8 Cheap Ways to Eat Vegan (You Don't Have to be Rich to Eat Healthy)
As I coach people on becoming vegan, one common refrain I hear is that it's too expensive. When funds are low, the cheap burger or basket of chicken can appear to be the best value -- the most calories for the lowest price. We've been aggressively peddled the idea that a healthy diet is an expensive diet, something only for rich folks. And our experience seems to bear that out.
I understand the frustration. It doesn't seem right that meat should be so cheap and fresh vegetables, especially organic ones, relatively expensive. But once you look into it, the true cost of eating animal protein is higher than you can imagine. And being veganish in your approach to food is not only healthier by every measure, but it can actually be considerably cheaper as well. In fact, many staples of a vegan diet cost very little and can be found in any grocery store -- not just in specialty markets. Whole grains like quinoa or barley or brown rice, legumes like chickpeas or soybeans, and other beans like black-eyed peas and black beans are very inexpensive -- certainly cheaper than processed and packaged foods. Bought in bulk whole grains and beans can cost just pennies per meal. And because they are full of fiber they make you feel full and satisfied (put them into soups, stews, salads, burritos, etc.), without the dangerous saturated fat of animal protein. Fresh vegetables and fruits can be found at supermarkets and farmers' markets for very reasonable prices. Organic and specialty stores are great, but it's certainly not necessary to empty your wallet in order to eat healthfully.
Beans, grains, veggies -- these are the staples of populations around the world. Think of Mexico and South America, where inexpensive rice and beans coupled with corn tortillas and avocados are part of every diet; or rural China, where tofu with vegetables and rice, and maybe a very small bit of meat, is the norm; or India where people eat lentils or chickpeas and vegetables every day. Not only are these populations by no means wealthy, they also don't have the diseases of wealthy countries. The general populations who eat these simple diets may get waterborne illnesses and lung infections from bad environmental conditions, but they don't have anywhere near the rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes that we have -- until they are exposed to our Western diet, that is.
And that's something to think about. Not only is a healthful plant-based diet less expensive at the grocery store (unless you go crazy for packaged convenience foods, of course), it saves you personally and saves us societally in health care and many other direct and indirect costs. If you think these don't affect you so much, think again. On the individual level alone, consider that your health insurance never pays for everything: even the best of plans charge deductibles and disallow certain medications. Being sick is expensive. More than that, a huge part of our country's annual budget is given over to health-care costs, paid for by your tax dollars. And indirect health-care costs due to lost productivity adversely affect you in the form of higher taxes, too.
On the health-care front, when you consider that meat and dairy foods clog our bodies with saturated fat, growth hormones, and antibiotics, things that have been conclusively linked to cancer, heart disease, and obesity, as well as a general "blah" feeling, it's certainly a lot less expensive -- and less painful -- to prevent debilitating diseases through our food choices than it is to treat them later (through bypass surgery or angioplasty, for example, which can run up tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills).
- Shop Seasonal. Buy in season. Produce in season is almost always less expensive than out-of-season produce because it's more abundant.
- Avoid Pre-Packaged Produce. Avoid precut, washed, and packaged fruits and vegetables. They're always more expensive than the whole foods (and a waste of packaging). If you need the convenience (for the office, on the road, etc.), go for it; just know that you'll be paying more.
- Watch The Prices. Watch produce prices carefully. Locally grown fruits and vegetables sometimes cost less than imported produce, while at other times imported produce saves you a lot -- just be on the lookout for the best deals. (And be mindful of the carbon footprint --how far your food had to travel to you and therefore how much fuel was required to get it there.)
- Farmers' Markets. Shop at farmers' markets at the end of the day. Farmers' markets are a great place to find fresh, in-season, and locally grown produce for cheap -- especially if you shop at the end of the market day, when growers may be willing to sell their produce at a discount, rather than have to pack it up and take it back home with them.
- Go Frozen. Don't be afraid to buy frozen vegetables. Frozen veggies (especially store brands) are often cheaper than fresh ones, and they can actually be more nutritious, because the veggies are frozen right after they're picked, preserving vitamins that are lost in transporting fresh veggies from the farm to the store. And of course, keep an eye out for sales and stock up your freezer with veggies that can be tossed into soups, stews, stir-fries, pasta and many other dishes.
- Value Your Time. Consider the value of your time. For most of us, time is just as valuable as money. We tend to think that eating fast food is less time consuming -- an illusion reinforced by a steady stream of fast-food company advertising. But in reality, the time that you spend driving to a fast-food restaurant and then idling in a drive-through could just as easily be spent at home with your family, cooking a simple meal.
All it takes is a small initial time investment in learning to cook a few new meals. Even simpler, you can just convert the meals that you already eat into ones that fit your new lifestyle.
- Build A Menu. Most families rotate the same menu of dishes every week, for ease of preparation and to simplify grocery shopping. Once you've got that set menu of favorite vegan meals, prep time is quick.
- Long Term Rewards. Making the switch to a plant-based diet might seem challenging at first, but it's actually so simple, and a few smart shopping strategies can also help you save on food bills.
It's easy to see that the hidden costs of eating meat are everywhere -- in how you feel day to day, in your prospects for a long life of good health, in the health of the land, the water, the animals, the workers ... and your wallet. It's pretty compelling, isn't it?
Eating vegan -- or veganish -- is about very consciously choosing to disengage from an industry that makes us sick, abuses animals, pollutes the planet, and squanders precious resources. It's also about a better quality of life -- having more energy and a lighter load (as well as a lighter conscience) and living longer and healthier.
And that's not something that can be measured in dollars and cents.
Please check out my new book, "Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World" for more information.