83 Cheap, Healthy Foods for Meals in Minutes

By , SparkPeople Blogger

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.

Like this blog? Then you'll love "The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight."

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I still would add BUTTER. Report
no thanks Report
look forward to a new life Report
Great article. Love the pairings with some new ideas with all the foods I really like too! Report
Great list, covers all bases and gives me ideas when I need it. Thanks.
Good article. I would add legumes (barely mentioned) and corn meal.
Article is a couple years old. I wonder what Becky thinks about coconut oil. It is cheaper at some stores. Higher in calories. Less likely effect cholesterol. Report
I like the list very much! I think the artificial sweetener, low sodium, and low fat items may be on there for the benefit of folks who are battling secondary health issues, like high cholesterol and high blood sugar. It's just a general guideline. So, there's no need to be so critical. Buy whatever fits your budget and meets your nutritional values. Completely changing the way you eat is a journey. BTW-I'm sure delicious seeds and nuts aren't on the list because if you're like me, you can't eat just one ounce at a time. Binge trigger!!!! Whew! Report
Took this list with me to the grocery stores today!! Got most of what's on here, in addition to other things I prefer. Great list, thanks for helping me restock my kitchen!! Report
I'm new, so I hesitate to comment on this. Very good information. I think the point is to plan to eat in a planned and balanced manner. For me, my eating habits are a little different: (I don't care for much meat, I don't like dairy products, and I tend to resort to "egg-whites" to get my protein in, because I don't like eggs, etc). I'm not picky, I just have my "go to" foods.

As such, my take away message from this article was to plan prior to grocery shopping - - and plan in a manner that supports my long-term success in managing my health.

Thanks! Report
I have a great many of the low-fat items (can't do non-fat) and i only buy whole wheat pasta, rye, pumpernickel, and whole grain bread. I'm borderline diabetic so i stay away from anything white Report
Artificial sweetener?? Why?? Stevia is all natural, nothing chemical, and now Cheap! You can get it powdered or liquid. Tastes great-I use it in my coffee every morning. Please don't list artificial ANYTHING as "healthy", it is not-artificial and processed foods are killing people, and causing illness, not health. But thanks for providing a basically good list, and ideas : ) We need to change almost everything about the American diet, especially for our kids. If it's the last thing I do , I would love to banish the grotesque "cereal aisle" with choice after choice of sugary, artificially flavored boxes of old pasty carbs that are advertised as having "vitamins and minerals" and should NEVER be eaten by kids---I too grew up eating Trix, and Capt. Crunch, etc. They are poison, and it should be illegal to sell basically artificially flavored card board to our children. OK, now go have a nice day : ) !! Report
Great article. I use full fat cheese and dressing...just a lot less of it. I also prefer grains to breads. Report
Love this list. With the exception of the exception of the margarine and lowfat salad dressing this list is close to what I normally buy with a few exceptions mostly the beans. Also I looked at a few new healthy recipes that I wanted to try and noticed that all of the ingredients are on this list. For anyone reading this list I would also suggest that you check out the spark articles regarding storing food it will help to keep the fresh foods life. Report
Had a very busy day and didn't feel like cooking (too hot) so I whipped up a quick veggie omelet. Easy, quick, healthy. It was fun seeing the same idea on your list of quick to fix items! Report
I hope I get to the point where I can make meals in minutes. Right now its a little painful. I'm following the menu plan to have some structure, but really I like to throw things together. Report
These foods are "reality" foods, it always sounds so nice and Proper to wring your hands and moan about artificial stuff, but not many will realistically eat those plain, old veggies and organic stuff forever. Kale, in particular, should be used only for insulation of homes and buildings. Report
Artificial sweetener? Aritificially flavored yogurt? Deli meat and margarine (both chock full of chemicals)?

Really?! EAT REAL FOOD, PEOPLE! Nothing processed, nothing artificial, nothing with "ingredients" you can't pronounce. That is the key. Report
Very helpful blog.
Thanks! Report
These are great. i am always looking for new cheap ideas! Report
Great ideas! Especially for someone living on their own and cooking for themselves. The only problem is that much of the recent nutritional research is explaining how bad low-fat or non-fat products are for your health. Fat doesn't make us fat, and those low-fat dairy products have a high-fructose content to replace it. Refined sugars are actually what is converted into excess fat. Certain fats, especially those found in 2% or 3%, are need for proper digestion AND weight loss. Also, no to margerine! The hydrogenation process is realllly bad for your health and research shows that saturated fats are not as bad a previously thought. I would suggest reading up on Dr. Mercola for the low down :) Report
Fresh tomatoes definately! I can dice them or slice them and add to a salad, put them on a sandwich (sometimes they are the star of the sandwich too) or just eat them plain sprinkled with a little dried basil and shredded mozzarella for a quick caprese salad. Yum. And mushrooms. I cook up a batch every week to add into almost everything I eat instead of turning to meat. Add some to a grilled cheese sandwich, sprinkle raw mushrooms on your salad, add to chopped grilled veggies for a vegetarian casserole. Report
I've been making the beef casserole mentioned for years. I like the idea of apple slices on the side...I've never served it with a side. But it is one of my husbands (and mine) favorite dishes. I've never added veges too it though. I am going to try the green beans next time I make it. Report
I would add tomatoes, greens, and spices basil and Rosemary, that I cannot live without! A good basic list. For yeses I have avoided Aldi's. Retirement gave me the time to reevaluate my needs and test quality. I have seriously decreased my food budget by 40%. Amazed at the increasing number of Fit&Lean product line and organic items coming to their shelves. Just thought I'd throw this out there for those struggling. Report
Weak blog post. DASH diet is best (US News & World Report, Best Diets 2014). There's a lot of good information from the gov't on the diet, far better general recommendations than this blog post. With that said, I'd avoid the canned stuff, WAY too much salt - stick with fresh or bags of frozen veggies. Also, your whole grains list is pathetic. Go to wikipedia: "Whole Grains." Dried nuts and dried fruit are good - was this left out by ignorance? Keep sodium under 150mg per serving, and saturated fat under 1.5g. Also, you don't have any environmental recommendations? If you can afford it, eat less beef - this food contributes heavily to climate change (see UN report on beef & environmental impacts). Also, what about more fermented foods, like sauerkraut? It's SUPER easy and healthy to do this yourself, and it's like $0.10/head. "Art of Fermentation" is an awesome book, really made my diet cheap, healthy, and much more interesting! Report
I'm surprised you didn't talk more about fresh tomatoes! I love them & I'm sort of a picky eater! Also, I live alone and most of my meals are rather "throw something in the ol' NUKE BOX & get it over with! " sort of affairs! One of MY favorites though is a delicious sandwich of your favorite whole grain bread, sliced white cheese, sliced Tomato and sliced fresh MUSHROOMS! Mushrooms are a great protein! Fry it like you would a grilled cheese sandwich, with the cheese to the otter layer to hold everything together! It's awesome & quite filling! Tomatoes , Mushrooms and fresh peppers are staples for me! They're great in omelets! Orange peppers, so I've heard - have MORE vitamin C than oranges! They're wonderful in stir fry! I'm going to stock up on BROWN rice! I have a HUGE bag of WHITE rice I got as an emergency staple!
As to the folks who complain about "ONLY" having $100 bucks a WEEK for groceries. . .I should BE so "POOR" ! I live alone, so I know the proportionate amount differs, BUT - I live on $1014.00 month SSDI / 138.00 month FOODSTAMPS! TRY to buy healthy on THAT! Let me know how THAT goes for ya! WOW! Add that I pay $700 mo rent just to have a decent home! Another $83 mo goes to the Util. co. ! $45 to cell phone! $28.00 mandated car insurance! TRY to buy enough gas to get me through a month! I've driven less than 875 miles since mid November & THAT includes a 3 hr trip each way to visit my folks! So I laugh at people that cry about budgets as mentioned above! I've done this & fed 2 dogs as well, for over 2 yrs now! I guess maybe I'm NOT doing so bad! The list IS a help! P.S. - BUY ART! Starving sucks! Report
Very informative. I also like the suggestions on the different ways to use the items. Report
List is great and I like the recipies at the end. Thanks! Report
Thanks for the list. It helps a lot. Seems easy to do and sounds delicious Report
Thank you for providing a great list. Report
yummy Report
No canned green beans or fruit. No "low fat" doctored-up margarine or dairy. Plenty more spices.
Only eat real, unprocessed foods. Other than these nitpicks, I buy 90% of this list. Report
Also, +1 for curry and fresh garlic (and onions!) Report
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)
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! Report
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. Report
Sounds like my kitchen - perfect! Report
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 Report
What I have been looking for? Thanks. I can stop searching now. Report
Great stuff. I needed this. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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!!! Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
These are great ideas--thank you. Report
Wonderful complete AND concise list. Thank you Report
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. Report
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