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Your Complete Guide to Vegetarian Meals on a Budget

If you’ve landed here, you’re probably exploring ways to balance a vegetarian diet without breaking the bank. I’ve been there, and let me assure you, it is absolutely possible.

Let’s debunk the myth that vegetarianism has to be expensive and explore the numerous ways to enjoy vegetarian meals on a budget!

Budgeting for a Vegetarian Diet

Every food journey begins with an important step: budgeting. And when you’re embracing a vegetarian lifestyle, your budgeting approach can make all the difference between thriving and just surviving.

The goal isn’t just to eat cheaply, it’s to eat healthily and sustainably without sacrificing taste or breaking your budget. Here’s how you can do it.

Know What to Buy

Knowing what to buy involves understanding the nutritional needs of a vegetarian diet. These include proteins, vitamins, and minerals, which can be easily obtained from plant-based sources.

For example, lentils and chickpeas are excellent sources of protein and fiber, while fruits and vegetables provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Whole grains, like brown rice or whole wheat pasta, offer complex carbohydrates and fiber.

Herbs and spices may seem expensive initially, but when used judiciously, they enhance flavor and nutrition, adding variety to your meals without adding excessive costs.

Buy in Bulk

Purchasing non-perishable items in bulk can lead to significant savings. Foods like rice, lentils, beans, oats, pasta, and nuts can be stored for a long time without going bad and are often cheaper when bought in large quantities.

Similarly, frozen fruits and vegetables can be more cost-effective when bought in bulk, especially when the fresh versions are out of season. Remember to store these foods properly to maintain their quality.

Choose Seasonal Produce

Seasonal fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper and fresher than out-of-season produce. They are often locally grown, reducing the added costs of transportation and storage, making them more affordable.

Also, when in season, these foods are at their nutritional peak. Buying these in bulk when prices are low and preserving (through freezing, pickling, or canning) for later use can save money and offer dietary variety throughout the year.

Opt for Store Brands

Store or generic brands often offer products that are just as good as, if not better than, the more well-known brands.

These products are usually cheaper because they don’t carry the high marketing costs that popular brands do.

From canned goods to spices, and even dairy or dairy alternatives, there are numerous store-brand options that suit a vegetarian diet.

Limit Processed Foods

While processed vegetarian foods like faux meats, ready meals, and vegan cheeses can be convenient, they can also be quite expensive.

These should be used sparingly, as they also often contain added sugars, salts, and fats. It’s generally healthier and cheaper to prepare your meals from scratch, using whole, plant-based ingredients.

Reduce Food Waste

Reducing food waste is not just good for the environment, but it’s also good for your wallet. Make a plan for your meals and only buy what you need.

Learn to use leftovers creatively, and store food properly to extend its shelf life. For instance, wilted vegetables can be used in soups or stews, overripe fruits can go into smoothies or desserts, and stale bread can be turned into croutons or breadcrumbs.

Cook at Home

While eating out is a nice treat, the cost can add up over time. Cooking at home is usually cheaper, as you’re not paying for service, ambiance, or the restaurant’s overhead costs.

Plus, cooking at home allows you to control what goes into your meals, making it a healthier option. Cooking in large batches and freezing portions can save both time and money in the future.

Vegetarian Meals on a Budget

Tips for Eating Out as a Vegetarian on a Budget

Eating out doesn’t have to be a budget-buster for vegetarians. With some careful planning and savvy strategies, you can enjoy a meal out without draining your wallet. Here’s how.

Research Restaurants

Researching ahead of time allows you to find restaurants that cater to vegetarians and offer value for money. This is especially important in areas where vegetarian cuisine may not be prevalent.

Use online resources, read reviews, or use apps that specialize in restaurant recommendations. Check for special deals, promotions, or discount hours, as these can significantly cut down your costs.

Choose Ethnic Eateries

Many international cuisines, such as Indian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, and Middle Eastern, offer a plethora of vegetarian options.

These cuisines often use legumes, grains, and vegetables as the main components of their dishes, making them naturally suited to a vegetarian diet.

Additionally, these restaurants tend to offer large portion sizes at reasonable prices, giving you more value for your money.

Leverage Lunch Specials

Restaurants often offer lunch specials or set menus that are significantly cheaper than their dinner prices.

These specials usually come with a main course and one or two sides, giving you a complete meal at a lower cost.

If your schedule permits, consider eating your main meal at lunchtime and having a lighter, homemade dinner.

Share and Save

Sharing dishes allows you to sample a variety of food without over-ordering and overspending. Many restaurants serve dishes ‘family-style’, meaning the portions are large and meant to be shared. This way, you can split the cost among your dining companions.

Opt for Water

Drinks can significantly increase your bill, especially if you’re ordering alcohol or specialty beverages. Opting for tap water instead is a simple way to cut down on costs. In most restaurants, tap water is served for free, and it’s a healthier choice too.

Don’t Overlook Sides

Sides are usually cheaper than main courses and can be quite filling. A combination of a couple of side dishes can create a balanced, satisfying meal. For instance, a side of grilled vegetables paired with a baked potato or a bowl of quinoa can be a nutritious, budget-friendly option.

Consider Appetizers

Appetizers are usually priced lower than main courses and can be substantial. Some restaurants serve ‘small plates’ or ‘tapas-style’ appetizers that are meant to be shared and can serve as a main course.

Starting your meal with a salad or soup can also be cost-effective, as these dishes are usually cheaper and can fill you up, so you’ll be less likely to order a large main course.

Communicate Your Dietary Preferences

It’s important to communicate clearly about your dietary restrictions. Ask questions if you’re unsure about the ingredients in a particular dish. It’s better to ask upfront rather than receiving a dish you can’t eat and having to order (and pay for) something else.

Skip Dessert

Restaurant desserts can be pricey. If you’re dining on a budget, consider skipping the dessert and enjoy a more cost-effective sweet treat at home. You could prepare a fruit salad, a homemade cake or cookies, or even just enjoy a piece of fresh fruit.

Extra Tips to Save Money

There are additional steps you can take to further decrease your food expenses. These methods may require a bit more effort and involvement but can yield substantial savings over time.

Grow Your Own Produce

Cultivating your own fruits and vegetables can be a fulfilling and practical hobby. It allows you to have fresh, organic produce right at your fingertips, saving you money and ensuring that your food is free from harmful chemicals.

You don’t need a large garden to do this, either. Many vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers on a patio or even a windowsill. If you live in an apartment, consider indoor gardening or joining a community garden.

Join a Food Co-op

Food cooperatives, or food co-ops, are member-owned and member-governed businesses that operate for the mutual benefit of all members.

They often offer lower prices on fresh, local produce and bulk items because they work directly with local farmers and suppliers, eliminating the middleman.

Becoming a member usually involves paying a small fee and volunteering some of your time. However, the savings and community connection can be well worth the investment.

Subscribe to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

CSAs are a great way to receive seasonal, locally grown produce while supporting local farmers. When you join a CSA, you essentially buy a share of the farm’s production for the season.

You then receive weekly or bi-weekly boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables. While the upfront cost may seem high, the amount of produce you receive over the season often makes it a very cost-effective option.

Shop at Farmers’ Markets and Sales

Farmers’ markets offer fresh, local produce, often at prices lower than grocery stores. The food at these markets is usually in season, meaning it’s at its peak in terms of flavor and nutritional value.

You also have the opportunity to meet and talk with the people who grow your food. Additionally, keep an eye out for sales and discounts at your local grocery stores and online retailers. Planning your meals around what’s on sale can lead to significant savings.

Affordable Vegetarian Recipes

I’ve compiled a collection of favorite vegetarian recipes that won’t strain your budget. You’ll see just how diverse and satisfying affordable vegetarian cooking can be.

Breakfast on a Dime

Banana Oat Pancakes

Overripe bananas that might be unsuitable for eating directly can be perfect for these pancakes. This way, you save money by reducing food waste.

Servings: 2

Ingredients
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 2 cups of oats
  • 1 cup of plant-based milk
  • A pinch of salt
  • Optional: Maple syrup and fresh fruits for topping
Steps
  • Place the bananas, oats, plant-based milk, and a pinch of salt into a blender. Blend until the mixture is smooth.
  • Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat.
  • Pour 1/4 cup of the batter onto the pan for each pancake. Cook until the edges are set and bubbles form on top.
  • Flip the pancakes and cook for another 1-2 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.
  • Serve warm with maple syrup and fresh fruits, if desired.

Tofu Scramble

Buying tofu in bulk and freezing it can be a cost-effective way to always have it available for this protein-rich breakfast.

Servings: 2

Ingredients
  • 1 block of tofu
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon of turmeric
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: Your favorite herbs and spices
Steps
  • Drain the tofu and press it to remove excess water.
  • In a large pan, sauté the onion, garlic, and bell pepper in a bit of oil over medium heat until softened.
  • Crumble the pressed tofu into the pan, then sprinkle the turmeric over it. Stir well to evenly distribute the turmeric and incorporate the tofu with the sautéed vegetables.
  • Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tofu is heated through. Add salt, pepper, and any other herbs and spices to taste.

Overnight Chia Pudding

Buy chia seeds in bulk from a store that has a good turnover. They last a long time and you’ll save money by buying in larger quantities.

Servings: 2

Ingredients
  • 1/4 cup of chia seeds
  • 1 cup of plant-based milk
  • 1 tablespoon of sweetener like maple syrup or agave
  • Optional: Your favorite fruits and nuts for topping
Steps
  • In a bowl or mason jar, mix together chia seeds, plant-based milk, and sweetener.
  • Cover and set in the refrigerator overnight.
  • In the morning, stir well before serving. Add more plant-based milk if desired for a thinner consistency.
  • Top with your favorite fruits and nuts.

Simple Green Smoothie

Utilize any greens you have in the fridge before they go bad. This smoothie is perfect for using leftover spinach, kale, or other leafy greens.

Servings: 1

Ingredients
  • 1 banana
  • 1 cup of spinach
  • 1 cup of plant-based milk
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds or chia seeds
Steps
  • Combine the banana, spinach, plant-based milk, and peanut butter in a blender.
  • If using, add flaxseeds or chia seeds.
  • Blend on high until the ingredients are fully combined and the smoothie is creamy and smooth.
  • Pour into a glass or bowl and enjoy immediately.

Lunch on a Shoestring

Vegetarian Chili

Use a mix of fresh and canned vegetables based on what’s on sale or in season. The versatility of this dish can accommodate many kinds of vegetables.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 1 can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can of kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon of chili powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Steps
  • In a large pot, sauté the onion, garlic, and bell pepper in a bit of oil over medium heat until the vegetables are tender.
  • Add the beans, tomatoes, and chili powder to the pot. Stir to combine.
  • Reduce heat to low and let the chili simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The longer it simmers, the more the flavors will meld together.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Greek Salad Wrap

Making your own vinaigrette at home can be cheaper (and healthier) than buying pre-made dressing.

Servings: 1

Ingredients
  • 1 whole wheat tortilla
  • 1 handful of lettuce
  • 1 tomato
  • 1 cucumber
  • A few slices of red onion
  • A few slices of feta cheese
  • A drizzle of olive oil and vinegar
Steps
  • Lay the tortilla flat on a clean surface.
  • Layer lettuce, tomato slices, cucumber slices, onion slices, and feta cheese on the tortilla.
  • Drizzle a bit of olive oil and vinegar over the assembled ingredients.
  • Carefully fold the tortilla around the ingredients, tucking in the sides as you roll. Cut in half and serve.

Vegetable Fried Rice

This dish is perfect for using up leftover rice and vegetables, reducing waste and saving money.

Servings: 2

Ingredients
  • 1 cup of cooked rice
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 handful of frozen peas
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Steps
  • Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat.
  • Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent.
  • Add the bell pepper and carrot to the skillet. Stir-fry until the vegetables are tender.
  • Add the cooked rice, frozen peas, and soy sauce to the skillet. Stir well to combine.
  • Continue to stir-fry the rice for another 5 minutes, making sure everything is well combined and heated through.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Hummus and Veggie Sandwich

Homemade hummus is usually more cost-effective and can be made in large batches and frozen for future use.

Servings: 1

Ingredients
  • 2 slices of whole wheat bread
  • 1 handful of lettuce
  • 1 tomato, sliced
  • 1 cucumber, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons of homemade hummus
Steps for Hummus
  • Drain and rinse a can of chickpeas, reserving some of the liquid.
  • In a food processor, combine the chickpeas, 2 tablespoons of tahini, 1 clove of garlic, the juice from half a lemon, and a pinch of salt.
  • Process the ingredients, adding the reserved chickpea liquid a little at a time until the hummus reaches your desired consistency.
Steps for Sandwich
  • Spread one tablespoon of hummus on each slice of bread.
  • On one slice, layer lettuce, tomato slices, and cucumber slices.
  • Top with the second slice of bread, hummus side down.
  • Cut in half and serve.

Dinner without the Dollars

Lentil Soup

Lentils are a cheap, nutritious protein source. Buying in bulk can save more money.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 1 cup of lentils, rinsed
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 cups of water or vegetable broth
Steps
  • Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.
  • Add the onion and garlic, sauté until the onion is translucent.
  • Add the diced carrots to the pot and continue to sauté for another 5 minutes.
  • Stir in the lentils, cumin, and broth or water.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the lentils are tender.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.

Vegetarian Tacos

Beans are an excellent, affordable protein source. Use dried beans for even more savings.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 1 can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 packet of taco seasoning
  • Corn tortillas
  • Your favorite taco toppings, such as lettuce, tomato, avocado, and salsa
Steps
  • In a large skillet, heat a bit of oil over medium heat.
  • Add the onion and bell pepper, and sauté until the onion is translucent and the bell pepper is tender.
  • Stir in the black beans and taco seasoning. Continue to cook for another 5 minutes, until the mixture is heated through.
  • Warm the tortillas according to the package instructions.
  • Assemble your tacos with the bean mixture and your favorite toppings.

Pasta with Marinara Sauce

Consider making your own marinara sauce in bulk and freezing it in smaller portions.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 1 package of pasta
  • 1 jar of marinara sauce
  • Optional: Grated cheese, fresh herbs, and sautéed vegetables for topping
Steps
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  • Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
  • While the pasta is cooking, heat the marinara sauce in a separate pot over medium heat.
  • Combine the drained pasta and heated sauce. Stir until the pasta is well coated.
  • Top with your favorite toppings, if desired, and serve.

Stir-Fried Vegetables with Tofu

Buying tofu in larger packages, if you use it frequently, can save you money. You can freeze what you don’t use immediately.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 1 block of tofu, drained, pressed, and cubed
  • 1 bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 handful of broccoli florets
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of oil
Steps
  • Heat the oil in a large wok or frying pan over medium heat.
  • Add the vegetables to the pan and stir-fry for about 5-7 minutes, until they’re tender-crisp.
  • Push the vegetables to one side of the pan and add the tofu to the other side. Cook for a few minutes until the tofu is golden brown, then stir to combine with the vegetables.
  • Add the soy sauce and stir until everything is well coated and heated through.
  • Serve with rice or noodles if desired.

Desserts for Pennies

Banana Ice Cream

Cverripe bananas can be used here instead of discarding them. You can freeze ripe bananas to make this dish whenever you like.

Servings: 2

Ingredients
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • Optional: Your favorite mix-ins, such as peanut butter, cocoa powder, or berries
Steps
  • Slice the bananas and place them in a freezer-safe bag. Freeze until solid, usually overnight.
  • Once the bananas are frozen, place them in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth and creamy.
  • If desired, add your favorite mix-ins and pulse a few more times to incorporate.
  • You can enjoy the ice cream immediately for a soft-serve texture or freeze it for a couple of hours for a firmer consistency.

Apple Crisp

Use any type of apples that are in season and on sale. Different types can be mixed and matched based on what’s cheaper.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 4 apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • 1 cup of oats
  • 1/2 cup of brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup of butter or coconut oil, melted
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
Steps
  • Preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C).
  • Place the sliced apples in a baking dish.
  • In a separate bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, melted butter or oil, and cinnamon.
  • Sprinkle the oat mixture evenly over the apples.
  • Bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the apples are tender and the topping is golden.
  • Let it cool for a few minutes before serving.

Chocolate Avocado Pudding

Overripe avocados that aren’t as enjoyable to eat can be put to good use in this pudding.

Servings: 2

Ingredients
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1/4 cup of cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup of sweetener, such as maple syrup or agave
  • 1/4 cup of plant-based milk
Steps
  • Cut the avocado in half, remove the pit, and scoop out the flesh.
  • Place the avocado, cocoa powder, sweetener, and plant-based milk in a food processor or blender.
  • Blend until the mixture is smooth and creamy, with no avocado chunks remaining.
  • If the pudding is too thick, you can add a bit more plant-based milk and blend again until you achieve the desired consistency.
  • Transfer the pudding to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving to allow it to chill and thicken.

Peanut Butter Cookies

Making your own peanut butter at home can save you money if you consume it often.

Servings: 12

Ingredients
  • 1 cup of peanut butter
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 egg
Steps
  • Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • In a bowl, mix the peanut butter, sugar, and egg until well combined.
  • Take a spoonful of the dough and roll it into a ball. Place it on the baking sheet and flatten slightly with a fork, making a crisscross pattern.
  • Repeat with the rest of the dough, spacing the cookies about 1 inch apart.
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the edges are golden. Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Snacks for a Steal

Fruit and Nut Trail Mix

Buy dried fruits and nuts in bulk and mix your own trail mix instead of buying pre-made mixes.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 1 cup of your favorite dried fruits, such as raisins, apricots, and cranberries
  • 1 cup of your favorite nuts, such as almonds, peanuts, and cashews
Steps
  • Combine the dried fruits and nuts in a bowl.
  • Store the trail mix in an airtight container at room temperature. It will stay fresh for about 1-2 weeks. If you use roasted nuts, store the trail mix in the refrigerator to keep the nuts from going rancid.

Popcorn

Buying popcorn kernels in bulk is much cheaper per serving than pre-packaged microwave popcorn bags.

Servings: 2

Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels
  • 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
  • Salt to taste
Steps
  • In a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat the oil over medium heat.
  • Add 2-3 popcorn kernels to the pot and cover.
  • When the kernels pop, add the rest of the popcorn kernels and cover the pot again.
  • Shake the pot occasionally to prevent the popcorn from burning.
  • When the popping slows down to about 2 seconds between pops, remove the pot from heat and let it sit for a minute to allow any remaining kernels to pop.
  • Remove the lid, sprinkle with salt, and give the popcorn a quick stir.

Roasted Chickpeas

Canned chickpeas are often quite affordable, but if you plan ahead, buying and cooking dried chickpeas can be even cheaper.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • 1 can (15 oz) of chickpeas
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1-2 teaspoons of your favorite spices, such as chili powder, cumin, or garlic powder
Steps
  • Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Rinse the chickpeas under cold water and dry them thoroughly using a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. The drier the chickpeas, the crispier they will be.
  • Place the chickpeas in a bowl, add the olive oil, salt, and spices. Toss until they’re well coated.
  • Spread the chickpeas on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer.
  • Roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, shaking the pan or stirring the chickpeas every 10 minutes, until they’re golden brown and crispy.

Veggie Sticks with Hummus

Buying whole vegetables and cutting them yourself is often cheaper than buying pre-cut veggie sticks.

Servings: 4

Ingredients
  • Your favorite vegetables, such as 2 carrots, 1 cucumber, and 1 bell pepper
  • 1 cup of hummus (use the recipe provided earlier or your favorite store-bought version)
Steps
  • Wash and cut the vegetables into sticks.
  • Serve the veggie sticks with the hummus as a dip.

Conclusion

Embracing a vegetarian lifestyle shouldn’t mean compromising on flavor or your budget. With a little creativity and planning, it’s possible to enjoy nutritious, delicious meals that won’t break the bank.

By incorporating these tips and recipes into your routine, you’re one step closer to mastering the art of vegetarian meals on a budget. So here’s to good food, good health, and good savings!