One of the biggest frugal challenges is figuring out how to get the most value for your dollar at the grocery store.
When we buy food, we tend to look at several factors at once. Is it something that’s tasty? Is it something that’s healthy? Is it something I can prepare easily? Is it inexpensive? Is there some variety here compared to what I usually eat?
The trick is answering all of those questions at the same time. There are definitely foods that manage to be healthy, relatively easy to prepare, and inexpensive. For example, I once wrote an ode to my favorite inexpensive food, the bean, as well as a look at my six favorite inexpensive food staples, but I know very well that such a limited roster of options doesn’t begin to cover the tastes of different people, nor does it offer a whole lot of variety.
I love beans, but even I need to change things up a little bit.
Over the last few months, we’ve cooked almost entirely meals from scratch at home, and I’ve been really paying attention to what food items and ingredients we use consistently that are inexpensive, pretty easy to prepare, reasonably healthy, and result in dishes that appeal to at least some of our family members. These items just keep showing up on our grocery lists.
As always, with lists like this, use it as a buffet dinner — pick and choose the ones that work for you and start incorporating them more frequently into your grocery shopping.
25 cheap, healthy and delicious foods
The easy solution here is to just get a bag of apples and keep them out on the countertop so that you remember to eat them for a snack when you feel a bit of hunger. An apple is a sweet but quite healthy snack, with plenty of fiber and other good things for you. The cost per apple is really low (especially if you buy a bag of them), and they’re about as easy as can be — you grab one, rinse it, eat it, then toss the core somewhere.
Not only that, but there also are lots of things you can do with apples if they start to get old. My favorite is to peel and core several leftover apples and toss them in the slow cooker with just a little water and lemon juice and cinnamon until they’re basically falling apart and mashable, which turns them into amazing applesauce. Here’s a good recipe for slow cooker applesauce. You can easily freeze applesauce, too, so you can thaw out a pound of it later.
Much like apples, bananas make for a nice snack to just sit out on the table and grab when you’re hungry. They’re healthy, incredibly cheap, and about as easy to eat as can be — just peel, eat and toss the peel away. They’re usually among the cheapest things in the grocery store, too.
If bananas start to go bad, don’t fret — there are lots of uses for bananas that are just turning brown. I like throwing them in the blender with some milk and peanut butter to make a nice smoothie. Another option is to turn old bananas into banana bread, which is just ridiculously tasty. Here’s how to make great banana bread — it’s mostly mashed bananas, flour, sugar, butter, baking soda, eggs, yogurt, a few spices mixed in a bowl and poured in a small loaf pan. A loaf of fresh banana bread will vanish and it will make your family think you’re some kind of food magician.
3. Frozen fruits
What about other fruits? A lot of fruits are pretty inexpensive if you buy them in frozen form. Much of the cost of fresh fruit centers around getting them quickly to the store before they go bad, but frozen fruit can be shipped a lot more slowly, and that often shows up in the price. We often have bags of store-brand frozen fruit in the freezer.
There are tons of uses for frozen fruits. You can just thaw and serve them as a fruit salad by mixing some yogurt and a bit of honey with it. You can blend them into a smoothie with a bit of milk. There are tons of baking uses for them. I really like these pineapple bars, which are basically flour, sugar, an egg, butter, sour cream and pineapples spread out in a baking pan.
4. Seasonal vegetables
Our grocery cart will frequently see a lot of in-season fresh vegetables. You’ll usually know them because they’re the ones that are steeply on sale. Often, the store has an abundance of whatever’s in season and thus they use it as a loss leader to get people in the store, so I take advantage of it.
For example, August in Iowa usually means sweet corn season, which means you can buy ears of sweet corn for a pittance. Sweet corn is delicious when grilled or boiled while still on the ear, or cooked in a wide variety of ways when the kernels are removed from the ears. During the peak season, it becomes a staple food for us, then fades when the season ends.
5. Frozen vegetables year-round
Frozen vegetables are a very inexpensive option for other vegetables and are particularly good at avoiding the “mushy” problem that many canned vegetables have. You can thaw frozen vegetables, then prepare them as you wish. Steaming them is the simple solution, of course, but that just scratches the surface.
For example, one thing I like to do with a bag of frozen broccoli florets is to cook them in a saucepan with a bit of milk and some cheese. I start by mixing milk and cheese and a tiny bit of flour until it just starts to melt into a sauce, then adding thawed broccoli florets and cooking them until everything’s nice and warm — it only takes a few minutes. (The proportions of cheese and milk depend on the type of cheese being used; here’s a good cheddar cheese sauce recipe.)
Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, twice baked potatoes, French fries, grilled potatoes, fried potatoes with onions, shepherd’s pie, hash browns, latkes, potato pancakes — I can go on and on and on with the things you can do with the humble potato. You can get an inexpensive giant sack of potatoes from the store and make all kinds of things with them.
My absolute favorite thing to do with them is to make a foil packet of cubed or sliced potatoes and just grill them. I put a pound or two of the potatoes on a sheet of aluminum foil, add a bit of butter and garlic and maybe a few other seasonings, wrap it up tight (usually with another layer of foil), and toss it on a medium-hot grill for about 30 minutes, flipping it a few times during the cooking. They’re just tremendous when they’re done.
7. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are the overlooked cousin of the potato because the flavor is a bit different — sweeter, at the very least. Yet, just like ordinary potatoes, there are almost infinite things you can do with a sweet potato. You can mash them. You can bake them. You can turn them into fries. You can make sweet potato pancakes. You can even make pies with them.
Again, my favorite thing to do with sweet potatoes is to mash them with a little bit of molasses and butter. You basically just peel and cube some sweet potatoes, boil them until they’re soft, beat them with a hand mixer (or use a ricer), then mix in butter and molasses for an amazing lightly sweet side for lots of dishes.
Based on the shelves at my local grocery store, baby carrots tend to sell more than whole carrots, but if you take a moment to compare the prices, whole carrots are an absolute bargain compared to baby carrots. They’re not quite as “finger food ready,” but for most cooking purposes, that really doesn’t matter much.
The truth is that carrots can also be cooked in tons of ways. You can boil them or grill them or mash them or simply slice them and eat them raw. I actually like a freshly peeled carrot sliced into strips better than baby carrots, for example. However, my favorite way to make carrots (besides mashing them in an almost identical way to the sweet potato mash described above) are these roasted ginger and garlic carrots, which mostly just require, you guessed it, carrots, garlic, and ginger. They serve as a wonderful side dish for lots of things!
Much like potatoes, turnips are a really inexpensive item at the store that can be prepared in a huge variety of ways. You can bake them. You can mash them. You can grill or roast them. You can even turn them into a really good slaw by grating them and adding some mayonnaise or other dressing.
I particularly enjoy mashed turnips. I basically cook them the same way that I make mashed potatoes — I dice them, boil them until they’re soft, mash them with a handheld mixer, add a bit of butter and salt and maybe a bit of milk and serve them. They have a wonderful flavor to them that makes me eat far more than I should!
So many dishes at our house start off with sautéing onions (often with a bit of garlic with them). Quite often, other things are added as we cook — sauces, other vegetables, and so on. At other times, the sautéed onions alone end up being the end product.
I sauté onions to put on hamburgers and hot dogs. I sauté them for stir-fries and casseroles. I also like to grill them, often chopping them up and adding them to foil packets of grilled potatoes. Onions are so abundantly flavorful and so cheap, too!
11. Green cabbage
Cabbage might be the most overlooked vegetable in the grocery store. It’s almost always really cheap (at least around here) and there are just so many uses for it. I often buy it to make sauerkraut (basically, shredded cabbage with salt, pounded into a jar and allowed to ferment for several weeks) or kimchi (similar), but I also love to cook with it.
I love grilling wedges of a head of cabbage. I love chopping it up into small pieces and using it in stir fry. When I was a kid, my parents would cook it along with big thick slices of deer sausage. You can make cabbage rolls, rolling all kinds of goodies inside of a big cabbage leaf and baking it. You can make coleslaw (basically shred the cabbage and add mayo for a very simple slaw). It’s abundantly useful!
12. Canned tomatoes
Fresh tomatoes are wonderful, but they’re also quite expensive out of season and they’re hard to keep fresh for too long. Canned tomatoes are always quite inexpensive and keep for a long time, so outside of the windows of the year when fresh tomatoes are dirt cheap, I stock up on canned tomatoes and use them for all kinds of things.
My favorite use for them is making my own pasta sauce. I basically put a large can of whole tomatoes in a saucepan, add a little bit of garlic and dried basil leaves (and maybe some oregano for variety), let it simmer for a while (making our house smell amazing), and then toss it in a blender and pulse it a few times until it’s mostly pureed but with a few larger chunks in it. That’s my favorite pasta sauce, and it costs barely a dollar in ingredients.
13. Peanut butter
We often buy very large jars of peanut butter and, sometimes, we’ll even grind our own if we’re being a little more leisurely at the grocery store. In either case, the cost per calorie of peanut butter is really low and there are tons of uses for it.
Sure, there’s the old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but I often like using peanut butter to make a stir fry sauce. I also absolutely adore peanut butter cookies — simple, basic cookies with a little bit of peanut butter in the mix, or chocolate chip cookie with some peanut butter in the batter.
One of the most common breakfasts at our house is oatmeal. We’ll often make steel-cut oatmeal in the slow cooker overnight, or quickly cook a bunch of instant oatmeal in the morning, and then add flavorings ourselves.
You really don’t need to add much, either. In fact, other items on this list — plus perhaps a bit of sugar or cinnamon — is really all you need. Peanut butter is a great addition, as are most of the fruits mentioned above. Just add them during the cooking. Add them early if you want them to kind of dissolve into the oatmeal, spreading the fruit flavor everywhere, or add them later if you want individual bites for texture (or both).
15. Whole chickens
A whole chicken is perhaps the single best-priced deal on meat you’ll find in a grocery store. Not only is it a lot of meat for the dollar, but there are also almost infinite things you can do with it.
Whole chickens cook very well in a slow cooker or on a grill or in a roasting pan in the oven. You can cut them up first if you like, or cook them whole and then remove the meat from the bones. The meat, of course, has infinite uses, from soups to stews to casseroles — heck, it’s even a good pizza topping.
Another important note: when you’re down to just the bones and cartilage, you can easily turn it into chicken stock for delicious soups by putting all of that in the slow cooker, adding enough water to cover the bones and other materials, adding some salt and pepper to taste, and running the slow cooker for 18 hours. Just strain out any solid bits and keep the liquid. It freezes very well and provides a great soup backbone.
We buy a carton or two of eggs during almost every shopping trip and bought them directly from farmers many, many times. Why? The simple egg offers a ton of protein and a ton of culinary possibilities for such an inexpensive price.
You can scramble them. You can boil them. You can poach them. You can fry them. You can mix them with tons and tons of other savory things. You can even just crack a couple in a mug, beat them a bit with a fork, and microwave them for 90 seconds and they’re pretty good. My favorite thing to do with them is to hard boil a dozen of them at a time, filling a carton with hard-boiled eggs that I can eat at my own convenience.
17. Plain yogurt in a big container
The yogurt aisle offers tons of options, but the best bargain there by far is the big tub of plain yogurt. It’s a blank palette that you can easily flavor however you want when you get home, plus there are lots of savory uses for it.
Not only do I like to take a few big spoonfuls in a small bowl and mix it with some fresh fruit or a bit of honey or something like that, I also use yogurt in a number of savory dishes. I’ll use it as part of a creamy salad dressing, for example, or as the basis for a pasta sauce. Seriously! Here’s a great recipe for pasta with yogurt pesto — basically two parts yogurt, one part Parmesan cheese, one part olive oil, one part walnuts or pine nuts, blended with just a bit of garlic and basil and mixed with freshly cooked pasta (and it’s pretty good without the nuts, too).
Back in my college days, tuna was an extremely common lunch for me. I’d keep a tin of it and a fork in my backpack, along with a couple of mayo packets and a relish packet, and just mix everything together in a tin.
That’s just one simple use for it, though. Tuna makes for wonderful sandwiches, wonderful salads, wonderful casseroles, and countless other things. In fact, tuna casserole very similar to this one was one of my “comfort foods” growing up and something that immediately makes me think of home!
An alternative to tuna in my backpack back in my college days was a can of sardines and a small package of crackers. I’d pop open the tin somewhere, put the sardines right on crackers, and there’s lunch, easy as can be. I was partial to the tins that had mustard sauce already in there, and it was so cheap.
Sardines are a pretty unusual food for many, and I’ll be the first to admit that the flavor can be pretty strong, but if you’re looking for something low cost that’s a little different, this is a great option. Plus, there are a number of ways to cook with sardines, too, such as this delicious sardine pasta, which is just pasta with sardines, lemon, and pepper flakes, mostly.
One of the most common things you’ll find in my grocery cart is store brand whole wheat pasta of various kinds — spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, lasagna noodles, elbow macaroni and so on. We use it in countless meals of all kinds, topping it with all kinds of sauces, adding all kinds of things to it, sometimes baking it as a casserole, and so on.
One of my favorite things to do is to cook up a couple of pounds of spaghetti, thoroughly mix it with the sauce described above in the “canned tomatoes” section, and serve that for dinner with a salad and some garlic bread, then take the leftovers, chop them up a little, put it all in a 10-by-13-inch pan, top it with some mozzarella cheese, and bake it for dinner a few nights later. It’s quick, reasonably healthy, very inexpensive, and goes a long way.
My wife actually jokes about how often I buy beans and try to find ways to incorporate beans into meals. I make chili with beans, bean soups, bean burritos, refried beans, eggs and beans… it goes on and on. Dry beans are incredibly cheap. For example, I recently bought a 12-pound bag of dry pinto beans for under $6, with each pound of dry beans expanding to three pounds of cooked beans due to the water absorption. You’re paying about 16 cents per pound of beans, and there are so many ways to use them!
What I really like to do is cook a bunch of dry beans in the slow cooker early in the week. It’s easy — you just add water and let them simmer for a very long time, with the exact time depending on the beans. Then, I store them in a big container in the fridge and use them for multiple meals during the week.
Many of the things I said about beans can be duplicated with rice. It’s incredibly cheap. It can be used with tons of meals. We buy it in dry bulk form. It’s healthy. It’s easy to cook. I often cook it in batches at the start of a week in which I know we’ll use it multiple times, and keep it in a container in the fridge.
My wife really likes making various curries and serving them atop rice. Basically, she has a standard simple curry sauce that she makes (which is seemingly a mix of curry powder, vegetable oil, garlic and coconut milk), mixing it with a variety of vegetables, and serves that atop a bed of rice. It’s amazing, and it works with almost any vegetables you have on hand.
If you want to cut down on your expenses at the store and have some of the best bread, rolls and pizza you’ve ever had, start buying flour and making your own. Most dough is just a mix of flour, salt, water, and yeast in some proportion — you just mix it, knead it for some amount of time (depending on what you’re making), let it rise for some amount of time (depending on what you’re making), and then shape and bake it. Almost everything boils down to those steps.
I really like this simple bread recipe, for example. It’s simple and quick. If you want to make bread often but don’t have the time, ask around for a bread-making machine and get in the routine of making a loaf a couple times a week. It’s basically a matter of adding flour, salt, water, and yeast to the machine, hitting a couple of buttons and walking away.
Although we cook rice quite often at our house, sometimes, in order to mix things up, we cook quinoa instead, usually in a very similar way. It’s delicious and healthier than rice, but usually slightly more expensive.
One thing I really like to use quinoa for is salads. Basically, you can mix almost any leftover vegetable or meat in with quinoa, season it in a way that you like, and you’ll end up with something tasty. For example, we recently had a nice batch of asparagus from our garden that became a quinoa and asparagus salad (mostly quinoa and asparagus with a bit of red wine vinegar and a few spices) that was a great side for multiple meals.
25. Popcorn kernels
Don’t buy individual bags of popcorn — that’s wasteful and expensive. Instead, either buy a big bundle of paper bags or a silicone popcorn bowl (or any bowl with a loose-fitting lid) and pop it yourself in the microwave. I usually pop about 1/4 cup of kernels in a large lidded bowl and it’s done in about three minutes on high. I just season it with whatever looks tasty out of the seasoning mixes in our pantry.
If you buy kernels in bulk, this is a really cheap snack, and because it can be seasoned in so many ways (pretty much any seasoning mix, sweet or savory, will do), it’s a snack with a lot of variety.
Here’s an extra tip: the grocery store flyer will direct you to sales on these things so you can stock up, as well as loss leader sales on other things.
Before you go to the grocery store, grab the grocery store flyer and make a meal plan using some of the things on a deep discount from the flyer. Also, use it to stock up on things from this list that are on sale so that you always have plenty on hand!
You don’t need a lot of money to fill your grocery cart with a wide variety of healthy, tasty, and easy-to-prepare food.
The items on this list are all very inexpensive, and most of them can be used in an enormous variety of meals. In fact, with just a few staples — sugar, salt, a few condiments, some spices — you can make an essentially infinite roster of dishes just using these items and whatever’s on deep sale at the grocery store.