When money is tight, you may be tempted to cut back on what you’re spending at the supermarket.
But while spending less at the grocery store is a seemingly simple way to stretch your dollars further, buying cheap food and planning budget meals can wind up costing you. For instance, if you live on cheap snack foods that pack on the pounds or produce high cholesterol, eventually you could spend plenty on health care costs.
So if you’re trying to maximize savings and nutrition with cheap meal ideas, consider these cheap dietitian-recommended items.
Taylor Wolfram, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Chicago, suggests beans as a healthy and budget-friendly meal choice. They’re especially cheap if you buy them dry and then cook them, costing around 15 cents per serving, Wolfram says, citing information from the Bean Institute.
Meal ideas: Beans are incredibly versatile, Wolfram says. “Use them in tacos, curries, sandwiches, soups, chilies, dips such as hummus and snacks such as roasted chickpeas,” she advises.
“Oats are hearty, and with added spices can be delicious,” says Daniela Novotny, a registered dietitian and biomedical instructor at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. “They’re a great source of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Whole oats have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels, which helps to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Plus the fiber helps to slow glucose absorption, which is helpful for diabetics,” she adds.
How cheap are oats? Prices vary depending on where you shop, and the kind of oats you buy: steel-cut, rolled or instant oats. Currently, you can buy a Quaker Oats Instant Oatmeal Variety Pack on Amazon.com for about $11.50.
Meal ideas: Oatmeal, oatmeal cookies and oatmeal bars are just a few budget-friendly ideas. You could also make oat bread or use oats in a homemade granola recipe, or even search the internet for some oat-based dinner recipes, like a broccoli cheddar oatmeal bake.
“It’s a myth that frozen foods are never as nutritious as fresh foods. Frozen vegetables can have just as much, if not more, nutrient content as fresh vegetables, often at a fraction of the cost. And since they’re frozen, you don’t have to worry about them spoiling in a few days before you can use them,” Wolfram says.
If you’re concerned about consuming the most nutritious vegetables, you may want to go to your local farmers market, where you can rest assured you’re getting something fresh and grown locally. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive way to get your vegetables, frozen vegetables are an ideal choice.
Meal ideas: Aside from having frozen vegetables as a side for your lunch or dinner, you could use your frozen veggies to make a vegetable omelet.
“(Bananas) get a bad rap for being high in sugar, but natural sugar in fruit is not a major concern for health,” says Jenn LaVardera, a registered dietitian and wellness specialist in Southampton, New York. “Bananas contain vitamin C, manganese, vitamin B6 and potassium as well as antioxidants that support health. They also pack heart-healthy fiber. At sometimes under 50 cents per pound, they are the best deal in the produce department,” LaVardera says.
Meal ideas: You’ll probably want to have bananas as a snack, but you can slice them into your oatmeal or make banana pancakes.
“An easy way to bump up the nutrient value of nearly any meal is to add a couple handfuls of spinach. With spinach in the fridge, you can pull an affordable meal together in a flash,” LaVardera says. “Spinach gives you a very high nutrient value for its price. It’s an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and manganese and a good source of iron, riboflavin and magnesium.”
Meal ideas: Spinach works for just about any meal. LaVardera suggests spinach omelets, spinach with whole grain pasta and spinach in a quesadilla. And if you’re not a fan of the taste of cooked spinach but you like salad, get rid of the iceberg lettuce, which is low in nutritional value, and make yourself a cost-effective spinach salad.
“This item is quick to make and can be added to many meals,” Novotny says. “It’s also high in fiber and has important minerals, such as magnesium and manganese. If someone has celiac disease, rice is a great non-gluten option. It can help with appetite control due to the fiber content and may help with lowering cholesterol levels.”
How much you’ll spend on brown rice will depend on where you shop and what sort of deals you can find, but you can generally purchase several pounds of brown rice for a few dollars.
Meal ideas: It’s easy to fix a hamburger and brown rice in a skillet (and you could throw in some frozen vegetables). Brown rice also goes well in burritos or alongside just about any meat. Some may even use brown rice for dessert, such as brown rice pudding.
Exactly how much you’ll pay for a dozen eggs will depend on where you shop and where you’re based. But according to the most recent United States Department of Agriculture’s “Egg Markets Overview,” released on June 28, the wholesale price on the “bellwether New York market” for large shell eggs is currently $. 80 per dozen. In any case, Novotny is a fan of eggs as a cheap and nutritious option.
Meal ideas: “Eggs are a great source of protein and can be made in a multitude of ways — hard-boiled, scrambled, sunny side up, over easy, poached and so on,” Novotny says. “Eggs can be combined with vegetables for a solid breakfast — omelets or scrambled — or they can be included in casseroles for meals. Be careful what you add to the eggs (for example, butter). But by themselves, eggs are healthy and filling.”
Canned Tuna or Salmon
Currently, you can buy an eight pack of StarKist Tuna for $5.98 at Walmart. That’s 74 cents a can. Michele Sidorenkov, a registered dietitian nutritionist and blogger behind MyMillennialKitchen.com, is a fan of tuna and salmon as cheap but nutritious foods to rely on. “Buying canned tuna or salmon is a great low-cost protein option because it’s a great source of protein, has omega-3s and does not require refrigeration. Some cans even have a pull-top lid so you don’t even need a can opener.”
Meal ideas: Tuna sandwiches, tuna noodle casserole and tuna melts are easy, affordable and quick meals to prepare.
“Chuck roast tends to be pretty cheap and since it’s fatty and filling, you only need a little to feel full and satiated,” says Vered DeLeeuw, the author of the Healthy Recipes blog at HealthyRecipesBlogs.com. On average, you can expect to pay $5 for a chuck roast, according to May 2019 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meal ideas: Pot roast, beef stroganoff and Irish stew are simple and satisfying dinner options if you’re on a tight budget.
“Not only are (potatoes) very affordable and full of nutrients, but they can be prepared in a hundred different ways that all taste fantastic,” says Robert Ferguson, a nutritionist and health ambassador for Stayhealthy.com, a wellness website.
You can buy white potatoes for 77 cents a pound as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meal ideas: Mash them, bake them or fry them up. They can go in soup or be a side. Or you can turn them into hash browns or put them in shepherd’s pie. You can even make potato bread. There are a variety of fulfilling potato recipes you can add to breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Ramen noodles are famously cost-effective. Currently, you can purchase Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup 24-packs for $6.58 at Walmart. That’s why Marsha Kelly, who manages Best4Businesses.com, a small business blog, says that when she was a broke and struggling entrepreneur, she would buy ramen noodles by the case. “They are the cheapest and most versatile food on the planet,” Kelly says.
The only caveat: For your health, stay away from the flavor packets, Ferguson recommends. “The packet contains a lot of MSG. Instead, I recommend you flavor it with salt, pepper and use broth or bouillon cubes. You’ll be surprised how much better ramen noodles will tastes when prepared this way,” he adds.
Meal ideas: Kelly says she often turned to a Parmesan garlic recipe that included parsley, Parmesan, garlic and butter, as well as stir-fry lunches.
“Pasta is the ultimate cheap food. College students immediately think of ramen, but most pasta is inexpensive,” says Steffa Mantilla, who writes about paying off debt, living frugally and building wealth on her blog Plantsonify.com.
Meal ideas: Mantilla points out that you can put frozen vegetables mixed into your pasta for additional bulk and added nutritional value. And thanks to the versatility of pastas, you can pair it with a variety of inexpensive ingredients, including chuck roast and spinach.
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Update 07/10/19: This story was originally published on Sept. 5, 2018, and has been updated to include new information.