Ask the RD: What are the Best Foods to Buy on a Tight Budget?

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Ask the RD: What are the Best Foods to Buy on a Tight Budget?

You may have to get creative with fewer ingredients, but eating nutritious foods at low prices is possible whether you shop at Trader Joe’sWhole Foods or Walmart. The key is creating a meal plan that revolves around the most budget-friendly produce and proteins. For example, opting for more plants and less meat, which tends to be a big-ticket item, can help you save money.

Assuming you have the basics (salt, sugar, oil, flour plus common herbs and spices), a cash-strapped grocery list should have foods that can multi-task within different recipes. A classic example is broccoli, which you can add to stir-fries, blend into soups or chop into salads. These foods should also come in at the right price point.

Here are 12 budget-friendly foods to add to your cart the next time you’re at the grocery store:



You can get three pounds for $3, and it’s even less expensive if you buy in bulk. Sweet potatoes are extremely rich in vitamin A, providing 214% of your daily needs in just one cup. You’ll also get more than 20% of your daily needs for vitamin C, manganese, copper, biotin, potassium and fiber.

Cooking tip: Creative ways to enjoy this food include sweet potato casserolesweet potato pancakes and enchiladas.



High in fiber, micronutrients and antioxidants and low in calories, leafy greens are the ideal base for meal-worthy salads. A budget-savvy rotation includes spinach for spring and summer, Swiss chard for and fall and kale for winter.

Cooking tip: Unlike romaine and iceberg lettuce that are typically enjoyed raw, you can add leafy greens into pasta, tacos, omelets or smoothies.



Broccoli and cauliflower are inexpensive year-round at $1–2 per pound. They’re closely related and are a good source of glucosinolates, a compound that lowers cancer risk. Plus, they are rich in fiber, which helps you feel full longer.

Cooking tip: Have fun using the veggies in low-carb mashed “potatoes,” pizza crust and as rice.



With a humble price tag of $1–2 per pound, apples are a sweet, refreshing treat. They’re rich in vitamin C and fiber as well as lesser-known plant-based antioxidants including quercetin, catechin and chlorogenic acid. They come in several varieties and are easy to pack for an on-the-go snack.

Cooking tip: Toss apples into salads for crunch and curries for sweetness.



It’s no wonder bananas, which cost 19 cents each at Trader Joe’s — reign as the number 1 consumed fruit — you get convenience and good value. Not only are they packed with potassium and fiber, but they’re a wallet-friendly staple since overripe ones can be used in banana bread or breakfast cookies.

Cooking tip: Try them in pancakesoatmeal or these roll-ups.



A jar of peanut butter comes in around $3, but it’s even cheaper if you buy in bulk. Unopened peanut butter stores well for up to nine months in the pantry or the fridge. It’s an excellent plant-based protein containing more protein by volume compared to pinto beans, kidney beans, soybean flour, wheat flour and chickpeas.

Cooking tip: Use it in these no-bake granola bars, as a fun take on sushi or blend it into a smoothie.



For roughly $10 you can buy 8 pounds (7,200g) of oats. They contain more protein than other cereals such as wheat, barley and rye and rival quinoa, the high-protein grain that’s gotten so much attention. A 150-calorie serving of oats provides 5.3 grams of protein, while the same amount of quinoa yields 6 grams. Oats also help with heart health because they contain beta-glucans, soluble fibers that help clear the body of excess cholesterol.

Cooking tip: Make a high-protein smoothie with oats, low-fat Greek yogurt and your favorite fruit.



A pound (450g) of lentils can cost less than $2. The legume contains healthy carbs, fiber and prebiotics, which help promote gut health by feeding the trillions of good gut bacteria living in your intestines. Whether or not you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, lentils are an excellent source of iron, a micronutrient plant-eaters may miss out on.

Cooking tip: Toss cooked lentils into soups and stews to bulk them up.



With an average price of $2–3 per dozen, eggs are the most versatile protein in your kitchen. Don’t waste the yolk: 50% of the egg’s protein is in the yolk. Besides protein and a long list of vitamins and minerals, eggs are a good source of choline, which the body needs to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that supports memory, mood and muscle control.

Cooking tip: Be a minimalist and enjoy them hard-boiled, scrambled or sunny-side up. Or treat yourself to a fancy frittataquiche or shakshuka.



For less than $5 you can get a 2-pound (900g) container of Greek yogurt. When compared to traditional yogurt, Greek yogurt is strained more, which gives it a denser consistency and higher protein content. Furthermore, yogurt is fermented and full of live bacterial cultures that predigest some of the milk proteins for you.

Cooking tip: Use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream in enchiladas or soups and stews.



Buy a 15-ounce (425g) can of black beans for less than $2, or save even more money by purchasing dry black beans in bulk. This traditionally cheap staple is packed with protein, soluble fiber and resistant starch, which make meals feel more satiating. Other nutrients include iron, zinc and calcium, which are minerals commonly found in animal-based proteins.

Cooking tip: Try them in breakfast bowlsburritos and this spicy soup.



Canned tuna is a budget-friendly way to enjoy seafood. This lean protein (a 3-ounce serving contains 16.5 grams) keeps well and is an excellent protein for emergency meals. Keep in mind, canned tuna is still more expensive than some cuts of meat when you compare it pound-for-pound, but it’s on this list because it’s long shelf-life allows you to stock up when the price is right.

Cooking tip: Use it in this low-carb salad with peanut dressing or as a snack on apple slices.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.


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