You hear all the time that eating a healthful diet costs money. And there's a lot of truth to that. Choosing organic fruits, vegetables, dairy, fish, and meat can add up very quickly; few of us have the means to eat at Whole Foods on a regular basis.
But there are good choices you can make that don't have to cost a lot. Thankfully, more dollar and discount stores are adding fresh produce and low-fat dairy, as well as frozen foods.
We recently visited a 99-cent store in Venice, California, to see what there was that was both healthy and cheap. We were incredibly impressed at the lineup of fresh foods we found there, and this is likely due at least in part to this store's location in a mostly affluent Los Angeles neighborhood, and also because California has some of the very best produce in the country. So while the selection we found may not be representative of the whole U.S., we do think you can find great choices that won't break the bank (or the scale) and will also help fuel your workouts. Plus, you can of course find these same foods on sale at your local grocery store.
It's worth emphasizing, too, that dollar and discount stores are absolutely full of really unhealthful foods. Unless you're buying fresh fruits and veggies, you'll need to be a very careful reader of nutrition labels before buying anything here. The majority of products at 99-cent and similar stores are highly processed and full of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, sodium (salt), and fat, among other unhealthful ingredients.
But these 13 foods and products are ones to keep an eye out for, as they're all good choices that'll make it easier to stick to your intentions to save money, eat better, and exercise more:
The fruit of summer! What better way to welcome the season than with a juicy slice or two of watermelon. The fruit is packed with lycopene, which is thought to be a powerful antioxidant. (Don't like watermelon? Lycopene is also in tomatoes.)
You know how much we love to emphasize portion size at ih8exercise.com. The 99-cent store is a great place to buy smaller bowls and plates without investing in a whole new set of dinnerware. Smaller bowls and plates make it less likely you'll overeat by filling up a bowl or piling on a plate with more than you need. (And no one likes to sit down to a mostly empty plate or barely-filled bowl.).
One of the other mantras we like a lot at ih8exercise.com is "plan ahead." Most Sundays, you'll find us roasting up some veggies to eat during the week, or shopping for lunchables (roast turkey, avocado, soup, apples, bananas, carrots, Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese and string cheese) so we'll at least get through to mid-week eating well. Food storage containers make it easy to divide food up by day or meal, or simply store what you've prepared to put in the fridge or freezer. (We don't recommend microwaving in these cheapie plastic containers, though, or in most plastic containers.)
If you only had to choose one healthful food to get more of, leafy green vegetables almost certainly top the list. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), kale and spinach are loaded with vitamins A, C, E, and K, while broccoli, bok choy, and mustard greens have lots of B vitamins. All have a type of antioxidant that may help reduce your risk of cancer. There's no fat, cholesterol, or salt (sodium) in any vegetable (or fruit)—unless you add it, that is. Dark green vegetables are particularly high in folate, a B vitamin that's linked to a healthy heart and may also reduce cancer risk. Beyond salads, these greens are great in wraps and sandwiches, in soups, and in stir-fries.
According to the USDA, mushrooms are a fabulous way to get key nutrients, including copper, folate, niacin, and potassium. Potassium is particularly important to fueling exercise, and it helps your heart to maintain its rhythm, as well as aiding fluid balance and muscle and nerve function. (Potassium is one of those electrolytes, like sodium, that can get depleted during intense, long-term exercise.) And it's hard to beat mushrooms for calories: 1 cup of sliced white mushrooms is just 16 calories.
Green, yellow, orange, purple, red! Few vegetables come in a range of such gorgeous hues, and also give you a crazy amount of food for so few calories: One medium green pepper is just 24 calories and packed with vitamin C (red peppers have even more C, as well as vitamin A), as well as some B6 and a bit of fiber (2 grams). They also contain beta carotene, potassium, and the B vitamin folic acid, and peppers come in sweet and spicy varieties.
Nature's perfect ovoid has 80 calories (that's per extra-large egg) and an impressive seven grams of protein. When you're exercising a lot, you need protein to repair damaged cells and tissue and for various metabolic activities that your body requires to function. Most people who are active, though, do not need a lot more protein than what they typically get in their diet, so there's no need to spend a lot on shakes, supplements, or bars. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that people who exercise regularly need about 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. So someone weighing 150 pounds (about 68 kilograms) would need about 95 to 136 grams per day. Most of the protein you get should come from whole, unprocessed foods and not supplements.
We won't lie to you: Eating mangoes is not the easiest thing in the world. The juicy stone fruit can be difficult to cut and peel, and the sticky juice tends to get everywhere. We're only going to suggest they're worth the trouble on a couple of fronts: First, if your sweet tooth is your biggest dietary challenge, there are few things as deliciously sweet as a ripe mango. Those natural sugars in the fruit do mean calorie counts can climb (one mango is about 200 calories), but you'll also get dietary fiber, lots of vitamin A, and tons of vitamin C (over double the recommended daily amount). If you need something that's more portable, we're big fans of Trader Joe's "Just Mango Slices," slices of dried mango that are unsulfured and unsweetened. These, too, can pack some big calories, though: Four pieces will rack up 120 calories and less vitamin C than the fruit itself.
Portable, delicious, sweet, versatile—there's not much to dislike about an apple. A medium apple is only 100 calories, with 4 grams of fiber and a little vitamin C, too. Like all other fruits, if a sweet tooth is your downfall, eating more fruit is the easiest way to transition from ice cream, candy, cookies, and other treats without feeling so deprived. Apples are in season year-round.
Like mangoes, pineapples can seem like more trouble than they're worth, but this is another fruit that delivers a lot of sweet goodness. (And if you can find them at the 99-cent store, even better, right?) Pineapples are high in vitamin C and make a great addition to salsa, stir-fries, and as a topping to fish. You can also freeze chunks on a kabob stick for a snack, suggests Fruit & Veggies: More Matters.
We're just guessing here, but if we had to name the most popular fruits, we'd say it's bananas and avocados. Avocados' popularity may be partly due to its key role in guacamole (and guac's natural partners, tortilla chips, salsa, and a tasty margarita), but it's also because the fruit's creamy consistency and natural fats make is so flavorful. Avocados have a little fiber, and some vitamin K and folate, among other nutrients, but it also contains a not insignificant amount of fat and calories: A whole avocado has 250 calories and 22.5 grams of fat. That said, very little of that fat is saturated (the unhealthy kind), and the fruit is naturally cholesterol-free.
Let's make a brief stop here to talk about nutrition labels in the 99-cent store. The first thing to know is that, much like the grocery store, dollar stores are full of unhealthful foods. That means you need to at least skim the Nutrition Facts label on foods that you're not familiar with. It's much cheaper for food manufacturers to add fat, high-fructose corn syrup (among other sweeteners), salt (sodium), and tons of chemicals to make food more flavorful.
When you're reading the label, pay attention to fat (especially saturated and trans fats; anything with trans fats should not go home with) and calories, but more important, look at the number and complexity of ingredients on the label. Ideally, a packaged food should have five or fewer ingredients and nothing you can't pronounce. You'll also find additives where you wouldn't expect them -- vegetables with added sugar, for example. Skip added sugar and salt whenever you can. And remember that more dietary fiber means the food will stay in your system longer, offering you more energy over time.
Breakfast is important. You already know that (right?) and you should already be eating something every morning; it doesn't need to even be a traditional breakfast. What's important is that you're putting something in your stomach besides three cups of coffee. Breakfast prevents overeating later and it will also help you avoid skipping a workout because you're too pooped and/or hungry. Instant oatmeal -- while not as ideal as slow-cooked oats; but who has time for that?--can be a great choice, not least because it's a great foundation on which to build: Add nuts, a little brown sugar, flaxseed, chopped fruit--whatever you like. Because oatmeal doesn't have protein you are likely to feel hungrier sooner, so consider adding a scoop of cottage cheese or Greek yogurt or a hard-boiled egg alongside your oatmeal.
There are plenty of beans to be had at the dollar store: pinto, black, garbanzo, and more, both dried and canned. Choose ones without added sugar or salt, ideally. While beans will make you toot, they are also a cheap, easy, versatile way to get more fiber that will keep you satisfied and not hungry, particularly if you're trying to lose weight. Beans are also a great to get more protein: According to the Bean Institute (yes, there is such a thing), one-half cup of cooked beans has 115 calories and 8 grams of protein. Beans are also low in fat, and have various vitamins as well as some key minerals that many other foods don't have or have little of, like copper, phosphorous, manganese, and magnesium.
When it comes to rice, you want whole grains; and brown rice fits the bill (brown rice has retained the bran and germ, unlike white rice). One cup of cooked brown rice is 216 calories, with under 2 grams of fat, according to the USDA. You'll get 3.5 grams of fiber and almost no sugar, plus a little vitamin B6 and magnesium. A small April 2014 study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine comparing brown rice and white rice consumption in overweight and obese women found that the women who ate brown rice "could significantly reduce weight, waist and hip circumference, body mass index, and blood pressure." One more vote for the carb-eaters. The trick is to eat complex carbohydrates, like brown rice.
We're not going to tell you that eating animal crackers is good for you. The truth is, though, that any healthy-eating plan should include a few treats and some treats are worse for you than others. On the scale of things that will hurt you, animal crackers are pretty benign. And they're tasty. The nice thing about this 99-cent box of animal crackers is that it's portion-controlled (you can only eat a whole box, which isn't that much, unless of course you stock up), and there's comparatively little added sugar or sodium and minimal fat. Even bingeing on a whole box will only set you back 240 calories.
We'd never tell you that a canned juice is better than getting your veggies (and fruits) straight from the source. But it's simply not easy to get the amount of fresh produce we're supposed to every day, and if you don't have a $500 Vitamix blender you may not be able to mix up your own kale smoothie at home. So while we recommend these V8 vegetable juices with caution (they're typically very high in sodium -- though the ones we found were a lower-sodium version -- and the calories will add up if you drink more than one), they are always a better option than soda (even diet soda). Though water is still best of all.
Brown-bagging it means you're in control of what you eat for lunch—simple as that. Why not go old-school (so to speak) and use the bags and the food containers (above) to plan your meals and snacks?
Dollar stores have a huge selection of water containers, and we recommend filling one of those from the tap or a filter pitcher (like a Brita) instead of buying more bottled water, but for times when you need bottles, get them here and definitely always skip the soda. You can also use the big bottles as part of your next workout.
Beautiful, sweet, portable, and healthy--another winner in the fruit category, and available at the 99-cent store! Strawberries have plenty of vitamin C, as well as potassium (again, one of those electrolytes that's so important to your workouts and overall body functioning), folate, and fiber. One cup of strawberries has just 45 calories and 3 grams of fiber. A 2010 review of the science on strawberries and health found that the fruit's antioxidant power may help inhibit LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), lower inflammation, and suppress the growth of cancer tumors. Plus, they're really good with shortcake.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE 99-CENT STORE FINDS?