“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.
And because diet is going to make up THAT BIG of your chance for success, we want you to slowly shift to the most effective choices you can – and for that we recommend the Paleo diet. To help you get started, we’ve boiled down and simplified how to best get started with Paleo into a free, downloadable PDF. Enter your email below and we’ll send it to you right away.
- Discover if Paleo is for you
- The one simple trick to know if your food is Paleo-friendly
- Easy Paleo recipes for beginners to get you started
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.
While Steve is a huge fan of the Paleo Diet, today we’re going to explore all cheap protein sources, Paleo or non Paleo.
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.
If you adopt a Paleo Diet, you may find yourself picking out food and asking, “Is this ________ paleo?”. Trust me, I’ve been there. We’ve got you covered. Enter your email below and we’ll send your our downloadable PDF guide to the Paleo Diet, to help you learn what is and isn’t considered Paleo.
- Discover if Paleo is for you
- The one simple trick to know if your food is Paleo-friendly
- Easy Paleo recipes for beginners to get you started
How to eat big and healthy
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!).
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.
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!
123 thoughts on “Help! I’m Poor But Want to Eat Healthy!”
I can get down with nearly every vegetable to which I’m not allergic (the only one I know I’m allergic to is eggplant), but cabbage is gross. Do recipes exist that make cabbage not gross?
Cabbage always going to taste Cabbage-y, but if you chop it small and hide it in soups, multi-vegie dishes like stir-fries, or pureed in pasta sauce you’re less likely to notice it.
I was taught yams have some stringy Ness and sweet potatoes dont.Open can candied yams they have strings of fibers get sweet potatoes at store bake it or water and no strings.I also find the sweet potatoes taste better and you don’t have to eat all that sugar.
I agree.Over the years I have seen alot of specialty or gourmet foods become much more common place opening very new tastes colors and textures.Some however boggle my mind on what to do with it.lol
If you want to loose weight fast quit as much sugar as possible including fruits you can have maybe a fruit a week not much more than that and you should be fine meat is good but watch out for added sugars in everything you eat and added salts as inside salts except for sea salt is added sugar also stay away from wheats and sodas,seltzers, juices unless there is no sugar and it isn’t a fruit drink. Stay away from fructose corn syrup as well. Look at salads and make sure they are sugar free most aren’t so watch out for that and one way I have saved money is just using meal suplements you can drink one surving a day and its a little over a dollar for a day which is pretty good in my book especially as it will fill you for most of the day and if your really hungry you can drink two, but watch out as some meal supplements are scams and add to much sugar!
Oh and one other thing try to keep a high ph level this will allow your body to be more alkline meening more oxygen in your body so your body can focus on building muscle, staying awake, and having more energy. Instead of your body being busy getting rid of Co2 and feeding off anything that it has to use energy from. Hint if you have a low ph level your body will feed off myscles and bones just to get it’s energy. So you can see why it’s be harder to not just be physicaly fit, but also healthy and energetic.
Thanks for sharing the complete list. Very informative.
Almost stopped reading at the “paleo diet fan”
Because its ridiculous and outdated, we’ve adapted far beyond that.
I love this post! I am focusing my own blog, adashiafranklyn.com on topics like this. Please check it out and let me know what you think!
Very interesting perspective. Flax, chia and sunflower seeds are excellent sources of protein and other nutrients as well. They’re super cheap also!
simply read about the history of lobster and chilean sea bass. Then try to tell me that changing name of things, and marketing strategies, are all due to “consumer demand.”
So this is to gain weight??? Sorry I’m new to this all.
Today we’re going to talk about specific foods that are a great bang for your buck. http://urbangroundmarket.com/
Hi! I know your comment is older, and I truly hope and pray life has improved for you since you commented here. I was really challenged by your comment because I have had seasons of a $25 weekly grocery budget for everything (toiletries, household supplies, and food) for 2. I just spent a couple hours researching should others find this page because they are looking to eat as healthy as they can on TIGHT budgets. I’m so sorry to say this – I honestly couldn’t get you to 1500 calories a day for 4 people on $20/week. I think if you qualify for any assistance through social services or local faith-based organizations/food banks – take advantage of the resources. Also, coupon and shop sales! If you have a Sprouts near you, Wednesdays are their double ad days, and they run great sales on bulk brown rice, oats, beans, produce and meat. Here are three meals that would get you close to 1200 calories a day and each ingredient not on sale is generally 75 cents to $1.50/lb – breakfast – 1/2 cup rolled oats & 1 cup whole milk 300ish calories $7.50/week for a family of 4, lunch – 1 cup each cooked dried beans and brown rice (kidney, pinto, lima, lentils, black, navy and garbanzo are all listed as good choices on the World’s Healthiest Food website – use different beans each week to get different nutrients) 450ish calories $12/week for a family of 4, dinner – stew made from a whole chicken, potatoes, carrots and cabbage 450ish calories per serving $13 for a full pot using a 4lb chicken and 5 pounds each of carrots and potatoes and one head of cabbage 16-20+ servings. At $32.50 with very bare minimum ingredients, I still couldn’t really get you to a 1500-2000 calorie diet. A few other random suggestions – roast the chicken first before boiling the bones to make broth for the stew. Save the pan drippings and use those in place of butter or oil to scramble eggs. Eggs would be another good buy to make eggs and Latin potatoes, or fried rice with the brown rice and veggies. If money allowed, Cholula or Valentina sauce, salt and pepper, soy sauce, and cinnamon would go a long way to making everything taste better. To the original poster – I loved the post, and I know my comment maybe didn’t really support what you were saying, but I think our friend here is working with a more extreme budget than even this article can address.
I’ve always thought tuna was great, never get tired of it as long as I mix it with something else (rice + sauce). Good to know about the mercury risk. What other sources of protein exist? I really don’t want to be tricked into consuming powders and lab products to fill the gaps, but too much meat for protein sounds like the wrong path. Got a list of protein sources?
So i basically have $100 a month to spend on food for me and another. What would you suggest to buy to last that long
Many of the items on the list are pretty expensive…including avocados. At my store they run two collars each for small to medium… and don’t forget they go bad in a day or so . that makes ‘stocking up’ a bad idea. You keep saying ‘well it’s expensive but it’s worth it’. When you’re living on a tight budget, that way of thinking isn’t an option. Tight budget means just that. Limited money. But I give you props because ALL food is expensive, so there is really little to work with. I’d say to be extra aware of sales and markdowns. In our supermarket they have manager’s specials in the meat section. Sure, you have to be careful to look at the sell by date and examine the package, the meat color, etc, but there are many times when you can grab a great bargain on a good roast. I’d say look out for sales and stock up then. Chicken and turkey are expensive as well now. I wait until the price goes down from ‘3.99 to 1.99 a pound about every two or three weeks, stock up and freeze chicken breasts. Another alternative is to buy drumsticks and if you must buy foods that aren’t so good for you, then cut your portion sizes and try to supplement the meal with a good spinach salad. buy vegetables in season, and potatoes are always a good value and are loaded with potassium. Just don’t fry them, try cutting them into wedges and drizzling a bit of olive oil (a bottle goes a long way) and garlic and bake. I struggle with a budge too,and some of these things have helped me. Good luck.
This is a great post! Thanks so much for sharing!