Help me get my food budget under control
May 12, 2016 6:36 AM   Subscribe

My food budget has always been higher than I'd like due to the fact that I eat a lot, and generally eat very healthy. Lately, though, it's been spiraling out of control. I'm looking for suggestions on how to stop blowing money on expensive things I can't afford, as well as how to generally get things under control given my very specific dietary needs (would-be ethical vegan who doesn't process starches well).

I've had an ongoing family emergency over the last couple of months that has cost me thousands of dollars and countless hours. At the same time, I've been dealing with the stress by blowing all sorts of money on expensive grocery store items and restaurant food. I don't have the time or energy to cook (which I hate doing at the best of times).

This has converged with the fact that I'm striving to be vegan, but as I've gotten older I've found that my body doesn't process starches or refined sugars well at all. They make me feel drowsy, logy, bloated and yet somehow hungry again almost immediately. Many of the staples of my diet in the past--potatoes, beans, lentils, pasta, etc.--are off the table, and I find that I can really only eat things like fruits, veg and nuts. Which is an insanely expensive diet given how much of these I have to eat in order to hit the approximately 2500 calories a day I need to maintain my weight.

And on top of that, as I've mentioned above, I've found solace from my stress by buying things that are even more expensive (a jar of high-end olives every day, for instance. Pricey sugar-free chocolate bars. Pricey vegan meat replacements.)

Because of these circumstances, I'm spending hundreds of dollars a month more on food than I can afford.

I don't particularly want to wander back into meat and cheese eating (I can't stand eggs). If I do that, I would want to be getting the "humanely raised" stuff, which comes with its own price tag. Farmer's markets in my area are just as pricey, if not pricier, than Whole Foods. I'm not quite emotionally ready to head into the "buy a side of beef and store it in a chest freezer" territory.

I can't eat soy (i.e. tofu, tempeh, all that good stuff). Well, I can, but even small amounts wreak havoc on my hormones and unpleasant things happen that I will not go into here.

I've been making green smoothies using dandelion greens and other edible weeds from my yard. I would try to plant a garden but lack the time and wherewithal to battle the neighborhood groundhog.

I dunno--I'm kind of out of ideas. Any random thoughts on things I might try? I need to rein things in, and fast, or I'm going to find myself in a heap of financial trouble.
posted by whistle pig to Work & Money (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
What about oils? Can you cook your veggies in lots of oils? That's a good way to get vegan calories inexpensively.
posted by mskyle at 6:43 AM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

On the upside it's spring so soon, vegetables will be slight more affordable.

I take it as a vegan, you do not consume any dairy; but you mention being willing to compromise and go back to eating meat? before doing the meat route, I'd add whey protein powder to my shakes and I'd consider buying yogurt and using that as a meal base with chopped fruit/nuts/coconut/seeds over the top- the added protein will help with feeling full and the fat will help tide you over.

How are you with baked oatmeal? is it too starchy? too much cooking? I'm an omnivore, but we eat this Vegan Baked oatmeal regularly on weekends and for dessert.

Other alternatives: can you find a cheap indian/thai place near you that you effectively set up a meal plan with? ie buy $100 of dishes on Monday, and then for lunches and dinners eat "takeout leftovers" the rest of the week, supplementing with either frozen veggies or roasted vegetables (I'm thinking squashes and cauliflower, since they're both low starch/and require minimal effort to chop and roast)

In summary:
1. yogurt bowls & protein powder in smoothies
2. bulk ordering food from one restaurant (or even wholefoods) and stretching it out with roasted or microwaved veggies
3. baked oatmeal as a treat/breakfast
posted by larthegreat at 6:58 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

You read like someone starving to death while spending oodles on food! I really think that you should go to your local grocery store and buy meat. Buy it already cooked if you need to. Stop wasting money on non-medically necessary expenses like organic, farm raised, whatever. I'm allergic to certain pesticides so, yes, I'll buy organic for certain fruits I've reacted to in the past but otherwise, you have to eat what you can afford. Starving yourself is not saving animals or helping the environment. It's just making you hungry. It is absolutely okay to put your needs before the needs of whatever animal just had a documentary done on it.
posted by myselfasme at 7:01 AM on May 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

I can't see any way to square this circle. It's hard enough to eat affordable balanced vegan diets, and near impossible if you can't eat STARCH (grains, beans -> carbs and protein) or soy (protein).

Eat like an ethical meat-eating peasant. Buy ethically raised bones and fatty meat (oxtail, short-ribs) and make bone broth on the weekend. Check any paleo blog for bone broth recipes. It's freaking delicious. Strain out the bones and stock vegetables, keep the meat chunks you get off the oxtail and short ribs. freeze them separately in portions, keeping a good amount of fat in. A meal is the thawed bone broth with veggies warmed or cooked in it, with a little of the cooked meat.

Instead of buying olives, buy avocados and coconut oil (saturated fats). Fry vegetables in the coconut oil for satiety. Eat the avocados whenever you're hungry, with a little salt and lime.

If you can do yogurt, then yes, buy some good quality stuff and use it as a base for adding fruits and nuts to for breakfast and lunch.

Good luck. You seem to be having a really tough time, but something's gotta give in your dietary restrictions.
posted by permiechickie at 7:14 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Stop shopping at whole foods, would be my first suggestion. I am assuming you are shopping there from what you said about farmers markets If you are fussy about organics. . Most good solid middle of the road supermarkets stock organic fruit and veg and vegan foods. They will definitely stock the basics, and won't have as many tempting expensive extras. I shop at Meijers, their organic selection is almost as large as the local whole foods at more than half the price not to mention all their other organic products, so go shop around some local supermarkets see what they have.. Costco can also be a good choice.
posted by wwax at 7:15 AM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I actually think that you should first consult with a nutritionist; you're reminding me of one of my old roommates who tried going vegan for a while, but then a nutritionist had a look at her eating habits and her diet and told her that "the way you're treating your body right now, your body is acting like you're actually anorexic, not vegan". They may also help you sort out what you can and can't eat, and figure out a much more realistic and dealable diet for you, metabolically and financially.

Other than that - you may want to read the books How To Cook a Wolf and An Everlasting Meal. They're both assuming an omnivorous diet, but they also both are much more about how to eat economically and without waste; "Wolf" is by the great M.F.K. Fisher, and she wrote it during World War II, when everyone was living under the double-whammy of "we're just coming out of the Depression" and "we have rationing because of the war". It's not just recipes - it's a whole underlying attitude shift about how to live well on a much simpler and smaller food budget. (Hell, one of her tips is something I still use today - she suggests making double the amount of rice you need when you make rice, and just keep the leftovers in the fridge to save you a step later on.) "Everlasting Meal" is more contemporary, and is the same approach of recipes-and-advice, but focused on trying to reduce food waste as well.

Both books also have lovely things to say about how learning to slow down and take pleasure in your food will ultimately help, as well, because you'll be satisfied with simpler things. You don't need to make any kind of elaborate vegetable side dish, is the argument, if you just take care to pick out a really really good tomato, and then slow down and really appreciate that tomato. You don't need an elaborate slice of cake or anything if you have a really, really good peach for dessert instead. get the idea; it's actually how I cook a lot myself anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:19 AM on May 12, 2016 [10 favorites]

Do you eat nut butters? Tons of calories in them, and they can go well with celery, apples, pears, and a few other things. Peanut butter is the cheapest but you might find the others to be reasonable. Another high-calorie item to consider is avocado. You might also google recipes that body-builders use to bulk up. I believe there are vegan shakes that people actually enjoy that use vegan protein powder.

But maybe most importantly, do you have a low-end grocer like Food 4 Less? Shop at places like that and never go back to Whole Foods. Food 4 Less here recently added a decent organic section. Overall, I spend 20-40% less there than I do at Vons or Ralph's.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:21 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the advice so far!

Just wanted to add that I do not, as a rule, shop at Whole Foods, though haven't looked into discount grocers in my area (Aldi's would be the only one that I'm aware of).
posted by whistle pig at 7:28 AM on May 12, 2016

i eat sort of like you do (not really since im not vegan but i avoid boxed/prepared things) and understand that it is pricey without a lot of effort.

If you are willing to consider being non-vegan ive found that hard boiled (actually steamed) eggs are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to pretty much always have a source of solid nutrition handy. i steam mine for 13.5 minutes every couple days and always have some to grab in the fridge. even if you go all out for the fanciest eggs you wont pay more than $.50 per.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:29 AM on May 12, 2016

Target often has great prices on staples like oils and such. I go there sometimes to stock up.
posted by Automocar at 7:30 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're located in an area that's diverse enough, have you tried looking into the local ethnic grocery stores? They will sell some of the same things at a big box grocery chain for much cheaper.

I'm also trying to keep a low food budget, and I primarily shop at Chinese grocery stores for produce. This keeps my fridge well stocked with veggies and fruits for the week for under $20! Also, I'm sure this is obvious to you, but it helps to buy things in season and on sale.

When I do go to a Costco or Sam's Club, I'll splurge on a big bag of toasted almonds and put it in my desk drawer for healthy snacking. While a bit pricey, it's lasted me months.
posted by ThatSox at 7:30 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a longtime ethical vegan.

Insofar as cooking is concerned, I could recommend a 'set it and forget it' appliance like a slow cooker and/or a rice cooker, but even if you buy them both, you're going to feel hungry all the time if you don't get protein from somewhere, and if you can't get it from beans, legumes, grains, tofu, or tempeh, and you don't have the time or energy to whip up an alternate source like seitan from scratch, I'm not sure how you can get protein on a consistent basis without reverting to soy-free meal replacement shakes or an omnivorous diet. I guess you could try eating more nut butter, but unless you're just eating it by the tablespoon, I can imagine most recipes that call for it involving one or more of your other no-nos. It's easy enough to get cheap sources of fat, fruits, and vegetables, but protein is going to be the real stumbling block with your restrictions.

So in lieu of being able to offer advice on what to eat, I'd just like to say: Please don't feel bad for doing what you need to do to survive. Don't make yourself go hungry out of guilt! Maybe there will come a day when you can pursue ethical veganism in earnest, but based on your other dietary restrictions, I just don't think now is that time. I'm sorry things are so difficult for you right now and am rooting for you from afar!
posted by amnesia and magnets at 7:34 AM on May 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

Cost-cutting, calorie and protein-raising possibilities:

Nutritional yeast
Frozen vegetables
Peanut butter
Sunflower seeds
posted by metasarah at 8:05 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Everyone in our family has various food issues, so we cook at home a lot. I had a baby last year and from past experience hubby knew that I would not have time to cook as much as we would like/need. What to do? He put up an ad on Craigslist asking for a cook. Got a bunch of responses, whittled it down to 3 or 4 that looked to be sincerely interested, and emailed with them about what our specific needs would be (ie help us plan a menu, and specific types of food we like/dislike). He ended up interviewing two; someone who had professional restaurant experience, and someone who is doing a career-change and so is in culinary school. The culinary student won out by being a little bit more flexible.

So we agreed on a rate, and with paying her rate and the price of the groceries it actually comes out to less than what we would be paying for in groceries if we were cooking ourselves. The reason is because the menu is planned and there are no impromptu visits to the grocery store, and no impulse buys. There's always food in the house so we're like "stop and get takeout? naw, we have all that food at home, let's just eat at home".

We could further simplify our lives by having her do the grocery shopping but we opted to do that ourselves in order to keep a tighter control on food costs (ie, we will buy the generic of something, or leave an ingredient out altogether if its extravagantly expensive).

Best decision we've made in a long while.
posted by vignettist at 8:05 AM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

can you eat amaranth and/or quinoa? you okay with/tried goats or sheeps milk products? feta? halloumi? how bout cheaper thingies to throw into smoothies like pumpkin or sunflower seeds?

totally for adding oils to your menu if you need more calories.

man, all i can think of is home cooking as an answer to this dilemma. buy in bulk and freeze the shit out of whatever grub you whip up.

if cooking is such agony for you, is recruiting some buddies to come over and doing a big batch of stuff to freeze a really weird idea?
posted by speakeasy at 8:48 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Two of the things we spend lots of money on are greens and berries - and the greens almost ALWAYS go bad before hubby and I eat them. So we've been gardening! You can save money on lettuce and spinach and eat TONS of it if you have a wee plot of land.

Throw in a cherry tomato plant and maybe a couple of strawberry plants: you got yourself a pretty solid salad base, all summer, for a few bucks.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:58 AM on May 12, 2016

Are you buying "organic"? I would strongly recommend not bothering. Organic does not mean pesticide-free and it does not mean "healthier." It is marketing nonsense.

3rd "frozen." Find a friend with a Costco membership, buy giant sacks of frozen fruit and veg. I actually prefer a great deal of this to "fresh" -- once I discovered that Costco's frozen broccoli is good frozen broccoli instead of woody stem broccoli like Green Giant's, I gave up on buying the wilty "fresh" heads of the stuff and just go with the Costco frozen -- if I want "raw" in a salad or something I just thaw it and it comes out as kind of 'very lightly steamed.' Out-of-season fruit is gross and overpriced; frozen is often preferable for me.

I've spent this year dealing with a severe vitamin b12 deficiency -- please mind how you go; it is no joke and a long recovery -- Costco's b12 supplements are very cheap; roughly $10/yr.

The other nice thing about the freezer full of fruit and veg is that it is stupid-easy to feed oneself. Dump into container, nuke with a tbsp of water, season and eat; if fruit, dump into container, eat. It's also extra-easy to make smoothies and blended soups and so on with the prep work of peeling/slicing/etc all done for you.

Also, cheap hardy veg is your friend. Carrots, cabbage, and onions are all quite tasty even if you just shove them in the oven and don't go to much other fuss.

Does your area have anything like a "good food box" program -- sort of like a CSA for the low-income? Here, anybody can sign up for various sizes of boxes of produce once a month from a local non-profit; you can be fairly specific -- there's S/M/L, a "local and organic" box, a "fruit bag," etc -- and it is a better deal than the supermarket and the quality is on par if not better sometimes/depending on your supermarket. See what resources are being flogged to the poor in your town; there may be something better than a food bank joylessly doling out Kraft Dinner. (In the case of the "good food box" buying through them helps support the program; it's not like using a food bank where you are using charity -- the GFB wants as many customers as it can get.)
posted by kmennie at 8:59 AM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some ideas:

1) Folks have been mentioning peanut butter, but it sounds to me as if what you really need is peanut sauce. Make some in a blender (or buy a jar of premade sauce you like, and stretch it with peanut butter + oil + salt). Drizzle it on roasted vegetables, or raw ones, or whatever you're eating.

2) How are you with chickpeas? They're easier to digest than other legumes, and these days it's easy to find good hummus (or you could make your own).

3) What non-food activities seem like a treat to you? A new song to listen to? A park to visit? It will be easier to stop buying those olives if you have another way to distract yourself from stress.
posted by yarntheory at 9:52 AM on May 12, 2016

It seems like a pretty narrow path you're walking: the stuff you can't eat, the stuff you won't eat, the time you're willing to spend cooking, the money you're able to spend for convenience … something has to give. Here's hoping your body relaxes on the soy/starch front or your tolerance/time for cooking increases….

Your description of how starchy foods makes you feel sounds a lot like how I feel if I eat nothing but carbohydrates - dumb question, but your body responds the same way when you have a balance of starches and fats/proteins for satiety and caloric density?

Nthing the cheaper stores and bulk produce - I love the Chinese markets near me where I can get large bags of bok choy for a few dollars - microwaved/steamed/grilled with toasted sesame oil, chili oil, and roasted peanuts, and it's 3-4 satisfying (for me), cheap meals that take only a few minutes to make. Thai curry paste (check the ingredients for shrimp), cheap vegetables, and nuts simmered with coconut milk are pretty good on steamed cabbage/zucchini and relatively inexpensive.

Regardless of what food options you find, it sounds like it won't matter if you can't get impulse/therapy spending under control, and the two are separate problems (though one does exacerbate the other). If willpower alone isn't working, artificial constraints can sometimes help - pay only in cash from an allocated bundle, set up an entertainment/food/therapy debit card with only your budgeted amount of money in it, etc.
posted by verschollen at 9:57 AM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I will not suggest meat, but will Nth that maybe you need to at least temporarily lighten up on being vegan. If you tolerate cheese and other dairy well, that will open some doors.

Additionally, I will suggest you consider trying digestive enzymes to help you tolerate starchy foods better. You can buy them without a prescription from places like GNC. If it helps, you can also talk to a doctor about getting a prescription.

Last, I will note that both olives and chocolate have medicinal uses. Consider the possibility that you have some unidentified medical issue. I say this because it was just not possible to get my high food expenses under control until I had a proper diagnosis and an effective treatment plan. If you are craving expensive food items due to their medicinal effect on you, personal discipline is unlikely to work. You will find yourself falling apart if you manage to forego those foods or you just will keep caving to the craving because you just cannot function without them. This was how it was for me until the underlying health issues got better. And then my food budget plummeted over a short period of time with no effort.
posted by Michele in California at 11:12 AM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

A non dietary tack. You mention your "food budget." I've had much more control over the financial end of this since I stopped thinking of it as a "food budget" and broke it out into visible categories. Now it's

Dining Out - recreational, for fun, eating out because I feel like it.
Meals Away from Home - the lunch I grab at work because I was too lazy to pack a lunch, meals while traveling, coffee on a morning commute, etc.
Groceries - food bought at a grocery store or other food market to be cooked and eaten at home.
Household - if it's not edible, it doesn't go under 'grocery' - sponges, soap, shampoo, etc should not be in the 'grocery' line because that confuses matters.

So, now that I do this I can really see where the money is going, then set a realistic budget that meets my goals and stick to it. For instance, if 'Dining Out' is reaching astronomical heights, suddenly it does not seem so awful to spend an extra $50-100 on food to be eaten at home - like good quality meats or organics - because if I eat those meals at home it still represents a drop from eating those 3, 4 or whatever meals out. So, as with all budget questions, it may help to first get a grip on where the cash is actually going. You may find there are certain things you're spending a lot on that bring you little value, and then you can transfer it to stuff you do like.

But I also want to second seeing a nutriotionist. You have a lot of rules you're trying to follow, and maybe some of them aren't really the best thing for your body. At its extremes, rule following can get to be a miserable obsession.
posted by Miko at 1:01 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

While I'm not vegan, my partner and I eat a lot of nuts and olives and I buy them in bulk at Costco for way less that I can find them elsewhere. My Costco has 3lb bags of raw nuts as well as roasted, and at least 3 types of olives in very large jars. Worth checking out if it's in your area. Mine also has big jars of organic coconut oil, hemp oil, avocado oil, and olive oil (adding more oils to your diet really helps with meeting calorie needs). They also have great veggies and vegan prepared foods like hummus, seaweed salad, etc. You should be able to do a walk-through trial or go with a friend before buying a membership.
posted by quince at 1:09 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think this question is maybe less about food and more about stress and the ongoing crisis you're dealing with. Are buying things and eating things some of your usual outlets for emotional distress or stress? If so, you need support for your stress that isn't the outlet of buying things and isn't the outlet of eating things. I also wonder if your problems with carbohydrates are medical? Have you been to a doctor about the digestive issues you're having? Or did they coincide with the onset of this stressful period of your life?

This sounds really tough. If the idea that you need a different outlet/support for the stress in your life rings true, is therapy a possibility?

Leaving that aside, I second the suggestion of digestive enzymes. They've helped me be able to eat beans again and eventually I didn't need the enzymes anymore as my gut healed.

I gently second the idea of eating meat and/or dairy again. Even without the extenuating circumstances, your diet is too limited for optimum health without spending crazy amounts of money AND doing a lot of home cooking.

Other ideas: Could you phone a friend or go for a walk instead of going to the grocery store? Any form of exercise instead of going shopping? How about spending some time in nature? Any parks nearby?
posted by purple_bird at 3:01 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

You'll drink dandelion green & weed smoothies? Vegan meal replacement powders for smoothies and shakes could be a good idea - they're filling and handy, and will get your calories up. Then you needn't fill up on the expensive foods because you're starving, you can eat them for savoring and enjoyment.

Talk to someone at the health food store to see if any brands might accommodate your sensitivity to starches, and get some single-serving packets to try out. Also nthing the getting some digestive enzymes to help with the sensitivity issue... the cost will be offset by your ability to return to consuming uber-cheap legumes and pulses.
posted by lizbunny at 3:27 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

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