4 guidelines for eating vegan on $4/day

It’s a common misconception that eating vegan has to be expensive, but that’s definitely not the case. Today I thought I’d give you a glimpse into how Matt and I manage to keep our food budget low (without couponing or having unlimited time for meal prep) and still eat lots of healthy, plant-based food.

While we are paying down some student debt, our budget is pretty small. Right now, we average about $4 per person per day for groceries, or just around $240 per month for the two of us (I aim for $50/week, and sometimes make a mid-week run for something we ran out of or decided we wanted). According to a 2012 Gallup poll, that means we spend less than about 75-90% of the U.S., so I think that’s pretty reasonable!

4 principles I use to eat vegan on $4 per day:

1. Shop smart.

I go to the grocery stores that are going to give me the most food for my dollar! This is probably the most obvious suggestion, but one I didn’t do for a while because of convenience. But with just 10 extra minutes, I can drive to Aldi and get most of my staples for much less than other stores. There’s really no reason to pay more when I don’t have to. I go there for things like canned goods, fresh veggies, and tortilla chips (my husband’s snack of choice). I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at their selection of vegan products like almond milk and even veggie burgers! They have a decent number of organic products, if that’s a priority for you; at this point it’s not for us.

I do shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, just not as much as you might expect for a vegan. I usually go to both once a month (our Whole Foods and TJ’s are conveniently right next to each other). Some things we buy are actually cheaper at Whole Foods than anywhere else, like their tofu, bulk goods, and non-dairy coffee creamer, so I stock up while I’m there. I do also prioritize fair trade whenever we possibly can, and I find many of these items at Whole Foods. At TJ’s I mostly get vegan-friendly toiletries and household supplies, but I also go there for things like dried fruit and hemp seeds, and for a few treats I get every so often.

 

2. Be flexible to cut down on waste.

One way you can save money on food is by being adaptable in the kitchen. For that reason, I’ve found that a meal plan doesn’t really work well for us. When I was actively meal planning, sometimes I wouldn’t feel like making or eating the planned meals (a craving for Chinese on Sunday doesn’t always translate to Thursday), or I would end up with extras of ingredients and no plans to use them up. Either way, we were throwing away more food than usual, which was costing us money (and isn’t a great practice in general).

These days, I buy a selection of flexible ingredients (see #3), and decide what to do with them throughout the week. I try to use up fresh produce first, and reincorporate leftovers into new meals (almost anything can become a taco filling). I love cookbooks and recipe blogs, but I often make my own version using whatever ingredients we have on hand.

This does require a certain amount of creativity in the kitchen, and I’m aware that not everyone enjoys experimenting in the kitchen as much as I do (this is not to say that all my experiments are wildly successful). If you do meal plan and use recipes, you can still practice being flexible by shopping your pantry before you head to the grocery store. If a recipe calls for serving something over barley, can you use brown rice instead (or vice versa)? In a soup that calls for sweet potato, could you use the carrots you already have, which would lend a similar sweetness?

However you do it, using up items in your pantry instead of buying something new, and using up items that might otherwise go bad, will always be the cheaper route.

 

3. Keep it simple.

One of the biggest reasons for the idea that veganism is inherently expensive is the cost of vegan specialty products. It’s true that faux meats, cheeses, and other processed replacements for animal products are often more expensive than their non-vegan counterparts. My favorite brand of vegan cheese is at least $5 for a mere 10 slices. Yikes! It’s also the case that products like that shouldn’t make up the bulk of a healthy OR budget-friendly vegan diet, and it’s why they are “special occasion” foods for us.

Our grocery list is pretty simple. A selection of grains, legumes, tofu, and veggies (fresh, frozen, and canned). Bread, oats and granola for breakfast, fruit and nuts, and some other snacks. Basic baking supplies. Condiments, sauces, spices, and other staples.

I use these ingredients in many ways. Chickpeas can be sauteed and covered with teriyaki sauce as part of a “Chinese takeout” meal, mashed with some mayo or avocado for a chickpea salad sandwich, or mixed with nutritional yeast in the food processor to make a yummy cheesy spread. Avocados add a creaminess to tacos without the sour cream, or can be used to make a chocolate pudding (this is my favorite way to use up “too ripe” avocados). Tofu can be baked as a main protein, or crumbled over salad and pasta like feta. Veggies and grains can fill out almost any meal, and spices and sauces make it all taste good.

Learning to be flexible (see point #2) with a few simple ingredients helps me keep things inexpensive and healthy.

 

4. Make what you can.

Many of the staples in my kitchen are fairly easy and cheap to make at home. I’ve been making my own vegan butter for some time now, using this recipe (originally from this cookbook). What’s great about it is that I always have the three main ingredients on hand (coconut oil, a light oil like grapeseed, and non-dairy milk), and the bottle of lecithin I bought will last a year or more at this rate, so I never have to worry about running out of butter! It’s cheaper than buying something like Earth Balance, makes less waste, and doesn’t contain palm oil, so it’s a win for my wallet and the environment.

I’ve also  made a few different types of bread that were pretty easy, and I make homemade pizza dough pretty frequently. I’ve been experimenting this week with making my own non-dairy milk and coffee creamer, but I’ll have to report back on that. I’m still learning what is and isn’t worth my time to make, but there is something a little addictive about it!

This probably saves us the least amount out of the four guidelines, so if learning to use baker’s yeast doesn’t sound appetizing to you, that’s okay. And it has also taken me a while to learn what does and doesn’t work for us in the kitchen. But with a little planning and intention, it’s totally possible to eat healthy plant-based food on a budget!

Let me know if this is something that you find helpful! In the future, I’d like to show what we specifically buy in a given month, what we eat over the course of a week, and some of my favorite meal ideas!

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