20 Cheap Foods to Buy When You’re Broke

When money is tight, as it has been for a lot of people in these pandemic-charged and inflationary times, it makes sense to cut back on what you’re spending at the grocery store. But while spending less on groceries is a seemingly simple way to stretch your dollars, buying cheap foods for budget meals can wind up costing you if you aren’t strategic. For instance, if you live on cheap snack foods that pack on the pounds and lead to high cholesterol, eventually you could spend plenty on health care costs.

[See: 9 Secrets to Save Money on a Shoestring Budget.]

So aim to fill your cart with inexpensive and nutritious foods. If you’re looking for something tasty, healthy and cheap, consider these expert-recommended items:

— Bananas.

— Beans.

— Brown rice.

— Canned tuna or salmon.

— Chicken.

— Chuck roast.

— Corn tortillas.

— Eggs.

— Flour.

— Frozen vegetables.

— Ground beef or ground chuck.

— Honey.

— Iceberg lettuce.

— Lentils.

— Oats.

— Peanut butter.

— Pasta.

— Potatoes.

— Spinach.

— Tomatoes.

Bananas

Among fruits, bananas are a bargain. “(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: Bananas make a great snack, but you can also slice them into your oatmeal or make banana pancakes.

Beans

You can’t go wrong with beans, according to Anne VanBeber, a professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. It’s worth noting that VanBeber has been talking to students in one of her classes about how to plan a delicious and healthy meal for four people for under $10. “It really can be done,” she says.

Dry beans are the cheapest, but VanBeber says many people aren’t comfortable with their knowledge and culinary skills to cook them. If that’s you, she suggests canned beans.

VanBeber really recommends that we eat legumes, though that can get confusing since a bean is a legume, but not all legumes are beans.

Well, never mind that. VanBeber suggests stocking up on pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), navy beans and black-eyed peas.

“Legumes are one of the foods that we really should be eating every day. They provide protein, fiber, and help to enhance the microbiome, which means it helps keep our gut healthy, and this helps build the immune system,” VanBeber says. “Right now, a can of black beans is 58 cents at Walmart and 69 cents at Kroger.”

Meal ideas: “A can of beans can be added to a grain like brown rice or quinoa and made into a warm dish or a salad,” VanBeber says. “Canned beans are good in soups, and I like to add them to a tortilla wrap.”

Brown Rice

Brown rice is a cost-effective pantry staple. “This item is quick to make and can be added to many meals,” says Daniela Novotny, a registered dietitian and biomedical instructor at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. “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 depends 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 throw in some frozen vegetables too. Brown rice also goes well in burritos or alongside just about any protein.

Canned Tuna or Salmon

Tuna prices have held steady for now, though experts predict the pandemic may eventually affect supplies. Still, for now, canned tuna is generally a cheap and healthy meal.

Michele Sidorenkov, a registered dietitian nutritionist, trained chef and blogger behind MyMillennialKitchen.com, is a fan of canned tuna and salmon as cheap but nutritious foods. “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.”

Meal ideas: Tuna sandwiches, tuna noodle casserole and tuna melts are easy, affordable and quick meals to prepare.

[See: Healthy Staples You Should Always Have in Your House.]

Chicken

Buying a whole chicken is the most economical, VanBeber says, and it’s easy to roast.

“Set an oven to 350 degrees. A chicken should be cooked for about 20 minutes per pound, or until the juice run clear and is 165 degrees internally at the breast,” VanBeber says. “There doesn’t need to be a cover over the chicken. It cooks better without a cover.”

“A whole five and a half pound chicken is $5.61 at Walmart. That’s about $1.06 per pound,” VanBeber says. “You can count on about one, or maybe two, servings per pound with bone-in chicken. It depends on how hungry people are and who is eating.”

Meal ideas: Several meals can be made from a whole chicken. “This can be served for a dinner one night, and then the leftovers can be made into other dishes or eaten again as an entrée,” VanBeber says. “Chicken soup is a good idea for leftovers.”

Leftovers can also be used in tacos, sandwiches or even as a pizza topping.

Chuck Roast

“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, author of HealthyRecipesBlogs.com. On average, you can expect to pay just about $7.50 for a boneless chuck roast, according to September 2021 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.

Corn Tortillas

VanBeber says she likes to have corn tortillas on hand, adding that are a whole grain product.

Why is this important to think about? Whole grains are far healthier than refined grains, and VanBeber adds, “Wheat flours are not always a whole grain unless they say 100% whole wheat. Corn tortillas are also half the calories usually of wheat tortillas.”

And corn tortillas are cheap. “Right now, a 30-pack of corn tortillas at Walmart are $1.88. That is 6 cents per tortilla,” VanBeber says. “At Kroger, they are $1.99 for the same package. The price per tortilla is really the same, about a half cent more.”

Meal ideas: Think about all the healthy and hopefully cheap foods you can put into a corn tortilla. VanBeber suggests warming them in the microwave for about 10 seconds.

“Then you can spread it with whatever sandwich toppings you want,” VanBeber says. “I like to put hummus or guacamole on top of a corn tortilla, and then add other vegetables or even some of those canned beans. Also, you can make your own tortilla chips with corn tortillas. This is a way to control how much fat and sodium is in the chip.”

Eggs

Exactly how much you’ll pay for a dozen eggs depends on where you shop and where you live. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Egg Markets Overview,” released on Oct. 15, the wholesale price on the New York market for large shell eggs, often considered a bellwether for the rest of the nation, is $1.06 cents 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.”

Flour

Steffa Mantilla, who writes about paying off debt, living frugally and building wealth on her blog MoneyTamer.com, suggests going back to basics and making some foods from scratch with flour. “It’s versatile because you can make breads, pancakes, biscuits and more,” Mantilla says. It also only costs about a dollar per pound.

Meal ideas: Mantilla suggests making homemade pot pies, as opposed to the processed kind in the frozen foods section. “Pot pie dough is inexpensive to make and can be filled with whatever vegetables you have around the house,” she says.

Frozen Vegetables

Frozen vegetables are both affordable and nutritious, and they can serve as go-tos when your pantry and refrigerator inventory is running low. You can buy them in the store, or freeze extra produce from your garden or the local farmers market.

Frozen vegetables are an especially a good idea if not many fresh vegetables are in season, says Dana White, a sports dietitian and associate clinical professor of athletic training and sports medicine at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

“These options are just as nutritious and fresh, and you can get a lot more mileage out of them since they are stored in the freezer,” she says.

Meal ideas: Serve them as a side dish, toss them into pasta sauce or soup, or incorporate them into a vegetable omelet.

Ground Beef or Ground Chuck

Let’s give a shout-out to ground beef or ground chuck (basically ground beef with a little more fat in it).

VanBeber says many supermarkets are selling ground chuck and ground beef for a little over $5 a package.

Meal ideas: There’s always hamburgers, but VanBeber suggests making spaghetti sauce. Just a pound of beef would go a long way. She also suggests using ground beef or ground chuck in tacos, pizza or maybe a beef and grain bowl.

Honey

VanBeber may be a nutritionist, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t realize people like sweet treats.

“I think honey is a good item to have in your pantry. Most people will need something sweet throughout the day,” she says.

“A 12-ounce bottle of honey is $3.08. There are 60 1-tablespoon servings in the bottle. That makes each one tablespoon serving only 5 cents. So a little bit of honey could satisfy that sweet tooth for not much money,” VanBeber says.

Meal ideas: “Honey can be put on a sandwich with peanut butter, or toast with honey and peanut butter for breakfast. This could replace expensive cookies or cakes. I have found that having a slice of bread with some honey will satisfy my sweet tooth,” VanBeber says.

Iceberg Lettuce

In a sea of kale and red-leaf lettuces, don’t overlook iceberg. “Iceberg lettuce is not recommended a lot these days, because the darker green lettuces and greens are recommended due to those having more nutritious compounds,” VanBeber says.

Still, she says iceberg lettuce is a vegetable, and if that’s what you can afford, you shouldn’t hesitate to buy it.

“Right now, iceberg lettuce is $1.28 a head at Walmart and $1.29 at Kroger. You pay for this lettuce by the weight usually,” VanBeber says. “My mom taught me a long time ago to put a head of iceberg lettuce in each hand. Feel them for weight. Buy the heavier one. You get more for your money.”

Meal ideas: “Iceberg lettuce does have some nutritional value, and it adds a lot of crispy texture to a salad or sandwich. It’s also great for lettuce wraps,” VanBeber says.

[Read: 10 Ways to Save $5,000 This Year.]

Lentils

VanBeber says lentils are a must if you’re looking to stock up on cheap and healthy foods.

“They are very high in fiber and protein,” she says. “I recommend buying the bag and not the can, just because they are so easy to cook. They take 10 to 15 minutes to cook.”

At Walmart, a 16-ounce bag of lentils is 69 cents. At Kroger, it’s $1.39. The bag has 13 1/2 cooked servings. That equates to 5 cents per serving of lentils.

Meal ideas: VanBeber says she often adds lentils to spaghetti sauce. “You could totally replace the meat with lentils,” she says, or use half a pound of ground beef and 1 or 2 cups of cooked lentils in the sauce.

She also likes to make lentil soup: “I just add an onion, a carrot and a celery stick. It can be prepared within 30 minutes.”

Lentils, she says, are also a great addition to grain bowls.

Oats

Oats are healthy, “hearty, and with added spices can be delicious,” Novotny says. “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 type of oats you buy: steel-cut, rolled or instant oats. Currently, you can buy a Quaker Oats instant oatmeal variety pack (48 packets) on Amazon for about $12.99.

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.

Peanut Butter

This classic nut butter is also a classic money-saver. “You can often find large jars of peanut butter at warehouse stores inexpensively,” Mantilla says, offering a few other reasons to put it on your shopping list: “Peanut butter lasts a long time, is a good source of protein and is filling. Another plus is that most kids like it as well.”

Meal ideas: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, naturally. If you like to cook, peanut butter also turns up as a supporting character in a lot of recipes, such as sauces.

Pasta

Versatile and inexpensive, pasta is a pantry staple of many cost-conscious shoppers. “Pasta is the ultimate cheap food. College students immediately think of ramen, but most pasta is inexpensive,” Mantilla says.

Dietitians say pasta has plenty of beneficial nutrients, too.

Meal ideas: Mantilla suggests adding frozen vegetables to pasta for additional bulk and added nutritional value. And thanks to the versatility of pastas, you can pair the dish with a variety of inexpensive ingredients, including chuck roast and spinach.

Potatoes

They are full of nutrients, according to the National Potato Council: Your average potato provides 3% of your daily nutritional value of vitamin C and more potassium than a medium-sized banana — if you eat the skin. Potatoes offer nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates, and a medium sized potato (5.2 oz) has 3 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber (7% of your daily fiber requirements).

Round white potatoes average 77 cents a pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meal ideas: Mash or bake them. Turn them into hash browns or add them to a shepherd’s pie. There are a variety of fulfilling potato recipes you can add to breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Spinach

This green, leafy vegetable is easy to incorporate into a variety of meals. “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 in just about any meal. LaVardera suggests spinach omelets, spinach with whole grain pasta and spinach in a quesadilla. If you’re not a fan of the taste of cooked spinach, make yourself a cost-effective spinach salad.

[See: 11 Cheap Plant-Based Meals.]

Tomatoes

Granted, it’s hard to make a meal out of just tomatoes, but they’re healthy, delicious and a great addition to any meal.

VanBeber says you may get more bang for your buck by purchasing canned tomatoes. “I think the either diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes are good to have on hand,” she says.

And they are inexpensive. “A 14.5-ounce can of petite diced tomatoes is 64 cents right now. At Kroger it is 69 cents,” VanBeber says.

Meal ideas: You can make stuffed tomatoes, similar to stuffed peppers. They also go well with pasta (next on our list) and in salads.

Strategies for Grocery Shopping on a Tight Budget

To slash your grocery budget but still keep your shopping list on the healthy side, use these strategies.

Look for produce in season. VanBeber suggests paying attention to seasonal produce, such as summer vegetables and fall fruits. After all, the food will be fresh and generally cheaper.

Take advantage of weekly specials and sales. Browse your grocery store’s weekly ad when making a shopping list.

Don’t ignore the center of the store. “I know everyone thinks you have to shop the perimeter of the grocery store for the best foods, but there are plenty of healthy and budget-friendly foods in the center aisles,” White says.

Consider canned fruits and vegetables. Canned foods are almost always cheaper than the fresh produce. They may not look as mouthwatering, but the food is still tasty and healthy.

“Canned beans and canned tuna or salmon can be used to add high-quality protein to meals and snacks,” White says.

More from U.S. News

35 Ways to Save Money

10 Expenses Destroying Your Budget

9 Secrets to Save Money on a Shoestring Budget

20 Cheap Foods to Buy When You’re Broke originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 10/25/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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