Low blood sugar levels, stress, and busy schedules make many people turn to unhealthy, over-priced foods, when a little preparation can make healthy, low-cost foods an easier, healthier, and more affordable choice.

The mainstay of your healthy, inexpensive, tasty diet is plants. The next time you walk into a grocery store, give yourself permission to eat anything and everything in the produce section. Those funny-looking tropical fruits are packed with antioxidants and flavor. Sweet corn may be starchy, but you’d have to eat an entire bushel to cause the same amount of weight gain caused by a drive-through burger and fries. Honestly, you would be really hard-pressed to eat too many fruits and vegetables. Better yet, grow your own! That way, you get fresher food and exercise, too!

We have all seen bags of baby carrots in the produce section of the local grocery store. You can use the same idea to create easy-to-grab goody bags of healthy snacks. The easier they are to grab, the more likely you are to eat them. Plastic containers and ziplock bags make it easy to put together delicious, refreshing and nutrient-rich snacks of sliced cucumbers, bell pepper rings, and celery, carrot, and jicama sticks. You can use the same idea at home, transforming your chip- and calorie laden coffee table chips and dips into healthful and affordable Veggie Table treats.

The variety of textures, flavors and colors make fruits and vegetables extremely versatile. By shopping at local farmer’s markets, you not only help yourself but the environment as well. Fresh or frozen produce is superior to canned vegetables, which have lost many of their nutrients. Vegetables can be served as they are, steamed, blanched, fried, roasted, barbecued and integrated into many baked goods, casseroles and slow-cooker dishes.

The next mainstay of your healthy, inexpensive diet is protein. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), insufficient protein consumption commonly causes unhealthy food cravings for starch, fat, and sugar. Starting your day with a can of tuna or a couple of hard boiled eggs can go a long way toward reducing unhealthy, expensive food cravings later in the day. Fish, shellfish, poultry, dairy products, and legumes (beans) are all excellent sources of protein. You can make them more convenient by keeping a supply of yogurt, jerky, canned beans, and cooked chicken handy. You can stow protein bars in your desk, backpack, and glove compartment for a quick, healthy protein snack.

Chips, pasta, and bread are common snacks, but they are rarely healthy. The biggest problem with most of them is that they tend to be made from white flour, rather than whole grains. White flour, white rice, white pasta, and sugar are not good for you. Brown rice, and whole grain breads, tortillas, cereals and baked goods are all very filling and inexpensive. You can cook rice in large batches and then reheat a portion with some meat and vegetables anytime in a microwave.

By preparing healthy, affordable snacks ahead of time and shopping for better choices, you are more likely to eat reasonably and responsibly at each meal. Bon appétit!