The recent Live Below the Line challenge was a simple one. For five days, keep your food expenditures to what many of the world’s poorer citizens live on: $1.50 or less a day.
I’ve always considered myself a frugalite in the food department. Nonetheless, it took real discipline to keep us on this level. We lived primarily on what the rest of the world does: rice and beans, augmented with a few vegetables, tortillas and an egg or two.
That got me to thinking – what other foods are nutritious, yet low in price? Posted here are the 20 best, in yours truly’s and other people’s opinions. Feel free to chime in with your own favorites.
20 Healthy Foods
- Rice – of course. You’ve got all kinds to choose from, including Arborio, wild and the more nutritious brown rice. Tummy-filling, and a more complete protein when combined with:
- Beans. Pick a country, and odds are very good that one of their national dishes will include rice and beans. Dried beans are filling, cheap and good, no matter what kind you get.
- Potatoes. It’s not what’s in the spud that makes it high in calories – it’s what you put on it. By themselves, potatoes are not only versatile, but pack in a surprising amount of vitamins.
- Onions. Another world favorite, for the flavor they add. Cook them slowly, and onions become sweet, as well as savory. Green and red onions add color, as well as flavor.
- Tomatoes. Firm ones for sandwiches, or slowly stewed into sauces, soups and casseroles. Another world-loved ingredient.
- Green beans. Even when other veggies are expensive, green beans are often on sale. They’re easily grown, too. Try them with a little minced onion and the scraps of that leftover ham, and you’ve got a wonderful main dish.
- Peppers. Stuff them whole, chop for dishes, or slice for a crudites plate. Red peppers have the most flavor, but are expensive – look for green ones with a red streak, instead.
- Cilantro. Feathery greens with a surprising flavor kick; some people characterize it as ‘sweaty,’ so start with a small amount. Once you’ve sprinkled this budget green over a dish, though, you’ll change your mind. It should be added fresh, just before you serve the dish — and goes bad quickly in the crisper. In other words, use it fast.
- Celery. Prices can range all over for this crunchy veggie – so buy less when it’s expensive. No self-respecting soup or casserole would be without a handful of flavor-boosting celery. You can even chop and add the tops.
- Mushrooms. Another flavor blockbuster that really makes a difference. Not always cheap, but a few mushrooms won’t set you back that much. Get Portabello rather than white, if the prices are similar.
- Kale. This old-time green has mushroomed (!!) in popularity in recent years. Try it chopped and tossed in a soup or saute. Or just sprinkle it with oil and a little salt, and bake for a crunchy alternative to potato chips.
- Butter. This versatile dairy item used to be maligned in food circles. Recent studies, however, suggest that butter’s cholesterol impact is much less than margarine’s. Go figure. A little pat, and your food will benefit.
- Olive oil. Like butter, some oils have had an undeserved rep. Truth is, fats are needed to keep your hair and skin well-nourished. Olive oil not only features the ‘good’ fats, but lets you fry, bake and broil with excellent results. (Get ‘extra-virgin,’ for even better taste.)
- Milk. It’s incredibly versatile, but also gives a nice hit of vitamins and calcium to your diet. Think of it as a mellowing agent for all sorts of sauces and soups.
- Oatmeal. Sure, it’s for breakfast – but oats can fill out a meatloaf and plump up a cookie with the same aplomb. Buzz-grind them, and they’re good for breading, as well.
- Whole wheat flour. (Or any kind of flour.) The recent furor over gluten allergies has often left this frugal ingredient in the dust. It’s a shame, because it’s incredibly versatile. What other foodstuff can be used for everything from cinnamon rolls to dumplings, bread to pies and fancy desserts, with so little effort? Keep a five-pound bag of flour in your pantry, plus a little yeast and/or baking soda, and you’ll never go hungry.
- Eggs. Our experiment with chickens the past few years has only convinced me more of the value of eggs. (Well, chickens, too.) This is another food that’s suffered unjustly from health accusations. (Can you see a pattern here? Makes you wonder…) Eggs are an essential for everything from breakfast to dessert. Get them as fresh as possible; ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ are also good words to look for.
- Bacon. Few other meats have the flavor impact of bacon, for such a small amount. A few slices can transform a potato casserole into main dish, or transform vegetables into ambrosia. (Look for ‘bits and pieces’ packages to save even more on this versatile ingredient, and use sparingly.)
- Fish fillets. Or just plain fish. Get the cheapest firm-fleshed fish you can, from pollock to tilapia. Even better: buy whatever’s cheap locally; it’s bound to be fresher than anything imported. (In Michigan, it was smelt. When we moved to Colorado, though, Rocky Mountain trout became the fish of choice.) Good for everything from main dishes to chopped and added to chowder. A surprisingly cheap item: salmon fish heads at Oriental markets! These are easily poached, and produce a lot of fish for the money. (They were going for 99 cents/lb during a recent trip, when salmon fillets were $10 or more.)
- Pork chops or pork steak. Grilling time is on us – yet many steaks are not only past $5/lb, but beginning to nudge the $15 range. Thank goodness for pork chops; they’re still reasonably priced (sort of), but taste like a million bucks when grilled. Get the leanest ones you can find, and substitute pork steak if that’s a better price per pound.
Add a few or more of these healthful foods to your diet, and your budget will thank you for it.
Cindy Brick is a personal property appraiser, judge and national teacher who loves to write about frugality and other personal finance topics. She has written six books and hundreds of articles, but often focuses on quilting, her teaching specialty. She lives in Colorado with her husband, two golden labs and a flock of very suspicious chickens. Find out more at Brickworks, http://www.cindybrick.com, or visit her personal blog: http://www.cindybrick.blogspot.com