Eating Well on a Budget

My family is fortunate to be able to afford to eat well without anxiously counting every penny. But early in our marriage, Arden and I went through a period when our cash flow was seriously tight. The easiest place for us to cut excess spending was to eliminate meals out and centre our diets around whole, plant foods (we were already vegan, but let’s just say we’d been doing our part to support the burgeoning vegan comfort food industry). 

In retrospect, I’m grateful for this period, because it forced us to get organized in the kitchen, to find a rotation of easy, varied recipes that could see us through each week, and to get creative when dinner hour was creeping on and we had no idea what to make. We realized that we are capable of digging a little deeper to come up with a meal from a few pantry staples. We ended up virtually eliminating food waste because our kitchen became so high volume. We set ourselves up to become a family that cooks and eats together on the regular. And, our food budget dropped way down.

To this day, we still prepare most of our meals at home. Cooking, and food prep generally, are like most things in life—the more you do it, the better you get at it. Whatever your budget, creating some new habits in the kitchen can set you up for better health, more quality time with family, less food packaging waste, and less strain on your budget.

Here are my best tips for keeping your food budget under control:

Centre Your Diet Around Whole Plant Foods

Hands down, the most affordable foods out there are legumes and whole grains. Combine these staples with vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and you have a complete diet that’s rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and phytonutrients. You can add in speciality vegan items (like meats, cheeses etc) if that works for you, but you don’t have to. A typical day of eating might be oatmeal with soy milk and fruit for breakfast; toast with hummus and tomato, and a salad for lunch; chickpea curry with brown rice for dinner; and almonds, an apple, and popcorn for snacks. 

Dry legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas) are nutritious, versatile, inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and can be the basis of many delicious meals. We eat legumes daily. I share plenty of ways of preparing flavourful legumes on my instagram page, taking my inspiration from international cuisines (think: Indian curries, Middle Eastern hummuses, Mexican pinto and black beans). I also love cooking legumes in a pressure cooker, which saves time, is less messy (no more boiled-over pots!), and results in creamier, more uniform legumes. I generally cook large amounts and then freeze in portions, along with their cooking liquid. If cooking from dry is a bridge too far for you right now, even canned legumes are a great option. 

Think Ahead

Everyone plans differently, but the idea is to avoid having zero game plan and zero groceries. I have a few pantry-friendly go-to meals (creamy pasta with frozen peas; lentil curry; chickpea flour pancakes) and I roughly cook by theme each week (Monday is pasta; Tuesday is Mexican; Wednesday is bowls or one-pot meals; Thursday is tofu stir fry). You might find it works to plan out all of your meals each week or month, to cook by theme, to batch cook each weekend, or to just wing it with a well-stocked fridge. Find what works best for you. 

Know How Much Things Cost 

Pay attention to how much the items you regularly purchase cost. Prices can vary widely from item to item and market to market. At first, you won’t know whether $6.99/lb is a good price for green peppers (it’s not). But the only way to learn this is to pay attention, and try to build up a mental schema for what you expect to pay for something, so you can know which items to pick up and which to pass on.

Shop Around

We live in a dense urban area and we’re always out walking around, so this may or may not be suitable for you, but I regularly hit up several different spots in my neighbourhood for various items. Some items I buy online (organic cashews and vitamins, these days). You may not want to purchase produce in the same place you’re purchasing specialty vegan products. Cartons of plant-based milk can be cheap at discount supermarkets, where some of their other offerings may not appeal. A head of lettuce can be small and browning in one market, full and crisp in another. In my experience, prices and quality can vary enormously from place to place and even week to week. Shop around.

Shop Seasonally and Be Flexible

Eating seasonally won’t always result in better prices, but it often will. Gorge on asparagus in the spring, berries and then stone fruit in the summer, and apples and squash in the fall. Watermelons are expensive in June but cheap in August. Be open to purchasing what looks good and is a decent price, and adjust your meals accordingly. (This is where cooking mostly without recipes can really help.) Don’t forget about frozen fruits and vegetables—they’re basically just as nutritious, and can be extremely affordable.

Stick With the Basics

It can be easy to get caught up in excitement about the latest superfood, but the truth is, humble plant-based basics are still nutritional powerhouses. Instead of chia seeds, use flax seeds (at least in Canada, flax seeds are dramatically less expensive). Stick with peanut butter in the increasingly dazzling nut butters aisle. If you can’t source a decent price for quinoa, brown rice is fine. And I know this may be hard to believe, but you actually don’t need to sweeten your tea with lucuma powder. 

Reduce or Eliminate Food Waste

Did you know that a third of all food that is produced globally is lost or wasted? North American consumers waste per capita about 95 to 115 kilograms of food per year—according to the FAO, this is because of “insufficient purchase planning and expiring ‘best-before-dates’…, in combination with the careless attitude of those consumers who can afford to waste food.” Yikes! Harsh but fair, FAO. Shop your fridge and pantry first. Have a “leftovers” night for dinner. Don’t let your fridge become so full that you forget or can’t see what’s in it. Food waste will happen, but most of us can probably do a little better in this department. The best way not to waste money on food is to not purchase food only to throw it in the garbage. 

Do you have any other strategies for staying on a budget? What else do you struggle with? Let’s discuss below :)