Eating Plant-Based On A Budget | Plant Nutrition Wellness
September 20, 2022
With the cost of living on the rise, getting the most out of your money is essential. Whether it’s meat-free Mondays or full-time veganism, more and more people are choosing to eat plant-based. To get the best of both worlds, our vegan nutritionists Australia and plant-based dietitians have outlined everything you need to know about eating plant-based on a budget so that you stay nourished and satisfied without breaking the bank.
Disclaimer: The prices and products listed in this guide are accurate for the time of writing & publication in August/September 2022.
What is Plant-Based Eating?
Whilst the phrase ‘plant-based eating’ may seem straightforward, it is actually a broad term that covers a wide range of eating patterns. This ranges from diets that contain no animal products at all such as veganism to those that consist mainly of plants, with some animal products included in moderation, such as the well-known Mediterranean diet.
Plant-based foods (or plant foods) are foods derived from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and oils, to name a few.
Is it Cheaper to Eat Plant-Based Compared to an Omnivorous Diet?
In 2022, plant-based food options are abundant and readily available at most supermarkets. Gone are the days of having to shop at specialty stores or being limited to the same meals on repeat.
However, you may have noticed that many of the newer plant-based products – in particular, ‘mock-meats’ and other vegan alternatives – tend to be far more costly than their animal-derived counterparts.
This has led to the widespread notion that following a plant-based diet is an expensive way to eat, which may deter many from reducing their meat intake.
However, this presumption overlooks the most basic way of plant-based eating – that is, a diet built around whole foods. Not only is limiting processed foods found to have better health and environmental outcomes (1), but it also makes plant-based eating significantly cheaper, whilst still ensuring a diet that is well-balanced, varied and satiating.
Overall, plant-based eating can be more or less expensive than consuming an omnivore diet – it all depends on the foods that are chosen. To make things easier, we have listed some food options below that make plant-based eating that much more affordable and will soon become your fridge and pantry staples.
Affordable Foods on a Plant-Based Diet
We know that protein is an essential macronutrient that our bodies need to function, allowing our muscles to grow (2). Lesser known, however, is that not all proteins are the same. Proteins are composed of various combinations of 20 molecules known as amino acids (2). Of these 20 amino acids, there are 9 which our bodies cannot create themselves, therefore we must obtain these through our diet (2).
Here’s the catch, most plant foods don’t contain all 9 of the essential amino acids that we need, whereas animal-derived foods do (3). This is where the misconception that ‘vegans don’t get enough protein’ comes from. However, you need not worry. There are a plethora of plant-based protein options; enough to meet our needs without wasting our hard-earned cash.
Textured Vegetable Protein
First and foremost: TVP is the MVP (Most Valuable Protein) when eating plant-based on a budget. For those of you that haven’t heard of TVP before, it’s about to change your world!
TVP, or textured vegetable protein, is typically a soy-based meat alternative (although it is sometimes made from other sources such as wheat or oats) that is high in protein and low in fat and energy (4). It is sold in its dehydrated form, therefore can be stored in the pantry with a much longer shelf-life than other products of a similar nature. This means it can be bought in bulk and a small quantity goes a long way since it expands when water is added.
TVP also has a mild flavour and meaty texture. It can be used in a wide range of dishes since it is easily complemented by most seasonings and flavours (think of it as a mince equivalent). Best of all, it is also rich in other nutrients like copper, folate, thiamin, magnesium and fibre (4).
From Woolworths, you can buy a 200g bag (4 serves) of Macro TVP for only $2.00, whereas Coles sells a 400g bag (8 serves) of Wellness Road TVP for $4.00. Better yet, some specialty health stores sell even bigger bags for cheaper, as well as different varieties, so keep your eyes peeled for the best deals.
Sticking to the topic of soy, tofu and tempeh are both great protein options when eating plant-based on a budget. Namely, soy is one of the only complete plant-based protein sources – meaning it contains all of the 9 essential amino acids that were mentioned before (5).
Tofu, being soy bean curd, is widely available in a range of varieties from silken to extra firm, therefore it can have many different uses (3). Anyone familiar with tofu will know it is characteristically bland, however, is magic in that it will soak up any flavours it is marinated in, making it a truly versatile option.
From Woolworths, you can score a 450g block (3 serves) of Macro Perfectly Firm Tofu for $3.00, or 300g (2 serves) of Macro Silken Tofu for $2.30. In comparison, Coles sells 300g packs (3 serves) of both Natures Kitchen Firm Tofu and Silken Tofu for $2.30, however other brands and varieties are also available.
Tempeh – or tofu’s edgy older brother – is somewhat lesser known and made from fermented soybeans (3). Tempeh has a slightly nutty flavour and a firm and chewy texture that is more distinct than that of tofu. Whilst it may be less versatile, tempeh is a perfect addition to stir fry, nicely completing most Asian-style flavours.
Whilst you can get pre-marinated tofu and tempeh, the cheapest way to use these foods is to buy them unflavoured and then season them yourself as your heart desires.
When it comes to tempeh, Woolworths’ best deal is a 300g block (3 serves) of Macro Plain Tempeh for $5.00, whereas Coles has 300g packs (3 serves) of Nutrisoy Tasty Tempeh for $4.50 – this is my personal fave.
Legumes & Beans
Last but not least, we wouldn’t be talking about plant proteins without legumes and beans getting a mention. As the original plant-based protein source, legumes and beans will never go out of style, particularly when saving money is of concern.
Coming in a range of shapes, sizes and forms, legumes and beans not only contain protein but also a range of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as fibre and carbohydrates (6). One thing to note, however, is that individual types of beans or legumes don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, so eating them in combination is the best way to ensure you meet your nutrient needs.
I’m not going to list all of the legume and bean options that are available, as we would be here all day if I tried. However, your most cost-effective way of buying these protein-packed pulses is in their dried form – this allows you to obtain large amounts for a cheaper price, which will keep in the pantry for a long time. However, if convenience is more your thing, buying canned versions is still a great, affordable option.
Grains & Starches
Various grains and starches form a major part of the diet of many populations around the world, and as such are considered the staple foods of most societies (7).
Staple foods are those that are eaten regularly and in great quantities, so much so that they supply a large proportion of overall energy intake (7). In particular, rice, corn and wheat are the most common staple foods around the world (7).
The reason that grains and starches make perfect staple foods is that they are typically high-yield, inexpensive to grow and harvest, can be stored for a long time, and provide a large amount of energy and nutrients (namely, carbohydrates).
These reasons also make many grains and starches ideal when eating plant-based on a budget, as they can be bought in bulk for low prices, plus will fill you up and give you the energy you need throughout the day.
In Australia, some of the most affordable grains and starches are those that we are all familiar with, including rice, white potatoes, oats and pasta.
However, when buying these foods try not to overcomplicate things – all of the above are far cheaper when bought in their simplest form (e.g. big bags of plain, uncooked rice versus pre-cooked rice pouches; brushed whole potatoes versus washed and precut; traditional rolled oats versus flavoured quick oats).
Furthermore, this is one area where buying home-brand items can make a big difference to your budget without food flavour or enjoyment being sacrificed.
Fruit & Vegetables
If you want to eat nature’s rainbow but are concerned about wasting your pot of gold, your most cost-effective option is to always choose produce that is in season. This is because farmers are growing more than enough seasonal crops, and want to sell their commodities rather than waste them.
Buying locally also cuts out the cost of importing, which translates to a cheaper product reaching our supermarket shelves.
For instance, during a brisk Queensland winter, any mangoes you find are likely imported and will cost you a pretty penny, whereas oranges are in season, therefore are far more affordable.
Other current seasonal varieties include bananas, pears and kiwifruits, pumpkin, mushrooms, celery, and the dreaded (but misunderstood) brussel sprouts.
To direct your shopping all year round, a Seasonal Food Guide can be a great tool to keep in your arsenal.
When people think of plant-based eating and calcium, many go straight to supplements. These are typically expensive and often unnecessary. Many plant-based food options can provide adequate calcium without depleting your bank account.
Firstly, plant-based milks are a great option, as many are now calcium fortified (ideally, with more than 100mg of calcium per 100mL) and widely available. For most plant milks, buying long-life cartons is cheaper, with different varieties and brands offering different price points.
For example, the cheapest almond milk sold at Woolworths is Vitasoy Almond Milk Unsweetened, along with Woolies’ brand of Unsweetened Almond Milk, both of which sell for $2.00 per litre. If, like myself, you would rather opt for soy, Woolworths sells its brand of Soy Milk for $1.15 per litre.
Like plant-based milks, tofu is also often calcium-fortified, therefore is a great option to meet both your protein and calcium needs – talk about bang for your buck! However, be sure to check on the nutrition panel that calcium gets a mention, as tofu may also be set with other minerals like magnesium.
Other foods commonly fortified with calcium include some fruit juices, breakfast cereals and breads. Furthermore, some of the most fundamental plant-based foods contain calcium naturally, including spinach and other leafy greens, chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils, almonds and brazil nuts, and even some fruits like oranges and figs (8).
By including a combination of these foods, it is possible to consume plenty of calcium on a plant-based diet without needing to spend money on costly supplements.
When it comes to nourishing fats, we want to include more unsaturated varieties (mono- or poly-) and less saturated ones (9). Cooking oils such as olive oil or canola oil are good options, however their cost varies based on the size of the bottle they’re bought in (the bigger the container, the cheaper the unit price). Buying more for less is the recommended way to go.
Peanut butter is another great way to get your daily dose of healthy fats in. Not only is peanut butter rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, but it also contains other nutrients such as protein and magnesium (8), and is accessible in both its smooth and crunchy forms at a relatively low cost.
Other nuts are also good sources of unsaturated fats, however, are typically quite expensive. If you do want to fit nuts into your budget, peanuts tend to be the cheapest option, whereas macadamia nuts sit at the other end of the scale as the most pricey.
Lastly: great news for the guac lovers out there! Despite being notoriously over-priced, the Hass avocado is currently in its heyday, with a good supply being available at a decent value. This provides us with another source of affordable and nutritious monounsaturated fatty acids – bring on the avocado toast, pronto!
Beyond just picking the most affordable food options, there are many other ways to get the most out of your money when eating plant-based on a budget. Below are just a few of our top budgeting tips.
Shop Local & In-Season
Firstly, I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: shop locally and in season! On top of this, always keep your eye out for the fruits and veggies (and all other foods) that are on special. Not only is this a great money-saving tactic, but it also ensures you’re including a wide variety of foods in your diet, making you more likely to meet your nutrient needs.
Shop At Specialty Stores
For even better deals, shopping at specialty stores – like your local fruit and vegetable market – can also provide an array of fresh produce at great value. Plus, you will be contributing to your local economy – that’s a win-win!
Buy In Bulk
For pantry staples such as rice and other grains, bulk-buying is a good long-term money-saving strategy. This is because larger packs of a product are usually cheaper overall. Check the ‘price per 100g’ label to see for yourself. For foods that you use often or that keep for a long time, shopping in this way gets you the most for your money.
Cook In Bulk
Continuing on from buying in bulk, meal prepping is another way of stretching your money further. The art of meal prepping means making a large number of meals in one session, which can then be refrigerated or frozen for later use. With meal prepping in mind, you can take advantage of discounts or bulk-buy prices without the fear of the food you buy going to waste.
Make A List Before You Go Shopping
Lastly, it may seem simple, but do not take for granted the power of shopping with a plan. By planning your food for the week and being armed with a list of items that you need, you can reduce your chance of randomly picking products you may never use. If you know what you need, you can be in and out of the supermarket without breaking a sweat, or your bank account, in the process.
A Budget-Friendly Plant-Based Day Of Eating
Below I have broken down a budget-friendly day of eating, with Woolworths being my shop of choice. Keep in mind that this is not a framework for you to follow, but an example of how to include foods that you enjoy whilst sticking to your budget!
Breakfast = $1.61
Tofu scramble with 2 pieces toast + coffee with soy milk:
- 150g Firm Tofu = $1.00
- 2 slices Wholemeal Bread = ~$0.20
- 1 tsp Olive Oil = $0.03
- ¼ tsp Salt = <$0.01
- ¼ tsp Black Pepper = ~$0.03
- ¼ tsp Turmeric = ~$0.01
- 1 cup Soy Milk = $0.29
- 1 tsp Instant Coffee Granules = ~$0.04
Morning Snack = $1.98
Seasonal fruit salad:
- ½ cup cubed Pineapple = ~$0.24
- ½ cup cubed Rockmelon = ~$0.20
- 1 cubed Kiwifruit = $0.90
- 1 segmented Mandarin = $0.64
Lunch = $2.73
Jacket potato with Mexican-style bean chilli with avocado:
- 1 large Potato = $0.67
- ¼ medium Brown Onion = ~$0.11
- 1 clove Garlic = ~$0.14
- ½ tin Three Bean Mix = $0.40
- ½ tin Diced Tomatoes = $0.30
- ¼ tin Corn Kernels = $0.25
- 1 tsp Olive Oil = $0.03
- 1 tsp Taco Seasoning = ~$0.23
- ½ small Hass Avocado = $0.60
Afternoon Snack = $1.07
Peanut butter banana oatmeal smoothie:
- 1 medium Banana = $0.70
- ½ cup Soy Milk = ~$0.14
- 2 Tbsp Peanut Butter = ~$0.19
- ¼ cup Rolled Oats = ~$0.04
Dinner = $1.61
TVP fried rice:
- 50g TVP = $0.50
- ¼ medium Brown Onion = ~$0.11
- 1 clove Garlic = ~$0.14
- 1 medium Carrot = $0.35
- ½ cup Frozen Peas = ~$0.30
- ½ cup cooked Brown Rice = ~$0.11
- 1 tbsp Soy Sauce = ~$0.07
- 1 tsp Olive Oil = $0.03
A Vegan Nutritionist’s Guide To Eating Plant-Based On A Budget
Overall, the rising cost of living has made budgeting a necessary skill to learn. For plant-based eaters in particular, it can seem impossible to save money whilst still including foods that are nourishing and enjoyable.
Alas, this does not have to be the case. Nowadays, there are many affordable plant-based food options out there. You can not only meet your nutritional needs but also stay satisfied with a variety of foods that you love.
Want to stretch your money even further? Money-saving methods such as shopping locally and in season, buying discounted produce, venturing to specialty stores, meal prepping, and shopping with a plan can all help.
With these tips as a guideline, you can be assured that you’re getting the most out of your money. Eating plant-based on a budget will be a piece of affordable vegan cake.
Article was written by: Student Dietitian Megan Keith
Reviewed by: PNW Clinic Dietitian Megan Boswell