The 10 Cheapest, Healthiest Foods Money Can Buy

This originally ran in May 2010.

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 ten 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, there were three main criteria. Each food is:
  • Versatile. It can be eaten on it 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 comprised 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 4/6/10.
  • 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.)

Are there better-rounded fruits? Absolutely. Berries will single-handedly 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 to a good ol’ Cavendish banana. Lesson: Always listen to the monkeys.

Serving size: One large (5oz) banana.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.33 each
Good source of: Fiber (14% of a 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin C (20%), Vitamin B6 (25%), Potassium (14%), Manganese (18%)
Suggested recipe: Three-Ingredient Banana, Honey, and Peanut Butter Ice Cream

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: $0.21 per serving ($0.75/15oz can)
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost, dried: $0.15 per serving ($1.50/1lb bag)
Good source of: Fiber (30% of a 2000-calorie diet), Iron (10%), Protein (15%), Thiamin (14%), Folate (32%), Magnesium (15%), Phosphorus (12%), Manganese (19%)
Suggested recipe: Black Bean Soup with a Fried Egg on Top

Canned tomatoes are here not as a snack or a stand-alone food, but an ingredient. Simply, they’re the basis for innumerable recipes across countless cuisines; sauces, soups, stews, and chilis wouldn’t exist was 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 okay too.

Serving size: One cup canned whole peeled tomatoes
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.48 per serving ($1.67/28oz can)
Good source of: Fiber (10% of a 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin C (37%), Iron (13%), Vitamin B6 (13%), Potassium (13%), Sodium (14%)
Suggested recipe: Tomato and Bread Soup

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 ($0.66), and chop ‘em up yourself. You save $0.84 every time.

Serving size: One cup raw carrot sticks.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.13 per serving ($0.50/lb)
Good source of: Fiber (14% of a USDA 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin A (408%), Vitamin C (12%), Vitamin K (20%), Potassium (11%)
Suggested recipe: Honey-glazed Roasted Carrots

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: Five ounces unprepared frozen spinach.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.50 per serving ($1.00/10oz bag)
Good source of: Fiber (16% of a 2000-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

Full disclosure: I knew lentils were good for you, but didn’t have any idea HOW good until researching this piece. And $0.11 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: $0.11 per serving ($0.79/1lb bag)
Good source of: Fiber (58% of a 2000-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

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: $0.12 per serving ($3.69/42oz canister)
Good source of: Fiber (16% of a 2000-calorie diet), Protein (10%), Thiamin (12%), Iron (10%), Magnesium (14%), Phosphorus (11%), Zinc (10%), Manganese (73%), Selenium (16%)
Suggested recipe: Banana Oatmeal Muffins

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: Two tablespoons chunky peanut butter.
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.15 per serving ($2.39/18oz jar)
Good source of: Calories (9% of a 2000 calorie diet), fat (25%), fiber (10%), protein (15%, Niacin (22%), vitamin E (10%), Manganese (29%), phosphorus (10%), Magnesium (13%)
Suggested recipe: Indonesian Bean Stew

Yes, peas.

Serving size: Half a cup frozen peas, unprepared
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.23 per serving ($3.00/2lb bag)
Good source of: Fiber (12% of a 2000-calorie diet), Vitamin A (22%), Vitamin C (20%), Vitamin K (23%), Thiamin (11%), Manganese (11%)
Suggested recipe: Easy Pea Soup

Rounding out the list, it’s the tastiest of all natural starches: the sweet potato (or yam, if you’re feeling semantic). 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: One cup cubed (about 4.75 oz).
Peapod/Stop & Shop cost: $0.50 per potato
Good Source of: Fiber (16% of 2000-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.

(Photos courtesy of Human 2.0, Real Simple, Zeer, Converting Magazine, and How Stuff Works.)


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