Seven Cheap, Healthy Foods

According to research by Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters®, Americans still struggle with the economics of eating well.  In fact, low-income families claim that cost is the biggest barrier to eating healthy foods.

You don’t have to break the bank to eat well! To help shed some light on this subject matter, I am providing a three-part series this week as follows:

The low-budget theme was even popular back in my college days when I studied nutrition. For one class, we were required to visit local grocers and determine the least-expensive healthy foods available for purchase with cash, food stamps, or WIC (Women, Infants and Children) coupons. You can actually carry out this same exercise yourself by comparing costs of various food items (by the ounce or pound), then checking out their nutrient content.

If you don’t have time, WebMD has a great list of nutritious foods for $2. Or, of course, you can check out this list of some of my favorite inexpensive and nutrient-packed foods.

Sweet potatoes/yams—Not only are sweet potatoes inexpensive, but they are rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, beta carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin B6. In 1992, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest compared the nutritional value of sweet potatoes to other vegetables, these little gems came out on top. Kids often like them, too, because they are naturally sweet. Check out my baked sweet potato fries recipe!

Dried beans—Even the Learning Channel made a declaration on this one: “If you were stuck on a desert island and had to pick one food to take, it would be beans.” And though beans will make you gassy, their benefits far outweigh the smells and sounds. Beans are low in fat and high in quality protein, and they also contain soluble fiber, which helps lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol in your blood. I made three delicious meals from one bag of dried black beans!

Soybeans/edamame—One of the most widely grown legumes in the world, soybeans are an excellent source of high-quality protein. They also contain high levels of essential fatty acids, numerous vitamins and minerals, isoflavones, and fiber. You can buy a bag of the frozen edamame already shelled so it’s easy and affordable. And it’s another healthy treat that kids love, too.

Tofu—Tofu may not be dirt cheap, but it is often more cost-effective than organic meats. Tofu, a soybean product, is rich in protein, unsaturated fat, and is a good source of calcium, iron, and phytoestrogens, or dietary estrogens.

Brown rice—Brown rice is a whole, natural grain with a nutty flavor. Unlike its white counterpart, which will more abruptly spike your blood sugar level, brown rice contains a whole host of nutrients, including B vitamins, manganese, selenium, iron, and fiber. In addition, brown rice is known to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of diabetes, and decrease the chances of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

Spinach—Spinach is loaded with nutrients and antioxidants, including iron and calcium. It also contains vitamin A (and lutein), vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, folate, iron, vitamin B2, calcium, potassium, vitamin B6, folic acid, copper, protein, phosphorus, zinc, niacin, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids. With a list that long, how could you not eat it? Be sure to note that the health benefits of spinach are more heartily gained when steamed or eaten fresh.

Quinoa—This grain may cost as little as $1.50 per pound if you’re lucky enough to have a Trader Joe’s nearby.  Unlike wheat or rice, quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete protein source for a plant. It is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten free and considered easy to digest. It cooks faster than rice (in about fifteen to twenty minutes) and lends itself to some tasty, healthy combinations. Check out this quinoa with leeks and herbs recipe from A Couple Cooks.

Melinda Hinson