With five people living under our roof, our food budget quickly stacks up to become a major part of our family's expenses for the month, which naturally means that we're very interested in methods that can reduce our food spending while also putting a variety of meals on the table. At the same time, we also want "healthy" foods that ensure proper nutrition and minimize the chances of long-term negative health effects.
That's a juggling act no matter how you slice it. Cheap? Healthy? Appealing to both a four year old and to adults? Good luck with that.
Our family's solution to this is a simple one. We simply have a variety of meals with some old favorites on a routine basis and have a simple rule of "just trying everything on your plate." If you don't like it, that's fine, but everyone has to try everything.
Along the way, we've found that there are a number of cheap, healthy, and tasty meals that everyone in our family likes. This article lists ten key ingredients that we can buy for a very cheap price at the store that make up the backbone of countless meals in our home, with an example recipe for each one that simple and relies heavily on the key ingredient.
What Is "Healthy"?
The exact definition of what constitutes a "healthy" food and what does not seems to change on a daily basis. Foods that were once reviled are now lauded, and foods that were once considered miraculous are now considered ordinary.
In general, I consider "healthy" foods to be ones that don't include trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, extra salt or monosodium glutamate, artificial sweeteners, high levels of cholesterol, high levels of saturated fat, very high levels of carbohydrates (some are actually necessary and good), or a high calorie count. If you can avoid all of that, you're actually left with a pretty healthy diet.
I don't worry too much about the latest "superfood," to be honest. I mostly believe in eating a variety of foods that match the description above, which would include almost all of the foods that are talked about as "superfoods" in moderation and also gives you a lot of variety.
The focus of this specific list is on low cost foods that match these criteria. If your diet consists heavily of the ten items on this list and you stick to natural ingredients for flavoring them, you're going to be eating a pretty healthy diet by anyone's accounting.
Rice is easy to prepare, very cheap per cooked ounce, reasonably healthy, and goes in all kinds of meals, from cheesy casseroles to risottos, from stir frys to amazing soups and even desserts.
Even better, it's something you can buy in bulk and store practically forever. Dried rice can sit in your pantry for years and still work perfectly as part of an amazing meal.
Our pantry constantly has a large container of long grain brown rice, as well as smaller containers of other types of rice for specific uses. It's almost always cheap and it's almost always wonderful.
One of my favorite side dishes is a simple vegetarian fried rice. Here's how you make it.
Vegetable Fried Rice
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups long grain brown rice
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups vegetables, chopped (whatever you have on hand)
Bring the water up to a boil in a pot, then add the rice, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and let it sit for eighteen minutes. Remove it from the heat, then toss it thoroughly so that it dries a little bit.
Next, pour the oil into a large skillet or shallow pot and make sure the bottom is thoroughly coated. Put it over high heat and when the skillet begins to feel hot, add the eggs and scramble them. When they're cooked, add the garlic and the vegetables and allow them to cook together for three minutes while stirring. Add the rice and cook for three minutes more while stirring, then serve while it's nice and hot. The rice should be golden brown and the vegetables cooked (and maybe a bit browned).
Take everything I said about rice and copy it here. Virtually all of it is true for beans as well. Even after years of doing it, I am still amazed at how much beans can bulk up when you boil and soak them, which means you take an inexpensive food, add water to it, and it bulks up into something even less expensive per ounce.
Even better, there's an enormous variety of beans out there, from the tiny lentil to the hearty garbanzo. The variety practically begs you to use them in different dishes and in different mixes to alter the flavor and texture.
I like to keep several containers of different kinds of dried beans in the cupboard. Some of them are in the one pound bags you can get at the supermarket, but others are in bigger bags bought at the bulk store for just a pittance.
Here's my favorite recipe for a variety of beans.
Slow Cooker Many Bean Soup
1 pound dried beans, whatever mix of varieties you like
2 cups carrots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes (don't drain)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
The night before, add the beans to a pot of water so that there's at least two inches of water covering the beans, then raise them to a boil for fifteen minutes. Allow them to sit overnight in the water.
The next morning, just add all ingredients except the tomatoes to the slow cooker, turn it on low, and leave for the day. When you get home, add the tomatoes, then serve at your convenience.
Eggs are an incredibly nutrient-rich food particularly for the relatively low calorie count that they have. Take a look - a single hard boiled egg contains six grams of protein, five grams of healthy fats, a ton of micronutrients and vitamins, and comes in at under eighty calories.
Two hard-boiled eggs make for an amazing breakfast to start your day. Eggs are also a key element in many other dishes, from Thai foods to many baked goods. Yet, for all their nutritional features and usefulness, eggs are surprisingly cheap. You can often buy a dozen of them for $2 or less at your local grocer, meaning they can provide a great breakfast for you for about a quarter.
We almost always have a couple dozen eggs in the fridge along with a container of egg whites. I eat either eggs or egg whites for breakfast about every other morning (with my other primary breakfast coming later in the list). We also have omelets for supper on a regular basis.
Perhaps my favorite way to eat an egg is in the hard-boiled variety, but my technique for doing so doesn't use water. It's a idea I got from Alton Brown that utilizes the oven instead. Here's how it works.
Oven-Baked Hard "Boiled" Eggs
Two dozen eggs
A kitchen or bath towel
Get that towel soaking wet, then wring it out. Put the towel over an oven rack, then put the eggs on top of the towel with a bit of space between each one. Cook at 320 F for 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven into a large pan, then gently rattle them around so that they crack just a bit. Then put all of the eggs into an ice water bath for 10 minutes. Crack open and enjoy these amazing eggs with a bit of salt and black pepper! They make for a great protein-rich quick breakfast.
#4: Peanut Butter
Humble peanut butter is not only something that works in items as varied as sandwiches and curries, it's also a very healthy food. As long as you're balancing peanut butter with a balanced diet, it is definitely a food that helps with your health, reducing the risk of diabetes and many other diseases.
The best part is that, for as filling as peanut butter is, it's surprisingly cheap. It only takes a few spoonfuls to sate a pretty strong craving and a jar of peanut butter, found for just a dollar or two, contains a lot of spoonfuls.
We often buy peanut butter from the local food co-op, grinding it ourselves in their machine straight from the raw peanuts to our preferred consistency (chunky). Even though we usually have a big container of this stuff in the cupboard, we're constantly going through it due to things like peanut butter spread across celery, mixed into Korean-style dishes, and also spread across tortillas and wrapped around a banana.
Here's one of my favorite uses for peanut butter, something we have for breakfast on occasion on the weekends. These aren't exactly healthy, but they make for a great treat once in a while.
Peanut Butter Pancakes
2 1/4 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup peanut butter (although I prefer chunky on sandwiches, smooth works better here)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, banking soda, and salt) in one bowl, then mix together the wet ingredients (buttermilk, peanut butter, egg, vanilla) in another bowl. Once the mixes are combined separately, add the dry mix to the wet mix and combine until the dry stuff is just barely moistened.
Heat up a large skillet (or a griddle, if you have one) and melt just a little bit of butter in there. Put about 1/3 cup of the batter into a circle shape in the butter, then wait until bubbles appear on the surface and the edges are dry. Flip it over with a spatula and wait almost as long on the other side. Serve! This makes about twelve pancakes.
On the mornings when I'm not eating eggs for breakfast, I'm eating oatmeal. A large container of steel cut oats (my preferred style) or rolled oats is surprisingly cheap considering the dozens of bowls of oatmeal that such a container can provide.
It's also very good for your health. It's a great source of fiber, which helps keep you full and keeps you from being ravenously hungry at lunchtime and also helps with heart health, plus they contain antioxidants. At the same time, when you jazz it up with a few bits of fruit or some cinnamon, it can be a delicious meal.
We usually keep a large tub of steel-cut oats in the pantry. We'll often have delicious oatmeal for everyone in the morning (topped off with a few blueberries or some cinnamon and a bit of honey).
What's our trick for having steel-cut oatmeal that's quick in the morning? We use a slow cooker. Here's how we do it!
Slow Cooker Steel-Cut Oatmeal
A little bit of butter
8 to 10 cups of water (the more water, the "runnier" the oatmeal)
2 cups steel cut oats
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Use the butter to very lightly coat the inner surface of the slow cooker, then add the other ingredients, stir them in, and cook on low overnight.
If you want to flavor the oatmeal, you can certainly do that in advance. I'd add somewhere around 1/4 cup sweetener (brown sugar or honey) if you want that or about a cup of whatever fruit you want (diced apples, for example). If the fruit is firm - like apples - add it the night before; otherwise, if it's softer (like blueberries), add them in the morning. Add various additional flavorings (like cinnamon or vanilla) to taste. Without at least something added, the oatmeal is very plain.
#6: Whole Grain Pasta
Whole grain pastas tend to be more filling than traditional white pasta (meaning you don't need to eat as much to fill up), plus they pack a lot more fiber which helps with digestive health. Whole grain foods also provide a lot more micronutrients than white foods because they're made without discarding parts of the grains.
Whole grain pasta comes in about every shape and size, meaning it works perfectly in any pasta dish, from a rich lasagna to a plate full of penne. You can pair it with lots of different sauces or even just a bit of olive oil and some fresh vegetables. It's so flexible!
"Spaghetti night" is basically a weekly tradition at our house and whole grain pasta is the backbone of that meal. It's cheap on its own, but we often wait and pair coupons and sales together to buy several boxes at once.
Here's the way I prefer to make our family's favorite spaghetti.
Hamm Family "Spaghetti Night" Spaghetti
1 box whole grain spaghetti
1 15 ounce can tomato sauce
1 15 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon garlic
3 tablespoons fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil
3 tablespoons fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 green onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Prepare spaghetti according to package directions, and as the water is heating, prepare the sauce. In a sauce pan, put the oil in and make sure it coats the bottom well, then heat over medium high heat until you can feel the heat rising over the pan. Add the onions and garlic and cook for about three minutes, stirring constantly, then add the other ingredients and lower the heat to medium low so that it's just barely simmering. Allow it to simmer until the pasta is done, then cover the pasta with the sauce.
I really like this simple recipe because it can be thrown together so quickly, it's so tasty, and you know exactly what's in it. It's not complicated and everyone in the family likes it.
#7: Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are quite filling, but along the way they provide an amazing blend of micronutrients that help with everything from inflammation and diabetes prevention to digestive health and blood pressure reduction. If you want a healthy root vegetable, sweet potatoes are a great place to start.
Not only that, sweet potatoes can be used in almost every way that a potato can be used - from making fries to mashing them - plus they work well as a sweet side dish on occasion. They're almost as flexible in the kitchen as they are for your health!
We use sweet potatoes in a wide variety of dishes at our house, from soups to casseroles and from fries to mashed potatoes. They're also a regular item at our holiday meals.
We even add sweet potatoes in places you wouldn't expect, like with this recipe.
Slow Cooker Sweet Potato Chili
1/2 pound dried black beans
1/2 pound dried kidney beans
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and diced into half inch cubes
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
12 chocolate chips
1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 lb. ground beef, cooked (optional)
Combine everything into your slow cooker and cook on low for 7 to 10 hours. It'll turn out great.
I actually find this to be a stellar vegetarian chili, but some people think that chili isn't chili without meat, so a pound of ground beef should work perfectly fine here.
In terms of a healthy meat, you're not going to get much better than chicken. It has a range of health benefits from a high protein content to an amazing array of useful micronutrients.
Not only that, it's so cheap! Whole chickens are incredibly inexpensive per pound and are quite easy to prepare at home for whatever your needs are. Even if you stick mostly to chicken breast, it's still one of the cheapest meat options out there.
I'm a vegetarian - I haven't actually eaten chicken in years. That doesn't mean that the rest of my family is, though, and so they often use chicken as their go-to meat.
Speaking of my family, this is one of their favorite recipes that relies heavily on chicken.
Grilled Lemon Pepper Chicken
5 chicken breasts
3/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients besides the chicken breasts in a gallon-sized bag, then add the chicken breasts and allow to marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
When you're ready to cook, grill the chicken breasts. It takes about 20 minutes over medium-high heat on a grill - check the middle of the largest one after 20 minutes to ensure no pinkness in the middle. Flip the breasts halfway through cooking.
#9: Cottage Cheese
Nutritionally, there's not a whole lot of difference between cottage cheese and another food with a great health reputation - yogurt. So why is cottage cheese here and yogurt isn't?
For starters, cottage cheese is almost always far cheaper per ounce. It simply doesn't cost as much as yogurt. I also find it to be more flexible in terms of making foods with it, as it works as both a savory or sweet side or snack on its own or can be used as a soft cheese replacement in any dish that calls for it.
Honestly, I like eating it as a snack with a bit of freshly ground black pepper on top to give it just a little hit of flavor. It fills me up and excites my tongue along the way.
I don't just eat it alone. Here's one of my favorite uses for cottage cheese, slow cooker lasagna.
Slow Cooker Lasagna
1 box lasagna noodles (not the "oven-ready" kind!)
2 cups cottage cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, separated into equal amounts
1 large jar of your favorite pasta sauce (you can "steal" the recipe from the spaghetti, above)
1 bundle fresh spinach, stems removed (optional)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 lb. ground beef, cooked (optional)
Combine the cottage cheese and one cup of the shredded mozzarella cheese. Coat the sides of the slow cooker with the olive oil (to prevent sticking). Pour 1/5th of the jar of olive oil on the bottom of the slow cooker, then cover with a single layer of dry noodles. Add 1/4 of the cheese mix, then a layer of 1/4 of the spinach (optional), then a layer of 1/4 of the meat (optional). After that, start repeating with a layer of sauce, then noodles, then cheese, then optional ingredients, then sauce again, then noodles again, then cheese again, tehn optional ingredients again, then the rest of the sauce, another layer of noodles, then the rest of the cheese mix, then the rest of the optional ingredients. Add the remaining 1/5th of the jar of pasta sauce, then cover and cook on low for 3-5 hours. About 30 minutes before serving, cover the top with the remaining cup of mozzarella. Serve and enjoy!
#10: Fruits and Vegetables on Sale
The healthiest approach to eating fruits and vegetables is to eat a wide variety of them so that you get access to a huge array of micronutrients over the course of a few months. Plus, most fruits and vegetables are quite low in calories, meaning you can eat quite a bit and not gain a pound. They're simply the staple of a good diet.
The drawback is that some fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive. The smart strategy here is to just stock up on whatever fruits and vegetables happen to be on sale at your store this week. Find ways to use them in your dishes, freeze the rest, and pick up some more next week.
I actually enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables at home. Not only does it mean that the foods I eat don't get repetitive, I also know I'm getting that big variety of nutrients that my body needs.
Here's my favorite recipe to use when you just have a bunch of random vegetables sitting around.
Slow Cooker Vegetable Soup
6 cups of whatever vegetables you have on hand, diced
8 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or more, to taste)
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dry thyme
1/2 teaspoon dry basil
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
2 bay leaves (optional)
Add all ingredients to the slow cooker. Cook on low for as long as you need - 6 to 10 hours. Remove the bay leaves before serving. Works well with breadsticks or dinner rolls.
If the backbone of many of your meals is centered around the ingredients on this list, you're probably doing pretty well in terms of eating at least reasonably healthy and eating cheap, too. Plus, the ten items here are so diverse that you can make thousands of dishes centered around them - you don't have to eat the same thing over and over again!
If you center your diet around cheap, healthy, and diverse ingredients like these, both your wallet and your body will thank you!