The Best Grocery Buys When Money Is Tight

James Eaton

Most food items at the supermarket these days, including bread, eggs, and milk are considerably more expensive than they were in the recent past. And you can expect to continue to feel pain at the checkout container. As the USDA notes, food prices for bread, meats, and much more are predicted to increase anywhere between 3 percent and more than 11 percent in 2023. Makes you want to get in the habit of cutting coupons, huh?

Compounding the problem for cyclists and other athletes is the need to go bigger on calories to support training and racing needs. This can make for a very expensive grocery cart.

Though it can be more challenging than ever to eat well on a budget, the great news is that you can still find several nutrient-dense, performance-benefiting foods in the supermarket aisles that have a less demanding price tag.

 

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When you want to save a few bucks, adding these cheap healthy foods to your grocery list will go a long way in keeping your food budget from spilling over.

The Best Cheap and Healthy Foods to Add to Your Cart

1. Mussels

mussels saute

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As the costs of fresh seafood rise, it appears that fewer Americans are spending time shopping at the fish counter. But among the cuts of pricey salmon and sea bass, mussels remain a cost-conscious choice, yet one few people think about for a weeknight dinner. Ringing in at only about $3 a pound (costs can fluctuate a bit depending on the time of year and where you purchase them), these shellfish offer a fantastic amount of briny-tasting nutrition for your dollar.

For starters, mussels are a great source of protein, with every 3 ounces of the fish supplying about 20 grams of protein to support muscle recovery and building, both key to being a stronger cyclist. Mussels also provide very high amounts of vitamin B12—a serving has more than 3 times the daily need—which the National Institutes of Health says is required for a healthy central nervous system, healthy red blood cells, and the production of DNA.

Other nutritional highlights include notable amounts of selenium, iron, phosphorus and even vitamin C. As a bonus, farmed mussels are widely considered one of the most environmentally sensitive seafood buys you can make.

Fresh mussels have a limited shelf life, and you should consume them within 24 to 48 hours of purchase. Most retailers are going to sell them to you in a two-pound bag, which is enough to serve two people.

How to add it to your plate: To prepare, place about 1 cup of liquid such as water, broth, beer, wine, or coconut milk in a large saucepan, bring to a boil, add mussels, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer covered until they open up. Do not overcook the mussels because they will become tough and shrink; it will only take a few minutes to cook them. Discard any mussels that have not popped open. You can season the cooking liquid with everything from chopped shallots to fresh herbs to pesto to curry paste. Cooked mussels can also be removed from their shells and added to soups, pasta dishes and salads.

You can also find bags of fully cooked mussels in the frozen seafood section of many grocers which are even more convenient.

2. Dry Lentils

lentil bolognese

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Eating plant-based foods, like lentils, more often is certainly easier on your bank account. A study in The Lancet Planetary Health that analyzed feeding patterns from 150 countries found that for wealthier countries, like the U.S., eating a diet higher in plant-based foods may be from 22 percent to 34 percent less costly when compared with other types of diets that are higher in animal-based foods.

With a benevolent price tag of $2 or less a pound, a bag of dry lentils delivers a huge nutritional bang for your buck. On top of protein (18 grams in a 1-cup cooked serving), the legumes provide huge amounts of fiber—about 16 grams in a cup of cooked lentils. That’s worth noting when you consider that most people struggle to meet their daily fiber requirements, which is at least 25 grams of fiber per day for women and 38 grams for men, or 14 grams for every 1,000 calories consumed.

Lentils also provide a laundry list of essential micronutrients including iron, phosphorus, thiamine, and folate. A recent investigation published in the journal Diabetes Care suggests that greater dietary folate intake is associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes.

How to add it to your plate: A bag of dry lentils will last you several meals. And unlike dried beans, lentils do not require a pre-soak before cooking. Simply simmer dried green or brown lentils in a pot of water until tender, about 20 minutes. Don’t overcook or they will turn mushy. Use them in soups, salads, chili, curries and veggie burgers. Lentils can also stand in for ground meat when making a Bolognese-style sauce for pasta night.

3. Millet

sweet millet porridge with dried fruits

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While other grains, like quinoa and farro, get all the press, inexpensive millet still largely flies under the culinary radar in America. But you can stock your pantry with this nutritious whole grain for a budget-friendly price: A 28-ounce bag will set you back only about $5. It might be even cheaper if purchased from bulk bins.

Long a staple grain in Asia and Africa, millet has a great corny flavor along with a range of useful nutrients for active bodies, including B vitamins and magnesium. One study in the journal Hypertension suggests that a greater intake of magnesium could have a positive effect on blood pressure numbers.

Not to be overlooked is that the grains supply the complex carbohydrates (20 grams in each ½-cup cooked) that cyclists need to power their rides. Millet is gluten-free, which makes it a good whole-grain carb option for those who need to steer clear of gluten.

How to add them to your plate: To prepare, simply simmer 1 cup millet in 2 cups water or vegetable broth and a couple of pinches salt until tender and the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, let stand covered for 5 minutes, and then fluff with a fork. Try mixing the cooked grains with chopped vegetables and a dressing for a healthy salad. Toss in cooked lentils for a more substantial main dish. Google “millet tabouleh” for a switch-up to using bulgur. Millet can also be made into porridge similar to oats.

4. Raisins

trail mix, raisins, cheap healthy foods

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If you are looking for a way to trim the cost of how you fuel your time on the saddle, consider low-cost raisins as a solid option. Calorie for calorie, they are certainly less expensive than packaged gels and chews. One study (albeit small) in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that raisins were just as effective as chews at helping people keep up their endurance without any noticeable differences in gastrointestinal issues.

Another investigation in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that when male and female athletes were fed 1 gram carbohydrate per kilogram body weight from either raisins or sports gel 45 minutes before a one-hour cycling test, there were no differences in performance. Raisins contain fast-acting carbs in the form of glucose and fructose that, like more expensive sport nutrition products including gels, can supply working muscles with a rapid energy source.

As additional food for thought: Raisins are a source of potassium, which is important for regulating water balance in the body and improving muscular contraction.

How to add them to your plate: If using raisins as your fuel source during rides you’ll want to eat about ½ cup for each hour of your ride to take in enough carbs. You can also use the parched grapes in homemade energy bars, balls, and trail mix. You can sprinkle them on yogurt, oatmeal, and salads, and also mix them into muffin batter to help meet overall carb needs. Finally, you can also toss raisins into salads, roasted vegetable sides, stews, and grain dishes.

5. Red Cabbage

red cabbage

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We all know the pain of swinging open the fridge door only to find a container of tender salad greens that have turned into expensive mush. Thankfully, a hearty head of less costly cabbage can go a long, long way. Not only will it last for weeks in the fridge before going rotten, but red cabbage has an impressive nutritional resume, including good amounts of dietary fiber, vitamin K, and vitamin C. It’s also a source of the same class of antioxidants you’ll find in blueberries called anthocyanins.

In fact, a 2023 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that the type of anthocyanins found in red cabbage are particularly effective at helping lower inflammation in the body and improving the gut microbiome. By acting as an antioxidant in the body, some research literature suggests that anthocyanins could help athletes better recover from workouts by lowering the degree of muscle damage.

How to add them to your plate: Thinly sliced raw red cabbage is a good addition to salads, slaws, stir-fries, burgers, and lunch sandwiches. Braised or grilled red cabbage is a great low-cost side dish. Also, try using whole cabbage leaves as a fresh alternative to tortillas when making tacos. Red cabbage is also worthy option for making inexpensive homemade sauerkraut.

Other Cheap, Healthy Foods

Add these other budget-friendly foods to your grocery cart to help get the nutrition you need while keeping your food bill from exploding.

  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Brown rice
  • Canned sardines
  • Eggs
  • Flaxseed
  • Liver
  • Peanuts
  • Potatoes
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Tofu
  • Whole chicken
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