I hear a lot of things from people when they find out that I eat a plant-based diet. One of which is “isn’t it so expensive?” Well, that really depends on you, and what you buy. It truly can be as expensive or as budget-friendly as you make it. Let’s break it down, plant-based diets on a budget.
Plant-Based Diets on the Cheap – Fact or Fiction?
People love to tell me all the reasons they could never eat this way. It genuinely makes me a little sad, because the majority of those reasons are based on bad information. One such example is that plant-based diets are inherently expensive. Sure, they can be if you buy all kinds of faux meat and cheese products on the market. Those tend to be pretty pricey, but, those processed foods are actually to be avoided on a whole food plant-based diet. If you look at the lists of foods to eat and avoid in this post you’ll see that processed foods, in general, are on the avoid list. Even if they are vegan, they are most likely going to contain oils and a high amount of salt or sugar.
Rather than spending all your hard-earned cash on meat substitutes, you’re better off sticking to the basics. I love the basics, you know why? Because they are CHEAP! In fact, most of your plant-based staples are pretty economical. We’re talking beans, rice, oats, potatoes, carrots, onions, bananas, etc. None of these items are going to break the bank.
A Comparison for Comparison’s Sake
Let’s compare, shall we? What’s typically a large cost in the grocery budget? Your protein, right? Okay, so let’s compare proteins. If I go to my local Walmart right now, I can pick up an 8-pound bag of chickpeas (or any other bean for that matter) for about $8.00. To give you an idea, dried chickpeas will roughly triple their size when cooked, so that 8 lb bag will yield about 48 cups of cooked chickpeas. Even for a hummus-scarfing family of four like mine, 8 pounds of chickpeas will last us a loooong while. It’s typically a couple of months (at least) before we need to purchase them again.
Now, let’s take that same $8 to the meat department and see how far we get. It will get you a small package of ground beef, maybe a small roast or a few chicken breasts. Basically, enough to feed a family of four once or twice if you stretch it. So, a couple of months’ worth of meals vs a couple of days. Which sounds more economical to you?
What about produce? That’s got to be expensive right? Well, it can be, again, it depends on you and how you shop. Are you shopping all organic, out of season produce at a high-end grocery store? Sure, that’s going to cost you a pretty penny. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with shopping at a high-end grocery store if it’s in your budget, but it’s not your only option. On average, plant-based eaters do spend more in the produce department than their meat-eating counterparts, but the savings from the meat, dairy, oil and processed food that they are no longer purchasing will more than cover this. Not to mention that in general, we should all be spending more in the produce department to be eating healthfully.
How to Eat Plant-Based on a Budget
So, how can you eat plant-based on a budget? It’s actually pretty easy! Let’s go over some tips right now.
Start with Staples
As I explained above, plant-based staples are inherently inexpensive. Legumes are much more affordable than any animal-based proteins, and they are shelf-stable. Same with items like rice, oats, and grains in general. The great thing about this is you can buy them in bulk. As long as you store them in an airtight container, they will last a long time in your pantry. You don’t need to get fancy with your food storage either. A simple mason jar will do. So, when you are shopping, do a price comparison. The bigger bags will often net you a cheaper price per serving. Grab yourself a big ole bag and package it up properly when you get home.
Do Some Price Comparisons
That $4 avocado in your hand might cost less than half that at another store. Instead of assuming you have to shop high-end, check out other local grocers and keep track of their prices on goods you buy regularly. This will give you a good idea of where you should shop most often. While you are out comparison shopping, check out some ethnic markets in the area. These markets often carry spices, staples and produce at lower prices than the average grocery chain. Sometimes the quality of the produce is better too! Once you find a market with good prices, try speaking to the manager to find out when they get their produce shipments. This way, you can plan to shop when you can pick the best quality produce, instead of being left with the stuff that’s already been picked over.
If you love berries as much as I do, you’ve probably noticed that they are much cheaper in the warmer months and get crazy expensive come winter. That’s because they are in season during the summer. When you try to buy berries in February, they’ve been picked early and trucked in from warmer climates. Stick to in-season produce for your region and your grocery bill will be much smaller.
If you really gotta have those berries (or any other out of season produce) in February, buy them from your freezer section. They’ll be much cheaper and more nutritious too. Rather than being picked early and ripening in a truck, frozen produce is picked when its ripe and flash-frozen. So, their nutrient content tends to be higher. That’s the name of the game here, health-promoting nutrients.
Wholesale Warehouse Clubs
If you have one of these membership clubs near you, like Costco, they can be a great resource. Many of your staples can be bought in bulk here for less than the typical grocery chain. They carry things like grains, beans, nut butter, and even produce. I often find I can get organic goods for the same or less than I would pay for conventional in other stores. Now, the trick to shopping at these places is to know what you normally pay for these items. You can’t just assume the prices are better, but most times they are. The great thing about these places is that the cost of your membership is often made up for in savings over just a visit or two.
Shop the Flyers
If your budget is tight, get acquainted with your weekly grocery flyers. Have a look at what’s on sale that week and plan accordingly. Make sure to stock up on your staples when they are on sale for extra savings. There are apps like Flipp, Reebee and SaleWhale that allow you to look at all the flyers for your local area so you can find exactly where to get the best deals. Many grocery chains allow some price matching too, so once you find out where all the best prices are for the goods you want to purchase, you can get them all in one place instead of driving all over town. Often, all they need is to see the flyer ad to match the price. So, keep one of these apps on your phone and you are set.
I’m talking meal plan. Once you’ve determined what items are on sale, plan your weekly menu around them and make a list of exactly what you need to make those meals for the week. Meal planning is great for cutting costs as you can significantly cut down on your food waste. When you know exactly what you plan to make and shop from a grocery list, there’s no need to buy items for meals that aren’t in your rotation that week. Meal planning is a huge time saver as well. So much winning!
Get Cash Back
There’s nothing more helpful to a tight budget than earning a little money back for items you would have purchased anyway. Apps like Checkout 51, Caddle, Ebates, and Zweet help you do just that. Ebates works for online shopping only but gives you a certain percentage of your purchases back, depending on the store. Checkout 51, Caddle and Zweet work by setting a list of items they will offer cashback on for the week. When you purchase the item, you upload a picture of your receipt and voila, cashback.
The trick with apps like these is not to get sucked into buying products you wouldn’t normally use just to get the cashback. That defeats the purpose and you won’t save much if you start buying products that you won’t use. If it’s something you will legitimately use, then go for it. Bonus points if you also price match your cashback items!
Bulk Food Stores
Trying a new recipe and just need a little bit of something instead of a big ole bag? Shop a bulk food store, or the bulk bin section at your grocery store. This allows you to buy just the amount you need so you can cut down on food waste. It’s also helpful if buying a big bag of something just isn’t in your budget that week.
Produce Delivery Services
These are starting to grow in popularity and for good reason. These companies aim to reduce food waste by purchasing surplus and imperfectly shaped produce from local farms. They then sell them to consumers at a lower cost than you would pay at your typical grocery store. Some will even let you choose which items you want in your box. Check out companies like Food Fund, Misfits Produce, Flashfoodbox and Imperfect Produce.
Another produce delivery option is searching out a local CSA or community-supported agriculture. Local farms will often put together boxes of fresh produce they’ve harvested and sell them at competitive prices. The great thing about these options is you’re typically getting locally grown, in-season produce, delivered right to your door. Talk about convenient!
Now, most people tend to think farmer’s markets are expensive, but this isn’t always the case. For starters, you’re getting local produce, grown close to home, so the nutrient content will be much higher than those goods that have been shipped across the country. Often, vendors at these markets will have pricing based on the quantity you buy. For example, buy 1 item for $5, buy 3 items for $12, buy 5 for $15 etc. So, if you buy multiple items from the same vendor, you can get some savings there. If they don’t have something like this posted, feel free to politely ask if they offer any quantity discounts. Another good hint, go later in the day, closer to closing time. Often times vendors will reduce their prices near the end of the day to try and sell their goods rather than bringing them back with them.
What About Organic?
Purchasing organic produce can definitely be beneficial, but it’s not a requirement. Organic options are typically more expensive than their conventional counterparts. If this isn’t in your budget, don’t sweat it. You definitely do not have to buy organic in order to eat plant-based. In fact, many doctors agree that eating more produce is a good thing for your health, whether it’s organic or not. If you want to try to switch some of your purchases to organic, check out the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists, to get an idea of which items you should prioritize for those organic purchases. Typically, items with thick skins or rinds (bananas, watermelons, etc.) are OK to purchase as conventional, because those pesticides don’t make it through to the part that you eat.
Grow Your Own
Another great way to save money on your grocery bill is by growing some of your own produce. If you’re a green thumb this is an excellent option for you. Seed packets are relatively cheap, so you can plant them in your yard, or in containers and have access to fresh fruit and veggies of your own. What if you’re not a green thumb? No problem, some crops are super easy and low maintenance even for those of us who don’t seem to have that gift. Things like radishes, salad greens, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini tend to turn out well with just some basic maintenance.
The Bottom Line
If you’re on a tight budget, a plant-based diet is your most economical option. Eating plant-based is not just for the rich or fancy. You can save huge amounts, not only in your food budget but in medical expenses too. Just think how much money you could save if you no longer required that medication to control your cholesterol, blood sugar or blood pressure. Health is wealth my friend. Getting healthy just might be the best investment you ever make.
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