“Sweet potatoes are packed with vitamins. See more vegetables pictures.Ryan Harvey Photography/Digital Vision/Getty Images
If you’ve been to the grocery store lately, you know it’s getting harder and harder to eat healthy on a budget. With food prices on their way up, nutrition is starting to seem like something of a luxury.
We all need certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients for good health, and if you know where to look, they’re actually not that hard to come by on the cheap. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans can supply dozens of nutrients, including the all-important vitamins that keep us going strong, for a very manageable cost.
Not all whole foods are affordable these days, of course, but some are still very much within reach. Here, we’ve git five of the foods that give you a very large supply of vitamins for a very small supply of cash.
Up first, buy a bag for a buck …
- Sweet Potatoes
Serving size: ¼ cup
Approximate price per serving: $0.10
Legumes in general are going to be a go-to source for cheap nutrients, and lentils are a particularly good example of what this food has to offer. A 4-ounce serving of this inexpensive legume provides almost all of the folate (a.k.a. vitamin B9) our bodies need in a day — 90 percent of the recommended daily allowance. Folate helps our bodies form red blood cells and break down proteins, and is essential for carrying out the most basic cellular operations. Lentils also boast about 25 percent of the RDA for thiamin, or vitamin B1; this one helps our bodies break down carbohydrates for their stored energy.
More huge benefits? Lentils are an excellent source of dietary fiber, manganese, iron, vegetarian protein and low-glycemic-index carbohydrates. They’re a staple in Indian cuisine and lend themselves well to all sorts of soups, stews, side dishes and even casseroles.
Hearty Lentil Stew
Mediterranean Lentil Soup
Up next: morning, noon or night …
Don’t like ’em?
Other good sources of folate include bean sprouts, soybeans and sunflower seeds.
Serving size: 1 large
Approximate price per serving: $0.12
Versatile and super-easy to prepare, eggs make a great low-cost, vitamin-rich ingredient. At breakfast, lunch or dinner, a single egg offers a nice supply of the B vitamins 2, 12 and 5 (14 percent, 10 percent and 8 percent of RDA, respectively), all of which play roles in extracting energy from food and forming essential blood structures. You’ll also be consuming about 7 percent of your vitamin D for the day. If you buy vitamin-D-enriched eggs, which are common these days but do often cost a bit more, that number goes way up.
Egg-based dishes like omelets and quiches, which contain about two eggs per serving, are especially effective meals for meeting your daily allowance of B vitamins. But keep in mind that egg-white-only dishes don’t count: These vitamins are in the yolk.
Speaking of B vitamins, eggs also supply a substantial amount of choline. Choline is not a vitamin in the true sense but behaves similarly to B vitamins (and is often considered an honorary member of that family), facilitating all sorts of chemical reactions in the body. This one appears to be especially important to the nervous system.
Crustless Southwestern Quiche
Up next: lean, green and leafy …
Don’t like ’em?
If you’re not a fan of eggs, try avocado, liver, or yogurt for a nice dose of the B vitamins 2 and 12.
Serving size: 1 cup (cooked)
Approximate price per serving: $0.17
If you love spinach, you’re in luck: It’s one of the most vitamin-rich foods in the produce section, and at less than 20 cents per serving, it’s easy to work into your food budget. The laundry list of vitamins found in good supply in spinach includes:
Vitamin K: 1,100 percent
Vitamin A: 380 percent
Vitamin B9: 65 percent
Vitamin C: 30 percent
Vitamin B2: 25 percent
Vitamin B6: 23 percent
Vitamin E: 20 percent
Vitamin B1: 12 percent
Of the vitamins in spinach, you’re getting even more than you need of K, which is necessary for blood to clot and for maintaining healthy bones, and A, which helps your eyes function properly, among other benefits.
With one-third of the iron you need, too, and calcium, protein, and fiber, you could almost live on this bright-green, leafy vegetable. Remember that a serving is one cup cooked; if you’re eating it raw, double or triple that cup for a good dose of your daily vitamins.
Wilted Spinach Mandarin
Spinach Pasta Salad
Next, a take-along (or eat at home) option …
Don’t like it?
Besides spinach, good vitamin-K sources include kale, broccoli rabe, and asparagus.
Serving size: 1 large
Approximate price per serving: $0.40
Let’s face it, fruit isn’t cheap these days. And while some of the more expensive kinds, like raspberries and blueberries, are also some of the most nutrient-rich, you can find plenty of good stuff in the more affordable varieties, too. Take the sweet, juicy orange.
One large orange (or a small glass of its juice) has more than 100 percent of the vitamin C you need for the day â€“ necessary for collagen formation, healthy teeth and bones and iron absorption (and while it hasn’t yet been proven, it may also help to eliminate dangerous "free radicals"), which makes for a very well-spent 40 cents.
That orange also provides a decent amount of B9 (folate, 10 percent) and small amounts of vitamins B1 and A.
Orange Ginger Seafood
Next, the vibrant version of an old favorite …
Don’t like ’em?
For vitamin C without the orange, look to tomatoes, broccoli, and carrots.
1. Sweet Potatoes
Serving size: 1 medium
Approximate price per serving: $0.50
They’re not just for Thanksgiving! The sweet potato is a healthier version of the ever-present white potato, and you can do with it pretty much anything you can with its less-colorful buddy: Bake it, mash it, cube it into stews or cut it into fries.
In one medium-size sweet potato, you’re getting more than two-and-a-half times your daily supply of vitamin A (actually carotenoids, which your body turns into vitamin A), which helps maintain eye health; almost a third of your vitamin C, which your body uses to form collagen; and more than a tenth of your vitamin B6, which facilitates chemical reactions throughout the body (especially involving proteins) and helps to form neurotransmitters.
You’ll also find manganese and dietary fiber in this delicious, starchy root.
Sweet Potato Stew
Sweet Potato Biscuits
Spirited Sweet Potato Casserole
Even with relatively affordable foods, it can’t help to look for the real deals. One of the easiest ways to get healthy foods for less is to simply make sure you buy in season, when there’s the greatest supply of the food and it’s shipping from nearby. Remember, too, that some stores sell produce in money-saving bulk packages, which can really reduce the per-serving cost if (and only if) you use all of it. A huge bag of oranges saves you nothing if it goes bad on the counter.
For more information on healthy eating, vitamins and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Don’t like ’em?
Liver, carrots and dried apricots are also good sources of vitamin A or carotenoids.
Lots More Information
- 5 Great Cheap Meals for Large Families
- 5 Staples for Easy Low-fat Dinners
- 5 Ways to Eat Ramen for Dinner
More Great Links
- FDA: Fortify Your Knowledge About Vitamins http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm118079.htm
- SELF Nutrition Data: Nutrient Search http://nutritiondata.self.com/tools/nutrient-search
- USDA National Nutrient Database http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/
- 25 Vitamin-Rich Foods You Should Be Eating. Reader’s Digest. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.rd.com/slideshows/25-vitaminrich-foods-you-should-be-eating/
- Magee, Elaine. "10 Healthy Foods Under $1." WebMD. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/diet/guide/10-healthy-foods-under-1-dollar?page=1
- Magee, Elaine. "Cheap and Healthy: 15 Nutritious Foods for About $2." (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cheap-healthy-15-nutritious-foods-about-2-dollars?page=1
- Folate (Folicin, Folic Acid). Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5553.html
- Eggs, whole, raw, fresh. SELF Nutrition Data. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/dairy-and-egg-products/111/2
- Lentils, mature seeds, cooked, boiled without salt. SELF Nutrition Data. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4338/2
- Spinach, raw. SELF Nutrition Data. (Nov. 1, 2011) http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2626/2
- Sweet potato, cooked, baked in skin, without salt. SELF. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2667/2
- The World’s Healthiest Foods (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.whfoods.com/foodstoc.php
- Zelman, Kathleen M. 10 Everyday Super Foods. Nutrition & Diet. WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/diet/guide/10-everyday-super-foods?page=2