An August 4 MSNBC article cites a study in the journal Health Affairs led by Pablo Monsivais, assistant professor of public health at the University of Washington, that determined it would cost an extra $380 per person per year to meet the USDA's new "My Plate" nutritional guidelines. (To further help you fight rising food costs, check out 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)
TUTORIAL: Budgeting Basics
People often cite the presumed high cost of healthy food as an impediment to maintaining a healthy weight. They also cite the cheapness and time-saving aspects of fast food as major contributing factors to the supposed epidemic of obesity in the United States. There are plenty of foods that challenge these notions.
The following advice for eating healthy on a budget comes from Monica Reinagel, a licensed nutritionist with a Master's of Science in Human Nutrition. Reinagel hosts the Nutrition Diva podcast, is the author of "Nutrition Diva's Secrets for a Healthy Diet" and writes the Nutrition Over Easy blog.
We think of dairy as essential in this country because it's a significant source of calcium. However, dairy is not an essential food group. Leafy greens and canned fish are also excellent sources of calcium. Canned salmon (88 cents per 4 oz. serving) and canned sardines (21 cents per oz.) are inexpensive yet high in calcium. Unlike albacore tuna, they are low in mercury. The protein you get from dairy can come from another source, like eggs.
If you love dairy, try plain, unsweetened, low-fat yogurt (9 cents per oz.). Yogurt is good for you because it contains lactobacillus bacteria, which aids digestion and helps to prevent disease.
In terms of the quality of protein you're getting and the cost, it's hard to beat eggs (14 cents per egg). Eggs contain all the essential amino acids in the ideal proportions for your body to use the protein efficiently.
If you want to eat meat, a whole chicken ($1.29 per lb.) will give you the best combination of economy and healthfulness. If you don't want to cut up a chicken yourself, buy thighs and legs (each 99 cents per lb.). Dark meat is less expensive than white meat, easier to cook because it doesn't dry out as quickly and approximately the right portion size (3-4 oz.).
Speaking of whole chickens, skip the grocery store's rotisserie chickens because they're basted with oil and high in sodium.
Grains are inexpensive and have a long shelf life. Eating whole grain products instead of refined grain products can lower your risk of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Whole grains contain the germ, endosperm and bran which are good sources of fiber. Steer clear of "multigrain" products, which sound healthy but are made from refined grains. For the real deal, stick to products labeled "whole grain."
Oatmeal is a whole grain, but stay away from instant and quick-cooking oatmeal because it is heavily processed and usually has added salt and sugar. Buy plain, unflavored, steel cut or Irish oats, stone ground or Scottish oats, or rolled oats (also called old-fashioned oats).
All of these help keep your blood sugar levels steady and curb your appetite. The only difference is cooking time. Rolled oats (18 cents per oz.) are the fastest to cook. You can add your own fruit or some cinnamon and a hint of sugar for flavor.
For dinner, whole wheat pasta (16 cents per oz.) is a healthy and inexpensive option. For a crunchy snack, try popcorn (18 cents per oz.). It will be both healthier and cheaper if you make it yourself. Check out the Nutrition Diva website for an easy recipe that you can make using a brown paper bag and your microwave. (For other ideas on reducing your food cost 10 Ways To Cut Your Food Costs.)
If you can only eat one vegetable, make it a leafy green like spinach or kale (each 13 cents per oz.). Carrots (7 cents per oz.), winter squash (13 cents per oz.) and green beans (16 cents per oz.) are also inexpensive and nutritious. Your actual price per ounce of fresh veggies will be slightly higher unless you make use of all the stems and peels.
Frozen produce is a great option for saving money. When you hear that foods are frozen at the peak of freshness, you can believe it. In some cases, the processing facilities are located right at the edges of the fields, and the produce is frozen within a few hours after it's picked. It's easy to always have plenty of nutritious vegetables on hand when you can keep them in the freezer without worrying about spoilage. Frozen spinach costs 18 cents per oz., frozen green beans are 9 cents per oz. and frozen squash is 14 cents per oz.
If you think you're getting your veggies when you eat potatoes, think again. While potatoes are technically a vegetable, your body treats them more like rice or bread because of their high starch content. Sweet potatoes are 13 cents per oz., have a lower starch content and are also high in beta carotene.
Fruits aren't that different from vegetables in terms of the nutrients they offer. However, fruits contain more sugar and are significantly more expensive. To get the most bang for your nutritional buck, skip the fruits and buy more veggies.
That being said, if you can work it into your budget, and if eating fruit means eating less cake, your least expensive options will be frozen fruit and whatever's in season. For fruits low in sugar, try frozen strawberries (27 cents per oz.), frozen raspberries (46 cents per oz.) and frozen peaches (24 cents per oz.).
Bananas, while inexpensive, are high in sugar and, with the exception of potassium, low in nutrients. Oranges and apples aren't bad choices, but avoid fruit juice because it loses most of its nutrients in processing and is high in sugar.
Planning Your Grocery Shopping
Reinagel devotes the first half of her book, "Nutrition Diva's Secrets for a Healthy Diet," to grocery store survival. She goes through every aisle and describes which foods have the most nutritional value and how to shop so you can put together meals for the rest of the week.
The Food on the Table app, available on your computer, iPhone or Android, lets you plan your meals around what's on sale at your local grocery store and factors in your dietary restrictions and preferences. It's free, fast and easy to use.
The Bottom Line
All of the prices provided in this article are regular prices, not sale prices, from a national chain (some prices require the use of a store loyalty card, which is free). These prices show that it really is possible to eat a wholesome diet on a budget, you just have to know what to shop for.
If you put the money you save toward exercise classes or even running shoes, your savings will go even further toward promoting good health. (To read more on eating well with out breaking the bank, see 5 Ways To Get Healthy And Save Thousands A Year.)