If it feels like eating clean costs more, well, it just might. A recent study in the journal Preventive Medicine found that people who picked more nutrient-rich foods ended up shelling out more at the grocery store on average. But according to Leanne Brown, author of the new cookbook and shopping guide Good & Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, you don’t have to break the bank buying broccoli.
And Brown would know: as part of an NYU food policy thesis, Brown looked at whether those who had only $4 a day grocery budget from SNAP, informally known as food stamps, could truly eat nutritious meals. Her conclusion: you absolutely can if you know what to look for.
Here, Brown shares 7 money-saving shopping and cooking strategies, plus 3 recipes—each costing less than $1.80 per serving—that prove budget eating can be seriously delicious.
1) Buy eggs.
Eggs are less expensive than most lean meats, but are just as high in complete protein. Even if you pay $5 to $6 per dozen for organic or pasture-raised varieties, that’s only 42 to 50 cents an egg. They’re also great multitaskers, meaning they won’t go to waste, as you can use them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Hard boil a few to keep on hand for a filling snack, turn them into a veggie-loaded frittata, fry a couple up and serve over a bowl of creamy polenta and sautéed greens. Other great multitasking foods that Brown recommends keeping on hand: brown rice, sweet and white potatoes, and a good whole-wheat bread.
2) Skip drinks.
Your body thrives best on water, not overpriced juices or “health” drinks, many which deliver a dose of sugar without filling you up. If you want something special, experiment with making your own fruit-infused water like these Sassy Water recipes.
3) Freeze more.
Whole grains and dried lentils are an inexpensive way to boost your dinner nutrition, but take time to prepare. Cut down on cooking time by making one big batch for the week then freezing the rest in separate containers. If you have the freezer space, you can also stock up on on-sale meats, which can save you some serious cash.
4) Slow cook.
Seek out tougher, less expensive grass-fed cuts of meat, like pork shoulder and beef chuck, and transform them into tender pulled pork or beef stroganoff in your slow cooker.
5) Vary your protein.
We don’t need large quantities of meat every day, so opt for plant-based sources now and then like beans, lentils, and tofu to save cash and experiment with new flavors. Tofu often gets pigeonholed as strictly vegetarian, but the truth is, it’s a total flavor sponge and grills up crispy and delicious when slathered with a good marinade. Even organic tofu will only run you about $3 per pound—compare that to organic chicken breasts, which can be three times that.
6) Bag your own.
Sure, pre-washed, bagged spinach and other mixed greens are convenient, but the packaging can actually double the price. Bag your own fresh greens instead, and buy other bulk foods. When in doubt, look at the unit price to see just how much money you’re saving.
7) Rescue wilted greens.
Try not to buy more quickly perishable produce than you can eat in a week. But if you do end up forgetting the kale in the back of the overloaded crisper drawer again, don’t toss it—floppy greens can still provide all of their nutritional glory and flavor in the right dishes. Bring them back to life by tossing them into soups, smoothies, egg scrambles, pastas, and stir-fries.
This delicious lovechild of the beef and veggie burger still packs great meaty flavor, but for fewer calories and a lot less money, thanks to inexpensive lentils.
3 c cooked lentils or beans
1 c finely chopped bell pepper or other vegetable
1 lb ground beef or other ground meat
1 egg (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. ROUGHLY mash the lentils with the back of a large spoon.
2. MIX the lentils, bell pepper, and ground beef with your hands in a large bowl. If you’re grilling, add an egg to keep the patties from crumbling. Season with salt and pepper and form into 8 patties.
3. PLACE a large skillet over medium-high heat (or fire up the grill, if you have one), and add the patties. Sear them until they’re dark brown on one side, about 5 minutes, then flip and do the same on the other side.
4. SERVE on toasted buns with your favorite condiments and fresh vegetables.
NUTRITION (per serving) 306 cal, 22 g pro, 38 g carb, 9 g fiber, 8 g sugars, 8 g fat, 2.5 g sat fat, 336 mg sodium
Spicy, Crunchy, Creamy Polenta
Polenta + vegetable + egg = comforting and delicious. You can also add a can of corn to the polenta for bursts of flavor; or frozen peas, scallions, olives, or green chiles if you’re feeling creative.
½ tsp salt, plus more to taste
½ c polenta or cornmeal
4 c fresh spinach or 1 cup thawed frozen spinach
3 cloves garlic
1 anchovy (optional)
1 Tbsp olive oil or butter
½ tsp chile flakes or 1 chopped fresh chile
Sprinkling of freshly grated Romano or Parmesan
Pepper, to taste
1. ADD 2 cups of water to a medium-size pot and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the salt, then turn the heat down to low and slowly pour in the polenta, stirring briskly with a wooden spoon as you pour. Once it’s smooth and thick, leave the spoon in the pot and place a lid on it, slightly askew, so that steam can escape.
2. LET the polenta cook while you prepare the rest of the meal, checking in occasionally to give it a stir. The total cooking time should be 25 to 30 minutes.
3. CHOP the spinach roughly meanwhile. Finely chop the garlic and anchovy, if using, and set aside.
4. PLACE a pan over medium heat and add half the olive oil. Let the pan heat up until it sizzles when you flick it with water. Add the garlic, anchovy, and chile flakes. Let them cook until you can smell them, about 1 minute. Add the spinach and toss with tongs until coated with the garlic mixture. Cook until the spinach is wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set aside.
5. WHEN the polenta is about 2 minutes from being done, start the eggs. Carefully wipe off the pan you just used, and place over medium heat. Add the remaining olive oil. When the oil is hot, crack the eggs into the pan and cover with a lid to steam them, 1 to 2 minutes. You’ll have sunny-side-up eggs with fully cooked whites.
6. SCOOP the polenta into two bowls. Add some Romano and salt and pepper to taste. Layer the spinach mixture over the polenta.
7. ONCE the whites have cooked, remove the eggs from the pan with a spatula and lay them over the spinach. Top with another sprinkling of cheese.
NUTRITION (per serving) 288 cal, 12 g pro, 33 g carb, 5 g fiber, 2 g sugars, 13.5 g fat, 3 g sat fat, 781 mg sodium
Tofu Hot Pot
Chinese cooking depends on the same general principles as Good and Cheap: Build bright flavors from key ingredients, and use lots of veggies with just a little meat or fish. You can use whatever vegetables you have around, and mushrooms help create an earthy broth.
1 Tbsp finely grated ginger
4 cloves garlic, finely grated
½ lb mushrooms, chopped
1 tsp chile paste
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 lb firm tofu
4 med carrots, chopped
4 scallions, white and green parts, separated and chopped
8 oz dried spaghetti, soba, or any Asian noodles
Handful of bean sprouts (optional)
1 lb chicken, pork, or beef instead of tofu
Handful of peanuts, chopped
Chile peppers, finely chopped
Sprinkling of chopped fresh cilantro
Kimchi, for topping
1 daikon radish, sliced, for topping
1. PLACE the grated ginger and garlic in a pot over medium heat. After a few seconds, once you start to smell the garlic, pour in 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to low. Add the mushrooms, chile paste, soy sauce, and toasted sesame oil. Place a lid on the pot and let simmer for 20 minutes.
2. CUT the tofu into 4 slices, then cut each slice into 8 squares.
3. ADD the tofu, carrots, and the white parts of the scallions to the broth. Cook until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes more.
4. ADD the noodles and boil until they soften. Check the package directions for specific cooking times.
5. TASTE the broth. If it isn’t salty enough, add a splash more soy sauce. Adjust the sesame oil and chile paste to your taste as well.
6. LADLE the soup into bowls. For a little crunch, top with the bean sprouts, if using, and the green parts of the scallions.
NUTRITION (per serving) 365 cal, 21 g pro, 56 g carb, 11 g fiber, 7 g sugars, 8.5 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 127 mg sodium