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Get the Biggest Nutritional Bang for Your Buck with These 8 Ingredients

Sad but true: healthy eating may be too expensive for many Americans.

A recent study in the journal Health Affairs reported that following the new U.S. “My Plate” nutritional guidelines (formerly called the food pyramid) adds an average $7.28 to the average grocery bill in the form of more fresh foods rich in potassium, fiber, Vitamin D and calcium. On a yearly basis, that’s an extra $378.56 on groceries — maybe more, as food prices rise.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat healthy for far less. “The least expensive food is ‘whole food,’” says dietician and holistic chef Elizabeth Brown. “Stay away from processed stuff and you will get the most nutrient-dense bang for your buck!” Many dollar stores now offer fresh fruits and vegetables, while frozen veggies are one of supermarkets’ most frequent sale items. Other items are naturally both cheap and nutritious.

Here are eight foods that pack a nutritional punch while still costing $0.50 or less per serving:

Bulgur

$0.45/serving

A “nutritional powerhouse,” bulgur is a great source of fiber, protein and Vitamin B, says Matilde Parente, a physician who is board certified in pathology and integrative holistic medicine. A half-pound bag for $2.25 contains five servings if cooked and offered solo in place of say, rice, but you’ll get more mileage by mixing smaller quantities in with salads and other foods, she says. To get it even cheaper, look for a store that sells it in bulk bins. “I recently spent 29 cents on a half-cup of bulgur that I used to make a tabbouleh salad with fresh tomatoes, parsley, mint, a couple green onions and a lemon that fed six as a hearty side dish,” Parente says.

Cabbage

$0.25/serving

“Cabbage is a first-rate source of Vitamin K, C and fiber,” says Gurpareet Bains, the author of Indian Superfood. Roughly $1.50 gets you a head with six good-size servings to serve simply steamed. Make it go further by adding cabbage to a veggie-based soup: he mixes two pounds chopped cabbage with seven ounces chopped carrots, a sliced onion, a quartered tomato, two tablespoons curry powder, chicken or vegetable broth and water. Red cabbage, though slightly more expensive at $0.99/pound, has the added advantage of anthocyanins, a kind of antioxidant found in deep-colored berries.

Brown rice

$0.25/serving

Sub in brown rice for white and get more fiber. But it’s not that much better for you than white rice, so keep portions small – most one-pound bags have 10 servings in them. Pair with beans or vegetables to stretch the bag and maximize the health benefits. “Beans and rice together make a complete protein and are loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants,” Brown says. She also has a recipe for harissa and brown rice with mushrooms and spinach. Look to the bulk bins to cut another 25 percent to 30 percent off your bill.

Kale

$0.38/serving

WebMD touts kale as “one of the healthiest vegetables on the planet,” with 180 percent of your daily requirement of Vitamin A, 200 percent of Vitamin C and 1,020 percent of Vitamin K and a long list of other benefits. “Kale is loaded with both macro- and micronutrients and health-enhancing antioxidants,” says LindaJoy Rose, a raw foods educator based in Tampa Bay, Fla. Chop it into a salad, steam or sauté it, or mix it in with pasta. It can also be a great snack: Frugal Foodie bakes kale until it’s crisped into a kind of chip.

Oats

$0.17/serving

Ditch the flavored oatmeal packs for plain oats, which are a great low fat, cholesterol-lowering source of fiber — and also less sugary and more versatile. Use them in desserts and breads, as well as savory dishes like meatloaf, burgers and meatballs. Frugal Foodie loves this oatcakes recipe from Self magazine. Miss the fast morning oatmeal? Randy Rabney of The Conscious Plate makes a healthier version of the favored packets by cooking rolled oats according to their package directions with a bit of sea salt, chopped apples, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Once cooked, she says, sweeten with a bit of maple syrup or add a little butter or milk if desired.

Beans

$0.15/serving

Beans are one of the cheapest sources of protein, as well as a great source of fiber and potassium. They and other legumes — peas and lentils — are versatile, too, points out Sarah Pinneo, the author of The Ski House Cookbook. Work them into dips as an appetizer, salad and rice dishes, and chili as a hearty main dish. (Rabney makes a lentil soup simmering together root vegetables and kale.) Save even more by opting for a $1.90 bag of dried beans, which can contain 15 servings, instead of a $0.99 can with two or three, she says. The former requires a little pre-planning, however, since you’ll need to soak the beans overnight before cooking them.

Beets

$0.50/serving

In season right now, beets are cheap — and also high in Vitamin C, iron, magnesium and potassium. Roast them so that the skins slip right off, and then serve as is or cooled as a salad or dinner side. To be trendy, less wasteful and stretch the servings, cook the greens, too, says chef Kelly Anderson of The Lunch Bunch. “[That’s] really hot right now in the culinary circuit,” she says. The spinach-y greens are very nutritious as well, adding to the Vitamin C, calcium and iron intake. Anderson serves them sautéed, with lemon.

Sweet potatoes

$0.50/serving

Sweet potatoes have more manganese and iron than regular spuds, and are also a good source of Vitamin C, potassium and beta-carotene. You can use them in many recipes that call for regular potatoes. Another suggestion: top baked sweet potatoes with black beans and salsa, says nutritionist Rania Batayneh of Essential Nutrition for You. “Delicious, filling and full of beta carotene, Vitamin A, fiber and protein,” she says.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie http://www.twitter.com/mintfoodie.