Diet and Nutrition: Cheap and Healthy Sources of Protein

  • Reviewed By: Christine Mikstas, RD, LD
Reviewed on 8/28/2022


Sardines are a great and inexpensive source of protein.

You don't need to spend a bundle to stock up on protein-rich foods. Take sardines, for example. The small, silvery fish pack 18 grams of protein in a 1/2-cup serving. You can buy them fresh, but canned is cheaper. Look for those canned in water or olive oil, and rinse off any extra oil. They're easy to prepare. Just sprinkle with lemon juice and olive oil, or top with chopped tomatoes and herbs like basil or oregano.

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese has over 20 grams of protein, including casein, a type of protein that you digest slowly and helps you feel full longer.

Cottage cheese not only has nearly 24 grams of protein per cup, it also has casein. That's a type of protein you digest slowly, which helps you feel full longer. Cottage cheese is a great add-in. Blend it in a smoothie or mix it into scrambled eggs. Use it as a base for a bowl topped with veggies, olives, and seasonings. Or power up muffins by adding cottage cheese to your favorite recipe.


Lentils are heart-healthy with 16 grams of protein per cooked cup and high in iron.

These legumes are small but mighty, with 18 grams of protein per cup (cooked). They're also heart-healthy and high in iron. Lentils cook up faster than most dried beans since you don't need to presoak them. Add cooked lentils to a salad with chopped sweet peppers, herbs, and spices. Or simmer dried ones into a soup with broth, garlic, onion, diced tomatoes, spinach, and rosemary.


Oats have 5 grams of protein per 1-cup serving, and come in a wide variety options.

You probably have some in your pantry right now, whether rolled, steel-cut, or instant. While their textures differ, all have about the same amount of protein: 5 grams per 1-cup serving (cooked). Boost fiber and flavor by topping your oatmeal with berries, nuts, cinnamon, and a drizzle of honey. For a twist, use whole-oat groats (cleaned and hulled oats) as a base for poultry stuffing.

Ground Turkey

Ground turkey packs 23 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving.

You'll get 23 ounces of protein in a 3-ounce serving of this versatile bird. Certified organic or pasture-raised ground turkey is often more expensive, but may offer more nutrients and fewer additives. It pinch-hits for ground beef or pork in burgers, meatloaf, or chili. For a light lunch, fill crisp cabbage leaves with ground turkey sautéed with soy sauce, ginger, scallions, jalapeno, and cilantro.


Peanuts, which are legumes and not actually nuts, have 8 grams of protein in just 1 ounce.

Despite the name, they're not really nuts. They're legumes, like peas and beans. And just 1 ounce has 7.3 grams of protein. You may equate them with the PB&J, but peanuts are shape-shifters. Sprinkle them onto a salad, add them to sautéed chicken and veggies, and stir peanut butter into your morning oatmeal. Or just have a handful for a snack.


Tempeh makes a great meat substitute, with 33.7 grams of protein per cup.

Tempeh is a fermented soy food like tofu. But it's firmer, with a distinct savory flavor that makes it a great meat substitute. It offers 33.7 grams of protein per cup. You can steam, bake, or fry it, and add it to stews and soups. Try it on a skewer for grilling. Or put broiled tempeh on whole-grain bread and top with sauerkraut, cheese, and Russian dressing for a twist on a Reuben sandwich.


This versatile protein power has 27 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving.

What can't you do with chicken? There are so many ways to cook this protein powerhouse -- grilled, baked, broiled, sautéed, and more. It's got 27 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving. Toss cooked, sliced chicken breast into a salad. Stir-fry it with veggies, soy sauce, sesame seeds, ginger, garlic, and seasonings. Or, for a lower-fat meatloaf, sub ground chicken breast for beef or veal.

Canned Tuna

Canned tuna has 20 grams per can, and a mild flavor that works well with so many other foods.

It's got 40 grams of protein per can, and a mild flavor that pairs well with lots of ingredients. Try it with olives, chili peppers, leeks, fennel, and/or walnuts in a tuna salad. Did you know you can use canned tuna in sushi? Roll it into sheets of roasted seaweed with cooked brown rice, avocado, and cucumber. Buy tuna packed in water or broth instead of oil to keep fat lower.


Eggs are easy, inexpensive, and have 6 grams of protein in each egg.

Eggs are inexpensive, quick-cooking, and offer 6 grams of protein apiece. Whip up huevos rancheros by scrambling eggs with chili peppers. Serve with black beans and corn tortillas. Chop hard-boiled eggs and mix with lemon juice, olive oil, leeks, and dill for egg salad. If you're cutting carbs, replace half the noodles in your mac and cheese with scrambled egg whites. They taste like al dente pasta when covered in cheese sauce.

Black Beans

Black beans are a great source of protein and fiber, and contain compounds that help control blood sugar and insulin levels.

Legumes like black beans are a good source of fiber and protein. You'll get 7 grams of protein in a half-cup serving. Studies show that black beans contain compounds that help control your blood sugar and insulin levels. Add canned or cooked dried ones to soup, burritos, or a layered dip with guacamole, chopped tomatoes, diced onions, and cilantro. In vegetarian chili, mix black beans with red kidney and pinto beans.

Diet and Nutrition: Cheap and Healthy Sources of Protein

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