Cheap meals don’t have to be unhealthy. They don’t have to taste bad either. By following a few simple guidelines, you can plan cheap and healthy meals that are delicious.
Beans & Rice: The Main Characters
OK, this isn’t limited to just beans and rice. The point is that the main core of a cheap and healthy meal is usually going to be legumes and grains. Good legumes include navy, pinto, black, and kidney beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, lima beans, and soybeans. Good grains include barley, brown rice (not white!), buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rye, spelt, and whole wheat. You can pick just about anything in those two lists and they’re going to be pretty cheap and quite healthy (buy in bulk and raw – no instant rice or pre-cooked beans). You’ll want to combine at least one legume with one grain to get a complete protein.
If you need inspiration for recipes that center around beans & rice (or other grains), consider ethnic foods from all over the world. Nearly every single culture has some kind of variation on this theme, which means you can find a nearly endless variety of cheap and healthy meals. One I like is sauce pois (bean sauce) with rice – common in Haiti. It’s basically just cooked, seasoned beans that have been pureed into a sauce served over rice.
Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, and Seeds: The Supporting Cast
To create a truly healthy meal, you’ll want to add vegetables, fruits, nuts, or seeds to your menu. Your “normal” vegetables and fruits can almost always be found cheaply. Check for fresh options first, then frozen, and finally canned if you must. Try to focus on the vegetables and fruits that are in season. Here’s a good list of cheap vegetables and fruits and when they’re in season to use as a guide, but you’ll probably need to adjust it for your area.
You can’t go wrong with most fruits, but focus on the best vegetables to get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck. Broccoli and spinach are great examples of foods that can be quite cheap but have tons of health benefits.
Don’t be afraid to go outside your grocery store to search for the cheapest options either. Farmer’s markets and pick your own farms can be great, cheaper alternatives to the supermarket.
Eggs, Dairy, Seafood, and Meats: The Intermission
Eggs, dairy products, seafood, and meats are typically the centerpiece of the “American” meal. But if you want to eat cheap and healthy, you have to break out of this mindset. For complete proteins at a low cost, eggs are your best bet. For calcium, you’ll want to look to milk and dairy products. (I like cottage cheese for this. It’s fairly cheap but contains concentrated amounts of the beneficial stuff found in milk.) Finally, for B vitamins (especially B-12) and a few other things, seafood and meats are your friend.
You can include small portions of the foods in this category and still keep your meals cheap. By using them to accent your main characters (the beans & rice), you’ll get flavor and nutrition while keeping it cheap and healthy. You don’t have to exclude these delicious foods to eat cheap and healthy, but you’ll need to use them with discretion.
Spices & Herbs: The Musical Numbers
Spices and herbs will liven up any dish (especially the cheap ones) to help you create something tasty. Focus on those you use often rather than buying up a bunch of exotic spices you don’t like. Fresh herbs can actually be grown quite easily in small pots inside providing you with a cheap source of flavor all year round. Additionally, many spices and herbs have health benefits of their own, so that’s just a bonus.
Processed and Non-local Foods: Don’t Even Go There
Most foods in this category are either bad for you or expensive. Yes, some processed foods are “cheap”, but it’s also possible to eat healthy while keeping your costs low. Considering the health risks of consuming mainly processed foods, it’s not worth taking your chances.
Non-local foods have to be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, thus increasing the cost. Most non-local foods are going to be more expensive than a local alternative with the exception of bananas and a few other items. (Though that’s probably due to the low-paid labor used to harvest them.) Many people also choose local foods for environmental reasons which can save on hidden costs we don’t quite see yet.
Do you have hints and tips on how to plan cheap and healthy meals? Share them in the comments!