They say that good nutrition needn't cost a lot, but I have doubts when I notice Whole Foods groceries ringing up at $50 a bag. To uncover some tips and tricks for healthy eating on a budget, I quizzed experts—RDs, trainers, and nutritionists—for their best advice. Here are their five key principles of feeding yourself well on the cheap:
Whole Grains + Legumes = Lotsa Nutrition for Little $
"Once a week I cook a big pot of brown rice or quinoa—it's an inexpensive and versatile addition to meals throughout the week." –Michelle Pfennighaus, Virginia-based health coach.
"I like to cook a pot of beans once a week—try a different variety each week, such as lima, cranberry, chick peas. I simmer them with onion, garlic, herbs, carrots, celery, and vegetable broth. They're packed with fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and they make an expensive, nutrient packed entree or side dish all week long. ." —Sharon Palmer, RD, dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet.
"I love to cook steel cut oats for breakfast, for mere pennies a serving, they can be blended with nuts, milk or soy milk, and fruit and offer a complete meal. Plus they are good for the heart and keep me feeling full until lunch." —Palmer
Skip Packaged Snacks
"The snack food culture is full of empty calories and wasted dollars. Eating well at each meal means I don't need to graze in between, or buy costly crackers, chips or other quick snacks." —Pfennighaus
"Repeat after me: 100-calorie packs are NOT healthy, they are pre-portioned junk-food. Plus, 100-calorie packs are 16 to 279% more expensive than the larger packs. Grab a piece of fresh fruit for less than 100 calories, get nutrition, and shell out only 19 cents for a banana at Target (or a max of 99 even at Starbucks!)." —Angela Manzanares, founder of Fitlosophy, maker of the Fitbook
Pack Your Own Lunch
"Did you know that a loaf of bread, lean turkey breast lunch meat and the fixings for a healthy side salad cost you about $10 and yields abour 10 meals? That's going to run you about $1/meal whereas eating out can easily cost between $4 (at a super unhealthy fast food joint) to $10-15 at a restaurant. The average American spends about $7 per day on lunch—enjoy a brown bag sami and salad instead and save $2190 in a year!" —Manzanares
Buy Good Stuff in Bulk
"Go to Costco or Sam's Club and stock up on the non-perishable or freezable items such as lean chicken breasts, big boxes of brown rice, and frozen bags of vegetables that could feed an army. Bonus: Your fridge will be so full that you won't have room for unhealthy options!" —Manzanares
"Canned beans, canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables are staples in most of my meals. They are affordable, nutritious and picked or canned at the peak of freshness." —Kirsten Helle, Seattle-area personal chef and nutrition consultant at Mesa de Vida
"Buy all of your grains, nuts, seeds, flours, oats, sugars in the bulk food section. Just a fraction of the cost and a great selection." —Helle
Fill Up on Low-Cost Veggies
"Buy what is local and in season from farms. Best prices, best selection." —Helle
"Greens like kale and chard can be a nutrition steal! These hearty greens are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, such as lutein which us good for your eyes. They are also rich in calcium, important if you avoid dairy products. I chop them into a simple salad tossed with a lemon vinaigrette and walnuts and dried cranberries. Or I simmer them with garlic and olive oil. Yum!" —Palmer
"To save money and calories, stretch out your protein by incorporating nutrient dense veggies. Take plain ground meat, whether lean turkey, beef, or pork, and add veggies like chopped spinach, shredded squash, carrots or zucchini, or diced mushrooms and onions. With a few spices, you can have chilli, meatballs, burgers, meatloaf or even 'sausage' patties." —Liz Barnet, NYC fitness and nutrition coach.
"You can make easy and inexpensive soups and chilies by throwing in on-sale or leftover veggies, canned beans, and ground turkey into a pot with chicken broth or tomato sauce. Add whatever spices you want to taste, and you're done." Michelle L. Butler, Los Angeles holistic nutritionist and health consultant.
Make Two (or Three)- for-One Meals
"Menu plan and buy just what you need. There is so much less waste this way!" —Helle
"Make cook once-eat twice meals. Every week I prepare a slow cooker meal with extra protein. That extra protein turns into another completely different meal by just adding maybe some whole grain pasta, cooked quinoa or brown rice and frozen vegetables or maybe something I got from the farm like chard or kale or beets." —Helle
"Keep a well-stocked pantry of essentials to create quick, healthy, delicious meals with just the canned/frozen/bulk items you keep on hand. Tamari soy, dried herbs, garlic, vinegar take any meal and make it amazing if you know what to do with them." —Helle
"Gluten-free pasta comes around $3 a bag and makes many many servings, so I love to make a pot of it, then add whatever veggies and proteins are on sale. For instance, last week I sauteed garlic, onions, spinach, brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and chicken sausage in a pan with some $2 white wine and olive oil, then threw it over the pasta. Done in 20 minutes, super cheap, and makes multiple meals!" —Butler
More Advice for Good Nutrition on the Cheap: