Shop This, Not That: How to Fill Your Cart With Cheap, Healthy Food

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Feeling broke when you hit the grocery store checkout is everyone’s new normal. Food inflation is real, and it’s hitting every family where it hurts — in the wallet and the fridge.

While it may seem like you need to sacrifice eating well and cut corners to put affordable foods on the table, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, healthy foods available in most stores can also be incredibly budget-friendly.

We talked to Wendy Wesley, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist in Florida, to find out which nutritious foods save money and how to buy the fixings for healthy meals without paying more.

Why Is Healthy Food Expensive?

If you’re finding that reaching for healthy foods is costing your bank account, it could be a problem of perspective.

When you eat healthy, you may feel like you’re paying big bucks for fresh produce and whole grains, but these nutrient-dense foods satisfy and provide the cornerstone of a healthy diet.

Wesley says the misconception that a healthy diet costs more is also about convenience. A nutritious, delicious meal takes more time to prepare.

“For some people, time equals money,” Wesley says. “And that can be a barrier to eating healthier.”

And last but not least, keeping a pantry and fridge filled with cooking essentials like chicken breast, olive oil or garlic powder is the key to eating healthy on a budget.

“If someone doesn’t have a stocked pantry, and they’re looking at a recipe with 11 ingredients, it can seem like a lot, “ Wesley says.

Which cost-effective staples should be part of a well-stocked pantry? See our suggested grocery list for your next shopping trip.

What Are the Best Places to Get Cheap, Healthy Food?

You really want to whip up that healthy breakfast packed with antioxidants, but the same old bowl of cereal is significantly cheaper.

The trick to budget-friendly foods that pack a nutritional punch is not to expect all the best prices in the same place.

Welsey says she firmly believes that people who cook at home spend less overall, but finding cheap produce is challenging. She recommends farmer’s markets and other local alternatives.

“If I go down to the produce stand at the corner, I can get a lot out of $20. Probably three times as much as what I get at Publix for the same cost.”

It’s also worthwhile to avoid some aisles with snack food or prepared foods altogether. Wesley says clients are surprised when she advises skipping any aisle or section labeled “nutrition.”

“People think they need expensive protein powders and supplements, and most of the time, they really don’t,” she says

Wesley says dietitians generally don’t recommend these types of fillers unless someone is dealing with a significant health issue or is chronically underweight.

Looking for produce on a budget? See how popular “ugly” produce subscriptions stack up on savings and quality compared to your local grocery store.

Top 10 Foods To Help You Eat Healthy on the Cheap

  1. Canned tomatoes
  2. Oats
  3. Peanut butter
  4. Sweet potatoes
  5. Beans and lentils
  6. Canned tuna
  7. Frozen vegetables
  8. Frozen berries
  9. Whole grains
  10. Yogurt

1. Canned Tomatoes

As a cost-effective canned good, it’s hard to beat tomatoes. Not only are they a great source of vitamin C, but eating tomatoes has been linked to reduced blood pressure.

In addition to the health benefits, canned tomatoes have a long shelf life and are an ingredient in many healthy dinner ideas, from soups and stews to casseroles.

Worried about the BPA lining in the cans? Don’t be. Almost all U.S. brands stopped using BPA (Bisphenol A) in cans years ago due to concerns about it negatively impacting brain health.

2. Oats

Ditch the oatmeal packets with added sugar and buy a bag of naturally gluten-free, old fashioned oats.

Oats are versatile, cheap, contain B vitamins and are a good source of healthy carbs and fiber. Some studies even suggest oats, as part of a well-balanced diet, could help prevent heart disease.

3. Peanut Butter

There is a perception that peanuts — and peanut butter in particular — are less healthy than other nut butters.

In fact, peanuts are one of the tree nuts highest in protein and have a heart-healthy profile similar to popular but more expensive nuts, such as almonds. As long as you don’t go at a jar of these healthy fats with a spoon and an oversized appetite, you’ll be fine.

4. Sweet Potatoes

Potatoes earn a bad rap as a starchy, carb-stuffed side dish. But a baked potato without all the extras is a powerful, relatively low-calorie source of magnesium.

If you want to deliver more nutritional value for your dollar, stick with sweet potatoes, which are also high in potassium and contain more fiber than white potatoes.

5. Beans and Lentils

“Pound for pound, the most inexpensive protein is canned beans,” says Wesley.

Beans cost as little as $1 per can, and black beans or red lentils make a great base for soups, tacos and bowls.

If you want to squeeze even more affordability out of these powerhouse proteins, give yourself more prep time and buy dried beans.

6. Canned Tuna

We’re on the hook for big bucks when we opt for fresh seafood at the grocery store. But many shoppers don’t know that canned tuna packs a similar nutritional value, especially when it comes to Vitamin D and eye health.

Concerned about mercury poisoning? While pregnant women are advised to limit their intake of canned tuna and other fish, you’d have to eat about three cans a day for six months before your mercury levels would become worrisome.

7. Frozen Vegetables

You’ve probably heard this, but it’s worth repeating. Inexpensive frozen veggies like green beans lock in better value because they’re preserved at peak freshness.

This is also true of canned fruits, although they are often accompanied by added sugar. (Look for labels that say “no added sugar” if that’s your preference.)

Canned vegetables run a close second in terms of value, but either option is great to toss into stir fries or bowls to cut down on time spent on meal prepping.

8. Frozen Berries

Disease-fighting berries are essential sources of nutrients meant to bolster your immune system. But it can be hard to afford fresh fruit, especially out of season.

Enter frozen berries, which are fantastic in smoothies and oatmeal, can camp out in the freezer for months and cost just a few dollars a bag.

9. Whole Grains

Whether it’s whole-grain pasta or brown rice, Wesley recommends stocking up on grains, even if it means buying more expensive, instant options.

“I always try to find that line between convenience and price,” Wesley says. “If it means you’ll cook more at home, buy the instant brown rice.”

Because most healthy dinner ideas have grain as a base, Wesley recommends making a big batch of quinoa or rice on the weekend and using one cup here or there in meals throughout the week.

10. Yogurt

While cottage cheese has a reputation as a health food, it’s yogurt that has the highest concentration of calcium and potassium, two nutrients key in preventing bone loss.

Greek yogurt is a favorite for its consistency and added protein, making it a good substitute for sour cream and other higher-fat dairy products.

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4 Steps to Preparing Healthy Meals at Home

While eating healthier is an important way to fight chronic diseases, it doesn’t matter what you buy if you don’t eat it. These are Wesley’s top tips for trimming food waste and making healthy, cheap meals at home.

Step 1: Begin With the End in Mind

Before you start, figure out your why and make it real and attainable.

Wesley tells people looking to break the cycle of takeout food and prepare more meals at home that it helps to have a goal.

For instance, one of her clients really wanted to take a trip to Paris.

“When we looked at what they were spending in DoorDash and Uber Eats, the money was right there,” she says.

Step 2: Buy in Bulk

Wesley says the biggest mistake she sees people making when filling their cart is buying overpriced cuts of meat for a specific meal.

“If I see a sale on a big package of pork chops, and they’re basically giving them away, I’m going for it,” she says.

She says she takes the pork chops home, divides them into meal portions and freezes them into individual bags for easy thawing later.

Step 3: Store Produce Properly

Wesley recommends storing produce in clear, humidity-controlled containers in the fridge.

“People go to the store with wonderful intentions. And then, at the end of the week, they end up throwing out food. Why? They’ve used those drawers every fridge comes with. I call them the “drawers of death.’”

If you stick produce in these bins, it’s usually out of sight, out of mind, Wesley says.

Step 4: Keep It Simple

Wesley recommends keeping it simple by learning how to build bowls and making a big batch of grains or cutting up vegetables over the weekend to cut down on prep time.

“If a recipe has more than six ingredients, throw it away,” Wesley says

Caught in the takeout cycle because weeknights are a race to the finish? Check out these cheap, easy meals to make this weekend and freeze.

Kaz Weida is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering saving money and budgeting. As a journalist, she has written about a wide array of topics including finance, health, politics, education and technology for the last decade.