Imagine seeing $419.26 at the bottom of your grocery receipt. Now imagine that’s just for one week, and it’s just for you.
This is how much it costs vegan ultrarunner Scott Jurek to eat for a week, as calculated in Tim Ferriss’ epic 4-Hour Body. (Alright, now just for fun, feel free to imagine yourself winning the Western States 100, seven straight times.)
]Okay, so most of us aren’t eating the 5,000 to 6,000 calories per day that Scott eats, and we’ll get off a little lighter as a result. But the type of food Scott eats isn’t any different from (or more expensive than) what the other plant-based athletes we trust are telling us to eat — organic fruits and vegetables, raw nut butter, fancy oils, and all sorts of products that blur the line between food and supplement.
And all bought at Whole Foods, of course. (Affectionately known as “Whole Paycheck.”)
So it begs the question: How are we mortals — and our families — supposed to afford to eat this way?
An email from a concerned reader
A reader wrote to me the other day asking this very question:
I have been following you for about 1/2 a year now and have enjoyed your articles and thought provoking comments. My wife and I have changed even more our family dietary habits. Today was a real set back in taking the next step!! We went to Whole Foods to shop as they have a lot more of what you and the guru’s talk about keeping in our cupboards.
I was very dismayed at the cost of the products! My wife and I are on single income with 4 kids. There is NO WAY we can stay the course with what you and all the others say is the right way to eat whole food cleanly. The cost is out of this world. While we will be able to sustain our new lifestyle to some degree but not what you,Brendan Brazier, and Rich Roll subscribe to. So I am asking you, to help people with a limited budget and a what our society would call a large family get buy with you would call requirements for a healthy lifestyle.
So what’s the answer? How is anybody supposed to afford to eat as healthily as we’d all like? The first surprising thing is this.
Eating vegetarian can actually cost less than eating meat.
Think about it. At three or four or more dollars per pound, meat is one of the more expensive items in the grocery store. There’s usually some waste associated with that as well. Replacing it pound-for-pound with beans (just a simple example, but not too different from what many new vegetarians do) would result in significant savings, as even cooked organic beans in a can cost only a dollar or so per pound. Replacing the meat with tempeh or tofu would be more expensive than replacing it with beans, but that still wouldn’t result in a higher grocery bill than if you were to buy meat.
But this isn’t really the point. Most vegetarians and vegans aren’t satisfied to just replace meat with beans. As you know if you’ve done it, you inevitably want to branch out and explore new foods, one of the truly great things that happens when you go vegetarian. As you start to eat better, you want to try all the exotic superfoods you learn about, to see just how amazing food can make you feel.
That’s part of the fun, and no doubt, it can get expensive. So I’m not here to argue about the cost of this diet as compared to an omnivorous one. I just want to share a few of the things you can do to make the cost of your plant-based diet, whatever that may look like, less.
How to save money on healthy vegetarian food
1. Don’t (always) shop at Whole Foods.
I know, it’s fun. It’s Christmas for us veggie food nerds, and there’s something to be said for enjoying your shopping experience. But it’s also really, really expensive.
Instead, shop at a “normal” grocery store. Many of them now have organic store brands, like Nature’s Promise (the one at Giant), that cost only slightly more than the non-organic store-brand products. You won’t find everything you can get at Whole Foods, but hey, we’re talking about shopping on a budget here.
2. Don’t buy everything organic.
One of the great things about going vegetarian, for me, was that once I was no longer paying for meat, I could now afford to buy the organic stuff that I couldn’t before. But that became addictive, and as a result I now spend more on groceries than I did before I went vegetarian. And I’m okay with that, because I like the way buying organic makes me feel.
But if you’re looking to save some bucks, realize that you don’t have to buy everything organic. Check out the dirty dozen and try to get those organic, but also read the list of least contaminated foods and don’t shell out any extra cash for organic versions of those. And if skimping on organics isn’t sitting well, keep in mind that there’s still some argument about whether organic foods truly offer any health benefit over conventional foods.
3. Get to know the king of cheap, healthy, easy meals: “A grain, a green, and a bean.”
The general formula: In a single, large pot, cook the grain of your choice (quinoa and rice are my favorites) in water with a little salt. Once it’s almost done, add the chopped green of your choice (collards are fun, kale is tough but packed with nutrients). And while that wilts, add the cooked bean or legume of your choice. Then dress it up with sea salt, hot sauce, salsa, vinegar, soy sauce, or whatever else you’re in the mood for.
You can get fancier, when you feel like it. Sauteing an onion and garlic in the pot before you cook the grain adds some depth. You can use fresh beans that you’ve prepared, or even toss the fastest-cooking, dried legumes (like lentils) into the pot with the grains to cook them fresh.
The point is that it’s cheap, not to mention easy. Grain and beans can be extremely inexpensive if you choose wisely and buy them in bulk. (Cooking your own dried beans is even cheaper than buying canned, but less convenient.) The greens will be the most expensive part, and you can even skip them from time to time if you’re that hard up for cash.
4. Grow your own herbs.
This tip alone can save you hundreds of dollars per year. For a single bunch of herbs, you’ll pay close to what it costs for an already-started plant that you can put on your windowsill or porch and harvest again and again as needed.
Parsley and cilantro are the most common herbs that come up in recipes, but we have trouble growing them sometimes where I live. Rosemary, basil, thyme, and sage are all very easy to grow, and adding some plant life to your living area is nice for more than just your wallet.
5. Make everything you can.
As busy as we all are now, there’s something to be said for paying for convenience. But there’s something less obvious to be said for slowing down and spending an hour on a Sunday prepping food for the week, with some music or your spouse or your kid. It’s therapeutic.
So instead of buying pre-packaged salad, buy a few heads of greens and chop them yourself. Same with whatever other vegetables you want in there. (A salad spinner is a huge help here.)
My wife and I have started making our own almond butter in our Blendtec. (You know, “Will It Blend?”) There’s an initial investment, of course, but we’ve made many pounds of raw almond butter for less than five dollars a pound, instead of twelve.
And as I mentioned above, cook beans and grains from the dried versions, rather than using canned. It can take time, but most of it is hands-off. Plus is it makes the house smell good.
And finally, don’t forget that you can make your own, homemade sports drinks and gels that are far better than most of what’s in the stores, and cheaper than anything of comparable quality.
6. Don’t be afraid to substitute.
When a recipe calls for chia seeds or toasted sesame oil or tamari, by all means leave it out if you don’t already have it! Listen, I know it’s fun to make authentic recipes and do them right, but if it’s going to make the difference between your going vegetarian and not, skip the fancy stuff at first. Especially when it’s something you’ll have to buy a whole bottle or jar of, and you won’t use it again any time soon. This tip can save you 15 or 20 dollars in a single grocery trip if your pantry isn’t already well-stocked.
See? Eating green doesn’t have to mean spending tons of it.
I’m sort of okay with spending extra money so I can put the best stuff in my body. For me, that’s something that’s worth allocating a bigger portion of the budget than what I allow for other things I want, like huge foam cowboy hats and pinwheels and a gumball machine. But I realize that not everyone wants to make food such a big part of their budget, and I hope this helps you if you find yourself in that boat.
So now I want to know: What are your favorite money-saving tricks that help you afford to eat this way? Let us know with a comment below.
P.S. For those who are wondering, I’m still waiting to get the final design for the vegetarian guide to your first marathon, but it should be any day now…