Your wallet needs to go on a diet, but that’s tough when food prices keep going up.
The most recent consumer price index report, released on Dec. 13, shows that the food index increased from October to November by 0.5% and 10.6% over the previous year. As for the cost of food at home, that has increased 12% since last year. If you were getting your food at restaurants, those prices went up 8.5% over the last year.
Climbing food prices can make grocery shopping especially challenging right now. If you want to keep to any reasonable budget, you may have to make some hard choices or buy alternative foods when shopping.
“When I go into the supermarket, I am even more mindful than I was at this time last year,” says Mackenzie Burgess, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and recipe developer who owns and runs the customizable recipe blog, CheerfulChoices.com.
“Food costs continue to rise, and I want to ensure every purchase counts. I recommend always taking inventory of items you already have in your pantry, fridge and freezer before making your shopping list,” Burgess says.
But what should that shopping list have on it? Here’s a shopping list of healthy but relatively cheap foods that you may want to consider putting in your shopping cart.
— Brown rice.
— Chuck roast.
— Corn tortillas.
— Frozen blueberries.
— Frozen vegetables.
— Ground beef or ground chuck.
— Iceberg lettuce.
— Peanut butter.
Burgess recommends an old favorite.
“Apples are an affordable, nutritious fruit to purchase year-round. They’re rich in soluble fiber and immune-supporting vitamin C,” Burgess says, adding that she likes Envy apples the best.
“They have balanced sweetness, delicious crunch, and naturally remain white longer when cut,” Burgess says.
At the time of this writing, Walmart was selling Envy apples for $1.37 each, if that gives you an idea of how much money you’ll likely spend buying apples.
Meal ideas: Burgess likes the idea of having an apple as a snack, but you don’t have to only go with a solitary apple.
“Try pairing Envy apples with a protein source like peanut butter, cheese or nuts to help you feel fuller longer,” Burgess says.
Among fruits, bananas are still pretty cheap, and for what you get from them, they 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. Typically under a dollar per pound, they are the best deal in the produce department,” LaVardera says.
Bananas, at the time of this writing, are going for 49 cents a pound at Kroger.
Meal ideas: Bananas make a great snack, but you can also slice them into your oatmeal or make banana pancakes.
You can’t go wrong with beans, according to Anne VanBeber, a professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. 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. Even at today’s prices, “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 recommends eating legumes and 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 78 cents at Walmart and 79 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 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. Brown rice also goes well in burritos or alongside just about any protein.
You may understandably raise an eyebrow at calling chicken “cheap.” While inflation has made almost all food prices climb, poultry has been particularly hit hard. Chicken prices have gone up 12% in the last year, but on the plus side, in the last month, they have come down 0.8%.
Buying a whole chicken is still economical, argues VanBeber, and she says that as a bonus, it’s easy to roast. It also will help if you can find chicken on sale at your local supermarket.
“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,” VanBeber says.
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 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. Currently, at Kroger, you’ll find a boneless beef chuck roast for $6.99 a pound.
Meal ideas: Pot roast, beef stroganoff and Irish stew are simple and satisfying dinner options if you’re on a tight budget.
VanBeber says she likes to have corn tortillas on hand, adding that they are a whole grain product. 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 $2.24. That is about 7 cents per tortilla.
Meal ideas: Think about all the healthy and 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.”
Exactly how much you’ll pay for a dozen eggs depends on where you shop and where you live, and whether they are cheap may depend on how you define cheap.
According to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information, the average price of a package of a dozen grade A eggs is currently $3.58.
And they are certainly healthy, says Rachel Dyckman, who owns a nutrition private practice, Rachel Dyckman Nutrition LLC, in New York City.
“Eggs are rich in nutrients that support brain health, like choline and lutein,” Dyckman says, adding: “They last for three to five weeks in the fridge, so you don’t have to worry about them going bad.”
Meal ideas: Dyckman says that eggs are extremely versatile, “whether you’re making an omelet, scrambled eggs, a frittata, hard-boiled eggs or a stir-fry.” Novotny agrees, adding sunny side up, over easy and poached as other suggestions. “Eggs can be combined with vegetables for a solid breakfast — omelets or scrambled — or they can be included in casseroles for meals,” Novotny says. “Be careful what you add to the eggs (for example, butter). But by themselves, eggs are healthy and filling.”
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.
Flour is also fairly cheap. According to the BLS, the average price of flour is about 52 cents a pound. A lot of grocery stores sell 5-pound bags, coming in at around $2.60 a bag.
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.
Burgess is a fan, and she says that frozen blueberries are inexpensive. At the time of this writing, Walmart has a 16-ounce bag on sale for $2.98.
“Frozen blueberries are a convenient and cost-effective way to help you eat nutritiously. They’re frozen at the peak of freshness, locking in their healthy goodness. Just like fresh blueberries, frozen blueberries are a good source of fiber and contain only 80 calories per cup,” Burgess says.
She adds that they last in the freezer for months.
Meal ideas: You could make jam. Burgess has a recipe on her blog that combines frozen blueberries with chia seeds.
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 clinical associate 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
VanBeber says many supermarkets are selling ground chuck and ground beef for around or a little less than $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.
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.
A head of lettuce these days is going for around $2.
“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,” VanBeber says.
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.
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 $1.34. At Kroger, it’s $1.99. Target has them for $1.59.
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.
Not all mushrooms are cheap. If you buy gourmet mushrooms, like oyster or shiitake, you might find them pricey. But you can buy white mushrooms or whole brown mushrooms for about $2 to $5.
Burgess says they tend to cost about 50 cents a serving. “One serving is about four white button mushrooms,” she says.
Meal ideas: Now, a meal of mushrooms may not sound all that appetizing, but Burgess points out that they can help round out a meal nicely.
“I love creating a mushroom meat blend by cooking together 1 pound of finely chopped mushrooms with 1 pound of ground meat. Not only does this bulk up those more expensive ingredients, it also provides extra nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin D and potassium without adding extra calories or fat,” Burgess says.
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. A 42-ounce container of old fashioned whole grain oats currently goes for $3.98 at Walmart.
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.
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. “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.”
As for how much you pay, it depends what brand you buy. You can certainly find jars for $4 or $5 or more, but if you don’t want to go to a warehouse store, Kroger has a generic 16-ounce jar of peanut butter for $1.84.
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.
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 are full of nutrients, providing 3% of your daily nutritional value of vitamin C and more potassium than a medium-sized banana — if you eat the skin, according to the National Potato Council. Potatoes offer nutrient-dense, complex carbohydrates, and a medium-sized potato has about 3 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber (7% of your daily fiber requirements).
Round white potatoes average 95 cents a pound, according to the BLS.
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.
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.
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, albeit a little pricier than they were a year ago. You can find 14.5 ounce cans of tomatoes for less than a buck at Walmart.
Meal ideas: You can make stuffed tomatoes, similar to stuffed peppers. They also go well with pasta and in salads.
You’re probably thinking, “Wait, is fish cheap? I didn’t get the memo.” Fish is generally not a food that’s considered inexpensive, but if you can find it on sale, you should grab it, according to Jaclyn London, a registered dietitian in New York City.
“Look for cans of tuna or cans of salmon,” she advises. “Canned versions and snack-packs can go a long way, and they’re super portable. Plus, they can stay in your pantry for months.”
London advises that you look for tuna and salmon canned in water, if you’re watching your salt intake.
“But flavored varieties are great if you don’t want to cook or prep — super portable and great for taking with you to the office or mixing into leftover veggies or adding to greens,” she says.
London says the health benefits of fish are innumerable and that the fears of consuming mercury in fish are generally unfounded.
“So long as you’re eating 12 ounces of different types of seafood per week, there’s no cause for concern on the mercury front,” London says. “My concern with clients is that they’re not eating enough fish, never that they’re eating too much — only 50% of women of child-bearing age meet the requirement for fish.”
(If you’re concerned about mercury, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has a helpful chart of the best fish to eat, the lowest with mercury, and the fish you likely want to avoid, like orange roughy, shark and swordfish.)
[Read: Best Grocery Credit Cards.]
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 that’s 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.
Think about buying pulses. That’s not a word you hear often, but pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family. In other words, pulses are foods like dry beans, dry beans, chickpeas and lentils. Granted, not everybody is going to be excited by the idea of eating pulses, but if that’s your jam, your body and wallet are going to thank you. Not only are they relatively cheap, they are full of fiber and protein.
“The combo of protein and fiber is what helps you stay fuller, longer — and has been linked to preventing just about every chronic disease in addition to aiding in weight loss,” London says.
Think about staying away from heavily processed foods. Yes, it’s tough to do with all of the heavily processed, often utterly delicious, foods out there, begging for our attention. But if you want to eat cheap but healthy foods, Dyckman says that “packaged baked goods, chips and other snack foods may be inexpensive, but they provide little nutritional value.” Alas, think corn, not corn chips.
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Update 01/05/23: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.