We’ve all been there before: long hours at work can leave you feeling tempted to just pick up a quick and easy pre-made dinner on the way home. Beyond that, those of us who live with chronic illness (both physical and mental) or physical disability might find it difficult to find the energy to cook for ourselves every day.
No matter what your reasons for opting to eat out are, buying your meals even just a few times a week can deplete your bank account pretty quickly. But by cooking at home with whole foods, plant-based ingredients, you can not only make the filling meals you love but also save money in the long run. We picked the five meals below based on affordability, the satiation factor, the time and effort it takes to make them, whether or not they can be made ahead of time, and the accessibility of ingredients.
Ingredients to Use
Being on a budget means being mindful of what you buy when you go to the grocery store. Luckily, you don’t have to sacrifice on flavor or fulfillment. You can get satisfying ingredients even when money is tight because some of the cheapest ingredients you can buy are plant-based (and healthy!). Stock up on affordable ingredients like lentils, beans, rice (or grains that can substitute for rice, like barley), potatoes, frozen vegetables, and tofu. When making this list, we kept in mind whether or not the ingredients are accessible and how to make the best of a limited selection of items. If you keep these ingredients stocked, you should be able to make any one of the dishes on this list.
For more tips and guides on what to buy, read How to Manage a Voracious Vegan Appetite on a Tight Budget, 10 of the Healthiest Foods to Eat that Cost Just Under $1 Per Serving, How to Eat a Healthy Whole Foods, Plant-Based Diet on $50 Per Week, and How I Maintain a Very Humble (Low) Budget Eating Vegan, Without Any Sacrifice.
Your average curry will typically cost you $10-$12 per dish with a side of rice. But making your own is affordable and most dishes won’t take you more than 30 minutes to make. Make curries with affordable ingredients like potatoes, lentils and split peas, and beans and then throw in some tofu and vegetables that are seasonal, on sale, or frozen to add extra nutrients. Buying in-season or frozen vegetables is a good way to save money — for example, have you ever noticed how a crown of broccoli costs more in summer than it does in fall and winter? Learning which vegetables are in season is just one more easy hack to keeping money in your bank account. And if you’re really tight on money, stretch your curry even more by adding starchy foods like potatoes or sweet potatoes.
If you can, buy your beans or lentils dry in bags or from the bulk section of your grocery store. A bag might cost you more than the canned variety, but it yields more cooked food, so you end up saving the money you would spend on another can of beans. Plus, the cooked legumes can be frozen and used to make other affordable foods! The same applies to rice — stock up, cook, and then freeze what you’re not serving your curry (or use the leftover to make fried rice). Last, but not least, if you live near an Indian grocery store, stock up on spices like cumin, coriander, whole peppercorns, and cloves, which you can often find cheaper than in basic grocery stores. But if you don’t, curry powder will do just fine.
For recipes, we recommend this Spinach and Chickpea Curry (swap fresh spinach with frozen to save money), this Red Lentil Coconut Curry, and this Super Simple Potato Curry. Each recipe takes minimal prep work and cooks in just 20 minutes. Use canned beans and frozen vegetables, if that makes prep work easier for you.
Although delicious, most veggie burgers from restaurants will cost you about $10 each. Boxed, frozen varieties of burgers and veggie meatballs, though a better deal and convenient for when you’re low on energy, can also cost you in the long run if you like to have burgers for dinner every week. Luckily, a lot of veggie burgers and meatballs are made with some of the cheapest ingredients like beans and lentils. Burgers and veggie meatballs are a good use of the beans and lentils set aside. Plus, if you can double (or triple) a recipe and freeze the leftover veggies for later. Place the burgers in a long container in a single layer. If you have enough for more than one layer of burgers, separate them using a sheet of parchment paper, so they don’t stick together. Veggie meatballs can be stored in a food storage bag — just be sure to squeeze out all the air, to prevent freezer burn!
You might see “chia eggs” listed in the ingredients list of a lot of recipes. If chia seeds are out of your price range, buy flax seeds instead. They are more affordable but can act as a binder, too. Swap one chia “egg” (1 tablespoon chia seeds with 3 tablespoons water) for one flax “egg” (1 tablespoons ground flax seeds plus 3 tablespoons water, set for 15 minutes in the fridge). Read Tricks for Making Veggie Burgers That Won’t Fall Apart for more burger-making tips.
For recipes, try this Simple Black Bean Burgers, these Cauliflower Lentil Burgers, and these Oil-Free Kidney Bean Burgers. For veggie meatballs try these BBQ Lentil Balls, these Herbed Chickpea Meatballs, or these Easy Potato Lentil Meatballs. Or, if you don’t have a food processor or the ability to mash up the chickpeas, then try these BBQ Chickpea Sliders.
How silly is it that tofu is cheap, but most places will charge you $10 a pop for a plate of tofu scramble with toast? If you’re used to scrambling eggs for breakfast or if you like something hearty first thing in the morning, then a tofu scramble is a fantastic option. Just one package can be stretched into nearly a week’s worth of meals when you add plenty of veggies and starchy foods like potatoes and sweet potatoes (and if you serve it with a side of toast!).
Here’s another pro-tip: leftover tofu scramble might not freeze well, but you can re-appropriate it into some of the other dishes on this list. Throw it into your mixture for taco or burrito fillings, mix it into your casserole, or just toss it into a skillet with leftover rice and vegetables.
This Cheesy Tofu Scramble is the perfect base for veggies. If you like things spicier, try this Harissa Tofu Scramble or these Tofu “Huevos” Rancheros. Mix leftover curry with tofu scrambles to make something like these Tandoori Tofu Scramble Tacos. Or, make a week’s worth of meals and make this Sweet Potato and Tofu Scramble Breakfast Burrito.
Casseroles can be for more than just feeding a crowd — when you use the right ingredients, you can make a week’s worth of dinners for yourself. Not only do you save money from buying fewer ingredients when you go grocery shopping, you also save time because all you need to do is reheat a portion! Casseroles centered around rice, beans, pasta, and potatoes are all wonderful options for budget-friendly meals. Just be sure that when you make them, you include vegetables either in the casserole or serve them on the side (frozen or low-sodium veggies from a BPA-free can are fine as well).
This Oil-Free Brown Rice Casserole is great for weeknight dinners — feel free to swap the veggies listed for whatever you have in your fridge or freezer. For another rice-based option, try this Easy Cheesy Broccoli Brown Rice Bake. This Spinach and Bean Chipotle Casserole combines canned beans with bulgur and spinach for a filling, protein-packed dinner and this Mexican Pasta Bake shows you how creative you can get with just pasta, beans, corn, and leftover chips.
When you’re eating out, tacos and burritos might seem like an affordable option, but $8-10 for a single meal can add up more than you would think in the long run. And while vegan tacos and burritos for cheap at Taco Bell, it’s unfortunately not the cheapest option. Luckily, the homemade versions are cheap and easy to make! Rice, beans, and lentils are all affordable options for fillings, as is canned jackfruit.
One of my personal favorite budget-friendly dinners are simple beans and brown rice tacos. I make these whenever I have leftover rice and beans from batch cooking. I start by adding half chopped onion (brown, red, Viadella, or even shallots all work) to a skillet with water (use oil if you like) until translucent. Then, I add the beans and rice and season with garlic powder and homemade sazon or adobo seasoning, for added flavor. For tortillas, look for authentic Mexican tortillas made from corn, lime, and water, as these are cheaper and less processed than many commercial varieties. These can often be found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Then, I top it all with salsa from a jar. Tomatoes can be expensive, but Trader Joe’s has a great no-salt added salsa for under $3. I skip the guac, unless avocados are on sale.
These High-Protein Lentil and Split Pea Tacos are easy to throw together and filling. Pick up a pack of cubed butternut squash (or use sweet potatoes, which are easier to cut) to make these Chili Lime Butternut Squash Tacos. And the filling for these Curried Rice and Vegetable Tacos requires just one pot, making it yet another easy option.
So there you have it! What are some of your favorite money-saving meals? Let us know in the comments!
If you’re interested in finding more scrumptious vegan recipes, then we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 8,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to ten new recipes per day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Red Lentil Coconut Curry