Fresh produce: Seasonal produce is almost always cheaper than when it's out of season, particularly if it's locally-grown. If there is one near you, farmer's markets and produce stands have great deals. Otherwise, here is a pretty good guide to eating seasonally. Some items that are cheap, pretty good year round, and don't go bad quickly include carrots, apples, potatoes and sweet potatoes, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, cucumber, and oranges. Stay away from anything that is pre-washed, pre-chopped, or otherwise packaged as a convenience food, such as those salad kits with dressing and croutons. Most of these bear a hefty markup. If you're short on time, take some time one day per week to wash and chop lettuce, cut celery into sticks, and so on. These things keep best rolled up in damp paper towels, or for things like celery and carrot sticks, in a container of cold water. Otherwise, produce can be eaten out of hand and is as quick as any packaged food you'll buy. Pound for pound, this stuff is often cheaper than Ramen noodles. As far as cooking methods, most veggies can be cooked easily in the microwave with a sprinkle of water. I'm also a big fan of oven-roasting my vegetables; they brown nicely and retain a good crunch. Just cut your vegetable of choice into bite-sized pieces, toss with a little olive oil spray and salt, and roast at 400 degrees until browned and crisp-tender.
Dairy: Fat free cottage cheese is a great source of protein without a ton of fat and carbs -- great for those of us who anal-retentively tweak our macronutrient ratios. Check out the stumptuous.com homage to cottage cheese for recipe ideas. Blocks of 2% milk cheese (not fat free, as fat free solid cheese is pretty gross) are much cheaper than shreds, sticks, or slices, and they keep forever if you wrap them tightly. If you have a vaccuum sealer, cheese keeps almost indefinitely. Low-fat or fat free yogurt often sells for under a dollar. In the vicinity of the dairy case, be sure to pick up a box of eggs. If you eat egg whites only, seperate them ahead of time and keep the whites in a sealed container. I also like to boil and chill a big batch of eggs, which then make a great portable snack or addition to salads. Super fresh eggs are hell to peel, so let the carton sit in your fridge for a week before boiling.
Meat: Boneless skinless chicken breasts are ridiculously versatile. If they're too expensive, buy them bone-in and skin-on and cut them up yourself. If you're feeding a crowd who enjoys dark meat, whole chickens are as cheap as they come. For cheap cuts of pork, beef, and turkey, I highly recommend purchasing a crock pot. Cheap lean cuts tend to dry out easily, but in a slow cooker they become almost meltingly tender. I like lean pork roast, beef eye of round, bone-in skin-on turkey breasts (remove the skin before eating), and turkey tenderloins. Very lean ground beef is always cheap as well.
Grains: Old-fashioned and quick oats are a little over a dollar for a huge canister. If you must have cold cereal, Fiber One and All Bran will hardly break the bank. Brown rice is a great source of fiber, and whole wheat pasta isn't much cheaper than its nutritionally-apathetic counterpart. If you live paycheck-to-paycheck, the bulk grains section is great for when you just want a cup of buckwheat or quinoa. Nature's Own makes a nice brand of affordable whole wheat bread.
Canned goods: Canned beans are a great source of fiber and protein, and are particularly nice atop salads. Canned fruit is pretty good mixed with cottage cheese, in oatmeal, or in yogurt; just be sure to buy it packed in juice or water. Unsweetened applesauce is great, too. Some veggies taste pretty good canned, such as tomatoes (for cooking) or pumpkin. I personally hate canned tuna but most people seem to like it and it's a cheap source of protein.
Frozen foods: Skip right past the Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine and head straight to the veggies. For eating as a side dish, Birdseye Steamfresh is my favorite brand. They're 3 for $5 at my supermarket in bags that puff up like popcorn when you microwave it. I also like frozen beans like lima beans or black eyed peas, frozen corn kernels, and mixes like vegetable soup or stir-fry mixtures. Just be sure that whatever you purchase doesn't have creamy sauces, cheese, or hydrogenated oils. Buy plain veggies and season them to your taste. Frozen berries are cheaper than fresh and they're good in smoothies or stirred into yogurt.
Condiments: I've found great deals on my faves at Asian and Hispanic markets. I blow through soy sauce, salsa, hot sauce, mustard, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and balsamic vinegar. Eventually you'll find your staples, just try and avoid anything leaden with corn syrup, sugars, or fat.
Now that you know what you can buy, here are some health foods that will quickly drain your wallet:
- 100-calorie packs or similarly portion-controlled items. Make your own by buying the food in bulk and portioning it out yourself into Ziploc bags
- Meal replacement bars. These tend to have scary Frankenfood ingredient lists and the price is quite high.
- Prepackaged "health" food in general. Anything that screams "omega-3" "fortified" "oat bran" or "fat free" is usually not nearly as good for you as fresh fruits and veggies. To quote Michael Pollan, don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.
- Diet blog has a great guide to preparing meals in advance
- The Abs Diet 6 Minute Meals cookbook has great instructions for throwing meals together. It's not recipes so much as salad ideas, things to put in your oatmeal, and so on.
- Since meat tends to cost more than anything else on my grocery bill, check out Fat Free Vegan. The recipes are all low-cal, though not necessarily fat free (a good thing in my opinion!). Vegan Planet is also a great vegan cookbook, with an insane number of recipes.
- Cooking Light and Shape both have searchable recipe databases on their websites. Allrecipes.com isn't limited to healthy foods, but they have a nice search by ingredient feature. Epicurious advanced search allows you to specify low-cal, among other things.
- The World's Healthiest Foods website has a number of recipes using whole foods. Additionally, they advocate that you cook according to what is in season, so you can find recipes for spring, summer, fall, and winter.