Given the current pandemic and related economic stressors, many of us are trying to maintain healthy habits while watching our expenses. One of the areas where we can support our immune system is through our food choices. We all have to eat, and eat several times a day, and selecting foods that support our health and our planet — while also saving money — is now a priority for many.
People are going meatless for many reasons
About a quarter of the U.S. is now vegetarian, especially people ages 25 to 34. A survey from 2017 studied U.S. attitudes toward animal farming, and found that 54% of Americans were trying to purchase less meat, dairy, and eggs, and buying more plant-based foods. A plant-based diet has been linked with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and overall mortality. Studies have also shown an improved mood with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
In additional to health reasons for eating less meat, many people are embracing a plant-based diet with fewer meats, or even starting with one meatless day per week, in order to save money.
Focus on wholesome ingredients, even with a limited food budget
Our food choices truly do make a difference to our physical and mental health, and with a little planning, we can make good foods go further. While many processed carbs are cheap, you can get much more nutrient-dense food without spending much more.
One example: A large family-sized bag of potato chips costs about the same price as a bag of dried beans or several cans of beans. A box of sugary, processed breakfast cereal may last less than a week compared to a large box of fiber-filled oatmeal, which is not only a healthier choice, but also one that will last longer and be more filling.
Shopping to stock a mostly plant-based pantry and fridge
Setting up or adjusting your pantry and fridge to include more plant-based options can help your budget and your health. Your focus should be on whole foods such as fresh (or frozen) vegetables and fruit, protein sources that include legumes (lentils, peas, and beans), whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Long-lasting pantry staples include a variety of beans, chickpeas, spinach, coconut milk, tomatoes, olives, and corn. Some nondairy nut milks are shelf-stable and can be great options for many recipes. Other shelf-stable options include whole-grain pastas (look for the Whole Grains Council stamp on the box), buckwheat noodles, rice, and pad Thai noodles.
Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce (look for low-sugar brands) are great options for pasta sauces, lasagna, hearty stews, or vegetarian chili. Dry spices last a long time and can help you add new flavors to your meals and change up leftovers to extend your budget even further. As an example, adding Mexican seasonings and a side of salsa to last night’s roast chicken can be today’s tacos!
Spend time in the frozen foods section and stock up on lower-cost frozen vegetables and fruit. Adding vegetables to meals will make them more filling due to the fiber content. Adding frozen berries to breakfast oatmeal or whole-grain pancakes is more cost effective than buying fresh berries.
Many Asian-inspired dishes such as pad Thai, noodle soups, or salads can be bulked up by adding vegetables, and these dishes will add variety to your menu. Some low-cost fresh vegetable options for soups and grain bowls include shredded carrots, peas, scallions, spinach, and bean sprouts.
Try homemade instead of canned soups
Rather than purchase a canned soup, why not buy dried lentils or legumes and fresh veggies and make your own? Lentils are low in sodium and saturated fat but high in potassium, fiber, folate, and antioxidants. They are also a great prebiotic for your gut microbiome. You’ll also know exactly what’s in your soup, and you’re cutting down on the excessive sodium and preservatives in most commercial soups. When you make a large quantity of soup, it’s less money per serving than a single can of soup, and you can freeze leftovers.
Plant-based can be protein-rich
If you are concerned about not getting enough protein through a plant-based diet, you should know that 8 ounces (1 cup) of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein, and it has little to no saturated fat or sodium. Compare this to 4 ounces of ground beef, which provides 14 grams of protein, no fiber, and 11 grams of saturated fat.
In addition, plant-based options are great sources of folate, soluble and insoluble fiber, iron, phosphorus, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. Many plant-based options are neutral in flavor, lending themselves to creative cooking, from soups and stews to bean and lentil salads, stir-fry dishes, vegetable burgers, hummus, and bean dips.
General tips for healthy, budget-friendly shopping
A helpful guideline at the supermarket is that fresh produce is on the outer perimeter of the store. Start there, see what is on sale that week, and stock up. Remember, you can freeze fruits and vegetables for later use by properly chopping and storing them in the freezer.
The shelf-stable items and more processed foods are in the interior supermarket aisles. Again, stock up on sale items such as canned low-sodium beans, chickpeas, corn, dry lentils, or peas.
Planning a plant-based diet on a budget is possible and has several positive effects: You’ll benefit physically and mentally from a diet with less meat, and you may see savings at the checkout.