How to Eat a Satisfying Plant-Based Diet on a Budget
With this budget break-down and our handy meal planning tips, plant-based eating is totally within reach.
By Leah Brickley for Food Network Kitchen
Eating a full (or even partial) plant-based diet that is budget-friendly is totally doable — it just takes a little extra effort and some planning. First, not all plant-based diets are healthy: focus on a balanced variety of whole foods and try to limit highly-processed, plant-based packaged foods — they’ll eat away at your budget, and aren't always the most healthful options. Second, commit to becoming a thrifty shopper — someone who’s OK in going to a few stores to cross everything off your list and score the best deal. Third, focus on the food you will prep and cook yourself (which should be most of your diet, to get the best bang for your buck). Delivery, takeout and dining out should be part of a separate budget.
Managing the Money
Start by establishing your ideal food budget for the month. Then break down your shopping list into groups and allocate a certain percentage of money to each group. For instance, if fruit and vegetables are about 50% of your diet, then it should get 50% of the budget. Here’s an example we think is a good starting place, along with some money-saving tips:
Fruits and Vegetables: 50% of the Budget
When it comes to micronutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber, fruits and vegetables often pack the most per serving (and per dollar!).
Shop sales: Download major store apps for deal notifications. And don’t forget about your local family-owned market and health food store — they may have sales on produce too. If your go-to produce isn't on sale one week, give something else try. Finding variety in ingredients and the way you prepare them is a satisfying strategy for eating plant-based.
Eat with the season: If you live in a place that snows in the winter then go for seasonal produce like apples instead of strawberries; the berries will cost more out of season and they won’t taste as good. Still need berries for smoothies? Then load your freezer with frozen fruit. It’s a great alternative to fresh.
Join a CSA: Community Supported Agriculture and farmer’s markets are a great way to get fresh produce and support local farmers. They can also save you money, but if purchasing a CSA share is cost prohibitive, then split it with a friend.
Get into gardening: Unless you have a serious green thumb, it’s not realistic to rely on a home garden for all your produce (especially if you can’t grow in winter). But, if you grow from seed (or find deals on seedlings and plants) you can certainly offset the cost of store-bought produce. An herb garden absolutely will save you money — try a simple windowsill one to start.
Spend pennies on stock: Make your own vegetable stock with scraps and peels of non-starchy vegetables: add 2 to 3 cups of veggie scraps to every gallon of water and season with salt. Let simmer for about an hour, strain and cool. Refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for up to a month.
Create your own salad bar: Take time to prep lots of veggie-heavy sides that are great eaten cold or at room temperature (or can be zapped in the microwave): Try to balance color, texture and flavor and have 3 to 4 handy in the fridge so you can make a quick, no cook meal out of them.
Make veggies the main dish: Vegetables can easily be turned into show-stopping (and inexpensive) main dishes: a whole head of roasted cauliflower, braised chipotle sweet potatoes (pictured above), or spicy eggplant in an Instant Pot are all perfect for a plant-based meal, plus leftovers.
Consider vegetables from the sea: Certain types of seaweed (like kelp, nori, wakame and dulse) are high in vitamin k, b vitamins, zinc, iron and antioxidants. These crunchy kelp noodles or this pretty seaweed salad mix is a great way to add nutrients within a budget.
Should you buy organic produce?
Organic produce is pesticide-free but may not be realistic on a budget. Shop smart and use the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen™ — a list of fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides — as a guide for what's best to buy organic.
Primary Pantry: Whole Grains, Beans, Pulses, Nuts and Seeds: 20% of the Budget
Much of the fiber and protein — and some of the fat — in your diet will come from your essential pantry items.
Buy in bulk: Get comfy in the bulk section of your grocery store or local health food store. Loading up here is the most affordable way to buy grains, beans and pulses like lentils. Check out the nuts and seeds too, though be sure they aren’t rancid. Organize your bulk buy with some air-tight storage containers.
Learn about new grains: The world of whole grains is bigger than brown rice: here are 50 great grain ideas which include farro, kasha, millet and wheatberries. Or give fonio, the gluten-free grain from Africa, a try; it cooks in just 5 minutes.
Freeze your grains: Whole grains are hearty, so most do well in the freezer. Make large batches, cool and divide among freezer-safe resealable bags. They can hang out in your freezer for up to 3 months.
Try savory oatmeal: Embrace savory oatmeal (pictured above) and top your bowl with a fried egg, olives and feta or mushrooms, chives and pine nuts.
Make your own nut butters: Depending on how much you eat, it may be cheaper to make small batches of nut butters (except peanut) then to buy expensive jars. This basic almond butter recipe can also be made with cashews, pecans, walnuts or even mixed nuts.
What’s the best way to store nuts and seeds?
Both are packed with heart-healthy fats, so that means they can spoil quickly at room temperature. Store your nuts and seeds in the fridge for up to 9 months or for up to 2 years in the freezer.
Discretionary Pantry: 20% of the Budget
Consider this portion to be for supporting pantry ingredients like canned tomatoes, oils, vinegars, spices, dried fruit, cereal, etc.
Save on spices: Time to visit the bulk section (again) at your local health food store — many sell spices by weight. This is a great way to save on frequently used spices, just transfer them to airtight containers (empty spice bottles are perfect).
Share oil: Wholesale club stores sell giant bottles and cans of oil. Stock up and find a friend to split the goods and the cost.
Shop the store brand: Most grocery stores offer their own private label on many pantry items. Since they don’t have the cache or more recognized brands they are often cheaper without sacrificing quality.
Consider an online subscription: Many e-grocers like Thrive Market can sell plant-based foods for less because of their subscription model. The savings often pay for the cost of the subscription, plus you can find really interesting products.
Condiments are your friend: Make almost any dish special with the addition of condiments you love. Either keep room in the budget for plant-based products like ajvar and flavored vegan mayo or make your own chile crisp or vegan basil pesto (pictured above).
Make your own snack mix: You can save so much by making your own simple snack mixes: buy nuts, seeds and dried fruit in bulk and have fun with the combos. A favorite of mine is unsweetened dried cranberries with toasted coconut chips, pepitas and pecans.
What’s the shelf-life of spices?
Ground spices are quick to lose their oomph and typically are best used within 6 months — give them a whiff, if they’ve lost their fragrance then it’s time to toss. Whole spices can last up to 2 years, and a quick toast in a skillet can improve their flavor.
Plant-based Dairy and Meat: 10% of the budget
Like with any diet, the less processed foods you eat the better, for your health and your budget.
Stretch your plant-based milk and creamers: The nutritional profile and environmental impact of every brand of plant-based milk varies greatly, and they can be costly. Guzzling them isn’t budget-friendly, try limiting it to your coffee, smoothies and cereal.
Plant-based meats are a treat: Plant-based meats are obviously better for animal welfare but they aren’t necessarily healthier than the real thing. Plus, they’re expensive. Consider plant-based meat a splurge — thankfully most freeze well so they’re easy to ration.
Create your own veggie burger blend: lentil burgers are packed with fiber and protein and a great starting place. You can customize your own blend with different veggies, beans, nuts, grains and spices.
Make nut milk: is easier than you think. Using a high-speed blender will produce the smoothest milk.
What is TVP?
TVP or "textured vegetable protein" is made from soy flour and is common in many meat-substitute products, especially frozen foods. It can also be found in either the bulk section of your grocery store or health food store or bagged in the flour aisle. It’s fat-free, high in protein and can be reconstituted and cooked to mimic meat. While inexpensive, it’s important to remember that TVP is processed and may contain preservatives and high amounts of sodium.