How to Plan Cheap and Healthy Meals

Corey —  May 13, 2010

       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.

Your Take

       Do you have hints and tips on how to plan cheap and healthy meals? Share them in the comments!



Corey is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in religion. While he enjoys learning and writing about Christianity, another one of his new passions is writing about personal finances in order to help others make wise decisions with their money.

5 responses to How to Plan Cheap and Healthy Meals

  1. Wonderful, descriptive post! I am a new follower on your blog and enjoy reading what you have to say. I’m also a new wife who prepares the spending plan as well as the food, and locally-raised meat is very costly. I’m looking for ways to decrease it, since our cost is over $200/month for local food.

    If it’s not too specific/private for you, how much do you and your wife spend on food with beans and rice as the staples (instead of meat)?

    Thanks, and it’s nice to meet you!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment and for becoming a reader!

    My wife and I are currently spending just under $200/month on food – maybe $190. We don’t focus on local meats when we do buy it. We still use meat in our meals, but we try not to make it the main focus. For example, we’re currently eating curry (lots of leftovers). Instead of leaving the meat in chunks, we used the stick blender to mix it thoroughly with the sauce (so it’s more of a meat sauce). Then we’re able to make it stretch further by using mostly rice with some sauce. It still tastes just as good, but the meat portion is smaller per serving.

    We’re also trying to find more meals without any meat at all. We eat sauce pois (bean sauce) with rice sometimes because it’s something we picked up while we were in Haiti. We’ve also had different vegetarian meals from the More-with-Less Cookbook, recipes we’ve found online, and family favorites like Spanikopita. If we were to focus solely on those types of meals, I estimate we could easily get our grocery budget down to $160-170/month and probably less.

    Thanks for the question, and it’s nice to meet you, too!

  3. Paul,

    Excellent article! We might add that when we choose processed foods we really don’t know what is in the product or where it comes from. There are so many deceptive labeling practices used today that it is practically impossible to determine the true contents (chemicals or additives) and source of the food. Basically, if it has or needs a label, we don’t want it.

    Also, from a philosophical point of view, when we eat food in its natural state, we place our trust and gratitude in our Creator. When we eat processed foods we place an inordinate and undeserved amount of trust in man.
    .-= Steven and Debra┬┤s last blog ..Strategic Defaults: A Misnomer =-.

  4. Great point, Steven & Debra. Most processed foods contain ingredients we can’t even pronounce. Whether they’re “safe” or not, there’s something to be said for knowing exactly what went into the meal you just ate. Plus, it just tastes better once you learn the very basics of cooking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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