10 Foods With the Most Bang for Your Buck

by Tara Struyk on 26 August 2014 4 comments

What does it mean to get the most for your money when it comes to food? If you want to get the most calories for your dollar, you needn't look much further than the nearest fast food chain, which will gladly serve up a high-calorie burger, french fries, or a milkshake for less than $1.

And that cheap food sure feels like a bargain. You're full, only $1 dollar poorer, and you can be back at your desk within 20 minutes' time.

But whether that food is really the most cost-effective thing to eat depends on how you look at value. Sure, you'll probably get the most calories for your money from fast foods or junk food. The problem is that in the United States, what most people need isn't more calories, it's more nutrients.

The latest statistics show that more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. And while corpulence used to be considered a sign of wealth, rates of obesity are just as high or higher in the most disadvantaged populations. But despite all those calories, most Americans fall short of the recommended dietary guidelines for many key nutrients. In other words, the concept of getting the most for your money when it comes to buying food has changed. And, at a time when more people than ever are overfed but still undernourished, experts suggest we should be stretching our food budgets by seeking out the foods that cost the least and provide the highest possible level of nutrition. (See also: How to Eat Well on Just $20 a Week (With Meal Plans!))

A publication created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 looked at different ways of measuring the value of food and food costs beyond cost-per-calories. It compared cost per 100 calories, cost per 100 edible grams, and cost per portion. What it found is that you can fill your plate — and your stomach — with some very healthy foods for less than the cost of a fast-food burger.

So what are the cheapest healthy foods you can buy? Here are the 10 top contenders.

Corn Tortillas

Corn tortillas are cheap food no matter how you look at them; they're cheap per calorie, they're cheap per portion, and they require little or no preparation (although if you're ambitious, you can make your own.) These aren't nutritional powerhouses on their own, but they're relatively low in calories and if you stuff them with some of the other foods on this list, you'll have a great, low-cost, nutritious meal.

Beans

Pinto beans and other dried beans are among the least expensive foods per portion size. And that's good news. Beans are powerful disease fighters that are high in fiber, protein, and antioxidants. They're filling, flavorful, and they come at a price of about 27 cents per cup. And they aren't that hard to cook up. Really.

Onions

Onions have been a staple food in many cultures for centuries; the Egyptians even worshipped these pungent layers of peel. What's not to love? They're easy to grow, can be stored for long periods, and they add loads of flavor to any dish. Plus, they're high in vitamin C and disease fighting compounds. And, at 55 cents per pound, onions are one of the least expensive vegetables out there.

Carrots

Carrots can be cooked into soups, baked into pies, or are great with a little dip as an afternoon snack. They also come with plenty of fiber and tons of vitamin A. The cost? About 63 cents per cup.

Potatoes

Potatoes have gotten a bad rap in recent years, mostly as a result of diets like Atkins or South Beach, which aim to limit carbohydrates. However, it's important to remember that potatoes have been a staple food for people around the world for centuries. Plus, many of the studies that have vilified potatoes have lumped steamed or baked potatoes together with French fries and potato chips. (See also: End Potato Prejudice: 10 Reasons Why You Should Eat Potatoes)

In reality, a plain potato is relatively low in calories, and very high in fiber and vitamins. Plus, potatoes have also been found to be the most satisfying food on the Satiety Index, which means a helping will keep you feeling fuller longer. All that for about 53 cents per cup.

Bread

Bread is another food that many health-conscious people have banished from the table, and in some cases for good reason. Research has shown that eating too much starchy food — especially at the expense of fruits and vegetables — contributes to obesity. That said, whole grains are associated with lower levels of unhealthy belly fat. The bottom line? If you stick to whole grain breads and avoid overdoing it, you'll be just fine. Look for day-old bread at your local bakery, or buy in bulk on sale and freeze it for later.

Oatmeal

Whole grains are good for you, but oats might just be the best of the bunch. Beyond providing a healthy dose of fiber, oatmeal's soluble fiber has been shown to reduce LDL (or "bad") cholesterol. Eating oatmeal regularly may also reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and prevent hardening of the artery walls. For the biggest benefit, use rolled or steel cut oats. And be sure to buy them unprocessed; instant oatmeal packets tend to cost more and be loaded with sugar and salt.

Milk

A gallon of milk might look pretty expensive; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a gallon of milk cost an average of $3.62 as of June 2014. Even so, the FDA ranks 1% milk as less expensive than regular soda for an average serving. Full-fat milk is also cheaper on a cost-per-calorie basis, as it has more calories than the same volume of soda. And no matter what kind of milk you choose, it has far more nutrients than soda or even fruit juice, including calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Debates about milk's value as a health food aside, there's no question that it's a better, more nutritious choice than soda. It's good to know it's healthier for your budget, too.

Eggs

Eggs are the ultimate low-cost food. Not only are they inexpensive, but they are easy to prepare. They are a great source of complete protein, and include vitamins and minerals that are hard to get from other food sources, such as vitamin D, vitamin K and choline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a carton of eggs punches in at about $1.95. Breakfast (or lunch or dinner) for a few cents!

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is nutritious, filling, practical — and cheap! One serving will give you a dose of vitamin E, magnesium and potassium, and B vitamins. Research has shown that regular consumption of peanuts and other nuts can protect against heart disease, and can significantly lower your risk of diabetes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you can bring home a one-pound jar for about $2.50.

What healthy foods help you stretch your food budget? Let me know in the comments!

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Guest's picture
Olivia

Last fall we made a discovery, roasted vegetables. We found the likes of long neck pumpkin, beets, yams, turnips, and carrots for a dollar a pound or less. I suspect the color rich vegetables are especially nutritionally dense. Peeled, cut into fingers, tossed with a little oil and roasted, they turn into something quite lovely.

Guest's picture
Andrey

"Research has shown that regular consumption of peanuts and other nuts can protect against heart disease, and can significantly lower your risk of diabetes." - Peanut is not a nut though, it's a legume.

"Potatoes have gotten a bad rap in recent years, mostly as a result of diets like Atkins or South Beach, which aim to limit carbohydrates. However, it's important to remember that potatoes have been a staple food for people around the world for centuries. " - It's too bad that evolution takes millions of years to make changes and adapt. The fact that something has been eaten for "centuries" is a moot point, it's like saying something is right because it's old.

Would love to see a healthy alternative to this list. Aren't vegetables fairly inexpensive? I'd rather eat the non-organic ones for cheap rather than half the food on this list.

Guest's picture
Aerynn

This is great! My grocery list actually looks a lot like this. Sure wish I paid anything close to those prices, though!

I'd add cabbage to the list - it's super cheap and can be used to bulk out stir-fries (which use only a little meat and are very quick to make), soups (a fantastic dish to use dried beans), and salads, and it's pretty much made of fiber and Vitamin C. Also, one firm head of cabbage goes a long way - I've made a huge pot of cabbage & navy bean soup, a lot of coleslaw, and 2 meals of stir-fry from just one head of cabbage.

Guest's picture

These all happen to be excellent staples too. It's easy to make many different dishes with potatoes and eggs with together or separately. I lived and Spain and eggs and potatoes together is a very tasty meal called a tortilla. It looks a bit like a keish. I feel like a million bucks eating something I learned to make in Europe that doesn't cost a lot of money. Double bonus!