83 Cheap, Healthy Foods for Meals in Minutes


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  143 comments   :  579,113 Views

People often ask me what foods they should be eating. I think they expect that as a dietitian, I'll tell them they have to eat pricey, trendy health foods to lose weight. No way! I'm passionate about spreading the word that you can lose weight and get healthy as a family while sticking to a budget. That's why I'm so excited to share today's blog with you! It's a great resource for those of you who are new to healthy cooking or who don't know what to put in your cart at the supermarket.

What a great feeling! You’re driving home from work and automatically know that you have the ingredients in your cupboard, refrigerator and freezer to whip up a meal for your family in mere minutes.   No need to waste time or money with another trip to the grocery store or fast food joint. Ah!  Sit back, relax and enjoy the music.

The foods picked for this pantry list are ideal choices for weight loss--lower in calories, yet packed with nutrition.  They are also commonly available, budget friendly, familiar to most, and liked by many.  Their flavors and textures mesh well for tasty food combinations.  These "mix and match" marvels will have you making magic in the kitchen in minutes.

I've divided my list into food groups for easier shopping and included serving suggestions, too.

Becky's Mix-and-Match Pantry Grocery List


Fresh:  apples, bananas, grapes, oranges, pears
• Side dish for a meal
• Portable snack
• Fruit salad
• Top a cereal, salad or yogurt
• Mix into a quick bread or muffin recipe

Canned (packed in water):  mandarin oranges, peaches, pears, pineapple
• Side dish for a meal
• Fruit salad
• Top a cereal, salad or yogurt

Frozen:  blueberries, strawberries, pineapple
• Mix into smoothies
• Heat and mix into oatmeal
• Top yogurt or cereal


Fresh:  bell peppers, celery, carrots, romaine lettuce, cabbage, onion, potatoes (white and sweet), baby spinach
Canned:  green beans (drained and rinsed), diced tomatoes
Frozen:  corn, broccoli, cauliflower, lima beans, peas

• Salads
• Raw with dip
• Sandwich and wrap toppings
• Sautés and stir-fries
• Side dish for a meal
Roasted or baked
• Add to soups, stews, casseroles

Meat & Protein

Beans: chickpeas, lentils, red, black, white, or pinto beans
Dried: (soak overnight, then simmer with low-sodium broth until tender)
Canned (drain and rinse to remove up to 40% of the sodium)      

• Top a salad
• Add to soups, stews, casseroles
• Puree for spreads and dips

Canned or pouch tuna and salmon (packed in water)
• Top a leafy green salad
• Mix for tuna salad
Form into patties and pan-fry

Chicken breasts, skinless
Pork loin and chops
Fish (fresh or frozen, not breaded or pre-sauced)

Grill or bake for an entrée
• Thinly slice for a stir-fry
• Grill and place top a leafy green salad
• Dice for a soup or chowder

Ground beef, 95% lean
Ground beef (cooked, then drained and rinsed to remove fat)
Ground turkey or chicken breast

• Form into burgers
• Brown for soups, casseroles, wraps, spaghetti sauce, tacos and taco salad

Omelet, frittata, breakfast casserole
• Breakfast sandwich
• Hard-cooked for salads and snacks

Lean deli meat: ham or turkey
• Sandwich or wrap
• Breakfast sandwich, casserole, omelet or frittata


Skim or 1% Milk
• Beverage
• Topping for cereals
Milk-based soups
• Thicken sauces

Lowfat (2%) Cheese
• Shred and top salads, soups and casseroles
• Slice for sandwiches and wraps

Lowfat Yogurt:
Regular or Greek
Naturally or artificially sweetened

• Base for smoothies
• Parfaits with fruit and cereal
• Dip for veggies and fruit

Whole Grains

Whole wheat bread
• Sandwiches/toast
Breakfast casserole
• French toast
Whole wheat or whole corn tortillas
• Wraps for breakfast and lunch
• Baked tortilla chips
Whole-grain cold cereal (low sugar)
• Breakfast cereal
• Top yogurt
• Crumbled for coating on meat or casserole topping

• Breakfast cereal
• Quick breads
• Fruit crisp topping

Whole wheat pasta
Brown rice

• Side dish for a meal
• Mix with soup, casserole
• Top with stir-fry

Popcorn kernels
• Air-pop, then sprinkle with herbs and spices

Oils & Fats

Olive oil
Vegetable oil:  canola, corn, safflower, soybean, or sunflower

• Salad dressing, dipping, drizzling
• Sauté, pan fry, stir-fry
Soft margarine (zero trans-fat)
• Top vegetables, toast, popcorn
Lowfat salad dressing
• Salads and veggie dip

Staples, Seasonings & Condiments

  • Artificial sweetener

  • Chili powder

  • Cinnamon

  • Flour, white and whole wheat

  • Garlic powder

  • Italian seasoning (no salt added)

  • Low-fat mayonnaise

  • Low-sodium chicken broth

  • Low-sodium soy sauce

  • Mustard

  • Pepper

  • Salsa

  • Salt

  • Sugar

  • Vinegar

Once you've stocked your pantry and fridge, there's no need for fancy recipes. Try one of these easy meals!

Menu Magic in Minutes:

  • Stir-fry:  Heat a little vegetable oil in a medium skillet.  Add diced chicken breast or pork loin and brown.  Add chopped vegetables of your choice and sauté until tender-crisp. Season with a splash of low-sodium soy sauce and dash of garlic powder.  Serve over cooked brown rice. Complete the meal with a dish of mandarin oranges and a glass of milk.

  • Casserole:  Place 4 cups cooked pasta in a 2-quart casserole dish.  Add 2 cups cooked beef, chicken, pork, or beans.  Add 2 cups green beans (drained) or broccoli (thawed and drained).  Add 1 can diced tomatoes with juice and 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Combine.  Top with 1/4 cup shredded cheese.  Bake for 30-45 minutes in 350 degree oven until hot and bubbly (and reaches an internal temperature of165 degrees).  Serve with apple slices and a glass of milk.

  • Omelet:  Cook up eggs with your choice of fillings:  veggies, shredded cheese, diced cooked meat or deli ham.  Serve with orange slices and whole wheat toast.

  • Tuna/Chicken/Egg Salad:  Mix cooked diced chicken, canned tuna or salmon, or hard cooked eggs with diced veggies of your choice (celery, onion, bell peppers, carrots, etc.) in a medium bowl.  Coat lightly with lowfat mayonnaise and mustard.  Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on toasted bread, in a whole-grain wrap or on top of a leafy green salad.  Complete the meal with canned peaches and a glass of milk.

  • Smoothie:  Blend together 1 cup yogurt, 1 banana, 1 cup frozen strawberries, 1 cup spinach and 1/2 cup milk.  If needed, sweeten as desired with a little sugar or artificial sweetener.

  • Stuffed Potato:  "Bake" a potato in the microwave.  Slit the potato open and top with 1 teaspoon soft margarine.  Add cooked, drained broccoli, lowfat cheese and a dollop of salsa.  Serve with carrot sticks and grapes.

Which of these foods are staples in your home? What would you add to my list? Any serving suggestions?

Need more easy meal inspiration? Check out our wildly popular 10 Ways to Eat series.

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  • 93
    I'm gonna have to disagree with the healthy label on some of these (such as margarine, skim and low-fat anything and especially the artificial sweetener). Also, I didn't see any nuts on the list? Thay're good for toppings or in bakes, you could always make your own peanut butter and so on.
    A s to pre-made seasonings, I find those unnecessary - rather get some lemons (I dislike vinegar), bit of honey if it goes well with whatever salad you're making and roll your own. Or just get some pesto :) (I adore pesto pasta with some parmigiano cheese & it's always quick and easy)
    - 8/23/2013   10:52:01 AM
  • 92
    I have always heard to avoid the middle aisles in the grocery store, because that is where the majority of processed foods are. This list helps me decide which items in the middle items are ok to purchase. I'm looking forward to renovating my pantry and altering my shopping trips! - 7/21/2013   9:02:10 AM
  • 91
    Another requirement - Sriracha hot sauce, it's delicious and makes everything else taste better (especially eggs). Also I'd suggest curry powder, great on veggies and you can make curried rice (1-2 tsp in the water when boiling rice and it will soak right in). Fresh garlic is much better than garlic powder, and it's cheap. - 6/30/2013   12:40:04 PM
  • 90
    Sounds like my kitchen - perfect! - 6/20/2013   1:16:17 PM
    Perfect!! I have been tryng to get my husband to do this, but he is a little hesitant. Since he does the shopping, this is a great start. Thank you so much - 6/13/2013   11:59:11 AM
    What I have been looking for? Thanks. I can stop searching now. - 6/12/2013   8:27:16 PM
    Great stuff. I needed this. - 6/1/2013   4:54:55 PM
    The only thing I would add is some low calorie veggie burgers/veggie crumbles or textured soy protein for those of us who don't eat meat. - 5/27/2013   12:04:31 PM
  • 84
    Where's the BEEF?? And I don't mean hamburger. A nicely trimmed rump roast (bottom round) or a sirloin tip roast will provide lots of good low-fat protein and is much healthier/less salty than the recommended deli cuts. You should get 4 servings per uncooked pound of weight. Around here, the price of beef on sale is usually cheaper than chicken if you figure out the per pound price. - 5/26/2013   8:46:12 PM
  • 83
    This is a great list! I keep my cupboards well stocked as well as freezers and fridge. Can whip up a tasty meal in short time.
    I also wash, dry in a spinner, and wrap in linen towels the romaine as well as the celery and they keep a long time. Make a big salad that lasts several days, just add feta, tomato and dressing.
    Cooked 1 lb. black beans today - with garlic and onion - then froze in bags holding 1 or 2 cups. Do the same with brown rice. Can make up quick meals with them.
    No need to eat out!!! - 5/25/2013   10:05:33 PM
  • DROOPY301
    Sorry to rain on the parade but Cheap Foods is a relative term. I agree it is a good & comprehensive list. My question is cheap for whom? I am not aware of any place that offers cheap meat or dairy. Cold cereals, there are some at Wal-Mart for $2.50 a box. My family lives on $2000.00 a month and spend $300.00 a month on food. I shop at Aldi which has the bone cheapest prices and for some items I am forced to go to Wal-Mart for certain brand name items with coupons. - 5/25/2013   8:20:03 PM
    Very wise, wonderful, comprehensive AND based on solid research, rather than the fads and scams which plague "faux nutritional" advice on the 'net... Thanks, Becky! I've saved this as a Favorite. - 5/25/2013   11:51:14 AM
  • 80
    Doing away with meat and dairy would also be more healthful. So many tests have proven that dairy causes so many allergies and has also been proven in that the countries that have the most intake of dairy also have the highest rates of osteoporosis. Dairy has caesin that pulls calcium from bones. And you can go online and find more studies about meat and eggs.
    I was a dairy, meat and egg eater up until 2.5 months ago. I quit eating it for my health and now I won't go back because of the deplorable conditions the animals are raised and the "matter" that is found in meat that I care to no longer put into my mouth. - 5/25/2013   9:50:31 AM
    This was a wonderful article! So many people use cost as an excuse to turn to convenience/packaged foods and it is NOT necessary to live a healthy lifestyle. - 5/25/2013   8:34:19 AM
  • 78
    These are great ideas--thank you. - 5/24/2013   2:00:37 PM
  • 77
    Wonderful complete AND concise list. Thank you - 5/24/2013   1:58:21 PM
  • 76
    Living in the South I cook a lot of beans and lentils. I do not soak them overnight, but cook them in water that has been seasoned by onions, garlic, celery and bell pepper. Have the water at a rolling boil and as the beans hit the water they will open and absorb the flavors of the seasonings. - 5/24/2013   10:43:18 AM
  • 75
    Why does this list contain margarine, canola, soybean oils, low-fat foods and (low) sugar cereals? Old, old information! - 5/24/2013   10:19:54 AM
    I couldn't live without cumin (ground and seeds). Apart from its usual curry roles, I use it when I'm making humous (instead of tahini) and it actually goes really well with eggs. I particularly like to make a savoury version of "French toast" with ground cumin instead of cinnamon - delicious! - 5/24/2013   8:42:51 AM
  • KAB7801
    Good stuff - 5/24/2013   6:53:03 AM
  • 72
    Thank you for posting this valuable information! - 5/24/2013   5:05:13 AM
  • 71
    Great ideas!! Thank you for sharing! :) - 5/24/2013   3:31:49 AM
  • 70
    Many good suggestions, but also some artificial foods (margerine, sweeteners, etc) that don't belong. - 5/24/2013   12:38:01 AM
  • 69
    Love this! I'm printing it and putting it in my recipe binder! - 5/23/2013   11:51:28 PM
  • 68
    Thanks! I have printed this for a starter-grocery list! - 5/23/2013   11:01:27 PM
  • 67
    This is awesome! Thank you! - 5/23/2013   10:23:01 PM
    Thanks for the great ideas! - 5/23/2013   10:14:03 PM
  • 65
    Thank you for the great list.
    - 5/23/2013   9:52:49 PM
  • 64
    Great list, since I am trying to avoid mayo right now I am going to mix plain greek yogurt into my chicken salad or tuna salad and see how it tastes. Thanks for the tips! - 5/23/2013   8:51:29 PM
  • 63
    Also should mention that many "low fat" products are laden with processed adders or fillers and do not promote true sateity which is what will really keep you from over eating. Don't fear the fat or any macronutrient, just practice moderation with real whole, non processed foods. - 5/23/2013   8:04:06 PM
  • 62
    Canola and soybean oil...margarine...none of those belong in a list of "healthy foods." - 5/23/2013   8:00:21 PM
  • 61
    nice - 5/23/2013   7:08:29 PM
  • 60
    Looks like my shopping list! I would add Kale to the veggie list though! It is so great to throw into soups, good bulk, nutrients and fiber! And tasty! - 5/23/2013   6:52:23 PM
    This is pretty much exactly what I buy and cook with, minus the beef, pork, margarine and popcorn. Grown and can your own veggies and you will save even more money! - 5/23/2013   6:37:29 PM
  • 58
    I'm going grocery shopping today and I plan to use this as a guide. I am not likely to get everything. Some we already have or we don't like. Beside hubby is giving me a budget of $100 for the week. - 3/30/2013   2:39:21 PM
  • 57
    I eat a lot of these things. I wish there were more low/no sodium suggestions. I have been instructed to stay AWAY from canned goods due to the salt and preservatives. - 3/18/2013   5:04:42 PM
    I have to email this to my son so I could print out the list. - 3/14/2013   8:05:07 PM
  • 55
    This is a great article for newbies to the healthy eating game. I'm really surprised to see no serving size info for the generic recipes in this article. Also surprised to see no nuts or seeds as part of the staples. - 3/13/2013   2:32:02 PM
    I would appreciate a printable version - 3/8/2013   1:02:55 PM
  • GAL2202
    These are great ideas. I will have to try them. I have made casseroles before. Thanks for the information. This really helps. - 2/28/2013   8:04:20 PM
    Great list but Where's the Tofu? It's super versatile and yummy and cheap. - 2/17/2013   9:34:42 PM
    Great list but Where's the Tofu? It's super versatile and yummy and cheap. - 2/17/2013   9:25:35 PM
  • 50
    Great tips! - 2/13/2013   10:09:28 AM
  • 49
    These are great ideas. I hadn't thought about it that way before. Thanks. - 1/12/2013   12:31:07 PM
  • 48
    Excellent blog, thanks for posting. Like many others, I will print this off for future reference. - 1/9/2013   9:56:24 PM
  • 47
    Thanks for creating such a helpful entry! - 1/9/2013   9:49:28 AM
  • 46
    What a great resource. It needs to go on the Healthy Eating Challenge reading list. - 1/8/2013   1:11:00 PM
  • 45
    Whole grain pita pockets and whole grain english muffins are 2 versatile staples. Both are great for sandwiches, pizzas & toast. When you leave them in your pantry too long they are great substitutions for clay pigeons when shooting skeet. - 1/8/2013   12:21:18 PM
  • 44
    Great way to put this together. A lot of it is very similar to my pantry, but we've had to eliminate the gluten products this past year due to my husband's celiac disease diagnosis. Great list for reference and ideas. Thanks! - 1/7/2013   2:42:24 PM

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