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Which Healthy Foods Are Cheaper Than Junk Food?

I have worked hard to stay fit and understand the complex relationship between aging, nutrition, and exercise.


What Are Some Healthy Foods That Are Cheaper Than Junk Food?

Is it true that eating healthy is more expensive than eating junk? The nutrition community used to assume that this was the case, but startling research is casting doubt on this assumption. According to a major study by the UK's Institute of Economic Affairs, healthy foods are actually cheaper than junk foods, and the difference is more than just a few pennies. For the same amount of food by weight, the study found that healthy foods cost $2.58, while unhealthy foods cost $3.87. Add this up over the course of a year, and you will spend almost 600 extra dollars just to eat food that will shorten your life and make you feel terrible!

So why do so many people feel that healthy food costs more than junk food? The study suggests that it's mostly a matter of convenience. Processed, prepared meals are not as healthy as meals with whole foods, lean proteins, and unprocessed fruits and vegetables. They are also more expensive, but that doesn't seem to matter because they're also very convenient, so we keep eating them.

This article will offer you some real-world options for eating better, getting lean, and feeling better in general. You are what you eat, and if you eat junk food, you will feel like junk.

Processed foods are extremely expensive, especially when it comes down to the nutrient value.”

— Ciara Foy, nutritionist.


How to Use This Guide

This guide will suggest some cheap, healthy alternatives to junk food. For each affordable, healthy food alternative, this guide will tell you:

  • Ingredient/cost: Price of each ingredient
  • Servings: How many servings you will get out of each batch
  • Cost per serving: This is especially useful if you compare it to the expense of junk and processed food.
  • Macro-nutrient profile: A general report on the protein, carbohydrates and fat content of each item
  • Preparation time: This is often the thing that keeps people from eating healthy. But how long does it really take to make the change from expensive junk food to cheap healthy food? Here's where we discuss prep time and how you will need to adjust a little to healthier eating habits.

Hopefully this guide will help you think of ways to both save money and eat healthier.

Some of the healthiest, most inexpensive foods aren’t so glamorous. Beans and legumes, especially when bought dry and in bulk, cost next to nothing. The catch? They take time and some know-how to prepare. Instead, busy parents reach for the chicken nuggets.


A Short List of Affordable Healthy Food

Some wise options for good snacks and meals that are both healthy and cheap:

  • Green grapes (frozen is even better)
  • Deli sliced turkey or ham—look for specials
  • Eggs (hard-boiled or deviled)
  • Economical whole wheat bread
  • All vegetables
  • Some fruit—although some are expensive! Try bananas, red delicious apples, and cantaloupes.
  • Salted peanuts—these go great with a banana
  • Large containers of Greek yogurt (not cheap, but will last a long time)
  • Block (not sliced) cheese
  • Homemade pizza dough
  • Homemade granola
  • Homemade hummus
  • LaCroix or equivalent sparkling water in cans

1. Turkey Sandwiches for a Week

For about $13, you'll get five substantial turkey sandwiches that are each about 400 calories of lean protein and whole wheat. One will keep you full for a long time. Compare this to an unhealthy burger from a fast food joint—about the same price and the same calories, but no comparison in terms of ultra-processed materials, saturated fats, and salt.

All you need to do is take a few minutes in the morning to make a sandwich and put it in a baggie. Done.

Ingredients/cost: (all numbers approximate)

  • Pound of low-salt sliced turkey: $6
  • Loaf of whole wheat bread: $3
  • 5 leaves of lettuce: $1
  • 2 tomatoes: $2
  • Mayo and mustard (about): $1 worth
  • Total Expense: $13

Servings: 5–6 filling sandwiches

Cost per serving: About $2.00

Macro-nutrient profile: (A general report on the protein, carbohydrates and fat per serving)

  • Calories: about 300
  • Protein: 25 grams
  • Fat: about 6 grams
  • Carbohydrates: about 60 grams (mostly from high-fiber whole wheat)
  • Sugars: about 6 grams

Preparation time: How long does it take you to make a sandwich? Multiply that by 5 and you're done.

The trick to this, and to saving a lot of money and eating healthier in general, is to prepare your meals ahead and take them to work or school.


2. Beans and Rice to Go

For about a dollar per serving, you can have a very filling and satisfying lunch or dinner. That's pretty much impossible to beat at any restaurant, healthy or not. Beans and rice combine to make a nearly perfect amino acid profile, which means your body will welcome this food and immediately turn it into clean-burning carbohydrates that it can use for energy. You won't get diabetes, high blood pressure, or fat eating beans and rice like this.

Make a good-sized batch, divide it into servings and put it in baggies or tupperware, and you're good for a week. Pro tip: I often add in some cut-up broccoli, carrots, peppers, and other fresh vegetables.

Ingredients/cost: (all numbers approximate)

  • 2 cans of beans (I prefer black beans): $2
  • 2 cups of uncooked rice: $1
  • 1 tomato, cut up: $1
  • 1 onion, cut up: 50 cents
  • Herbs and spices (your call): 50 cents
  • Total Expense: $5

Servings: 8–10 meal-sized servings

Cost per serving: About 50 cents

Macro-nutrient profile: (A general report on the protein, carbohydrates and fat per serving)

  • Calories: about 250
  • Protein: 12 grams
  • Fat: about 6 grams
  • Carbohydrates: about 50 grams (mostly from high-fiber beans, but also from simple carbs in the rice)
  • Sugars: about 5 grams

Preparation time: This will take a little time, and you'll need to know how to make rice. But you can add all kinds of things to this basic dish, and it will still be cheaper and way better for you than any junk food out there.


3. Tuna Sandwiches for a Week

Of all the cheap healthy food options, this is one of the cheapest and healthiest. It doesn't get much cheaper and better for you than this old favorite. Tuna is a nearly perfect pure protein, and it has a little healthy fat in the mix as well. But it has zero carbs, so to give your body a good balanced carbohydrate/protein mix, you'll need to make it into a sandwich with some mayo and lettuce. But really that's it—a very simple, very filling meal that's cheaper than fast food and ten times better for you.

I always splurge and buy the good tuna: solid albacore (if you can't find albacore, fine, but make sure it's solid). It's not as cheap as chunk white, but it makes a lot more food because it's so much denser. Don't believe me? Buy a can of each and compare.

I also only ever buy tuna in water. Tuna in oil has an extra 100 calories of pure fat from the vegetable oil!

Ingredients/cost: (all numbers approximate)

  • 2 cans of solid tuna: about $5
  • Whole wheat bread: $3
  • Mayo: $1
  • Lettuce, spinach, etc.: $1
  • Total cost: about $10

Servings: 5–6 filling sandwiches

Cost per serving: About $2.00

Macro-nutrient profile: (A general report on the protein, carbohydrates and fat per serving)

  • Calories: about 300
  • Protein: 35 grams (tuna is almost pure protein)
  • Fat: about 10 grams (mostly in the mayo)
  • Carbohydrates: about 60 grams (mostly from high-fiber whole wheat)
  • Sugars: about 4 grams

Preparation time: How long does it take you to make a sandwich? Multiply that by 5 and you're done.

That's $10 for five seriously filling sandwiches. This is healthy food that's cheaper than fast food, and all it takes is a little prep in the kitchen. Bag them up and grab one as you're walking out the door.

Egg Salad Sandwiches

Really the same idea as tuna salad, only made with chopped hard-boiled eggs. More delicious than you may think, and definitely both healthy and cheaper than junk food.

4. Fruit Salad

This dish is not super-cheap, but it's also not too expensive and absolutely full of good stuff your body is begging you for. The cost and the recipe really depend on what kind of fruit you like, and even more on what kind of fruit is on sale. Some good options:

  • Berries
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Mangoes (essential, as far as I'm concerned)
  • Bananas (not my favorite, but you do you)
  • Melons
  • Oranges
  • Kiwi fruit

And so on—it's really all about finding fruit you like that's on sale at the moment. Once you have four or five of these, start chopping! Making fruit salad is pretty much a pain, but then you have it for days. And it's ALWAYS allowed, from a diet point of view.

Taste every fruit of every tree in the garden at least once. It is an insult to creation not to experience it fully. Temperance is wickedness.

— Stephen Fry

5. Hard-Boiled Eggs

Let's hear it for the humble hard-boiled! If you buy the cheaper size and brand, you can get eggs for about a dime apiece. Two eggs and a few whole-wheat crackers like Triscuits supply about 250 calories of protein, healthy fats, and fiber-rich whole wheat. And it will only set you back about 30 cents! This snack will keep you going for at least a couple of hours, and it's way cheaper and healthier than a bag of chips.

The only thing you really have to do is boil the eggs in advance and put them in the fridge. Not sure how to boil eggs? Here you go:


6. Nachos!

Okay, so this one isn't 100% "healthy." But it's still way better for you than a fast-food burger, or fries, or really anything on a fast-food menu. That's because these homemade nachos are not processed and full of artificial chemical flavors and fake textures.

These nachos are a really satisfying and healthier alternative to junk food that you can definitely afford. And it couldn't be easier to make.

Ingredients/cost: (all numbers approximate)

  • A big bag of tortilla chips (divided into one-serving baggies): $3
  • Shredded cheddar or other cheese from a big, cheap block: $3
  • 1 tomato, cut up: $1
  • 1 onion, cut up: 50 cents
  • Hot sauce/salsa (your call): 50 cents
  • Total Expense: $8

Servings: 6–8 servings

Cost per serving: About $1.00

Macro-nutrient profile: (A general report on the protein, carbohydrates and fat per serving)

  • Calories: about 300
  • Protein: 10 grams
  • Fat: about 15 grams
  • Carbohydrates: about 35 grams
  • Sugars: about 3 grams

Preparation time: Once you have your chips and your grated cheese and you have cut up your onions and tomatoes, you're done. Pop each serving into the fridge, and when you want nachos just put the cheese and everything else on the chips, microwave for 20–30 seconds, and you're ready. Add some sour cream if you have it!

Some Other Ideas to Play Around With

If you're determined to eat better and get healthy, you can. It can actually be cheaper to eat healthy food than junk food. Here are some general ideas for easy, cheap, healthy food:

  • Can of chicken soup with goldfish or other baked crackers
  • Apple or banana and a handful of mixed nuts
  • Sardines (in water) and Triscuits or other whole-wheat crackers
  • Microwave potato with broccoli and cheese
  • Turkey burgers (make in advance)
  • Chips and guacamole
  • Avocado toast

There are many many more ideas out there. Once you start preparing cheap healthy food in advance and eating it at work or at school, you will save money and feel better—and that's a pretty great deal.

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The following sources were consulted for this guide:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


hubber8893 on May 26, 2019:

I also think that the processed food loses its nutrition value. Thanks for sharing such a useful article

Jason Behm from Cebu, Philippines on December 18, 2018:

I also have that thought that healthy foods were expensive but thanks to your article. It is very informative and helpful.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 04, 2018:

Hello, Greenmind, thanks for contributing all these health-wise informative diet plans. It cost less and money saving tips to make these meals at home. One reason that people spent much one junk foods is not actually a result of convenience. It is that they don't want to make meals at home, but rather to show off how the pocket is strong. I detest it.

Making a healthy meal at home is wealth. Considering the small time spent to make a simple fruit salad for breakfast or for a snack, is nothing less than stretching the body muscles at home. This adds a plus to keep fit activities, that trims the figure. Thank you.

HealthDear on August 29, 2018:

Healthier, cheaper and Yummy options :)

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on August 27, 2018:

Thanks for the reminder. Sometimes we forget how good these simple standbys can be.