How To Eat a Vegetarian Diet on a Budget

Fresh colorful organic vegetables coming out from paper eco shopping bag
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By now it is well-known that reducing meat and bulking up on plant-based foods is better for your health and for the planet. But perhaps less well-known is the large-scale economic impact of meat consumption. In 2020, the costs of various meats skyrocketed. According to the USDA, beef and veal prices soared 9.6%, pork prices upped 6.3% and poultry prices rose 5.6%. Meanwhile, the cost of fresh fruits dropped by 0.8%.

Read: These 16 New Food Companies Are Changing the Way We Eat

Though we know that meat and poultry are costing us an arm and a leg (or a thigh and a breast?), we often associate going vegetarian or vegan as a more pricey and time-consuming diet than one framed around animal products. This can be true, but not if you’re shopping with a budget in mind. GOBankingRates consulted experts in the vegetarian, vegan and nutrition space to learn how to embrace these diets without breaking the bank. You might even save a buck or a whole lot more.  

Read: 16 Ways To Save Money on Food

Shop Seasonal

Since you’ll likely be buying more produce as you phase out meats, it will help to factor your meal planning around what’s in season. 

Make Your Money Work for You

“Seasonal fruits and vegetables are cheaper to grow, care for and distribute,” said Shahzadi Devje, a registered dietician. “Besides being fresher and tastier, seasonal fruits and vegetables have more nutrition because they are harvested at their peak of ripeness and nutrition. Check out your local fruits and vegetables availability guide to support your meal planning at the lowest prices. Scan your grocery store’s website for the best deals or use an app to find exclusive deals every time.”

See: Costly Mistakes People Make While Grocery Shopping

You can also save money by visiting your local farmer’s market or by “finding a good produce market that buys and sells by the basket, crate or box,” said Michael Schenk, culinary director and executive chef, Farmer’s Table

Don’t Shy Away From Frozen or Canned

Fresh produce is worth the hype — but not at the expense of frozen and canned alternatives. You can get just as healthy versions of leafy greens and select fruits in prepackaged varieties at a lower cost.  

“Frozen and canned produce are less expensive and studies show that the nutrients frozen or canned provide are on par with their fresh counterparts,” said Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., Appetite for Health.  “Some fresh fruits, like wild blueberries, are frequently not available everywhere (even when in season) and are generally expensive. So frozen is an economical way to enjoy wild blueberries all year. Frozen wild blueberries have twice the antioxidants and half the natural sugars compared to their conventionally-grown counterparts.”

Shopping List: 25 Cheap Frozen Foods That Are Actually Good for You

Grow Your Own Produce

You don’t need to be a full-fledged farmer to start DIY-ing your own food — and doing so can really boost your produce savings. 

“One of the absolute cheapest ways to eat vegan is to grow your own produce,” said Stephanie Morgyn, health coach and wellness blogger. “Even a small garden can produce a large number of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, etc. Wherever you live, a garden is a great way to eat fresh produce for very little money. Plus, homegrown veggies always taste the best!”

Steer Clear of ‘Fake Meat’ and Packaged Foods

“‘Fake meat’ can be super expensive and is really processed so it’s not the healthiest for your body anyway,” said Lacey Roy-Ciciriello, a holistic nutritionist and owner of Full Bodied Health.

Discover: 25 Extra Grocery Costs You’re Probably Forgetting About

You may also want to walk on by those products that scream “plant-based” on the labels. If a marketing exec had to go so far as to lure you to buy something, you’re probably footing their bill by doing so. 

Make Your Money Work for You

“Skin the packaged foods like protein bars, chips and desserts that are marketed as vegan or plant-based,” said Elizabeth Thomson, the author of The Truly Healthy Vegetarian Cookbook and the blogger behind I Heart Vegetables. “They tend to be overpriced and are likely filled with artificial ingredients.”  

Bring On the Lentil Love

When embarking on vegetarian and vegan recipes, you’ll likely find yourself buying a lot of protein-packed alternatives to meat, including legumes, grains, beans and rice (remember to always buy in bulk when possible to save tons of money). But you’ll likely find yourself homing in on one legume in particular for an array of dishes: the lentil. 

Find Out: How To Save Money During COVID-19

“My favorite all-star vegan/vegetarian ingredient is the almighty lentil,” said Heather Jones, blogger at Frosted Kale. “They are so easy to prepare and work for almost any recipe that would traditionally call for meat [such as] tacos, casseroles, shepherd’s pie, salads, etc.”

Fortunately, lentils are dirt cheap. A 16-ounce bag of dry lentils at Walmart costs $2.03.

Embrace the Change

“As human beings when we want to go for a lifestyle change we tend to overcomplicate it,” said Jenna Coker-Jones, a holistic health coach. “What will happen if I do this? How will this change my normal life? Go into a shift like this with an attitude of increase rather than dread and sacrifice. Plant-based life is delicious, decadent and energy-filled.” 

It’s also a lot cheaper than a meat-based life — if you want it to be. 

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Last updated: April 9, 2021

About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

How To Eat a Vegetarian Diet on a Budget
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