by Ashley Marcin on 27 September 2013 Wisebread.com
I’ve depended on a plant-based diet for well over a decade to sustain my activity and satisfy my hunger. Originally, I thought nixing the meat, cheese, and other animal products would mean big bucks saved at the checkout. Thing is, the words “organic” and “vegan” can be expensive adjectives to add to the grocery list. By developing a go-to vegan pantry and paying close attention to some key grocery savings tips, however, a plant-based, whole foods diet need not be unattainable. (See also: The Best Credit Cards for Groceries)
Sticking to a vegan diet doesn’t have to break the bank. There are many ways to save on your grocery list.
Shop Farmers Markets or Get a CSA Share
Not only is supporting local agriculture an awesome thing to do, but you can usually get great deals on farm-to-market foods that grocery stores can’t offer due to their overhead. The benefit beyond the savings is getting produce picked often that very day. The truth is in the flavor.
Avoid Products With Excess Packaging
Shop the bulk section whenever possible and consider getting your own containers. Prices of food in bins is lower on most everything — just compare packaged oats to bulk or almond butter to the kind in those gigantic tubs and you’ll see the difference.
Skip Meat and Dairy Substitutes
It can be tempting when banishing animal products to return to those creature comforts in their veganized form. These items, usually found in the frozen or refrigerated sections, are highly processed and, as a result, expensive. Included in this group is anything from ground “beef” to non-dairy “cheese” to fake lunch “meat.”
Stock Up on Seasonal Produce
It makes perfect sense that when a fruit or vegetable is in season, its stock will be plentiful and, therefore, price will be lower than more exotic, far-travelling items like avocados or star fruits. Buy in bulk and preserve for the rest of the year by freezing (easiest), canning, pickling, or using other preservation techniques. (See also: Preserving Your Bounty)
Pick and Choose Your Organics
I’d love to fill my cart with everything as natural and organic as possible, but it’s not always an option for my family. Instead, we buy the “dirty dozen” organic and the rest conventional, unless we can get it locally for less. Beware that regulations can be lax — many packaged products (cereals, cookies, and other snacks) claiming an organic status might not be quite as pure as you’d assume.
Plan Your Menu Ahead of Time
Taking fifteen minutes to draft out a weekly dinner menu might sound like a bore, but with direction, your grocery list will be much more targeted. Skipping the extras will save you money, too. I sit down with different cookbooks from time to time and also keep a mental library of family favorites that are easy to make and nutritious. For more savings, try overlapping ingredients or even trying to use leftovers from one meal to the next. (See also: 8 Best Cooking Apps to Manage Meals)
Write a List Before Heading to the Store
This tip goes hand in hand with menu planning. Although most people I see in the aisles at the grocery store are listless, or, rather, list-less, their carts are overfull. Write a list, check it twice, and don’t deviate. Random $4 boxes of cereal or $3 condiments add up at the register. A list helps ensure you stay on task — whether it is handwritten or typed neatly on your phone.
Try Different Grocery Stores
I have my all-time favorite store in my hometown, but when I venture out, I often am surprised at how different stores provide different items at — yup — different price points. Next time you’re on the other side of town, check out some of your favorite items. Rotating stores different weeks might allow you to stock up on certain ingredients for $1 or more less than you’re used to paying.
Cook From Scratch
Throughout these tips, you may notice I avoid packaged foods. Convenience is nice, but whenever you can make something from raw ingredients in your own oven, you’ll save money. At least that’s my experience. I often make my own large batches of waffles, breakfast bars, breads, bagels, soups, applesauce, etc. and freeze to make the best use of my time and foods. (See also: How to Find Time for Home Cooking)
Consider Learning Techniques Like Canning and Freezing
Another common theme throughout this list is food preservation, which is somewhat antithetical to food waste, thus a budget-friendly practice. Freezing is a good place to begin if you’re unfamiliar. And just because you don’t have tons of space doesn’t mean you can’t still practice this method. Even a small freezer or pantry can accommodate a week’s worth of healthful meals.
Here’s a list of versatile items to keep in your pantry, and also ways to turn a non-vegan recipe to vegan with a few substitutes.
I can’t think of a day when I don’t toss some ground flax meal into a smoothie, oatmeal, or something I’m baking. Flax is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital to vegetarians and vegans alike (similar fats are found mostly in fish). Flax seeds can also be used in baking as a binder — a replacement for eggs — just combine 1 tablespoon with 2–3 tablespoons boiling water, mix, and add into the recipe per each egg required.
Boasting a huge dose of potassium and vitamins A, C, and E, bananas are extremely versatile as part of a vegan diet. I use them in baking (a quarter cup mashed can replace oil or even an egg), freeze them and blend to make an ice cream-like treat, or enjoy alone as part of a portable snack. The obvious: Bananas are also inexpensive, earning them a permanent spot on my grocery list.
A quick stroll through any bulk foods section should yield quite a savings on rolled oats, steel cut oats, etc. Oatmeal is a great alternative to cereal and can be served hot or cold and sweet or savory, depending on different flavorings, fixings, and additions. Oats can also be pulsed in a food processor and used as flour to substitute or enhance cookies, cakes, and other baked goods. Read labels carefully, but some varieties are even gluten-free. (See also: 11 Ways to Eat Oats)
Traditionally topped with toasted marshmallows at the Thanksgiving dinner table, sweet potatoes are now considered a powerhouse in the vegan world. They can be roasted in cubes, cut up and baked as crisp fries, mashed in place of white potatoes, or even microwaved for a hearty work day lunch.
Perhaps I’m alone in this way of thinking, but peanut butter makes everything taste better. That, and because it’s high in protein, peanut butter keeps me full. Slathered between two slices of bread, spread atop celery, or whisked together in a quick Thai peanut sauce, I always have a jar in the pantry to use in a pinch. There’s also nothing wrong with a spoonful of the stuff just because.
One of my favorite ways to take a stir-fry from blah to blissful is to add coconut milk to whatever sauce I’m making. The light, rich flavor enhances sweet and savory dishes and is especially tasty with red, green, and yellow curry pastes. Coconut milk can also be a 1:1 substitute for cow’s milk in baking.
In the dead of winter when fresh just isn’t an option, I turn to canned tomato products to fill my favorite crock pot chili and vegetable soups, make delicious pizza sauces, and top heaping bowls of pasta. If BPA is a concern, shop carefully. One of my favorite “canned” brands isn’t canned at all, but comes in a BPA-free box. (See also: Vegan Crockpot Recipes)
When I was first starting my vegetarian adventure, there was maybe one type of tofu at my disposal. Now, there are many different varieties and textures from which to choose. Tofu cubed and fried is a simple addition to stir-fries or even alone as a side dish. However, did you know that the silken variety can make a mean chocolate pie?
All year long, the price of organic carrots impresses me. So does the nutritional profile, with high marks in vitamins A, K, and C — along with folate, potassium, and dietary fiber, just to name a few. Carrots can be roasted whole, chopped up and added to soups, and eaten raw for a crunchy snack. They’re also on the “first foods” list if you’re interested in extending the grocery savings by making homemade purees for your baby.
When purchased in smaller amounts, greens might not seem like a steal — but be sure to check out big bins and those double packs that can be found at many warehouse stores. Greens — kale, baby spinach, spring mix, arugula, and the list goes on — are a healthy finish to many sandwiches and burgers. They are tasty sauteed with olive oil and lemon juice and added to pasta. I even toss a handful in my hummus or pesto recipes.
From adding a tangy flavor to sauces and stir-fries to thickening non-dairy milks for use in baking, apple cider vinegar (sometimes known as just “ACV”) is a powerful ingredient to add to your kitchen’s arsenal. Some swear by the purported health benefits of (unfiltered) ACV, including clearer skin, better digestion, lessened leg cramping, and more.
Frozen Veggies and Berries
For nights when cooking long hours just isn’t an option, I turn to frozen veggies to fill my nutritional needs. Peas are a favorite side-dish at our house (and kids love them, too), but if you seek it out — you can even find economical frozen CSA shares loaded with local organic produce in the off-season. (We budget ahead of time to accommodate this expense week to week.) Frozen berries can seem costly, but since they don’t spoil and can be used in smoothies, pies, and all sorts of other dishes — they’re worth a trip to the chilly section.
My toddler thinks raisins are candy. They add extra oomph to sweet breads, homemade bagels, trail mix, and more. Raisins can even be used in place of pricier medjool dates in no-bake energy bar recipes. Consider also serving them alone as a natural source of fuel (instead of gels, bars, etc.) for long runs or bike rides along the countryside.
A great flavor booster in its own right, soy sauce is undeniably addicting when mixed in equal parts with sesame oil and drizzled over steamed broccoli and brown rice. Dunk homemade dumplings in the salty sauce for an at-home takeout experience.
Nuts might not top your list of what’s considered frugal at the store, but almonds can go a long way. Soak for a few hours, blend, and strain for homemade almond milk, pulse in your food processor for almond meal (great in chocolate chip cookies!), use dry roasted to blend into homemade almond butter, or even eat a handful as a quick snack.
This is another case of fresh being best, but with regard to nutrition and availability — canned pumpkin is king. Look beyond the pie section at the store to find the good stuff, which I use in pumpkin chili, as a base for my homemade garlic knots, and in sliced and dessert breads.
If you visit the market during squash season, which between the summer squash and fall varieties is quite a long while, you’ll likely find more than you know what to do with. And at low prices per pound, it might be worth picking up too much and searching for recipes. I like zucchini, summer squash, acorn squash, butternut, opo, etc. as simply as you can prepare them — sliced, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and roasted at around 400 degrees F until browned and softened.
Best when they’re in season, tomatoes turn into sauce in minutes, can blend into a tasty barbeque sauce, and — sliced thickly — are a substantial addition to salads (my favorite being caprese) and vegan burgers. Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, antioxidants, and vitamin C. With so many varieties, they’re also just fun to cook with.
Portabella mushrooms can serve as a hearty base for a filling vegan meal. Simply grill outdoors or simmer on the stovetop. Other varieties, like shiitake, can make a delicious vegan gravy for holidays (or anytime, really), creamy soups, and wonderful savory side at brunch.
Making stock at home can be an easy way to save money and use up leftover vegetable scraps. However, it can also be time intensive and store-bought stocks don’t typically break the bank. We use veggie stock to flavor stuffing and even in place of water in pizza crust. Make soups and stews more flavorful with a few cups of stock or use as a liquid base for a casserole.
Whole Wheat Flour
An often overlooked way to save each week is baking bread at home. We don’t limit “bread” to the standard sliced loaf in our home. Think of all the pizza crusts, naan, pita, bagels, English muffins, and other varieties out there. I prefer using whole wheat as an alternative to all-purpose, sometimes mixing the two half and half to increase nutritional value with whole grain.
One of my all-time favorite childhood meals was stuffed peppers. Back then, my mom made them with ground beef. Today, I stuff them with quinoa, beans, tofu, rice, and any other number of healthy vegan fillers. Bell peppers come in many colors and also chop well into stir-fries and salads.
As a dressing or dip, olive oil is easily dressed up with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. I also use olive oil as a healthy substitute for butter in baking. Its mild flavor lends well to a multitude of uses and substitutions. It’s also a great source of healthy, unsaturated fats.
I’m making a rather broad category here because beans – from black beans to kidney to garbanzos – can be used in a multitude of ways. Together with spices and veggies, beans can be used in homemade vegan burgers. Soups and salads get a dose of protein by adding a few handfuls. Hummus is much cheaper (and customizable) when made at home, too. Beans come canned, but a lot of people like dried to eliminate BPA fears and get the most bang for the buck.
Many new vegans are surprised to find out they can add chocolate flavor to almost anything with unsweetened cocoa powder — at just 10 calories per tablespoon. I toss it into smoothies, cookies, brownies, and even vegan mole sauce or hot cocoa. High in antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other minerals, cocoa powder adds far more than flavor.
What ingredients are on your budget-friendly vegan/vegetarian grocery list? With so many options, it’s hard to list them all!