Aka how not to spend all of your dolla dolla bills.
When I first became a vegetarian, I was bombarded with questions about how I was able to AFFORD being a vegetarian. To me, this question always struck me as odd. Meat is one of the most expensive things in the store, at around $4 or more dollars per pound. Why would eating vegetarian drive up the costs of your food budget? It was not until I moved to NYC and eventually DC that I understood why so many people had trouble thinking of vegetarianism as an affordable way to live. I had never stepped foot into a Whole Foods or a farmer’s market until I got to college. However, when I saw the prices of “fake meat” product and the produce, I finally understood where people were coming from. Living on a meager budget in the heart of Manhattan (I was a college student after all!), I started developing strategies to living as a vegetarian affordably.
And I have learned a lot!
These are the tips I have found most helpful in my journey. While I do love splurging on some items (cough…chocolate…cough) I find that these strategies help me to eat delicious, nutritious food while sticking to my budget.
1. The freezer is your friend
As a vegetarian, I find that most of my food costs go towards fruits and vegetables (and, let’s be honest, some very nice cheeses). For me, that means making sure I am getting my money’s worth when I buy . We all know the worst feeling is buying a beautiful bunch of asparagus or peas only to find I could not use it fast enough and it is rotting in the fridge (the HORROR!). Buying frozen vegetables helps solve this problem! They do not go bad as fast and can actually have more nutrients than fresh vegetables. They are also usually cheaper per pound than fresh veggies, especially if the vegetables are out of season. My favorite vegetables to buy frozen are spinach, cauliflower, peas, edamame, and Brussels sprouts. They are so easy to toss into stews, stir into pasta, or even roast from frozen (seriously!). You don’t even have to defrost them. Just treat them like you would any fresh vegetable.
2.Batch Cooking will Save You!
One of the biggest pieces of advice I give people when they start trying to cook on a budget is the idea of batch cooking. What I mean by that is picking a meal that can be cooked without a ton of steps, eaten very easily, and is not full of a ton of components. Think of soups, stews, curries, and other one pot style meals. Simply add a grain and you’ve got yourself a meal! Bonus points if you can find meals that freeze really well. That way, you do not have to eat the same meal for nights in a row. I usually will pop a meal out of the freezer and then replace it with one I have just made.
3. Buy Your Pantry “Stockpile” Items on Sale
My pantry is always fully stocked with shelf stable ingredients, so I can whip out a quick meal with minimal effort. Think canned beans, canned diced tomatoes, coconut milk, jars of roasted red peppers, and bags of various grains. Because these items have an infinite shelf life (or two years. Close enough) I like to buy these in bulk when they go on sale. If I go to Whole Foods and see cans of diced tomatoes are 50 cents off, I buy 4 cans to save in case I need them. Easy right? In that light, don’t be afraid to look through your local circular of multiple grocery stores to see where you can find the best deals. I will sometimes stop at Whole Foods, Safeway, and Trader Joe’s to make sure I am getting the best prices on each good I am planning to purchase.
4. Buy from your Local Farmer’s Market
I have showed my affection for my local farmers market numerous times on my Instagram. It is one of my favorite rituals I take part of every Sunday. Buying produce at the farmers market MIGHT seem like a rip off sometimes. I used to think that at first. However, when you think of the FRESHNESS of the asparagus or strawberries you can get at the farmer’s market, that cost must be factored into the cost of the produce you are buying. Keeping this in mind, I am strategic about what I buy at the farmer’s market, using only buying very fresh, local produce. What is better is if you can develop a relationship with your local farmers. They are so knowledgeable about what is in season and how to preserve your goodies. If I am shopping at the end of the market, my farmers will usually give me discounted produce, since it might cost them more to take the produce home, only to have it go bad. Talk about a win win!
5. Use Beans and Grains to Stretch out your Meals
When I was a kid, I used to eat oatmeal everyday for breakfast. Now that I am older, I still stick to the same routine! Not only is oatmeal (or rather grains in general) super affordable, but it is nutritious and filling. I typically buy my grains from the bulk bins at grocery stores because I find they have the best prices and you only have to buy what you will use. Iadd bulgur wheat or faro to salads, barley to soups, and will curl up on the couch with a bowl of polenta. I also love to cook beans and lentils as an affordable, yet delicious, source of protein. Some of my favorite ways to cook with beans and grains are my dal stuffed sweet potatoes and chickpea peanut stew.
6. Split the Cost of a Warehouse Membership
Speaking of buying in bulk, Costco should be a part of your shopping rotation. Shopping at warehouses like Sam’s Club and Costco can save you an average of 15-50% on retail. For example, quinoa can run $2.86 per pound at Costco versus $3.49 at Trader Joe’s. However, not many people feel comfortable shelling out the $55 to perchance an annual membership, especially if they live alone. That is where your friends or family can help you out! When I was in college, a few of us chaps got together and split the cost of a Costco membership. Not only will it make the price of a membership more affordable, but now you have a bunch of extra shopping buddies!
7. Do Not Be Afraid of the Generic Brand!
When I used to go grocery shopping, I would think of buying generic products as inferior. Maybe it was because I got sick after eating an entire bag of generic Fruit Loops, but that might just have been the sugar rush. However, after accidentally buying generic chickpeas (THE HORROR), I realized that, in many cases, the generic products are actually of similar (or sometimes better!) quality than the brand name. Stores are uping their game when it comes to their generic name products. Some of my favorite stores to purchase these include Wegmans, Costco, Whole Foods, and, recently, my local Shoprite. The products I usually buy generic include:
- Baking Supplies
- Canned Beans/Tomatoes
- Frozen Vegetables/Fruits
Also, side note that the organic Wegman’s BBQ sauce is life. Buy it!
8. Consider specialty grocery stores
Sometimes, we get in a one track mindset when we go to purchase food. However, next time you need to grab some goods, consider opening your mind to trying grocery stores that focus on a particular specialty. When I go home to South Jersey, I usually buy my produce at a specialty produce market. Because there is such high turnover, the prices are cheaper than you would find at a traditional grocery store. I also love shopping at my local Korean supermarket. Not only can I find Korean products for a lot less money than the generic grocery store, but I also can just get produce for a lot less money.
9. Build a Budget Grocery List
A lot of people cite the affordability of “super foods” as one of the reason why they cannot afford going vegetarian. However, I am the first to admit that I very rarely purchase these on my student budget. I personally do not have $30 to spend on Ashwaganda either! One of the best parts of eating vegetarian is that you don’t need to buy all of the fanciest ingredients or “super foods”. You can easily enjoy the benefits of eating healthy on a reasonable budget. It just requires a little extra planning and dedication.
Build yourself a budget grocery list with healthy, yet affordable staples like fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, tofu, eggs, nuts and seeds. It opens my mind to thinking what I can buy that will nourish me, but still be affordable. I find that having this list helps me to build my grocery lists throughout the week and to better stay on top of my budget (and less likely to impulsively buy expensive products). You’ll find that building a budget grocery list is a breeze