What Cheap and Healthy Foods Should I be Eating?

Article Summary:

We analyzed foods that offered good value and nutritional value.

We found that by choosing cheap and healthy foods, you could realize the following savings:

foodcost

Below is a summary of recommended foods that offer a good mix of affordability and nutrition value:

  • Fruit
    • Bananas
    • Oranges
    • Mangoes
    • Cantaloupe
    • Kiwis
  • Vegetables
    • Carrots
    • Cabbage
    • Sweet Potatoes
    • Collard Greens
    • Kale
    • Broccoli
  • Healthy Fats, Oils, Nuts, and Seeds
    • Canola Oil
    • Flaxseed
    • Almonds (or Almond Butter)
    • Walnuts
  • Whole Grains
    • Oatmeal
    • Quinoa
    • Whole Wheat Bread
  • Beans & Tofu
    • Almost every bean was found to be nutritional and affordable
  • Fish, Poultry, & Eggs
    • Eggs
    • Tuna
    • Salmon
  • Dairy
    • 2% Milk
    • Whole Milk
  • Red Meat
    • Ground Beef (90% lean)
    • Pork Loin
  • Supplements
    • Fish Oil: You may need to supplement your diet with fish oil pills to get enough DHA omega-3 fatty acids
    • Calcium: You may need to supplement your diet with calcium pills
    • Vitamin D: You will most likely need to take vitamin D supplements if you’re not in the sun regularly

And a summary of the cost of food (click to expand):




Full Article:

In this article, we will explore the cost of healthy foods and explore how to optimize your daily eating habits to keep your food costs down.

To determine the mix of foods that we should be eating, we will be using Harvard’s Healthy Eating Pyramid. This is different than the traditional food pyramid because it prioritizes eating different food categories. Specifically, it breaks food into these categories:

foodpyramide

In order to build a cost-effective diet, let’s take a look at the cost of foods in each category. Each category serves a different purpose in your diet, therefore we will be evaluating the cost of foods in each category based on the following metrics:

Category of Food Cost Evaluation Criteria
Fruits Price Per Edible Cup
Vegetables Price Per Edible Cup
Whole Grains Price Per 100 Calories
Fats and Oils Price Per 100 Calories
Beans and Tofu Price Per 100 Calories
Fish, Poultry, and Eggs Price Per 100 Calories
Dairy Price Per 100 Calories
Red Meat Price Per 100 Calories

You can find a discussion of why we use these cost evaluation metrics in the appendix. In addition to cost, we’ll also be looking at a “Nutrition Score” which you can find described in the article “What are the healthiest fruits, vegetables, and other foods?”. In short, the “Nutrition Score” measures the amount of vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, and dietary fiber that a food provides.


Fruits

Food Price
Per
Edible
Cup
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Raspberries $2.06 65 2 1 15 8 53
Blackberries $1.71 62 2 1 14 8 64
Papayas $1.46 98 1 1 25 4 84
Blueberries $1.31 85 1 1 21 4 39
Cherries $1.22 155 2 1 19 3 42
Strawberries $0.89 47 1 0 11 3 60
Kiwi $0.82 110 2 1 26 5 100
Tangerines $0.72 104 2 1 26 4 67
Pineapples $0.70 82 1 0 22 2 58
Grapefruit $0.67 97 2 0 25 4 79
Cantaloupe $0.64 53 1 0 13 1 98
Grapes $0.62 62 1 0 16 1 24
Mangoes $0.53 99 1 1 25 3 77
Nectarines $0.49 63 2 1 15 2 22
Plums $0.48 76 1 1 19 2 30
Honeydew $0.45 61 1 0 15 1 41
Pears $0.42 92 1 0 25 5 19
Orange $0.34 85 2 0 21 4 66
Apples $0.28 57 0 0 15 3 11
Bananas $0.21 200 3 1 51 6 67
Watermelon $0.17 46 1 0 11 1 22

Discussion:

  • In an effort to balance nutrition and cost, our selections for fruit are:
    • Bananas
    • Oranges
    • Mangoes
    • Cantaloupe
    • Kiwis
  • The Healthy Eating Pyramid recommends about two cups of fruit per day
  • The prices above reflect the average price for fruit over a one-year period. However, prices for fruit fluctuate throughout the season. You may be able to find better deals on certain fruits throughout the year.

Vegetables

Food Price
Per
Edible
Cup
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Artichoke $1.68 90 4 0 20 14 50
Asparagus $1.47 27 3 0 5 3 45
Red Peppers $1.38 46 1 0 9 3 67
Cherry Tomato $1.20 27 1 0 6 2 26
Corn $1.17 177 5 2 41 5 23
Brussels Sprouts $1.06 56 4 0 12 4 84
Green Beans $1.03 44 2 0 10 4 31
Squash (Zucchini) $0.96 20 2 0 4 1 27
Okra $0.95 36 2 0 8 4 55
Cauliflower $0.90 28 2 0 6 2 44
Turnip Greens $0.89 29 2 0 6 5 94
Green Peppers $0.85 30 1 0 7 3 42
Mustard Greens $0.81 21 3 0 3 3 81
Celery $0.77 16 1 0 3 2 21
Roma Tomatoes $0.76 32 2 0 7 2 32
Broccoli $0.63 54 4 0 12 6 94
Mushrooms $0.62 44 3 1 8 3 33
Kale $0.60 36 2 1 7 3 84
Collard Greens $0.57 49 4 1 9 5 100
Spinach $0.52 7 1 0 1 1 52
Sweet Potatoes $0.43 180 4 0 41 7 74
Radishes $0.41 19 1 0 4 2 17
Romaine Lettuce $0.40 8 1 0 2 1 47
Onions $0.28 64 2 0 15 3 17
Cabbage $0.27 34 2 0 8 2 61
Iceberg Lettuce $0.26 10 1 0 2 1 13
Carrots $0.25 52 1 0 12 4 45
Potatoes $0.19 128 3 0 29 3 30

Discussion:

  • In an effort to balance nutrition and cost, our selections for vegetables are:
    • Carrots
    • Cabbage
    • Sweet Potatoes
    • Collard Greens
    • Kale
    • Broccoli
  • The Healthy Eating Pyramid recommended about two cups of vegetables per day
  • The prices above reflect the average price for vegetables over a one-year period. However, prices for vegetables fluctuate throughout the season. You may be able to find better deals on certain vegetables throughout the year.

Fats, Oils, Nuts, and Seeds

Food Price
Per
100 Calories
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Macademias $0.55 100 1 10 2 1 22
Avocados $0.47 100 1 9 5 4 51
Pecans $0.34 100 2 10 2 2 -31
Cashews $0.30 100 3 8 6 1 7
Avocado Oil $0.30 100 0 11 0 0 -14
Pistachios $0.26 100 4 8 5 2 -9
Walnuts $0.22 100 2 10 2 1 -31
Sesame Oil $0.20 100 0 12 0 0 -91
Almonds $0.17 100 4 9 4 2 3
Margarine Stick $0.15 100 0 11 0 0 -93
Margarine Tub $0.15 100 0 11 0 0 14
Butter $0.12 100 0 11 0 0 -3
Flaxseed $0.10 100 3 8 5 5 100
Peanuts $0.08 100 5 9 2 2 -14
Safflower Oil $0.07 100 0 12 0 0 -22
Coconut Oil $0.07 100 0 12 0 0 -16
Peanut Butter $0.05 100 4 8 4 1 -15
Olive Oil $0.05 100 0 11 0 0 -6
Peanut Oil $0.04 100 0 12 0 0 -70
Shortening $0.04 100 0 12 0 0 -111
Sunflower Oil $0.03 100 0 11 0 0 4
Corn Oil $0.03 100 0 12 0 0 -116
Canola Oil $0.02 100 0 11 0 0 40

Discussion:

  • Our selection for cooking oil is Canola Oil. It has additional nutritional value compared to other cooking oils because it’s higher in omega-3 fatty acids, plus it’s cheaper.
  • Our selections for a nut or seed are peanuts (or peanut butter), flaxseeds, or walnuts.
  • There is no specific recommendation for fat intake in the Healthy Eating Pyramid, but studies have shown that you need about 0.4 grams of fat per pound of body weight, which translates to 48 grams for a 120-pound woman or 66 grams for a 165-pound man. You’ll probably be eating 1-4 servings of foods from this category (since some of the fat in your diet will come from other sources such as beans, dairy, fish or meat).

Whole Grains

Food Price
Per
100 Calories
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Bulgar Wheat $0.41 100 4 0 23 6 94
Wheat Bread $0.18 100 6 1 17 3 100
Quinoa $0.16 100 4 2 17 2 76
Brown Rice $0.14 100 2 1 21 2 51
Steel Cut Oats $0.12 100 4 2 18 3 47
Oatmeal $0.09 100 4 2 18 3 47

Discussion:

  • None of the whole grains are very expensive, but we personally will probably lean towards oatmeal, quinoa, and whole wheat bread for taste and nutrition.
  • There is no specific recommendation for daily whole grain intake in the Healthy Eating Pyramid, but whole grains generally make for a good filler in most prepared meals.

Beans and Tofu

Food Price
Per
100 Calories
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Tofu $0.59 100 11 6 2 1 49
Red Kidney Beans $0.09 100 7 0 18 7 79
Black Beans $0.07 100 7 0 18 7 81
Navy Beans $0.07 100 6 0 19 7 87
Lentils $0.07 100 8 0 17 7 100
G. Northern Beans $0.05 100 6 0 18 4 70
Pinto Beans $0.05 100 6 0 18 6 86

Discussion:

  • Most beans have pretty similar nutritional content and are cost-effective.
  • Tofu consists of mostly protein and has little carbs, but is a lot more expensive than beans as a protein source.
  • There is no specific recommendation for daily protein intake in the Healthy Eating Pyramid, but studies have shown that you need between 0.4 and 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight
    • Using the requirement of 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight, a 120-pound woman needs 60 grams of protein each day
    • Using the requirement of 0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight, a 165-pound man needs 115 grams of protein each day

Fish, Poultry, and Eggs

Food Price
Per
100 Calories
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Halibut $2.97 100 19 2 0 0 87
Shrimp $1.67 100 19 2 0 0 91
Salmon (Wild) $1.32 100 14 4 0 0 100
Tilapia $1.04 100 19 3 0 0 48
Turkey Breast $0.86 100 16 2 4 0 24
Salmon (Farmed) $0.65 100 11 6 0 0 81
Trout $0.59 100 15 4 0 0 98
Tuna (in Water) $0.58 100 22 1 0 0 75
Chicken Breast $0.54 100 19 2 0 0 30
Eggs $0.19 100 9 7 0 0 21

Discussion:

  • When eating fish, poultry, and eggs, you want to get the following nutrients:
    • Protein
    • Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA)
    • Vitamin B-6
    • Vitamin B-12
  • Eggs are a good source of all of those nutrients except for omega-3 fatty acids
  • Tuna is a good source of all of those nutrients (although it has lower omega-3 fatty acid content than other fish)
  • Chicken and Turkey have almost no Vitamin B-12 (and you can only get Vitamin B-12 from meat), so I wouldn’t recommend them as your main meat source
  • Salmon is a good source of all of those nutrients (but it’s the most expensive)
    • Other fish that are a good source of everything include:
      • Mackerel
      • Sardines
  • You can get omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources such as Flaxseed. However, omega-3 from plant sources only contain ALA omega-3 fatty acids. Fish contain the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Your body can convert the ALA fatty acids from plant sources to EPA fatty acids, but it has trouble converting ALA fatty acids to DHA fatty acids. Therefore, it is recommended that you eat fish (or take fish oil pills) a few times a week even if you’re eating a plant source of omega-3.
  • Therefore, from this category we would recommend:
    • Eggs
    • Tuna, Salmon or another fish source a few times a week

Dairy

Food Price
Per
100 Calories
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Feta Cheese $0.61 100 5 8 1 0 64
Greek Yogurt $0.61 100 17 1 6 0 100
Cottage Cheese $0.50 100 17 1 4 0 74
Plain Yogurt $0.37 100 6 5 7 0 77
Parmesan Cheese $0.29 100 9 7 1 0 61
Mozzarella Cheese $0.21 100 10 6 1 0 60
Cream Cheese $0.19 100 2 10 1 0 12
Cheddar Cheese $0.15 100 6 8 0 0 49
2% Milk $0.13 100 7 4 10 0 94
Whole Milk $0.11 100 5 5 9 0 84

Discussion:

  • When eating dairy, you want to get the following nutrients:
    • Protein
    • Calcium
    • Vitamin B-12
    • Vitamin D
  • Milk and yogurt contain each of these nutrients
  • Cheese does not contain vitamin D (but some cheeses are fortified with vitamin D)
    • You can also get vitamin D from being out in the sun, but in the winter this can be difficult if you’re in a cold climate
  • The Healthy Eating Pyramid recommends 1-2 servings of dairy each day
  • For dairy, we’d recommended milk since it is cost effective and contains a lot of nutrients
    • It can be difficult to consume enough dairy to fully satisfy your vitamin D daily requirements and calcium daily requirements. One to two servings per day of dairy generally will not be enough to satisfy your daily requirements of these two nutrients, so supplements are often recommended.

Red Meat

Food Price
Per
100 Calories
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Sirloin Steak $1.00 100 17 3 0 0 97
Bison $0.84 100 14 5 0 0 90
Lamb Chops $0.75 100 11 6 0 0 74
Pork Loin $0.54 100 18 2 0 0 100
Salami $0.43 100 5 8 1 0 53
Ground Beef (90/10) $0.39 100 13 5 0 0 69
Beef Brisket $0.37 100 6 8 0 0 46
Pepperoni $0.36 100 4 9 0 0 18
Italian Sausage $0.35 100 11 6 2 0 56
Bacon $0.18 100 7 8 0 0 38

Discussion:

  • Red meat is a good source of:
    • Vitamin B-6
    • Niacin
    • Vitamin B-12
  • Each of the meats listed above contain a good amount of these nutrients, but some of these meats are fattier than others (Salami and Beef Brisket)
  • The Healthy Eating Pyramid recommends eating red meat sparingly

Conclusion

Using the sections above, you can find foods to target that are both cost-effective and healthy. As you can see, the most expensive foods are not always the healthiest and you don’t have to break the bank to maintain a healthy diet. Using some of the recommendations above, a typical day of following these recommendations might look like this:

Food Price
Per
Serving
Calories Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Oatmeal $0.09 100 4 2 18 3 47
Flaxseed $0.10 100 3 8 5 5 100
Eggs $0.19 100 9 7 0 0 21
Eggs $0.19 100 9 7 0 0 21
2% Milk $0.13 100 7 4 10 0 94
Orange $0.34 85 2 0 21 4 66
Bananas $0.21 200 3 1 51 6 67
Almonds $0.17 100 4 9 4 2 3
Wheat Bread $0.18 100 6 1 17 3 100
Wheat Bread $0.18 100 6 1 17 3 100
Kale $0.60 36 2 1 7 3 84
Canola Oil $0.02 100 0 11 0 0 40
Broccoli $0.63 54 4 0 12 6 94
Parmesan Cheese $0.29 100 9 7 1 0 61
Sweet Potatoes $0.43 180 4 0 41 7 74
Quinoa $0.16 100 4 2 17 2 76
Quinoa $0.16 100 4 2 17 2 76
Lentils $0.07 100 8 0 17 7 100
Tuna (in water) $0.58 100 22 1 0 0 75
Tuna (in water) $0.58 100 22 1 0 0 75
Total $5.27 2055 130 65 257 53 69

This diet would satisfy all of your daily nutritional requirements except for Vitamin D. You would need to either eat more dairy (such as two more servings of milk or eat six more eggs) to get all of your vitamin D. Alternatively, you could get your vitamin D from being out in the sun each day or taking a vitamin D supplement. Due to vitamin D requiring such a high dairy intake to hit your daily goal, many people have vitamin D deficiencies and a lot of physicians recommended a vitamin D supplement.

In comparison, below is a typical day consisting of more expensive foods from our list:

Food Price
Per
Serving
Calories  Protein Fat Carbs Fiber Health
Score
Bulgar Wheat $0.41 100 4 0 23 6 94
Avocados $0.47 100 1 9 5 4 51
Chicken Breast $0.54 100 19 2 0 0 30
Chicken Breast $0.54 100 19 2 0 0 30
2% Milk $0.13 100 7 4 10 0 94
Blackberries $1.71 62 2 1 14 8 64
Raspberries $2.06 65 2 1 15 8 53
Macademias $0.55 100 1 10 2 1 22
Wheat Bread $0.18 100 6 1 17 3 100
Wheat Bread $0.18 100 6 1 17 3 100
Asparagus $1.47 27 3 0 5 3 45
Olive Oil $0.05 100 0 11 0 0 -6
Artichoke $1.68 90 4 0 20 14 50
Parmesan Cheese $0.29 100 9 7 1 0 61
Sweet Potatoes $0.43 180 4 0 41 7 74
Quinoa $0.16 100 4 2 17 2 76
Quinoa $0.16 100 4 2 17 2 76
Red Kidney Beans $0.09 100 7 0 18 7 79
Salmon (Wild) $1.32 100 14 4 0 0 100
Salmon (Wild) $1.32 100 14 4 0 0 100
Total $13.72 1924 129 63 224 68 65

Comparing the costs per day of each meal plan:

  • An “expensive” meal plan costs $13.72 per day
  • A “cheap” meal plan would costs $6.13 per day
    • For a family of three, that translates to an annual cost of:
      • $15,023 for the “expense” meal plan
      • $6,712  for the”cheap” meal plan.

Overall, that’s a savings of $8,311 per year by choosing more cost effective foods.


To learn more about the nutritional value of each food category and how we calculate our Health Score, please see the following articles:


Appendix

  • Food prices for fruits, vegetables, and beans came from a USDA report entitled How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost?
  • Prices for other foods came from our local Costco or local grocery store.
  • Avocados were put into the “healthy fat” category for analysis purposes. Technically, avocados are fruit. However, avocado’s macronutrients and micronutrients are very different from most fruits. Therefore we placed avocados in the group which best reflected its nutritional makeup.



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