Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The 10 Cheapest, Healthiest Foods Money Can Buy

Whether you’re broke and waiting for the next paycheck, or simply trying to cut back on your grocery bill, it’s vital to choose foods that give you the healthiest bang for your hard-earned buck.

These ten foods do just that. They’re nutritional powerhouses for pennies on the dollar. Many could be considered superfoods, and have long been staples of frugal households. I included almost all of them (sorry, lentils) for CHG's $25 Challenge, and you’ll see that Hillbilly Housewife uses quite a few in her famous $45 Emergency Menu, as well.

To compile the final list, there were three main criteria. Each food is:
  • Versatile. It can be eaten on it own or used as an ingredient in other dishes.
  • Inexpensive. A serving will cost a few dimes or nickels.
  • Nutritious. It packs high percentages of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and/or calories. (Note: To be totally honest, some important, but fairly obscure minerals are included here. Manganese? I thought it was a capital in Southeast Asia. It is not, and oatmeal has 147% of the USDA-recommended daily allowance.)
Bonus: since most of the list is comprised of produce, grains, and legumes, it’s fairly environmentally and ethically sound, as well.

Of course, your opinion on some of these foods (particularly the first) might differ, and I’d love to hear what you would have included instead. But first, before we get started, two quick notes:
  • All prices are the lowest available from Peapod (Stop & Shop) on 4/6/10.
  • All nutrition data comes from, uh, Nutrition Data and is approximate. Serving sizes are noted.
Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist, and these choices reflect my own opinion, so take ‘em with a grain of salt. (Or don’t, because, you know - not a nutritionist.)

Are there better-rounded fruits? Absolutely. Berries will single-handedly protect you from every known disease and fight off communism. But they are inordinately pricey little buggers (especially out of season), and for the money, don’t compare to a good ol’ Cavendish banana. Lesson: Always listen to the monkeys.

Serving size: One large (5oz) banana.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.33 each
Good source of: Fiber (14% of a 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin C (20%), Vitamin B6 (25%), Potassium (14%), Manganese (18%)
Suggested recipe: Three-Ingredient Banana, Honey, and Peanut Butter Ice Cream

We’ve discussed beans ad nauseum here on CHG, and for good reason: there are fewer cheaper sources of protein and fiber found on Earth. (Maybe Mars?) Their mutability means you can pack them into just about any recipe, and with a range of flavors and sizes, everyone’s palate will be equally pleased. Plus: hilarious farting.

Serving size: Half a cup of cooked black beans.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost, canned: $0.21 per serving ($0.75/15oz can)
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost, dried: $0.15 per serving ($1.50/1lb bag)
Good source of: Fiber (30% of a 2000-calorie diet), Iron (10%), Protein (15%), Thiamin (14%), Folate (32%), Magnesium (15%), Phosphorus (12%), Manganese (19%)
Suggested recipe: Black Bean Soup with a Fried Egg on Top

Canned tomatoes are here not as a snack or a stand-alone food, but an ingredient. Simply, they’re the basis for innumerable recipes across countless cuisines; sauces, soups, stews, and chilis wouldn’t exist was it not for the humble tomato. And yeah, if you’re the type to dig in a can of Progresso with a spoon, that’s okay too.

Serving size: One cup canned whole peeled tomatoes
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.48 per serving ($1.67/28oz can)
Good source of: Fiber (10% of a 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin C (37%), Iron (13%), Vitamin B6 (13%), Potassium (13%), Sodium (14%)
Suggested recipe: Tomato and Bread Soup

Bugs Bunny was on to something. But while carrots can be eaten raw to great merriment, they’re also excellent roasted, braised, in soups, and mixed with other foods. Hint: for snacking purposes, skip the bags of baby carrots ($1.50), buy a pound of full growns ($0.66), and chop ‘em up yourself. You save $0.84 every time.

Serving size: One cup raw carrot sticks.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.13 per serving ($0.50/lb)
Good source of: Fiber (14% of a USDA 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin A (408%), Vitamin C (12%), Vitamin K (20%), Potassium (11%)
Suggested recipe: Honey-glazed Roasted Carrots

Apparently, Popeye was on to something, too. (What is it with these cartoon characters?) Spinach is just about the healthiest food you can buy, and it’s easy to sneak little bits into a plethora of different dishes. Here, I’m going for frozen spinach over fresh for two reasons. First, it’s generally cheaper, and you can find better sales. Second, it takes up less space. For those of us with limited refrigerator storage, that’s important.

Serving size: Five ounces unprepared frozen spinach.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.50 per serving ($1.00/10oz bag)
Good source of: Fiber (16% of a 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin A (333%), Vitamin C (13%), Calcium (18%), Iron (15%), Protein (10-11%), Vitamin K (660%), Vitamin E (20%), Riboflavin (18%), Vitamin B6 (12%), Folate (51%), Magnesium (26%),. Manganese (50%), Copper (10%), Potassium (14%), Selenium (112%)
Suggested recipe: Italian White Bean and Spinach Soup

Full disclosure: I knew lentils were good for you, but didn’t have any idea HOW good until researching this piece. And $0.11 per serving? My god. No wonder they’re eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner around the world.

Serving size: One-quarter cup of lentils, unprepared.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.11 per serving ($0.79/1lb bag)
Good source of: Fiber (58% of a 2000-calorie diet), Iron (20%), Protein (25%), Thiamin (28%), Vitamin B6 (13%), Folate (57%), Pantothenic Acid (10%), Magnesium (14%), Phosphorus (22%), Potassium (13%), Zinc (15%), Copper (12%), Manganese (32%)
Suggested recipe: Red Lentil Soup with Lemon

Here’s a riddle: what comes in a can, goes in a muffin, or can be boiled with raisins? (If you said “bunnies,” you are sick in the head.) It’s oatmeal, folks! High in fiber and all kinds of exciting minerals, it’s appropriate for every meal. Combine it with sweeter flavors for breakfast, or soy sauce and scallions for a strangely delicious lunch.

Serving size: Half a cup unprepared old-fashioned rolled oats:
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.12 per serving ($3.69/42oz canister)
Good source of: Fiber (16% of a 2000-calorie diet), Protein (10%), Thiamin (12%), Iron (10%), Magnesium (14%), Phosphorus (11%), Zinc (10%), Manganese (73%), Selenium (16%)
Suggested recipe: Banana Oatmeal Muffins

Throughout childhood, peanut butter was as universal as Sesame Street and possibly even my mother. Even today, spooning some out of the jar is a good time, and adding a dollop into stew or oatmeal positively feels like a treat. And though PB is high in fat, it’s a good kind.

Serving size: Two tablespoons chunky peanut butter.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.15 per serving ($2.39/18oz jar)
Good source of: Calories (9% of a 2000 calorie diet), fat (25%), fiber (10%), protein (15%, Niacin (22%), vitamin E (10%), Manganese (29%), phosphorus (10%), Magnesium (13%)
Suggested recipe: Indonesian Bean Stew

Yes, peas.

Serving size: Half a cup frozen peas, unprepared
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.23 per serving ($3.00/2lb bag)
Good source of: Fiber (12% of a 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin A (22%), Vitamin C (20%), Vitamin K (23%), Thiamin (11%), Manganese (11%)
Suggested recipe: Easy Pea Soup

Rounding out the list, it’s the tastiest of all natural starches: the sweet potato (or yam, if you’re feeling semantic). Sweet potatoes have all the benefits and cooking versatility of regular potatoes, plus lots of fiber, a metric ton of Vitamin A, and an alluring orange color. Enter their world, and you will never want to leave.

Serving size: One cup cubed (about 4.75 oz).
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.50 per potato
Good Source of: Fiber (16% of 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin A (377%), Vitamin B6 (14%), Potassium (13%), Copper (10%), Manganese (17%)
Suggested recipe: Sweet Potato and Chickpea Puree

Readers, what do you think of the list? What would you add? What would you leave off? The comment section is ready and waiting.

(Photos courtesy of Human 2.0, Real Simple, Zeer, Converting Magazine, and How Stuff Works.)


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Wendy (The Local Cook) said...

As someone who is eco-conscious, I'd skip the bananas (not local) and try to grow your own veggies when possible. Even cheaper, plus it's fresh! Also look into foraging - lots of people have berries or other fruit trees they never pick from.

Liz said...

This is a great list of 10! In my household I would probably add corn to my list because I use it in so much stuff and it's not very expensive.

Aaron said...

I have to say I'm weary of canned tomatoes with all the latest news about BPA from canned foods, especially acidic ones. Otherwise, I'd have added quinoa, cheap, healthy, and high in protein.

Jersey Mom said...

Great list. I LOVE bake sweet potatoes! Bananas are one of my kids' favorite fruits!

wosnes said...

I don't know that I'd eliminate anything on the list, but I'd add rice and/or potatoes and eggs. I realize sweet potatoes are on the list, but both white potatoes and sweet potatoes are always in my pantry.

I've always thought that if rice is the most consumed grain worldwide, then lentils must be the most consumed legume. But I read somewhere that the most consumed legume is chickpeas. I use both frequently.

Anonymous said...

Except for the spinach, the other nine are absolute staples in my house. I know the bananas iffy, but I always keep a bunch. A banana with a spoonful of peanut butter gives me great bang for my buck and always holds me over until the next meal. Lentils...I Love U!

Shayn said...

I'd add millet to the list. It's almost always the cheapest grain in the bulk section, and as far as grains go, it's a nutritional powerhouse. Makes a really tasty fermented porridge too.

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you really want to be semantic about sweet potatoes, "yam" is incorrect :). A yam is a totally different tuber:

Cooklyn Veg said...

What an excellent list! - love the inclusion of frozen spinach, I use in place of fresh all the time and don't notice any difference in taste, and it saves so much space.

Sena said...

I would add winter squash to the list. Comes in a nice variety, stores well, can be cooked in various ways and provides nutritionally necessary oils along with all the rest of its goodness.

Jaime said...

Amen! Lentils and bananas, especially, are my cheap go-tos. I found kale for $1.29/lb yesterday - I think I got about 8 servings for $3. I love its taste, but it also cooks down so much less than spinach, and foods that take up more space just feel like more food to me.

In fact, if $0.37/serving kale stands in for spinach, dinner last night was almost entirely off of this list: lentils with kale and canned diced tomatoes (plus an onion), with a side of roasted sweet potatoes.

I don't know what I would do without lentils, I love them so.

Girl on a Journey said...

Brown Rice - totally a staple. Cheap easy to cook, literally can go with anything or put anything on top of it for a quick and healthy meal!

Camille said...

Good list and I have almost all of it in my kitchen at all times! I did make the decision to avoid canned tomatoes due to BPA concerns. It's been tough making the switch, but I just freeze fresh tomatoes instead.

Elizabeth Jarrard said...

excellent post!!
buy the non-perishable staples in the bulk section and you're set!

Anja said...

Eggs, I would definitely add eggs. So much you can do with them, a thousand different ways to prepare them, even pair them with all the other staples on your list. And pretty good for protein content too.

ScienceandtheCity said...

What a great list! I keep almost all of those on hand. I don't eat that many bananas, but I like that fruit is included in the list. I would add eggs, and I second the winter squash idea.

Diane said...

I'd leave off oatmeal, and include bulgar or rice. They are my go-to starches - I don't like oatmeal & never eat it. Yeah, white rice isn't that great for you, but it's versatile - fried rice, rice pudding, rice pilaf, rice in soups. Since I eat almost all Asian food, it would be way better for my meal planning too. I suppose you could do rosematta (parboiled red) or brown instead.

Me, I'd put apples in place of bananas - they work for breakfast (applesauce), lunch and dinner. And I can get them for around 0.60/lb.

CJ said...

I'd omit oatmeal and add eggs.
Toss up between sweet potatoes and carrots. Would be nice to replace one or the other with curly dark green kale.

All in all, a great list.

Daniel Negron said...

For the peanut butter, I would definitely go Smuckers Natural instead of the sugar filled Chunky. Its not that much more and its much healthier.

Gabrielle said...

EXCELLENT list! I think it's nearly perfect. Some of the suggested add-ons aren't nearly as healthy as the ones on the list. Eggs would be a good one to add though--it's hard to beat eggs for vitamin content and fat content (high fat is good for my growing 1 year old). I love the inclusion of oatmeal. True tightwads don't buy much cold cereal.

We cook with most of these things on a regular basis, except for lentils and spinach. Anyone have a good lentil recipe that's not meatless and that my Cajun husband will love? I'd appreciate ideas on cooking with lentils and spinach that still have meat and aren't soups. We already have tons of soups that we cook.

Anonymous said...

Everything on the list is in my kitchen. I would add a roasting chicken, can get them on sale for 79 cents a pound and two of us get 11 separate servings! Start with a roast chicken dinner, then sandwiches for lunch all week, a chicken pot pie later in the week and ending with a great boneyard soup. It is positively the best buy for people who eat meat.

Jaime said...

Gabrielle, I usually eat lentils mixed in with sauteed vegetables - I cook an onion dark and sweet, then some kale, garlic, and maybe adding chopped carrots at the last minute. I cook the lentils separately - boiled with a couple of bay leaves, then salted after they're drained. I bet starting the sautee with some bacon or pancetta, and then cooking the vegetables in that fat, would be super good.

cocolalique said...

I would add canned/powdered milk to my list. Beans/legumes/pastas/rice has always been staples in my household. Lots of frozen veggies and canned tomato products. Also canned mackrel, tuna fish.

eatclosetohome said...

I'd add cabbage. You can eat it raw or cooked (it makes awesome slaw-like salads just by adding your favorite dressing or oil/vinegar/salt) and it's very nutritious. I also love that it keeps forever in the fridge - no waste. Often only 25 cents a pound (2 cents per half-cup serving) and I think it's a winner!

Missy said...

Great list! I would add cabbage. It doesn't sound very appetizing, but it is very cheap and can be made into salads, tossed into soups and stir-frys for bulk and great flavor.

GrowingRaw said...

Good list, if I could add anything I'd add mung beans. They're cheap and you can either sprout them for a protein powerhouse or cook them up in stews, soups and curries.

Anonymous said...

Healthy is relative. In our house, the bananas, peas, and oatmeal are high carb.

Steve Mandzik said...

These foods are not the healthiest, not even close. It would be better to talk about food in terms of quality. Not all bananas are the same. Some are very old or picked before ripe. Studies are also showing that most supermarket foods are picked at their lowest quality, as a way for them to manufacture more of them.

Lower quality ones can be as much as 1/3 worse than high quality ones. So just saying eat a banana isn't enough. Yes, its better than eating fast food, but I wouldn't call it healthy.

Health comes from eating foods that are high quality. That is determined by their age (freshness) and their seasonality. This means that a peach harvested in the peak of summer heat will have the most nutrients.

Sadly, this knowledge is lost to us even though it determined our eating habits for 10,000 years. Now we are dependent on food science and marketing. Which judging by our current health epidemic is completely failing.

if you want to learn more or read those studies please email me

Broke by Choice said...

Thanks for the this post. I have been trying to eat healthier (more alkaline) and this will help alot.

Anonymous said...

Oatmeal is healthy? Far from it. Like all grains, it spikes your blood sugar almost immediately.

Anonymous said...

Bananas are the lowest-nutrition-per-gram fruits. You get more bulk, but it's just starch. On the other hand, they substitute for other desserts and are highly portable.

I'd leave off the peas - seriously? - and add eggs, liver, cabbage/kale, garlic, and parsley.

Chris said...

Sweet potato fries with basil salt. Look up the recipe and you're welcome for changing your life.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to go with the cabbage (I'll swap it for the spinach, but with a modification). Leafy greens (spinach, etc.) are one of the worst for pesticides, so if you can get organic for cheap it's a good choice, but if/when you can't, cabbage might be a better choice.
Some ideas for getting organic spinach for cheap: grow your own -- it can be overwintered in zone 5 (in colder zones, you may need to cover it after the fall equinox in zone 5), or find a local organic grower who sells it cheap, or buy the organic from Trader Joe's if you have it nearby (don't have the price nearby, but am guessing that it's $1-2 for a 16 oz bag).
A question about the sweet potatoes: regular potatoes show up on most "buy organic" or dirty dozen lists because of the fungicides that are used for storage. Does anyone know whether fungicides are used for sweet potatoes as well? If yes, winter squash may be a better choice than sweet potatoes . . .

Anonymous said...

I definately agree with this list; we have almost all those as a staple in our home. I would add, however, whole wheat flour, soybeans and replace can tomatoes w/ tomatoe sauce.

dining tables said...

This is a great list of 10 indeed. I have been planning to go to grocery today. And I am very thankful that I found this blog now I know what I should buy. said...

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Lisa said...

I’d like to address Steve’s comment above.

I don't disagree with what you're saying. In a perfect world, where everyone had ideal income and ideal access to the freshness you describe, I'd be cheering your comments.

But keeping in mind that this is also a blog about frugality, it’s not realistic for most people to consider paying the prices merchants charge for the foods you describe or foraging for their own super-fresh, totally organic/free range/peak-of-perfection food.

If an article like this gets people out of unhealthy eating ruts and points them in the right direction, it’s a good thing. Nitpicking at good advice only contributes to people feeling as though it’s impossible to change their unhealthy habits. Appreciate the info in the article for what it is, not for how much traffic it sends to your site (tacky, dude).

Steve Mandzik said...

@Lisa - so basically ur saying one of two things. Good food is too expensive or hard to find. Or, the system is broken so don't even try to address the problems just be happy that someone is trying..

One the first point, good food is not expensive. On a pound/pound, nutrient/nutrient basis it is cheaper. Extremely cheap. The trouble here is that what is considered healthy by most is just plain wrong. There is no scientific consensus whatsoever on it.

For example, did you know that milk removes calcium from a woman's body?

That is accepted by the scientific community and has been for years. The reason why we think the opposite has a large part to do with marketing and commercials. Even worse all the extra money spent on milk to build calcium is actually removing it, that is expensive!

To your second point that I shouldn't snipe at someone for trying. I think I really should. If you are going to post recommendations you have to be willing to accept critical feedback. Especially if the intention is to promote deeper thinking, better solutions, and smarter suggestions.

Personally, I think we are in this situation of an extremely unhealthy culture for just that reason. We are not willing to question or even go out of our way on a Saturday to explore a farmers market.

PS - i put my email address in the comment not because I want a profit but because I run a non-profit org that helps people to better understand just these issues.

vomitingunicorn said...

Steve, your comment on milk removing calcium from the body is misleading. When a diet high in animal protein is consumed, the blood's PH level is made very acidic. The body then leeches (removes) calcium from the bones in order to neutralize the acid, but drinking a 3 glasses of milk a day cannot alone cause calcium leeching. combining it with the ridiculously high levels of meat, eggs and other high protein foods consumed by the american population is what causes it. a serving of meat shouldn't exceed the size of the palm of your hand, and shouldnt be eaten on a daily basis. menopause also causes loss of calcium, which combined with a high protein diet and lack of muscle building excercise makes women extremely susceptible to calcium loss. if you dont eat excessive amounts of meat, theres no need to give up milk. if you eat large amounts of meat on a daily basis, you should cut back on milk/dairy and eat more calcium rich vegetables. oh, and find out which milk brands in your area have added milk permeates, this waters down the milk and makes it cheaper, but higher in protein and carbs.

kesha said...

yes, i do agree with you. serving our own foods will save more money than buying those junk foods. but i disagree with that frozen spinach. even though it is a vegetable, i think it will be better if we take fresh vegies.

Fiona said...

I'm visiting from New Zealand where I buy pureed tomatoes in glass bottles imported from the Mediterranea (high food miles) but eliminates the concern re cans and tastes better. I guess they must be on the shelves here too. We can also get Trade Aid bananas bought direct from the growers. Thank you for the Good list.

Sherri@FoodBasics101 said...

Excellent info and so timely considering the rising cost of groceries! I would suggest eggs also as they are an inexpensive source of protein.

Anonymous said...

Love the list. I would add raw sunflower seeds as a protein ($1.50 lb) and raisins as a fruit ($1.50 lb.). Both are cheap, fast and convenient. I generally limit myself to pay $1 a lb or less for veggies and many times I can get loose beets, broccoli and cauliflower at that price or better.

Note; When eating nuts or seeds or dried fruit, cut your serving in half. For example if you were eating 4 oz of protein, have just 2 oz of sunflower seeds for your protein. Same with dried fruit, if you're having a 6 oz serving of fruit, go for 3 oz of raisins.

Little wife said...

Love the list I have all of them in my kitchen :-) but I would also add eggs. And put a plug in for growing your own veggies. It's much cheaper, healthier, and relaxing to boot!!

Anonymous said...

I don't know why all these people are saying "I would add this or that". Almost all of the suggestions given are either not very healthy (regular potatoes, white rice, corn) or not cheap (specialized organic foods, season fruits/veggies). This list is pretty good for what it advertizes. The only really good suggestion made is to add cabbage

JTPhilly said...

It's a pretty good list of readily available - many at a convenience store or basic grocery of nutritious foods that have a good amount of calories and nutrition for the money. There are plenty of other and perhaps better choices but this is a good list for the average person with limited access and budget to make better choices about food. Bananas may not be local and canned tomatoes have some BPA but you are still way ahead if your alternative was frozen pizza or McDonalds. In the end if it's whole or minimally processed and has one or maybe 3 ingredients - it is good food. The benefits of "local" are debatable but I do refuse to buy frozen broccoli from China - that just feels silly

Anonymous said...

You could blend all these superfoods together and make a tasty slosh which you could freeze for later. Oh yeah so yummy and it fits into my budget

Anonymous said...

What about chocolate?

Mina said...

Great list, but I will add apple on my list :)