12 Super Cheap, Super Nutritious Foods You Should Be Eating

by Tracy · 54 comments

Ramen noodles and store brand bologna are dirt cheap but not only are they unhealthy, the flavor is torture to most people’s taste buds. On the other hand, a diet of artisan cheeses, organic arugula and wild caught salmon is delicious, healthy and far too expensive for me to feed my family every night.

To eat well on a budget I look for foods that are packed with nutrients, naturally delicious and cost pennies a serving. Often, they are so cheap and abundant that I can afford to go for the organic version and feel great about what I put on the table for my family each night.

Here are twelve of the most delicious, inexpensive and nutritious foods your dollar can buy.

Sweet Potatoes: These are full of fiber and vitamins and taste terrific. I like them best simply roasted in just a tiny bit of olive oil; prepared this way they are gorgeously rich and sweet without adding butter or sugar. Sweet potatoes are also terrific in curries and stews.

Winter squash: Butternut, acorn and other hard squashes are terrific sources of vitamins and fiber. An added benefit is that they keep well, so you can buy them while doing your weekly shopping and not have to worry about them spoiling after just a day or two. One of my favorite dishes is a simple soup made of pureed squash served with homemade bread.

Lentils: Unlike beans, lentils do not require any presoaking and cook in just 20 minutes. They contain a good amount of protein and are very filling. While they have a pleasing flavor on their own, they also stand up well to strong spices and can be a good substitute for meat in dishes like curry and chili.

Collard greens: I happen to love traditional, long cooked mushy collards greens but if you’re not a fan try cutting them into thin strips and briefly sauté. Collards and other greens such as mustard, turnip and beet greens can all be prepared this way for an inexpensive and nutritious side dish. All dark green leafy vegetables contain vast amounts of phytonutrients and nearly all of them are extremely affordable.

Kale: I separated kale from the other dark green leafy vegetables because it can also be used in green smoothies as it’s not as tough and strong tasting as the others. In most areas, kale is a lot cheaper than chard or spinach or other salad greens, which makes it a budget friendly as well as healthy choice.

Cabbage: There is a reason that so many cultures have relied on cabbage as a dietary staple. It’s inexpensive, easy to find and prepare and tastes pretty good, too. Try shredded cabbage instead of iceberg lettuce on your tacos or slice it thinly and sauté lightly in olive oil with a bit of cumin.

Carrots: Don’t overlook the humble carrot, they are delicious eaten raw and are a great way to stretch more expensive vegetables in stir fries, stews and other dishes. They are also fairly hardy and can live in your crisper for quite a while so that you can always have them on hand.

Oatmeal: It’s not only for breakfast! You can use super healthy oatmeal in your baking to beef up the nutritional content of your goodies without spending a lot of cash. It can also be used in meatloaf and meatballs instead of bread crumbs. Steel cut oats are particularly delicious; they are more expensive than rolled oats but if you buy them from bulk bins at your health food store they are cheaper than processed cold cereals.

Bananas: These are one of the least expensive fruits that you can regularly find in your supermarket and are packed full of fiber and nutrients. They are so easy to set out on the counter for quick snacks and if they are starting to brown, you can pop them in the freezer, skin and all, to use later for smoothies and baking.

Strawberries: Don’t bother with strawberries off season, when they are expensive and not very flavorful, but in the spring and early summer when they are abundant and cheap, take full advantage. Strawberries are known for being loaded with antioxidants and fiber. They freeze beautifully so if you find a good price, save some to enjoy later in the year in smoothies, sauces and baked goods.

Dried beans: Beans are extremely versatile along with being cheap and nutritious. If you include meat in your diet, you can still stretch many soups and stews with beans to make a delicious, protein rich, filling one dish meal. Bean burritos, bean burgers and bean chili are all easy to make, very tasty and budget friendly.

Quinoa: This can be expensive if you buy it in boxes at the supermarket; however health food store bulk bins often have it for a very affordable price. You can use quinoa in the place of rice or potatoes as the starch component of a meal or cook it like oatmeal for a hearty breakfast cereal. Quinoa is a complete protein on its own and also contains a fair amount of iron and magnesium. One super easy way to prepare quinoa is by using a rice cooker.

If you are not familiar with any of these foods, try Googling the name of the ingredient plus recipe. Ethnic cuisines are a fantastic source of recipes and can give your diet a lot of variety while using inexpensive ingredients. Cheap food doesn’t have to equal low in nutrition; a lot of humble foods are incredibly good for you.

What are some of your favorite ways to prepare nutritious, inexpensive ingredients?

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{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

kt- lifedividend July 19, 2010 at 7:35 am

i hate that consistency o sweet potatoes so i never eat them without a lot of struggle. Other than that, i eat most of those things mentioned. It has been sometime since i eat or even saw strawberries, they dont grow in this country an currently in…i think

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Tracy July 20, 2010 at 10:01 am

My husband and children don’t care for sweet potatoes, either. I do make a black bean and sweet potato enchilada dish that my husband enjoys.

Honestly though, if you aren’t starving, I don’t think you should force yourself to eat any one food because it’s cheap & nutritious. There are plenty of other great foods to choose from.

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Luann August 11, 2010 at 10:06 am

Tracy,

I would love to have that recipe. Would you consider posting it?

Thanks for a great idea and a wonderful article.

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Marylou October 6, 2010 at 11:01 am

Hi Tracy
I would love that recipe also…
I tried mash potatoes with 2 white and one sweet and it was great, no butter needed.

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clarkai May 27, 2011 at 10:57 am

How about sweet potato fries? You can make them pretty crunchy, more like a chip, or more leathery, depending on how you cook them.

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Tara July 19, 2010 at 8:02 am

Almost all of these are in regular rotation at our house too. Another great thing about lentils is that you can sprout them quickly for a super-nutritious addition to salads or stir fries — or just eat them plain. If you start with organic lentils, you can have fresh and organic and inexpensive.

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Jenna July 19, 2010 at 9:01 am

Kale Chips. Super easy and yummy snack. Rip kale into salad sized pieces, toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of salt. Lay out on a baking sheet in an oven at 350*F for 20 minutes. Cool, then munch away.

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Tracy July 20, 2010 at 10:02 am

I keep meaning to try these, thanks for the reminder. We eat a lot of kale in colcannon, which is basically an Irish dish of mashed potatoes combined with sauteed kale. It has butter and cream in it, no maybe not the most healthy choice, but it sure is hearty, comforting and dirt cheap.

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Dan August 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm

We have made these and they are very good.

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Jeff August 29, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I’ve made these with ceyenne and/or curry for a little extra kick

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Lisa August 14, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I make the kale chips, too – we love them. I bought one of those oil spritzers and mix up olive oil and balsamic vinegar and spray it on the leaves before putting them in the oven – gives a salty taste without the sodium.

I wouldn’t eat kale plain like a green – but we eat a ton of these chips!

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Jeff July 19, 2010 at 10:59 am

There’s no nutrition in oatmeal. It is pressed through hot irons that destroy the grain. It is just fiber.

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Tracy July 20, 2010 at 10:08 am

Not all oats are rolled or pressed and it’s a whole grain food. The soluble fiber in oatmeal is great for you, it’s got a good deal of protein and carbohydrates from whole grain sources are a good source of energy for your body.

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Ryan July 21, 2010 at 9:40 am

I’ll have an order of hyperinsulinemia with a side of chronic inflammation, please… Energy crash for dessert. Thank you.

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vered July 19, 2010 at 11:16 am

Love this post. I agree with every word. I did read that it’s best to eat organic strawberries, which means they’re a bit more expensive. We try to get them from organic farmers at the local farmer’s market.

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Tracy July 20, 2010 at 10:10 am

I’ve noticed the price of organic berries have been steadily decreasing. At our farmer’s market, certified organic strawberries are more expensive, but there are plenty of farms that don’t use pesticides but aren’t certified yet and thus charge less.

Local farmer’s markets are a good source of “all but certified” organics at a reasonable price.

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Janet September 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm

They are also easy to grow – they have taken over my whole garden. Of course you only have them fresh from your garden during the short season they are ripe. But what a treat!

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Ruth November 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Organic strawberries do tend to taste a lot nicer (especially the British ones that I am lucky to enjoy!). The reason is often that most supermarkets demand consistency from farmers when it comes to size, colour etc, so they are grown under conditions that will make them look big and juicy for the customer. However, this method of stretches the fruit’s flavour.
You may find that organic strawberries are smaller and a little duller/darker in colour – they are still perfectly ripe but they are much sweeter! If the weather conditions are right where you live, try growing them yourself and you will notice the difference (and price).

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CreditShout July 19, 2010 at 11:28 am

These are great ideas to substitute for more expensive or off-season ingredients.

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Cd Phi July 19, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I love oatmeal. At Costco, they sell them in these pretty big packs so it lasts me quite awhile. I also love putting bananas in my oatmeal as well. Oatmeal is definitely a cheaper breakfast compared to eggs and sausage/bacon(not healthy).

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Jeff P September 24, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Being diabetic, I eat oatmeal 2-3 times a week. I add a large spoon of cinnamon, crushed walnuts and, when in season, fresh bluberries.
Minimal impact on blood sugar .

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Jamie July 19, 2010 at 1:21 pm

i want to look up so receipts for Sweet Potatoes i am bound and determined to find a way to incorporate these into a BBQ this summer.

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Arbey July 20, 2010 at 6:24 am

Recipie for Swt potatoes – slice them and season them and put them on the grill. Also, split in half, season and wrap in foil. Put on grill off the heat and let them cook turning every 3-4 minutes while all else cooks. Then put them over the hot spot for maybe two minutes – flat side down for a bit of toasting to finish.

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tony September 23, 2011 at 11:59 am

chop ‘em like a thick french fry and layer them in a crock pot with sprinkled brown sugar (and mini marshmallows if you want). Squeeze in the juice of an orange and cook on medium for 6-8 hours. It’s more of a Fall than a summer dish but its easy and delicious.

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Penny October 9, 2013 at 10:06 am

slice into 1/4 rounds or length wise. mix oil, lime juice and chili pdr.,salt and pepper and grill.

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Doug Warshauer July 19, 2010 at 5:57 pm

This is great information. On average, Americans spend about 14% of their after-tax income on food. It’s a great place to find savings, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to cut back. With this list, you’ve made it much easier.

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Benjamin Bankruptcy July 19, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I eat everything on that list:) Sweet potato is awesome and it makes great chips.

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gregory judelson July 20, 2010 at 12:01 am

just a quick word on strawberries… they are quite tasty but because they are grown in sand they require a very high amount of pesticides in order to grow, more than any other fruit.

i’d suggest blue berries or other berries, strawberries are not a healthy fruit option…

read dr andrew weils book – eating well for optimum health.

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Alissa Williams August 4, 2011 at 11:53 am

I grew up on a farm that sold strawberries. We never grew them in sand and were very careful to not use pesticides. It may depend on the area you live in.

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pennystocks2gold July 20, 2010 at 9:57 am

I absolutely LOVE lentil soup..

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heaps! July 20, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Most people use the excuse that it’s too expensive to eat healthy, and as you pointed out, this can be true for high-end organic, artisan produce. Thank you for outlining some of the more affordable healthy options, as these are all readily available in supermarkets.

In addition to the types of foods, we select, we can also cut costs by being choosy about where we get our food. Often, produce can be purchased for cheaper at local farmers’ markets instead of supermarket chains. This helps support local growers, eliminating costs that incur for transporting out-of-season or out-of-state-grown foods.

Another option is to grow your own food. This is a wonderful experience if you have a young family. Engaging your children in gardening promotes their health and food choice awareness – and it’s just downright good bonding time.

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Tisha July 23, 2010 at 10:26 am

I’ve tried growing some of my own produce, but what I found was that it costs me a lot more in the end than just buying them from the store. Maybe it’s fine if you live in regions with soil and weather conditions in which fruit and vegetable plants prosper — But for most of us west of the Missisppi river corridoor, that’s just not the case.

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Art Heart September 22, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Save all your kitchen scraps for compost & get manure. It can be done.

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Family Cooking July 25, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Great list – my favourite way to cook sweet potato is simply to wrap the whole potato in foil and bake until soft. Then you just have to peel away the skin and slice it up – yum.

One food I would add is kangaroo mince, something we can buy easily in Australia. It is 99% fat free, very high in iron and cheap to buy – about half the price of regular mince. It is also a free range meat, so good all round.

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Katie September 22, 2010 at 12:28 pm

No offense, but most people outside australia cant even fathom eating an adorable kangaroo. I know I can’t.

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Morgan July 30, 2010 at 7:43 pm

I started making my steel cut oats in a rice cooker set to brown rice mode. So when I wake up they are ready having cooked earlier in the morning with the timer setting. Then I throw some brown rice in there after breakfast and set the timer to have it ready at 11:30am.

It makes a huge difference on a diet when the prep-time on a meal like this is basically reduced to 2-3 minutes.

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Edina August 1, 2010 at 3:23 pm

That is a great habit you’ve picked up.

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Karen Conlin August 11, 2010 at 10:26 am

You can also cook steel-cut oats in a small crock pot. The usual ratio of 1 cup oats/4 cups water, stir once or twice, cover, set on low, go to bed. Come morning they’re done and ready to serve. (And in the summer heat/humidity, anything that reduces kitchen heat is welcome here.)

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Karen Conlin August 11, 2010 at 9:53 am

Bananas make a delicious substitute for soft-serve ice cream, too. Wait until they’re mushy and brown, the way you want them for banana bread. Peel them, cut them into chunks, put them in ziplocks, and pop ‘em in the freezer. When you want to use them, microwave for just a few seconds to soften ever so slightly, put ‘em in the food processor, and whirr ‘em until they become smooth and creamy. WATCH THEM. It happens all at once. If you over-process, they’ll melt too quickly. Scoop out the creamy cold deliciousness, and serve in a pretty glass ice cream dish–perhaps with a few mini semisweet chocolate chips or a drizzle of sugar-free chocolate syrup.

YUM.

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jen August 16, 2010 at 10:21 am

we love & eat all of these regularly, what a great list & info. sometimes we use collards in smoothies but not a lot, just a leaf or two. and my favorite cookie has got to be an oatmeal no bake with coconut oil, honey, coconut, cacao nibs and gogi berries. we don’t indulge in them a lot but they are so yummy.
i would also add avocados on the list because they’re relatively inexpensive, especially in season.

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Janet August 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I would add apples (in season) to the list. They are a great source of soluble fiber and serve as a “pre-biotic” — food for the good gut bacteria. Although short on vitamins A and C that we usually expect from our fruit, the addage “an apple a day…” came from somewhere. Also, if you have a sunny spot in your garden, try growing strawberries. They have taken over my garden.

Thanks for all the good info.

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das August 25, 2010 at 1:05 am

my girlfriend has recently changed me my favorite white rice to qiunoa and haven’t looked back

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Lauren September 6, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Very excellent list. I definitely believe that you don’t have to spend a lot to eat healthy. My go-to greens are usually spinach, but this list reminded me to try some other dark leafy greens that may be less than spinach.
Quinoa is definitely one of my staples, and your tip for buying from the bulk bins is very true. It can be around 4-5 dollars a pound in a box, but half that cost in bulk bins. I use it, or barley/brown rice/any other whole grain to make cold salads. I usually make a mustardy dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, brown mustard, salt and pepper, and whatever fresh herbs I have. (thyme is really good and easy to grow on the countertop) I then toss the grain with cut up cukes/peppers/capers/feta cheese/whatever I have. It quick and easy to tweak to your tastes.

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KarenK September 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I, too, am a fan of most of these foods but have never tried the sauteed cabbage with a little cumin. That will be my supper tonight. I love quinoa curry with fresh zucchini, squash, grape tomatoes, a bit of onion and some mushrooms.

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Carla September 30, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Don’t forget the free and healthy stuff. Dandelion greens, docks/rumex, in fall, there are chestnuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, persimmon.

There are many, many completely free foods out there that are much healthier than the stuff you buy in the store.

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Natalie October 10, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Bananas are delicious, but they are only “cheap” because the multinational corporations that sell them to US stores don’t pay their workers a fair wage.

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Sweet Georgia Peach November 8, 2010 at 10:17 am

What a great post. It inspired me to go searching for recipes, which I made a list of on my blog: here. Both individual ingredient and combo ingredients…I just went shopping to try them out this week. So excited.

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Reggie November 9, 2010 at 6:50 pm

I really enjoyed reading this list of “goodness.” As a Certified Holistic Health Coach, this really hit the mark. This is the type of information I offer to my clients. I would like to parsnips to this list. Very nutritious and very few know about them.

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mike December 22, 2010 at 8:48 pm

These sound mostly gross. Also, carrots lead to the messiest BMs EVER. I eat quite healthy, but I avoid C-rots for that very reason.

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Kristl Story February 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm

No excuses for not eating healthy with this grocery list in hand. I hear way too many people saying they can’t afford to eat healthy because in their mind they think it means eat organic.

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Judy Joness March 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm

What is quinoa I’ve never heard of it. Also I make a bowl of oatmeasl in my microwave I use one part oats to two parts cold water.

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Moira May 27, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Judy, quinoa is a highly nutritious seed that cooks up like a grain in about 12 minutes, 2-1 water. Wash it first, bring it to a quick boil, then turn to low for 10. Find it in any health food store. Here’s a great easy recipe for Mediterranean quinoa salad: http://feelgoodguru.com/earth-day

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ellis jard June 1, 2011 at 10:34 am

How can you not like sweet potatoes? Unless you’re eating ‘em canner or your only exposure has been the godawful Thanksgiving/holiday sweet potatoes w/marshmallows. Whoever invented that recipe should spend a good long time in Purgatory repenting.

Try the white Japanese sweet potatoes. Real yams are better (more expensive usually, but not that much, if you can actually find them).

And people who hate eggplant don’t know what they’re missing. See Szechuen eggplant stirfry–again, use Japanese or Thai eggplants. But my favorite eggplant recipe that takes oodles of time and effort is a good eggplant moussaka, from scratch.

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Priswell July 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I’ll give them their dues for nutrition and all that, but I can’t. . .stand. . .sweet potatoes. Can’t even stand the smell of them cooking.

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