How to Eat Vegan on a Budget

Within the plant-based world, diets can vary widely. Whether you’re low carb, high fat, medium protein, pro probiotic, or just want to eat plants, my tips will work across the board if you’re trying to learn how to eat vegan on a budget.

I’ve tried every diet under the sun. Literally. My favorite argument to have is the “I’ve tried more diets than you” one, with someone who clearly hasn’t.

I used to eat whatever I wanted and paid the price with globular rotundancy, incessant intestinal impasse, and excessive oiliness. In short,”Ew,” to quote Sam. Adopting a plant-based lifestyle has dramatically improved all aspects of my health since I started in 2010. Eating better and more affordably is a skill you can develop, and practice gets you closer to perfection.

Depending on what you do, there may be a more optimal diet, and for that, there’s nutritionists (don’t see doctors) and dieticians. Some people want to be told exactly what to do; I’m not giving you daily recommendations on nutrient quantities.

Also, Fresh Direct is not inexpensive. Blue Apron is not inexpensive. If you have never heard of these, keep reading. If you don’t physically do your own shopping, then link this guide to the person that does- apps don’t count.

Most likely you are not an athlete or a body builder, but you want to be healthier and need a set of guidelines to help you make informed decisions and form practical habits while spending within your means.

1. 100% is nearly impossible and not practical

I’m sure you are familiar with the phrase “eat to live” or “live to eat”. The aim here is to “eat to live” at least 90% of the time.  Define your “healthy” foods, and eat them 90% of the time. Key word is goal. If you are moving from 10% to 20% to 30% of your diet being plant-based gradually, that’s great. Goals are for striving towards, so any increase is good, and don’t beat yourself up for not being able to do it outright.  Do understand the difference between eating healthy most of the time, and spending every day eating garbage with an occasional salad that is supposed to somehow counteract this.

Unless you’re the cold turkey type, I suggest you plan your indulgences for 10% of the time.

What does that look like? Consider that you probably eat three meals a day, seven times a week, meaning 21 meals in a week. Out of those, two meals a week can be indulgent. The other 19 are your “healthy” meals.

2. Variety is a luxury and an illusion

Variety is a luxury. Most of the world eats the same thing every day, with slight variation. Once or twice a week, there’s something different, as a treat. Think of variety as a treat, not a default.

Variety is an illusion. I’ve worked front of house and back of house in restaurants. That 30 item menu? A recombination of dozen or so standard ingredients. ESPECIALLY in vegan restaurants. I dare you to find five dishes on the menu that don’t overlap in ingredients.

So should you just eat a nondescript nutrient block for every meal? Hardly. The goal is for your food to be enjoyable, so find those ingredients you can’t get enough of. For me, it’s avocados and scallions over anything and everything. Master cooking rice and throwing stuff on top.

3. Embrace the seasons

Don’t eat blueberries from Chile while it’s winter in America. Do you think they export their finest goods? Nope. Not for cheap. Don’t pay a premium for substandard produce.

Eat what is in season. If it’s not summer, don’t eat watermelon. In the winter it tastes like water, minus the melon, unless it’s winter melon.

Fortunately, after a fruit’s season peaks, it’ll stick around for a bit. In early fall, you may still find some perfectly ripened peaches at your local farmer’s market. However, I can guarantee you that $2.99 per pound nectarine you find mid- January is from South America and they didn’t want it for a good reason.

If you want fruit out of season, your best bet is frozen. The fruit is frozen at peak ripeness since they don’t have to worry about shipping soft, easily bruised room temperature flesh.

There are some exceptions. I eat high raw in my diet, and the only consistently available produce at a reasonable price and quality year round are bananas and leafy greens. I generally eat romaine, red leaf, and green leaf year round, but there are always a couple months of the year where their prices go up, and raw baby spinach goes down my gullet. For several weeks, I’m shaming Popeye on the double, daily. Not only does my spinach consumption surpass him in pure volume, but also in intact nutritional form; he eats canned aka overcooked spinach aka disgusting.

4. Minimize the processed foods, maximize your prepared foods 

Frozen dinners? Fast food? Stick your head in a dumpster, open face first. When it comes to eating, grocery shop. Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, recommends avoiding the center of the supermarket and stick to the fresh sections along the walls. The only time to dip in the center is to grab nonperishable staple goods, like dried legumes and sometimes pulverized grains.

Food companies look at every step of processing as “adding value.” There’s a reason breakfast cereals are high in cost and low on everything concerning satisfaction; they are heavily broken down, and then recombined, zapping all the good things into oblivion. The more elaborately processed the product, the more you are paying for nothing.

5. Shop around

Yes, you are going to have to spend some initial time determining the cheapest places for things. If you’re lucky, it’ll be one store. More likely, you’ll find one place has the cheapest bananas, but 3 times more expensive everything else in produce. Then another place has the best lettuce. You won’t know until you explore.  It doesn’t need to be a chore; treat shopping like an adventure. Make sure to eat before you go, and you’ll be interested in more than just things you can immediately stuff in your face. Look at items and compare, and try to find the ones that are mostly real.

6. Buy on sale

This seems pretty obvious, but people hardly do it. They buy based on immediate gratification, that imaginary variety they’ve been craving all day while un-nourishing themselves in their cubicle. Don’t pay a premium for convenience.

Not on sale? Not for you. Also, don’t shop at Whole Foods. Their “sales” are still more expensive than non-sale items at other stores. Also, you don’t want to be these people.

8. Plan to eat vegetables

Yes, eating a plant-based diet means eating vegetables.  A typical dinner could be a sautéed veggie over rice, with a salad. A typical dinner should not be [insert imitation meat] 6- 7 times a week. While a vegan cheeseburger is healthier than a real one, that doesn’t mean you should emulate the typical American diet of meat and cheese that’s flavored by everything else, in vegan form.

8. It’s a lifestyle, not a diet

Diets assume termination. A lifestyle is something you adopt and stick with, and something that you will need to plan. It’s doesn’t matter how well you eat if you never sleep and are constantly stressed out. Incorporate a fitness regimen that allows you to physically engage with the world to your satisfaction. Sleep more. Reduce stress. Enjoy nature. Avoid toxic interpersonal relationships, especially those who insist a plant-based diet is somehow detrimental to your health.

9. Practice; it’s a process

To get good at anything, you must practice. You will need to put time and effort into everything I just talked about above. The good news is that it will get easier, and you will get better at it, as long you try, regardless of failures.  If eating vegan junk food is a failure, I’m guilty of many. You’ll never be perfect, so accept it, and keep practicing. There is no bad news. Unless you bought a microwave.

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how to eat vegan on a budget

Share your tips for how to eat vegan on a budget in the comments!

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Veren is a filmmaker and creative pursuit enthusiast. Reared in California and cultivated in New York City, this blustering blogger is a formidable information source. In between bouts of substitute teaching, tutoring, mentoring and philosophizing, he house and pet sits while cooking for the Sam aka the girlfriend.
  • Marybeth

    Wonderful tips! #1 was a wise choice for that spot. I got more interested in gardening once when Rodale’s daughter started her book with;”… dig a hole and put a plant there, if it lives, leave it, if it starts to die, move it. Simplicity is a beautiful basic in life to start from and maintain in many instances. I am not vegan or even a total vegetarian, but I am evolving in that direction. A vegetarian friend pointed out that one of the benefits of no meat in her house means their is no meat bacteria to worry about. Clean up is much easier and worry free. BTW-Sam knows me.

  • Marybeth! I am glad you’re enjoying the site. Yes, when only plants on your dishes, there’s less scouring, and deep cleaning to do. It’s why I insist on calling it a lifestyle- the benefits go beyond your internal well being, and will reconfigure many aspects of your life, for the better.

  • Love these tips!! We recently decided to become vegan and it’s great to hear ‘it’s a process’ It’s so easy to slip up and then feel bad about it afterwards, but every mistake is a lesson!! (Like don’t get drunk when you have no food at home and the kebab shop will be the only thing that’s open)!

    • Haha, thanks! It’s a myth that most vegans are pure and undaunted. Many times out with friends, I’ve committed drunken disappearing acts, only to lurk into New York City night, hunting down my favorite pizza spots. The most preachy ethical vegan I knew became the least vegan once they arrived home late, drunk, confessing to me their weakness of chicken wings. I suspect there’s a direct correlation between how vegan one claims to be and how much they actually aren’t.

      You’ve reminded me of a great article and blog post regarding this. I’ll link it here, and somewhere in the article as well. I think you’re handling it with a great attitude, and always, it’s a work in progress.

      http://www.raptitude.com/2012/04/giving-up-the-v-card/

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