Weight loss, healthy eating, and overall health improvement were among the top 2015 New Year's resolutions according to a Marist poll, as was spending less money and saving more. The problem is that it can be hard to both eat healthy and save money. In fact, a Harvard School of Public Health study found that a healthy diet costs $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy one.
"Healthy options in some cases are more expensive than less healthy foods," says Libby Mills, R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Snacks like prepackaged cookies, snack cakes, and chips are about 25—35 cents per 150–190 calories per serving, whereas fruits and vegetables cost 39–66 cents per serving and are lower in calories. "The key is knowing how to get the best nutritional bang for the buck," she says.
Remember that more calories don't always mean you'll feel more full. "Many cheap, packaged foods are high in refined grains," says Angela Lemond, R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Those grains contain little to no fiber, which does not help in keeping you full. That is because fiber helps slow down the rate of digestion."
Healthy foods can be more satisfying. Yogurts and nuts offer protein, while fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and often have a high water content, which also makes you feel full. After talking to nutrition experts and doing some calculations, we found 11 healthy foods that can actually be cheaper than less healthy alternatives.
Beans Vs. Beef
Beef prices hit an all-time high last year, affecting prices everywhere, from grocery stores to quick-service restaurants to barbecue joints; and prices will continue to rise. Mills recommends using beans as a protein source instead, at about 12 cents per serving for dried beans and 25–50 cents per canned serving. A 115-calorie, half-cup serving of beans contains 8 grams of filling protein, and "soluble fiber for lowering cholesterol and making us feel full longer — perfect for cutting calories and losing weight," Mills says.
While the nutrition of beef varies greatly, depending on the cut and preparation, cutting down on red meat may have some health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and saturated fat intake, according to the American Heart Association. Use beans as a partial substitute in recipes for foods like chili and burritos: Instead of two pounds of 80% lean beef, Lemond suggests one pound of 96% lean beef and one can of black beans. And if you want some animal protein, canned tuna costs 11–48 cents per serving, and is a good source of protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Water and Green Tea Vs. Soft Drinks
Soft drinks are fairly inexpensive, costing as little as 17 cents a serving for a two-liter bottle for $1. One-fourth of Americans between the ages of 20 and 39 consume 200 calories per day from sugary beverages, when the American Heart Association recommends a 450-calorie limit per week. Soft drinks also contain sugars and acids that can also lead to tooth decay and dental erosion.
"Water is the best fluid for the body," says Lemond. It's also the cheapest. "Buy a reusable water bottle and fill with tap water instead of buying bottled water," says Mills. "This will save $4 to $6 per week, which can equal $298 to $312 a year!" You can also invest in a water filter pitcher or a water bottle with a built-in filter.
Or boil some water and add a green tea bag, which can cost as little as 4 to 9 cents, for a warm drink that's rich in antioxidants. Green tea may decrease risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, plus it can aid in weight loss and even boost memory. For a cold drink, let it cool and add some ice for a thrifty alternative to pre-sweetened iced teas.
Bananas Vs. Sports Drinks
Soft drinks aren't the only culprits when it comes to hastening tooth decay. According to one study, the high acidity of some sports and energy drinks also can cause damage to tooth enamel. Instead, opt for a banana, which has been shown to be as beneficial during exercise as sports drinks. Bananas are high in potassium, plus one medium banana contains about 3 grams of dietary fiber and 1 gram of protein. They're portable, easy to peel, and at about 39 cents each, they're cheaper than sports drinks.
Homemade Peanut Butter Snacks Vs. Prepackaged Cracker Sandwiches
At about 25 cents per serving, it's hard to find a cheaper snack than those peanut butter or cheese cracker sandwiches. Still, it's possible to make your own with natural peanut butter and multigrain crackers for the same price — or even a few cents less! "Natural peanut butter is a staple when looking for healthful ways to stay full and lose weight," Mills says.
Raisins Vs. Fruit Snacks and Energy Chews
The very cheapest fruit snacks we found were only 13 cents per serving, and we even found natural fruit snacks for 15 cents per serving. Name brand fruit snacks are a bit higher in price at 14–44 cents per packet. One serving of raisins, however, starts at about 13 cents and packs more of a nutritional punch than some of the cheaper, more processed options. (But yes, we know that raisins aren't always attractive to kids.)
If you're committed to healthy eating, saving money, and getting in shape, consider raisins as a workout snack. A study found that raisins were as effective at boosting endurance among runners as sports energy chews that range from about 38–99 cents per serving.
Popcorn Vs. Popcorn
Did you know that popcorn is a whole grain and a good source of fiber? Too bad it's so delicious with butter. Or caramel. Or cheese. And lots of salt. Luckily, your healthiest popcorn option is also the cheapest. Buy some classic popping corn at about 16 cents per serving and add your own seasonings, from a light dusting of salt to herbs and spices. The price per serving can double for buttery and sugary pre-popped and microwave versions. (Making your own popcorn is cheaper than even bargain potato chips, which are about 17 cents per serving.) If you're worried about GMOs, organic and non-GMO certified options are as low as 10–18 cents per serving.
Skip movie popcorn. Not only is it expensive, but according to a study conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, even small servings of theater popcorn can contain your daily amount of saturated fat, or even the equivalent of eight pats of butter. And the more popcorn you have, the more you'll eat — even if it's five days old!
Hummus Vs. Dips
One way to make chips or fresh vegetables less healthy is to drench them in dips that are high in saturated fats. But healthy and tasty hummus can be cheaper — even from Whole Foods! While grocery store prices for ranch, onion, and cheese dips ranged from about 26 cents to 57 cents per serving, Whole Foods brand dip ranged from 25 to 27 cents per serving. Hummus prices vary, but we also found other options in this range. And by our calculations, if you make your own, the cost is about 49–65 cents per serving, but some estimates are as low as 4 cents per serving.
Made with chickpeas, hummus is high in protein, making you feel full. When you pair hummus with fresh vegetables, high in fiber, you'll feel even more satisfied with this healthy snack. A recent study found that people who eat hummus as a snack have smaller waistlines.
Oatmeal, Cereals, and Yogurt Vs. Drive-Thru Food
A little bit of oatmeal goes a long way. You need just about one-third to a half cup for a serving that gives you 25% of your daily recommended intake of fiber. Not only does the fiber in oatmeal keep you full, but oatmeal also can help lower bad cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
Instant oatmeal and rolled oats are about 15 cents per serving, though some brands are as low as 10 cents per serving. If you can buy larger packets or in bulk, that can also save money. Even some of the fancier oatmeal brands are 17 to 26 cents per serving, much cheaper than the drive-thru versions. Cereals ranged from about 14–22 cents. Just make sure to stay away from the sugary varieties.
Many nutrition experts, including Lemond and Mills, recommend yogurt as a healthy breakfast because it's high in protein. While the Starbucks yogurt parfait is about $2.75 to $3.45, depending on location, it's harder to go cheaper than the McDonald's Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfait when it's on the $1 breakfast menu. Or is it? Yogurt cups in the supermarket average about 50 cents each. (Even the lower-in-sugar Greek yogurts are about 99 cents per serving.)
There are plenty of ways to save on food costs, from making more meals at home to opting for canned and frozen vegetables. Check out Lemond's website for more tips about eating on a budget and for healthy recipes. Do you have tips about eating healthy on a budget? Tell us in the comments below!
Note: Josie Rubio died on December 3, 2019.