Top 10 Healthy and Cheap Foods

By: Debra Ronca

Hotdogs -- cheap but not healthy. See more pictures of foods under $5.
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With food costs on the rise, we're all looking for ways to save money on groceries. Unfortunately, the food that costs the least is usually the food that's the worst for our health. Check out the value menu of your local fast-food joint. The prices are great, but the food is loaded with fat and chemicals.

The good news is that you don't have to eat processed, calorie-laden food even if you're on a tight budget. Throw those ramen noodles away, and take a closer look at your grocery store for plenty of low-cost, healthy items. We've compiled a list of 10 foods that won't break your budget -- or your belly.


10. Brown Rice

At a cost of only 10 cents per 1/4 cup serving, brown rice is much better for you than regular white rice. Here's why.

A grain of rice has several layers. To make white rice, the milling process removes the first few layers of the grain. The result is a perfect, polished, white grain of rice with nearly no original nutrients left. Brown rice, on the other hand, is a whole grain. Processing removes only the hull, preserving the nutritional value of the grain. Brown rice contains more fiber than white contains and provides you with essential minerals like magnesium and zinc.


Use brown rice as a side dish, in a salad, as part of a stir-fry, or serve it with soup or stew.

9. Beans

Beans, beans, they're good for your heart. And let's just leave it at that. Seriously, though, beans are a powerhouse food. They are chock full of fiber and protein and provide you with healthy dietary fat. Their low glycemic index means that they release energy over time into your bloodstream -- leaving you feeling more full and satisfied, without a sugar or fat crash.

Because you can buy beans dry and in bulk, they're an extremely economical food. Plus you have a ton to choose from -- black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans and more. If you don't want to buy them dry, pick them up in convenient cans. They're still inexpensive -- about 50 cents per serving.


You can add beans to just about anything -- soups, salads, chili -- or just eat them on their own.

8. Eggs

Suffering from a bad rap over the past few years, eggs are making a comeback. Contrary to popular belief, eggs are not cholesterol bombs. Eating one or two eggs a day shouldn't increase your risk of heart disease or stroke.

In fact, eggs are loaded with protein. One egg will give you 11 percent of your recommended daily allowance of protein, with only about 68 calories. Eggs are also good for your diet. One study showed that people who ate eggs for breakfast lost nearly twice as much weight as those who ate a bagel instead -- even though their calorie intake was the same [source: WHFoods].


You can find eggs in your grocery store for around $1.50 a dozen. Some brands and types like cage-free or organic are more expensive, so make sure you comparison shop.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Most of us only eat sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving. However, they're a great addition to your diet year-round. Sweet potatoes cost no more than a buck or two and are full of nutritious goodies. A typical sweet potato contains calcium, fiber, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. And make sure you eat the skin, too -- it's loaded with antioxidants.

Sweet potatoes are low in calories as well, with about 95 per spud. You can bake your sweet potato and enjoy it with a little brown sugar or sage. Or, slice it up, toss with a bit of olive oil and salt, and roast into yummy sweet potato fries.


6. Canned Tuna

Fish is good for your brain and heart, but many people can't afford to buy restaurant-quality cuts of fish on a regular basis. However, at about 62 cents per serving, canned tuna will give you the same nutrients in a much more affordable package. Tuna is a great source of protein and contains myriad minerals and vitamins.

Tuna provides your body with essential omega-3 fatty acids. These acids can help lower your cholesterol, control your blood pressure as well as lower your risk for stroke and heart disease. Do keep in mind that canned tuna contains mercury, so you shouldn't eat it every day.


Here's a tip -- buy chunk light tuna in water instead of albacore. It's cheaper and has a bit less mercury. Skip the mayo in your tuna salad and go with a lighter oil and vinegar dressing to make it healthy.

5. Bananas

Is there any food as cool as the banana? It comes in its own little package, is completely portable and is loaded with nutrients and fiber. And you can buy one for around 40 cents. Bananas are cheap because they're always available, regardless of season.

Bananas are a very good source of potassium. Athletes love bananas because they provide energy via fiber and vital potassium. Bananas can lower your risk for heart disease, sooth ulcers, relieve constipation, help your body to absorb calcium and protect your kidneys. They are a true "superfood."


Eat your bananas plain, or add them to a smoothie for a creamier texture. And don't forget the kid-friendly peanut butter and banana sandwich!

4. Whole Wheat Pasta

An excellent staple for any pantry, whole-wheat (or multigrain) pasta has nearly three times the amount of fiber as regular pasta. Fiber lowers your risk for heart disease and diabetes and fills you up faster and for longer. This potentially means you'll eat less -- resulting in weight loss.

You'll get about seven servings from a typical box of pasta. At less than $2 per box, this translates to about 28 cents per serving. Not bad!


Grocery store marinara sauce tends to be inexpensive, too, so pair that with your pasta for a satisfying meal. Whole-wheat pasta also lends itself well to pasta salad. Dress it up with hard-boiled eggs, some tuna and a bit of oil and vinegar for an easy and healthy lunch.

3. Frozen Vegetables

You can't beat fresh, local produce. If you can grow your own, we heartily recommend it. Many people, though, don't have the resources to plant and maintain a large vegetable garden.

When you're on a budget, you need to be very careful about the amount of fresh produce you purchase. If your produce ends up going bad before you can use it, you're not saving any money -- in fact, you're literally throwing it away.


Frozen vegetables, though, will last several months in the freezer. Look to store brand frozen vegetables for the lowest prices. A typical bag of frozen veggies will net you six to eight servings, at about 25 cents per serving. If you buy in bulk, your savings will increase even more.

And of course, vegetables are low in calories, high in fiber and full of vitamins.

2. Canned Tomatoes

Studies show that cooking certain foods makes it easier for the body to absorb nutrients. Tomatoes are one of these foods. Cooked tomatoes allow the body to absorb more lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. You'll also get a nice dose of vitamins A and C.

Whether stewed, crushed or pureed -- canned tomatoes are a cost-effective meal starter. You can buy a can of tomatoes at your grocery store for around a dollar, and often for less if you buy generic or on sale. A 14.5 ounce can provides about 3.5 servings -- a cost of about 28 cents per serving.


Even better, if you combine lycopene with a small amount of fat -- say, olive oil -- absorption is even better. So go ahead and have Italian tonight. Don't forget the whole-wheat pasta.

1. Flank Steak

You don't need to completely ban red meat from your diet in order to stay fit. You just need to choose the right cuts. Lean cuts of beef have less saturated fat than a typical cut, and contain healthy amounts of protein, iron, zinc and vitamins. Flank steaks are both lean and economically priced.

Leaner cuts of beef cost less than richer, fattier cuts. However, there is a tradeoff. Leaner cuts have less flavor, with a tougher texture. The good news is, though, you don't have to suffer through tasteless, chewy beef. The correct cooking technique will render any lean flank steak delicious. Chefs recommend marinating the meat overnight before grilling or broiling. An acidic marinade -- something with vinegar or orange juice -- will actually break down some of that tough connective tissue. Your lean steak will end up as tasty as a more expensive filet.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "Cooking May Enhance Nutrients in Tomatoes." American Dietetic Association. Jan. 3, 2006. (July 21, 2009)
  • Gorman, Rachael Moeller. "Fresh vs. Frozen Vegetables." Eating Well. 2009. (July 21, 2009)
  • "Healthy Steak Recipes and Cooking Tips." Eating Well. 2009. (July 21, 2009)
  • "It's Incredible." American Egg Board. 2007. (July 21, 2009)
  • Magee, Elaine. "10 Healthy Foods Under $1." Good Housekeeping. 2008. (Jul. 21, 2009)
  • Magee, Elaine. "Cheap and Healthy: 15 Nutritious Foods for About $2." WebMD. 2008. (July 21, 2009)
  • Ni, Maoshing. "The Healthy Benefits of Beans and Legumes." Yahoo! Health. April 14, 2007. (July 21, 2009)
  • "The World's Healthiest Foods." 2009. (July 21, 2009)
  • Unterberger, Lindsey. "Road Test: Whole Wheat and Multigrain Pasta." Your Total Health. 2009. (July 21, 2009)
  • Wadyka, Sally. "Healthy Food on the Cheap." MSN Health & Fitness. 2009. (July 21, 2009)
  • Watts, Merritt. "A dozen smart bites for under a buck." Self. Apr. 2009. (July 21, 2009)