The Cheapest Healthy Foods for Your Family

Feeding yourself and your family on a budget doesn’t have to be hard. These foods will fill your pantry without emptying your wallet.

It’s a sad fact that in America, healthy food is often more expensive than highly processed junk. However, that’s no reason to live on frozen pizza. You can stretch your grocery budget a lot farther than you think by stocking up on these cheap—yet healthy—foods.

Dried Beans

Types of beans
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There are very few foods in this world that are more miraculous than legumes. They’re packed with nutrition and extremely versatile. When dried, they last pretty much forever. Canned beans may be packed with sodium, so if you’re watching your salt intake, then consider switching to dried beans.

Think beyond black beans, too. Garbanzo beans (or chickpeas) are great for homemade hummus and in cold salads. Lentils are delicious, too, especially in dishes made with Indian spices.

Broccoli

Broccoli is one of my favorite vegetables because of the way that the florets soak up sauces. But for a long time, I didn’t realize how delicious the stalks can be. Instead of buying just the crowns, which cost more per pound, get whole broccoli and save the stalks. Shred them with a box grater to use in stir fry dishes, salads, or veggie slaws.

According to Healthline, broccoli is “particularly rich in vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant and may boost your immune system. Just one cup provides 135% of your daily needs.”

Canned Tomatoes

Tinned and fresh tomatoes
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Fresh tomatoes aren’t terribly expensive, but they do have one serious drawback. They go bad quickly. These thin-skinned veggies (okay, yes, they’re technically a fruit) don’t have a long shelf life. Canned tomatoes, on the other hand, are perfect for soups, sauces, salsas, and even more unusual dishes like shakshuka. Check out more inspiration for canned tomatoes here.

Oats

Oats: They’re far more than just breakfast. Although a bowl of oatmeal is a healthy and filling way to start your day, you can use oats for plenty of other meals. I’ve made baked oatmeal before, which is a great make-ahead meal prep breakfast. You can also use oats to make your own granola, beef up your baked goods, and even make savory dishes such as casseroles. Food Network has a rundown of 50 things you can make with oats.

Rice

Rice hardly needs any more endorsements. After all, people across the world ate 500 tons of rice last year. Because rice is the foundation of so many world cuisines, it’s a versatile pantry staple. It’s also gluten-free, and brown rice is packed with additional fiber.

You might want to keep long-grain rice, such as basmati, in your cupboard as well as a short-grain variety, such as arborio. Store rice in air-tight containers rather than bags to keep it fresh and free of pests.

Frozen Spinach

Spinach quiche
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While fresh spinach is a nutritional powerhouse, it doesn’t last that long in the fridge. Unless you’re planning to make a salad, frozen spinach is just as good—not to mention cheaper and longer-lasting. You can use frozen spinach in pasta bakes and egg dishes, as well as in green smoothies. Because the greens are frozen shortly after being picked, frozen spinach may contain even more vitamins than fresh.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are bursting with vitamin A, which makes them an attractive addition to any diet. And although they’re “sweet,” they actually have a lower glycemic index (the rate at which food spikes blood sugar) than russet potatoes.

When stored in a cool, dark, dry place, sweet potatoes can last over a month. They’re great baked, mashed, roasted, and fried. Epicurious offers an astounding 77 sweet potato recipes that you’ll definitely want to try.  

Cottage Cheese

If you’re looking for a healthy dairy treat, consider cottage cheese instead of yogurt. Many commercially available yogurts are packed with sugar, so plain cottage cheese may be a better alternative. It’s high in calcium and other nutrients, packs a major protein punch, and goes easy on fat and calories.

For our list, cottage cheese is a great budget pantry staple because it’s essentially a blank canvas. You can dress it up with your favorite fruit, but it’s also useful for dips, baked goods, and even baked pasta dishes. If you’d use ricotta or cream cheese, chances are good that you can substitute cottage cheese.

Rotisserie Chicken

Rotisserie chickens
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A word of caution: rotisserie chicken is only a bargain if you use it right. If you’re just going to eat the white meat, then you might as well buy a couple of pounds of chicken breasts. However, savvy home cooks have always known that a rotisserie chicken is a great way to save time and money. In addition to the meat—which is phenomenal when shredded and used in just about any type of cuisine—you can also boil the carcass to make your own chicken stock.

Canned Fish

There’s nothing exciting about canned fish, but it’s a cheap, convenient way to add protein and omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Canned fish options have come a long way since the bland, watery tuna that you remember from childhood. Tuna and salmon can be found packed in flavorful broth or oil these days. There’s also an increasing appreciation of the small but mighty anchovy, which adds umami flavor to your recipes.

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter isn’t just for sandwiches. In fact, I’d argue that the sugar-laden processed “peanut spread” you grew up with is the worst way to enjoy peanut butter. If your local grocery store gives you the option of grinding peanut butter fresh in-store, take advantage of it. Not only is it delicious on bread, but you can make desserts, savory dishes, and high-protein snacks.

Obviously, folks with a peanut allergy will want to skip this tip. However, you might find that almond butter or sunflower seed butter are viable alternatives.

Eggs

Egg dishes
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If you’ve been in a scrambled egg rut for a while, it’s time to shake up how you cook them. Eggs are packed with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, and “good” cholesterol. Many of the nutrients are located in the yolk, so resist the temptation to stick with egg whites. There are far too many ways to cook eggs than I could possibly list here, so check out these recipes from around the world to get inspired.

Chicken Thighs

If you think that white meat chicken breast is the best way to cook with poultry, then you’ve been missing out. According to Food Network, “Dark meat, like avocados, is high in healthy monounsaturated fats. Thighs are also more affordable than skinless chicken breasts, so they’re an all-around smart addition to your weeknight dinner routine.”

If you’re feeling chicken about switching to dark meat, try using shredded chicken thighs in a stew or a dish that’ll get wrapped in a tortilla.

Frozen Cauliflower

Like frozen spinach, frozen cauliflower is a smart way to stock up on a versatile vegetable. Cauliflower is trendy right now, and it’s easy to see why. It acts as a blank slate for other flavors, and it can be used in place of rice or even as the main ingredient in gluten-free pizza dough. Personally, I like to roast cauliflower with salt, pepper, olive oil, and garlic. Frozen florets are cheaper and last a lot longer than fresh ones, plus it’s so much easier to deal with pre-chopped cauliflower in a bag.

Read More: Barbeque on A Budget to Unlock Your Best Summer

Onions

Onions
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If you’ve ever forgotten about an onion only to find it sprouting in your pantry, then you know that they don’t last forever. That’s why I recommend chopping, bagging, and freezing your onions when you buy them. Freezing won’t do onions any harm if you plan to cook with them. Check out this cheat sheet for which type of onions to buy the next time you go to the grocery store.

Popcorn

We’re not talking about the high-sodium, artificially flavored microwave popcorn here. Instead, consider buying plain unpopped kernels. It’s easier than you think to make popcorn on the stove; all you need is a little oil and a pot with a lid. You can also invest in an air popper if your family craves popcorn regularly. It’s a snack that’s high in fiber, and the American Heart Association approves of enjoying this whole grain as long as you go easy on the salt.

For a bonus healthy treat, pick up a container of nutritional yeast to sprinkle on your homemade popcorn. Nutritional yeast is a favorite cheese substitute for vegans, and it’s very tasty.

Green Tea

We all know that soda isn’t the healthiest possible beverage. If you’re craving caffeine, then consider reaching for green tea instead. Green tea offers a wide variety of potential health benefits, thanks to the high levels of antioxidants and other compounds. There’s less caffeine in green tea than in coffee or black tea, so it’s helpful for weaning yourself off cola or lattes. You can enjoy green tea hot or iced, and there are plenty of flavored options out there to sample if you find plain tea a little boring.

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