Getting the most nutrition for your money isn’t as hard as you may think. To come up with the list of healthy foods below, Consumer Reports consulted a number of nutrition experts and food scientists. The foods are grouped by nutrient—antioxidants, calcium, fiber, omega-3’s, and protein—to make it easier to plan meals.
Whenever possible, select items that are labeled USDA certified organic, but note that the prices below are for conventional items.
Antioxidants—cheap ways to get a super nutrient fix
Cabbage – 16 cents per serving (½ cup cooked); $2.50 for one medium head (4 pounds).
Usually the cheapest member of the super-nutritious cruciferous family that includes broccoli and Brussels sprouts, cabbage is loaded with Vitamins A and C plus cancer-fighting sulforaphane.
Canned unsweetened pumpkin – 38 cents per serving (½ cup); $1.32 per 15-ounce can.
The bright orange hue is a tip-off to high levels of beta carotene, an antioxidant that might help protect vision. Skip the sweetened purees, which can be full of calories.
Dried plums – 31 cents per serving (¼ cup); $3.99 per 18-ounce container.
Often a little cheaper than its healthful cousins — dates, figs, and dried apricots — this concentrated version of a ripe plum packs antioxidants, fiber, and potassium. Portions are less because it is concentrated according to experts.
Frozen blueberries – 66 cents per serving (½ cup); $3.29 per 12-ounce package.
Keep a stash of these powerhouses in your freezer. They have been associated with the prevention of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, according to experts.
Kale — 37 cents per serving (1/2 cup); $1.49 per bunch (about a pound).
Dark, leafy kale and other greens (collards, mustard greens, and Swiss chard) are sometimes cheaper than lettuce mixes and packed with Vitamins A, C, and E.
Canned tomatoes – 28 cents per serving (1/2 cup); $1.99 per 28-ounce can.
Heat-processed canned or boxed tomatoes contain more of the antioxidant lycopene than fresh ones. To keep sodium down, buy those with no salt added.
Calcium—feed your bones for less than $1 a serving
Canned salmon with bones – 32 cents per serving (1/4 cup); $2.24 per 14.75-ounce can.
The soft, edible bones are loaded with calcium, plus it’s a superstar for heart-healthy omega-3s (see below). To cut calories, look for salmon packed in water and to avoid mercury and other toxins, choose a wild Salmon variety.
Plain yogurt – 70 cents per serving (6-ounce container); $8.39 per case of 12.
Yogurt is a quick and handy way to get calcium. It’s also brimming with protein and good bacteria that aids digestion. To flavor it for fewer calories, stir in a bit of your own vanilla extract or all-fruit spread.
Nonfat dry milk powder – 17 cents per reconstituted cup; $5.99 per 26-ounce container.
This is just milk that has had the water removed, so it equals the calcium and protein of regular milk for around 10 cents less per serving. (3 tablespoons equals 1 cup of milk.)
Fiber—stay regular for less than 50 cents a serving
Edamame and green peas – 25 cents per serving of peas ( 1/2 cup) and 90 cents per serving of edamame (1/2 cup); $1.99 per 16-ounce bag (frozen peas) and $2.69 per 16-ounce bag (frozen edamame).
These legumes have a good amount of fiber and protein—about ¾ cup of peas has more protein than an egg.
Rolled Oats – 28 cents per serving (1/2 cup); $3.59 per 18-ounce container.
Because these fiber heavyweights soak up more water than instant oatmeal, they fill you up more, so you eat less. They’re also gluten-free. To shorten cooking time, you can soak rolled oats in milk overnight in the fridge and pop them in the microwave the next day.
Whole-grain spaghetti – 23 cents per serving (2 ounces); $1.59 per 13.25-ounce box.
When it comes to fiber, not all whole-grain pastas are equal. Check the package—a serving should have 5 grams of fiber or more. Use instead of white pasta.
Quinoa – 50 cents per serving (1/4 cup); $3.99 per 12-ounce package.
Quick-cooking quinoa has almost 50 percent more fiber than brown rice, plus a dose of protein; one cup of cooked quinoa has more protein than an egg, according to the experts.
White potatoes – 13 cents per serving (1 medium spud); $1.99 per 5-pound bag.
Do your health a favor and eat your potatoes unpeeled, which will give you another gram of fiber for every small potato.
Popcorn – 12 cents per serving (1/4 cup unpopped); $1.89 per 28-ounce bag.
It’s a fun and easy way to get some fiber; research shows that popcorn eaters get about 22 percent more fiber than non-popcorn eaters. But don’t pile on calories with butter.
Omega-3s—heart healthy bargains
Frozen shrimp – $1.36 per serving (3 ounces); $14.99 per 2-pound bag.
Though not as high in omega-3s as sardines, frozen shrimp is a good, low-calorie, and relatively cheap source. Look for U.S.-farmed freshwater shrimp, one of the most sustainable seafood choices on the market.
Canned sardines in water – $1.59 per serving (3.75-ounce can).
On the eco-friendly list of fish and a health bargain not to be missed, sardines (with bones) are rich in heart-healthy omega-3s and bone-saving calcium. The healthful fats in fish are also linked to arthritis relief, according to the experts.
Flaxseed – 11 cents per serving ( 3 tablespoons); $1.79 per 16-ounce bag.
This mighty seed has omega-3s and other fatty acids linked to immune-system strength, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention. Be sure to grind the whole seeds so that they can be digested properly.
Tofu – 48 cents per serving ( 3 ounces); $2.39 for 14 ounces.
Tofu is an American Heart Association-recommended source of omega-3s. It’s also cholesterol-free and high in protein. Silky soft tofu is best suited to soups and desserts.
Protein—fuel up for as little as 18 cents
Dried brown lentils – 27 cents per serving (1/2 cup); $1.45 for 16 ounces.
Quick-cooking lentils need no soaking, so they’re easy to prepare. They’re a good source of protein, fiber, and folic acid (important for pregnant women).
Eggs – 18 cents per egg; $2.19 per dozen.
A large hard-boiled egg is packed with 6 grams of protein. Although eggs contain cholesterol, they aren’t high in saturated fat (which increases LDL levels), making them OK to eat regularly even when you’re trying to reduce your bad cholesterol.
Frozen turkey – $1.59 (per pound).
Don’t wait for the holidays! Frozen birds are a good deal all year. The ratio of lean to fatty meat is a trim 2:1, and there’s less saturated fat than in beef or pork.
Dried black beans – 24 cents per serving (1/2 cup); $1.45 for 16-ounce bag.
All beans (such as navy, cannellini, and pinto) are stellar sources of protein, fiber, and blood-pressure-friendly potassium, but darker beans pack more nutrients. Draining and rinsing reduces sodium.
Peanuts in the shell – 12 cents per serving (small handful); $1.99 for 16 ounces.
They’re a cheap protein fix, and they shell out more than 30 essential nutrients and phytonutrients, including resveratrol, a phytochemical linked to a reduction in heart disease and cancer risk.