How to eat vegetarian on the cheap

I recently posted two articles for frugal carnivores: a guide to cheap cuts of beef and another on 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 allrecipes.com, 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.

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brad
brad
13 years ago

Great post! Another thing to consider is that, at least according to some researchers, the anti-cancer benefits of eating even conventional (non-organic) vegetables far outweigh the cancer risks from ingesting pesticide residues. See this news release from UC Berkeley for example. So if you feel like you can’t afford to buy organic, or if you don’t have a good source of organic produce nearby, you can still get major health benefits by eating more vegetables, even if they’re conventional and not organic. I almost always buy organic produce myself, but I do it because of the environmental benefits of organic… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
13 years ago

Thanks for the link — one entry in particular your readers may be interested in is my Vegan Zine Roundup. Vegan cookzines tend to focus on eating on the cheap and are great resources for those trying to save some money.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

I am a guilty omnivore. I love meat, yet I suspect — as Sally and Brad and others have suggested — that an all-vegetable (or mostly-vegetable) diet would be healthier for me. Can anyone point to studies regarding the benefits of a vegetarian diet? Something like “vegetarians live, on average, 3.6 years longer than those who eat meat”? I suspect there have been such studies, but I don’t know where to find them. Worse, I believe strongly in animal intelligence, that the beasts of the air and the sea and the sky are smarter than we generally credit. It seems… Read more »

brad
brad
13 years ago

J.D., here’s a quote from Bruce Ames, the UC Berkeley scientist who’s been a big champion of the benefits of a diet rich in vegetables: The main source of dietary antioxidants is fruits and vegetables. Humans should eat 5 portions of fruits and vegetables per day, yet only 9% of the U.S. population eats that much. Epidemiological studies show that the incidence of most types of cancer is double among people who eat few fruits and vegetables as compared to those who eat about five portions per day. Considerable evidence indicates that oxidative damage is important in cardiovascular disease, cataracts,… Read more »

John Wesley
John Wesley
13 years ago

Very helpful post. I am contemplating a vegetarian experiment so this will be very helpful getting started.

Amy Jo
Amy Jo
13 years ago

JD–Start small by eating vegetarian meals a few days a week and see how it goes. I also think, the more you experiment with eating new fruits and vegetables, like you did last night when we dined with you, the more fruit and vegetable dishes you’ll like. Your palate can change over time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hasn’t already begun to change now that you are eating less sugar. One of my favorite ways to incorporate vegetarian meals into my diet: homemade soup. Spend some time on the weekends making batches of vegetarian soups, stews, or chilis and… Read more »

tmg
tmg
13 years ago

Joining the local CSA is one of the best cost cutting decisions my wife and I have made. It has allowed us to enjoy organic produce at a fraction of the cost.

list of CSA’s near you.
http://www.localharvest.org/

Ian
Ian
13 years ago

“the need for Americans to reduce oil consumption.”

“In the 60 miles around Atlanta”

You can’t do both of these things. Driving a 2800+ lb car (you don’t have an SUV, do you?) 120 miles to buy 10 lbs of produce is not more fuel efficient than walking down to the corner store and buying the fruits and veggies there that have traveled in bulk.

AB
AB
13 years ago

One key thing to mention is that farmers markets are decidedly NOT cheaper for everyone, particularly those of us living in certain large cities. I was shocked when I moved from one of the big, square agricultural states in the middle of the country (where one could buy red bell peppers for $0.25 each at the farmer’s market) to DC. Yikes! It’s worth it to really look at the price per pound and compare to what you can get at grocery stores. The biggest way I’ve learned to save money on the veggie-centric diet (I eat meat with some meals,… Read more »

James Kew
James Kew
13 years ago

My experiences with farmers markets, at least the ones near me, have been mixed: good produce, but usually more expensive than the supermarket. My suspicion is that, around here, farmers markets cater more to the affluent than the frugal. We do however have a good farm shop nearby which is good, cheap, and a local business. Other tips for cheaper veggies: a) Keep an eye on supermarket fliers for what fruits & vegetables are on sale this week — plan accordingly. b) Shop at ethnic groceries/supermarkets — produce is often a lot cheaper, plus you’ll discover lots of fun new… Read more »

Allie
Allie
13 years ago

I have been vegetarian for 10 or 11 years now. We currently live in an area with a LOT of farmer’s markets, which would be nice if the prices were anything like other people experience. Last summer I actually wrote down all the prices for things and found that my local grocery store has everything anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 the price of the farmer’s markets. My local farmer’s markets must be catering to tourists. There are also a few CSA things here. I compared the prices, and those prices are completely insane. There is no way I am going… Read more »

Allie
Allie
13 years ago

I’m sorry, I had one more thing to add. Those pick your own places are AWESOME… except when they are directly under the pathway of Navy jet training areas. Nothing like some jet fuel with your raspberries. 😉

Donna
Donna
13 years ago

One of our new goals (not resolution) for this year was to eat more vegetarian dishes. A study was published on how Vegan diets limit the needs for medication for Type II diabetes which my husband has. So far we have at least eaten more veggies and fruits and have done so very inexpensively. Because we can’t afford organic and some of the chain grocery stores here in Chicagoland seem to not know what a real sale is we shop at the local produce markets. There we can get 20 limes for $1, Avacados for $.39 each, cabbage for $.18/lb,… Read more »

Serena
Serena
13 years ago

CSAs are the best – great way to try new veggies, meet your neighbors, and get access to the best tasting veggies grown by someone you will get to know (and often picked that day!) We’ve been part of the same CSA for four or five years now and we love it. Our farm also encourages folks to come out and pick – last summer we took our (then) one year old out to pick tomatoes – he had so much fun and we got to make a big pot of yummy sauce.

MizD
MizD
13 years ago

James’ mention of ethnic markets prompts me to offer up a recommendation for Portland area readers: Fubonn out on 82nd Ave. It’s cheaper than Uwajimaya and the produce section is huge. Find a cookbook or two on curries (Thai or Indian), do your shopping there, and you’ll have delicious (and cheap) veggie-centric food for days!

Michael Langford
Michael Langford
13 years ago

I’ve been an ovo-lacto vegetarian since 2000. The tricks to becoming a vegetarian are not complex. Some *are* hard though. When I became a vegetarian, I was living in a fraternity house at college. I didn’t have much money, and there was a lot of pressure and teasing about doing this “unmanly” thing. The small amount of pressure you will get from your parents and friends will not be anything as bad as many of us went through. Eating out vegetarian: 1. Learn to order ridiculous sounding things “I’ll have the chicken pad thai without the chicken or shrimp” 2.… Read more »

James Davis
James Davis
13 years ago

My wife and I were both fortunate to be raised as vegetarians and are raising our three boys that way as well. I have to chime in with those praising u-pick patches. We pick a ton of fruit every summer. In the past we have picked apples, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries. The places are almost always cheaper than buying at the store and usually much better in quality. We eat lots of fresh fruit this way during the summer and freeze tons of it for use through out the year. There’s nothing like a bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter… Read more »

Jenn
Jenn
13 years ago

If you want to read more about the health benefits of a plant-based diet, read The China Study by Dr. Campbell. It is a fascinating read, and (as far as I can tell) good science. A real eye-opener. . . you will never look at aminal proteins the same way again!

Elena99
Elena99
13 years ago

I’m vegan (and have a mostly-vegan husband), and I unfortunately have trouble finding good prices at farmer’s markets here. Back when it was in season, local corn was 3 times the price there that it was in the grocery store, as an example. But fortunately there are many wonderful places to do u-pick here in the summer and fall, which is always cheaper, and that food tends to taste better than what’s in the grocery store.

Stingy Student
Stingy Student
13 years ago

I’ve actually found some of the produce sold at these farmers markets to be quite expensive (or at least in Atlanta). It’s like they are charging a premium now that these things are becoming fairly popular. I find that I get better value at some of my local organic grocery stores (non-Whole Foods of course).

Forsen
Forsen
13 years ago

I always try to get organic or free range meat. I go to a local butcher so the meat is properly aged and not filled with preservative gases.

I also get a hamper of organic fruit and veggies delivered each week.

These options do cost more, but I have prioritized my health. I try not to waste anything. Last night I stayed up late pickling some left over cauliflower. It was really easy and I can’t wait to sample it.

Kay
Kay
13 years ago

What an excellent post. I’m a lifelong vegetarian and it gets my seal of approval. 🙂 For the NYC area I’ll add that Urban Organic is a great option, basically a “CSA that delivers” — like a cross between a traditional CSA and FreshDirect. It costs more than careful shopping at a greenmarket, but some people think the cost is worth the convenience.

Kay
Kay
13 years ago

Also EcoMeal.org, which I’m personally sad about because they stopped delivering to my area for lack of enough consumer interest, but which I have to mention as another outstanding organic delivery service. They’re cheaper and much more eco-savvy than FreshDirect.

Jeff
Jeff
13 years ago

Ouch – vegitarian. I’d rather die an early death. Seriously. You guys are troopers.

Don’t get me wrong I love certain vegetables and grains. But not nearly as much as slow roasted pot roast with brown gravy.

h
h
11 years ago

The claim that eating vegetarian is a _claim_, not a _fact_. It’s true that most of us eat too much meat, but banishing meat for good is not part of a balanced diet and can easily lead to health issues. So for god’s sake stop this pointless veggie-is-healthy propaganda. Eat less meat or eat no meat because you feel sorry for animals. But don’t expect to get healthy because of it. For every study which claims vegetarianism is healthy is another one which claims that it isn’t, so just go the middle way and eat less meat, not sacrificing it… Read more »

eh
eh
11 years ago

old article, but whatever.

You realize vegetarianism isn’t *new* right?

That there are various groups of people that have been vegetarian for a long time. Does the diet of a Buddhist lead to health issues later in their life?

There are more health issues among people that eat meat then those that don’t.

katiya
katiya
10 years ago

For h #34, after giving up meat and dairy I haven’t ever felt better or healthier. It all depends on what works for the individual. Veggie is healthy if done right. Just because you don’t agree doesn’t make it incorrect or propganda.

Kaylen
Kaylen
9 years ago
Reply to  katiya

Agree. Look up “propaganda” and learn what the word means.

liosis
liosis
10 years ago

Yah, I have a feeling that the vegetarians who are not healthy are the ones who don’t have time to cook. It’s the cookbook issue. I was raised eating lots of vegetarian dishes. My mother never wanted to pressure me but thinking back she did not eat half as much meat as I did, and I ate less then most people. I find it continually baffling to realize that people eat meat with every meal! In any case even I have run into the issue of ‘what do I make for dinner? I don’t know. I could make…no, that has… Read more »

AtticusFinch
AtticusFinch
10 years ago

Some unmentioned tips that I have found: TVP it is really cheep and a great way to add protein to just about anything. You can make vegi-burgers on the cheep with it and freeze them for that quick meal. Also make large batches of bread by hand and freeze the dough. You can add different things to the various loves before freezing. Try freezing some of the dough in balls for rolls on the quick. Save all those vegi scraps and make your own stock in a big batch then divide and freeze. Soup is so cheep and easy if… Read more »

jzathey
jzathey
10 years ago

If the author has suffered from a hormonal related cancer, I’d strongly recommend, as a holistic practitioner, that she eschew all eggs & dairy products. Chickens are saturated with pesticides, as are their eggs. And cows are fed various hormones (including Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) which leave a fertile path for cancer cells to grow in. A vegetarian diet only works when it’s holistic & vegan with the inclusion of foods that are eaten for their health benefit, not taste bud satisfaction. These include seaweeds, sprouts, green powders, celtic sea salt. Another important adjustment is the elimination of free oils.… Read more »

Karin Prokes
Karin Prokes
8 years ago

Been looking for this type of information. Everything I’ve read anywhere else hasn’t covered it very well, but your post did. Thanks

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