The grocery store can seem like the Bermuda triangle if you want to eat well without breaking the bank. Questions arise, like “Do I have to eat organic to be healthy?” (no), “Can I snack and still be slim?” (yes), and of course, “How on Earth can I afford to eat right?”
To help you fill your cart with smart choices that will still leave change in your pocket, here are 10 items that pack potent nutritional benefits at low prices.
"A recent study found that deeply colored orange fruits and vegetables were associated with a reduced risk in coronary heart disease."
An anti-oxidant powerhouse, spinach is loaded with phytonutrients such as carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin) and flavonoids as well as Vitamins K, A, and folate. These nutrients help fight off infection and protect against inflammation. Look for bagged spinach that is pre-washed and waiting for you to eat raw or cook.
TRY IT: For a delicious salad, try mixing spinach with dried cranberries, cheese, pecans, and vinaigrette dressing.
APPROXIMATE COST: $2.50 for a 10 oz. bag
Sure, you’ve probably heard that eating carrots helps your eyesight. But a recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition found deeply colored orange fruits and vegetables were associated with a reduced risk in coronary heart disease (CHD), and carrots - the strongest contributor in the group – were associated with a 32 % lower risk of CHD.
TRY IT: Carrots are a versatile snack that go anywhere and are ready when you are. Try them topped with hummus, tzatziki (Greek cucumber yogurt dip), or black bean dip.
APPROXIMATE COST: $1.50 for a 1 lb. bag
It doesn’t get better than this. These protein, potassium, and iron-packed beans are picked in their prime, processed to lock in nutrients, and then frozen for your convenience. There’s no preparation involved, other than opening the bag and heating. Look for plain edamame, as some saucy varieties come loaded with salt or fat.
TRY IT: Heat edamame until tender, using minimal water. Top with fresh herbs and butter spray for flavor. These beans can also be added to pasta or a stir-fry for added fiber, nutrients, and color.
APPROXIMATE COST: $3 for a 12 oz. bag
Legumes (beans), canned
A can of beans - black, kidney, great northern, and many more - provides up to half of your recommended daily value of protein (according to the USDA) for a cost of only pocket change. To save yourself from unnecessary sodium, choose a variety that has “no salt added” on the label, and then add your own seasoning.
TRY IT: In a blender, combine a can of black beans, a sprig of cilantro, one medium onion, and a can of stewed tomatoes. Blend until smooth. You’ve just made your new favorite dip, perfect for veggies or tortilla chips.
APPROXIMATE COST: $0.85 for a 14 oz. can
Chicken Breast (boneless, skinless)
Easy to prepare and versatile, chicken offers plenty of muscle building protein without a lot of fat or excess calories.
TRY IT: Fill a stock pot with water and bring to a boil. Add chicken and cook for 15 minutes or until tender. Remove chicken and cool. Shred chicken and toss with salsa. Voila! You have a quick filling for tacos.
APPROXIMATE COST: $2-$7 per lb.
Packed with protein and calcium, salmon also contains omega-3 oils. Multiple studies have found that omega-3’s fight inflammation, and emerging evidence suggests that fish oil can also help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Look for varieties that are packed in water, rather than oil, to avoid unnecessary fats.
TRY IT: It’s good straight out of the can, but you could also try salmon patties. Drain and mix one can with 2 tbsp. mayo, 1 tsp. mustard, 1 tsp. garlic powder, and ¼ cup diced bell pepper. Form the mixture into patties and cook in a non-stick skillet for 3-5 minutes on each side.
APPROXIMATE COST: $3 for a 7.5 oz. can.
For less than 100 calories per ½ cup, low-fat cottage cheese offers 13 grams of satiating protein and is rich in bone-building calcium and phosphorus. And if you’re counting calories, low-fat versions (such as 1% or 2% milk fat), provide an extra lean dose of this muscle-building food.
TRY IT: Toss with canned peaches or pears for a fruity and delicious breakfast option.
APPROXIMATE COST: $2.99 for a 16 oz. container.
Whole Grain Pasta
Pasta comes in different shapes, sizes and prices, but all whole-grain versions pack more fiber than their enriched white counterpart. Many come with other benefits like added protein or omega-3 oils. Look for pastas that contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving and have the word “whole” on the ingredients label.
TRY IT: Boil pasta until tender. Before draining, add a bag of frozen vegetables and allow vegetables to heat through. Drain and toss with a can of tomatoes.
APPROXIMATE COST: $1.75 for 1 lb.
Whole Grain Rice
Brown, black, purple, red, and other exotic varieties of rice offer loads of fiber and provide more than 15 other vitamins and minerals, including folate, manganese, selenium, iron and zinc. Recent research shows that people who eat rice have a lower risk of high blood pressure and obesity, and may be less likely to develop type II diabetes.
TRY IT: Cooking rice is easier than you think. Just remember the 1-2-3 rule: 1 cup of raw rice plus 2 cups of water (or broth) yields 3 cups of cooked rice. Combine rice and liquid, bring to a boil then reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 45-50 minutes. Add in veggies and cooked meat of your choice.
APPROXIMATE COST: $1 for a 1 lb. bag
When the urge to snack hits, whole-grain popping corn can come to the rescue. This light treat offers a lot of fiber, so you’ll feel fuller without consuming mountains of calories. Look for kernels that can be made into a low-fat and low-sodium treat by using a air popper to prepare. If you prefer the ease of microwaveable bags, look for low-fat options and choose a single-serving bag for better portion control.
TRY IT: Take your popcorn flavor up a notch by adding unusual spices like red pepper or garlic power. Or add a little protein and calcium by topping with grated parmesan cheese.
APPROXIMATE COST: $2.75 for four single-serve microwavable bags