Eating Vegan on a Tight Grocery Budget
If you’re wondering where my cookbook creations have gone, don’t worry, they’ll be back in time, but it’s been a very busy year. As of January, we’re officially full-time business owners, putting me shorter on time and… money! Of course, the plan is to become a billionaire and go crazy buying strange and fantastic ingredients with nothing to do all day but cook, bake, and create, but just in case you’re concerned, I do have a plan B. For the time being, the grocery budget had to tighten up a little, but that doesn’t mean we can’t eat healthy, delicious vegan food for every meal. And I’ll be sharing my more frugal recipe creations and tips with you all along the way. Here are a few of my tips for eating vegan on a budget:
Buy dry goods in bulk.
If you frequent the “how to survive in the event of all-out nuclear war or apocalypse” forums (not that I do, of course…), you are most likely already aware that, if stored properly, beans, rice, and many other dried goods can last as long as 8-10 years! And even when stored in less-than-ideal conditions, they’re still going to make it a full trip around the sun, at the very least. When you’re having a good budget week, and it doesn’t have to be that great because bulk goods are so affordable, buy a huge bag of dried beans, brown rice, lentils, quinoa, etc, and don’t bother refilling until your scoop hits the bottom of the barrel. I love to buy nuts, seeds, oats, and dried fruits in bulk, also, and transfer them from my reusable bulk bags to easily organizable glass mason jars. Speaking of bulk, I have 5 pounds of both chia seeds and hemp seeds in my freezer right now! These staples become “freebies” you can count on to mix and match for every meal without needing to repeatedly add them to the grocery list.
Know when to skip the produce sale.
Yes, that super healthy green vegetable is on sale for a ridiculously low price this week, but if you and your family hate said vegetable, don’t grab 6 bunches. You know if every time before you’ve either made it and scraped it off each plate, down the disposal, or found it in a wilted, stinky mess at the back of the refrigerator months later, this time isn’t going to be any different. Remember, it’s only saving money if someone actually consumes it (Mr. Compost Bin doesn’t count here). Don’t get me wrong, sales are a great time to try and re-try different produce, but be realistic. And realistically, exotic tropical fruit on sale is still going to cost way more than the trusty ol’ in-season local produce. I’m not saying don’t try the fancy island candy, I’m just saying maybe in the middle of a budget crunch isn’t the time.
Pass on imitation.
I know some vegans are morally opposed to faux meat and cheese, others aghast at the nutritional and environmental irresponsibility, but for those who just plain enjoy the taste and convenience, consider giving up vegan imitation products or making them a more infrequent dinner guest. Vegan “meats” and “cheeses” take a big bite of the budget, and aren’t as nutritious as the packaging wants you to believe. And because the principles of the Standard American Diet are so ingrained into many of us, it’s easy to forget we don’t need these imitations as a part of our vegan diet. In fact, many of us can’t even find these specialty vegan products locally and are having them shipped to our homes. That’s all fine and dandy, but if you’re in a tight spot with the grocery bill, cut that out!
Don’t buy it just because they slapped the V on it.
I can completely empathize with your, “OMG THEY MAKE VEGAN TOASTER STRUDELS??!! I MUST BUY THEM NOW!!!!!” sentiments, but they just aren’t budget-friendly. And let’s be honest, they aren’t good for our families nutritionally, either. Checking out the latest and greatest vegan creation is fun, and I do it around I Eat Trees all the time, but while it’s fabulous to support vegan businesses and show large companies there is an interest in vegan products, there are far more important places, say the fresh produce isle, to spend your pinched pennies.
Think outside the box.
Yes, they make those itty bitty vegan organic peanut butter sandwich crackers, and yes, my kid loves them too, and when we pass them in the store and I get the “Mommy, I looove little peanut butter crackers,” they somehow end up in my cart, but boxed snacks are bad for the budget. They’re alluring to kids and parents (because, “Hey, open a cardboard lid and the kids instantly stop whining about snack time!”), but they’re over-priced, often over-processed, and it’s time for them to go. I can buy a whole jar of organic peanut butter (or just a bag of peanuts to Vita-Mix) and organic wheat crackers (easy to make at home!) for half the price. And using my grandmother’s old secret recipe (yes folks, that’s 2 crackers and a butter-knife-ful of peanut butter) I can make them myself. Other budget-friendly snacks I love are bulk popcorn, raw veggies, fresh fruits, homemade raw granola, and frozen banana “soft serve”. When you avoid the boxed snacks, you’re not only saving money, but also avoiding the primary source of many scary artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Win-win!
Skip the 27-ingredient recipe.
If you’ve been a reader of my blog for long, you probably know I’m sometimes guilty of the fill-a-shopping-cart-for-one-dish recipe. It’s probably no surprise, but those aren’t easy on the grocery bill. Sticking to simple, delicious dishes with only a handful of ingredients is really going to lighten your cartload. And unless your grocery store sells fresh green pepper by the tablespoon, be sure to plan for a couple dishes using overlapping ingredients so none will go to waste. If you don’t have a particular spice, do a quick Google search to find common replacements rather than shelling out for a whole bottle you’ll never use up. Don’t give up on creativity just because your budget is tight! You can do more with less to really make each ingredient the star of the plate.
Stick to a familiar cookbook-friend.
Of course, I adore a new cookbook, but you know you don’t have 90% of its ingredient-list-staples in the pantry (and chances are you’ve never even heard of 5% of those ingredients). Let’s face it, unless it’s specifically designed to be budget-friendly, such as my beloved Vegan on the Cheap, a new cookbook just isn’t ideal for checkout savings. When you want try something new, find a forlorn page from your old favorite cookbook; you probably already have that author’s favorite ingredients on hand.
Eat your veggies.
Salads are so nice and fluffy. And by that I mean voluminous, not to mention filling. When Kris Carr recommended filling 80% of the plate with raw green goodness in Crazy Sexy Diet, I was thinking her advice sounds not only skinny-jeans-friendly, but grocery-bill-friendly, as well. You can make a giant, nutrition-packed salad for merely pocket change per serving. The possibilities are endless with the big salad, and you can even throw in grains and legumes and call it an entree. Even if you’re shunning my “salads are cheap and filling” theory, filling your plate with the in-season produce is going to save you a lot of money. Lightly sauteed stir-fry, unfried brown rice, collard green wraps, and hearty slow cooker soups are all examples of ways to maximize your veggie use. Don’t forget to utilize your bulk dried goods when you want to bulk up your veggie dishes!
Do the math.
Making things yourself, especially treats like cookies and common comfort foods like pizza, is usually cheaper. It’s almost always cheaper in the long run, but sometimes if it means buying a bag of special flour, bottle of agave or certain spice, jar of coconut oil, or even a specific pan or appliance, you may not be able to squeak in those additions on a tight grocery budget right now, even if they do save you money in the long run. If you have to worry about only right now, worry about only right now. These things usually aren’t staples like grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and if you can swing one jar of some special sauce or dressing, or one package of your favorite cookie or bread, rather than buying the ingredients to make a barrel’s worth, so be it. However, I highly recommend making your own salad dressings, sauces, snack mixes, breads, granolas, and so on. And we could all go without the refined sugar desserts, so save baking cakes and cookies for holidays and special occasions, especially when the budget is tight. It only makes them all the more special and less “everyday”.
Shop the pantry.
Most of us are guilty of going grocery shopping on a full pantry. We keep using the same things, and the rest just gets pushed to the back and forgotten. Try shopping your pantry instead of the super market! Make a commitment to make fresh produce-only shopping trips while you use up that stash of taco shells, pastas, jarred sauces, packaged ready-to-eat rices and beans, canned vegan refried beans, dried sprouted lentils, unfamiliar grains that sounded fun at the time, and whatever else is lurking back there. You may just have to force your creative kitchen juices to start flowing, but hey, you might come up with the most awesome dish your family has ever tasted. And at least it isn’t going to be same ol’, same ol’. You don’t want things to start rotting back there while you’re out grocery shopping for the same convenient stuff you made last week; trashing food is never frugal.
Don’t give up on your food values.
Whatever you do, don’t give up on the food values you truly believe in simply because you don’t think you can manage them on a tight budget. You can do organic if keeping pesticides out of the soil and off your family’s plates is important to you. Local farmer’s markets often have great prices on organic produce and there are even some affordable nationally-available organic produce brands if large chain grocery stores are your only option. You can choose products without added refined sugars or artificial flavors and colorings. It isn’t fair that those sugar-laced, chemical-color-and-flavor-ridden products are almost always the lower-priced option, but with a lot of label reading and a little price comparing, you can absolutely have it all. We must not only consider the initial cost of our food choices, but also the priceless value of our health and the health of our loved ones.