While the bounty of fresh, cheap produce found at grocery stores and farmers' markets in fall may be dwindling by the time the holidays roll around, there are still great deals on healthy food to be had. Hearty beans, antioxidant-rich pumpkin, and nutrient-packed cold-hardy greens top our list of the cheapest healthy foods for the holidays. Basing a week's meals around these ingredients ensures you'll have nutritious, seasonal meals that don't break the bank.
The following prices are based on listings from online grocers. (Grocery shopping shouldn't top your list of expenses! Learn how to go organic without busting your budget.)
Price: $1.59 a bunch
Kale and other dark leafy greens--think spinach, Swiss chard, and collards--offer some of the best nutritional bargains around. They're extremely low in calories but loaded with minerals such as manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron, as well as vitamins K, A, and C. "Dark leafy greens are nutrient stars," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Kale is a good choice in part because it's a milder option than chard or mustard greens, which can be earthy and bitter to the uninitiated. For a simple side dish that showcases the greens, sauté kale with garlic and onion, and season to taste with salt and pepper. For a surprisingly tasty snack, toss kale with olive oil and salt, and bake for 10 minutes at 350°F.
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Price: $3.29 for 18 ounces
The heart-health claims on certain cereal boxes might be overblown, but oatmeal is a filling whole grain powerhouse that can lower cholesterol levels and deliver more nutrition than boxed cereals made from processed grains. Research suggests that eating 1.5 cups of rolled oats daily can lower your cholesterol by 3 to 5%. "They're not a statin, but they're very filling and they affect cholesterol," says Liebman.
Cook oats and add fresh fruit and nuts for additional nutritional boosts. Drizzle on honey for sweetness or sprinkle in spices such as ground cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg during cooking.
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Price: $1.09 for 15.5 ounces
Beans--legumes such as garbanzo, black, cannellini, kidney, and pinto--are popular sources of cheap vegetarian protein and are extremely versatile in the kitchen. You might avoid beans on account of "wind" concerns, but most people adjust to beans in their diet in less than a week. In addition to being jam-packed with fiber, beans dole out essential minerals such as iron and magnesium, and healthy carbs alongside the protein.
Canned beans are conveniently precooked, so fortifying fall soups and chilies doesn't get much easier than dumping in a can of garbanzo or kidney beans. Ditch salty, processed refried beans on Mexican night and mix a cup of salsa with a can of pinto beans. Speaking of sodium, canned beans usually are cooked with salt, so look for low- or no-salt varieties because most Americans have too much salt in their diets.
More: Avoid sneaky supermarket tricks with your FREE "cheat sheet" and FREE trial issue of Prevention!
Price: $2.45 for 1 pound
Red lentils are by far the easiest dry bean to cook with because they cook fast, unlike most others. They have a high ratio of fiber, iron, and vegetarian protein, and they come dry, so they are even cheaper than canned beans and without any concerns about BPA. (Learn how this food container chemical could be hijacking your weight loss goals--and your health).
Make sure to rinse lentils before cooking to remove possible dust or debris. Red lentils usually cook in about 15 minutes, but soaking for an hour before preparing cuts cooking time by about 5 minutes. Whip up some red lentil curry by sautéing onion until browned, adding curry powder, water, and veggies such as broccoli and carrots. Serve with brown rice.
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Price: $1.79 for 2 pounds of carrots; $0.79 for a sweet potato
These two orange winter vegetable all-stars share more than just a color and a place at the holiday dinner table. Both are loaded with vitamin A and fiber to help digestion, especially at those holiday feasts. Both also share a reputation for being sweet, but as long as you don't add loads of brown sugar, they're perfectly nutritious additions to your diet.
Carrots and sweet potatoes pair well in the kitchen too. Try cooking both separately and mashing them together for an antioxidant-rich alternative to mashed potatoes. You'll reap vitamin K and lutein from the carrots, and vitamin C and potassium from the sweet potatoes. Boil chunks of each together in broth and blend in a food processor, adding a little sour cream to create a satisfying seasonal soup.
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Price: $5.29 for 16 ounces
Research that shows blueberries might have a protective effect on memory has neuroscientists popping these native North American berries, but you don't need a doctor's salary to afford them. Buying the berries frozen versus fresh means you save more than $6 a pound and you hardly lose any of the fiber, powerful antioxidants, vitamins A and C, and other nutrients. The low calorie-count--only 80 per cup--means you don't have to hold back.
Frozen blueberries are perfect for using in smoothies, and they also mix well into hot cereals. Cook the berries from frozen in a pot with ground cloves, cinnamon, and a little honey to make sauce you can serve with desserts or on plain yogurt.
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Price: $2.55 for 15 ounces
Most people see the big cans of pure pumpkin in grocery stores during the holidays and think of one thing--pumpkin pie. But a can of this orange puree is actually a super-convenient way to get your hands on a really cheap and nutritious vegetable that's hard to prepare in its fresh form. Like other orange veggies, such as sweet potatoes and carrots, pumpkin is rich in the carotenoids alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. Both are important for eye health among other benefits.
Move beyond pumpkin pie to get the benefits of the gourd without a ton of added sugar and fat. Canned pumpkin can be used to make delicious sauces for pasta or enchiladas (blend in chipotle chilies). It's also a great addition to muffins, breads, and desserts to make them moist and to create a carrot-cakelike flavor, while adding a dose of nutrition.
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Price: $3.19 for 1 pound
Most people don't think of these small nutritional superstars much past the end of the World Series--and that's too bad. They don't get the press that walnuts and other tree nuts do, but sunflower seeds are loaded with minerals--manganese, magnesium, zinc, folate, iron, and copper to name a few. Sunflower seeds are an especially good source of magnesium--a mineral in which 68% of Americans are deficient, according to a National Institutes of Health study. And they taste even better when you look at their low price compared with other nuts and seeds. Just watch your portions--they sport a hefty calorie count.
Eating sunflower seeds in the shell like a baseball player is a great snack, but the salt content in most brands can be a little much. Try mixing 1/4 cup of shelled, unsalted seeds into your morning oatmeal or finely chop or grind the seeds and mix with a little flour to make a nutty crust for fish or meat.
More: Sign up for the Eat This, Not That! Jumpstart Plan and learn what calorie bombs to dodge at popular grocery stores and restaurants
Price: $1.79 for 14.5 ounces
Tomatoes have been shown to lower your risk of prostate cancer, but maybe their greatest asset is flavor. Not only are they nutritious and delicious, but also inexpensive--you can get nearly a pound of this versatile ingredient for less than $2 when you buy canned. Choose the unsalted type so the ruby fruit's potassium count can help balance out their excess sodium. If you're concerned about potential BPA in cans, try a brand such as Pomi that comes in a box for a little extra cost.
Use crushed or chopped tomatoes as a base for pasta sauces, chilies, and curries. Mix with chopped onion, jalapeno, cilantro, and a splash of vinegar for a superior (and far cheaper) version of those ketchupy supermarket salsas.
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Price: $1.95 for 32 ounces
It's hard to beat the combination of nutrition, taste, and value in this nutty whole grain. Brown rice is just an unhulled version of the more common white rice, and by removing the refining process, you get more vitamin E, fiber, and B vitamins. Rice bran oil, found in the part of brown rice removed to make white rice, has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 7%.
The only drawback to brown rice versus its paler relative is the longer cooking time (brown rice usually takes about 45 minutes to cook versus white's 15 minutes). Soak brown rice for an hour or more before cooking (you can even soak it overnight) to significantly cut down the wait--just remember that you won't need as much water when you finally cook it. Serve plain cooked rice with bean-based, hearty fall curries and chilies for a fiber- and flavor-rich main dish. Make "fried" rice by stir-frying veggies and meat on high heat, then adding cold leftover brown rice and soy sauce.
Next up: 8 Smart Swaps for Meatless Monday