In Parts I and II of our food series, we discussed how to avoid pesticides in our foods, while in Part III, we looked at the nutrition of organic versus conventional food.  Perhaps your takeaway was, “That’s cute.  I’d like to have healthier food options, but they’re just so expensive!  Plus, produce goes bad so quickly.”  I’m hoping to give us options for some nutrient dense foods that are relatively cheap.

This is the problem a lot of us run into:  It seems like less healthy foods are cheaper.  A recent article in Vox discusses this very problem, and this graph, from an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, confirms what we already know instinctively:

The idea here is that we’re comparing cost per calorie in food.  The farther to the right a food is, the more calories it has, hence fats and oils being all the way to the right.  And the farther up the graph a food is, the more expensive it is (case in point:  you knew meat is expensive).  A lot of our processed, unhealthy foods that don’t provide many vitamins, minerals, and/or other nutrients.  These belong either in the “sugars, sweets, and beverages” category or the “grains” category.  Now, this is not to say that grains can’t be healthy, it just means that most of the products made with grains (many breads, crackers, tortilla chips, and snack foods) aren’t.  On the other hand, you don’t get a lot of calories from most fruits or veggies, but they cost nearly as much as grains, making them less economical, at least in terms of calories.

What the graph above doesn’t show is cost per micronutrients, which are vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, all that stuff.  While I didn’t do any formal calculations, below is a graph based on my knowledge of nutrition demonstrating price compared to vitamins, minerals, fiber, and those other things we need to stay in optimal health.*

You see that this graph is very different.  Here, the relative costs of each food stays about the same (in other words, everything stays in a similar place on the vertical axis), but how far out each food is on the x-axis is completely changed!  Sugar, sweets, and heavily processed grains provide few nutrients, so they are far to the left on this graph.

So back to our question:  What are some cheaper foods that still provide dense nutrition? We know we all need to each more fruits and vegetables, but can we be selective so we can get the most micronutrients for our money?

There are several affordable, nutrient-dense veggies out there, like cabbage (try sauteing it!), broccoli, carrots, and winter squash (in season, of course).  Sweet potatoes are also a win.  And plain ol’ Russet potatoes are nutritious too, especially when the peel is eaten.  The trick is to prepare them in a healthful way.

Onions and garlic are both relatively cheap, nutritious vegetables that really add a lot of flavor to your food.  Both of these have anti-inflammatory properties that protect your heart health and boost your immune system. Your kids might be picky about onions (I know mine are), but just keep adding them and eventually they’ll either pick them out or give up and start eating them.

Leafy greens are especially important to our diet.  Often, we assume we need to eat lots of kale and/or spinach.  Both are great options!  In fact, with the folate, magnesium, iron, and choline in it, spinach is absolutely one of the best foods for women’s health.  If you want to go cheaper and longer-lasting on these two greens, frozen is the way to go.

Not all leafy greens are made equal.  Most of us have heard that iceberg lettuce doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value.  In fact, I have a friend who refers to it as “crunchy water.”  For years, I extended that logic and assumed that that all lettuces must be nutrient-poor.  But it turns out that logic is wrong!  Romaine lettuce actually has a high amount of vitamins A and K, so if you’re not into darker leafy greens or want a salad green with a bit more crunch, it’s a decent alternative.

Look for in-season fruit year round.  It’ll be cheaper and tastier.  As far as fruits that are available all year long, bananas are some of the cheapest, healthiest fruits out there.  And frozen is a great way to get the phytonutrient benefits of berries on the cheap.

And we can’t get by without proteins and fats.  If you’re not vegan, eggs are a great source of nutrition.  Eggs contain a significant amount of several vitamins and minerals.  You can put together a fantastic start to your morning with sauteed greens, a slice of whole-grain toast, and an egg your way.  Or many soups, rice bowls, and other simple meals can be improved with the addition of a poached or fried egg (#putaneggonit).  While it’s true that egg yolks contain cholesterol, 1. you need some cholesterol in your diet and 2. yolks are where virtually all the nutrients are.  So eat the whole egg!

Finally, one of my favorite cheap, nutrient dense foods is beans!  Beans are a great source of protein, fiber, and several necessary vitamins and minerals.  While they’re easy to cook from dried, you really can’t beat the convenience of canned beans.  And they can form a base for so many dishes!

Below is a list of fantastic recipes (all of which I love and have made multiple times!) that are nutritional powerhouses.  Some are vegetarian, some are easily made vegan, and several have meat as an option too.  All have the macro (proteins, fats, and carbs) and micro (vitamins and minerals) nutrients you need.  Make sure you pin the recipe list below!  And if you can’t get the links on the image to work, don’t worry.  I have links to the recipes in the text below as well.

Pasta and white beans with rosemary garlic oil

Roast chicken with sauteed greens and roasted sweet potatoes

Baked chickpeas

New Year noodle soup

Pizza beans

Beef stew

Red beans and rice

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