The humble carrot is a powerhouse of nutrients. “Carrots provide plenty of vitamin A for the skin and for immune support, as well as being surprisingly rich in vitamin K, which is important for bone health,” says nutritionist and chef Christine Bailey. “They’re also well known for their carotenoids, which have important antioxidant benefits.” At just 60p for a kilogram of fresh carrots, you can go wild with this root vegetable: celebrate it in this Indian-spiced carrot salad or this vegan carrot cake.
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Far cheaper than fresh tuna, the tinned variety is also packed with protein. “One can of tuna in water (165g) contains a whopping 42g of protein, yet it’s only 191 calories,” explains Christine. Tinned tuna makes a delicious lunch when mixed with natural yogurt and a squeeze of mayonnaise in a wrap with diced cucumber and tomato. One tin costs about £2 and should be enough for two servings.
Tinned sardines are as cheap as chips and, says Christine: “The bones provide bone-building calcium, plus you’ll get a dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, too.” One tin (around 40p) is enough to make this Sicilian sardine pasta for four or sardine bouillabaisse.
Tinned salmon and mackerel
With protein and omega-3s, tinned salmon is another storecupboard wonder. “Canned salmon is also rich in selenium – low levels of this mineral have been linked to various forms of cancer,” says Christine. “Oily fish like salmon and mackerel also provide vitamin D which is important for immune health.” A 105g tin of Tesco salmon costs about £1.10 and is more than enough for this tasty spinach and salmon wrap. A tin of mackerel in tomato sauce (125g) is around £1 and makes a yummy filling for two jacket potatoes.
Buying frozen is often significantly cheaper, and in many dishes you won’t even notice the difference. According to Christine, prawns have protein and omega-3 fats, and are lower in calories than many meats of similar protein value. You can buy 250g of cooked and peeled frozen prawns for around £2.20 – use them to make a lemony prawn pasta or add to a comforting fish pie filling (each serve four).
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“Grab a handful of these to add to your smoothie,” suggests Christine. “They’re packed with antioxidants and an economical way to enjoy berries throughout the year.” Pick up a 500g bag of frozen mixed berries for around £2 – enough to make up to 10 servings of this refreshing dairy-free banana and berry smoothie (below). Frozen berries also make a delicious and healthy dessert – allow a handful to defrost slightly and serve with natural yogurt and a drizzle of honey.
From spinach to peas and sweetcorn, there’s little fresh produce that you can’t buy frozen. “Frozen veg is economical as you waste less,” says Christine. Just use what you need and keep the rest frozen for another time – great advice for smaller households that don’t get through fresh vegetables in time. “Frozen veggies are picked and frozen at peak ripeness, when they’re most nutritionally dense,” she says. “They’re often better value and are edible for months longer than fresh veg.” Prices vary by vegetable, but you’ll generally be able to pick up a 1kg bag for around £1.50. Frozen veg is best used in soups, stews, curries and pie fillings, where you won’t notice any difference in texture. An inexpensive and easy way to bump up your five-a-day.
Eggs are excellent as a source of protein for vegetarians, or for meat-eaters trying to cut down or save cash. “They’re also a source of B vitamins and contain iron,” says Christine. A box of six Tesco medium free-range eggs costs around £1 – and you only need four of them for this yummy leek, pea and pepper frittata for four.
Whether your preference is for cannellini, butter, kidney or black, tinned beans are an affordable pantry staple that’s great for bulking up soups, stews and salads. “The combination of protein and fibre helps to balance blood-sugar levels and keeps energy levels high, avoiding dips,” explains Christine. Depending on your bean of choice, a 400g tin costs around 50-70p. This hearty Spanish chicken stew is the perfect use for your cannellini beans, and it will also count towards your five-a-day.
Kale is in season in February, making now a great time to get the most out of it. “Kale is packed full of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins K, C and A, dietary fibre, calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium,” says Christine. For a 500g bag of kale, you’ll fork out about £2. This should be enough for two or three meals’ worth of side servings for a family of four. Try it in this easy recipe for baked kale risotto with pumpkin seeds – just double the recipe for four servings.
“This cruciferous vegetable is not only cheap, but rich in an array of nutrients, including vitamin C and fibre,” says Christine. “It’s versatile too – great cooked or raw in salads, or make your own sauerkraut.” Depending on size and variety, you’ll pay between 50p and £1.30 for your cabbage, and most recipes for four servings use only half the cabbage. Give this ham and cabbage hash a go – it’s a great way to use up leftover cooked potatoes.
Whether you eat them as porridge, Bircher muesli or add them to your smoothie, oats are a cheap and cheerful way to add fibre to your diet. “Oats are filling and packed with soluble fibre, useful for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels,” says Christine. “They’re a great heart-healthy food and perfect for keeping hunger pangs at bay.” A 1kg bag of oats can cost under £1 – enough for about 15 servings. These strawberry and elderflower overnight oats (above) make a nice change from your usual porridge.
“Brown rice is rich in soluble fibre to keep blood-sugar levels stable,” explains Christine. “It also provides manganese needed for energy production and selenium for immune health.” You can buy a 1kg bag of brown rice for under £2, which makes over 13 servings. Try cooking up this unusual leek and butterbean stroganoff to serve over your brown rice.
Learning to love lentils is an excellent way to get more protein in your diet and add bulk to meals. “A great storecupboard ingredient, lentils can be used in soups, stews, casseroles and curries,” says Christine. “Lentils are rich in iron, B vitamins, magnesium and manganese.” Tinned lentils are ready to drain and add immediately to whatever you’re making – no cooking required. One 390g tin of green lentils costs around 55p, and is more than enough to make this Andalusian lentil and courgette bake.
“High in protein, cottage cheese tastes great in both sweet and savoury dishes,” Christine says. “It’s perfect as part of a main meal or a healthy snack.” Everyday Value cottage cheese will cost about 65p for 300g. Try it with granola for breakfast or as a topping for jacket potatoes with tuna and grated carrot. A typical serving is one third to one half of a tub.
Natural yogurt is high in protein. “Enjoy it for breakfast with some muesli and fruit, or as a post-workout snack,” Christine recommends. “It’s also a great source of calcium.” 500g of low-fat natural yogurt (three-to-five portions) costs about £1.10, and is very versatile, so it’s worth keeping a pot handy in the fridge.
“Tinned tomatoes are packed with lycopene, a carotenoid pigment shown to protect the skin from sun damage,” says Christine. Use them to make a bolognese or pasta sauce, curry base, and loads of other dishes. One 400g tin of Everyday Value chopped tomatoes can be bought for around 35p, and it’s more than you need to whip up this vegetarian fennel, tomato and red pepper paella (above).
Common in curries and a popular alternative to dairy in desserts, coconut milk is, according to Christine: “a useful source of lauric acid, which is known to possess anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-microbial properties”. One tin of coconut milk (400ml) is about £1 – use it to make this aromatic Southern Indian fish curry for four.
“Olives are a good source of healthy monounsaturated fats to keep skin smooth and soften wrinkles,” says Christine. Olives also provide nutrients such as copper and iron. A jar (330g) will set you back between £1 and £2 and will add a salty, tart kick to salads, stews and more for up to five meals for four people. Get your dose of olive goodness in this aubergine and olive stifado, a vegan take on the classic Greek casserole.
Oranges and other citrus fruits are best known for being a source of vitamin C, but they’re good for other nutrients, too. “They provide plenty of fibre, folate and potassium,” Christine says. Eat the fruit on its own or with your breakfast, juice it, or enjoy it in this refreshing green bean salad. One orange is about 30p – you’ll need four for this salad serving four.
Full of fibre and potassium, bananas make a great on-the-go snack. Roughly 12-20p each, they’re also a healthy alternative to sugary desserts: use two bananas to whizz up this frozen banana ice cream (above) or deliciously healthy banana and chocolate custard pots.
It’s easy to forget about unassuming spinach in amongst the huge variety of green leafy vegetables on offer. But it’s packed with nutrients, including vitamins A and K, and an exceptionally easy way to add value to any meal. Fresh spinach doesn’t need much cooking: just add some to your plate or bowl before dishing up a stir-fry, stew, casserole or whatever you’re eating, and the heat from the food will wilt it. Fresh spinach costs around £1 for 200g, or you can get more bang for your buck by adding frozen spinach straight from the freezer to the pot for around £1.50 for 900g.
Endlessly versatile, the sweet potato is good for just about anything you’d do with a regular potato: mash it, roast it, bake it and fry it. Sweet potatoes count towards your five-a-day, and are high in vitamins B6, C, D, iron, magnesium and potassium. They’re also a more balanced source of energy than their potato counterparts, as their natural sugars release slowly, avoiding blood-sugar spikes. Around 45p each, they’ll feed a family of four for next to nothing – try these baked sweet potatoes with chimichurri, or for a treat, rustle up these spiced sweet potato wedges.
Keep a container of toasted pumpkin seeds on hand in the kitchen, and you’ll soon wonder how you ever did without them. A source of protein and iron, these little seeds are great for adding a nutty crunch to salads, soups, pasta dishes, risotto and more. Usually under £1 for 100g, a bag will last you for many meals, as you don’t need much: just toss a handful over whatever you’re serving, to up the nutrition content and the enjoyment.
As well as being a good source of B vitamins and minerals, mushrooms are the only natural source of vitamin D for vegans. Even if you eat meat, mushrooms are a great way to add nutrients to your diet and save some cash, as you can easily bulk up a meal with them: a proportion of 1:1 of mushrooms to meat in a stew or meat sauce such as bolognese will make a more substantial meal, and is cheaper than adding more meat. Or celebrate them on their own in this scrumptious baked gnocchi with mushrooms and spinach.
Words: Rebecca Dodd
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