Diet and Nutrition

Eat well for less: 5 building blocks for a nourishing, affordable pantry

Diet and Nutrition

Mother and daughter cooking healthy food in the kitchen
Cooking healthy, nourishing meals can be fun – and it often costs less than buying processed, prepared alternatives.

One of the most commonly quoted hurdles to nutritious eating is the rising cost of food. People who are on a budget – and who isn’t, lately? – may worry that buying whole foods, rather than processed counterparts, might break the bank.

But data rolling in since the COVID-19 pandemic debunk this myth. Though the Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows that food prices are 7% higher today than in January 2021, the most significant price increases have been in less nourishing options.

Fresh vegetables have increased just 1.1% and fresh fruits decreased by 0.8%, but processed and less nourishing food prices are rising dramatically:

  • Beef and veal prices, 9.6%
  • Cereal and bakery products, 2-3%
  • Processed fruits and vegetables, 2.5-3.5%
  • Fats and oils (such as candy and chips), 3-4%
Milette Siler registered dietitian
Registered dietitian Milette Siler is the lead instructor for UT Southwestern's Culinary Medicine Program and co-author of this article.

Eating more nourishing foods is actually smarter for your wallet and your body.

That brings us to the second big obstacle we often hear about healthy eating: I don’t know how to cook with all this produce.

Don’t fret – the UT Southwestern Culinary Medicine team has you covered! We offer community education for people who want to make meaningful lifestyle and nutrition changes, and we are cooking up a growing menu of resources to help you prepare delicious, nourishing food. Our nutrition experts can guide you in proven ways to stretch your food budget without sacrificing flavor, nourishment, or convenience – even for complex diet needs or picky eaters.

Eating a nourishing, delicious dietary pattern can be just as easy and healthier than picking up take-out or choosing ultra-processed foods. Starting with five essential building blocks, you can stock a nourishing pantry – or shelf, or freezer – with ingredients for healthy, satisfying meals on any budget.

Related reading callout: Explore the benefits of Culinary Medicine.

Dr. Jaclyn Albin shares a favorite recipe for hearty bean soup.

1. Nuts, seeds, and beans

Nuts, seeds, and beans are protein powerhouses packed with nutrients to power your body and keep you feeling full. They are also delicious and convenient to add to any meal. Along with fiber and healthy fats, nuts and seeds provide essential nutrients such as omega-3s to keep your cells, heart, and brain structurally sound. Small amounts of nuts and seeds are all you need to add flavor to a meal.

Beans, also called legumes, are rich in fiber and protein but cholesterol-free and low in fat. Research shows that eating legumes plays an important role in the prevention and management of health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Add to your grocery list

  • Nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts – using just a small amount of nuts can add big flavor to your recipes.
  • Seeds, including chia, flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds.
  • Legumes, such as black beans, edamame, chickpeas, peas, peanuts, and lentils.

Try these tips to stretch your meal budget and increase the flavor factor

  • Add a handful of nuts or seeds to your morning cereal, yogurt, or oatmeal for a little extra crunch.
  • Sift a handful of cooked beans on top of a salad for added taste and texture.
  • Stir black or kidney beans into ground beef dishes to extend the nutrition and volume (and reduce the cost) of meals. For ground chicken or turkey dishes, try white beans.
  • Blend beans into a creamy, protein-rich salad dressing.
  • Make a soup or smoothie base from nut butters, such as peanut or sun butter.

For more recipes and healthy eating tips, watch "Cooking with Milette"

whole grains
This recipe for overnight oats is easy to make and very customizable based on your favorite fruit toppings.

2. Whole grains

Whole grain foods are full of valuable nutrients that protect against obesity, heart disease, and some types of cancer. Fiber can help maintain a healthy blood sugar level, lower cholesterol, and prevent small blood clots that can cause heart attacks or strokes. Whole grains also contain minerals such as magnesium, selenium, and copper.

A word of caution: “Enriched,” “refined” grains or flour are processed foods that have been stripped of nutrients to improve shelf life. They’re not the same as whole grains – look for the Whole Grain Stamp or the words “100% whole wheat” on the food label.

Add to your grocery list

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Corn tortillas
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Whole-wheat pasta

Try these tips

  • Sprinkle cooked grains, such as quinoa, in salads and soups.
  • Prepare and freeze extra servings, which you can stir into soups, stews, and casseroles.
  • Intensify the flavor of grains by toasting them over medium-high heat until they darken.

Health Meets Food: Try this recipe for tuna noodle casserole with whole grain pasta

Fruits and vegetables
A good rule of thumb is to try to eat the rainbow when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

3. Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are satisfying, flavorful, and essential for good nutrition – and there are hundreds of types to choose from. Eating a variety of types and colors fuels your body with a mix of key nutrients. Each day, try to eat the rainbow: eat at least one serving of dark green leafy vegetables, yellow or orange fruits and vegetables, red fruits and vegetables, and citrus fruits.

In-season produce is typically easier to find and costs less. Fresh and frozen varieties are equally nutritious, and canned produce can make a great shelf stable option. Look for produce that is canned in water or natural juice, with low to no added sugar or salt.

Add to your grocery list

  • Spring: Apricots, pineapple, collard greens, and broccoli
  • Summer: Avocados, bananas, okra, and zucchini
  • Fall: Apples, kiwifruit, kale, and spinach
  • Winter: Grapefruit, oranges, carrots, and pumpkin

Try these tips

  • Buy frozen produce. Packaged can be just as nutritious as fresh, often costs less, and has a longer storage life.
  • Combine oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and a squeeze of citrus for a nutritious salad dressing.
  • Top off cereal or oatmeal with frozen blueberries.
  • Explore the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seasonal produce guide for tasty produce to try.

Health Meets Food: Try this recipe for yellow vegetable curry

Chicken mushroom quesadilla healthy food
A chicken mushroom quesadilla is packed with savory vegetables and lean protein. See recipe below.

4. Lean meats

The Mediterranean diet – an eating pattern centered around plant-based foods and healthy fats – emphasizes eating less meat and opting for leaner cuts when you do. Lean meats contain protein, vitamins, and nutrients with less cholesterol and unhealthy fats. Some fish also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to healthy heart and brain function.

You can start by substituting red meat with lean meat, such as skinless chicken or fresh-water fish, such as salmon and canned or fresh tuna. The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least two times per week as part of a healthy diet. Everyone, particularly pregnant, breastfeeding, and young people, should be mindful of the risks of consuming mercury when eating fish. Use the FDA's chart about mercury safety as a reference.

Add to your grocery list

  • Anchovies
  • Herring
  • Salmon
  • Skinless chicken
  • Tuna – fresh or contained in water (rather than oil)

Try these tips

  • Choose canned or pouched tuna, as an inexpensive, low-calorie, low-sodium source of protein and nutrients. There are a lot of tasty ways to incorporate tuna into your meal!
  • Frozen meat is a great option – the flash-freezing process seals in the freshness, flavor, and nutrition.

Moncrief Cancer Institute:Try this recipe for chicken mushroom quesadillas

blueberry granita slushie
This blueberry granita slushie is a healthy alternative to a commercially prepared smoothie, which has a lot of added sugar. See recipe below.

5. Beverages

There’s no substitute for water – listen to your body and drink water when thirsty or ask your doctor or dietitian for individualized recommendations. Coffee and tea are fine in moderation, but limit added sugars and creams in your drinks, and use natural sweeteners such as slices of fruit in a cold glass of water. Drink smoothies in moderation, particularly commercially prepared options because many of those recipes are low in nutrients and full of added sugar.

From a cancer prevention perspective, there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption on a regular basis. It is best to abstain. For people who have a healthy relationship with alcohol and wish to consume it, up to two 5oz (150mL) glasses of wine for men a day and one for women is a generally accepted limit. If you don’t already drink, we do not recommend adding alcohol to your diet just for health benefits.

Add to your grocery list

  • Flavored tea bags or leaves
  • Low-calorie club soda or tonic water for a refreshing change

Try these tips

  • Flavor your drinks with a dash of cinnamon, a squeeze of lemon, or a shot of honey.
  • Resist the urge to drink sugary protein shakes, which can pack 30g or more of sugar in a serving – that’s nearly 2 tablespoons.

Moncrief Cancer Institute: Try this recipe for a blueberry granita slushie

Stocking your nourishing pantry space

Storing nutritious food doesn’t require a fancy setup. Use the space you have – if that’s a bin under your bed with staple items, that’s perfectly fine.

Choose containers that seal completely to avoid waste and opt for clear containers when possible so you can easily see what you have to work with. Store items with a shorter shelf life – such as fresh produce – front and center in your pantry or countertop. Some people find it helpful to keep a small whiteboard list of what’s in their nourishing pantry.

Before you head to the grocery store, shop your own pantry to know what and how much you need of each item. Websites such as Supercook can help you find recipes using ingredients you have on hand, which is handy if you’re lacking a few go-to items.

The five building blocks provide a great start if you are interested in making meals that satisfy your taste buds, nutritional needs, and your wallet.

If you have questions or want to learn more, ask your UTSW doctor to consult the culinary medicine team and stay tuned for future cooking classes!

To visit with a nutrition expert, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.

Eating & Living Healthy

UT Southwestern internal medicine physicians Dr. Jaclyn Albin, center, and Dr. Bethany Agusala, right, share real-world strategies for making lasting and healthy lifestyle choices. They joined Dr. John Warner, Executive Vice President for Health System Affairs at UTSW, for the Dec. 30, 2021, episode of "What to Know."