10 Superstar Ingredients in My Kitchen (For Health + Budget) - Part 2

healthy food on a budget, Mediterranean diet, healthy eating tips, money saving tips for groceries, frugal living

In my last post, I left off on a bit of a cliffhanger. I shared with you five of the top 10 foods in my kitchen that benefit both your body and your wallet. ;) If you haven't already, you can check out that post here.

This week, I want to dive deep into the other five foods! I'll be breaking down some of the cost savings as well as the health benefits of these foods. I work in digestive health, so many of these benefits will be shared from a digestive health standpoint.


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6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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This can seem like a "splurge item", but it definitely doesn't have to be. I buy my olive oil at Aldi for about $3 a bottle and go through a bottle every 2-3 weeks. This is totally doable for our $80-90 per week food budget. I use it in almost all of my cooking, even when butter or other oils are called for.

Here's the thing, butter may not be as bad as we used to think, but it's likely neutral at bestOlive oil, in contrast is way better than neutral! It's been associated with optimal heart healthbetter maintenance of cognitive function over time, and lower levels of inflammation.

Since we do like the taste of butter, we splurge every few months and buy butter-flavored olive oil from our local olive oil storeThis stuff tastes like melted butter. It's amazing! Any time I'm making a recipe that calls for butter, I almost always use this instead. It is about $15 per bottle, though, so for the bulk of my cooking I use Aldi's olive oil and save this for when butter is a make-or-break flavoring component in a recipe.

7. Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats

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I love oats.

They are one of my top two favorite whole grains and here's one reason why: oats are incredibly cheap. I can get about 15 cups from the store for around $2.50. Those 15 cups will make about 5 batches of baked oatmeal, and each batch provides breakfast for Jeremy and I for 4 days. If you do the math, each $2.50-container of oats makes 40 breakfasts! That's about $0.06 per serving - not including fruit, yogurt, or the other ingredients in baked oatmeal. Still, oats are a huge steal.

Besides cost, I love oats for their health value. Oats are less broken down (meaning less processed) than most whole grain products, including whole wheat bread and whole grain dry cereals (Cheerio's, Shredded Wheat, etc.). When you look at a handful of old-fashioned oats, you know exactly what they are just by looking at them. If you look at a handful of Cheerio's or a slice of whole wheat bread, you can't tell what grain they are made from unless you read the label or you already know.

Old-fashioned oats contain one ingredient - oats. Whether a food has one or more ingredients is one of the best ways (with a few exceptions) to tell how processed a food is. Whole grain dry cereals and whole grain breads almost always have multiple ingredients, which is a clear sign of processing. Why does this matter?

The less processed a food is, A) the less likely it is that nutrients have been stripped out of the food and B) the more intact fiber remains in the food - in the case of plant foods.

Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

As I've discussed in earlier posts, fiber is absolutely critical to health. Fiber from food is not broken down by the body, but instead reaches the colon intact. Your colon is home to your microbiome, a massive community of microorganisms - literally hundreds of trillions of them (primarily bacteria). Your microbiome is largely responsible for your immune system (about 70-80% of it!) and plays a large role in your body's inflammation level and metabolism.

Yep, it's a pretty big deal.

So why is fiber important for a healthy microbiome?

The trillions of microorganisms that make up your microbiome live off of the undigested leftovers of your food when it enters your colon. There are good microorganisms (ones that promote optimal health) and bad microorganisms that promote inflammation. Fiber is food for the "good guys". Unfortunately, the undigested remains of less healthy foods like cheeseburgers and fries are food for the "bad guys".

Your microbiome is constantly engaged in a battle between the "good guy" and the "bad guy" microorganisms. The food you provide to your microbiome is largely responsible for which side is winning.

8. 100% Whole Wheat Pasta

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My other favorite whole grain is 100% whole wheat pasta. To say I like pasta would be a massive understatement. Pasta is a way to my heart and always has been. :)

Unfortunately, pasta has gotten a terrible reputation in the anti-carb dieting industry in the last few decades. This is sad for at least two reasons.

First, pasta is dirt cheap! You can buy a box for about $1.50 and it will feed a family of 6 (plus some sort of topping/sauce and sides of course). I know of very few foods that are this cheap.

Second, pasta is very good for you. Pasta is one of the lowest-glycemic carbohydrate foods. This means that when you eat pasta, the carbohydrates in it are slowly absorbed into your system - providing steady energy for several hours and keeping you full. This is instead of being dumped into your system all at once - spiking your blood glucose and leaving you tired and grouchy an hour or two later. Steady energy for the win! ;)

The primary difference between whole wheat and regular pasta is - you guessed it - fiber! Whole wheat pasta has around 5 grams of fiber per serving (1 cup cooked), while regular pasta has only 2 grams per serving (1 cup cooked).

The average American gets only 17 grams of fiber - far short of the minimum recommended 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men! Our microbiomes are suffering as a result. Every gram of fiber truly counts. Think of it as feeding versus starving the "good guys" in your gut.

If whole wheat pasta is a big jump for you in terms of taste, make the jump a little smaller by starting with half whole wheat and half regular pasta. It also helps to add the sauce to your pasta before serving it. If you are using marinara sauce, you probably won't even notice the slightly darker color of whole wheat.

I love having whole grain pasta just about any way, but here are 3 of my favorite ways:

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9. Yogurt - Quart Size

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While I believe that fiber is probably the #1 key to a healthy microbiome when it comes to diet, I believe that probiotics have a role to play as well. I make a point of having a serving of naturally probiotic-rich food on a daily basis for this reason. Fermented dairy - primarily yogurt and kefir - is the natural source of probiotics I choose. I also regularly consume cheese, which is another type of fermented dairy, but has much fewer probiotics.

I happen to believe that fermented dairy is much healthier for the body than non-fermented dairy (i.e. milk and heavy cream).

At least three studies have shown that drinking milk may not be all that beneficial for our bones (here and here) and  may actually be linked with a higher mortality rate. These studies are intriguing and fairly convincing to me in combination with one another, but you have to decide for yourself. There are other studies that show completely opposite results. This is a perfect example of why research studies should (always!) be interpreted with caution. One or two studies are never enough to prove a point. We have to look at the overall body of evidence.

On the other hand, fermented dairy may be very helpful for bone health. It could be because the combination of calcium + probiotics may increase absorption. Fermented dairy has also been linked with a potentially lower risk of cardiovascular disease. It may not be associated with mortality risk (either positively or negatively), but one study did find that full-fat fermented milk (buttermilk or kefir) may be associated with a lower mortality risk.

Yogurt is a powerhouse. It contains not only probiotics, but also protein, calcium (in a highly absorbable form), magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin K, potassium, and iodine, which is important for healthy thyroid function.

The cheapest way to buy yogurt is in quart-sized containers. You will save a significant chunk of money buying it this way. A quart of yogurt (I buy vanilla whole milk yogurt at Aldi for around $3.50) contains 5 servings of 5 oz. each (or 4 servings of 1 cup). This rounds out to about $0.70 per serving. You're lucky if you can find a single-serving container - which only contains 5 ounces, by the way - for $1 on sale.

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One quick word about why I buy full-fat instead of low-fat yogurt. One study showed that full-fat fermented dairy might promote better cardiovascular health than low-fat dairy (fermented + non-fermented). A review article in 2015 Annual Review of Nutrition (basically the "Oscar's" of nutrition journals) stated, "There is growing evidence that saturated fatty acids in the context of dairy foods, particularly fermented dairy products, have neutral or inverse associations with cardiovascular disease." Interesting, huh?

Another study found that high-fat dairy intake may be inversely associated with fatal strokes (the inverse association means higher intake = lower risk). One review, however, basically said that the jury is still out on whether high-fat or low-fat dairy is better.

For me, there's enough cumulative research to buy full-fat yogurt instead of low-fat even though I'm not 100% confident that full-fat is absolutely better. What I can confidently say is that full-fat yogurt tastes better and does not contain the fillers that low-fat yogurt often contains to make up for the lack of fat.

If you want the convenience of single-serving containers at the cost of a quart, scoop out single-serving portions into reusable containers and keep them in the fridge all ready to go.

Personally, I have a big spoonful of yogurt on top of baked oatmeal or berries most days for breakfast, so I don't bother with pre-portioned containers. Do whatever works best for you and makes it the most convenient! :)

10. Frozen Spinach

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I had no idea frozen green leafy vegetables were such a steal until I directly compared prices with fresh spinach. I was stunned by the result.

A 12-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach at Walmart costs $1 and provides 4 servings at $0.25 per serving. A 10-ounce package of fresh spinach from Walmart costs  $2.58 and provides only 3.5 servings, which is $0.85 per serving! Looks can be deceiving. The giant bag of fresh spinach looks like a better value than the denser box of frozen spinach, but it shrinks down a lot when it is cooked.

Bottom line: if you're planning to have cooked spinach, you will pay more than 3 times as much if you buy it fresh and cook it yourself than if you buy it frozen.
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I have one caveat, however. The texture of frozen chopped spinach is different from fresh cooked spinach. Frozen spinach is typically chopped in very small pieces, so if you're putting it in a quiche or other baked egg dish (like muffin tin eggs), it will work perfectly. If you're sautéeing it and adding it to pasta, for example, you might want to stick with cooking it from fresh. The whole leaves just work better in some recipes, so it's worth the extra cost in certain cases.


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Food is Medicine

There you have it.

These are the superstar ingredients in my kitchen due to both cost and health value. As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN for short) working in digestive health, I truly believe that food is medicine. I've seen it transform my own health and that of my patients. I don't, however, believe that it needs to be expensive or weird-tasting in order to be beneficial. All of these superstar ingredients are completely "normal foods" (at least to most).

You probably noticed that most of the health benefits I discussed above are related to the digestive system. This is probably because digestive health nutrition is my specialty. If your digestive system is out of whack, I think it's really difficult for your body to be healthy overall. As they say, you are what you eat! ;)

I'd love to continue talking about this more with you in the comments! :) Leave a message for me below!