Advanced Food Frugality: The Most Frugal Groceries

Are your food bills are ballooning and you feel like there's nothing you can do? My first advice is to cut down on restaurant meals, but maybe you've already done that and are ready to take your food frugality to the next level.

Here are my simple rules for getting the most out of your grocery dollar:

  1. Maximize calories per dollar.
  2. Maximize nutrition per dollar.
  3. Food should be enjoyable, but don't forget that pleasure isn't food's only purpose. It may be helpful to mentally separate the "entertainment" part of your food budget (I'm looking at you, diet coke, booze, and nutritionless snacks) from the "nourishing your body" part of your food budget.
  4. Plan daily food intake to hit all your nutrition DVs and get the right amount of fuel (calories) for your life.
  5. Meal Prep when possible with all of the above in mind.

Know what your needs are

Do you know how many calories your body needs in a day? The one-size-fits-all approach of 2000 calories per day does not apply to everyone. A 6'4" musclebound athlete needs more fuel than a 5'1" office worker. Gender, weight, and age are also factors.

You can calculate your total daily energy expenditure with a calculator like the one here. If your body only requires 1800 calories per day, there's no need to spend money on 2000 calories worth of food per day.

Even if you're not trying to lose or gain any weight, tracking your eating habits with a food diary app like MyFitnessPal might give you some insights into how many vitamins you're getting.

I tracked my food very carefully for a month and was shocked to learn that I wasn't getting anywhere near the amount of iron, vitamin C, or fiber I needed. And there I was, thinking I had been eating so healthy! Time for an adjustment!

Examples of Frugal Foods

Here are some of my favorite high nutrition and calorie per dollar foods:


Egg prices fluctuate, but right now they're at a major low point. At around 14-20 cents per egg, but 75-100 calories, eggs are a great way to fuel your body and get nutrition.

Eggs are a good source of vitamin D, lutein, choline, iron, and other nutrients according to WebMD.

(You may know that I own shares in Cal-Maine foods, the US's largest egg producer. That's right, I like eggs so much that I put my money where my mouth is.)

Rice and Beans

In the winter of 2015, when I was working a lot and had a long commute, I ate rice and kimchi for dinner every night. When I got home late at night, I would put rice and water into the rice cooker, take a 20-minute shower, and by the time I toweled off the steaming rice would be ready for me to dump kimchi on top of. I would eat it in bed, then pass out.

Rice is one of the highest protein-per-dollar foods, and a high calorie-per-dollar food.

Don't be afraid to buy the 20 lb bag of rice! Grab a funnel and store it in empty plastic bottles, where it will keep pest-free and moisture-free for a year or more.

Black Beans are very high in nutrition per dollar and calories per dollar, too. Canned beans are far more convenient than dried, but dried beans are cheaper.

Have you seen Mrs FAF's (of Frugal Asian Finance) frugal weight loss lunch? Canned beans, rice, and a banana. Three of the best frugal foods- and she lost 36 pounds.


Potatoes are one of the cheapest whole foods in terms of calories per dollar, and also offer a surprisingly long list of vitamins and minerals. If you were broke and had only ten dollars for food to last until payday, and food pantries were not available, I would tell you to buy only potatoes. Boiled, mashed, or stuck in a stew, they are the ultimate survival food.

Sweet potatoes are also cheap and have lots of A and B vitamins, with lots of calories to keep you going.

Sardines and Avocados (together)

Gurus like Tim Ferriss and Alton Brown have popularized the health benefits of sardines. While they're not everyone's favorite food, they're a powerhouse of nutrition.

I like to mash up sardines packed in sunflower oil with an avocado and a little lemon juice and spread it over toast. It's a 600 calorie meal loaded with Omega 3s, Omega 6s, calcium, iron, B vitamins, fiber, and tons of health benefits. The price tag? About $2 or 3 dollars, $1 of which is the avocado.

Avocados don't have a reputation as a frugal food, but they should. $1 of avocado has nearly 300 calories, loads of nutrition, and keeps you full for a very long time.

Avocado toast is a frugal meal as long as you make it at home! Why not add an egg on top for extra healthy, cheap calories?

(I should just say that I bought stock in CalAvo growers, one of the US's largest avocado producers... because I love avocados so much!)

Peanut Butter, Bananas and Oatmeal

I'll let Lanny over at Dividend Diplomats school you about the benefits of this high calorie and nutrition per dollar trifecta of awesomeness. The bonus is convenience- you can take your banana and peanut butter with you almost anywhere!

I am OBSESSED with the instant packets of McCann's Irish Oatmeal. Less than a dollar for a filling, fiber-rich, iron rich snack that takes a minute to prepare. Win!

(I just happen to own shares in B&G foods, which makes McCann's Irish Oatmeal...)

What about Fruits and Vegetables?

Fruits and vegetables, especially if you buy them from a cheaper market rather than Whole Foods or a specialty store, have a high nutrition per dollar content. Their calorie per dollar content is pretty low, but you can supplement this by adding them to rice, potatoes, beans, and other foods that max out the calories. So I don't recommend skipping them in the name of frugality!

My favorite frugal veggies are green peppers, broccoli, and cabbage. These are usually fairly cheap compared to other vegetables and just as nutritious.

My favorite frugal fruits are bananas, clementines, and cherries. When bought in season from local markets or my favorite Asian grocery stores, they aren't too costly.

And what about ramen?

Some foods, like soda and instant ramen, are high in calories per dollar but have no fiber or vitamins.

Especially for sugary foods, eating these in high quantities might seem cheap now, but you might have to pay it back in healthcare costs later. A rainbow of vegetables and fruits is still cheaper than a lifetime metformin prescription.

Although you hear stories about people eating only ramen in order to save money, I don't recommend this. If you're that hardcore, go with potatoes instead. You can even pop them in the microwave.

Water is Free

If the grocery budget is a concern, and you live in a city with decent drinking water, why buy bottled water?  I understand why many people use water filters, but I will never understand the success of the bottled water industry.

In the same spirit, most beverages and juices are not a frugal choice in terms of calories and nutrition per dollar.

Where you Buy it Matters

Justin from Root of Good just did an informal study on grocery prices at Costco, Aldi, Walmart and Trader Joe's. While the conventional wisdom tends to say that Costco is great, it certainly does not work for everyone. The upfront cost of a Costco membership has to be recouped by savings in volume, which is difficult if your household's daily calorie needs aren't that high.

Even considering that, Aldi and Walmart tend to be the cheapest places to buy many grocery items.

The other downside of buying in bulk is that you need to eat it all before it goes bad, which may lead to food waste or overeating, unless you are a careful planner or have great storage capabilities.

Food is Personal

Everyone has different dietary needs, personal preferences, and cultural norms when it comes to food, so don't ever side-eye someone else's grocery cart. But if you want to adjust your food choices to free up money in your budget, there's almost always room to improve without having to sacrifice nutrition.

 I'm sure there are many more wonderful high calories-per-dollar and nutrition-per-dollar foods out there that I haven't even considered. 

What are some of your favorite frugal foods? Do you have any frugal tips or tricks to share?


  1. Thank you so much for the shout-out! xoxo

    This is such a great guide to a frugal grocery list. The foods are inexpensive and have lots of nutrition! :)

  2. My mom has been attempting to be smart about her food and money choices for an year now, but to no avail. thank you so much for this, as I believe this would help her immensely.

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