For more tips on how to cook and eat healthy on a budget, see the rest of our ‘Cooking on a Budget’ series.
It’s a common misconception that eating healthy meals is only for those who are willing to pay a pretty penny for it. Not so! There are many ways to cut on grocery costs and still enjoy a healthy, homemade meal. It may require more planning on your part, but we promise it is possible – and we want to help you get there.
Today is all about cooking with budget-friendly ingredients. Keeping your kitchen stocked with these ingredients will ensure that you can always get dinner on the table without breaking the bank.
1. In-season fresh fruits and vegetables
Unfortunately, fresh fruits and vegetables, which tend to be among the healthiest foods for us, can also be the most costly ingredients. To guarantee savings, buy them when they are in season when they are at their least expensive price. Another benefit to buying fruits and vegetables in season is they tend to be the most delicious during this time period.
For guidance on when different vegetables are in season, see our handy Vegetables by Month Chart. You can also see big savings by ensuring that you are using up the produce you buy before it goes bad. Use our Produce and Shelf Life Guide to know how long produce stays fresh.
2. Frozen fruits and vegetables
To enjoy produce when they’re not in season, buying them frozen is a great, cost-effective way to go. They are typically just as good as fresh and having them on hand in your freezer means you can add fruits and veggies to every meal. Whip up frozen vegetables in no time by steaming or roasting them or adding them to a stir-fry, soup, or rice. Frozen fruits are great for smoothies or as a topping on many breakfast favorites (such as oatmeal, yogurt, and pancakes).
Dried beans are inexpensive and are ideal for feeding large groups of people or for leftovers. Dried beans can be cooked in a slow cooker with a Bay leaf or two to add flavor. Cover with 2” / 5 cm of water and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, then drain. Make a large batch, separate them into serving portions, and freeze for a quick future meal! Canned beans are also a great option for a quicker, yet still inexpensive, meal. Use them to bulk up enchiladas, quesadillas, salads, soups, and rice. You can also flavor them with some spices and enjoy as a side dish.
Purchasing tomatoes (paste, crushed, or diced) in a preserved form (canned, tubed, or boxed) can save you time, money and add flavor to lots of dishes. If tomatoes are not in season, or even if they are, buying them canned is perfect for a quick spaghetti sauce or in a chili or soup.
Grains such as rice, farro, and quinoa and dried pasta are easy to buy in bulk at a reduced price and can generally be stored for long periods of time. They are also very versatile to cook with and can be used to bulk up an otherwise light meal, such as a soup or a salad. There are dozens of grain and pasta types which allow you to mix things up and never get bored! For greater nutritional value, opt for whole wheat varieties. You can learn more with our Guide to Whole Grains.
Potatoes often get a bad rap for their fry and chip form, but potatoes are actually a nutrient-dense vegetable that can be very good for you in moderation. They also happen to be very inexpensive and last a long time when stored right (in a dark, dry place away from onions – get more produce storage guidance in ourProduce and Shelf Life Guide)! They can be baked whole, chopped and roasted or added to soups, or of course mashed and grated too.
Eggs are an excellent source of lean protein, with 6 grams of protein and less than 2 grams of saturated fat in a hard boiled egg. The best way to get a deal on eggs is to buy them in bulk. If it’s too much for just your family to eat, split it with a friend or neighbor – that way you’ll both save! And remember, eggs aren’t just good for breakfast scrambles and omelettes. You can also use them to make a frittata, strata, in fried rice or in a sandwich.
8. Canned Tuna
Canned tuna is another great source of protein that can be purchased inexpensively or on sale. Albacore (known as “white” tuna) and skipjack (known as “light” tuna) are the most common types sold. Albacore varieties tend to be somewhat more expensive, but some prefer the taste over light tuna. Light skipjack varieties generally have lower levels of mercury than albacore; something to consider depending on how often you are eating tuna.
You are also given the choice to buy canned tuna in water or in oil. Canned tuna in water has less calories and fat, although a majority of the oil in canned tuna provides healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Think beyond the tuna sandwich and add canned tuna to a pasta, casserole, or salad.
Buying rotisserie chicken on sale can feed your family for several meals and can be incorporated many different ways, from tacos to salads to sandwiches. It’s already cooked so it’s perfect for when you need to get dinner on the table quickly. Rotisserie chicken is a great source of protein and key vitamins and minerals, but can also be high in sodium so be careful to eat it in moderation.
Tofu is a wonderful meatless source of protein and fiber and is much cheaper by the pound when compared to meats. Tofu is great in stir-fries, salads, or really any dish that you would normally add meat to. Watch our video on how to prepare and cook tofu the right way if you’ve never cooked with it before or you’ve had a poor experience with cooking tofu in the past.
We show you how to use all these ingredients in our free Budget Meal Plan – a whole week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners!
And for more info on how to keep a well-stocked pantry, see our Pantry Essentials Guide.