Table of Contents
On this page I want to provide some examples of *relatively* healthy meal plans you can develop from a variety of stores where people purchase groceries. I will provide the cost and basic nutrition facts for some select items, example meal plans at different levels of caloric intake, and the nutrition facts for those meal plans. The costs will be accurate as of the time I searched (currently July 30, 2022) and for my current location (in the state of Ohio in the United State of America). Prices will change based on your location. Additionally, all of the prices are pre-tax.
By no means am I claiming these meal plans are the best for all purposes, they are simply examples of how you can attempt to engage in healthy eating if you have limited access to certain food items based on cost and availability. I am not including any costs associated with seasoning foods as seasoning is not technically necessary and will generally not provide additional nutritional value (regarding calories and macronutrients); nonetheless you are of course welcome to season your food as you see fit.
The stores I am currently including are Walmart, Kroger, Target, Amazon, Dollar Tree, and Dollar General. According to this list of the top 50 food and grocery retailers by sales published in July, 2021, this includes 4 of the top 6 while the latter 2 are widespread and considered by many to be cheaper options. To generate the data below I either took images and prices from their respective websites or when prices were not available online I went to a local store and took pictures as well as the prices. The data in the tables comes from the nutrition labels themselves. The cronometer.com summaries include generic food item equivalents listed on that website. Lastly, I attempted to pick similar food items from each store when available to make direct comparisons easier.
Note: The cronometer summaries will not match the nutrition exactly as cronometer.com does not have the exact formulation of each food item in each store. These are most obviously inaccurate with the example of sodium; for sodium the meal plan tables will be more accurate as that data comes directly from the nutrition labels. Of course, as explained here, nutrition labels can legally be off by up to 20%, so these will all be estimates regardless.
Per the link above, more groceries are purchased at Walmart than from any other source. Walmart is known for having relatively cheap prices on several items, particularly under the “Great Value” brand. At times the quality may be subpar relative to other food sources; whether you will find this impactful or not depends on what you purchase, how you store the food, how quickly you consume the food, and your personal standards & preferences.
In the table below, kcals = calories, g = grams, Na = sodium, and mg = milligrams.
Here the only things in red are niacin, protein, and trans-fats. The trans-fats are still <0.5 grams daily, so <5 kcal daily, which will be <0.25% of your daily kcals; this is likely not worth worrying about. Protein is a bit elevated however as I explained here this level of intake is not a concern and actually may be advantageous. The tolerable upper limit for niacin is 35 mg daily, and this example has 151 mg, which is much higher. However, as explained in the Office of Dietary Supplements fact sheet on niacin, no adverse effects have been seen due to high niacin intake from food and niacin has been prescribed for certain health conditions at 1,000 mg daily or even higher. Thus, the niacin intake here is likely not a concern.
The only things in yellow include water (I did not enter water into the daily meal plan), potassium (this is based off older dietary recommendations that have since been updated as I explained here), sodium/zinc/vitamin C (all are close to the recommended values and you could take 1 low dose multivitamin/multimineral supplement daily while adding salt to foods if you have any specific concerns about this), and fat (also generally not a concern at this stated level of intake as I explained here).
In comparison to the ~2,000 kcal meal plan, this is mostly the same. Differences include zinc (which is no longer deficient) as well as fat and saturated fat (both red, but both within acceptable limits as I explained here).
There are no significant differences between this and the ~2,400 kcal meal plan above.
Looking at the above meal plans even the lowest kcal option contains 2 servings of dairy, 4 servings of grains with 2 of them being whole grains, 5 servings of vegetables (if you include potatoes), 2 servings of fruit, and 1 serving of nuts, which overall meets many of the general food group recommendations discussed here. All of these provide at least 3 meals with ~30 grams of protein, >35 grams of fiber total, very low sodium intake, and almost all of the micronutrients are present in sufficient quantities. Even the ~2,750 kcal meal plan is <$5.15 before tax. Thus, it does seem possible to eat healthily using items purchased from Walmart at a relatively cheap cost.
Kroger is known to be somewhat more expensive than Walmart though many claim the food is of higher quality. I have included almost identical food item choices for Kroger as I used for Walmart above; you can glance between the two if you would like to compare the items.
Given the similar meal plan I have not included a separate cronometer summary as the overall values will be almost identical. Looking at the tables themselves, in comparison to Walmart things are largely similar. The main differences are that sodium intake is somewhat higher with the Kroger selections (though still well within the recommended intake level), protein and fiber intake are slightly lower, and the biggest difference is the cost. While the Walmart meal plans ranged from $4.68-$5.13, Kroger ranges from $5.43-$5.93, or roughly ~$0.77 more per day (pre-tax). Whether the additional cost is worth the potentially higher quality food (or other considerations when choosing a place to purchase groceries) for people who have both stores available would be up to personal preference.
Target is also generally considered more expensive than Walmart and with potentially higher quality food choices. I have again chosen very comparable food selections; you can compare the prices and nutrition content here to the selections for Walmart and Kroger above if you would like.
With similar food selections the cronometer summaries would again be very similar to the ones listed above so I have not reproduced them here. Overall the prices are between those of Walmart and Kroger; Walmart ranged from $4.68-$5.13, Target here ranges from $5.41-$5.87, and Kroger ranged from $5.43-$5.93. Thus, Target is very similar to Kroger regarding both the cost and nutrition content.
Amazon oversees a few different sources for purchasing food, all of the items here are available on Amazon Fresh. These are all theoretically deliverable to your door, though you will need be present for delivery to transfer items to cold storage if needed. I have selected similar grocery items to the above stores when available to allow more direct comparisons.
The meal plans here range from $6.19-$6.89, which is the most expensive thus far ($1.51-$1.76 more than Walmart, $0.78-$1.02 more than Target, and $0.76-$0.96 more than Kroger). The nutrition content is otherwise similar. While this is more expensive, the fact that this will be fully delivered is a nice benefit and may be worth the additional cost.
Almost everything at this store costs $1.25. Given ongoing inflation it’s not clear how these prices or serving sizes may change over time. A lot of people shop here under the assumption it is cheaper, but when considering potentially smaller portion sizes this may not be the case. Additionally the overall quality of food may be worse than the above options; for example, if you purchase dairy you may find it does not last as long before going bad. Besides concerns for food quality, there are many fewer food selection options at this store as well. Thus, while I attempted to make similar selections to the food items above, this was not always possible, and thus I will provide new cronometer.com summaries for the meal plans detailed below.
Additionally, when I most recently updated this some of the below food selections were not available at the store I visited; they were waiting for a shipment of food but this makes it clear you cannot reliably expect to have access to these foods every time you go to these stores.
Here the only red metrics are trans-fats and protein, however similar to the above meal plans neither is likely a concern. The yellow metrics include water, fat, omega-3, omega-6, fiber, vitamins D/E/K, calcium, potassium, and sodium. As explained above, water, fat, omega-6, sodium, and potassium are likely not going to be major concerns. A low dose multivitamin/multimineral supplement taken daily could supplement the remaining vitamins and minerals. Finding some source of fatty fish to consume 2-3 times weekly will make up the deficit for omega-3s. While fiber intake is noted to be somewhat low, it is still >14 grams/1,000 kcals, which is a standard recommendation that I discussed here. Thus, overall, this meal plan meets the majority of nutrition requirements.
Here the only distinction from the ~2,000 kcal meal plan above is that folate is red. However, the folate intake is overestimated by ~360 mcg due to the Cheerios entry in cronometer.com being inaccurate relative to the label on the box in the store. Thus, this would not be a concern at this level of intake, particularly since adverse effects have not been seen from high amounts of folate intake from food sources.
Compared to the ~2,300 kcal meal plan, not much has changed here. Calcium is no longer deficient while fat now seems in excess. However, as mentioned above, this level of fat intake is likely not concerning.
In comparison to all of the above stores, relatively healthy options are more sparse at Dollar Tree, and the food selection choices and meal plans above reflect this. The lowest calorie meal plan here contains 5 servings of grains with at least 2 (oatmeal) and possibly 3 (if including Raisin Bran cereal as the box does not fully specify) servings of whole grains, 2 servings of fruits, 2 servings of vegetables, 2 servings of dairy, and 1 serving of nuts (not counting peanuts). The protein intake is less than in the above options with only 2 meals at 28-40 grams and only 97 grams total. This should be enough for general health purposes but would likely not be ideal for someone with obesity who is attempting to lose weight. Otherwise, fiber intake and sodium levels are sufficient.
However, the cost is here is more expensive than Walmart; thus even though many think they can save money by shopping here, due to changes from inflation this is not the case. The lowest calorie meal plan here is $0.33 more expensive than Walmart’s while the highest calorie meal plan is $0.73 more expensive. If you do shop here primarily, it may be worthwhile to supplement a multivitamin/multimineral supplement if exclusively eating the above foods from this store.
Considerations here are similar to those for Dollar Tree regarding food options and quality. Many items here are >$1.25 but nonetheless this place is known for relatively cheap prices. Several of the food selections in the aforementioned stores are not available here; similar to Dollar Tree I have attempted to pick comparable selections when available. The meal plans will differ to some degree as a result and thus I will provide cronometer.com summaries for the meal plans below.
Neither whole milk or the large eggs had prices that were labeled; I asked the cashier what the cost would be and he said around what I indicated above.
Here the red metrics are trans-fats and protein, both of which are likely not concerns as described above.
The yellow metrics include water, fiber, fat, omega-6, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, potassium, and sodium. A low dose multivitamin/multimineral supplement will be helpful to make up many of these deficiencies, there likely is not a concern for sodium (~1,740mg in the actual meal plan) or potassium (as described above with updated guidelines), and the fiber intake is just barely below the general goal of 14 grams per 1,000 kcal intake.
This is very similar to the ~2,000 kcal meal plan above with no significant differences.
This is very similar to the ~2,000 kcal meal plan above with the only major difference being niacin is red. However, as described above, this is likely not a concern.
Dollar General has a somewhat broader selection of food items than Dollar Tree, though not at the level of the other stores listed above. With these food items, the lowest calorie meal plan contains 5 servings of grains with 3 of them being whole grains, 2 servings of fruit, 3 servings of vegetables, 2 servings of dairy, and 1 serving of peanuts (via peanut butter). The total protein intake is sufficient for health but likely on the lower side for people with obesity engaging in resistance training while undergoing weight loss.
Otherwise, fiber intake and sodium levels are sufficient and the cost is on the cheaper side ranging from $4.93-$5.18, which is only slightly more expensive than the prices from Walmart. You may want to consider supplementing a multivitamin/multimineral supplement if you primarily purchase food from this store.
It should be evident that with some planning you can consume a relatively healthy, varied diet that meets general recommendations for calories, macronutrients, and most micronutrients while spending <$5-$6 per day, or <$40-$45 per week (pre-tax), assuming you are not ordering from Amazon. Currently inflation is ongoing with many food items so this may change over time and I will periodically update this page accordingly.
Of note, while I have included raw ingredients that can be thrown together and consumed as described in the meal plans, some people will find this to be too plain and prefer seasoning or preparing meals with ingredients not listed here. Most seasoning options are relatively cheap and will not add much to the total cost on a daily basis. If you are trying to watch sodium intake then be careful with how much sodium your seasoning choices contain. Additionally, if you can force yourself to go 1 month without seasoning food you may find that your taste preferences change and you’ll begin to appreciate the taste of the natural foods without additional seasoning.
You are of course welcome to purchase other options not listed above as these lists are not all-inclusive and there is no rule that states you only have to choose relatively healthier food options. Remember, it’s the total diet you consume and not specific foods or meals that will have the greatest impact on your overall health. Feel free to make any alterations to the above as you see fit; you can plug your diet into cronometer.com and make any adjustments as indicated if you wish. This will take some time & planning, but once you determine relatively healthy & practical options that you can use on a regular or semi-regular basis it becomes much quicker & easier to rotate them in or out of your daily/weekly eating plans.
For individuals who do not wish to track calories, macronutrients, or micronutrients in any way, you can still choose the above options to help prepare desirable meals and you can stick to the more generic food group recommendations discussed in my nutrition and weight management course here and here to guide yourself to good health.