Jan. 23, 2013 at 3:20 PM ET
Think you can’t afford to eat healthfully? It may be easier and less expensive than you imagine. According to Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, it’s a myth that kale costs more than cookies. A 2012 USDA study found that junk foods cost more per portion than good-guy legumes, whole grains and vegetables. The secret to getting the most nutritional bang for your buck: embracing a back-to-basics eating style, says Environmental Working Group (EWG) nutritionist Dawn Undurraga, MS, RD. To help you navigate the aisles, EWG crunched some numbers to determine which foods offer the most nutrition for your dollar and the least exposure to environmental toxins like BPA, pesticides and mercury. Here, your guide to the best buys in the supermarket, and how to add them to your diet.
What it costs: 24 cents per small banana (1 cup)
Why it’s good for you: Though they may be the cheapest fruit in the produce section, bananas are no nutritional slouch. Among their greatest benefits are their fiber and potassium content, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program. Potassium blunts the effects of a high-sodium diet and can even help lower blood pressure. Eat bananas between meals to curb afternoon munchies. “As with anything that’s high in fiber, bananas will help you feel full for longer,” says Kirkpatrick.
How to use it: Buy bananas when they’re still slightly green, so they’ll last you the entire week. If you don’t eat them in time and they start to turn brown, peel them and store them in the freezer to use later in smoothies, muffins or bread, like our Nutty Banana Muffins recipe. One of Kirkpatrick’s favorite ways to eat bananas: dark-chocolate-dipped frozen banana pops. Or try this easy banana “gelato” recipe for a sweet, creamy treat.
Pear it down
What it costs: 33 cents per medium-size pear (1 cup)
Why it’s good for you: Research shows that apples and pears may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Another study found that eating plenty of white-fleshed fruits and vegetables could protect against stroke. Plus, just one pear packs in 20 percent of your daily fiber needs. Think of fiber as your stay-slim secret weapon: The more fiber in your food, the less you’ll need to eat to feel full.
How to use it: If you’re not in love with the pear’s grainy texture, bake it with a sprinkle of cinnamon, walnuts, no-sugar-added apple juice and cloves for a wonderful treat. Or try our recipe for Roasted Pears With Maple Crunch. You can also use roasted pears in a salad with dried cranberries and blue cheese or shaved Parmesan.
Get sweet on watermelon
What it costs: 26 cents per 1 cup
Why it’s good for you: You might think of this sweet summer treat as a luxury, but watermelon is an excellent source of lycopene, says Jamieson-Petonic. Lycopene is a type of carotenoid (a pigment that gives fruits and veggies their orange, red or yellow hue) found in red produce that may guard against some cancers, as well as help improve the skin’s natural defenses against the sun. Plus, it’s one of the few foods that contain citrulline, a chemical that helps relax your arteries and lower blood pressure.
How to use it: Though watermelon is high in sugar, eating it with other foods helps keep it from wreaking havoc on your blood sugar levels, notes Jamieson-Petonic. Watermelon’s nutrients are best absorbed with a little fat or oil. Instead of saving it for dessert, turn watermelon into an entree. Toss cubed watermelon into a salad bowl with diced avocado, cucumber, chopped mint and feta. Drizzle lightly with lime juice and olive oil.
What it costs: 19 cents per serving (1/4 cup)
Why it’s good for you: Though we may think of prunes as nature’s little movers and shakers, that isn’t their only claim to fame. A daily dose of dried plums may help reverse bone loss and prevent osteoporosis, but wait, there’s even more. Prunes have a phytonutrient content rivaling that of blueberries, and at just half the cost.
How to use it: Dress up brown rice or couscous with chopped prunes, lemon zest, sauteed onions, garlic and rosemary. Or try this delicious recipe: Arugula, Radicchio, Orange, and Dried Plum Salad. Then try this when you’re baking brownies: Replace ¼ cup butter with ¼ cup pureed prunes. The chocolate’s deep color and rich flavor will mask both the color and taste of the prunes. You’ll get extra fiber and nutrients instead of all of the cholesterol and saturated fat from butter.
Bulk up on broccoli
What it costs: 36 cents per serving (1 cup, raw)
Why it’s good for you: It’s hard to beat the health benefits of broccoli. One serving of these tree-like veggies delivers more than a day’s worth of vitamins C and K. Vitamin C helps the body repair wounds and maintain healthy cartilage and bone. It also wards off free radicals that cause aging inside your cells. Vitamin K strengthens bones and fights inflammation. Plus, eating several servings of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli each week may help reduce your risk of cancer.
How to use it: Reap the benefits of broccoli with a dip made from Greek yogurt and fresh dill (try our Turkish Cucumber Yogurt Dip). According to Undurraga, getting kids to eat broccoli may be as easy as roasting it, which adds a sweet taste dimension through the process of caramelization. Simply toss bite-size florets of broccoli with olive oil, salt and pepper (and fresh garlic if desired) and roast at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with lemon juice or grated Parmesan before serving.
Give collard greens the green light
What it costs: 27 cents per serving (1 cup raw)
Why it’s good for you: “Leafy greens have the biggest association with cancer prevention. The darker the green, the better it’s going to be for you,” says Kirkpatrick. Collard greens are high in calcium and folate, which helps prevent DNA changes that can lead to cancer. Plus, leafy greens have been linked to fewer vision problems with age, as well as a lower risk of diabetes.
How to use it: One of the easiest ways to get your greens? Toss them into a morning smoothie. Another option: Finely chop up a few leaves of collards (minus the ribs if you’re in a hurry; they take longer to cook), saute until tender, and stir in an egg or combine with pasta sauce. For a stellar soup, cook your collards in boiling chicken or vegetable broth, and then stir slowly while at the same time adding two raw, scrambled eggs in a thin stream. The hot soup will cook the eggs, and the result will fill your bowl and satisfy your belly.
Spruce up your salad with romaine
What it costs: 27 cents per serving (1 cup)
Why it’s good for you: Fancy salad greens can be pretty pricey if you don’t find them on sale. But that doesn’t mean your salad’s foundation has to be lacking in nutrients. Swap out iceberg lettuce for romaine, which is loaded with almost a day’s worth of vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene may help protect against breast cancer, vision problems and sun damage to the skin.
How to use it: You can meet your daily leafy green quota with just ¼ cup of romaine per day. Double up on lettuce when making sandwiches or salmon burgers. Use the inner portions of the romaine head as crudités when putting out veggies and dip. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try grilling the romaine hearts. Remove the outer leaves, slice the head lengthwise into quarters, and brush with olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill until slightly charred. Sprinkle with vinaigrette.
Care for some carrots
What it costs: 29 cents per serving (1 cup, raw)
Why it’s good for you: Besides beta-carotene, carrots are also brimming with a relatively unknown but highly potent plant chemical called alpha-carotene. Research suggests that regularly consuming large amounts of this carotenoid, by way of orange and dark green vegetables, may reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.
How to use it: Keep peeled carrot sticks and hummus ready to go in your fridge for impromptu appetizers or snacks. Incorporate root vegetables like carrots into your meals by making a big batch of soup that you can freeze and reheat. Or pair our Butternut Squash, Carrot and Ginger Soup recipe with a rotisserie chicken and side salad for a quick weekday meal.
What it costs: 11 cents per serving (baked with skin, 1 cup)
Why it’s good for you: Poor potatoes sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to nutrition, but the real villain isn’t the potato itself but how it’s usually prepared (as french fries or baked with butter, bacon and sour cream). Per serving, potatoes are the cheapest source of potassium in the produce aisle. This mineral is crucial for heart health and muscle function. Plus, it can help keep blood pressure down.
How to use it: Don’t discard the most nutritious part of the spud: the skin. Boil Yukon Golds or other thin-skinned taters and make smashed potatoes. You don’t need butter to get that creamy, rich taste. Instead, use vegetable or chicken broth and milk, along with minced garlic, salt, pepper and your favorite chopped herbs. Or try one of our favorite dishes: Layered Mashed White and Sweet Potatoes with Greens.
Add flavor with onions
What it costs: 18 cents per serving (1 cup, raw)
Why it’s good for you: Adding white-fleshed fruits and veggies like onions to your daily diet can lower your risk of stroke. It may also help keep colon and liver cancer at bay. Some research even suggests that onions and their relatives (scallions, garlic, shallots) may reduce rates of arthritis.
How to use it: Onions are a cheap way to add a lot of flavor. Saute chopped onions in olive oil and garlic and add to any savory dish, from scrambled eggs to vegetable or chicken stir-fry. For a warming meal, try our decadent Simple, Delicious Onion Soup. Or make chicken fajitas with grilled onions and peppers. The secret to superb Mexican: lots of cumin, chili powder, black pepper and garlic. Garnish with plain Greek yogurt, salsa, cilantro and avocado slices.
Head off health issues with cabbage
What it costs: 8 cents per serving (1 cup, raw)
Why it’s good for you: Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage may help prevent prostate and colon cancer, as well as increase survival rates in women with breast cancer. Cabbage is also a good source of folate, fiber, and vitamins C and K.
How to use it: Try this recipe for Crunchy Peanut Slaw, adapted from the Environmental Working Group.
Pass the parsley
What it costs: 11 cents per serving (1 cup, raw)
Why it’s good for you: Go ahead and munch on that sprig of parsley garnishing your plate. One ounce of this unsung herb (about half a cup) supplies nearly 50 percent of your daily vitamin A (as beta-carotene) and more than 60 percent of your vitamin C needs. A recent study found that the beta-carotene and vitamin C combo may help protect against dementia. It’s also loaded with vitamin K, which helps your blood clot when you have a wound but keeps it from getting too sticky and clotting the rest of the time.
How to use it: Who says pesto can only be made with basil? Try our Spinach Parsley Basil Walnut Pecan Pesto With Green Beans.
Do your body good with barley
What it costs: 7 cents per serving (1/2 cup, cooked)
Why it’s good for you: Chewy and nutty, barley is rich in both protein and fiber—the ultimate combination for knocking out hunger. And because barley is digested slowly, it keeps your blood sugar—and appetite—stable for hours. “This grain is high in soluble fiber, which tends to bind with bile acids and take cholesterol out of the body,” explains Jamieson-Petonic. Translation: It helps brings your LDL (lousy cholesterol) levels down.
How to use it: Barley lends itself well to risotto recipes—just go easy on the cheese. Toss the grain into a slow cooker with low-sodium broth and your favorite spices. Stir in ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese just before serving, and season with pepper or fresh chopped herbs like basil and chives. The grain also makes a great oatmeal alternative, says Jamieson-Petonic, who likes to dress hers up with cinnamon, almonds, dried cranberries and milk.
Bone up on salmon
What it costs: 72 cents per serving (3 ounces)
Why it’s good for you: Canned salmon is an inexpensive and convenient way to load up on fish oil, vitamin D and calcium all at once. Omega-3 fatty acids help protect the brain from shrinking as we age, and they reduce the inflammation that contributes to heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s. Omega-3s may even keep your vision sharp. The salmon bones, which are edible and can be mashed with a fork, provide more than 160 percent of your daily vitamin D needs. Low levels of D have been linked to heart disease. Another great thing about canned salmon: Much of it comes from wild Alaskan sources, and it’s much cheaper than wild-caught salmon fillets.
How to use it: Use canned salmon in sandwiches, the way you would tuna, or in place of deli meat. Canned salmon also works well for salmon burgers and fish tacos.
Take the turkey out of Thanksgiving
What it costs: 36 cents per serving (3 ounces, cooked)
Why it’s good for you: Because most people associate turkey with Thanksgiving, buying it year-round can be a cheaper alternative to chicken. “Even though it may be more expensive, we recommend white meat over dark, which can have as much saturated fat as certain cuts of red meat,” says Kirkpatrick. One serving of white turkey meat provides 25 grams of protein and virtually no saturated fat. Turkey is a valuable source of selenium, which helps neutralize damaging free radicals in the body and may guard against age-related diseases. This poultry pick also provides vitamins B6 and B3 (niacin), needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes and nerves.
How to use it: Use ground turkey in your turkey burger, chili, meatloaf and meat sauce recipes. Mix in a package of defrosted and well-drained chopped frozen spinach for a simple way to get your greens. For a cheaper and healthier alternative to cold cuts, roast a turkey breast in the oven and refrigerate to use on sandwiches during the week.
Get to know beans
What it costs: Black beans and chickpeas, 6 cents per serving; pinto beans, 4 cents per serving; red kidney beans and black-eyed peas, 14 cents per serving (1/2 cup, cooked)
Why it’s good for you: “Protein, when you’re buying beef, turkey or even chicken, can be really, really expensive,” says Jamieson-Petonic. “But if you buy beans and lentils, you’re getting a lot more for your money,” she says. Undurraga agrees. “When you’re trying to eat healthfully on a budget, there shouldn’t be a lot of meat in your diet,” she explains. The average woman needs about 46 grams of protein per day, and most Americans have no trouble meeting that number. One cup of beans will supply one-third of your daily protein requirement. Eating beans in place of protein sources like red meat and full-fat dairy can improve your blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
How to use it: While beans’ high fiber content is a nutritional boon, people who aren’t used to that much roughage may not see it that way. The secret, says Jamieson-Petonic, is to start slowly and gradually increase your fiber intake so your body can adjust. And, because fiber absorbs liquids in your digestive tract, always drink plenty of water to avoid getting bound up. Try grilling up a batch of our Black Bean Oatmeal Burgers.
Pack in protein with lentils
What it costs: 6 cents per serving (1/2 cup, cooked)
Why it’s good for you: A good source of protein and B vitamins, lentils can help people steer clear of diabetes and heart disease. “They’re an anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-free substitute for meat, so they help reduce cardiovascular risk. They’re also high in fiber and a low-glycemic way to stretch your dollar while controlling cholesterol and blood sugar,” explains Jamieson-Petonic. They’re also loaded with essential nutrients like folate and iron.
How to use it: Unlike other dried legumes, lentils cook quickly without any pre-soaking. Brown lentils, the least expensive variety, break down during cooking and are best used in soups. These three soup recipes offer a tasty introduction to lentils and make the perfect cool-weather meal: Sweet Potato and Lentil Soup With Shiitake Mushrooms, Pumpkin Lentil Soup, and Collard and Lentil Soup.
Make sunflowers your top seeds
What it costs: 16 cents per serving (1/4 cup)
Why it’s good for you: “Sunflower seeds are really a good snack for a lot of reasons: They give you vitamins and minerals you won’t be getting from other foods,” says Jamieson-Petonic. Those nutrients include vitamin E, which helps safeguard cells from damage and may protect against heart disease and cancer; magnesium, which may help stave off depression, migraines and hearing loss; and selenium, which may help lower cholesterol and prevent hardening of the arteries.
How to use it: Avoid going overboard; eat sunflower seeds sparingly. A quarter-cup serving makes a 200-calorie snack. To keep from overindulging, use sunflower seeds in a trail mix with dried fruit and nuts, suggests Petonic. Or use them in place of more expensive pine nuts in pesto or sprinkled over salads or vegetables. Or buy them in the shell.
Get cooking with canola oil
What it costs: 2 cents per serving (1 tablespoon)
Why it’s good for you: Canola oil has the least saturated fat of all vegetable oils. Saturated fat contributes to disease-causing inflammation. The good fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, can help reduce your heart disease risk by lowering cholesterol and inflammation.
How to use it: Whereas extra-virgin olive oil is great for drizzling over food before serving, canola oil, whose smoke point is 470 degrees, can withstand high-heat cooking and works well for pan-frying, grilling and sauteing. Because of its mild flavor, canola oil can also be used in any baking recipe.
Build bones with yogurt
What it costs: 62 cents per serving (1 cup)
Why it’s good for you: Skip the sweet stuff and go with nonfat plain yogurt. Fruit-on-the-bottom varieties aren’t just more expensive; ounce for ounce, they contain more sugar than most soda. While almost half of that is naturally occurring lactose, more than half isn’t. Sweetened yogurt tacks more than 14 grams of added sugar onto your diet. That’s nearly the recommended daily limit of 20 grams. One cup of nonfat plain yogurt, on the other hand, provides nearly one-quarter of your daily protein needs, as well as half of your day’s calcium.
How to use it: While we love Greek yogurt for being lower in sugar and higher in protein than conventional kinds, it is more expensive. When making dips or looking for a sour cream alternative, splurge on Greek, which has a much thicker consistency. Use conventional plain, nonfat yogurt in smoothies or mixed with fruit and honey for a snack. Here are a few of our favorite yogurt recipes: Mediterranean Breakfast, Berry Smoothie, and Turkish Cucumber Yogurt Dip.
Discover more ideas for how to eat healthier and lose weight for good, from Cleveland Clinic Wellness.
Article written by Jill Provost
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.