Tips for Eating Vegan Cheaply
What puts a lot of people off switching to a plant-based diet is the perceived cost. For me, I hesitated so long in spite of my values lining up with a vegan lifestyle, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford it. In a society where being “vegan” is seen as “hipster,” and hipster is seen as overpriced, it’s understandable if a plant-based diet is intimidating.
I’ve been on a plant-based diet for a little over six months now, and even on a low income, I’m eating better than I ever have. So whether you’re a student, low-income earner, or just want to cut down your spending, here are my tips for going vegan on a budget.
The sooner you make friends with tofu, the better. Tofu is filling, a good source of protein, and totally adaptable to any type of cuisine. It comes in different textures, so experiment to find which kind you prefer. I like mine quite firm, and my favourite brand at the moment is Tofoo. Tofoo comes ready-pressed so all you have to do is drain it and chop it up, which saves time!
You can put it in stews, stir-fries, curries, even use it to replace scrambled egg on a breakfast. It does have a different taste and texture to meat, so treat it as something separate from a meat substitute.
I’ve found I can make tofu stretch further than meat substitutes as well, and overall for me it’s the cheapest way of adding bulk and protein to a meal.
I love stir fries. When we first adopted a plant-based diet, my partner and I would order a stir fry once a week from a vegan takeaway. Then I discovered how cheap stir fry sauces are in the supermarket and we haven’t ordered one since!
The beauty of stir fries is that you can change them up. From sweet and sour, to chilli, to teriyaki, there’s a huge variety of different flavours to work with. I get the 45p sauces from Sainsbury’s, and that makes one meal for two people.
You can add meat substitutes, tofu, potato, or chickpeas to bulk it out, then fill the rest of the space in the pan with vegetables. Serve with rice - I use boil in the bag, as it’s quick and easy, but doing it the old fashioned way is a bit cheaper.
It only takes about 20 minutes to make, and you don’t have to use very much oil to fry off the ingredients. We have them twice a week at least. If you’re not a huge stir fry fan, you can use a cheap curry sauce or even something like a pasta sauce following the same method.
I’m not going to lie, meat substitutes aren’t the cheapest. But neither is good quality meat. What I tend to do is stock up when certain items - like vegan sausages or Quorn vegan pieces - are on special offer.
Meat-free mince can bulk out a dish and add protein, and you get a good amount for your money. It’s not my favourite but in a financial pinch it sees us through. Just make sure you season it well!
Health food shops and whole food shops will stock things like sandwich meat substitutes, tempeh (compressed soya beans that kind of taste like pork), seitan (wheat gluten - which I definitely can’t have! But my partner loves it), and other soya- or plant-based meat substitutes. Holland and Barrett stock Cheatin fake bacon, deli meat substitutes and mushroom pates.
As a former self-confessed cheese addict, dairy was the big switch that scared me. In my experience, if you can’t live without cheese it’s worth paying a little bit more for a good cheese substitute, like Violife, and being sparing with it. I’ve found that cheeses made for the “free-from” ranges can be weird in texture compared with cheese that’s made specifically to be vegan, but have a look around and see what’s available.
For milk, there are a lot of substitutes you can try. I find soya milk tends to separate and curdle when you put it in coffee. My favourite is oat milk as it has a thicker texture and tastes more or less like the dairy version. We’ll be trying hemp milk next, as my partner and I are both concerned about the environmental impact of almond milk and soya milk. But honestly I just go to the supermarket and get whatever’s cheapest.
My partner drinks black coffee now though - curdled soya milk really gets to you after a while.
Being plant-based now, I eat more vegetables than I ever have before. They can be a cheap way of bulking out a meal, and making sure you’re getting plenty of vitamins. I buy fresh whenever I can, but it can add up if you’re trying to vary what you’re eating. So I recommend having a stash of frozen veg for when fresh is eating up too much of your budget.
Right now I have in my freezer a bag of frozen stir-fry veg and a bag of what I’d call general veg - peas and carrots and the like. They obviously last longer than buying fresh, take up less space, and cost less overall. And knowing I have them there ready for the end of the week when we’re low on cash is comforting.
Tinned vegetables can also be a lifesaver. If you don’t have a lot of freezer space, keeping a decent stock of tinned vegetables is the way to go. You can get quite a variety now - sweetcorn and carrots, through to mangetout and heart of palm - for only pennies. Personally I only get a couple of tins at a time so I can physically carry them back from the supermarket, but if you only have time for a weekly shop get some sturdy reusable bags.
Carbs and Snacks
I could live off rice if it had everything I needed. Unfortunately it doesn’t but it’s still a big part of my diet. Boil in the bag rice is fairly cheap (the one I get is 4 bags for £1, and one bag is enough for two people) and quick to do.
Pasta is equally quick and easy, though slightly less cheap if you get it from the “free-from” section. I have to because I can’t eat gluten, but it also ensures that there’s no egg in it. Not all dried pasta has egg, so check the cheaper stuff first!
I’m also a snacky person, as is my partner, so a lot of our weekly budget goes on Nakd bars and Trek bars, that sort of thing. They’re not essential, as they aren’t the cheapest, but we find them filling, with a variety of flavours, and a good way of getting in protein and fruit.
Speaking of fruit, I find the cheapest way to buy fruit is getting it loose and only getting a few days’ worth at a time. Fruit can go off pretty quickly, but getting a bunch of four bananas every couple of days works out cheaper than getting a big bunch for the week and throwing away a quarter of them. Maybe not so much of an issue if you like an overripe banana!
Finally, there’s a lot of crisps that are vegan-friendly that aren’t dedicated vegan brands. Avoid cheese and onion flavour, as they generally have milk in them. But just check the ingredients, scan for anything bolded that might be animal products. You might be surprised! And a lot of crisps have a mark on them now to say they’re suitable for vegans. My top tip - Sainsbury’s Bacon Crispies are vegan-friendly and seriously curb that bacon craving that non-vegans always talk about.
There’s no right way to eat vegan on a budget. Preparing in advance for what you want to buy helps (I used to hate shopping lists, now I can’t go without one), as does pre-planning your meals. Having some bread in for a quick sandwich if you don’t have time to properly cook is always handy. Reading other food blogs to get ideas for new meals is a useful way to pass a commute.
But really, it’s about finding what works for you. If you’re just starting, don’t beat yourself up if you have to slip up now and then; feeding yourself is the priority and if you can’t manage to do that in a vegan way then don’t worry! Take it slow and be kind to yourself.
Veganism isn’t just about food. It’s about lifestyle, so if you have free time on the weekends see if you can get involved in any local activism or charity work. Most areas have hunt saboteur groups who sabotage illegal fox hunts. And don’t forget about people too - they matter as much as the animals. So read up about the human cost of food manufacture, help out at a soup kitchen, or focus on supporting grassroots movements.
Being a vegan on a budget doesn’t have to be hard. It can be a chance to get creative in the kitchen, get involved in local activism, and join a community of people who care about the same things as you. Just do what you can, to the extent that’s feasible for you.
(If you're considering a change in diet, it's best to talk to your doctor first. Always talk to your doctor if you're worried you're not getting the right nutrition. I'm definitely not a nutritional expert!)