Many studies show that the average American diet is rich in energy but poor in nutrients, or, in other words, high in calories but not very healthy. This can happen for many reasons, from time constraints on a busy schedule to the ever-rising cost of food.

The good news is, there are quick and even inexpensive tricks that can improve the nutrient density of your meals without making you completely alter your lifestyle.

Top Your Meals With Nuts and Seeds

Nuts can have surprisingly high calorie counts, but they are also one of the most nutrient-dense foods. Most nuts are rich in healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, protein, and magnesium and a great source of vitamins.

Seeds, which are quite a bit cheaper than most nuts, are similarly full of nutrients but have fewer calories. Add an ounce or two to your salads, sauces, or rice dishes to dramatically increase your nutrient intake.

woman pouring nuts into her hand from a jar


Add an Extra Serving of Veggies

If you want to boost the nutrient density of your meals without affecting calories, just add in an extra serving of veggies. Leafy greens, in particular, are among the most nutrient-rich vegetables. Just a cup of raw spinach provides 16% of the daily value for vitamin A and 120% of vitamin K—for a mere seven calories. Other options include kale, carrots, garlic, green peas, sweet potatoes, and collard greens.

Adding veggies does not just mean eating salads or vegetable mixes, either. Sauces are quick and easy ways to add nutrients to any dish, so sneak in a bit more veg with pesto or tomato sauce instead of mayo or other fats for your meals.

dinner plate with lots of veggies


Change One Meal

Changing your diet can be more difficult and expensive than people expect. To ease into a healthy diet and save yourself some money, aim for adjusting just one meal. If you tend to eat sugary cereals for breakfast, swap them out for oatmeal with some fruit or even a bowl of quinoa.

At dinner and lunch, consider adding healthy vegetable toppings to your pizzas, tacos, and sandwiches, rather than extra meat or cheese.

woman enjoying a healthy bowl of oatmeal for breakfast


Lots of Color

Though it is not a foolproof metric, an easy way to tell if you are getting enough nutrients from your dishes is to just look at the color.

When everything on your plate is brown, chances are you are lacking in some key vitamins and minerals. Add some purple with kale or eggplant. Toss in some other leafy greens for some, you guessed it, green. Squashes and peppers are very vitamin-rich orange options. Many white foods are packed with goodness, too, so try some garlic, onions, or fennel.

woman holding a colorful bowl of healthy foods


Protein in Every Meal

You probably already know that nutritionists recommend eating plenty of protein, but you may not know exactly why. Our bodies need protein to grow and maintain tissues, activate various parts of our metabolism, and perform a whole host of other functions.

While most people immediately jump to red meat and poultry for their protein needs, there are plenty of much more nutrient-dense and less expensive choices. Beans, including soy, and nuts contain lots of protein, as well as a variety of minerals and vitamins. Plus, they tend to be easier on the wallet.

lots of different proteins in wooden bowls on a table


Pick High-Quality Carbohydrates

Despite the widespread belief that carbs are unhealthy, they are actually integral to a good diet. Some, though, are much healthier than others.

Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables will leave you full but not feeling heavy. Whole grains are much better sources of fiber and other nutrients than more processed options like white bread.

slicing grainy whole wheat bread


Make a Grocery List

Because our daily lives are full of back-to-back responsibilities, most people tend to skip making a grocery list. However, grocery stores are onto these folks. The markets have specific designs and layouts to make you spend more money. And unfortunately, some of the most profitable items are also the unhealthiest.

Even if you do not fall for their money-making efforts, without a grocery list, you might fall back on buying the same products you always do or, if you're hungry, giving in to cravings you've been trying to cut back on. Writing a grocery list is a great way to remind you to buy healthier foods with more nutrients, and to ensure less goes to waste because you'll have all the makings of your planned meals.

man grocery shopping with list on phone


Plan Meals Even If You Do Not Prep Them

Meal prepping is a great way to save time and ensure that you are eating healthy foods throughout the week, but it's not always possible.

Even if you don't prep, consider planning meals—at least dinners—at least a few days in advance. Doing so helps you avoid the temptation ordering in, and you can see the balance of healthy ingredients over the course of the week. Plus, by planning your meals, you can cut down pre-dining prep each day by thawing out meat, chopping veggies, and ensuring you won't have to run to the store for a missing ingredient.

woman writing a meal plan


Smart Snacks

Another way to save money and improve your nutrient intake throughout the day is to give yourself alternative options to easy-grab but less nutrient-dense snacks like a bag of potato chips. Foods like nuts, kale chips, and plantain chips can fill a similar niche to typical snacks when you need something a bit crunchy. Sweeter fruits like berries and apples can give you a sugar fix without the crash.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying those salty bags of goodness every once in a while, but relying on them to relieve hunger can drastically impact your nutrition over time.

woman eating blueberries out of a bowl


Some Concrete Ideas

It is one thing to tell someone to increase the nutrients in their meals, but actually doing so can seem difficult without more guidance. Some concrete ways you can improve your diet include

  • Add ground flaxseed to baked goods and smoothies, or sprinkle it on your toast and PB
  • Blend veggies like zucchini and squash to add to meats and sauces
  • When there's only time for boxed mac and cheese or canned soup, toss in some extra veggies. Frozen peas are a great option.
  • If protein is your challenge, consider protein powder for a big nutrient boost. Be sure to do some research into good brands.
  • Swap out normal yogurt for Greek yogurt
  • Chop up carrot sticks and cucumber slices for a few days, and pick up a tasty dip for snacking

man holding a plate of chopped veggies and dip


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.