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    10 Tips For Eating Well On A Budget, According To An Awesome Plant-Based Chef

    Step 1: Put down the processed fake meat.

    Thanks to inflation, the cost of food is rising. According to data from the USDA Economic Research Service, the cost of groceries in 2021 has increased 2.5%, while the cost of eating out has climbed by 3.6%. And you can expect things to only go up in 2022.

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    If you're feeling the financial pinch from the steep cost of groceries these days, an easy way to save is to eat less meat — or drop it entirely. Plus, it can reduce your environmental impact.

    But take it from someone who tried going vegetarian for six months and relied way too heavily on processed fake meats and quesadillas, you'll want to approach it in a way that's nutritious and good for your wallet.

    To get some pro tips, I spoke to Denise Vallejo, an Indigenous chef who specializes in plant-based cooking and ancestral foodway and is the owner of Alchemy Organica in LA. You might know her cooking from Bon Appetit or the goth Valentine's Day meal that she made for Kat Von D. Here are her tips for eating well on a budget:

    1. To start, go back to the vegan basics and make things from scratch.

    Woman chopping vegetables at home
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    These days you might find yourself flashing some cash for bougie, gourmet vegan fare — $18 for a plate of jackfruit tacos, anyone? "We live in a crazy carnivalesque food culture where we're, like, dumping nacho cheese on everything, and just covering things with layers upon layers," says Vallejo. "It's like, let's build the tallest sandwich made out of macaroni and cheese, even in the vegan culture." 

    To save some bucks and eat healthier, nix processed fake meats, like Impossible Meats, Beyond Meat, stuff from Morningstar and Gardein, says Vallejo. 

    "You're now seeing veganism at fast food places, like Burger King, that's relying on Beyond Burgers," she says. "So the first thing is to completely take that off the table. Not only is it heavily processed and not very healthy, but that stuff is also pretty expensive at the market." 

    ​​Plus, if you have a food delivery subscription where you get prepared meals brought to your door, you might want to drop those as well. "We've accepted a subscription culture," says Vallejo. "That means you're paying a lot for something that you could be doing yourself, to some degree." 

    2. If you can, go for organic produce. We know, it's typically more expensive, and not everyone has access to fresh, organic greens. But high-quality ingredients are the key to good vegan cooking, says Vallejo.

    Squash, pomegranates, and oranges in a reusable bag
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    To save on organic, look for sales on produce and organic canned beans next time you're at the store. And organic isn't only found at Whole Foods and major grocery chains. You'll be surprised at what you'll find at discount grocery stores —think Grocery Outlet, Food for Less, and even the Dollar Tree and 99 Cents Only stores. The key is to look and turn it into a treasure hunt of sorts.

    You can also buy frozen produce. As Vallejo explains, they're usually picked at the peak of the season — when they're most fresh — then blanched and flash frozen. They actually retain the same nutrition as fresh fruits and veggies. What you want to avoid is canned veggies or fruit, which are heated, processed, and may have added sugar.

    3. It's also a good idea to fill your pantry with staples like rice, beans, grains, and hemp seeds to help you meet your protein needs. So check out the bulk bins at your local health food store and stock up!

    Woman filling a bag with beans at a health food store
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    Btw, if you have one, don't be afraid to pull out your EBT card at the health food store. You might be surprised by the fact that some specialty grocery stores and farmers markets now accept them. For instance, California has an EBT Farmers' Market Program, as does New York.  


    You can also check out the EWG's Good Food on a Tight Budget to see how you can stretch your dollar with healthier, nutritious eats. There's a food list with foods that are most nutritious and typically the lowest cost, plus recipes. 

    4. To make sure you're getting plenty of nutrition, commit to eating essential greens and switch them out. Vallejo's personal favorites are collard greens, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, and kale.

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    Another way to save money on fresh produce is to eat with nature and buy what's in season, suggests Vallejo.

    Your body will also thank you for it. "It's just eating as you were intended to eat," says Vallejo. "I think the body knows intuitively, this is a great thing that I'm going to want at this time of year. Plus, it's something you look forward to."

    Case in point: Citrus grows a lot in the winter. "And what is that going to do for you?" says Vallejo. "It will support your immune system with vitamin C."

    5. Vallejo recommends making your own staples — think mixing tofu with cashews to create creamy bases, or blending tofu with gluten and beans to make a basic version of mock meat.

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    It might sound really complicated to make fake meat, but it doesn't have to be. First, you'll need some solid seasoning. Here's a recipe from Vallejo: 

    Vegan Chicken Seasoning  

    -1 cup nutritional yeast

    -1 tablespoon paprika

    -1 teaspoon dried thyme

    -1 teaspoon dried parsley

    -2 teaspoon onion powder

    -1 teaspoon garlic powder

    -1 teaspoon vegan sugar

    -1 tablespoon sea salt

    -1/2 teaspoon black pepper

    Optional: dash of cayenne pepper

    Mix well until combined. Fill into a jar to keep on hand for seasoning anything from popcorn to tofu scrambles.

    And here's Vallejo's favorite way to make "tofu chicken":

    1. Drain a pack of tofu, chop into bite-sized cubes, and coat well in the spice mixture.

    2. Spray tofu with cooking oil and air-fry until golden brown and crispy. 

    3. You can also add this mixture to a bit of all-purpose flour to make a chicken-flavored batter for deep-fried mushrooms, tofu, or seitan.


    6. Oh, and pickle the heck out of veggies. "When you're pickling vegetables, you're getting all these probiotics, and that umami depth of flavor," says Vallejo. "They'll last a lot longer, plus you're getting that fermented and probiotic goodness."

    Jars of vegetables pickling
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    Here's an easy way to go about pickling veggies, courtesy of Vallejo:

    Basic Quick Pickling Brine 

    -1 cup apple cider vinegar

    -1 cup filtered water

    -2 teaspoons agave

    -1 tablespoon sea salt

    -Contents of one vegan probiotic capsule

    -1 garlic clove, smashed

    - optional: 1 tablespoon of any chopped fresh herbs you like (dill or oregano are great)

     

    Add 2–3 cups of any of your favorite veggies: 

    -Shredded raw cabbage

    -Sliced red onions

    -Carrots

    -Cauliflower

    -Asparagus 

    -Green Beans

    -Mushrooms

    Combine ingredients in a large bowl. Coat your choice of vegetables in this brine and store in a covered glass or plastic food container in the refrigerator. Allow vegetables to pickle overnight. 

    Note: Softer vegetables like onions and cabbage will pickle much faster than harder or crisper veggies like carrots or cauliflower. Some veggies are best pickled after a quick blanching (cooked very briefly in hot water) to maximize flavor, color, and texture. The probiotic powder introduces plenty of gut-friendly microbes that also enhance the flavor of your pickled veggies. 

    7. If you're really into smoothies, you can blend your own protein powders. While it might cost a little more at first to buy the ingredients in bulk, it'll save you money in the long run.

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    Vallejo suggests buying a large bag of your favorite plain protein powder — hemp, pea, soy, or what have you. Then, you can add your own cacao, hemp seeds, and sweeteners. "That way you won't have to worry about the chalkiness or any of those little weird flavors, because it's not as fancy as something else that was pre-blended," says Vallejo. 

    This saves you money because while you are paying a little more upfront, the mix you put together will go a long way and will save you money over time. For instance, let's say you spend $50 on all the different ingredients. Instead of it lasting only two months, which is how long a $50 small tub of store-bought protein powder might last, it could last you four, maybe even six months. So your monthly spend on protein powder can be cut in half if not more. 

    8. To save on time, lean on food prepping. "It's really about either setting a whole day to do something or going a little bit through the week, because life is overwhelming," Vallejo says.

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     For example, aim to pickle veggies on Monday, make rice on Tuesday, and make a few different proteins on Wednesday. "You can kind of go through your week a little at a time instead of being overwhelmed all at once," she says. 

    Of course, there are some things you don't want to have sitting around for a few days, and would need to do it the day of, like boiling fresh veggies. But for everything else, you can make it beforehand. That way, it's simply a matter of adding things to your bases. 

    9. Many vegans can attest that eating the same stuff when you're plant-based gets old and boring. To keep things interesting, think of themes. You can even base it off something that's on super sale at the grocery store.

    10. Finally, the key to yummy vegan food on a budget is to play around with ideas and have fun.

    What are your favorite budget-friendly vegan eats? Tell us all about them in the comments.

    And for more stories about life and money, check out the rest of our personal finance posts