Cheap Food Guide: Creative Cooking Ideas for Inexpensive and Healthy Grocery Items

Cheap food is a priority for many people these days. Finding cheap food thatís actually healthy adds an entirely separate layer of logistics. I like to make it my mission to identify affordable items at the grocery store, and get as creative as I can to come up with recipes that use those items specifically. In fact, Iíve written a fair number of food-related feature posts over the years. This cheap food guide details a variety of things to do with different bargain food items, and includes choices for meat lovers, vegetarians, vegans and foodies of all sorts. What foods made the list?

1† Canned Clams

While I wouldnít base an entire weekly menu around them, buying canned clams in bulk at the warehouse store is an affordable seafood strategy that allows for things like seafood pasta sauce or hot clam dip when company stops by or we feel like a treat. A number of other items can be prepared with canned clams as well, such as stuffed mushrooms, savory fritters or a homespun chowder on a cold day. Canned clams are a low fat, sustainable and inexpensive crowd pleaser to keep on hand.

2† Brown Lentils

Frequently the red-headed stepchild of the family pantry, brown lentils are a money-saving staple with a great deal of flexibility. While Iíve done a roundup of tasty lentil recipes before, I didnít necessarily focus on brown lentils specifically. The truth is, theyíre quite flexible and the closest in color to actual meat if youíre looking for an unprocessed protein equivalent at home. Theyíre also one of the cheapest protein sources around. This article on how to use brown lentils creatively in the kitchen was developed as a comprehensive resource.

3† Canned Corn

A hearty addition to soups and a main ingredient in corn casserole, canned corn is a great cheap food item to have on hand in the cupboard. Frequently available in case lot sales at local grocery stores, it pays to have a few cans of this stuff on hand for things like traditional shepherdís pie, vegan Thai corn chowder or a fuss-free baked potato topper. This is a product that starts going on sale frequently in the fall, so be sure to stock up when the price is right.

4† Raisins

Shelf stable, versatile and packed with nutrition, these little bargain nuggets are a phenomenally-flexible ingredient to keep in the pantry. There are any number of raisin recipes and ideas available, from holiday sweet breads and salad toppers to a special-occasion ham sauce or homemade rum raisin ice cream. You can also mix them with nuts and other ingredients for a simple trail mix, or package them on their own to round out a healthy brown bag lunch.

5 ††Boxed Wine

We all deserve a treat occasionally, and red wine is recommended by many as a healthy beverage to enjoy with a meal when consumed in moderation. Purchasing it on tap is the most affordable way to go, and there are many ways to jazz up boxed wine for those who love to dine well and entertain on a budget. From sangria to spritzers, youíve got a wide range of options when it comes to enjoying wine affordably.

6† Canned Salmon

Full of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is a popular menu choice when it comes to incorporating healthy cheap food into the family meal plan. If youíre looking to keep it as affordable as possible, I think recipes using canned salmon are the best way to go. Itís also something you can store without a freezer, making it a great stock-up purchase for those occasional loss leader sales. Canned salmon is also available to buy in bulk at the warehouse store, making pantry stocking a breeze.

7 Frozen Spinach

Often overlooked as entertainment food fodder, frozen spinach actually provides a fairly diverse range of recipe options. Nutritious gnocchi, holiday pinwheel appetizers, stuffed shells Florentine and a variety of hot dips can be made with frozen chopped spinach, as well as Mediterranean omelets, homemade ravioli, savory quick breads and gourmet vegetarian pizza. Itís one of my favorite bargain produce items to lean on when pennies need pinching.

8† Cornmeal

Grilled polenta, jalapeno corn muffins, dinner waffles and a frugal bulk recipe for cornbread mix are just some of the cornmeal recipes available when you have this bargain beauty stored in your cupboard. Itís shelf stable, offers superior value and is one of those base ingredients that can produce a number of family favorites on the fly. Gluten-free households will also find this frugal ingredient helpful on the home front.

9† Black-Eyed Peas

Used in foods from Africa to the American South, and India to the Middle East, black-eyed peas are a budget shopperís best friend. Less than $2 per pound, they take less time to cook than most beans and pair well with a variety of different seasonings. One of my favorite ways to use them is in a black-eyed pea and vegetable soup. Using dried black-eyed peas, frozen mixed vegetables, tomato sauce and veggie stock with a few seasonings, I can put this in the crock pot after lunch and have a savory soup ready for dinner by late afternoon or early evening. Itís a recipe thatís cheap to prepare even when I use all organic ingredients, freezes well and makes a multitude of servings per batch.

10† Turkey

While I love leftover holiday turkey meals as much as the next person, itís my opinion that this poultry item can be prepared affordably throughout the year. Whether you stock them in your freezer from the winter sales, or just purchase them at the best price you can to prepare outside in a fryer or electric roaster during the summer, cooking a whole turkey is a great way to feed a crowd at any time. Pair it with side salads and baked beans for an outdoor event, or cook one ahead in the fall to slice up for Monte Carlo sandwich night. However you roll, this is a great way to get low-fat protein on the table without paying very much per pound.

11 Cabbage

Even at full price, cabbage is one of the cheapest grocery items out there. It lasts quite a while in the fridge, ranks well on the ANDI chart and has been touted as one of several helpful foods to fight cancer. So naturally, Iíve developed a list of cabbage recipes to have on hand. Iím all about the cheap stuff, and cabbage ranks high on that list for me. Peanut-lime coleslaw, vegetable lo mein and fried rice are some of my favorite ways to use green cabbage, and I make a head of red cabbage last quite a while as a stir fry accent and spinach salad ingredient.

12† Chicken Leg Quarters

Available at nearly any major grocery store for between five and ten bucks, the ten-pound bags of chicken leg quarters are one of the best bargains around for meat lovers. Whether youíre cooking them all at once to break down for burritos, casseroles and sandwich salads, or whipping up President James Monroeís favorite chicken pudding, these budget beauties are a great freezer supply to have on hand.

13† Potatoes

Potatoes are a penny pincherís dream. As low as ten cents per pound at certain times per year, they can be used for holiday side dishes, breakfast hash and more. Topping bars, homemade potato skins and barbecue foil packets are just some of the potato ideas that we incorporate at our house on a regular basis. For those who prefer something with a faster turnaround time, instant potatoes can easily be used in a pinch.

14 Canned Pumpkin

A super food worth getting excited about, pumpkin provides nutrition-packed goodness to a variety of food favorites. Having a number of canned pumpkin recipes on hand is a good idea, particularly when the Thanksgiving sales start here in the United States. From pumpkin ravioli and baked pumpkin kibbeh to a colorful autumn pumpkin pie latte, canned pumpkin can be used for some seriously elegant menu preparations. So if youíre thinking that pumpkin snack cake is your only option, think again.

15† Imitation Crab Meat

Every seafood lover on a budget has had it at some point. Imitation crab meat is an inexpensive fish item that can be used in savory appetizer cheesecakes, brunch omelets, and cheddar and crab dinner waffles. It can also be used as an unexpected ingredient in stuffed mushroom caps, paired with asparagus in a stuffed crepe or cut up to enjoy on top of a salad. So if youíre looking to save money on seafood, you might want to try a bit of this stuff when you sit down to plan your monthly menus.

16† Powdered Milk

If you only use milk for cooking, then why bother to waste money on the fresh stuff? Having powdered milk in the pantry keeps you prepared for last-minute hospitality emergencies like that bake sale tomorrow morning that junior forgot to tell you about until .† .† . um, now. Mix up a quart at a time during the holiday baking season, and consider preparing a large batch of fat free cream soup mix to store in a gallon jug at home. Youíll be glad you did when you need a quick white sauce or casserole binder.

17† Peanuts

At roughly two dollars per pound for these dry roasted delights, using peanuts to cook with just makes good financial sense. Salads, sweet treats and pad Thai topping are all ways I cook with peanuts regularly, and have even used them for protein in fried rice before. Of course they donít have to be in actual peanut form in order to use in food preparation. Some people cook with peanut butter as creatively as others do with pork products.

18† Ham

Speaking of pork products, using leftover cooked ham that you bought on sale is a popular choice for summer menu planning as well. Breakfast fried rice, Hawaiian pizza and spaghetti carbonara are all possible after youíve chopped up the extra and stored it in separate freezer containers. Itís also great for pasta salads, weekend omelets or homemade split pea soup in the fall.

19† Tortillas

Whether you make your own tortilla mix or purchase yours ready-made, there are a number of meal ideas for tortillas that you can whip up in a jiffy. Breakfast burritos, quesadillas and double-decker tacos are some of my favorites, along with simple pinwheel appetizers. I love tortillas for their affordability and convenience, and their overall fun factor keeps frugal from being a drag.

20† Block Mozzarella

Party trays, DIY string cheese and Middle-Eastern cocktail sandwiches can all be prepared affordably using block mozzarella. You can also save a few pizza pennies by buying it this way and shredding your own. These days, Iím not eating as much cheese as I used to, but Iíve always loved the fact that this particular type of cheese is low in fat and serves a multitude of meal purposes. Itís one of several budget items available at Costco for a good price, and makes dairy affordable for lunch-making moms on a budget.

21† Collard Greens

For two dollars at my favorite neighborhood grocery store, I can get a double pack of collard greens to cook at home. Promoted as a nutritional powerhouse by experts like Dr. Joel Fuhrman and others, collards grow perennially in certain climates, making them another source of free food from your yard should you choose to grow any. There are many different recipe ideas for collard greens out there, including collard wraps, sautťed collards and any number of collard soup recipes.

22† Bargain Beef

Iím not eating much meat these days, but still enjoy finding tasty ways to use bargain beef when the mood strikes me. Sliced steak dinner salads, burger and rice stuffed squash and beef and pepper stir fry are some of the areas where I will occasionally indulge. Being a beef lover doesnít have to mean dishing out the big bucks. There are plenty of ways to afford beef-based dinners for your family on a regular basis.

23† Pineapple

A thrifty tropical treat with loads of menu possibilities, pineapple is one of my favorite fruits to keep on hand. Some of my favorite inexpensive pineapple recipes include Polynesian pizza, grilled pineapple steaks, pineapple fried rice and homemade sorbet. Umm . . . yeah, and pina coladas. Did you really think Iíd leave those out?

24 Flax Seeds

The per-pound price of flax seeds is much less than Iíve ever paid for salmon or walnuts, and they offer a significantly comparable nutritional punch. They can be sprinkled in the batter of homemade baked goods, added to a breakfast smoothie and even mixed in with your morning oatmeal. Those who are exceptionally motivated can whip up anything from flax crackers to pizza crust using these seeds, and know that worrying about Omega-3 consumption is a thing of the past.

25† TVP

A versatile protein source you can store in the pantry, using TVP makes Meatless Monday meal preparation a snap. Some of the ways I use it most often are for spaghetti sauce, tacos, sloppy Joes and homemade chili. It sure beats the price on those store-bought vegetarian burger crumbles, and only requires a bit of Tamari, garlic powder and water to hydrate into a precisely similar end result. You can also use TVP for things like meatless meatballs, vegetarian meatloaf, or simply to stretch out other meats you are regularly cooking with.

26† Black Beans

Full of fiber and antioxidants, black beans are a big budget staple in my personal pantry. They cook quickly, and have a meaty texture that I enjoy. A prevalent ingredient in Caribbean food and other international cuisines, they can be used as an accent or the main event. Some of my favorite recipes for black beans include mango and black bean salsa, Southwest pizza and pumpkin-black bean soup.

27† Tofu

While tackling tofu can be tough for meat lovers, it is a popular and affordable protein source for vegans and vegetarians alike. In fact, itís one of my favorite bargain items at Whole Foods with their price on the 365 brand of organic tofu coming in at half that of those sold at grocery stores in my neighborhood. Tofu can be used for simple curry dishes, pad Thai and meatless stir fry dinners. Of course, those who are on a super strict budget may want to check out Nora Dunnís advice for making your own tofu.

28† Cauliflower

Full of cruciferous goodness and a long-lasting item in the produce drawer of my refrigerator, cauliflower is one my favorite frugal vegetables. If youíre worried about it being hum-drum, there are plenty of creative cauliflower recipes out there. Roasted, frittered, steamed or mashed, cauliflower is a tasty cancer-fighting powerhouse we all need to eat more of. If youíre not feeling energetic or creative, just cut some up in your next batch of vegetable soup. Itíll get the cruciferous job done with no fuss whatsoever.

29 †Chick Peas

From the Middle East to coastal Morocco, recipes for chick peas abound. Extremely flexible, chick peas can be used to create dips, dinner loaves, curries and casseroles. They can be also be ground into a flour to create several desserts and polenta-like food items. Chick peas are one of those foods that make buying organic food on a budget possible, coming in at less than two dollars a pound at my nearest bulk health food store. They also result in meals that are extremely satisfying so you wonít be left hungry later.

30 †Sunflower Seed Kernels

When it comes to cheap, meatless protein sources, sunflower seed kernels are seriously overlooked. Workable for anything from a raw vegan pate or hearty cheese ball to a gluten-free baking ingredient and salad add-in, they are one of my favorite things to stock in the pantry. Even the organic version only costs approximately two bucks per pound at Whole Foods, which means theyíre a great bargain shopping staple for people making organic groceries a priority.

31 †Bananas

Ranging from nineteen to seventy-nine cents a pound depending on the time of year, this fruit provides fiber, potassium and affordable nutrition to families around the world. For grocery shoppers on a budget, finding a wide variety of banana recipes is usually a huge priority. Use them in smoothies, baked goods, curry recipes and more.

32 Frozen Broccoli

In my opinion, frozen broccoli recipes are seriously overlooked when it comes to putting affordable, nutritious meals on the family table. Pasta salads, cream soups and even power-packed berry breakfast smoothies can be jazzed up with a bit of frozen chopped broccoli. Explore its use in some of your favorite family recipes and see how well you do.

33 Split Peas

When it comes to healthy cheap food that’s also convenient, I can’t recommend a collection of split pea recipes highly enough. Even the organic version is extremely affordable. And the fact that you don’t have to pre-soak and cook for hours like heavier beans? Score! Try them in homemade hummus, veggie patties, vegan split pea soup and more.

Clearly, cheap food can also be healthy. While it takes a bit more effort, it doesnít necessarily have to take hours to get healthy cheap food on the table. Figure out a few simple frugal menus your family doesnít mind eating and use these as your go-to items when time is tight. Other fun and frugal food article topics include alternative pizza sauces, gluten-free grocery staples, hearty meatless meals and plant-based diet tricks for carnivores.

More affordable food items will be added to this list as comprehensive resource articles related to those items become available. Check back regularly for new articles on your favorite inexpensive grocery items.

Photo Credits: Vegan Tacos image by I Love My Pit, Sprouted Lentil Burgers by Health Happy Home, Collard Wrap photo by Imallergic, Hummus by Bob Judge, Black Bean Salad with Skirt Steak by Permanently Scatterbrained, and Pumpkin Bread by Bucklava.

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