Think you can’t afford to eat healthfully? It may be easier and less expensive than you imagine. According to Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, it’s a myth that kale costs more than cookies. A 2012 USDA study found that junk foods cost more per portion than the good guys like legumes, whole grains and vegetables. The secret to getting the most nutritional bang for your buck: embracing a back-to-basics eating style, says Environmental Working Group (EWG) nutritionist Dawn Undurraga, MS, RD. To help you navigate the aisles, EWG crunched some numbers to determine which foods offer the most nutrition for your dollar and the least exposure to environmental toxins like BPA, pesticides and mercury. Here, your guide to the best buys in the supermarket, and how to add them to your diet.
Why it’s good for you: Though they may be the cheapest fruit in the produce section, bananas are no nutritional slouch. Among their greatest benefits are their fiber and potassium content, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program. Potassium blunts the effects of a high-sodium diet and can even help lower blood pressure. Eat bananas between meals to curb afternoon munchies. “As with anything that’s high in fiber, bananas will help you feel full for longer,” says Kirkpatrick.
How to use it: Buy bananas when they’re still slightly green, so they’ll last you the entire week. If you don’t eat them in time and they start to turn brown, peel them and store them in the freezer to use later in smoothies, muffins or bread, like our Nutty Banana Muffins recipe. One of Kirkpatrick’s favorite ways to eat bananas: dark-chocolate-dipped frozen banana pops. Or try this easy banana “gelato” recipe for a sweet, creamy treat.
Why it’s good for you: Research shows that apples and pears may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Another study found that eating plenty of white-fleshed fruits and vegetables could protect against stroke. Plus, just one pear packs in 20 percent of your daily fiber needs. Think of fiber as your stay-slim secret weapon: The more fiber in your food, the less you’ll need to eat to feel full.
How to use it: If you’re not in love with the pear’s grainy texture, bake it with a sprinkle of cinnamon, walnuts, no-sugar-added apple juice and cloves for a wonderful treat. Or try our recipe for Roasted Pears With Maple Crunch. You can also use roasted pears in a salad with dried cranberries and blue cheese or shaved Parmesan.
Why it’s good for you: You might think of this sweet summer treat as a luxury, but watermelon is an excellent source of lycopene, says Jamieson-Petonic. Lycopene is a type of carotenoid (a pigment that gives fruits and veggies their orange, red or yellow hue) found in red produce that may guard against some cancers, as well as help improve the skin’s natural defenses against the sun. Plus, it’s one of the few foods that contain citrulline, a chemical that helps relax your arteries and lower blood pressure.
How to use it: Though watermelon is high in sugar, eating it with other foods helps keep it from wreaking havoc on your blood sugar levels, notes Jamieson-Petonic. Watermelon’s nutrients are best absorbed with a little fat or oil. Instead of saving it for dessert, turn watermelon into an entrée. Toss cubed watermelon into a salad bowl with diced avocado, cucumber, chopped mint and feta. Drizzle lightly with lime juice and olive oil.
Why it’s good for you: Though we may think of prunes as nature’s little movers and shakers, that isn’t their only claim to fame. A daily dose of dried plums may help reverse bone loss and prevent osteoporosis, but wait, there’s even more. Prunes have a phytonutrient content rivaling that of blueberries, and at just half the cost.
How to use it: Dress up brown rice or couscous with chopped prunes, lemon zest, sautéed onions, garlic and rosemary. Or try this delicious recipe: Arugula, Radicchio, Orange, and Dried Plum Salad. Then try this when you’re baking brownies: Replace ¼ cup butter with 1/4 cup pureed prunes. The chocolate’s deep color and rich flavor will mask both the color and taste of the prunes. You’ll get extra fiber and nutrients instead of all of the cholesterol and saturated fat from butter.
Why it’s good for you: It’s hard to beat the health benefits of broccoli. One serving of these tree-like veggies delivers more than a day’s worth of vitamins C and K. Vitamin C helps the body repair wounds and maintain healthy cartilage and bone. It also wards off free radicals that cause aging inside your cells. Vitamin K strengthens bones and fights inflammation. Plus, eating several servings of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli each week may help reduce your risk of cancer.
How to use it: Reap the benefits of broccoli with a dip made from Greek yogurt and fresh dill (try our Turkish Cucumber Yogurt Dip). According to Undurraga, getting kids to eat broccoli may be as easy as roasting it, which adds a sweet taste dimension through the process of caramelization. Simply toss bite-size florets of broccoli with olive oil, salt and pepper (and fresh garlic if desired) and roast at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with lemon juice or grated Parmesan before serving.
Why it’s good for you: “Leafy greens have the biggest association with cancer prevention. The darker the green, the better it’s going to be for you,” says Kirkpatrick. Collard greens are high in calcium and folate, which helps prevent DNA changes that can lead to cancer. Plus, leafy greens have been linked to fewer vision problems with age, as well as a lower risk of diabetes.
How to use it: One of the easiest ways to get your greens? Toss them into a morning smoothie. Try collards instead of kale in our Lifestyle 180 Green Smoothie. Another option: Finely chop up a few leaves of collards (minus the ribs if you’re in a hurry; they take longer to cook), sauté until tender, and stir in an egg or combine with pasta sauce.
Why it’s good for you: Fancy salad greens can be pretty pricey if you don’t find them on sale. But that doesn’t mean your salad’s foundation has to be lacking in nutrients. Swap out iceberg lettuce for romaine, which is loaded with almost a day’s worth of vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene may help protect against breast cancer, vision problems and sun damage to the skin.
How to use it: You can meet your daily leafy green quota with just ¼ cup of romaine per day. Double up on lettuce when making sandwiches or salmon burgers. Use the inner portions of the romaine head as crudités when putting out veggies and dip. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try grilling the romaine hearts. Remove the outer leaves, slice the head lengthwise into quarters, and brush with olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill until slightly charred. Sprinkle with vinaigrette.
Why it’s good for you: Besides beta-carotene, carrots are also brimming with a relatively unknown but highly potent plant chemical called alpha-carotene. Research suggests that regularly consuming large amounts of this carotenoid, by way of orange and dark green vegetables, may reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.
How to use it: Keep peeled carrot sticks and hummus ready to go in your fridge for impromptu appetizers or snacks. Incorporate root vegetables like carrots into your meals by making a big batch of soup that you can freeze and reheat. Or pair our Butternut Squash, Carrot and Ginger Soup recipe with a rotisserie chicken and side salad for a quick weekday meal.
Why it’s good for you: Poor potatoes sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to nutrition, but the real villain isn’t the potato itself but how it’s usually prepared (as French fries or baked with butter, bacon and sour cream). Per serving, potatoes are the cheapest source of potassium in the produce aisle. This mineral is crucial for heart health and muscle function. Plus, it can help keep blood pressure down.
How to use it: Don’t discard the most nutritious part of the spud: the skin. Boil Yukon Golds or other thin-skinned taters and make smashed potatoes. You don’t need butter to get that creamy, rich taste. Instead, use vegetable or chicken broth and milk, along with minced garlic, salt, pepper and your favorite chopped herbs.
Why it’s good for you: Adding white-fleshed fruits and veggies like onions to your daily diet can lower your risk of stroke. It may also help keep colon and liver cancer at bay. Some research even suggests that onions and their relatives (scallions, garlic, shallots) may reduce rates of arthritis.
How to use it: Onions are a cheap way to add a lot of flavor. Sauté chopped onions in olive oil and garlic and add to any savory dish, from scrambled eggs to vegetable or chicken stir-fry. For a warming meal, try our decadent Simple, Delicious Onion Soup. Or make chicken fajitas with grilled onions and peppers. The secret to superb Mexican: lots of cumin, chili powder, black pepper and garlic. Garnish with plain Greek yogurt, salsa, cilantro and avocado slices.