Cheaper to be veg?
April 17, 2006 4:40 PM   Subscribe

On balance, can I save money by moving to a vegetarian diet?

I'm facing some tough times ahead, and have been considering shifting my diet towards vegetarianism. I don't have anything against meat, it just seems too expensive at the moment, and I think I'll reserve it for special occasions. I love vegetarian food, I just have to learn how to cook it!

In any case, I've heard some vegetarians say that it isn't really cheaper, because you have to eat more food. Is this true? For comparison, I live in Australia, where meat is no-where near as expensive as in the UK or Europe - probably closer to the US in cost. Any tips on potential pitfalls to avoid?
posted by Jimbob to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think that the cost of your diet depends on what you eat, not whether it includes meat and animal products. There are a lot of expensive non-animal products (e.g. mushrooms per weight), and a lot of cheap animal products (e.g. chicken). I don't think it's possible to categorically say that one or the other is cheaper. And that's leaving entirely aside the entire question of what you mean by "vegetarian" i.e. what exactly you're considering cutting out of your diet.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:45 PM on April 17, 2006

It's really possible. I'm vegan and I can healthily live on about 12 bucks a week. All you need to do is learn how to cook, find the right stores and go from there.

Typically you can get blocks of tofu from Asian markets for about 25 cents each.

But yes, it is a matter of discipline and dietary choices.
posted by cloeburner at 4:48 PM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: If you're going for a high protein-to-money ratio, you can't beat lentils.

Then again, they're lentils. If you want yuppie-veggie food — exotic mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, fucking quinoa — you'll wind up paying more.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:49 PM on April 17, 2006

Response by poster: And that's leaving entirely aside the entire question of what you mean by "vegetarian" i.e. what exactly you're considering cutting out of your diet.

Say, I'm leaving all meat out of my diet, for 5 days of the week, and having meat on the weekend. Which is the way a lot of people in the world live anyway - meat every day is a relatively modern invention. I plan to increase my use of grains, legumes, and vegetables. For instance, instead of cooking a pasta sauce with meat, I'll cook a pasta sauce based more on vegetables. Intead of cooking a steak, I'll make lentil burgers. I am, of course, to continue to use dairy products.
posted by Jimbob at 4:51 PM on April 17, 2006

It's hard to answer this question without knowing what your eating habits are right now. Do you eat bacon every morning? A piece of meat with dinner? Ham sandwich for lunch? Will a vegetarian diet be cheaper? Maybe, maybe not.

Dried beans, lentils, etc. are inexpensive sources of protein. Maybe you eat a large serving of lentil stew, or even two servings. You've eaten more food, but lentils cost about 1/5 the price of beef. Cheese tends to be pretty expensive, almost the same cost per unit weight as meat.

I'd suggest checking out Indian vegetarian cookbooks. Madhur Jaffrey's books are excellent.
posted by luneray at 4:53 PM on April 17, 2006

As a vegetarian, I think the only real answer to this question is "it depends". Meat is expensive, but then so is cheese (for example), and I really like cheese.

I think a vegetarian diet can be cheaper, but only if you stick to the basics and learn how to cook them -- but then, perhaps that's true if you still eat meat too. If you start stocking up on expensive, rich foods, or buying that expensive fake meat stuff, then you'll probably end up out of pocket overall.

Basically, meat is an expensive thing, but plenty of things that aren't meat are also expensive. If you want to eat cheaply, buy cheap things -- which really just means simple ingredients.
posted by reklaw at 4:55 PM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: I've made the shift you describe, and I do indeed save money. I live mainly off of pasta, beans, rice, cheap veggies (carrots, peppers, onions, etc.) for dinners, with salads and fruits for lunch, and oatmeal for breakfast.

Like nebulawindphone says, yuppie-veggie food is frickin' expensive and not worth it if you are switching for money reasons.
posted by Loto at 4:55 PM on April 17, 2006

Oh, also, I'd say find a friend with a membership to one of those bulk stores (Sam's Club, etc..) and load up on your basics there. I bought a 30 pound bag of rice for 10 bucks, which is the basis for most of my meals. Oatmeal also last for a while.
posted by Loto at 5:01 PM on April 17, 2006

Response by poster: Lots of good answers here. I don't really intend on buying "fake meat" at all - that doesn't interest me (particularly because if I really want something that looks like meat, I'll still buy meat). And I don't intend on buying too many yuppie ingredients either, although I am big on spices, although I guess that's unavoidable if you like indian food.
posted by Jimbob at 5:01 PM on April 17, 2006

If health is a concern beware of loading up on simple carbs after switching to a veg diet. I think that becoming a vegetarian and being focused on eating a whole foods diet is essential.
posted by flummox at 5:15 PM on April 17, 2006

I think it's been said before on mefi, but: Cheap, Fast, Healthy, Tasty-- choose three out of the four. For example, some of the cheapest cuts of meat are delicious if you've got the time to stew them half the day. A whole chicken can cost less than US$5 and provide several meals plus several quarts of chicken stock. But if you just want to get by, it's tough to beat rice and beans for cost per serving.
posted by gwint at 5:40 PM on April 17, 2006

If you stick with real food, as opposed to fake meat food, you can easily save money and eat healthier too. Watch the fats. One temptation is to load up on cheese to replace the meats and that can be worse for you. Quinoa and the like can be had reasonably if you look. Don't deny yourself some flavors and treats, otherwise you may find yourself hating your new diet. Everything in moderation and balance your diet and you will be happier in the end and save money too.
posted by caddis at 5:44 PM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: I lived happily for three years (1996-98, Melbourne, Australia) on a total budget of $100/week: $50 rent, $15 bills, $20 food, $15 other. I was mostly vegetarian because meat was more expensive.

Brown rice is very cheap, very filling, and makes a good base for any cheap meal.

You can make a really good dal with green lentils, onion, garlic, carrot and pumpkin (buy your spices in bulk). Pumpkins are ridiculously easy to grow yourself and keep for a very long time. Zucchini is even easier. Silver beet is an excellent cut-and-come-again crop that will keep you in greens for months off very few plants.

Mung beans are cheap and easy to sprout, and mung bean sprouts work well in stir fries. Soy sauce will be your friend, so buy that in big bottles too.

Pumpkin and chickpea soup (chickpeas, pumpkin, onions, garlic, salt, pepper, garnish with home grown parsley) is good stuff.

Powdered milk is much cheaper than liquid milk, and saves you on refrigeration as well.

For your friends' and acquaintances' sake, be disciplined about soaking your lentils or beans overnight before cooking. 24-hour soaking with two changes of soak water is better. Used soak water is a useful liquid fertilizer.

On preview: If you acquire a pressure cooker, you can get pretty damn close to cheap + fast + healthy + tasty even for dals and soups. Stir-fries can be all four without even trying too hard.
posted by flabdablet at 5:50 PM on April 17, 2006

Can I save money by moving to a vegetarian diet?

Yes. Animals eat a vegetarian diet to produce meat. The cost of the meat includes the cost of the vegetarian diet *plus* the additional costs of raising the animals. So meat is inherently more expensive than vegetables. A look at almost any restaurant menu will confirm this, as will a look at the typical diet in any impoverished nation.
posted by scottreynen at 6:02 PM on April 17, 2006

If Australia is anything like the US, then being vegetarian is unquestionably cheaper. At home (cooking for yourself) it is almost always cheaper. When eating at restaurants it is cheaper about 50% of the time.

There is actually a good underlying reason why veggies are cheaper. The amount of land and resources it takes to grow veggies is less than the amount of land and resources it takes to raise fodder for animals, and that's before you even begin to count the land and resources to raise the animals themselves.

However, cost is one thing, and satisfaction is quite another. Transitioning to vegetarianism requires a lot of thought and effort to ensure that meals are as satisfying and nutritious as they were before. Plan well.

Yes, I am vegetarian myself.
posted by splitpeasoup at 6:16 PM on April 17, 2006

I went mostly vegetarian about a year ago. I do buy eggs, tuna fish and salmon filets, and I eat "real" meat about once a week. I spend roughly €25 per week on groceries for myself.

I start out with a fruit shake most mornings. For lunch I usually eat some tuna or a couple of eggs with whole wheat crackers. For dinner, I often cook - carrots, broccoli, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, lentils, kidney beans, spinach. Add oats to soups to thicken them and get some extra whole grains (and good carbs). I snack on nuts, fruit or whole wheat crackers. Buy 100% fruit juice and dilute it with tap water (1 part juice, 3 parts water).

I'm eating more healthy now than ever before, and I'm spending much less on groceries, at the same time.
posted by syzygy at 6:18 PM on April 17, 2006

Hillbilly Housewife has a menu for feeding a family of four or $40/week. Her goals were nutrition and economy, without any explicit intent toward vegetarianism, yet the results were almost exclusively vegetarian (there's a pack of hot dogs and a can of tuna on the menu.)

This isn't a coincidence.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 6:37 PM on April 17, 2006

I don't know how much meat costs here in Sydney, because I'm a vegetarian from birth, but my meat eating girlfriend (who is now slowly but surely becoming vegetarian) frequently notes with surprise how much cheaper it is to go grocery shopping these days. Also if you go to any Indian grocery store, you can get these "ready to eat" packages that are really complete meals in themselves, taste good (often better than the stuff you get in Indian restaurants), and far cheaper than, say, a burger. Ask for MTR Ready to eat stuff (it costs around 2 AUD, in sydney).
posted by dhruva at 7:19 PM on April 17, 2006

A pound of dried beans at my local grocery store is 49 dents (U.S.). I've found that lentils are the easiest to deal with and the best tasting, to me. They also don't need to be soaked, so you can make a soup in about a half-hour.

If you have a crockpot, this recipe for sloppy lentils is excellent and easy. I can't vouch for this one, cause I've never tried it, but here's one without a crockpot.

Crockpots are great for getting dried beans ready, and one that's not programmable can be had for $10.

Things like rice and quinoa and beans are super-cheap if you can buy them from bulk bins.
posted by Airhen at 7:36 PM on April 17, 2006

I eat mostly vegetarian because I'm not very good at cooking meat and it doesn't save me any money because I can't eat a beans/ rice/ pasta based diet. Fresh fruit and vegetables are pretty expensive here in CA despite the fact that they grow them all here [/pet peeve]

I eat fish once or twice a week and eat veggie stirfrys, soups and stews or sandwiches/quesidillas/snacky things the rest of the time. I don't bulk my concoctions out with starchy food (besides potatoes) so I go through a lot of vegetables. I also eat a fair bit of cheese which is expensive. I probably average $40-75 a week on groceries in the winter, way less in the summer when I can pick stuff up cheap at farmers markets.
posted by fshgrl at 8:52 PM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: jimbob, the answer is definitely yes. While gram for gram the meat may be more dense with useful nutrition, gram for dollar the vegetables will absolutely win out. Meat from Safeway or Coles is going to be about $12 - $18 a kg., Lentils and all other vegies will be $2 - $5 a kg. There is no chance in hell that you're gonna more than double your intake of food as a vegetarian.

Of course, cheap mince (I pay ~$4/kg, (and for americans mince is ground beef)) can make a wide variety of good stuff, cheaply, and some meats dont require a lot for the flavour to go a long way eg bacon, but chops and steaks and roasts and fillets of fish are a lot more expensive than being a vegetarian.

You'd find that apart from the whole hinduism thing, a lot of indians are vegetarian due to poverty.
posted by wilful at 10:59 PM on April 17, 2006

This book looks good.
posted by JanetLand at 6:34 AM on April 18, 2006

For example, some of the cheapest cuts of meat are delicious if you've got the time to stew them half the day. - gwint

You can make time for this by tossing them in a slow-cooker on low in the morning. They'll be falling-apart tender by supper time. A slow cooker can be a great investment if you make a point to use it.
posted by raedyn at 7:42 AM on April 18, 2006

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