Eating Plant-Based on a Budget

From Minnesota Veg Living Magazine, 2023

by Jill Erickson, Rooted Green Wellness

There is a common misconception that going vegan is expensive. As a plant-based nutrition educator and Food for Life instructor with The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, people often share with me that they can’t afford to buy vegan food because it will exceed their grocery budget.

I always like to ask the follow up question “What vegan foods are you talking about?”  The responses are usually things such as vegan cheeses, meats, dips/spreads, ice cream, mayo, roasts, yogurts, etc. Those are ultra-processed vegan versions of unhealthy foods, which are indeed quite expensive! If we can avoid breaking the bank with them, our wallets aren’t the only thing that will thank us. Our bodies will thank us as well.

Making something vegan doesn’t automatically make it a healthy option for your body and your needs. There is a lot of synergy between the words “Vegan” and “Whole Food Plant-Based,” and I often use them interchangeably for that reason. However, I would submit that there is a marked difference between the words “Vegan” and “Whole Food Plant-Based” as well.“Vegan” focuses on what I won’t eat (aka animal products for ethical reasons.) “Whole Food Plant-Based” focuses on what I will eat for health reasons, namely the whole plant foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. 

These nutrient-dense, whole plant foods are also less expensive and can potentially reduce your grocery bill rather than increase it like those highly processed vegan products will do, as enticing as they may seem!

Eating at Home

Here are a few of my tips for eating plant-based on a budget:

  1. Stick to The Power Plate: Fruits, Vegetables, Whole Grains,and Legumes.
  2. Buy frozen produce! It costs less and arguably is more nutrient-dense than the fresh offerings in the produce section.
  3. Buy dried legumes! They are less expensive and go much further than their canned counterparts. You can cook them ahead and freeze them into portions for your week. If you’d like to learn more about the legume family (beans, peas, lentils), how to prepare them, and their health benefits, there’s a helpful blog post by The Physicians Committee: 12 Ways To Cook With Beans
  4. Shop grocery store chains that can help keep your costs down. Yes, we love to support our local co-ops and farmers markets as best we can. However, when money is tight and we are trying to choose the healthiest foods, chains may offer lower prices, especially in the frozen produce sections. Some ideas may include Aldi, Cub Foods, or Trader Joe’s. Costco often offers more quantity per dollar on fresh and frozen produce, whole grains, and legumes.
  5. Find your CSA (Community Supported Ag farm)! This is an excellent way to support local farmers and not incur the overhead costs of stores. To find your local CSA, check out www.minnesotagrown.com
  6. Grow your own food! Whether you live in an apartment or in a house with a big yard, you can grow healthy food! Perhaps you start a vegetable garden to feast from during the warm months and can even freeze produce for winter. Begin sprouting in your indoor spaces, an excellent option for growing your own food all year round. Sprouting seeds are inexpensive, fast growing (3–5 days and you’re feasting!), and their nutrient density is hard to beat!

Eating out on a budget

It is rarely cheaper to eat out, especially as a vegan. Here are some options to consider:

  1. Don’t go to the restaurant hungry. This will help you make a smaller, cheaper, and healthier choice at the restaurant. 
  2. Order sides! This is where the healthiest and cheapest options are—steamed veggies and a baked potato can go a long way!
  3. Try restaurants with lower priced options. In the Twin Cities, several local businesses offer pay-what-you-can or free meals.

Finding healthy food at the food shelf

Many Minnesotans fall just above the income level for food assistance and are struggling with food insecurity. Fresh and healthy plant foods, whose prices have also increased due to inflation and rising food costs, can be hard to get. More people than ever are visiting our local food shelves, and often healthy plant foods are not easy to find there. 

In 2020, my company Rooted Green Wellness partnered with local non-profit Ace in the City to open Flourish Food Market, a plant-based food shelf in south Minneapolis. Flourish is committed to offering free, fresh, and healthy food to its neighbors. Additionally, Rooted Green provides a free community meal at Flourish once a month that is vegan and free of the top 9 allergens (to learn more about universal meals, visit https://www.pcrm.org/universalmeals). In St. Paul, Eureka Compass supports vegan food at two local churches. 

You may also consider contacting your local food shelf and requesting a larger offering of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Having said that, we must acknowledge that food shelves were never created to be the solution; they were created to be an emergency offering for a temporary time. The hard work lies in listening to our neighbors. Listening can lead us to doing our part in working at the local legislative level to make sure our communities have access to fresh, healthy food. This also ensures that our neighbors are empowered and equipped to grow and source that food themselves by helping to provide them the resources to do so. To learn more about “food apartheid” and “food sovereignty” check out this valuable resource page from Nutrition Studies:  https://nutritionstudies.org/?s=food+sustainability

In conclusion, keep it simple; fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. This will help you eat affordably and healthfully. 

Jill Erickson (she/her) is the owner of Rooted Green Wellness, a Food for Life instructor with The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Certified Food Manager at Flourish Food Market, and is certified in Plant-Based Nutrition Education and Food & Sustainability. Visit rootedgreenwellness.com to learn more or to get in contact with Jill.

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