I think one of the worst lies we tell ourselves is that it is too expensive and time-consuming to eat healthy. With knowledge and planning, it is completely possible to eat a healthy diet on a budget. I have a plethora of free, online recipes/resources to help with the transition into a plant based diet on my Links page. I also have a few of my own ideas about how to get started here.
The most important thing is to set yourself up for success, which mainly involves having easy access to beans, greens and other veggies. If you have a bag of Doritos out on the counter, that’s the first thing you will go for because that’s how the kitchen is set up- it’s a natural response. If you have grapefruit, apples, and carrots on the counter, you will go for that. Have beans ready in the refrigerator to add to salads, dips or whatever. Have a nice, sharp kitchen knife and learn knife skills to make food prep fast and easy, and you will be more likely to cook for yourself. If you find yourself always going back to that same unhealthy food or habit, consider how you could set up your surroundings to make it easier for you to make the healthiest decisions.
Buying dry beans and grains in bulk is an easy way to have plenty of the item you need around at a reduced cost. Some local grocery stores have bulk whole grains/legumes/dried fruit, etc. Nuts.com is an online resource for this. You can buy 1 lb of quinoa for 6 dollars, which is 16 servings of this grain once cooked. A 5 lb bag of quinoa is 30 dollars, which is 80 servings of this grain. A serving of quinoa is 1/2 c prepared or 1/4 c dry.
As far as good things to have one hand for fast meals: microwaveable rice packets; canned foods like beans, diced tomatoes, broth, etc.; frozen veggies and fruits; store bought (low or no oil) dips; store bought sauces; seasoning mixes like Italian herbs or mexican spice mixes; prewashed veggies (who on earth has the time to scrub potatoes?!); pre-chopped veggies, for when I’m really in a rush! Although the absolute cheapest way is doing all the prep yourself rather than buying precut/prewashed things, if the alternative is fast food then you are still saving time and money with these prepped items.
The following are a bunch of easy recipes that take less than 10 min to make, can be made in bulk and frozen for use throughout the week, and cost less than $3/serving (find that at a fast food restaurant). The way that I typically cook is to look in my refrigerator, see what I have, and then use it up. This means that my recipes are not set in stone. They come with the caveat that it’s a good start, but make it work for you with whatever ingredients you have on hand (because I myself almost never follow recipes exactly)!
Ingredients: 1 medium yellow onion (60 cents), 1 tbsp oil of your choice (five cents), 1 can beans of your choice (black/pinto/kidney) $1.50, a splash of hot sauce or to taste (1 bottle is $2-3, so we’ll say that’s 50 cents); several collard green leaves (75 cents) . Optional additions: cumin, cilantro, green pepper, serrano pepper, tomatoes, corn, etc. Total cost of meal before optional additions: $3.45, and it serves 2, thus ~$1.75/serving.
Directions: Chop onion (2 min). On medium heat, saute onion and oil together in until onion is fragrant and translucent (about 5 minutes). Pour in can of beans and hot sauce to taste, warm to serving temperature (about 2 min). Then, use collard greens as you would a tortilla shell and wrap the filling in the collards (1 min). Total 10 min. Double the recipe, freeze what you are not eating this time, and prep time will include sauteing or nuking what you have already made.
Collard greens are perfect for wrapping up fillings like this, as they are a green that is firm enough for the job, and their bitterness is mitigated by salt in the canned food. Also, instead of getting empty calories from tortilla shells, you get fiber, Vitamins A, C, and B6, and addition of cruciferous vegetables into your diet which is correlated to improved immunity and decreased cancer risk with increased consumption.
Riced Cauliflower Salads
Ingredients: 1 bag of frozen cauliflower florets ($1.50), 1 cucumber ($1), 1 can colored beans (black, pinto, kidney) $1, 1 lemon (50 cents), 1 tbsp olive oil, 1/2 tbsp honey, salt and pepper to taste. Even though all this adds up to $4, it serves 2, so $2/serving. Other things you could add for increased flavor if you have them lying around: greens like chopped kale or spinach, tomato, walnuts or other chopped nuts, blue cheese crumbles.
Directions: You can use fresh or frozen cauliflower… I just used frozen in this example because it’s cheaper. Either way, take thawed or fresh florets and “rice” them in a food processor by pulsing them until they are grain-like. This may take 3 minutes. Place into a medium bowl. Then, chop cucumber and add to the bowl. Rinse beans and add to the bowl. Another 3 minutes. Make dressing by mixing juice from one lemon, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper, then combining with salad ingredients. Another 3 minutes, for a total of 9 minutes.
Smashed Bean Sandwiches
The possibilities for this are endless- Mediterranean, Asian, whatever depending on the condiments and spices you use. Also, beans are cheap and amazing for you. The five societies in the world with the highest rate of recorded centenarians living among them all consume beans copiously (see “The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner). The possibility of using the filling within a collard green instead of whole-grain bread also exists.
Example #1: Spread hummus on sandwich bread, add tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, etc.
Example #2: Smash or puree a can of black beans with minced garlic or garlic powder (1-3 tsp), minced onion or onion powder, something spicy like chipotle seasoning or hot sauce to taste, some cumin, and 1 tsp coconut or olive oil. Spread on sandwich bread, add whatever veggies you have and some salsa.
Example #3: Puree a can of white beans with 1 T sesame oil, 3 tsp soy sauce, 3 tsp teriyaki sauce, and 1 tsp minced ginger and 2 tsp wasabi or horseradish mustard. Another filling sandwich spread, add grated carrots, thinly sliced celery, and broccoli to taste.
Stir fries can be completely gorgeous depending on the vegetables chosen. Orange carrots against red cabbage, green pepper, white or red onion, bok choy- the colors and nutritional capacity is endless. I will often use up whatever veggies are getting old in my fridge by sauteeing all of them up with an appropriate sauce. There are even varieties of frozen vegetables with specific purposes you can buy- I often get them on sale for $1/bag and saute or roast as needed. For this section, I will give a list of possible sauces based on common kitchen ingredients, which can be added to whatever fresh or frozen veggies you have on hand.
Peanut Sauce: mix 1/2 c peanut butter without hydrogenated oil, 1 tsp cayenne or to taste, 1/2 tsp minced fresh ginger, and 1 T honey.
Balsamic and Soy: 1/4 soy sauce, 1/4 c balsamic vinegar, 1/4 c sesame oil
Creamy tofu: 6 oz soft silken tofu, 2-3 teaspoons dried dill, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1-2 teaspoon lemon juice, blend or food process until smooth.
ADDITIONALLY, there is an entire food blog dedicated to eating healthy, plant-based food and having it cost $30/week or less. Toni Okamoto has a food blog and recipe book based on this concept: Plant-Based on a Budget.