How to Eat a Whole Foods, Plant-Based Diet on a Budget

Farmer Fred reaping some of the harvest from his backyard garden!

So, you want to eat a whole food, plant-based diet but don’t know where to start? And hardest of all, you have concerns that joining this lifestyle will cause your grocery bill to skyrocket?

If you are impacted by these thoughts, let me tell you there is a solution to eating a healthy, plant-based diet that will not break the bank! It is a misunderstanding that vegetarians and vegans spend extra money on the food they enjoy when compared to others. While it is certainly possible to rack up the food bill on any diet, with a little planning ahead and some simple considerations before you run out to the store, you will find you are spending a similar amount (if not less) than you did before.

My Tips for How to Eat a Whole Foods, Plant-Based Diet on a Budget to Follow and Think About:

1). Take a deep breath and consider your dietary goals without a consideration of money. Many people, of course, do not have high end jobs that provide them with limitless amounts of money. This has led to recent discussions about raising the minimum wage to a “living wage.” Certainly, everyone should have enough money to not only eat, but eat in a way that is proven to be healthy and life changing. With this said, money is not everything. We need to consider the value of the food and the long term savings as well – separate from your weekly grocery bill.

Currently, health care costs in the USA are continuing to climb. Many diseases and conditions that cause you to end up seeking expensive medical treatments are preventable through diet changes and exercises. For example, obesity (and other medical conditions often attributed to those who are overweight such as diabetes) can be resolved through a plant-based diet oriented towards weight loss and regular exercise. In the case of obesity, I have seen this cause family and friends much pain, much financial loss to the health care industry to try and resolve, and at worst premature death. While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to being overweight, if we are honest with ourselves, in Western society many people who become obese do so as a result of poor diet and lifestyle decisions.

This, of course, is not meant to be damning as we all go through things in life that can cause us to make poor decisions. I experienced this first hand and was overweight for many years, and had to manage to the many negative consequences that came with this. Since adopting a whole food, plant-based diet a few years ago I have lost over 65 pounds and regained my health. In looking back, if I had to spend a couple of extra dollars every week to not feel the pain I once did and to have the energy to enjoy my gardening hobby, wife, dog, and grandson; I would do it with a heartbeat. But fortunately for me, I was able to keep food costs minimal and comparable to the amount I was previously spending.

Related: A Whole Foods, Plant-Based Diet is Your Secret to Weight Loss!

2). Actually buy whole food products. The term “whole foods” gets thrown around pretty often, but I think some folks do not consider what it really means with regards to their health. The best way to clarify the meaning is to understand what is NOT a whole foods product. Simply defined, anything that is NOT a whole food source will include many added chemicals and preservatives (such as high salt levels), and will typically include a long list of ingredients. Most items like this that are sold in the grocery store typically would not be suitable for a plant-based diet anyways such as packaged chicken strips, pizza, boxed macaroni and cheese, etc. By removing meat and dairy products from your diet, you automatically narrow down the number of non-whole foods products you will encounter. Items like these have a tendency to come with the illusion of being inexpensive, but they are not nearly as satisfying, and at worst can leave you addicted to their great tastes but poor health attributes. For example, high salt content contained in many of these foods can leave you feeling dehydrated and wanting more. This leads to overeating and a lack of energy.

By eating whole foods, you will actually know what you are eating, instead of just thinking you know.

3). You don’t have to buy organic food. One stumbling block for many buyers are words like “organic” and “natural” which catch your eye, and certainly make the food sound healthier. While the science is still being conducted to catch up with this recent marketing trend, for now I would just consider anything labelled as organic to not mean much in terms of the nutritional value of the food. I would expect that there is some value to organic produce, but for your average person the actual benefit will likely be inconsequential.

What really will make a difference in people’s health, he (Jeffrey Blumburg, Nutrition Professor at Tufts University) says, is just eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If you eat plenty of these foods — whether they’re organic or not — you’ll get plenty of antioxidants.
— NPR

To add to this conversation, there have been times in the past when labeling terms have been used to lie to consumers, such as in the case where “fat free” does not necessarily mean free of all fat content. What is organic to one vendor may not be the same type of “organic” to another. It’s a complicated system and by the time any food arrives in the grocery store, I expect some level of contamination or change. The only things I trust to be truly organic are the fruits and vegetables I grow in my backyard garden, as I have complete control over the growing conditions, additives, etc.; and I have personally opted to use primarily organic ingredients and solutions.

4). Check online and weekly circulars for coupons and deals. Every week I receive a lot of advertisements and coupons in the mail. It's not like I ever signed up for this extra paper, but it certainly doesn't hurt when the coupons are beneficial to me. I often receive coupons for shopping centers I frequent, and I try to take advantage of these coupons when it makes sense to use them. While most of you may be familiar with that consideration, did you know you can often find coupons on a store's website as well? A simple example is Wal-Mart's online coupon offerings where you can "clip" coupons to use online, or print out to use in store.

Bailey wanted to say "Hello!" and offer you some encouragement as you work through making a WFPB diet budget friendly!

Bailey wanted to say "Hello!" and offer you some encouragement as you work through making a WFPB diet budget friendly!

5). Shop at big box stores and buy in bulk. You may have seen some of my grocery hauls from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. These are some great stores that provide a lot of opportunities to save money while consuming high quality foods. They are at their best when you buy groceries in bulk. While you may not be able to do this with most fresh foods such as what you would find in the produce section, this is invaluable when it comes to boxed goods (like pasta), soups, herbs and spices, condiments, etc.

6). Buy groceries online and save. Online shopping has emerged as an invaluable way to save money. I have found it to best be used to purchase bulk goods, as I can often find lower prices than in store. While you can shop at the online stores of many corporate chain stores, I find I prefer Amazon for my online food shopping. They have some great prices, and when paired with Amazon Prime (which provides free 2 day shipping) it can be hard to beat in terms of convenience. Money saved on gas and time required to go out to a physical store is money saved in combination with actual savings on goods.

7). Learn how to haggle and go to local farmer’s markets. Farmer’s markets can be a really fun way to get involved in the community and meet some of the folks who provide crop goods to your area. There is a social component involved that can be hard to ignore, and may be a perfect place to swap ideas for making plant-based dishes that taste great. Of course, one of the big reasons for going to a farmer’s market is to get some great quality, local produce. Often prices will be less than what you would pay at a big box store – likely because there is no middleman between the farmer and the storefront. Depending on the seller, you may even be able to haggle the price down, especially if you are planning to buy a large amount of produce in bulk.

8). Study you’re eating habits. If you have a family to feed, study their habits as well. Whether you just want to make some casual observations or take notes with pen and paper, there is real value to better understanding how much you are eating and how much you are throwing away. Because the foods we eat on a whole foods, plant-based diet tend to expire quicker than those filled with preservatives, it becomes essential to use all food in about a week’s time. Many fruits and veggies will last about a week or two when kept in a refrigerator, and you can extend the shelf time longer by putting them in a freezer. If you are buying a lot of fresh vegetables, you will want to be sure you can consume everything you buy in this relatively short time frame. Often a problem many folks encounter is not being able to eat the food they purchase quickly enough, which leads to wasted food and wasted money. You may be able to trim 10 or 20 dollars just by reducing the amount being purchased altogether.

My family and I have come to better understand our eating habits, and we always make an effort to “clean the plate” so as to not leave any waste. In cases where we can’t, it goes into a compost bin where it can still serve a purpose.

9). Plan your meals and make a grocery list ahead of time. One of the leading reasons why people spend too much money at the grocery store is because they are not prepared to go in, buy what they NEED, and get out. I make an effort to only go to the grocery store once a week, and sometimes I try to stretch it out to 2 weeks (though admittedly this can be difficult!). This leads to one large purchase instead of many small purchases that add up throughout the week. If I find I forgot something, I will generally force myself to live without it for the week, as there is always something else that can be eaten in the house.

A key component to maintaining a healthy grocery list and budget is to actually prepare in advance the meals I will be making throughout the week. This is especially useful if you are working long hours and come home at the end of the day drained, ready to through the easiest meal together. Additionally, it can help you expand your horizons to try new meals you may not have thought off spontaneously. If you are looking for some new plant-based recipes to try, be sure to check out the Plant-Smart Living Recipe Guide.

Massive green peppers I harvested recently (August 2016)

Massive green peppers I harvested recently (August 2016)

10. Start a garden and reap the harvest (and cost savings). One of the elements of my plant-based lifestyle that has most impacted my bottom line has been starting my backyard garden. Admittedly, it does require a good deal of effort and some spending to get the right equipment together, but once it is set up, with some minimal energy to maintain, I find I can reap a beautiful harvest for a significant portion of the year. Of course, I do not have my garden just for the purpose of saving money, as I treat it as a treasured hobby too. These days, the harvest from my garden nets me too many vegetables that I often find myself giving them away to friends and family. It is a powerful thing, and something I suggest you try for yourself whether it be on a small scale (think: one small raised garden bed) or on a larger scale like mine!

If you were struggling maintaining a budget while sticking to a whole foods, plant-based diet; I hope these suggestions help to get you think about how easy it can be to save money while still eating healthy.