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Maximize Nutrition, Minimize Cost: A Guide to Eating Healthy

Maximize Nutrition, Minimize Cost: A Guide to Eating Healthy

The U.S. economy may be on the mend, but for many Americans, the last five years were rough on our wallets.

Forget for a second the crippling anxiety we get from looking at gas prices, rent or mortgages, student loans, health costs, and any other litany of bills. What about basic needs like healthy food? That’s pretty costly, too. And here’s the kicker: Unhealthy meals, such as fast food or prepackaged dinners, cost less.

Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture published findings from a study that stated that "moderation foods" — those high in calories, saturated fats, and added sugars — cost less per calorie than low-calorie fruits and vegetables. In short, unhealthy foods cost less than healthy ones, so people with tight budgets are less likely to eat well.

A tight budget doesn’t mean that your health has to suffer. Let’s take a look at some ways to eat healthy without breaking the bank:

The Three P's

As we’ve found with most things in life, having a game plan helps reduce the likelihood of straying from our goals. The same can be said for food on a budget, especially using the USDA’s three P’s: plan, purchase, prepare.

This means establishing a weekly budget for food; planning out meals that are easy, nutritious, and won’t cost a lot; looking for sales or coupons; purchasing groceries when you’re not hungry to avoid splurging; buying in bulk for cost savings; and preparing meals ahead of time (like using a slow cooker set before school or work in the morning). Cook in bulk, freeze excess food, and stretch those foods out by recycling yesterday’s chicken salad into tonight’s taco dinner.

Choose wisely

Fruits and vegetables are low in calories but don’t have to be expensive. You can reduce the cost by choosing in-season produce, items that aren’t organic (organic = $$$) and preparing them in enzyme-rich raw form to maximize nutritional benefits.

Buy this, not that

Small changes really do go a long way when it comes to healthy eating for the budget-conscious eater. Consuming milk or water is much healthier than sugary juices or sodas, despite your grandma’s complaint about the price of milk, which still is less than those added-sugar drinks.

Likewise, pantry items, such as dried beans and whole-grain rice, still keep well for a long amount of time, but without the added sodium of processed counterparts, such as canned vegetables or instant mashed potatoes. Plus, beans are great protein and can be substituted for a meat. Finally, speaking of meat, purchasing a whole chicken instead of individual thighs, breasts, and legs also will reduce your grocery bill.

— Laura Van Wert, HellaWella

More From HellaWella:

• Foods to keep in your kitchen for no-cook summer meals

• 5 signs you might be addicted to food

• Fill up without filling out: How to feel more satisfied with less food

• 6 foods that will keep your eyes healthy

• 7 best (and FREE!) healthy eating apps for your smartphone

10 Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget

Even when you know what healthy foods to choose, being able to pay for them can be hard, especially if you are on a fixed income. Start by deciding how much you can afford to spend on food.

There are websites that can help you plan a food budget. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture supports Iowa State University’s Spend Smart-Eat Smart. This website also has inexpensive recipes based on the Dietary Guidelines.

Once you have a budget, find store ads in the newspaper or grocery store websites to see what is on sale. Try to plan some meals around featured items and pick up some extra canned goods or staples that are on sale. And check the expiration or use-by date. A product might be on sale because it is almost out of date. Choose items with dates farthest in the future.

While shopping, make use of these budget-wise 10 tips.

Read and share this infographic to learn more about lifestyle changes you can make today for healthier aging.

Cutting Calories

Once you start looking, you can find ways to cut calories for your meals, snacks, and even beverages. Here are some examples to get you started.
Eat More, Weigh Less?
Eating fewer calories doesn&rsquot necessarily mean eating less food. To be able to cut calories without eating less and feeling hungry, you need to replace some higher calorie foods with foods that are lower in calories and fill you up. In general, these foods contain a lot of water and are high in fiber.

Rethink Your Drink
Most people try to reduce their calorie intake by focusing on food, but another way to cut calories may be to change what you drink. You may find that you&rsquore consuming quite a few calories just in the beverages you have each day. Find out how you can make better drink choices to reduce your calorie intake.

You may find that your portion sizes are leading you to eat more calories than you realize. Research shows that people unintentionally consume more calories when faced with larger portions. This can mean excessive calorie intake, especially when eating high-calorie foods.

How to Use Fruits and Vegetables to Help Manage Your Weight
Learn about fruits and vegetables and their role in your weight management plan. Tips to cut calories by substituting fruits and vegetables are included with meal-by-meal examples. You will also find snack ideas that are 100 calories or less. With these helpful tips, you will soon be on your way to adding more fruits and vegetables into your healthy eating plan.

How to Use SNAP

Using your EBT card itself is pretty simple — much more straightforward than the old paper stamps. However, you can expect a bit of a learning curve as you figure out where you can use it and what you can use it for. There are strict rules about what SNAP does and doesn’t cover, and the supermarket checkout line isn’t the best place to discover which products are off-limits.

Using Your EBT Card

Each month, the government automatically transfers your SNAP benefits for the month onto your EBT card. It works just like a debit card: You swipe the magnetic strip through the store’s card reader, type in your personal identification number (PIN), and the money comes directly out of your account. Your PIN protects your account so no one else can steal your EBT card and use your benefits. Keep this PIN a secret just as you would with the PIN for your debit or ATM card.

You can use your EBT card at most food stores as long as they have a card reader. If you’re not sure where you can use your card, you can search the USDA site to find retailers in your area that accept it. In many areas, you can use your card at farmers markets as well. Most restaurants cannot accept SNAP benefits, although in some areas, restaurants are allowed to take them from people who are elderly, homeless, or disabled.

After you buy groceries with your EBT card, there is a line on your receipt showing how much of your monthly SNAP benefit you spent and how much you have left. Keeping these receipts helps you track how much you have left in your SNAP account to get through the rest of the month.

Foods You Can Purchase With SNAP

You can use your SNAP benefits to purchase any type of groceries for your household. That includes not only healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, but also junk food, such as soda pop and potato chips, and luxury foods, like steak or seafood. As long as it’s considered a food item, it’s allowed.

You can also use SNAP benefits to buy seeds or plants for your home vegetable garden. Doing so can stretch your benefits much further since spending $3 on a single tomato plant in the spring can give you many pounds of tomatoes in the fall, which could cost $3 a pound if you bought them at the store. However, it also means a delay of several months between spending your SNAP benefits and actually getting to eat the food. If you only have enough money to feed your family in April, you can’t afford to spend it on a plant that won’t feed your family until September, even if it can save you money in the long term.

Products You Can’t Purchase With SNAP

Not everything sold at a grocery store counts as groceries under SNAP. You can’t use your SNAP benefits to buy:

  • Alcohol. Alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, and liquor, aren’t considered food under the SNAP program. You can still buy alcohol with your own money — you just can’t spend your SNAP benefits on it.
  • Nonfood Items. You can’t spend SNAP benefits on anything that isn’t food. That includes cigarettes, other tobacco products, soap, toothpaste, paper products, household supplies, medicines, and pet food.
  • Prepared Foods. You can’t buy any hot foods, such as a rotisserie chicken, with SNAP benefits. You also can’t use SNAP for any food you eat in the store, such a prepared meal at a store that has a cafeteria section.
  • Supplements. You can’t use SNAP to buy vitamins or other supplements. Energy drinks are OK as long as they have a nutrition facts label, but if they have a supplement facts label instead, they’re not allowed.
  • Live Animals. You can’t use SNAP to buy live animals, such as a chicken. However, live fish, including lobsters and other shellfish, are allowed.

Some items sold in stores, such as gift baskets, contain a mixture of food and nonfood items. You can buy these with SNAP benefits only if food items account for at least 50% of the purchase price. The same rule applies to birthday cakes that have nonedible decorations.

Pro tip: Before you head to the grocery store, make sure you download the Fetch Rewards or Ibotta app. Scan your grocery receipts and you can earn cash back or gift cards from the items you purchase.

Raw or Cooked?

Whether raw or cooked food is healthier is one of the heated (ha!) debates in the vegan community. I’m happy to offer the definitive answer: Yes.

Some foods are more nutritious in their raw state, while others are better for us after having their proteins denatured by heat. For this discussion, we’ll stick to high-level principles. (If you want a deep dive on the topic, click here.)


One of the most powerful cancer-preventing and cancer-fighting nutrients is sulforaphane, which you can get from raw cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and the heavyweight sulforaphane champion, broccoli sprouts. To activate the sulforaphane, the veggies’ cell walls must be broken, either by cutting or chewing.

So that does mean you should never eat steamed broccoli or stir-fried cabbage? Not at all. Here are a few hacks that can get your cooked cruciferous friends’ sulforaphane levels to rival their raw state. First, you can sprinkle some powdered mustard seeds on your cooked broccoli. Even a small amount activates the sulforaphane. Second, you can combine your cooked crucifers with a little shredded raw cabbage. Third, if you plan ahead, you can perform Dr. Greger’s “hack and hold” technique of cutting the veggies 40 minutes or more before cooking, after which you can heat them to your heart’s content without destroying the sulforaphane. And fourth, you can mix a few raw arugula leaves into your cooked (cabbage family) veggies.


Foods high in water-soluble B vitamins and vitamin C, like leafy greens, broccoli, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, will retain the most nutrients when eaten raw or added at the very end of cooking. Heat will draw out the water from these fruits and veggies, and with that water, many of the water-soluble vitamins. A 2017 study out of Korea found that boiled and steamed chard retained absolutely no vitamin C. Zero. So if you do cook your greens and other B- and C-rich foods, do so in a soup or stew, or save the broth or water for later use. Don’t pour your vitamins down the drain.

On the other hand, fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K are best eaten cooked. These nutrients actually stabilize when cooked, and in some cases, become more bioavailable.

4. Cut down on saturated fat and sugar

Saturated fat

You need some fat in your diet, but it's important to pay attention to the amount and type of fat you're eating.

There are 2 main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which increases your risk of developing heart disease.

On average, men should have no more than 30g of saturated fat a day. On average, women should have no more than 20g of saturated fat a day.

Children under the age of 11 should have less saturated fat than adults, but a low-fat diet is not suitable for children under 5.

Saturated fat is found in many foods, such as:

  • fatty cuts of meat
  • sausages
  • butter
  • hard cheese
  • cream
  • cakes
  • biscuits
  • lard
  • pies

Try to cut down on your saturated fat intake and choose foods that contain unsaturated fats instead, such as vegetable oils and spreads, oily fish and avocados.

For a healthier choice, use a small amount of vegetable or olive oil, or reduced-fat spread instead of butter, lard or ghee.

When you're having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat.

All types of fat are high in energy, so they should only be eaten in small amounts.


Regularly consuming foods and drinks high in sugar increases your risk of obesity and tooth decay.

Sugary foods and drinks are often high in energy (measured in kilojoules or calories), and if consumed too often can contribute to weight gain. They can also cause tooth decay, especially if eaten between meals.

Free sugars are any sugars added to foods or drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices and smoothies.

This is the type of sugar you should be cutting down on, rather than the sugar found in fruit and milk.

Many packaged foods and drinks contain surprisingly high amounts of free sugars.

Free sugars are found in many foods, such as:

  • sugary fizzy drinks
  • sugary breakfast cereals
  • cakes
  • biscuits
  • pastries and puddings
  • sweets and chocolate
  • alcoholic drinks

Food labels can help. Use them to check how much sugar foods contain.

More than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g means the food is high in sugar, while 5g of total sugars or less per 100g means the food is low in sugar.

Eating healthier: Exploring nutrition information for healthier recipe recommendation

We propose a healthy recipe recommendation framework (NutRec), which first builds a healthy pseudo-recipe considering the nutritional values and then scans the recipe dataset for items resembling the pseudo-recipe. Our proposed NutRec relies not only on the relations between the ingredients themselves but also on those of their quantities, which ultimately dictate the healthiness of a recipe. To the best of our knowledge, no prior study has incorporated these features.

The pseudo-recipe is a list of ingredients with their quantities, and the nutritional values of the pseudo-recipe should match the predefined targets as best as possible. To generate the pseudo-recipe, we first propose an embedding-based ingredient predictor, which embeds all the ingredients into a latent space and predicts the supplemented ingredients based on the distances of ingredient representations we then propose an amount predictor to compute the quantities of the supplemented ingredients.

We conduct extensive experiments with two real recipe datasets, and the experimental results confirm the superiority of our methods over the baselines. To facilitate the community research, we have publicly released the datasets.

3 Steps you can take to stay healthy during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

1. Minimize trips to the supermarket during the pandemic and eat healthy.

Before you shop for Coronavirus preparations…

Plan ahead. Visualize breakfast, lunch, and dinner for at least 5 days. What will you serve? What do you need? Consider the foods your family likes, your food preparation methods, interests and skills, and the time and energy you will have for preparing meals. Working from home may not mean there is more time to cook—especially if you are now responsible for teaching your kids and doing the work your employer expects.

Have children at home? Include children in meal planning, preparation, and clean up while teaching them writing, math, reading, and science.

  • Reading/Writing: Ask your kids to make a list of what’s in the pantry and refrigerator. Then, have them look through cookbooks or online recipes sites to find meals and snacks that use up what is on hand. Have them share their breakfast, lunch, or dinner meal ideas.
  • Math: Find math in measuring spoons and cups, counting out numbers of ingredients, taking stock of pantry items, or planning the time it will take to prepare, cook, eat, and clean up a meal.
  • Science: Get kids involved in baking bread, cooking an egg, or creating a homemade salad dressing—then, search the internet to discover the science behind why ingredients change when they are combined, heated, or blended

Think nutrition. The healthiest meals emphasize whole grains, vegetables, and fruits—serve them in the greatest amounts. Meat portions should be smaller—this will save money and help keep dietary saturated fat in check.

Make a shopping list—and use it! You’ll be less like to forget items or buy impulse items.

Stock up on nutrition-packed foods that will stay fresh for a week or longer.

  • Breads—corn tortillas, whole grain English muffins, bagels, breads, wraps, frozen whole wheat waffles
  • Grains—instant oatmeal, quick cooking pasta, frozen brown rice, couscous, refrigerated pizza crust
  • Fruits—sturdy fresh fruit (apples, citrus), dried, plain frozen, canned in juice or water
  • Vegetables—sturdy fresh veggies (celery, broccoli, onions, potatoes), plain frozen, low sodium canned, sun-dried
  • Sauces—tomato pasta sauce, salsa
  • Soups & Broths—canned, frozen, shelf-stable cartons
  • 100% Juice—refrigerated, frozen, canned, boxed
  • Milk—fresh, canned, shelf-stable packages
  • Eggs—fresh eggs, egg whites in cartons
  • Cheese—sliced, cubed, shredded, crumbled, grated hard cheese
  • Beans/Legumes—canned beans (black beans, chickpeas), dry beans
  • Nuts and seeds—bagged, canned, nut butters
  • Chicken—frozen or canned
  • Seafood—frozen ready-to-cook fish fillets, frozen shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, and sardines
  • Beef—pre-made frozen lean ground patties or meatballs
  • Flavorings—add zing with dried herbs & spices, vinegars, mustard, hot/steak sauces, lemon/lime juice, light dressings, honey, Greek yogurt

Go easy on the frozen dinners—most are high in sodium, fat, and calories.

Limit purchases of tempting foods like chips, sodas, cookies, and ice cream. They are high in empty calories and run up your grocery bill.

Keep costs down—consider low cost alternatives. Instead of buying ready-made hummus, pureed a drained can of chickpeas to make your own. Try a meatless meal, like chili with beans instead of beef. If fresh fruits and veggies are too costly—remember, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables provide the same nutrients as fresh. Best bets are plain frozen veggies and fruits. Go for low sodium canned veggies and fruits canned in juice or water—if these are in short supply, buy regular canned fruits and veggies—drain and rinse before use.

Think about friends and neighbors, especially older adults or those with health conditions. Could you save them a trip to the grocery store?

Try online shopping—it will save you time and let you keep your social distance. Be sure to play ahead, many stores need a day or two from order to delivery or pickup.

While at the supermarket during the Coronavirus pandemic…

Use a disinfecting wipe—wipe your hands and grocery cart handle, then put the wipe in the trash.

Prepared for the unexpected—supermarkets are running low on many items. Be sure to take your own bags. Be ready with a back-up plan if an ingredient you need is unavailable.

Keep the less fortunate in mind—contribute to local pantries and soup kitchens now. Then, when it is all over—donate extra food you stocked up on that is still fresh and safe to eat.

Use contactless payment or credit cards. If you use the payment keypad, tap the buttons and screen with your knuckle—then use hand sanitizer after completing your payment.

2. Eat out safely during the Coronavirus pandemic with restaurant curfews

If you want to have take-out meals, take the food home right away and eat it while it is hot. Store leftovers safely—wrap tightly and refrigerate any dishes with meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products—be sure to reheat these leftovers thoroughly before eating.

Make eating together at home a positive experience

Whether it is homemade or takeout, eating more meals at home is a new routine for many families. Keep the stress down by making mealtime fun.

  • Get the family involved—kids can help set the table, pour the water, make the salad, or grate the cheese. Make mealtimes a family affair.
  • Try some new recipes—if you have never made homemade pizza, roasted a whole chicken, or cooked meatballs from scratch—now is a good time to try! There are lots of great recipes on the internet! Look for those that call for only a few ingredients and use common kitchen tools.
  • Reconnect with the family—eat together at the table or spread a blanket on the floor and have an indoor picnic. Be sure to separate mealtime and TV time—watching while eating makes it too easy to pay attention to TV and not your food, so you are likely to overeat. Wonder what to talk about at mealtime? Chat about things you will do this summer, tell jokes—just keep the conversation upbeat and fun.

3. Think Positive! Mindset is vital to getting through this pandemic physically and mentally healthy.

  • Practice positive stress management strategies. Walk the dog, call a friend, soak in the tub, or cuddle your kids. Skip the alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
  • Stick with your routine as much as you can. Go to bed and get up in the morning on your usual schedule. Eat meals at regular times. Find ways to exercise away from the gym—do yoga in the living room, trim the hedge, have a scavenger hunt in the backyard with your kids, or just toss a ball or play tag as a family.
  • Manage boredom. Stay busy and engaged—resist hanging around the fridge or mindlessly watching TV. Enjoy your hobbies, read, cook, make videos with your kids, start a scrapbook, help your kids with their virtual schoolwork, and stay in touch with family, friends, and colleagues.

When you do go out, wash your hands before you leave home and as soon as you return.

Have a dry cough? Feeling feverish? Hard time breathing? Don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider for further instructions.

We are all in facing this together. Let’s make the most of it to come out stronger and wiser and ready to enjoy all the wonderful times to come!

Related Content:

After the publication of this article, contributor Jaclyn Abbot, PhD, RD, participated in a related interview with CNN’s New Day Weekend broadcast on Sunday, March 22. Read the transcript of the segment here.

*Written by American Society for Nutrition members:
Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, PhD, RD, FAND, Kaitlyn Eck, PhD, RD, and Jaclyn Maurer Abbot, PhD, RD
Nutritional Sciences Department, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Rotisserie Chicken & Vegetables

Don&rsquot sleep on the rotisserie chickens next to the checkout line. They&rsquore a great protein source, taste amazing, have zero cook time, zero clean up, and have an excellent macronutrient/calorie profile. This is another &ldquoblank canvas&rdquo meal that could be spiced up however you like with other vegetables, spices/herbs, etc. Have fun with it!

And in case you&rsquore looking for more rotisserie chicken ideas, check out the graphic below.

Daily physical activity is placed at the base of the pyramid to emphasize its importance for health and weight control via improving insulin and glucose metabolism.

  • Based on comprehensive scientific research.
  • Not extreme and does not eliminate food groups.
  • Emphasizes the intake of fruit and vegetables with nine serves daily (not including potatoes) including a variety of types and colors to maximize nutritional phytochemicals.
  • Explains science behind nutrition in a practical and easy to understand way.
  • Explains why diet studies often provide contradictory opinions as well as the limitations of scientific studies.
  • Emphasizes the importance of maintaining ideal body weight for improved health and reduced risk of chronic illness.
  • Emphasizes the inclusion of good fats in the diet such as fish oil, nuts, and avocado that reduce the harmful LDL cholesterol as well as the risk of irregular heartbeats and blood clots.
  • Includes recipes and meal plans.
  • Provides tips for increasing whole grain intake.
  • Very general approach to health that may not adequately address individual needs.
  • Does not distinguish between the health effects of different vegetable oils and as such does not address the issue of the importance of balancing omega 3 and omega 6 fats.