As jobless claims continue and budgets get tighter, a lot of Americans are really concerned about putting food on the table. According to Nielsen data obtained by NBC News, grocery prices across the country are on the rise — and with more of us homebound due to COVID-19 and cooking more often, many Americans are spending more on groceries than ever before.
Though it can be a challenge to eat well on a budget, it’s important to focus on maintaining a balanced, nutrient-rich diet when times are tough, says Whitney English, a registered dietitian based in Los Angeles. “Proper nutrition is essential for overall health, including mental health,” she explains.
But what if you’re unemployed, or watching your pennies? Which healthy foods can you stock up on to eat well when money is tight? We asked a group of registered dietitians including English, New York-based Toby Amidor and Sandra Allonen from Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston to share which inexpensive grocery items they’d recommend to get the best nutritional bang for your buck.
Whether you buy them canned or dried, all three dietitians say beans are an excellent, low-cost pantry staple — they’re filling and loaded with protein and minerals, like iron and zinc. Canned beans are pretty salty, so be sure to rinse them thoroughly before eating, says Allonen. Dried beans are even cheaper than canned and can be bought in bulk for just a couple of dollars (Allonen recommends checking international markets for the best deals). Cook up a batch and add them to soups, stews and salads throughout the week.
2. Whole grains
Whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, wheat berries and farro, are inexpensive pantry staples (especially when purchased from the bulk bin) that are easy to prepare and build a meal around, say English and Allonen. Singling out brown rice, Amidor says it’s rich with fiber and protein, as well as nutrients like B-vitamins, magnesium, manganese, iron, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
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It’s unanimous: All three experts say oats are a super affordable source of protein, minerals and belly-filling fiber. English says she has oats for breakfast every morning, either as oatmeal or ground up to make oat flour for waffles and pancakes. “I always pair my oat dishes with a rich source of vitamin C, such as strawberries, in order to maximize the absorption of iron from the oats,” she says. “Vitamin C has been shown to increase iron absorption by 3-6 times. If I don’t have fresh berries on hand, I use frozen, which are just as nutrient-dense.”
4. Frozen fruits and vegetables
To save money without missing out on essential nutrients, frozen fruits and veggies retain all of the same nutritional properties as fresh because they’re frozen at peak ripeness, English says. Averaging between $2 and $5 a bag, frozen produce won’t break the bank — especially for out-of-season items, English says. You can even make your own; if you notice fresh fruit and veggies starting to turn, bag them up and stick them in the freezer to eat later, or use for smoothies, says Allonen.
Though a group of retailers have been accused of inflating egg prices during the pandemic, they’re still a relatively inexpensive means of consuming protein. In fact, the dietitians say eggs are considered a perfect protein because they contain essential amino acids and choline, which is great for brain health. Consider keeping the yolk; it contains nutrients like vitamins A and D, omega-3 fatty acids and the antioxidant lutein, which helps promote healthy eyes and skin.
Amidor extols the virtues of the plain old potato. “With the skin on, one medium potato provides 30% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, along with carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin B6 and potassium,” she says.
7. Canned tomatoes
Whether you like them crushed, diced or whole, canned tomatoes are a cheap nutritional addition to your shopping list. Amidor says they’re packed with vitamin C, fiber, and are an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, which can help lower the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and macular degeneration (poor eyesight as you get older).
Nuts are an affordable, bulk bin staple that fill you up with healthy fats, protein, and minerals, says English. “Enjoy them for snacks and with meals, or use a food processor to turn them into nut butter for toast, sauces and so much more,” she says.
9. Rotisserie chicken
Amidor says you can score a fully-cooked small rotisserie chicken at the supermarket for about $4 to $6. “Chicken provides protein, numerous B-vitamins and iron. If you're looking to minimize the saturated fat, take off the skin before eating,” she says.
10. Herbs and spices
It doesn’t cost a lot to stock up on a few choice seasonings — you can use them to switch up flavor profiles and take advantage of the antioxidant, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties herbs like rosemary and oregano have to offer, says Allonen.
People think eating healthfully costs a lot of money but it can be affordable with a little planning, says Allonen, who recommends scanning circulars for supermarket sale items to build meals around. “Bottom line is, if you put good gas into your car — meaning good food into your body to fuel it — it runs a lot better,” Allonen says. “Put in crappy junk or highly processed food, and your body isn’t going to run as well.”