Orange juice isn’t actually all that good for you, most cereal is wasteful, and frozen meals are draining your wallet.
It’s popular for Americans to buy foods that are marketed as “quick”, “instant”, “easy”, or “diet” or to shop for products based on the price tag without thinking about their value – how much nutrition are you gaining for every dollar spent? Buying cheap, nutrition-dense staple foods over processed alternatives (think apples over apple sauce) and cooking at home can save you thousands each year and help you eat healthier.
Getting the Most Bang-for-Your-Buck
We’ve made a list of some of the best cheap superfoods you can buy. To come up with the list, we analyzed foods based on three factors.
Cost per Serving: We’re in the business of saving money here, so we’re focusing on foods with a low price tag per serving using a popular online grocer as the price point.
Nutritional Value: Not all calories are created equal. We measured nutritional value using the NuVal system, which ranks foods on a scale from 1-100, 100 being the most nutrient dense.
Fullness Score: For this we used this satiety index to measure how full a given food item will keep you. The higher the number, the more filling the food. The more filling the food, the less you have to buy.
The Best Foods to Buy
The key here in saving money is to avoid empty calories, even if they’re cheap. Look at them as “luxury goods” and purchase them as sporadic treats rather than staples. Juices often have little nutritional value, with orange juice getting a nutritional value score of 30-40, and some juices scoring as low as 1. White bread gets a nutritional value score of 28, cornflakes cereal gets a nutritional value score of 23, and chips get a 2-23. All score very low on the fullness scale.
Frozen dinners, while filling and sometimes nutritious, are the worst culprits in raising your grocery bill. Amy’s frozen mac and cheese, a popular product for families with kids that is seen as healthy, is a whopping $3.99 per serving with a nutritional value score of only 9. The more nutritional Amy’s brown rice and vegetables frozen meal is a better score of 50 but costs $5.29 per serving.
Foods are generally cheapest when purchased unprepared (dry rice rather than pre-cooked rice) and in large quantities (the big container of oats over packets of instant oatmeal), so that’s what we chose. However, frozen produce and canned foods (we chose frozen spinach, canned green beans, and canned tuna) can often be cheaper than fresh.
|Food||Black Beans||Sweet Potatoes||Brown Rice||Green Beans||Tuna||Oats|
|Cost per Serving:||0.17||$0.43||$0.28||$0.33||$0.64||$0.20|
|Food||Bananas||Apples||Eggs||Broccoli (Cauliflower is similar)||Carrots||Spinach|
|Cost per Serving:||$0.14||$0.55||$0.15||$0.58||$0.12||$0.50|
Because time is also money, we’ll also give you a few sample recipes using these ingredients to show you that cooking all your meals at home with them can actually save you time when compared to take out or many frozen meals. The list has a “mix-and-match” quality to it, so the foods go well together and give you a plethora of recipe options. They’re also easy to prepare.
Breakfast: Oatmeal with Bananas
While the Quaker flavored instant oatmeal packets only cost $0.48 per serving, they only get a nutritional value of 20-27, and they don’t fill you up as much as homemade.
Time: 5 minutes
Nutritional Value: 80
Cost per Serving: $0.34, $0.44 with a tablespoon of peanut butter added
Lunch: Baked Sweet Potato with Black Bean Topping
This is a delicious combination. Microwave the sweet potato and heat a can of black beans with spices or onion. Cut open the sweet potato, fill with some black beans, and top with salsa, avocado, or plain Greek yogurt, a nutritious and more versatile alternative to sour cream. You can even do this at work in the microwave, which saves you the $6-12 lunch out.
Time: 5 minutes
Nutritional Value: 100
Cost per Serving: $0.60, $0.98 when topped with two tablespoons of plain Greek yogurt and 2 tablespoons of salsa
Dinner: Rice, Egg, and Vegetables Bowl
This homemade rice and vegetables bowl is not unlike the $5.29 frozen version mentioned above, except that it’s far cheaper and more nutritious, with an egg added to make it heartier.
While uncooked rice takes 20-30 minutes to prepare, you can make a huge batch and freeze it in individual servings, defrosting one in the microwave for 2-3 minutes when you need it. Cook up a bag of frozen mixed vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots are a good choice), scramble an egg, and mix it into rice with some spices and soy sauce.
Time: 4-6 minutes
Nutritional Value: 83
Cost per Serving: $1.13
So, as you see, forgoing low nutrition foods and frozen meals for nutrition-dense ingredients and easy homemade meals can save you a lot. But how much?
Well, eating the three meals above as alternatives to the more popular foods mentioned saves you $12.25 in one day. Over the course of a year, that’s $4,471 in savings per year.
Of course, you probably will eat out here and there, and you might still want to buy a frozen meal on occasion. For a more realistic yearly savings amount, we’ll be generous and say you eat out at a restaurant 6 nights a month and stop at a fast food place ten times a month.
According to this cost of living calculator, the former would cost you about $12 on average, and the latter about $7. At three meals a day, 1,095 meals per year, replacing 192 of these cheaper at-home meals with eating out, you’re spending $2,336.10 on food. That’s still $2,689.90 in savings per year.
Even eating out regularly, this change in your grocery shopping habits is a major wallet-booster.
What food do you turn to when times get lean?