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Eating vegan on a budget

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Confession: I am not a full-time vegan. The last time I went totally meat and dairy free was the summer after I graduated from high school when I was working as a camp counsellor. I ate a lot of fake tofu chicken fingers and my legs were covered in mosquito bites. Just when I thought I might begin university as a full-blown hippie, the smell of bacon called me back to the omnivorous fold.

Over the years, though, I've grown less and less dependent on meat. A lot of meals that I make these days are unintentionally vegan, and when I do eat meat and dairy I use it as a garnish rather than the main event.

I'm also always thinking about how to squeeze the most out of my grocery bill. Yes, theoretically, going vegan should save you money because meat still costs more than vegetables. But certain foods that vegans rely on (like replacement proteins) can be expensive, and while you can't deny the quality of locally grown produce, this too can be pricey compared to what you find at the grocery store. 

So what's a budget-conscious (part or full time) vegan to do?

Plan Ahead

This might sound obvious, but creating a weekly meal plan before you grocery shop will help you figure out which items you need and where to buy them. That way you can figure out how to use extra food in advance and avoid waste.

Buy dried beans instead of canned

Most vegans rely on beans and lentils as alternate sources of protein. Buying dried beans in bulk is way, way cheaper than purchasing the equivalent amount in a can. Also, conventional canned beans have soaring amounts of sodium for some inexplicable reason. Sure, dried beans require a bit more planning because you have to soak them overnight before cooking with them. But the savings are worth it.

Buy in bulk 

Don't get your fancy superfoods or alternative proteins from the grocery aisle. Buying in bulk is cheaper, no question. Say what you will about Costco, but I bought an 800 gram bag of hemp seeds from there for $15, which is a third of what you'd pay for the equivalent amount at a conventional grocery store. If you don't have a Costco membership check out the bulk food section in so-called ethnic markets. Especially in Vancouver where shopping at Choices can feel like highway robbery, bulk bins at ethnic markets are very reasonably priced. 

Make it from scratch

Eating a plant-based diet is supposed to be cheaper, so it's surprising how often the cost of vegan food meets or surpasses its conventional equivalent. Don't spend oodles of money on non-dairy milks that taste like nothing and contain weird chemicals. Make your own. It's easy. Don't rely on highly processed fake tofu "meat" replacements – these items are vastly overpriced and contain so much fat and salt that you might as well call it a day and eat bacon. Instead, buy plain tofu or tempeh and season it yourself. I considered buying Earth Balance vegan butter this week, but it costs $6 for a small container—the same amount as real butter, and Earth Balance has a long and not entirely natural-looking ingredient list. My 1.7 kg (bulk!) tub of coconut oil cost me $15 and will last me at least six months, so I'm using that as my vegan butter this week. It's delicious.

Use up extras

Don't waste food and you will spend less on it. When I make nut milk I spread the pulp out on a baking sheet and dehydrate it in the oven. Bam! Homemade almond flour that I don't have to spend $10 on. Let's say you're making a stir-fry with broccoli tops. What to do with those pesky stalks? Boil them for a few minutes and then throw into your food processor with garlic, lemon, olive oil and pine nuts. Bam! You have created pesto. (Throw it in the freezer and eat it next week on pasta or in a wrap). Do the same thing with kale stalks, cauliflower or parsley that's starting to look sad. Save your onion skins and carrot peels in a bag in the freezer. Use them to make veggie stock along with any other root vegetables you have lying around. Freeze your tofu before it goes rancid in your fridge. 

Eat seasonally 

Thanks to this glorious thing called supply and demand, food that's in season is usually cheaper. I can't afford to buy all my food at the farmer's market, but I go sometimes (also I'm a sucker for fat babies and pugs and farmers markets seem to attract both creatures in ample supply). Whatever is being harvested at that moment will be less expensive. Right now it's spring, so bags of greens are plentiful at my local farmer's market. In the later summer and early fall tomatoes suddenly appear in abundance for $3 a box. Buy a lot, make a bucket of sauce and freeze or can it for later in the winter. Later in the fall winter squash will show up and cost little. They keep forever so buy a bunch and enjoy a delightful vegan source of nutrients all winter long. 

Eat organic strategically

Organic food is expensive and we can't all shop at Whole Foods all the time. But not all organic foods are created equal. Consult the Environmental Working Group's Clean 15/Dirty Dozen list to figure out which foods you should buy organic. The Clean 15 are foods like avocado and cabbage that don't carry a lot of pesticide residue so eating them non-organic is okay. The Dirty Dozen are the ones you should eat organic because they absorb a lot of pesticides – foods on this list include apples, potatoes and cucumbers. Save money on safer conventional foods so that you can invest more dollars on the organic produce that matters.  

Spices are your friend

Invest in spices. Some of the best vegan recipes out there are curries and stews and involve simmering veggies and lentils for a long time with aromatics and spices. Also, spices are good for you. Get them in the bulk section and learn how to use them

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