Help! I’m Poor But Want to Eat Healthy!

“I can’t eat healthy, it’s too expensive!”

Unhealthy food is indeed often more accessible and cheaper than healthy alternatives.  Unfortunately, it’s these very foods that make us unhealthy and overweight, causing all sorts of INCREDIBLY expensive medical problems down the road.

The line must be drawn here!”

Healthy eating on a budget IS possible, it just takes a game plan and a little creativity.

Today we’re going to talk about specific foods that are a great bang for your buck. Whether you’re simply trying lose weight and get in shape, or build some muscle and put on weight without looking like Jabba the Hut, making the right dietary choices will always be 80-90% of your success.

(A Star Trek AND Star Wars reference within three sentences of each other? That’s how we roll around here.)

Let’s go!

Break conventional thinking


It’s not exactly a secret that our culture is obsessed with size: Bigger is better.

Over the last few decades we’ve been eating and drinking more and more, and we developed the idea that a “good deal” means a lot of food. In other words, we tend to associate a deal by looking at the price per calorie.

I got SOO many fries, what a great deal!”

Sure, you could buy pasta and ramen and live on mere dollars a day, but we want a game plan that doesn’t skip out on practically every macro and micronutrient – a strategy that builds Rebel Superheroes.

The aim will be to reshape the way you evaluate ‘good deals.’ Instead of price per calorie, we’ll be looking at the price per nutrient. We want the most nutrients for the least amount of money. The choices below will:

  • Target nutrient dense foods, but understand that we’re looking for the most economical choices. If food A costs $10 and has 50 of nutrient x, we’ll pick  food B instead, which only provides 45 of x but costs just $2.
  • Limit our draw to ‘good caloric deals,’ avoiding nutrient deficient options such as white bread or ramen.
  • Identify foods with high caloric AND nutritional value, for those currently trying to gain weight through strength training.

Let’s do this!



While vegetables can often be expensive, when we looked at some of the best choices, veggies  are actually pretty awesome. One study showed:

“…that although fruits and vegetables are an expensive source of dietary energy (calories), they provide key nutrients at a reasonable cost.”

For starters, don’t be afraid to buy frozen vegetables in the freezer section of your local grocery store (or even canned vegetables).  Sure, I love fresh veggies, but since frozen veggies are picked and then frozen at peak ripeness (and thus most nutritionally dense), they are often a better value while being edible for months longer.

Kale and leafy greens (such as mustard or collard): If there is one super cheap superfood, kale and leafy greens are it! Practically nature’s multivitamin, kale is packed full of protein, vitamin K, C, and A, dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, and more (a whole lot more). The catch is that kale and leafy greens can be bitter raw, so they need to be cooked. But don’t worry, there are tons of quick and easy ways to make kale delicious. You do NOT want to miss out on one of the most economical superfoods. To get you started, check out Kale Chips or this try this kale and bacon recipe.

Cabbage: A sister food to kale and leafy greens, from antioxidant to fiber to vitamin C, cabbage is both affordable and nutritionally dense. Cabbage is extremely versatile (soup, salad, stir fry,  or sandwiches), and looks like it may have some superfood cancer fighting qualities as well.

Broccoli: I knew I was a Rebel in training when as a kid, I didn’t understand why everyone else hated Broccoli. Whether fresh or frozen, broccoli provides an excellent price per nutrient value.

Spinach: Rich in both minerals and vitamins, fiber and protein, spinach should be your go-to choice for salads over cheaper but nutritionally deficient greens like iceberg lettuce. The difference between spinach and lettuce is so large, this comparison is a great example to demonstrate why we should be making choices based on price per nutrient, rather than price per calorie.

Carrots: Carrots are one of my favorite nutritionally dense snacks. Crazy amounts of vitamin A, good carbs, and a little bit of everything else; carrots are a solid choice to supplement a salad or soup.

Be sure to check out your local farmers’ market, as you may find some great deals on fruits and veggies depending on the season and where you live.


Protein Meats

While Steve is a huge fan of the Paleo Diet, today we’re going to explore all cheap protein sources, Paleo or non Paleo. If you’re on a strict Paleo Diet, be sure to check out the Nerd Fitness app, Paleo Central, to determine what’s Paleo and what’s not:

Meats (chicken/turkey/beef): When we looked at prices across the U.S., chicken and turkey consistently offered better values. However, don’t count beef out; there is almost ALWAYS a specific cut of beef on sale, and by targeting cheaper (and fattier) cuts, you can usually leave the meat section with a killer deal. We aren’t targeting these cuts simply because they’re cheaper. As one of Steve’s favorite videos explains (Why You Got Fat), we understand that dietary fat is not the enemy, but an important part of a balanced diet.

Eggs: There’s a reason eggs are usually a staple among those seriously strength training: eggs are a simple yet nutritionally dense source of protein. Toss hard boiled eggs in a salad, scramble eggs in a stir fry, or prepare a regular breakfast staple, eggs are usually too cheap to pass up.

Canned Tuna:  One can of Albacore Tuna contains approximately 120 calories, 28g of protein, and can cost $1 or less. This makes canned tuna a superb value and an awesomely lean protein source. Check out other canned fish, such as salmon, for some variety. And be sure to rotate canned tuna in and out of your diet to reduce risks associated with mercury. 

Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, lentils, oh my! Legumes (especially when purchased in bags), are one of the best price per nutrient values out there. Legumes such as beans work great in a salads, soups, or even dips. Providing copious amounts of both protein and carbs, legumes offer a great value and easily satisfy macronutrient requirements. Be wary though, nutritional value will vary depending on your specific legume of choice!

Protein Powder: If the above above recommendations don’t work for you and you’re still a little short on protein, try a huge tub of protein powder online. Make yourself a quick protein shake breakfast or post workout meal.

Other cheap protein options that may be a great deal include quinoa, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and one of the many types of nut butter.



Fruits provide one of the biggest challenges, especially in the United States, because they are so expensive relative to other food groups. Fruits can also be tricky. Grapes, which seem to be a moderate value, end up being one of the worst price per nutrient options out there. This may lead to the completely understandable reaction that I had, “SCREW IT! I love grapes, and I’m buying them!”

But don’t worry, there are still some excellent cost efficient options for fruits:

Watermelon: I know, I know. My first thought too was, “isn’t it mostly water?” Well, yes. But as it turns out, since watermelon is so darn cheap, it is an incredible value per nutrient. Packed with lycopene (antioxidant), vitamins A and C, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus, watermelon is a wonderful and easy to eat nutritional deal.

Bananas: If you’re following the Paleo Diet and avoiding most grains, bananas are a great source of carbs. Bananas are super cheap and provide you with tons of potassium. They can be added to oatmeal, eaten as a snack, or my favorite, as a desert (frozen bananas).

Plums: Packed full great micronutrients like vitamin A, K, and C, plums are an excellent source of fiber and carbs.

Pears: Although pears possess a good amount of natural sugars, they are another great source of fiber and vitamin C…and usually even cheaper than plums.

Other fruits that may be great nutritional deals in your area: cantaloupe, apricots, kiwis, and nectarines.

Don’t forget about dried fruit – although high in sugar, bulk dried fruit can be an nutrient incredible value.

How to eat big and healthy

Balance Scale

If you are training like crazy or are working hard to get bigger by packing on muscle and size, then chances are you’ll require more and more food (read: fuel) to reach your goals.  If you’re strength training and not getting bigger, then you’re not eating enough – it’s that simple.

We can see from this graph that as calories become more important, fats and oils, beans and legumes, and dairy products become more cost effective than vegetables and fruits (however, don’t neglect vegetables to make sure your…um…”plumbing” can handle the extra calories!).

Calories Per Unit Cost Graph

Oats: Oats are incredibly cheap, provide ridiculous amounts of both carbohydrates and protein, and fulfill other micronutrient and mineral requirements such as thiamin, folate, magnesium, and phosphorus. Oats are simple to make, can be prepared a variety of ways (sweet or savory), and can be bought and stored easily in bulk!

Whole Milk: When Steve gained 18 pounds in a month, and then another 12 pounds while traveling, whole milk was a huge part of his diet. Although milk isn’t Paleo, its low cost combined with high amounts of protein, calcium, and vitamin D makes it an attractive option when trying to meet high calorie requirements (if your body can handle the lactose).

Avocados: Avocados are perhaps the densest food listed in this entire article, both calorically and nutritiously. Although they may appear costly, avocados can be an incredible price per nutrient value.  Put them in salads, on sandwiches, or eat them plain with a little bit of salt! When your local grocery store puts avocados on sale, be sure to stock up!

Sweet Potato: A better nutritional value than normal potatoes (plus a lower glycemic load), sweet potatoes are a great source of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and incredible amounts of vitamin A. Steve is a huge fan of sweet potatoes sliced, covered in olive oil, and thrown in the oven at 375 for 12 minutes each side.  So simple, even a nerd could cook it.

Olive Oil: One of the best ways to add good fat without cholesterol or sodium is olive oil. Add extra olive oil to salads, meats, and legumes.  Need even more calories?  Drink it.  Seriously.  Take a few big swigs before each meal and you can add 700-1000 calories to your intake each day, no problem.

Almonds/Walnuts/Almond butter: Hailed by Mark’s Daily Apple, raw almonds are a versatile option that can serve as a great supplementary source of protein and fat. While almonds can be a great value,  be sure to buy them in bulk to optimize your price per nutrient deal. And if you haven’t tried almond butter and apple slices, one of Steve’s staples, you’re missing out.

Eat Smart

Legos surround cheeseburger

No matter what value foods you plan to buy, be sure approach eating healthy on a budget with a plan of attack. You will find that if you take advantage of healthy foods on sale (especially buy one get one free deals), many foods that aren’t listed here will suddenly become a great value!

Remember: If your goal is weight loss, the majority of your calories should come from fat and protein, NOT carbohydrates/grains!  This is the whole premise of the Paleo Diet that we’re so fond of.

Concerned about pesticides and have a bit more money to spend? Here are nine foods you should try to buy organic, and seven organic options you can pass up.  

As long as you’re no longer thinking “more is better,” but instead searching for value healthy foods, you’ll be on your way to becoming a Rebel Superhero.

What foods did I miss that you find to be an incredible value?

Leave any other healthy budget eating tips or tricks in the comments below!



photo source: piggy bank, veggies, watermelon, meat, lego cheeseburger, balance scale, mcdonalds

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  • Oleg Starko

    A seriously great article. Finding out just how nutritious kale is was a serious revelation for me. Won’t pass it up anymore!

  • Eliza

    Great article. I’m about to go grocery shopping and totally needed this. As a side note, will Paleo Central be available for Android soon? I’d love to use the app.

  • Harris

    If you live in a rural area, and you have a freezer, you may be able to get grass-fed and/or organic meat a LOT cheaper than you can from the store, by buying a half or quarter animal directly from a local farmer.

    We did this last year, and are still eating our way through half a cow. We eat a lot of stew and ragu — things you can make with tough cuts or ground beef that turn out gorgeous with long, slow cooking.

    The challenge with this: You end up with a lot of cuts you don’t know what to do with, unless you’ve got a Ph.D in Farm Grandma-Ology.

    Speaking of. A local grass-fed farmer and writer who lives near me, Shannon Hayes, just put out a new cookbook on eating good local meat on a budget: Long Way On A Little. She’s got paleo and low-carb recipes, she writes a lot about nose-to-tail eating and dealing with random cuts of meat, and she’s gotten props from some prominent Paleo folks. Check it out:

  • Mycotastic

    Great article! Barley is a good way to go as we’ll.

  • Backspace2021

    When you say sweet potatoes are you talking sweet potatoes or yams? Depending on where you live people call them different things. To me sweet potatoes are yellow on the inside and yams are the orange ones. Which one is nutritionally better?

  • TheTuscan

    Olive oil has also been proven to be a strong anti-oxydant, i.e. anti-aging.
    I’m still trying to understand whether price ratio between unhealthy and healthy food is higher in the U.S. as compared to Europe. I have a feeling that that is the case, but no figures to prove that.

  • Defrock

    He means actual sweet potatoes.
    While yams have slightly less calories per serving, sweet potatoes have higher nutrient values.

  • Julia Burge

    I’m glad to see cabbage made the list. I’m constantly adding that bad boy to my stir fry – just put a pot lid (or plate) over the top of your wok / skillet to soften it up faster. I also usually keep a ginger root in the freezer and grate it into my dishes that need an extra kick.. usually lasts me a few months!

  • Swheeler25

    When you list (read: fuel) under the Eat Big & Healthy section are you referring tot eh book Fuel by Jeremy Chin.  I looked it up on Amazon and it looks like it’s about running not gaining weight.  That being said, what are some good books to read about eating right to gain muscle?

  • Kiwi

    Hehe good point! Just to complicate things further in New Zealand we have Kumara (purple skinned sweet potatoes, and also the orange ones), and yams are a completely different little small sweet veggie.  When I was in America, I was like what? this isnt a yam! 

  • Back10Space

    No,  I think he just meant that food was fuel!

  • Back10Space

    I’ve always hated how expensive berries are! Always up for more ideas for cheap fruit!

  • Taylor

    We’re working on it! I’m an Android user myself, and eager to get it up and running!

  • Taylor

    Nice tip! I only just discovered this one, wish I had known sooner.

  • Guest

    This article was so poorly edited that it was difficult and frustrating to read. It feels like the standards are slipping.

  • Taylor

    Heyo, sorry for the trouble. We were indeed having some small issues, but everything should be resolved now! As always, feel free to contact me at with additional thoughts/suggestions/complaints!

  • Soleil

    It was perfectly fine this morning. Standards are definitely not slipping. Great article, thanks NF. 🙂

  • Dave

    Great article Taylor — the nutrients/$ info is really useful. The tip for olive-oil is great, too. For clean calories/$ it’d be very hard to beat. The best advice I’d recommend is shop around eBay or Craigslist for a second-hand freezer. The ability to buy food in bulk when you find it cheap and store it for a long time is a big help. Then budget accordingly — out of your weekly food budget, leave a small portion unallocated as a hunter-gatherer allowance.

  • David

    I hear you! Doing a little work has helped me. There are U-Pick-Em berry farms in my area that typically have organic berries (strawberries and blueberries, mostly) for the same cost or cheaper than the conventional berries at the super market. Also, blackberries grow wild all around here (southeast), so in the summer you can eat berries til you’re sick of ’em. In the fall, I highly recommend taking a walk in the woods near a river or stream, there you might find paw-paws, . They can be hard to find since all the critters will try to get to them first!

  • David

    Another bit of savings on red meat can be found by buying the “Manager’s Special”. These are typically bits of meat that are at or nearing their sell by date. My food science buddy tells me that if it’s red, it’s OK. If it’s brown, it’s still OK, just cook it immediately when you get home. The bacteria (that is present on ALL meat) is starting to break down the tissue (same thing happens in dry aging that the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts spend $$$$ on). And if it’s green…well this is real life, not Dr Seuss, so don;t eat it!

  • Celia

    I agree. U-pick farms are fantastic in the summer. We used to live in the PNW and could get wild blackberries as well. I’d take a bucket out on a very-low-traffic road and fill it really quickly. Now in Virginia I can get blueberries for about $3/lb in the summer.

  • Celia

    I would add that it pays to be a little careful with olive oil, as a lot of what’s in the grocery stores is either rancid or cut with other stuff. For the best oil at a good price, I usually by CA Olive Ranch oil (consistently good), which runs about $10/liter. No, I don’t work for them. I just live on a budget and try to ensure that I don’t by crap. Anyway, I like the stuff and go through it like crazy.  If you do dairy, Kerrygold is a good way to get the nutrients in grass-fed dairy fats. It usually runs me about $5.60/lb (latest $2.79 for 8oz) in northern Virginia.   I also buy coconut oil in bulk on Amazon… usually Nutiva. I get two large jars of it (a little spendy up front, but it lasts my family of four close to six months).

    Great post, by the way!

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  • emlily91

    My father is a butcher and what you friend says is very true. Red is good meat, brown is alright (but can be questionable) and green should be thrown away (though with ground beef in a package it could just need air). I would recommend learning how to smell the difference between good and bad meat. There is a distinct difference as soon as something goes bad.

  • emlily91

    So glad to see cabbage on the list, it is one of my favorite foods and I have lots of family recipes using cabbage. I would also like to point out that for people trying to decrease calories or reduce hunger watermelon and cucumber are GREAT because the high water content fills you up. 

  • Unikarm

    I’ve never tired kale and i’m glad to hear that it has to be cooked (i don’t like bitter)………………i think i’ll be brave a buy some now. 

  • Annika

    Sweet potatoes are often incorrectly called yams, but true yams are a different species and are not commonly available in supermarkets (unless they cater to an international population). Even if they are labeled as yams, if you are buying them in a run-of-the-mill produce section, they are sweet potatoes. Yams might be found in an “exotic” veggie section. Sweet potatoes are usually orange on the inside, but can be yellow or even (rumor has it) purple.

  • Katelin

    i shop at auldi and they have ridiculously great prices when it comes to produce

  • snowman

    Cook some bacon and then break it into bits. Then add the bits of bacon to kale and steam. Incredibly easy and tastes awesome.

    If do you do have a steamer, fear not! To steam on the cheap, fill a pot (with lid) with water and then place a sheet of tin-foil over the pan. Push in on the foil to make it slightly concaved, then secure it around the pot’s edge. Now take a toothpick or fork and poke a bunch of holes all around the inside of the tin foil. Start boiling the water in the pot, put the food you want to steam in the concaved “pocket” created by the tin foil, and cover with the pan lid. As the water boils, the steam will be forced up through the holes you made in the tin-foil and will “steam” your veggies in the process.

  • muhamad fawad

    Great article,and awesome tips.Thank for sharing.    
    Education Information

  • anon31

    “Bananas: If your following the Paleo Diet…” You’re, not your. Come on, guys. 🙁 

  • shadoop

     Yeah, America has done alot to standardize the type of vegetables that are consumed.  As people continue to wake up against Big Ag, hopefully we’ll start seeing more heirloom fruits and veges.

  • Taylor

    Heyo, we had a technical problem that posted an earlier version. This and any other minor issues should have been corrected last week (well before the time of your posting). Did you read this in an ereader? In any event, sorry for the trouble.

  • fishercat

    You are right CA Olive Ranch oil is much better than the majority of olive oil in the market.  When I first bought it I did a taste test between my old oil and CA Olive Ranch.  There was a big difference CA Olive Ranch tasted great.

  • Rik Allen

    On that note – you’re is correct  – but this sentence has a flaw (in the closing section)
    This is the whole premise of the Paleo Diet that we’re so found of.

    You’re fond of it – not found. Easily read over it the first time – but when reading it again I noticed.

  • Frances Rose Subbiondo

    Bones & Organs.  These things are often overlooked.  

    First, Bones.  i get bones weekly (esp. in winter) from the local farmers market.  i roast them in the oven, draw off the melted fat, then put them in a big pot of water (with a little vinegar to draw out their boniness into the broth), throw in some whole seed spices, & some root vegetables to enrich the broth — which i let simmer for about 6 hours.  The veggies get composted (as all their flavor is then in the stock).  The bones are then picked for their meat, & then discarded.Check it out:  a bag of bones costs around $4 – 6 depending on the size, number, purveyor, & local demand.This YIELDS:- beautiful, rich fat (poured out of the pan after roasting) to cook other food in.  – the meat, picked of the bones after simmering- & a gallon or two of rocket fuel — intensely nourishing broth.  replace water with broth as you cook grains, or braise vegetables, or make soup.- a hearty aroma that pervades a home space & makes it smell like home & like someone who lives there loves you.

    = awesome value

    Second, Organs.  Shop your local farmers markets.  Find the niches.  People want meat — & look straight past the organs, which come from every animal.  Help the farmers know that the whole animal is being valued & used.  Meanwhile, you get to eat the most nutrient dense parts of the animal.  Flesh is filler.  Organs support the fundamentals of life.  & organs from local grass-feeding farms are beautiful & delicious.  Do NOT get organs from industrially farmed animals.  Do NOT support industrial farming (period) — as best as you are able.  I love Liver best of the organs.  A quick sear on both sides in oil in an onion-y pan — after a fast dredge in a touch of flour, salt & spice is awesome.  Organs too, are mostly cheaper than meat.

    = awesome value

    awesome value, nutritionally dense, & (when from local farmers practicing beautiful stewardship) part of a local & regenerative food system.

    <3  wildRose

  • jason cannon

    And it’s delicious too! I like to wilt my Kale in with some chopped Bacon. Either eat that by itself, or throw it in a soup to add a lot of delicious nutrition.

  • LeAnne Seng

    Eat seasonally – right now cabbage is cheap.  Come spring, it will be tender greens.  Don’t forget Costco.  Especially for frozen veggies and fruits.  A large bag of anything frozen lasts forever.  Costco’s chicken is also a decent value and can be used to make stock for other things.  Go in with some friends and buy 1/2 a cow.  

  • Nicole Stout

    How about seaweed? I’ve had it a few times but didn’t know how it would fit on the nutrient to cost ratio.

  • Thomas Yates

    Great article Steve, off to the shops tonight to pick up some Kale 🙂

  • Cob L Stone

    One of your best articles by far! Perfect timing too. This will help tremendously with the next six week challenge!

  • Artslavebiz

    Yo, thought I’d share for those interested?
    I usually have a ton of like, quarter heads of broccoli, half heads of cabbage, etc, leftover at the end of the week and desperately want to use them before they go bad. I came up with this phenomenal soup that’s ridic low in fat, high in vitamins(protein, too, if you want to add a can of kidney beans, which I usually skip to save my DnD group from CR 12 gas constructs).

    Whatever solid, cooking veg you have in the fridge(My usual ensemble is Cauliflower(1/4 head), Broccoli(1-2 handfuls florets and finely diced stems, chuck the very bottom/browning part of the stem or feed it to your animals), finely sliced carrots, 2-3 handfuls spinache or chopped cabbage, 1 ear of corn’s worth of kernels(One small can will do, too!), peas are fine, though I usually skip them. For your base, use 1 (1ltr) bottle of V8 Spicy, and 1/2 that bottle filled with water. Add 2-3 tbs worcestershire, 2T black pepper, 2T curry powder, 1T brown sugar(adds a bit of depth), 1T apple cider vinegar, 2T basil. Continue seasoning to taste. Serve hot, with a dollop of sour cream(if you like) and a hunk of bread(if carbs aren’t a problem on your diet). 2c is about 200 – 300 calories(More if you have beans in there or high starch vegetables, starch = sugar = calories).

  • Amittus

    I have now 1 kg (2,2 pounds) frozen, cut kale, what now? I thought about salad (with tuna, cottage cheese) but uncooked it`s bitter. I`m a bit clueless, yeah there alot of fancy recipe but i want something easy, for everyday, like making hard boiled eggs etc. 

  • Bhane

    This article, much like every other article I have read on this site is amazing! Unhealthy, overweight, and unhappy are changing day by day with the help of this site.

  • Northtexasfitness

    Awesome article! Very informative.

  • Dr. Bellonzi

    What a great article.  I am trying to make this point to my patients every day.  What you choose to eat makes all the difference.  If you focus on Diet-exercise-sleep-and stress, you will have prevented almost all disease.  Keep up the good work.

    Dr. Vincent Bellonzi, Author of HEALTH RECKLESSLY ABANDONED

  • Mark Turnbull

    Great Article, thanks for the info. 

  • MarkTurnbull

    Great Article, Thanks for the detailed info.

  • Aaron Parker

    My wife has been chronically ill for about 10 years now, and good diet is not optional for her.  We have had no choice but to make it work.  I really think the issue most people find is that pre-packaged foods and quick prep items are the real issue.  When you go ‘healthy’ or organic, etc.  These foods do indeed tend to drive up the bill.  But the real issue is that you don’t  just stop buying food from Wally world, you need to change what you are buying.

    In years past there was more cardboard in the cart than veggies.  But now a days our cart is often mostly veggies.  If you find ways to make large batches of foods, with high percentage of veggies, it’s a win win.  You have cheaper bills, and also you will have large filling dishes.

    The other major factor is to take advantage of your freezer.  don’t make two plates of food.  Make a whole pot.  Typically large meals freeze well, and are cheaper to boot.  Things like soup, casseroles, even breakfast sandwiches are great to store away.

    The added benefit here too is that on those busy or lazy days… you pull out a mason jar of soup, or a container of that yummy dish from last month, and in a few quick minutes you have a meal.  Save your time, save your money… but you will need to change what most folks put in the cart.  It’s all good, just different.

    Best of luck!!

  • Peacoat

    Men’s journal has a kale smoothie recipe with chia seeds. I don’t know where to get them, so I skipped it ands it’s pretty good!