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Healthy Eating

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

Here is a list of inexpensive plant-based ingredients that can help you make meals that are healthy, delicious, and easy on the wallet.

A combination of higher gas prices, supply-chain bottlenecks, war, and labor shortages has caused the prices of everyday food items to soar. And with inflation, a dollar buys less than it did before.

But the current economic climate has affected some food categories more than others. Food items such as beef, chicken, eggs, milk, butter, frozen prepared foods, and even fresh fruit have experienced double-digit percentage increases in price. Grocery stores have responded by passing this increase on to the shopper. In some cases, they’ve even begun shrinking the size or quantity of products to offset the higher manufacturing costs.

During these times, it’s important to be able to readjust your shopping list to reflect this new—albeit hopefully temporary—reality. Although many animal-based products and processed foods have gotten pricier, a lot of healthier, plant-based staples haven’t experienced much of an increase and still remain relatively affordable. Ingredients like canned beans, oats, cornmeal, popcorn, potatoes, and many, many others can add bulk and essential nutrients to an endless variety of meals. Another added bonus is that many of these items have long shelf lives, which means that more of the food ends up in your belly instead of in the garbage.

So which foods should you be looking out for on your next trip to the supermarket? The Meatless Monday team compiled a list of inexpensive plant-based ingredients that can help you make meals that are healthy, delicious, and easy on the wallet.

1. Beans

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

Typically costing less than a dollar per can, beans should be a staple of any pantry. Canned beans can be used in everything from soups, stews, and vegetarian chili to veggie burgers, Tex-Mex burritos, and tacos, but the list of bean-focused meals is truly endless.

We recommend experimenting with different varieties, like chickpeas, pinto beans, and pigeon peas, because each type has its own unique flavor and texture. From a nutritional standpoint, beans are an excellent source of plant-based protein and fiber.

Bean nutrition facts

In the broadest sense, beans are the pod-borne seeds of leguminous plants — excluding lentils, lupins, peanuts, and certain other types of legumes. Beans have been cultivated for thousands of years. Today, they’re an important food source worldwide.

Black, kidney, navy, fava, and pinto beans are common in the United States. Nutritional profiles differ from one bean to the next. However, as an example, 1 cup (171 gram) of boiled pinto beans offers:

Protein: 15 grams
Fat: 1 gram
Carbs: 45 grams
Fiber: 15 grams
Iron: 20% of the Daily Value (DV)
Calcium: 8% of the DV
Magnesium: 21% of the DV
Phosphorous: 25% of the DV
Potassium: 21% of the DV
Folate: 74% of the DV

Beans also contain decent amounts of zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, and vitamins B1, B6, E, and K.

With only 245 calories per cup (171 grams), pinto beans are one of the most nutrient-dense foods around. Many other varieties are just as impressive.

Beans are unique among plant foods due to their high protein content. For this reason, they’re considered an important protein source for vegetarians.

2. Edamame

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

Although its price varies depending on where you shop, frozen edamame can be a nutritious add-on to meals. You can easily pop the whole pods in the microwave for a quick snack or use the shelled variety in an Asian-inspired salad, stir-fry, hummus, or edamame succotash. Their firm texture and hearty chew make edamame a great meat alternative.

Edamame nutrition facts

The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for one cup (155g) of shelled edamame pods.

Calories: 188
Fat: 8g
Sodium: 9.4mg
Carbohydrates: 13.8g
Fiber: 8g
Sugars: 3.4g
Protein: 18.4g

Carbs in edamame

Edamame, a legume, is lower in carbohydrates than many other legumes. One cup of shelled, steamed edamame contains almost 14 grams of carbs. That’s compared to 40 grams of carbs for a cup of cooked lentils or kidney beans, and 45 grams of carbs for a cup of boiled garbanzo beans.

In fact, edamame can be recommended for people with diabetes because it’s very low in sugar (just 3.4 grams per cooked cup of shelled beans). It is also high in fiber and protein to slow the absorption of glucose into the blood in order to prevent sugar spikes. In addition, people following a low-carb diet can eat edamame because it’s so low in carbs, especially when compared to other beans.

Edamame also shines when it comes to fiber—one cup of shelled and cooked edamame offers 8 grams of fiber or about one-third of the recommended daily fiber allotment. The daily value (DV) used for food labels and set by the FDA recommends 28 grams of fiber per day.

Fats in edamame

One cup of cooked edamame contains 8 grams of fat, which is considered low-fat. Of that, only 1 gram is saturated fat (you should limit your intake of saturated fats to no more than about 12 grams per day).

Most of the rest of edamame’s fat content comes from “good” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. One cup of steamed, shelled edamame contains about 3.4 grams of polyunsaturated fat, mainly in the form of omega-6 essential fatty acid. Edamame also contains a small amount of omega-3 fatty acid, another polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats may help you reduce your so-called “bad” LDL cholesterol, especially when these healthy fats replace saturated or trans fats. This may then lead to a reduction in your risk of heart disease.

That same one cup of edamame contains about 2 grams of monounsaturated fat, which, alongside polyunsaturated fat, also may help you reduce your LDL cholesterol levels.3

Protein in edamame

Edamame is a protein powerhouse: a cup of boiled, shelled edamame pods contains around 18.4 grams of protein. In addition, soy protein is a high-quality protein, similar to animal protein in that it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. This is the reason people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet often eat plenty of soy, including edamame.

In addition, about one-third of the calories in edamame come from protein, with an additional one-third coming from carbs and the last third coming from fats. That makes edamame a well-balanced food to include in your diet.

3. Cabbage

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

We’re big supporters of cabbage here at Meatless Monday. Why? Well, it’s the ultimate ingredient. You can braise it, grill it, shred it for coleslaw, or slice it up and add it to a veggie stir-fry. It’s also one of the longer-lasting vegetables out there. For inspiration, try making these braised cabbage rolls, farro cabbage salad, or a tangy side dish of cabbage with orange and apple.

Cabbage nutrition facts

One cup of raw, chopped cabbage (89g) provides 22 calories, 1.1g of protein, 5.2g of carbohydrates, and 0.1g of fat. Cabbage also provides potassium, folate, and vitamin K. This nutrition information is provided by the USDA.

Calories: 22
Fat: 0.1g
Sodium: 16mg
Carbohydrates: 5.2g
Fiber: 2.2g
Sugars: 2.9g
Protein: 1.1g
Potassium: 151mg
Folate: 38.3mcg
Vitamin K: 67.6mcg

Carbs: A cup of raw cabbage has just over 5 grams of carbohydrate, with about 50% coming from fiber and 50% from natural sugars. Cabbage has a very low glycemic index of 10.

Fats: Cabbage is basically a fat-free food. There is less than one gram in a single one-cup serving.

Protein: There’s 1 gram of protein in a cup of raw cabbage. Cabbage is not a significant protein source.

Vitamins and Minerals: Cabbage is a good source of potassium, folate, and vitamin K. Cabbage also provides some calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C.

Calories: Cabbage is a low-calorie food, providing just 22 calories per cup, chopped.

Cabbage is a low-calorie, nearly fat-free food that is a good source of potassium, folate, and vitamin K. It provides fiber but is not a significant source of protein.

4. Dried Lentils and Split Peas

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

Dried lentils and split peas are cheap, costing only a few cents per serving and have an incredibly long shelf life. They’re also a plentiful source of plant-based protein and other nutrients. Make a big split pea soup or batch of lentils, which can then be added to tacos, burritos, baked lentil empanadas, or a lentil and mushroom Bolognese sauce.

5. Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

Fresh produce has seen an increase in price, but the cost of frozen fruits and vegetables has remained relatively stable. Frozen foods are great for a couple of reasons: they’re often picked at peak freshness to preserve color and nutrient content, come pre-sliced, and don’t spoil. And while they may not offer everything a fresh fruit or vegetable delivers, they can be great substitutes in stir-fries, soups, smoothies, desserts, and pasta dishes.

6. Potatoes

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

The potato is an American culinary staple—and for good reason. Not only is it one of the most affordable vegetables around, but it’s also one of the most versatile.

You can mash them, bake them, fry them, grate them, or turn them into soup. Russet potatoes and the waxier red potatoes are pretty good options if you’re looking to save some coin.

Potato nutrition facts

The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for one medium (173g) baked russet potato (2 1/4″ to 3 1/4″ in diameter) with peel and no added salt or toppings.

Calories: 164
Fat: 0.2g
Sodium: 24mg
Carbohydrates: 37g
Fiber: 4g
Sugars: 1.9g
Protein: 4.6g


While a medium russet potato provides 37 grams of carbohydrates, only 4 grams of which are from fiber. Most of the carbs are starch and only a small amount (under 2 grams) is sugar. Starches are quickly broken down during digestion to sugar in the bloodstream, resulting in a quick rise in blood sugar levels.

The glycemic index of a food is an indicator of the impact of food on blood sugar. Study results vary, but the glycemic index of potatoes appears to average in the 80s, which is considered high. By comparison, table sugar has a glycemic index of 59, making potatoes higher on the glycemic index than sugar. Waxy varieties such as new red potatoes are slightly lower on the glycemic index than russet potatoes.

Another way to represent the glycemic effect of food is the glycemic load, which takes into account the serving size. A medium potato fares better here, with a moderate glycemic load of 17. But a large potato has a glycemic load of 29, which is high.

Lastly, it may be helpful to know that cooked and cooled potatoes also contain high levels of resistant starch. Resistant starch is starch that passes through the small intestine without being digested. Simply put, it is resistant to digestion.


Potatoes have only a trace of fat, and that tiny amount is split between saturated and polyunsaturated fat. They also have trace amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. As a vegetable, they have no cholesterol. Unless you add a topping with fat or fry your potatoes, they are basically fat-free.


Potatoes have a small amount of protein, but the protein is of high quality because of its amino acid composition and its digestibility. This means the protein quality is similar to that of eggs and actually higher than that of soybeans and other legumes.3

Vitamins and Minerals

Potatoes provide many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, and potassium. They are a good source of folate, niacin, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and manganese. To get the most out of the potato, you should eat the potato skin as well as the flesh, as some micronutrients are more concentrated in the skin.

7. Tofu

The 7 best ingredients to help you make healthy and cheap meals

Tofu comes in a variety of textures ranging from silken to extra firm, but whichever type you choose, you won’t have to spend more than a couple of dollars per package.

Tofu is mellow on its own but absorbs flavor when marinated, and you can use it to recreate almost all of your favorite comfort foods, like wings, nuggets, bacon, or this yummy vegan tikka masala. Just remember to give the tofu a quick press before cooking to extra the excess moisture.

Tofu nutrition facts

This nutrition information, for a half-cup serving (126g) of raw, firm tofu prepared with calcium sulfate, is provided by the USDA.

Calories: 181
Fat: 11g
Sodium: 17.6mg
Carbohydrates: 3.5g
Fiber: 2.9g
Protein: 21.8g
Calcium: 861mg
Manganese: 1.5mg
Selenium: 21.9mcg
Iron: 3.4

Carbs: Tofu is a low carbohydrate food. A half-cup serving contains just 3.5 grams of carbs, most of which come from fiber. There are 2.9 grams of fiber in a half-cup serving.

Fats: Although one serving of firm tofu contains around 11 grams of fat, most of the fat is heart-healthy. Tofu provides 2.4 grams of monounsaturated fat and 6.2 grams of polyunsaturated fats. About 1.6 grams of fat in a serving of firm tofu is saturated fat.

Protein: Firm tofu is an excellent source of protein, with nearly 22 grams per serving. Since tofu is a complete protein (which means it contains 9 of the essential amino acids required by the diet) it can be used as a substitute in recipes that call for meat. Many people who don’t eat meat use tofu as the main protein in a meal.

Vitamins and Minerals: Firm tofu prepared with calcium sulfate is a excellent source of calcium, providing 861mg or 66% of the daily value (DV). Firm tofu is also an excellent source of manganese (providing 1.5mg or 65% DV) and selenium (providing 21.9mcg or almost 40% DV). It is also an excellent source of copper. Firm tofu is a good source of iron, phosphorus, zinc, and magnesium.

Calories: The calories in tofu vary by type, but a half-cup serving of firm tofu will provide about 181 calories. That’s about 144 calories per 100 grams. By comparison, a 100-gram serving of silken tofu is likely to contain about 55 calories.

Source: Eatthis/Verywellfit!

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