Many rare and exotic plant-based “superfoods” have come onto the market and are available in most cities around the world, but they usually come with an enormous price tag. Similarly, as more people are switching to a plant-based diet, there has been a massive influx of meat and dairy alternatives available in supermarkets. Many of these are much more expensive than the animal products they are imitating.
Eating an abundance of whole plant foods provides all the energy and nutrients that you require to thrive at any stage of life. So there’s no need to have a daily acai smoothie bowl topped with cacao nibs, goji berries and organic macadamia nuts served with a coffee made with beans pooped out by a civet and laced with reishi and cordyceps mushrooms. This article offers some tips to keep your food bill down while still enjoying healthy and delicious plant-based meals.
Eight ways to eat plant-based on a budget:
1. Shop locally
Farmgate sales, farmers’ markets and local fresh produce stalls are a great way to save money on a plant-based diet. If you live in a big city, there are often produce markets that sell locally grown fruits and vegetables. Usually, the produce is fresher and provides your body with maximum nutrition as the vitamins and minerals haven’t degraded due to long transportation times or being kept in storage. It has ripened on the plant and therefore has a higher nutrient value, is more delicious and has a longer shelf life. You may even find interesting varieties that large supermarket chains do not stock. Additionally, shopping locally not only supports businesses in your area but it also reduces shipping costs and the associated sustainability issues of transport. So invest in your community and reduce your food bill and your carbon footprint while you stock your fridge.
2. Buy or forage for produce that is in season
Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season ensures you keep your shopping bill down. Often farmers need to sell an abundance of produce before it spoils and will discount their harvest to have it sell quickly. Depending on where you live, you can also forage for berries, mushrooms and fruit at different times of the year. Summer is great for picking blackberries and figs while autumn and winter offer an abundance of fungi. Make sure you have a good identification book so you don’t end up with a toxic bounty! Buying in season or foraging gives you the opportunity to dry, preserve or freeze some items for another time.
3. Buy in bulk
Buying food and other household items in bulk has never been easier due to the increased interest in bulk food stores and wholesale grocers. It will not only save you money but will also reduce plastic packaging. You can often take your own bags or glass jars to refill – just ensure they are pest-proof if you are planning on storing the items for long periods of time.
The cost per unit of an item is usually cheaper when buying in bulk. For example, a large bag of rice is going to have a smaller unit price than a 1kg bag. Purchasing pre-cooked rice in a sachet is probably the most expensive way to buy it. Being mindful of this cost-saving, and also of not wasting food, only buy items in bulk that you know you will use up eventually. Whole grains, beans and lentils have a very long shelf life as long as they are dried and sealed in bags or glass jars. Nuts and seeds are also good but can lose their nutritional value over time. The omega 3 fats in walnuts for example can degrade over time so should be stored in the fridge or freezer.
Buying in bulk reduces your trips to the supermarket, therefore reducing your use of fuel and also your carbon footprint. It will also save you time with less frequent trips to the shops. Bear in mind that your grocery bill may increase in the short term but bulk buying will definitely save you money in the long run.
4. Use frozen and canned food
Some vegetables can be snap frozen, which helps to retain many nutrients. Two independent studies found that in 66 percent of cases, frozen fruit and vegetables contained more antioxidants such as vitamin C, polyphenols, beta carotene and lutein compared to fresh varieties that had been stored in the fridge. Buying frozen berries and other fruits is also beneficial as they are often much cheaper than fresh. They are great for throwing into smoothies and on top of oatmeal for breakfast.
Canned fruits and vegetables are similarly inexpensive and high in nutrients. Be sure to buy canned foods that are free of BPA and low in salt, and stock up when they are on special. This is an easy way to save money, add more fibre to your diet and keep your gut microbiome happy.
5. Make your own plant milks
Avoiding dairy for health, environmental and ethical reasons is a valid choice. With so many plant-based milks on the market – from soy to almond and everything in between – it’s just a matter of personal taste. Many of these are relatively expensive, with macadamia, hemp and hazelnut milk topping the list. Even though most of the packaging can be recycled, making your own plant milks can also help save on both resources and money. Many store-bought plant milks also contain additives like vegetable oils, which are high in omega 6’s, inflammatory and not health promoting.
Making your own is easy, and all you need is a handful of nuts, water and a blender. Adding some dates and vanilla can take your plant milk to the next level. Strain the milk through a nut milk bag, store in a glass bottle in the fridge and consume within three days. Hot tip: boiling the nuts prior to blending them can ensure the milk keeps for longer as it partially sterilises them.
6. Avoid processed foods
The enormous variety and availability of new ‘vegan’ products and so-called ‘superfoods’ has led many people to believe that a plant-based shopping list is more expensive than that of those eating an omnivorous diet. Many meat and dairy substitute products are normally highly processed and are not health-promoting, so it’s best to avoid them whether you are on a budget or not. The potential power of many expensive superfoods are often not backed up by science, or at least the touted benefits are not seen in humans. Along with being expensive, many processed foods are high on the glycemic index, high in sugar and fat and not satiating.
Buying and eating whole plant foods and filling up on starches like potatoes, whole grains and beans mean you can eat large amounts, lose weight as well as save money.
7. Buy conventional produce over organic
A review of hundreds of scientific studies found that organic foods don’t seem to have significantly more vitamins and minerals. They can contain higher levels of polyphenols and antioxidants; however, they are often more costly to buy. Buying organic foods may reduce your exposure to pesticides, but not eliminate them entirely. The most important thing to do when choosing conventional produce is to wash it well. A 10% saltwater solution appears to work very well at removing residual pesticides.
If you can’t afford organic and your only option on a budget is to buy conventionally grown produce, then this is a valid option. The bottom line is that avoiding animal products and eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables is good for your health.
8. Start a vegetable garden
Whether you have space for a vegetable garden in your yard or only just a few pots on a balcony, growing fruits, vegetables and herbs can be very rewarding. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to think about where their food comes from and as a result, have begun growing produce in their own yards. A packet of vegetable seeds is relatively inexpensive and has the potential to produce many kilograms of food. Depending on your climate and what will do well in your area, herbs and leafy greens are usually always successful. Fruit trees are easy to grow but can take a few years to establish. Alternatively, you can just sprout seeds such as broccoli and alfalfa in a jar on your kitchen bench. Whatever you choose to plant, you can be assured that it will be the freshest, most nutrient-dense produce and packed with flavour.
Eating plant-based on a budget is totally doable:
Using the tips above, it’s clear that eating whole plant foods doesn’t have to be expensive. Switching to a plant-based diet that excludes processed foods, meat alternatives and some so-called ‘superfoods’ can save you money, is better for your health and that of the planet, and kinder to the animals we share it with.