There’s a perception among my meat-eating friends that the vegan culture is a bit elitist. We shop at expensive health food stores and buy exotic ingredients like chia seeds and quinoa. We own fancy kitchen cookware–industrial blenders, juicers, food processors, dehydrators–which we use to prepare our designer green juices and kale chips. Our fringe cuisine is an indulgence for the privileged set, right along with fancy gym memberships and haute faux leather shoes.
While there is some truth to these stereotypes, the notion of plant-based food being more expensive than a meat-centric diet has always seemed counter-intuitive to me. After all, the most impoverished nations in the world eat what is essentially a vegan diet. A significant percentage of the global population lives off simple foods like rice and beans and vegetables, largely because that is all it can afford. When Newark, New Jersey, mayor Corey Booker took the Food Stamp Challenge last year to experience what it might be like to eat on a welfare budget, there was much commentary in the media about the fact that he was a vegetarian. Many opined that Mayor Booker would have an easier time eating within the financial constraints of the Challenge than most Americans who build their meals around meat.
Supporting the idea of affordable veg cuisine is Ellen Jaffe Jones, author of Eat Vegan on $4 a Day. In her book she says, “…you really can eat nutritionally for under $4 a day–and sometimes even less, depending on your cooking methods and ingredients.” I decided to test Jaffe Jones’ claim and put my money where my mouth is, figuratively speaking. If she could maintain a healthy vegan diet for less than $4 a day, then surely I could do it for a couple of weeks on a daily budget of $5.
It was only after I decided to prove that eating healthy, delicious vegan food doesn’t have to come with a big price tag that I started paying close attention to how much things really cost. The reality is, eating any sort of diet on such a limited budget presents some challenges. What became immediately evident was the tighter your budget, the more important it is to plan your meals and use every ounce of whatever you buy. If you have the luxury of shopping around a bit for sales and discounts, even better, though I imagine many folks living on a low-income don’t have that luxury.
I began my menu planning by focusing on recipes designed around the least expensive source of protein I knew of: the almighty legume. Anything made with beans, lentils and peanut butter was on the table, so to speak. The other power food I made sure to include in my diet was that perennial veg favorite, nutritional yeast, sometimes referred to as “nooch.” Just a tablespoon sprinkled over a bowl of soup or plate of pasta would provide a blast of B vitamins, including the much talked about B12. I also looked for simple recipes made from whole foods AND, to keep it real, which would not require any fancy appliances to prepare.
In the spirit of the Food Stamp Challenge, whose ground rules dictate that you can only eat the food you bought that week (in other words, no dipping into your pantry for ingredients already on-hand, condiments and spices excepted), I looked at synergies between dishes that would enable me to stretch my food purchase. For instance, from a jar of tomato sauce, I could spoon off a small amount to flavor a soup, and then use the rest for spaghetti. A one pound bag of black beans could be could be used to make a batch of veggie burgers as well as a number of rice bowls. I also sought out seasonal dishes, which this time of year meant winter greens like collards, chard and kale.
When it comes to buying produce, I prefer organic. Unfortunately, the cost of eating pesticide-free can add up quickly, so I decided to limit my organic purchases to those fruits and vegetables identified on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Plus list. These are items in the produce section most likely to be contaminated by pesticides. I was taken aback to see the two items that had been added this year in a new “Plus” category for produce that was commonly contaminated with highly toxic organophosphate insecticides. Falling into that category were kale and other dark leafy greens that play such a vital role in the healthy vegan diet I usually enjoy. Since I wasn’t about to give them up for two weeks, I knew I’d have to sacrifice something else from my menu. When it comes to buying food on a tight budget, making trade-offs is just the way you have to roll. Because these trade-offs can create painful choices (such as which should I give up, coffee or chocolate…or both?) it’s best to think things through before you head to the store. It all goes back to planning, then writing out a shopping list and sticking to it.
Following advice from Jaffe Jones and other food budget gurus, I tried to take advantage of ingredients that I could buy in bulk, particularly when those items were available in open bins from which I could scoop out just the amount I needed. Nowadays you can find all sorts of things in these bins, from oatmeal to beans to nuts and candy. I found this a particularly useful way to purchase spices, which play a key role in creating tasty plant-based dishes that don’t rely on animal fat for flavor. I discovered another inexpensive source of food seasoning right under my nose, as I foraged for fresh herbs that may have survived the winter in my garden. Besides my thriving rosemary and parsley plants, I was able to uncover a few sprigs of oregano that looked edible. To round out my arsenal of flavoring, I loaded my pockets with those free condiment packets whenever I came across them. Those teaspoon-sized servings of ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper and strawberry jelly would come in handy over the next two weeks. (As mentioned above, the Food Stamp Challenge guidelines permit you to use condiments and spices already on hand, but I figure anyone on a budget should not say no to free stuff.)
It goes without saying that anything I bought that didn’t come from an open bin was a store brand product. They almost universally offer the lowest price for a product. ‘Nuff said.
One other money saving suggestion from Jaffe Jones and others is to cook from scratch. Of course this presents another trade-off: time versus money. Since my focus was on the latter, I pulled out the big pots and dusted off my apron. Two staples of a budget-conscious vegan’s pantry are beans and vegetable stock, both of which can easily be cooked from scratch and used for all sorts of delicious meals. There are a few things to keep in mind with the beans, however. If they’re old, they won’t plump up, so be mindful of how long they’ve been sitting on the shelf. Some chefs also caution you against adding salt to the water when cooking beans for the same reason. But the biggest piece of advice I can offer based on my experience of these last few weeks is NEVER FORGET ABOUT THE POT YOU LEFT COOKING ON THE STOVE! The last thing you want to do when you’re eating on a tight budget is waste food. That means no spilling, no leaving anything out to spoil, and most definitely, no burning!
Finally, it must be said that following a healthy meal plan on a daily budget of only a few dollars invariably requires you to eliminate most or all indulgences from your diet, such as sweets, coffee and alcohol. In case there’s any doubt, let me be clear–no one is living the high life on a budget this low. Nonetheless, it can be done.
So what exactly does a vegan living on $5 a day actually eat? Below is a summary of the food plan I followed over the two-week period.
For breakfast, oatmeal is the hands-down winner when it comes to high nutritional value for the money. Add some banana slices (also a steal at 21 cents a piece) and other fresh fruit like blueberries or chopped apples, a teaspoon or two of sunflower seeds, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Making it with fortified soy milk will also provide a boost of protein and other nutrients. For convenience, you can mix the oats and soy milk in a bowl the night before and store it in your refrigerator. Then all you have to do in the morning is heat in the microwave and add toppings.
My breakfasts also include a cup of orange juice, which can be pricey, so when possible, it’s best to buy it on sale. (Curiously, I did not find it cheaper to purchase concentrated orange juice than the ready-made gallon of the store brand.)
I admit, even when I’m not eating on a budget, a peanut butter sandwich made with whole grain bread, served with a glass of soy milk and a piece of fresh fruit is one of my favorite lunchtime meals. It just happens to be a great value as well.
Another great budget meal that offers a lot of versatility is that vegan staple, the rice bowl. You can use any combination of starch, protein, veggies and dressings to make your bowl. One of the simpler versions I enjoy is made with brown rice, black beans and broccoli (a one pound bag cost about a dollar), topped with salsa and/or a peanut butter dressing.
Rice bowls are also a great way to use leftovers from the night before. Anything goes with a bowl, so be creative. For a change, roll your rice bowl ingredients in a whole wheat tortilla for a quick and easy wrap.
Fresh fruit is a great pick-me-up in the afternoon. Again, bananas are super inexpensive and just about the most perfect food in the world. If they start getting too ripe before you’re ready to eat them, you can put them in the freezer and use them later for smoothies. I also eat my share of organic apples spread with peanut butter.
Bean dips served with veggies or torn up bread are also inexpensive, easy to make, and loaded with protein and fiber.
While seeds and nuts can be a bit pricier than some of the other foods listed here, they pack such a strong nutritional punch, they’re worth the investment. An ounce of sunflower seeds provides more than one-third of the recommended daily requirement for vitamin E. Many stores let you buy nuts and seeds in bulk, which can help in managing the cost.
Veggie pastas, bean tacos, chilies and stews all make filling, nutritious meals at relatively little cost. During the winter months, I particularly enjoy a hearty soup, which can be made for very little cost. West African soup (aka peanut butter and sweet potato soup) provides a good source of vitamin A. Top it with nutritional yeast and shredded greens for added vitamins and minerals. I also like a delicious old world soup made from stale bread and tomato sauce that costs less than a dollar per serving and goes a long way. This, too, I would recommend topping with nutritional yeast and greens for a higher nutritional content.
Another wonderfully affordable meal that I love is a black bean burger served on whole grain bread with home fries and greens. (This would also work well in the warmer months when the grill comes out.) Both potatoes and greens are very versatile and can be prepared a number of different ways. One of my favorite recipes is for black-eyed peas and greens, which I serve over either potatoes or sweet potatoes, baked or mashed.
Finally, lentils are one of the cheapest sources of protein around, so it goes without saying that budget cooking should include a stash of recipes designed around this food.
It’s worth noting that a healthy vegan diet is typically low in fat. If getting too few calories and fat is a concern, dietitian Susan McGowan suggests cooking foods in a healthy oil. “Canola oil, which is much cheaper than olive oil, has the highest amount of ‘healthy fats’ over any other oil,” said McGowan. She also points out that “vitamins D, E, K, and A need to be eaten with a fat source to be absorbed.”
. . .
Throughout the days of eating on a $5 daily budget, I had plenty of energy and maintained my weight (a concern of my mother.) The meals I ate left me quite satisfied, though never overly full. (It’s interesting to note that when I resumed my normal diet after the two weeks had ended, I felt rather stuffed after I ate, making me realize that like other Americans, I tend to eat more than I need to.) I must admit, however, I did miss my desserts.
While I’d planned what I felt was a reasonably well-balanced menu, McGowan pointed out that it wasn’t perfect. For one thing, my diet would have certainly benefited from more dark leafy greens. Like others who have taken the Food Stamp Challenge, I was struck by how expensive it was to purchase fresh vegetables, especially if you buy organic. Frozen vegetables can provide a less expensive alternative. Another way to save money on veggies is to grow your own. I’m not much of a gardener but have had pretty good luck with nutrition-dense greens like chard and cabbage, which can often survive the winter in an outdoor garden depending on where you live.
McGowan also noted that I was a little light on fat and calories, though that could easily be remedied by cooking with oil instead of the spray I’d used to prepare my food.
Despite McGowan’s concerns, I was feeling triumphant about the fact that I’d managed to eat a pretty healthy diet for $70 over a two-week period, and so I decided to share my experience with Bonnie Inman, Executive Director of our local food pantry, Loudoun Interfaith Relief. If anyone understands the challenges people face trying to make ends meet on a tight budget, it’s Bonnie. After patiently listening to me describing all the foods I ate and how I felt, she shot me a coy smile and said, “Seventy dollars? That’s a lot!” Touché, Bonnie!
MONEY SAVING STRATEGIES
Plan your menu in advance.
Keep an eye out for sales and discounts.
Make a shopping list and stick to it.
Use every ounce of what you buy.
Love your legumes.
Look for synergies between recipes.
Eat organic where it makes sense.
Buy in bulk.
Buy store brands.
Cook from scratch.
Properly store anything you don’t plan on eating right away.
Consider growing a few herbs and vegetables in your own garden.
Images of Food Courtesy of Susan Sedlazek
Cover Image Courtesy of “Vegan Food Stamp Challenge”
Image of Food Stamp Cards Courtesy of USDA