Vegan on a Budget

by | Feb 14, 2022

 

Photo by Imants Kaziļuns on Unsplash

This year, many Americans are struggling to adjust their food budgets as inflation raises prices on many everyday staples at the grocery story. Since veganism already has a reputation among many as an expensive lifestyle, recent price increases at the grocery store may have many vegan-curious people wondering if this is the right time to make what they see as this costly switch.

However, I have been a bit baffled that as stories about runaway inflation at the grocery store surface, I have seen very little impact on my grocery bill. For my household of 2, our weekly food budget remains in the $70-$100 range every week. While my partner is an omnivore, the vast majority of the meals we eat at home are vegetarian, and many are vegan, made up of plant-based whole foods.

For many, a vegan diet may actually be a great way to reduce their grocery bill. Even skipping meat and eating just a few more vegan meals at home can go a long way to cut costs while reducing the carbon footprint of your meals and, of course, protecting scores of cows, chickens, and pigs from cruel, inhumane conditions and untimely deaths.

It may seem daunting for some to try veganism on a budget, but these tips will get you started. Please keep in mind that this is general advice; please tailor it to your own health needs, preferences, and lifestyle. If you have any unique health needs (e.g. soy, peanut, or other food allergies, gluten intolerance, vitamin deficiencies, heavier-than-average protein needs, etc), a vegan diet can still absolutely work for you, but I would recommend touching base with a medical professional to ensure you are eating a balanced diet for your individual needs–and that doesn’t just go for the vegan-curious, but anyone with unique health needs with any kind of diet.)

1. Cook your meals at home

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By far the most significant way that anyone can help to reduce their food budget is by cooking at home. It may be tempting to think of fast food meals as a bargain–after all, you don’t even have to do any dishes–but the truth is that the cost to make higher quality meals at home can be much lower. When it comes to vegan meals, this can be especially true. To get a really healthy, well-balanced vegan meal at a restaurant will cost you significantly more than making the same or similar food at home, so this is a great place to start.

If you’re a novice cook, I recommend finding just a few recipes that you want to master and getting those down. And if your diet was heavily meat-based before, you might want to try meals that will satisfy the same cravings. It’s really easy (and cheap!) to make veggie burgers at home, for example. Many pasta dishes are vegan by default and are very easy to cook, and you can use beans in place of meat for taco Tuesdays or to replicate almost any mexican dish. 

2. Find alternative ways to “treat yourself”

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One mistake many people make when trying a new diet or lifestyle and/or when trying to reduce their spending is to forego all pleasures. Just because you can’t stop at Starbucks for your latte every day doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a treat. And it’s definitely manageable to sneak in a couple of Starbucks trips without breaking your budget–they have plenty of vegan options for almost anything!–but those kinds of costs add up if you’re indulging on a daily basis.

Instead, find a way to scratch that itch with something homemade. For example, once I started making my own cold brew coffee, I’ve really embraced it. And you can find recipes that replicate your favorite snacks, like these pumpkin scones, too. An added bonus? Making your favorite treats at home drastically reduces the amount of trash you’re contributing to landfills. 

3. Embrace world cuisine

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Another common mistake many people make when trying to add more vegan meals to their menu can be to try to replicate a fairly standard Western meal–meat, starch, vegetables. Trying to come up with a vegan alternative to a roast or a steak will inevitably lead to spending on Impossible or Beyond products or other vegan meat substitutes, which can be expensive. 

Think about it: millions of people in India are vegetarian. The Chinese invented tofu thousands of years ago. And in many parts of the world where plants were a more readily-available source of calories than animals (basically everywhere with a reasonable growing season), meat was a rare addition rather than an integral ingredient in meals.

It can be easy to think of rice and beans as boring and sad, but if you learn to cook like the cultures who have used these ingredients as staples for centuries, you’ll discover that even humble ingredients can be delicious. 

4. Buy ingredients, not prepared meals

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When you shop, try to avoid those tempting veganized frozen Orange “Chicken” dinners at Trader Joe’s and instead opt for ingredients like tofu, beans, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. A few frozen meals here and there are a good way to stop yourself from buying take out, but your daily meals should really come from plant-based whole foods if you want to maximize the health of your diet as well as the affordability.

Instead of buying expensive meat replacements or frozen meals, invest that money in really rounding out your pantry. Spices, oils, and vinegars can all be kind of expensive up-front, so buying a few per shopping trip makes more sense than buying them all at once. But don’t skimp entirely. Using the right oil or vinegar for a dish goes a long way, but especially learning to really season your meals is what will make them a real joy to eat.  

5. Explore frozen, canned, and dried options

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Since you’ll be buying lots of fruits and vegetables, you really want to think about how to do that effectively not only for your budget but also for your shopping habits. Some fruits and vegetables can get wilty, soft, or overripe pretty quickly, so unless you are comfortable splitting up your shopping into multiple trips a week, I highly recommend leaning on shelf-stable and frozen fruits and vegetables. For your fresh produce, try shopping for what is in season, since out-of-season foods usually have to be transported from far away, decreasing their shelf life (and increasing their carbon footprint). For out of season produce (like berries in the winter), consider if and when you can go ahead and opt for frozen, canned, or even dried varieties. Just be sure to read the labels–you want to avoid anything with a lot of added sugar or preservatives.

6. Find food blogs you love

Nothing will make you want to cook at home more than a food blog or food YouTuber you love. Once you’ve mastered a few basic meals, they will start to get old quickly if you don’t introduce more variety into your menus. You may even use these blogs as the source for your inspiration for those basic meals. 

I recommend Minimalist Baker. I probably make a recipe from this site every week. And while they’re not exclusively vegan, Budget Bytes and Cookie and Kate have a lot of vegan recipes or recipes that can easily be made vegan with a few adjustments. My partner, who isn’t as avid a home cook, really likes Piping Hot Curry because of the number of Instant Pot meals available there. And if none of these appeal to you, keep an eye on the HAP newsletter (sign up here if you’re not on the mailing list already) or our Social pages–we share easy and tasty vegan recipes regularly. 

7. Plan your meals

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When you have a plan for the week, it’s much easier to avoid the urge to go for that vegan sofritas bowl at Chipotle. When you plan your meals, look at your week first. Are there evenings when you have appointments or plans with friends? Make sure you don’t have to cook those nights–plan for leftovers. Do you have a big project at work coming up that will make cooking a burden? Use the week before to make meals that freeze well (soups, curries, and casseroles all work really well). Stock your freezer and you can limit the time you spend in the kitchen on those busy, stressful days. And you’ll come to find that having those meals planned and having leftovers available actually makes ordering takeout undesirable–someone has to go pick it up, or else you have to pay a delivery fee that costs as much as the ingredients to make the meal in the first place. And you don’t have to deal with the decision fatigue that comes with trying to pick a place to order from that everyone will like or the disappointment when you find a restaurant has only a handful of vegan options available. 

8. Avoid waste with flexible recipes

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Above all, planning your weekly meals will do more to prevent food waste than any other tip on this list. But once you’ve done that, it’s helpful to have a few easy recipes in your back pocket that can use up leftovers. Vegan bread pudding or bread crumbs use up those stale pieces and bread ends you might be left with at the end of the week. Stir fries are a great way to use up veggies, or sheet pan meals like this one. Overripe bananas or avocados can be prepared and frozen to use in smoothies or baking. 

9. Shop around

This tip can be a bit of a hassle, so try it out and evaluate for yourself if the savings are worth your time. For me, it definitely can be, especially when buying items like spices and oils that can get expensive. Shopping around can really go a long way in reducing your grocery bills. Places like Whole Foods are almost guaranteed to have anything you might have on your grocery list, but a more budget-friendly option like Aldi will also have a lot of it. Nowadays, it’s easy to see what’s in stock before you go shopping, so you can plan your trips accordingly.

Photo by Calum Lewis on Unsplash

Probably the most under-rated hack is to visit ethnic grocers, especially for those spices. There’s a great Asian market near me on McKnight Road, as well as a great Indian Grocer we’ve visited in Oakland, and these are just a couple of the options in and around Pittsburgh. Since we’ve been using curbside pickup and trying to limit our trips out during the Omicron surge, we haven’t been to these stores recently, and it makes a big difference. For example, there’s some garam masala on the grocery list below. This is a super common Indian spice. After shopping around, I found it on Amazon (and WholeFoods) in a small container for over $6.00, around $3.33/ounce. The Indian grocer would have a big pouch of it for under $2.00. These stores are also excellent places for bargains on rice and various beans, lentils, and legumes, plus sauces, oils, and seasonings. And they can be a great place, once you find you really love cooking, to find ingredients that inspire you to try new and unique recipes. Plus you’re supporting small businesses. 

If you’re not ready to add a trip into an ethnic grocer after already stopping at one or even two other stores that week, no problem. You can also shop around at a single store like Giant Eagle just by trying the store brands, which are significantly cheaper than name brand products but can cost half as much or even less. Stores like Trader Joe’s and Aldi usually don’t carry name brand products, so shopping primarily at these stores can mean instant bargains, but I still recommend shopping around at least a little bit. 

10. Ensure balance 

The hidden cost of a standard American diet loaded with meat products isn’t felt at the checkout. Diets high in red meat and dairy can be significantly out of balance, and too many prepared meals can mean lots of sodium and preservatives. Eating a well-balanced vegan diet or even just adding more vegetarian and vegan meals to your weekly rotation will mean you’ll increase your fiber intake and add lots of vital micronutrients to your diet. 

Adding more water to your diet in place of sweetened beverages will help your budget and keep you healthier, too. 

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It’s vital to remember that this benefit comes with a balanced vegan diet. If you decide to forego meat and dairy and instead opt for tons of potatoes, meat alternatives, processed grains, and lean on sugar, salt, and oil for flavor, you will probably still have the same health outcomes as you would have without making the switch, so be sure you are eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, and whole-grains to get the most out of your meals.

Bonus Pro-Tips:

Once you’ve mastered these steps, you can move on to the expert level and try these to cut your budget even more by doing things like baking from scratch (which would have saved me about $10 on this week’s batch of bread), starting a garden (which would save me another $10 on fresh herbs), and making your own staples like pant milk, vegan mayonnaise, this egg alternative, or your own salad dressings. You can swap out canned beans and legumes for dried ones for an extra few bucks in savings each month, too. 

Below is an example of a shopping list and meal plan for 2. This is a fairly typical meal plan for me and my partner and it meets our dietary needs fairly well. However, everyone is different–an athlete may need more calories and more protein, for example, while someone with gluten sensitivity may need to avoid grains listed. You can easily adapt anything on this list to suit your needs and preferences.

Here is an example meal plan for a week for two:

Snacks: Apples w/ peanut butter, energy balls, pumpkin scones

Monday:
Breakfast:Instant oatmeal with raisins and plant-based milk, smoothie, and cold brew coffee
Lunch: Burrito bowls (can use this fake-out takeout Chipotle sofritas, or just beans if you’re feeling lazy/frugal)
Dinner:Falafel w baba ghanoush

Tuesday:
Breakfast: Avocado toast, fruit, cold brew
Lunch:Chickpea salad wrap (w/ baba ghanoush)
Dinner:General Tso’s Tofu w/ broccoli and brown rice

Wednesday:
Breakfast:Instant oatmeal, smoothie, cold brew
Lunch: Pumpkin lentil soup, spinach/kale side salad with homemade dressing (sub maple syrup for honey)
Dinner: Chana masala with rice and side salad 

Thursday:
Breakfast: Avocado toast, banana, cold brew
Lunch: Chickpea salad wrap
Dinner: Pasta with homemade marinara, garlic bread (sub vegan butter), side salad

Friday:
Breakfast: Instant oatmeal, smoothie, cold brew
Lunch: pumpkin lentil soup, side salad
Dinner: Channa masala w/ rice and side salad

Saturday:
Breakfast: Tofu scramble, potatoes, toast, pour over coffee
Lunch: Leftovers or entree salad
Dinner: Pizza

Sunday:
Breakfast:Vegan shakshuka w/ pita bread, pour over coffee
This recipe yields more than 2 servings–leftovers will be lunch next week
Lunch: Pizza, side salad
Dinner: Leftovers or roasted veggies, chickpeas, potatoes

Grocery list*:

Apples
Bananas
Quick oats
Chocolate chips (vegan)
Vanilla almond milk
Plain soy milk
Kale (2 12 oz bags)
Spinach (3 8 oz bags)
Frozen fruit (berry medley)
Extra-firm tofu (x3)
Onion (6)
Red onion (1)
Red pepper (3 ct mixed peppers)
Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
Tomato paste (2 cans)
Garlic (2-3 bulbs)
Ginger
Maple syrup
Apple cider vinegar
Avocados
Brown rice
Cherry tomatoes
All-purpose flour
Dried chickpeas
Fresh parsley
Fresh cilantro
Fresh dill
Fresh basil
Eggplant (2 lbs)
Lemon juice
Tahini
Pita bread
Multigrain sourdough loaf
Tortillas
Pumpkin puree (2 cans)
Peanut butter
Vegan butter
Powdered sugar
Coffee (whole bean or coarsely ground, if no grinder)
Chickpeas (6 cans)
Celery
Green onions
Vegan mayonnaise (can be made if not available at grocery store)
Soy sauce
Chili garlic sauce
Brown rice
Frozen broccoli florets
Dried red lentils
Vegetable broth base
Fresh chillis (3)
Tomatoes (4 28 oz cans (1 diced, 3 crushed), 1 14 oz can crushed)
Garam massala
Pasta (1 lb)
Yeast
Flour (all-purpose)
Brown mustard
Potatoes
Kalamata olives
Artichoke hearts
Raisins

*Note: This list assumes a pantry stocked with basic spices, vinegars, and oils. Some less common spices are on the list, but you can also substitute many vinegars, spices, or oils for something you might already have, especially if you need to build out your pantry. Just google what you can sub for an ingredient in a recipe if you don’t have it. Usually, mild oils and light vinegars are pretty interchangeable, and many spice mixes can be thrown together with spices you already have. 

AUTHORS

Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. She has been a volunteer with HAP since 2018. She is an active participant in the Compassionate Living campaign and in 2019 tabled at her first event for HAP. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in Penn Hills with her husband and their three dogs.

Hannah Lewis is the Assistant Blogger and grant writer at HAP. She has been working with HAP since July of 2020. By day, she works as a literacy educator. She is an avid hiker, but also loves to spend time indoors curled up with a book and her long-haired cat, Frejya.