Eating healthy can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. The most nutritious foods are whole foods, in their natural state, full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other phytonutrients. Whole foods are generally less expensive than prepared or processed foods, so strategic shopping makes it possible to have a healthy diet on a tight budget.
Because it has not been shipped long distances, local produce in season is usually fresher and less expensive than what is available in grocery stores. Fruits and vegetables should account for more than half of your diet, so build meals around local produce. Schedule a weekly trip to the farmers’ market to shop for foods in season or join a community supported agriculture (CSA) group for weekly deliveries of local harvest.
When organic foods don’t fit your budget, avoid the “dirty dozen” most contaminated fruits and vegetables: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrot and pear.
Instead, shop seasonally for the “clean 15” least contaminated fruits and vegetables: onions, avocadoes, sweet corn, pineapple, mango, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, papaya, watermelon, broccoli, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
The Environmental Working Group determined that replacing the dirty dozen with the clean 15 reduces exposure to pesticides on produce by almost 90 percent. When you can’t eat organic, this is the next best thing. Download the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides and take it with you to the market.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are usually better than their canned counterparts, but exceptions exist. Canned goods contain minimal additives and come pre-cooked.
Compared to fresh tomatoes, canned varieties contain up to nine times more lycopene, a carotenoid and powerful antioxidant currently being studied for its protective role against cancer. Use canned tomatoes in soups, stews and sauces.
Canned beans – cannellini, garbanzo, kidney, black, pinto – are inexpensive and nutritious staples. Use canned beans and black-eyed peas to add protein, fiber, iron, B vitamins, folate, potassium, magnesium and antioxidants to any diet. They are versatile enough to be used in soups, salads, sauces, dips and spreads.
Canned coconut milk contains healthy fats and is suitable for vegan and vegetarian individuals. It makes a creamy addition to soups, sauces and smoothies.
Canned fish – wild salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies – are much less expensive than fresh fish and just as nutritious. They are an excellent source of essential omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, calcium (when consumed with the bones) and protein. Avoid canned tuna, however cheap, because it may contain harmful contaminants like mercury and other industrial pollutants.
Many dried foods are inexpensive and some are available in bulk for an even better deal. This includes whole grains (rice, quinoa, millet, oats, amaranth) and legumes (beans, lentils and peas).
Dried beans require more preparation than canned beans because they have to be soaked overnight and cooked slowly, so they are usually even less expensive than canned varieties.
Raw nuts and seeds can commonly be found in bulk as well, but their fragile omega-3 fats easily oxidize, causing production of harmful free radicals. Ensure they are fresh before buying in bulk.
Other dried foods like herbs, ginger, chili peppers, mushrooms and seaweed are also affordable and nutritious staples.
Some ingredients – like dried shiitake mushrooms, seaweed and coconut milk – can be expensive in regular markets but better deals are often found in groceries that specialize in Asian foods.
When buying animal products, don’t cut corners too closely. Choose meats, eggs and dairy products that are wild or have been raised without hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, even if it means eating smaller portions or buying these foods less often.
Meat can be used to flavor dishes – like soups, salads, risotto, stir-fry and sandwiches – rather than making it the main component of meals.
Buy bone-in cuts or the whole animal. Reserve any bones to make stock for soups and sauces.
Making meals from scratch can save money but it requires more time spent shopping and cooking. If your schedule is as tight as your budget, get organized, plan meals in advance and schedule time for shopping and food preparation.