How to eat vegetarian on the cheap

I recently posted two articles for frugal carnivores: a guide to cheap cuts of beef and another one on how to buy a side of beef. GRS-reader Sally has produced an introduction to eating vegetarian for cheap. Though her tips are for herbivores, many are useful to omnivores, as well.

About a year-and-a-half ago, for health reasons, my husband and I committed ourselves to a mostly vegetarian lifestyle. At home we eat entirely vegetarian; when we eat out we allow ourselves to choose meat. It's also a priority for us to avoid the pesticides in non-organic produce and the hormones that come with non-organic dairy products. Here's how we eat a ton of fruits and veggies at a fraction of the price you might expect.

Our top strategy is to eat locally-produced foods as often as possible. (Actually, eating locally is a priority for us based on both our physiological needs and the need for Americans to reduce oil consumption. Produce at the grocery store has traveled, on average, 1500 miles to reach us!) Because we live in an Atlanta apartment with no yard or porch, we are unable to grow anything ourselves except for herbs — so we seek out local farmers. (If you'd care to try an urban garden, this video is a good resource.) Locally-grown foods are sold to us at the peak of their flavor and nutritional value, making them more enjoyable. Buying from local farmers, we are also able to ask whether the foods we are buying have been grown using pesticides. (The organic certification process is expensive for small farmers, so some small farmers may use organic methods but not have government certification for years, if ever.)

Local farmers are able to provide us organic fruits and veggies at a fraction of the grocery store price because the foods have not been sent through any middlemen — ConAgra, anyone? — and because the foods have not had to travel long distances to reach us.

There are three primary ways we get local foods:

  • We shop at the local farmers market when it convenes on Saturday mornings. We buy what's in season there and bring it home, and then I figure out our meals based on what we have purchased. (One great tool for that part is to use, which lets me search for recipes that contain whatever ingredients I want to use.) I have developed a palate for many foods I had never before considered eating when we began to buy local, in-season foods this way.
  • We are also able to purchase local foods through joining a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. With a CSA, we are purchasing a share of a particular farmer's (or set of farmers') crops. The produce is delivered to us once a week at a pick-up spot near our apartment. This month we will start the spring CSA round, getting our fruits, vegetables, and eggs — all organic — for $24/week for two people. You can easily find farmers markets and CSAs in your area by visiting Local Harvest.
  • The last way to get local, inexpensive fruits and vegetables is to pick them ourselves. Last summer, for example, my husband and I spent a lovely afternoon picking organic blueberries for $1/pound. In the 60 miles around Atlanta there are places to pick everything from pecans to raspberries to apples, so I hope we will utilize these methods more often in the future. (You can find places to pick your own by going to Google and typing “u-pick” with the name of the food and your state. Or search at Pick Your Own.) Two of my goals for this year are to procure an energy-efficient deep freezer, and to learn to can produce so that we can store our local bounty for longer periods of time!

Eating local foods is our top strategy for saving money, but we have several methods of trying to keep our grocery costs reasonable.

  • We buy frequently-used items in bulk at Costco (a membership-based store, similar to BJ's and Sam's Club) and, if those foods will spoil too quickly, split the items and the cost with friends. Costco has recently developed a much more extensive collection of organic foods than they previously offered.
  • We make liberal use of cheap vegetarian proteins: four servings of organic tofu will set you back $2; beans are even cheaper than that. Tofu and beans poorly prepared can be boring or even disgusting, but they can be marvelous when they are well-prepared. And eggs — oh, glorious eggs! A fried egg placed on some peppered asparagus or a frittata loaded with eggs, cheese, and vegetables can be a transcendent experience.
  • We attempt to keep our meals as empty of refined foods as possible. Pre-packaged meals, store-bought sauces, etc. are sometimes ridiculously expensive. Keeping many of our meals based on foods close to their natural state (steel-cut oats instead of instant, flavored oatmeal, for example) helps keep costs down.
  • We freeze leftovers in individual-sized, labeled containers (we use tupperware-like containers from Ikea and Sharpie's erasable label system) and take those leftovers to work to microwave for lunches. Doling a dinner's leftovers into individual portions and freezing them right after dinner prevents us from having rotting leftovers wasting away in our fridge.
  • Last, and possibly the least intuitive, we buy high-quality, high-cost items when doing so will mean the difference between an okay meal and a great one. We never want to feel deprived by our meals. Sometimes a small amount of an expensive ingredient makes all the difference. A small amount of pricey, freshly grated parmesan from Italy might be just the thing to give life to some steamed vegetables, or an incredible curry sauce might be costly until you consider that it gives you a satisfying Thai restaurant-like experience for $1 a serving. Sometimes paying a little more is worth it to keep yourself feeling satisfied with lower prices in the long run.

In my early twenties, I developed a hormone-linked cancer. In the process of researching different life elements that create or fight cancer, I realized that if I were to lead a long life, my lifestyle of high meat, processed carb, and dairy consumption had to go — and I had to get rid of the pesticides and added hormones in my diet. The switch to a mostly vegetarian, mostly organic lifestyle has decreased my cholesterol level and blood pressure, reduced my weight, and increased the level of my health. It's also possible the shift in my lifestyle has prevented the return of cancer. With the exception of prevented medical expenses, those are benefits that are difficult to measure in dollars. Certainly, though, the value to my quality of life is much higher than the cost of increasing my vegetable intake has been.

Vegetarians of all stripes may be interested in The Veg Blog. If you'd like to grow your own vegetables, be sure to check out my wife's recent GRS article on starting a garden.

More about...Food, Frugality

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