Foods to Support Healthy Eating on a Budget

When I decided to return to graduate school without any form of financial aid, I knew I would be faced with one of the biggest challenges to eating well and living healthily of my life. Initially, I was particularly concerned about having to limit myself to eating only poor quality foods due to lack of income and the added costs of tuition and supplies; however, I’ve made it my mission to find ways to be healthy and physically fit without spending beyond my means. So far I’ve learned that it is possible to sustain a healthy lifestyle without significant income by eating out less, eliminating overpriced, nutrient depleted foods, and cooking simple meals. In this article, I’d like to share some of the foods that I’ve been eating, where to get them for a fair price, and why I think they are worth adding to your diet.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is reasonably priced, it has a long shelf life, and is an excellent replacement for butter for baking or for cooking eggs and stir frys. Don’t be scared by the fact that it’s high in fat because it’s one of the healthiest sources of dietary fat you can find. Buy Virgin or Extra Virgin and make sure that there are no ingredients other than coconut oil. Look for ‘expeller pressed’ or ‘cold pressed’ on the label. Order it online because it doesn’t go bad and it is not any more expensive than you’ll find in the store.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is another excellent source of healthy fat and is delicious when used as a salad dressing or for added flavor in rice or pasta. Buy virgin or extra virgin and make sure there are no added ingredients other than olive oil. Look for ‘cold pressed’ on the package. If you don’t use it a lot, then it’s probably worth it to buy something a little more expensive because it will have a longer shelf life. The taste of higher quality olive oils is also noticeably better than the super cheap stuff that comes in plastic bottles.

Oatmeal

Oats are a cheap and amazingly versatile food that have been shown to have countless health benefits. They are far superior to breakfast cereal in that they are less expensive and do not contain added sugars or other unnecessary ingredients. Don’t get sucked into paying more for oatmeal that claims to be ‘gluten free’ unless you have celiac disease. Oats do not naturally contain gluten and are only exposed to trace amounts during the manufacturing process.

  • Recommendations: If you’re very busy, you might want to try quick oats. In my opinion, they taste a little better than rolled or steel cut oats when cooking with a microwave. I buy Quaker Oats from Costco.

Whey Protein

You don’t need to be a bodybuilder or even an athlete to add whey protein to your diet. It is healthy, satiating, convenient and is easily added to fruit smoothies and your morning oatmeal. If you can stand the taste, use an unflavored whey isolate for its low lactose content, simplicity and reduced cost. Make sure that you check the ingredient label and choose one that does not have added sugar or filler ingredients like maltodextrin or creatine monohydrate. The protein powders that I buy generally have two ingredients: whey protein and an emulsifier such as soy lecithin.

Dried Edamame

Although it may not be wise for males to consume excessive quantities of soy, dried edamame has become a go to snack for me due to its convenience and impressive protein content. It’s possible to get 5 pounds on Amazon for around $20 and it will last you at least a month.

  • Recommendations: I have only purchased from Sincerely Nuts and I highly recommend them.

Canned Fish

Some people don’t have the stomach for canned fish, particularly the kinds that still have the skin on like sardines and mackerel. While I can sympathize, I consume a great deal of sardines due to their reduced mercury content (fish that are lower on the food chain contain smaller concentrations of mercury) and the exceptional amount of omega-3 fatty acids that they provide. Salmon and tuna are also great, but beware of eating too much tuna and always buy chunk light for lowest mercury content.

  • Recommendations: If cost is not a major concern, buy wild caught for higher omega-3 content (Wild Planet makes great products). I usually buy sardines, tuna, and salmon from Costco because they have the best prices I’ve found. In general, it’s also better to buy fish that have no added salt and are canned in water or olive oil instead of broth or sauce. Otherwise just remember to prioritize smaller fish as they are safer and more nutritious.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds make excellent snacks because they are both nutrient dense and filling, but they are also very calorie dense so it’s best not to have more than a handful or so at a time. My favorite types of nuts are macadamias, walnuts, almonds, and cashews. Favorite seeds include chia seeds, whole pumpkin seeds, and pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds). Buy all nuts and seeds raw (unsalted) and in bulk when possible because they are starting to become more expensive. Stay away from nut mixes and brands like Planter’s and Blue Diamond because they’re over-salted and not the greatest quality. Even if you do buy raw from these companies, they generally won’t taste as good as the smaller brands that are going for quality over quantity.

Rice, Quinoa, and Other Grains

There is a reason why rice is a staple in so many countries around the world- it’s one of the cheapest foods available and it goes with almost everything. Rice is inexpensive everywhere and brown rice generally gives you more bang for your buck than white, although it takes longer to prepare. Rice is great when your budget is very thin, but I usually opt for quinoa whenever possible because it is higher in protein and fiber. Grains are extremely easy to prepare if you own a rice cooker — just follow the instructions that come with it. I like to add a little bit of salt and olive oil to the water in order to give it some added flavor. If you’re adventurous, you can also experiment with lesser known grains like cous cous, barley, buckwheat, or amaranth.

  • Recommendations: For quinoa, it’s pretty hard to go wrong, but I’ve really enjoyed Viva Labs brand. Amazon has some good options for brown rice and white rice, but buy it locally if you can find it for cheaper.

Beans, Lentils, and Split Peas

Legumes, like grains, are protein packed, fibrous, and inexpensive. They’re an excellent complement to rice for a cheap and easy meal. Black beans, red beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas are all great options. I generally buy low sodium canned beans for the convenience factor, but if you don’t mind soaking them overnight it’s insanely cheap to buy dry beans and cook them yourself. Lentils and split peas can be cooked much more quickly so it’s always better to buy them uncooked.

  • Recommendations: I don’t have any recommended brands for beans because I just buy whatever is cheap and available. For Lentils, check out Bob’s Red Mill.

Seasonings

You can purchase any seasoning that suits your tastes. My go to seasonings are iodized sea salt, black pepper, cinnamon, garlic powder, and onion powder. Salt free seasonings are preferable if you have high blood pressure or any family history of heart disease.

  • Recommendations: I’m not a seasoning expert and, as a minimalist, I really think sea salt and pepper are good enough for most dishes. You can look into seasoning blends like Mrs. Dash if you’re lazy like me and want to make sure your meals taste all right. Just make sure the blends don’t have a ton of added sodium or MSG.

Eggs

Eggs are delicious and, despite what the some might have you believe, about as nutritious a food as you can find. It’s not worth getting into the debate about whether dietary cholesterol has any effect on your blood cholesterol, but suffice it to say that a great deal of recent evidence suggests that eggs are safe. I usually eat at least 3-4 eggs per day and have suffered no health consequences.

  • Recommendations: There are some nutritionists and dietitians out there who believe that the nutritional content of an egg is determined by both the quality of life and the quality of feed of the hen that laid it. I think the logic makes sense and have seen some research that supports it, but whether you choose to buy into it is up to you. That being said, I think it’s also worth considering what you are paying to support when you purchase cheap eggs. The average egg laying hen in the United States lives in dreadful conditions and is fed an unnatural and nutrient depleted diet. I do not believe in supporting these types of operations so I’m willing to spend a little more to get eggs that are labeled ‘organic’.These hens are fed better quality feed and are given access to the outdoors. Do not waste your money on eggs that are labeled ‘free range’ or ‘cage free’ because these terms are unregulated and essentially meaningless in the United States. If you’re still afraid of cholesterol, then give egg whites a shot instead.

Nut Butter

Nut butters are my favorite food. They’re convenient, delicious, and healthy in moderation. Although I strongly prefer almond butter and cashew butter over peanut butter for both taste and nutritional value, these products have become unreasonably expensive in the past several years. Peanut butter is now my go to, but I can’t emphasize enough that you should not buy the major brands like Skippy and Jif. These companies put out products that taste good and have a long shelf life, but that often contain trans fats and other unnecessary ingredients like sugar, palm oil, and molasses. The healthiest kinds of peanut butter contain only peanuts or peanuts and salt.

  • Recommendations: In Minnesota, we have awesome brands like Parker Farms and Good Life. The Kirkland brand peanut butter from Costco is also very good as is Old Home’s all natural peanut butter. If you’re looking for an Amazon option, you can’t go wrong with Teddie. If you have a food processor and 15 minutes to spare, you can also make your own nut butters with any raw nut — just put as much as you want into your food processor and grind until smooth.

Fruits and Vegetables

You honestly can’t have enough fruits and vegetables. They aren’t that expensive and they are the by far the most energy dense foods available. Always buy organic or local when you can, but if price is a problem then you can usually get away with non-organic as long as you make sure to stay away from the pesticide rich “Dirty Dozen” (apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes) and instead choose foods from the Clean Fifteen (avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes).

  • Recommendations: My go to vegetables for value and versatility are broccoli, spinach, cabbage, onions, peppers, sweet potatoes, asparagus, green beans, and kale. For fruit, I prefer avocados (yes, they are a fruit), bananas, organic apples, oranges, and organic berries of all kinds. If you are very busy, it’s okay to buy frozen fruits and vegetables.

Meat and meat alternatives

As a pesco-vegetarian I do not consume a lot of meat. I feel that there are valid ethical and environmental reasons to support my choice; however, I would never try to suggest that avoiding meat is any way nutritionally superior to consuming it in moderate quantities. It is worth keeping in mind; however, that meat is similar to eggs in that its quality may be influenced by feed quality and the level of environmental stress experienced by the animal that provided it. Because of that, when I did eat beef, pork, and chicken, I always opted for grass fed or pastured when possible even though it is significantly more expensive. I think it’s best to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to meat — buy less and eat less, but enjoy it more.

  • Recommendations: I make a lot of stir frys because they are extremely easy and you can make a lot at once if you have a wok. Buy whatever meats you prefer (chicken, salmon, and turkey are great options), but stay away from frozen meats that have broth and preservatives added. If you’re open to a meat alternative, tofu is cheap and can be pretty good when drained and properly seasoned. Seitan often comes pre-seasoned and tastes decent as well. Just don’t expect too much from meat alternatives and you won’t be disappointed.

Dairy Alternatives

I buy unsweetened almond milk, coconut milk, and rice milk for making smoothies. I don’t eat a lot of traditional dairy products because I’m mildly lactose-intolerant (we all lose tolerance as we age) and because I can’t justify the cost of the ones that I think are worth buying. If you tolerate dairy well, then I don’t think there is any good reason to eliminate it, but I would strongly suggest avoiding name brand cheese as well as flavored milks or yogurts because they almost always have a variety of unnecessary ingredients that do not benefit your health in any way.

  • Recommendations: A few foods that might be worth considering in this category are whole milk from pastured cows, full fat cottage cheese, plain Greek yogurt and plain kefir. These foods are very high in protein and are extremely nutrient dense. Cheese may also be tempting, but it is usually overly salty, too calorie dense, and often loaded with filler ingredients.

Salsa

Adding salsa is an amazingly simple and low calorie way to flavor something that would otherwise taste bland. It’s a perfect complement to eggs, beans, stir frys, and rice dishes.

  • Recommendations: I buy organic salsa because it has better ingredients and isn’t usually much more expensive than non-organic, but both options are fine. Costco sells huge jars that last for quite a while in the fridge.

You may be concerned that not all of the foods I’ve mentioned are actually all that cheap; however, I’d like to emphasize that buying only the most inexpensive foods possible is not the ideal solution to your budget problems. In my opinion, the best foods to eat when your budget is tight are the ones that will fill you up by providing the most nutrients per bite. Cheap, low quality foods will always leave your body wanting more and they end up losing you money in the long run by negatively impacting your health and your performance capacity. If you want to be healthy and maximize your potential, you need to consistently put good things into your body. I feel that the foods I’ve listed are in the sweet spot in terms of both price and nutritional value and can find a place in almost any budget.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

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