Eating healthy on a budget sounds difficult, but the truth is eating homemade meals can be far less expensive than dining out. Plus, you know exactly what you’re putting into your body. No hidden chemicals, artificial flavoring or coloring, sodium, fats, or sugars. And, more often that not, homemade meals taste better than their mass-produced counterparts.
Still, there are some tricks to buying the right foods that are both affordable and packed with nutrients.
Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods
One way to get the most nutritional bang for your buck is to eat more nutrient-dense foods. These are often referred to as “superfoods” and contain a wide variety of nutrients in a single serving. According to the USDA, “Nutrient-dense foods and beverages provide vitamins, minerals, and other substances that may have positive health effects with relatively few calories.”
The USDA includes the following nutrient-dense foods in their guidelines: “All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, and unprocessed lean meats and poultry.”
To enhance the nutrient density of these foods even more, eat organic, pesticide-free, free-range, grass-fed, and antibiotic-free versions as often as possible. Use the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists as guidelines for which produce is best consumed organic.
Which Foods Are Nutrient Dense?
In the books Healing Foods, Eat Your Way to a Healthier Life, and The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, the following foods are listed as some of the most nutrient-rich available. Fortunately, these foods are also fairly inexpensive and taste great.
- Oats, Quinoa—excellent whole grains with minimal blood sugar impact; high in fiber and protein; antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; high in minerals.
- Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale (all cruciferous veggies)—high in cancer-fighting sulforaphane and indoles; anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, with phytonutrients that boost the immune system, and support eye, liver, and skin health; high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals; low in carbohydrates.
- Carrots, Beets, Sweet Potatoes—high in carotenoid antioxidants including beta-carotene which offers a host of health benefits; high in vitamins C, A, and potassium. Because they grow underground, root vegetables are lower on the pesticide list so conventionally grown sources are usually ok.
- Salmon, Sardines—high-quality protein; high in Omega-3’s which are anti-inflammatory and help improve brain function; high in vitamins A, B, and D; the bones are a great source of calcium. Look for canned salmon and sardines in BPA-free cans.
- Nuts, Seeds—high in protein and essential fatty acids; good sources of magnesium and fiber; walnuts are high in omega-3’s; eating nuts has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Beans, Peas—a great source of protein and fiber; high in vitamins and minerals including iron; high in antioxidants; low in calories; contain cancer-fighting phytonutrients.
- Blueberries—high in antioxidants as well as antibacterial properties, contain cancer-fighting, blood-building phytonutrients that also support eye health and brain function; because they can be high in pesticides blueberries are best eaten organic whenever possible. Keep a bag of frozen organic blueberries on hand in your freezer.
Buy Local or Grow Your Own Produce
Shopping at Farmers Markets or joining a local CSA (community supported agriculture) is a good way to save money on produce. If you have a green thumb you can grow a veggie garden in your backyard, or join a community garden in your city or town.
Save the Pricier Foods for Special Occasions
Shop seasonally and on sale. Make most of your meals out of standard, inexpensive fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains like those listed above. Save the fancier more, expensive varieties for special occasions.
Cheap, Healthy Recipes
A day’s worth of nutrient-rich, low-cost healthy recipes will help get you started.
Breakfast: Oats with Nuts, Berries, and Coconut Milk
This high-protein, high-fiber breakfast is packed with healthy fats and antioxidants to keep you going ‘till lunch, plus the cinnamon can help to lower blood sugar.
- 1 cup rolled oats (you can also buy gluten-free oats)
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup mixed nuts and seeds—try dry-roasted almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, sunflower seeds, or chia seeds
- 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 cup shredded coconut flakes (unsweetened) + 1 cup water. Unsweetened shredded coconut flakes can be found in most bulk-food sections and are a good source of high-quality fat.
Combine oats, 2 cups of water, blueberries, coconut oil, and cinnamon in a 2-quart pan with lid the night before. Let sit overnight.
In the morning, add nuts and cook for 10 to 12 minutes or until done.
While oats are cooking, put 1 cup shredded coconut flakes into blender with 1 cup of water; blend on high for several minutes until creamy. Presto! Home made coconut milk.
Serve oatmeal with coconut milk on top.
Lunch: Salmon and Greens
High in omega-3 fatty acids and high-quality fats and protein, as well as phytonutrient-rich greens, this lunch is fantastic brain-food to keep you going all afternoon.
- 1 6-ounce can of salmon (BPA-free can)
- 2 cups of shredded kale, spinach, arugula, or other leafy greens, washed and shredded
- 1/4 cup chopped dry-roasted almonds
- 1 avocado, cubed
- 2 stalks of organic celery, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- Organic extra virgin olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Seasoning spices
Divide the greens onto two plates; arrange the celery and carrots on top of greens.
Add 1/2 can of salmon, flaked to each plate.
Top with avocado cubes and chopped almonds.
Drizzle with olive oil and red wine vinegar, and sprinkle with seasoning spices of your choice, or salt and pepper.
Dinner: Spicy Quinoa and Lentil Stew
High in protein and anti-inflammatory spices, this warming, robust stew is beneficial for arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
- 32 ounces unsalted vegetable broth or bone broth
- 2 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups lentils
- 1 cup quinoa
- 3 carrots, thickly sliced
- 4 stalks celery, chopped
- 4 kale leaves with stems, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 1-inch piece of fresh ginger (grated)
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground cardamom
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- Chopped parsley and roasted pumpkin seeds for garnish
Sauté garlic and grated ginger in coconut oil for a few minutes; add the broth, water, quinoa, lentils, vegetables, and spices.
Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until vegetables are cooked to your desired texture. Experiment with using different vegetables such as beets and beet greens, or whatever you have on hand.
Top with parsley and roasted pumpkin seeds.
Serves 6 to 8