How to Eat a Plant-Based Diet on a Budget

Going plant-based can save you cash at the checkout, especially with these tips.

Let's face the facts. Diets that incorporate a lot of animal products are not cheaper than plant-based meals. Research shows that in high-income countries like the United States, plant-based foods are the most economical. So ditching animal products, at least some of the time, can save you money—as can some savvy shopping.

Why Are Plant-Based Diets More Economical?

Meat accounts for one-third of food expenses, according to Oxford University research, published in The Lancet Planetary Health. The study used food prices from the World Bank's International Comparison Program to analyze seven sustainable diets. The researchers then compared those diets with the current standard diet in 150 countries.

The findings show that vegan diets are up to one-third more affordable than the standard diet in high-income countries. Vegetarian diets are also more economical, with cost savings ranging from 17% to 34%. And flexitarian diets, which lean toward veg but allow for some meat and other animal products, can save you up to 14%. Pescatarian diets, which incorporate fish, can increase costs by about 3%, however.

By the year 2050, researchers say adopting a sustainable dietary pattern could reduce your food spending up to 37%. But you can glean the maximum amount of cost savings right now by using these tips and tricks from the experts.

Marinated Tomatoes in jar with fork
Jason Donnelly

Buy What's In Season

"Buy the fruits and vegetables that are in season or local," says Devan Carlsen, a registered professional home economist specializing in nutrition. "Not only will you save money by eating what's in season, you'll support your local farmers and get the most nutrients for your money."

You can track seasonal produce via the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and then buy at your local grocery store. Or opt for shopping your favorite farmers market. Another fun and economical option is to sign up for a weekly local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box.

Shop Frozen

Fresh is great, but frozen is just as great—sometimes even better. Comparisons between fresh and frozen produce show no nutritional difference, according to a study published in the Journal of Food and Composition Analysis. But in some cases, fresh produce can actually be more nutritious than fresh produce that's been stored for five days.

plant based meal black bean and rice patties
Jacob Fox

Shop Canned

"Don't shy away from canned foods," says Brittany Lubeck, a registered dietitian and consultant for Oh So Spotless. "Using canned beans and veggies can save you some serious cash." Lubeck recommends finding options that are low in sodium or sodium-free. But if you can't find these options, just make sure to give your canned staples a good rinse before cooking or eating. And when it comes to fruit, seek items canned in water or their own juice rather than syrup, Lubeck adds.

Don't Buy Everything Organic

On a plant-based diet, you may be tempted to toss all organic foods into your cart. But health and wellness experts say that's not necessary. "If buying organic on a budget," says Amanda Adkins, M.D., a board-certified internal medicine physician, "stick to the Dirty Dozen, provided on a regular basis by the Environmental Working Group."

The Dirty Dozen is a list of 12 foods that typically contain pesticides. When buying these items, opt for organic to avoid chemicals in your food. EWG also has a Clean Fifteen list. It details 15 crops that generally have the lowest concentration of pesticide residue. So you can feel confident buying these items nonorganic. Both guides are based on samples tested by the USDA.

Buy In Bulk

"Buy carbs like beans, rice, lentils, and grains in bulk," suggests Lubeck. "You can also buy nuts and seeds this way. Buying in bulk can save you money in the long run, even though the upfront costs may be higher."

You can get many of the bulk items Lubeck mentions from bulk bins at your local grocery or health food store. But you can also find your favorite plant-based snacks, canned foods, frozen items, and more in bulk quantities through a membership service, like Thrive Market. As an added bonus, Thrive can save you shopping time.

Spring Stroganoff
Carson Downing

Make Economical Meat Swaps

You might be tempted to buy brand-name plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. And that's fine if these items fit your budget. But mushrooms, which are high in protein, make a great meat swap without processed additives and at a better price.

"Ounce per ounce, mushrooms are about half the cost of beef," says Jackie Newgent, a registered dietitian, plant-forward culinary nutritionist, and cookbook author. "They're delicious when finely chopped, sautéed, and featured in chili, tacos, or Bolognese sauce as the 'meat.' Plan a bean, nut, or other protein-packed ingredient or side dish into the meal to round it out."

woman holding bowl of vegetables harvested from garden
Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Grow Your Own Foods

One of the best ways to save money on plant-based foods is to start a garden. "This takes time and patience, but in the end can pay off big," says Sarah Anderson, a functional medicine nurse practitioner at Peak Integrative Wellness. "A packet of seeds is very inexpensive and can grow a lot of food." Plus, you can save seeds from your harvest to grow more crops down the road.

If you don't have space for a full garden, Anderson recommends growing your own sprouts. "Sprouts are a super nutrient dense superfood and very cost effective," she explained. You can grow them indoors in any season, and they're usually ready for harvest in under a week. If you're an avid cook, you might also consider growing your own indoor herbs to save money on buying them fresh at the market.

Whether you're already on a plant-based diet or you're veg curious and hoping to save money, these tips can help ease the grocery bill burden.

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