem like a high price for the (superfood) grain. But you’ll cook quinoa the same as rice — and one cup makes about six servings.
So that single, 30-ounce package yields about 22 servings — less than $0.50 per serving.
In our low-carb era, pasta is not everyone’s best friend — but it’s definitely affordable.
You may want to eat this white-flour-based staple in moderation. And avoid the expensive, fat– and sodium-heavy canned sauces that accompany it.
But toss some pasta with lightly cooked vegetables and some oil, and it can fill out a cheap, healthy meal.
4. Peanut Butter
For a quick, delicious, nutrient-rich snack or sandwich, it’s tough to beat peanut butter.
A 16-ounce jar of Smucker’s Natural creamy peanut butter is $2.94.
Buying JIF will save you 40 cents, but you’ll also get the added sugars and oils.
Skippy’s Natural variety falls financially and nutritionally in the middle at $2.64.
Each jar promises about 14 servings, so you’re paying less than a quarter per serving for the filling treat.
5. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is a smart way to satisfy a sweet tooth.
The rich flavor means you don’t need to eat a lot at once, so it’ll likely last longer than sweeter candies.
But dark chocolate chips will run you just $2.64 for a 10-ounce bag.
Since chocolate chips are so tiny, you’ll probably eat less in a sitting, and they’re always good to have around when you’re in the mood for baking!
6. Canned Beans, Fruits and Vegetables
Canned goods are super cheap and easy to store, because they’re made to last.
Stock up on beans, fruits and veggies when you see sales. Even if you prefer to eat fresh options, it’s nice to have these standbys in the pantry to hold you over when money is tight.
What to Do About Fresh Produce
For fresh produce, prices will vary quite a bit by location, region and season. Choose affordable options in your location.
For your staples, look for longer-lasting produce. You may opt for a variety or choose certain produce because it’s healthier.
But you’ll end up wasting money if you can’t eat any of it before it goes bad.
And make sure to store them properly so you get your money’s worth!
Here are some average produce prices from the USDA.
A rich source of several vitamins, iron and calcium, this leafy green is a smart staple because of its adaptability.
You can eat it raw in salads and sandwiches; cook it in a stir-fry, omelet or casserole; steam it as a side; or even blend it for an energy boost in your smoothie.
It’s also fairly affordable. Raw spinach costs an average of $3.83 per pound. The price goes down significantly to $1.90 for frozen and $1.15 for canned.
To save money, you could substitute the nutritionally comparable collard greens, kale or broccoli. All are about a dollar per pound cheaper than spinach, though not quite as culinarily flexible.
“An apple a day…” You get it.
On average, apples are $1.57 per pound. They aren’t my favorite fruit, but they’re my favorite to keep in the house, because of their shelf life.
Bananas cost about a third of what apples do per pound. But what’s the window of eatability for a banana — like, three hours? I waste money throwing bananas away, and wishing I knew how to bake, mostly.
Though I like to grab a variety of melons, berries and other fruits when they’re on sale, apples are my staple.
They’re perfectly snack-sized, sweet enough to satisfy cravings and don’t go bad faster than I can eat them.
Lemons run about $1.90 per pound. Depending on the price, I like to have lemons or limes in the house to perk up almost any meal.
Citrus fruits are great for sauces, garnishes and salad dressings. Skip the expensive packaged marinades and dressings, and whip up your own with some lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper.
10. Onions and Shallots
At $1.04 per pound, onions are a must-have.
And believe me, I was once a child who wouldn’t even look at a dish if I was told it contained onions.
As an adult, I now know the incredible value onion adds to flavor.
Don’t worry about filling your spice rack with overpriced seasoning blends. Chop an onion and add some salt — you’ll bring out the best flavor in whatever meat or veggies you’re cooking.
The price per pound of shallots runs about the same, if you prefer a milder alternative.
11. Root Vegetables
Keeping a variety of fresh vegetables in your diet can be tough.
I watch red peppers, baby carrots and cucumbers become limp and shriveled too quickly in my (Florida) refrigerator.
But a few smarter choices can help you keep those much-needed nutrients in your diet without breaking your budget.
First, skip the baby carrots. Buy whole, fresh carrots for half the price. They’re just 74 cents per pound, and they’ll last much longer than their stubby, naked, packaged counterparts.
Whole carrots can also fill out a meal as a roasted or sauteed side dish. In a pinch, steam them in your microwave! The same goes for other root veggies, like potatoes, yams or beets.
Your Turn: What are your favorite affordable, healthy staples?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).