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The 10 cheapest, healthiest foods

These are versatile and hugely nutritious. And did we mention cheap?

By Karen Datko Apr 8, 2010 10:32AM

This guest post comes from Kris at Cheap Healthy Good.


Whether you’re broke and waiting for the next paycheck, or simply trying to cut back on your grocery bill, it’s vital to choose foods that give you the healthiest bang for your hard-earned buck.

These 10 foods do just that. They’re nutritional powerhouses for pennies on the dollar. Many could be considered superfoods, and have long been staples of frugal households. I included almost all of them (sorry, lentils) for CHG's $25 Challenge, and you’ll see that Hillbilly Housewife uses quite a few in her famous $45 Emergency Menu, as well.

To compile the final list, I used three main criteria. Each food is:

  • Versatile. It can be eaten on its own or used as an ingredient in other dishes.
  • Inexpensive. A serving will cost a few dimes or nickels.
  • Nutritious. It packs high percentages of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and/or calories. (Note: To be totally honest, some important, but fairly obscure minerals are included here. Manganese? I thought it was a capital in Southeast Asia. It is not, and oatmeal has 147% of the USDA-recommended daily allowance.)

Bonus: Since most of the list is composed of produce, grains, and legumes, it’s fairly environmentally and ethically sound, as well.

Of course, your opinion on some of these foods (particularly the first) might differ, and I’d love to hear what you would have included instead. But first, before we get started, two quick notes:

  • All prices are the lowest available from Peapod (Stop & Shop) on April 6, 2010. 
  • All nutrition data comes from, uh, Nutrition Data and is approximate. Serving sizes are noted.

Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist, and these choices reflect my own opinion, so take ‘em with a grain of salt. (Or don’t, because, you know -- not a nutritionist.)


Bananas. Are there better-rounded fruits? Absolutely. Berries will singlehandedly protect you from every known disease and fight off communism. But they are inordinately pricey little buggers (especially out of season), and for the money, don’t compare with a good ol’ Cavendish banana. Lesson: Always listen to the monkeys.

Beans. We’ve discussed beans ad nauseum here on CHG, and for good reason: There are fewer cheaper sources of protein and fiber found on Earth. (Maybe Mars?) Their mutability means you can pack them into just about any recipe, and with a range of flavors and sizes, everyone’s palate will be equally pleased. Plus: hilarious farting.

  • Serving size: half a cup of cooked black beans.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost, canned: 21 cents per serving (75 cents for 15-ounce can).
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost, dried: 15 cents per serving ($1.50 per 1-pound bag)
    Good source of: fiber (30% of a 2,000-calorie diet), iron (10%), protein (15%), thiamin (14%), folate (32%), magnesium (15%), phosphorus (12%), manganese (19%).

Canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes are here not as a snack or a standalone food, but an ingredient. Simply, they’re the basis for innumerable recipes across countless cuisines. Sauces, soups, stews, and chilis wouldn’t exist were it not for the humble tomato. And yeah, if you’re the type to dig in a can of Progresso with a spoon, that’s OK too.

  • Serving size: 1 cup canned whole peeled tomatoes.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 48 cents per serving ($1.67 per 28-ounce can).
  • Good source of: fiber (10% of a 2,000-calorie diet), vitamin C (37%), iron (13%), vitamin B6 (13%), potassium (13%), sodium (14%).
  • Suggested recipe: tomato and bread soup.

Carrots. Bugs Bunny was on to something. But while carrots can be eaten raw to great merriment, they’re also excellent roasted, braised, in soups, and mixed with other foods. Hint: For snacking purposes, skip the bags of baby carrots ($1.50), buy a pound of full-growns (66 cents), and chop ‘em up yourself. You save 84 cents every time.

  • Serving size: 1 cup raw carrot sticks.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 13 cents per serving (50 cents per pound).
  • Good source of: fiber (14% of a USDA 2,000-calorie diet), vitamin A (408%), vitamin C (12%), vitamin K (20%), potassium (11%).
  • Suggested recipe: honey-glazed roasted carrots.

Frozen spinach. Apparently, Popeye was on to something, too. (What is it with these cartoon characters?) Spinach is just about the healthiest food you can buy, and it’s easy to sneak little bits into a plethora of different dishes. Here, I’m going for frozen spinach over fresh for two reasons. First, it’s generally cheaper, and you can find better sales. Second, it takes up less space. For those of us with limited refrigerator storage, that’s important.

  • Serving size: 5 ounces unprepared frozen spinach.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 50 cents per serving ($1 for a 10-ounce bag).
  • Good source of: fiber (16% of a 2,000-calorie diet), vitamin A (333%), vitamin C (13%), calcium (18%), iron (15%), protein (10-11%), vitamin K (660%), vitamin E (20%), riboflavin (18%), vitamin B6 (12%), folate (51%), magnesium (26%), manganese (50%), copper (10%), potassium (14%), selenium (112%).
  • Suggested recipe: Italian white bean and spinach soup.

Lentils. Full disclosure: I knew lentils were good for you, but didn’t have any idea HOW good until researching this piece. And 11 cents per serving? My god. No wonder they’re eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner around the world.

  • Serving size: One-quarter cup of lentils, unprepared.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 11 cents per serving (79 cents per 1-pound bag).
  • Good source of: fiber (58% of a 2,000-calorie diet), iron (20%), protein (25%), thiamin (28%), vitamin B6 (13%), folate (57%), pantothenic acid (10%), magnesium (14%), phosphorus (22%), potassium (13%), zinc (15%), copper (12%), manganese (32%).
  • Suggested recipe: red lentil soup with lemon.

Oatmeal. Here’s a riddle: What comes in a can, goes in a muffin, or can be boiled with raisins? (If you said “bunnies,” you are sick in the head.) It’s oatmeal, folks! High in fiber and all kinds of exciting minerals, it’s appropriate for every meal. Combine it with sweeter flavors for breakfast, or soy sauce and scallions for a strangely delicious lunch.

  • Serving size: Half a cup unprepared old-fashioned rolled oats.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 12 cents per serving ($3.69 for 42-ounce canister).
  • Good source of: fiber (16% of a 2,000-calorie diet), protein (10%), thiamin (12%), iron (10%), magnesium (14%), phosphorus (11%), zinc (10%), manganese (73%), selenium (16%).
  • Suggested recipe: banana oatmeal muffins.

Peanut butter. Throughout childhood, peanut butter was as universal as "Sesame Street" and possibly even my mother. Even today, spooning some out of the jar is a good time, and adding a dollop into stew or oatmeal positively feels like a treat. And though PB is high in fat, it’s a good kind.

  • Serving size: 2 tablespoons chunky peanut butter.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 15 cents per serving ($2.39 for an 18-ounce jar).
  • Good source of: calories (9% of a 2,000 calorie diet), fat (25%), fiber (10%), protein (15%, niacin (22%), vitamin E (10%), manganese (29%), phosphorus (10%), magnesium (13%).
  • Suggested recipe: Indonesian bean stew.

Peas. Yes, peas.

  • Serving size: half a cup frozen peas, unprepared.
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 23 cents per serving ($3 for a 2-pound bag).
  • Good source of: fiber (12% of a 2,000-calorie diet), vitamin A (22%), vitamin C (20%), vitamin K (23%), thiamin (11%), manganese (11%).
  • Suggested recipe: Easy Pea Soup.

Sweet potatoes. Rounding out the list, the tastiest of all natural starches: the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes have all the benefits and cooking versatility of regular potatoes, plus lots of fiber, a metric ton of vitamin A, and an alluring orange color. Enter their world, and you will never want to leave.

  • Serving size: 1 cup cubed (about 4.75 ounces).
  • Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: 50 cents per potato.
  • Good source of: fiber (16% of 2,000-calorie diet), vitamin A (377%), vitamin B6 (14%), potassium (13%), copper (10%), manganese (17%).
  • Suggested recipe: Sweet potato and chickpea puree.

Readers, what do you think of the list? What would you add? What would you leave off? The comment section is ready and waiting.

Related reading at Cheap Healthy Good:

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