The cheapest foods to buy when you need to save money

The human body needs a certain number of calories each day. If you are trying to save money on groceries, it makes the most sense to eat the foods that provide you the most calories for the least amount of money. When trying to save money on groceries, I used to focus on coupons and finding the stores that sold the foods I was buying for less. When I switched to eating foods that provide calories at the cheapest cost, it was a game changer. My grocery bill got chopped in half, and I don’t even use coupons anymore.

We created a list of the 150 most popular foods people buy at the grocery store and analyzed them to see how many calories each one provided for each dollar spent. Then gave each of them a saving score depending on how costly the calories that they provided were.

You can use these savings score to cut back on the amount of money you are spending at the supermarket.

The most inexpensive foods

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • White rice
  • Spaghetti
  • Oatmeal
  • White bread
  • Cornmeal
  • Dried garbanzo chick peas
  • Dried pinto beans
  • Dried black beans
  • Dried split peas
grains are a low cost food
Flour, sugar, white rice, spaghetti and oatmeal are some of the cheapest foods you can eat.

When looking at the most inexpensive foods, they are dominated by grains. Foods like spaghetti and oatmeal are powerhouses of cheap calories. The second class of foods that provide the best value are beans and legumes. These two food groups are a great combination, beans provide a good amount of protein and the grains provide a good amount of calories.

Most expensive foods

  • Romaine lettuce hearts
  • Asparagus
  • Shredded iceberg lettuce
  • Cucumber
  • Jello
  • Sliced white mushrooms
  • Raspberries
  • Lemon
  • Papaya
Iceberg lettuce has very little nutrients and calories.

For the most expensive foods, many fruits and vegetables top the list. Lots of vegetables are low on the calorie scale. Fruits on the other hand can be more calorie dense, but you end up paying more of a premium for them.

Oils

Fat

Savings Score

Olive oil

A-

Avocado oil

A-

Vegetable oil

B+

Canola oil

B+

Coconut oil

B-

olive oil is one of the cheapest oils out there
Olive oil tops the list as the cheapest oil calorie source

When we looked at the least expensive foods, there were lots of good options to get cheap carbohydrates and protein, but not so much for fats. Luckily, most oils get a good savings score and are a great source of fat. Olive oil got the best score, with avocado oil close behind.

Meats

Meat

Savings Score

Hot dogs

A-

Bacon

C+

80/20 ground beef

C+

Ground turkey

C-

Chunk light tuna

C-

Pork chops

C-

Boneless chicken breast

D

93/7 ground beef

D

Tilapia

D

Ground bison

D

Salmon

D

Shrimp

F

a hot dog is the cheapest meat to eat
A hot dog has a higher savings score than most foods.

One of the best ways to cut back on your grocery bills is to cut back on meat. Most meats are very expensive compared to other foods. The reason for this is simple, meat is a derivative food. A cow has to eat an enormous amount of plant food before it is turned into a hamburger. Walking around the field and other activities all represent wasted calories burned. When you eat a plant you are cutting out the middle man and that is why all of the cheapest foods are plant staples.

The two exceptions to this are bacon, which has a C+ savings score, and hot dogs. Hot dogs get a jaw dropping A- savings score. Hot dogs are known as a mystery meat, and another mystery will be how they are able to make them at such low cost.

Vegetables

Vegetable

Savings Score

Russet potatoes

B+

Corn on the cob

B-

Carrots

C

Broccoli

C

Green cabbage

C-

Sweet potatoes

C-

Cauliflower

C-

Red Onion

D

Roma Tomatoes

D

potatoes are an inexpensive vegetables
Potatoes had the highest savings score of all vegetables we surveyed.

As we saw earlier, when looking at the most expensive foods, many vegetables are not cost-effective to eat in bulk. There are some that have a good amount of calories for your dollar, with potatoes and corn topping the list. Carrots, broccoli and green cabbage are more costly, but also have some decently priced calories and provide some good nutrients.

Fruits

Fruit

Savings Score

Dried Raisins

B

Dried Cranberries

B

Banana

B-

Avocado

C+

Pineapple

C

Black olives

C

Red grapes

C-

Plums

C-

Cantaloupe

D

Strawberries

D

Avocados are viewed as an expensive food, but they actually have a respectable C+ savings score.

Dried raisins, dried cranberries and bananas topped out the list of fruits. One of the more surprising items on the list was avocados, which are known to be expensive, but actually provide a pretty good deal, especially when you take into account all the nutrients that an avocado provides. Fresh berries were the most expensive class of fruits, with raspberries at the bottom.

Dairy

Dairy

Savings Score

Butter

A

Whole Milk

A-

Eggs

B+

Cheddar Cheese

B+

Sour Cream

B

Swiss Cheese

B

Provolone Cheese

B

Cottage Cheese

B-

Kraft American Cheese Singles

C+

String Cheese

C+

Rice Milk

C+

Oat Milk

C+

Parmesan Cheese

C

Almond Milk

D

Low fat Vanilla Yogurt

D

Dairy is a pretty good source of low-cost calories, with butter, milk and eggs topping the list of most economical foods. Cheese had a good score, with cheddar cheese taking the top spot.

Some non-dairy alternatives to milk were included on this list to see how they stacked up. In general, they were much more expensive than the real thing. Rice milk and oat milk were the best deal of the lot, and almond milk was the worst.

Yogurt had the worst score, which is interesting because it’s made of two of the cheaper ingredients of milk and sugar. The fermentation process, is likely what adds cost.

Nuts

Nuts

Savings Score

Peanuts

A-

Almonds

B+

Walnuts

B+

Cashews

C

Pistachios

D

Pistachios are a costly food
Shelling your pistachios is not going to save you money, they got a D savings score.

Peanuts, almonds and walnuts all had good savings scores. Pistachios, landed on the bottom of the list.

Prepared foods

Prepared Foods

Savings Score

French fries

A-

Red Barron pepperoni pizza

B-

Banquet Frozen pot pie dinner

B-

Hungry Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner

C+

Marie Callender's frozen fettuccine, chicken and broccoli

C

Stouffer's macaroni and cheese

C-

Healthy Choice chick and broccoli Alfredo frozen dinner

F

Red barron pizza is a great deal
Red Barron pizza is so cost-effective, it got a B- savings score.

Like meats, the common wisdom is that prepared foods are another type of food that people should stay away from in order to save money. It’s too bad, because prepared foods save a lot of time. For our survey, there are actually a surprising number of prepared foods that got a decent savings score. French fries top the list, and that makes sense, they are made from two ingredients that get great savings scores (potatoes and oil). There were also surprising ones that did well, like Red Barron’s pepperoni pizza, and Banquet frozen pot pies. So it looks like eating cheaply doesn’t mean that you have to prepare 100% of your own food.

Healthy Choice prepared meals did badly, in part because they are low calorie, and you are still paying for all the packaging.

Snacks

Snack

Savings Score

Twinkies

A

Cheetos Flamin' Hot

B+

Tostitos Scoops tortilla chips

B+

Lay's Classic potato chips

B

Pringles potato chips

B

Fritos chili cheese corn chips

B-

Cheetos puffs

B-

Sun Chips

C+

Lay's barbecue flavored potato chips

F

Twinkies topped the snack list with an A- saving score

Twinkies was the king of snacks when it came to saving money. No doubt due to their top ingredients of flour and sugar, both of which are some of the most inexpensive foods. Lay’s barbecue flavored potato chips must have a giant markup. They are made of two of the cheaper ingredients, potatoes and oil, but they got an F for their savings score.

Eating heathy and cheaply at the same time

The cheapest foods were not always the most healthy. One of the major reasons for this is that white sugar is one of the absolute most inexpensive foods that has ever existed. It’s also one of the worst foods for health as well. It’s been linked to cancer causing inflammation, weight gain and diabetes.

Cookie dough is one of the highest calories per dollar foods.

As a result, a lot of foods that have sugar added, end up being very low cost foods. For example, Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough gets a score of an A- on our scale.

asparagus is an expensive food
Asparagus, food for the rich.

Some top healthy vegetables get an F in our affordability scale. They just don’t have enough calories for the cost. At the same time, it’s not a good idea to completely shun these vegetables due to their health benefits. If you are trying to save money, eating smaller portions of these vegetables along with cheaper staples is likely the best way to go.

Rice and beans are the cheapest foods
Rice and beans have both been associated with healthy diets.

Of the ultra cheap foods, rice and beans are a great combination. Together they combine to give you all the 9 of the amino acids that you need. Both have been associated with longevity diets. Beans, especially, have been shown in study after study to be associated with longevity.

The other ultra cheap food that seems to show up in Blue Zone diets and other diets associated with health is pasta. It’s a good idea not to go overboard with it, but it seems like there is evidence that it could be part of a healthy diet. Pasta also does not spike blood sugar as much as other grain based foods, like bread.

Lastly, oatmeal is another ultra cheap food that has been linked to improvements in heart health and longevity as well. So that would be another great staple to add to your diet.

Food savings score calculator

If your interested in seeing how some of your favorite foods stack up, you can use our food savings calculator to get scores. Just remember that the calories you enter should be the entire amount of calories you are paying for, not the serving size calories.

Final thoughts

It was interesting to see how many of the higher calorie items in the categories turned out to be American staples. I imagine it is not coincidence and people were drawn to the cheaper foods until over time they became the preferred food.

Try modifying the foods you eat to include some of these cheaper options and eliminate some of the more expensive items from your list. Before you know it, you will be saving a ton of money.

If your interested in saving even more money on groceries, check out our list of grocery savings tips.