There are a lot of people out there who see the benefits of a vegan or whole-food plant-based diet, and yet ultimately choose not to embrace the lifestyle. Why is this? Well, obviously the reasons are going to vary from person to person — some feel like they lack the willpower to give up certain foods, others might be caught up in the myth that plant protein is somehow inferior to animal protein (which it isn’t). But one of the most commonly cited deterrents is cost. Namely, the idea that a plant-based diet is just too expensive to support.
We’re going to just come right out and say it: As a general rule, plants cost less than meat. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, as of October 2018, the cost of beef is $3.71 per pound while the cost of beans is only $1.35 per pound, and that kind of cost difference remains fairly consistent when comparing almost any meats to nearly any plants. And, translated into actual savings, research shows that the average vegan/plant-based whole-food dieter spends $750 less per year than the average meat eater.
Sure, there are certain plant-based food options that can end up costing you a pretty penny or two, but the simple truth is that if you’re building your diet around fresh, whole plant foods, then you probably won’t have to worry about breaking the bank.
But we get it; money can be tight. So to help ease your mind and get you started off right with the vegan/whole-food plant-based lifestyle, we’ve created an easy-to-follow whole-food plant-based and vegan grocery list, on a budget, so that you can shop secure in the knowledge that your new lifestyle is boosting your health, but not your expenses.
Before we get into the actual items you should be stocking up on, there are a few points/tips that are worth noting:
First, as with most (if not all) diets, you’re going to be spending less if you’re preparing and cooking more. When you make your own food at home, you’re cutting out the middle person. That right there has the potential to save you a lot of money, but it also means that you’re going to need to develop some culinary skills. We’ve got 19 plant-based cooking tips from Chef Caroline here. You should also research whole-food plant-based recipes to get a feel for what kind of meal you might want to prepare — and what ingredients you’ll need to make it happen.
Remember there’s more to “cost” than just what you pay at the register; there are also transportation and opportunity costs to consider. Essentially, the more times you go to the market, the more you end up paying overall. So, if you find yourself going to the store to pick up a handful of items, and then going back the very next day to pick up a few more, it’s going to end up costing you. You can cut that cost down significantly by setting aside a single day during the week to do all of your shopping.
If you’re picking up ingredients for a recipe and it demands vegan cheese or some kind of plant-based “I can’t believe it’s not meat,” you’re much better off making a whole food plant-based alternative on your own than buying the prepackaged stuff. For one thing, prepackaged items — vegan or otherwise — are often heavily processed and missing most of their nutrients. But beyond even that, prepackaged items tend to cost significantly more. Instead, research how to make your own substitutes using whole foods — you may be surprised at just how many options are available, like this 5-ingredient cashew cream cheese recipe.
If you’ve got a refrigerator, then you’ve probably got everything you need to keep yesterday’s whole-food meal fresh through tomorrow (or even longer). For those times when you make more food than you end up eating, setting aside a “leftover night” where you can give those delicious dinners another pass will cut down on food waste and help extend your dollar even further.
As wholesale memberships do require that you pay a yearly fee to shop, this is just a suggestion for you to think about. On the upside, if you shop there consistently you’ll have less-expensive access to certain bulk items that you can incorporate into your regular meal plans. On the downside, a lot of wholesale clubs tend to focus on prepackaged, processed foods rather than whole foods. If possible, visit the store with a member before you commit to anything, so you can familiarize yourself with what they have to offer, and make an educated decision about whether wholesale is the way to go for you.
Sometimes you need a little something to tide yourself over between meals, and if you don’t have whole-food plant-based snack options on hand, then you might find yourself drifting towards less healthy options. The good news is that there are a range of plant-based snacks that you can use to satisfy your cravings, while also giving your body the vital nutrients it craves. Homemade plant-based trail mix, hummus, edamame, fresh fruit… figure out which nutritious plant-based snacks are your favorites, and stock up.
As previously stated, if you want to save money while committing to a plant-based diet, you’re going to want to be mostly buying ingredients (rather than some prepackaged meal). So, we’ve compiled a whole-food plant-based cheap vegan grocery list made up of the kinds of inexpensive staples you’re most likely to need.
Here are the main things to include on your list when you’re grocery shopping as a whole-food plant-based dieter/vegan on a budget:
Whole produce is a major pillar of the whole-food plant-based diet, so it belongs at the top of this list. Whether you’re using them in recipes or consuming them straight out of the grocery bag, fresh fruits and vegetables are an absolute must. Just be aware of what produce is currently in season, and roughly how long you’ll be able to keep it before it goes bad. If you’re constantly throwing away fruits and vegetables because they expire before you get a chance to eat them, you’ll be wasting money (and food).
Nuts, seeds, and legumes are all great sources of protein, and so are beans and lentils, and some can also be used to make effective meat and dairy substitutes, if that’s your thing. However, when purchasing nuts, seeds, and legumes, remember that raw, oil-free options are best. Many grocery stores offer nuts in their produce sections at a lower cost than the prepackaged stuff. As for beans and lentils, choose dried over canned whenever possible, especially if you’re watching your salt. Don’t have time for dried? That’s ok! Look for low-sodium or salt-free canned options and always rinse before you use them.
Whole grains give you the whole carbohydrates your body needs, but the operative word here is whole. Refined carbs, such as those found in white bread, white pastas, and white rice are basically just sugar that’s been stripped of any sort of useful nutrition. If bread is part of your diet, choose ones that say 100% whole wheat or whole grain, without any added oil, and avoid anything that’s been “enriched” or “refined.” The same goes for rice and pasta.
Milk is an animal product, so it’s not part of the whole-food plant-based diet. On the other hand, unsweetened plant-based milks, such as unsweetened almond milk, cashew milk, rice milk, and soy milk are delicious alternatives and make great substitutes in recipes… you’ll just need to figure out which ones work best for which meals. For example, in some recipes cashew milk might provide a better texture than rice milk, and you’ll want to check online to get an idea of what works best and where. Here is a quick guide to plant-based milks. Still, a lot of it comes down to taste, so figure out which variation you like best, and don’t be afraid to do some (well researched) experimentation when you’re cooking.
When recipes call for butter, nut butter is the better option. That said, the more butter you can cut out of your diet (even the nut variety), the less fat and oil you’ll be consuming, which is always a good thing. When the whole-food plant-based recipe calls for it, go ahead and get some natural nut butter, with low or no salt and zero added sugar — or better yet, save money by blending your own.
If you’re serious about committing to a whole-food plant-based or vegan diet, you can look forward to a wide range of benefits — and that includes reduced grocery expenses. Whole grains, brown rice, dried beans, and fresh produce aren’t very expensive, and overall, plant-based foods cost less than animal products. If you’re staying true to the ideology, then there’s a really good chance that you’ll naturally be saving money in the process. But if you’re still concerned about cost, just take these tips and suggestions to heart.
You can enjoy a fulfilling, satisfying whole-food plant-based diet on a budget, and when you do, your health (and your wallet) will thank you.
Worried about weight gain over the holidays? We've got some pro tips for staying healthy (without losing your mind) this holiday season.
Your nutrition questions answered.