12 Cheap, Healthy Meals that Taste Way Better Than They Should

It’s frustrating to think about how much cheaper it is to eat junk food than it is to eat healthily, but don’t lower your standards for how you eat just yet.

Earlier this week I published a post about the best value health foods you can buy, a ranking of the nutrient-dense foods that give you the most nutritional bang for your buck.

Continuing on that theme, today we’re talking about cheap, healthy meals.

For those times when I’m in a hurry, I keep a list of meals that are fast and healthy, so that I can run into a store on the way home, grab something, and have a meal on the table in just a few minutes.

But when I was looking at that list recently, I noticed that most of these meals were also cheap. Cheap, healthy, and quick … not a bad list of qualities for a meal.

The twelve meals in this post aren’t exactly that list — a few of them take too long to be on my “in a pinch” list. But one thing they all are is cheap, coming in at just a few dollars per serving.

So here goes. My favorite cheap, healthy meals … and I hope you’ll use this list to start compiling your own, so that you’re never again tempted to go to the dark side just to save a few bucks.

1. Hearty Chickpea Pasta Soup

Link to recipe

Of the 50+ recipes in No Meat Athlete, this is the one I see people raving about the most on social media. With pasta, chickpeas, and greens, it’s filling and stands on its own as a meal. It’s also a favorite of my kids!

2. Hawaiian BBQ Tacos

Rip-June2014

(Image from firefighterengineering.com)

Link to recipe

This delicious oil-free recipe from Rip Esselstyn’s My Beef with Meat calls for a bottle of barbecue sauce, which you can get store-bought (Amy’s makes a healthy version) or make on your own. The latter is cheaper, but will take more time. Substitute lentils or black beans for the tempeh if you want to make it even cheaper.

3. Scott Jurek’s Long Run Pizza

Link to recipe

Ultrarunner Scott Jurek, who just set a new Appalachian Trail supported thru-hike record (averaging 50 miles a day for more than 46 days), shared this recipe in his book, Eat & RunAside from being kid-friendly, this pizza — which uses a tofu mixture for the cheese — is quick, and the healthiest recipe I know for pizza that still sort of seems like real pizza.

4. Creamy Tomato Soup with Roasted Chickpeas

[creamy tomato soup photo]

Link to recipe

From Angela Liddon’s bestselling Oh She Glows Cookbookthis crowd-pleaser pleases the host, too, because it costs just a couple dollars per serving. Bonus: the roasted chickpeas make your house smell amazing.

5. Baked Potatoes with Black Beans and Salsa

This simple “recipe” is one we picked up from Chef AJ’s Ultimate Weight Loss program that my wife had so much success with.

To make it: bake or microwave a few Yukon Gold potatoes, then top with black beans and salsa. Dress with lime juice, jalapeno slices, hot sauce, and cilantro, and you’ve got one of the cheapest meals you can eat with next to no active cooking time.

6. Bengali Red Lentils

[red lentil curry image]

Link to recipe

Here’s another one that saves both money and time — a real double-threat guy! The classic combination of lentils and rice makes for a filling and hearty dish, and you can stir in some baby spinach to add some green to the meal.

7. Romaine Salad with Beans and Tahini Dressing

The “giant salad with beans and oil-free dressing” has become a staple of my diet since we stopped eating oil. It’s not always cheap, but if you buy your lettuce in whole-head form and chop it yourself, you can make a clean, green, and filling lunch for three or four bucks.

I use a whole head of lettuce and half a can of beans for single salad. To fancy it up, add some carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower, three of the best-value veggies out there in terms of nutrition for your buck.

To make my favorite oil-free dressing these days: blend together a half-cup of tahini, a quarter-cup of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, and 2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce. Then thin with water (you’ll likely need a half cup or more) and add a dash of hot sauce to taste.

8. Pasta with Potatoes (by Mark Bittman)

Link to recipe

Pasta and potatoes? Sounds overly starch-a-riffic, but it’s actually a traditional combination in lots of Italian dishes (so is the combo of beans and pasta), and a great way to carbo-load. This one from Mark Bittman is one of my favorites, especially if you mash a few chickpeas into the sauce. (Omit the optional pancetta, of course.)

If you’re up for spending a little more, pasta, potatoes, and green beans with pesto is another classic pairing of these two starch buddies. Skip the cheese to make it vegan, of course.

9. Pasta e Fagioli

Vegan-pasta-e-fagioli-soup-6

(Image from choosingraw.com)

Link to recipe

Pasta e fagioli — and just about any other pasta dish with beans, too — was a staple for me when I first went vegetarian and was (too) concerned about getting a rich vegetarian protein source in every meal. I’m more lax about it now, believing that if you just eat whole foods, you’ll get the protein you need, even without trying.

But I still make pasta e fagioli now and then, because it’s easy, cheap, healthy and delicious. What’s not to love?

10. Split Pea Soup

Link to recipe

Who knew that split peas were high in protein? Crazier still, who knew that the soup we all hated as kids is actually pretty tasty when you’re an adult?

That is, if you make it right. This recipe from Terry Walters’ Clean Start is a wonderful, springy-fresh version of split pea soup that packs a great protein punch. If don’t have mirin on hand and don’t want to buy a whole bottle, you can substitute for the mirin with any white wine you have around — just add a pinch of sugar to sweeten it.

11. Banana Smoothie

I’ve long been a fan of smoothies as a quick, healthy breakfast, but this is one I’ve only started drinking since the Woodstock Fruit Festival last year.

The purest banana smoothie recipe: five or six very ripe bananas and water (12 ounces or so), mixed in a blender. But I like to add a handful of walnuts, for flavor and a little fat.

We can argue about whether that many bananas at once is healthy for an everyday breakfast — I’m still on the fence — but it makes for a perfect high-energy, raw, whole food, pre-workout meal. And a very cheap one at that.

12. Hawaiian Beans and Rice

[hawaiian beans and rice photo]

Link to recipe

If there’s a classic cheap vegan meal, beans and rice is it! This variation uses smoked paprika and pineapple for an interesting twist on the combination, and the addition of red cabbage and spinach help to make this cheap, healthy meal a staple in my house.

Got a favorite recipe that fits the “cheap, healthy, delicious” bill? Leave a link in the comments so we can all give it a try.

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Comments

  1. Michelle says:

    I can certainly vouch for the Bengali Red Lentils – it is a staple in my house. Quick, easy and delicious.

  2. I thank you so much for all the information you provide! I am new to the vegan oil free way of life and your blog and podcast had been wonderful! I especially appreciate the podcast about not being perfect! Change is hard but worth the challenge. Keep up the good work!

  3. Help me understand…you don’t eat oil because it’s a processed food, but you eat pasta?!
    I really love your blog and try to follow your advice, but then I read things that don’t make sense to me…

    • Pasta is processed sure. Depending on the kind of pasta you buy, you’re at least getting some nutrients and carbs. But oil is so processed, that there is literally nothing left but fat.

  4. A few tbs of peanut butter thinned with hot water plus some heat (red pepper flakes, hot sauce, diced hot pepper) tossed with any long, skinny pasta (rice noodles, any spaghetti, ramen) add edamame or fried tofu and whatever veg (cauliflower, broccoli, corn, zucchini. carrot.) If I’m feeling fancy, I add lime juice, ginger, garlic, soy sauce to the PB sauce. Then I make a huge pile of carrot ribbons with a vegetable peeler. Toss everything with pasta and edamame and dig in.

  5. This was just in time for me. Thanks for posting so many easy meals in one post. I have been in a rut with my dinners lately. These will help mix things up in the kitchen. I am excited to try the baked potato. Genius!

  6. Those pics sure make me hungry!

    This topic reminds me of a short video nutrition expert Dr. Ann Kulze did about eating nutritiously on a budget (http://bit.ly/1DiciFi). Beans, rice and lentils come up big because they’re inexpensive, exist in many varieties and combine together well, particularly providing lotsa protein.

    Organic veggies can be really expensive, particularly when you add them to smoothies and juice them like I do, so a solution here is to have a garden. Short for space? Go vertical. It’s easier than you may think, and there are many resources online to consult. Nothing like picking something fresh from the garden.

    Yep.

  7. I like to do a healthier take on traditional beans and rice with greens, beans and grains several nights a week. My go-to grain is quinoa, which is more expensive than rice, but still cheap per serving if bought in bulk. One of my favorite meals takes only 15 minutes to make: Start with rinsed quinoa simmering in water or veg broth in a large sauce pan. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and meanwhile I chop half a bunch of greens and make spicy Asian BBQ chickpeas: cook 1 can (1 1/2 cups cooked) drained and rinsed chickpeas, 1 Tbsp chili garlic paste, 1 Tbsp hoisin sauce and 1 Tbsp tamari/soy sauce in a medium saucepan on medium-low for 10 minutes. When my 10 minute timer goes off, I put the greens on top of the quinoa, cover the pot and let them steam for the last 5 minutes of the quinoa cooking time. When the greens and grains are done, I serve them up into large, shallow bowls and spoon the chickpeas over the top. Delicious with a side of fresh pineapple or mango!

  8. wow! A great list-will keep this in my bookmarks for when times get busy and inspiration runs low. I like that many of these items can be kept in the dry or canned storage in the pantry, and then supplemented with standard veggies found in the fridge on a regular basis. Thanks!!

  9. All this stuff is delicious…but does anyone else get FOOD COMA when consuming these things?

  10. Sandra, Italy says:

    Yay for cheap, healthy, vegan meals! Thanks Matt, gonna try them all! 😀

  11. I don’t know any meal with legumes that I didn’t like. Chick peas and beans are delicious and you can toss them in just about anything. GREAT REFERENCE and especially useful when you’re on a budget.

    I would add rice and a good old fashioned tossed salad with tomatoes and cucumbers to this list 🙂

  12. These all seem like great family recipes. We also like a salad with beans, we can usually cobble together a quick dinner out of food on hand between a head of romaine lettuce, a can of kidney beans or chickpeas (or fresh cooked beans if I’ve made them) and a few other things (sunflower or hemp seeds etc.).

  13. I like making Mexican Quinoa- quinoa, black beans, pinto beans, taco seasoning (make your own!), salsa, veg (bell peppers, green chiles, corn, tomatoes, avocado)- can be stuffed in bell peppers, can be burrito-style, can be on lettuce….. yummmmm

  14. Added the Bengali Red Lentils and the Hawaiian Rice and Beans to this weeks meal plan! So many great ideas, although it might take me more time to mix pasta and beans in one dish.

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