Trying to get budget-conscious on a vegan, gluten-free Menu Plan Monday

Time for a budget overhaul! The main thing I spend money on is food, so that’s the area where I’m focusing my efforts first. First step is no more eating out. This is a tough one since I was already basically down to eating out only for convenience (like when I’m out all day and have to get something to keep me fueled) rather than for entertainment. So I need to start planning ahead better and making food to pack up and take with me.

Roasted asparagus with Meyer lemon (It turned out that asparagus was not actually affordable this week, but it's a pretty picture so I thought I'd leave it!

Second step is to be budget conscious in how I shop and cook. The food I prepare tends to be on the cheaper side anyways, since it’s all bulk beans and grains for the most part, but I also never hesitated to buy pricey things like tempeh bacon, artichoke hearts, avocados, soy cheese, and organic, sprouted tofu. My amazing food coop, Rainbow Grocery, used to offer a 20%-off coupon every other month. I would wait to do my big shopping trip until it was a coupon month, and then I would stock up. I love Rainbow for its huge bulk sections of rices, beans, grains, GF flours, oils, nuts, and so on. But now that I don’t have that huge discount I’m a bit terrified to go back there. All the produce they carry is organic, which is awesome, but as part of my budget efforts I’d like to buy non-organic produce from the Clean 15. Conventional onions, for example, are $.39/lb at my local corner market, and I don’t think they’re ever under $1/lb (for organic onions) at Rainbow. Salsa at Rainbow costs around $4-5/jar, as opposed to $1/jar at Trader Joe’s. Bulk tofu is mere cents/lb at the Asian groceries on Clement St., vs. $3-4 for 12 oz. of Wildwood sprouted organic. The Indian markets in Berkeley have incredible deals on spices I use large amounts of (like mustard and cumin seeds) as well as dirt-cheap dried lentils and other dals.

But are you noticing a pattern here? Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry bulk grains, the Asian markets don’t carry salsa, and driving to Berkeley for spices is a little ridiculous. When I shop at Rainbow I can get everything in one trip. The store is worker-owned, I can get almost everything in bulk to reduce the amount of packaging I require (I’m lookin’ at you, Trader Joe’s, with your planet-killing packaging excess!), and when I buy organic and local produce I have at least a bit more assurance that the people who grew and harvested my food were well treated and not exposed to pesticides than I do when I shop at, say, Safeway. But something has to give…

While thinking about budget-conscious meal planning, I realized I didn’t really have any idea of what a reasonable food budget was. Because I’ve been doing most of my shopping in these giant, bi-monthly grocery trips (and then getting my produce from my CSA box and the farmer’s market) I have no idea what I spend per week on food. So I decided to ask the government for some advice. According the the USDA, a single-person family will spend $41.28/week, or 165.12/month on a “thrifty” food plan (the other tiers are low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal). So my goal with this week’s menu was to end up with a shopping list that cost under $41.28. (Things get complicated, of course, because I’m out of olive oil and soy sauce and a few other staples, so I need to refill those bottles which I’m sure will go over my budget but of course will also last me far longer than a week.) I decided to try shopping at Safeway and buying conventional (non-organic) produce, just to see how that turned out. They didn’t have a bunch of things on my list, like parsnips or amaranth. I ended up only getting the right ingredients to make two complete meals from my plan. Sigh. I still need to go to Rainbow.

And my grand total? $50.61. Ouch. Only $28.96 of that was stuff from my list, plus tortillas and tofu, but I bought plastic wrap, ketchup, and kitty litter (all in large quantities) and there I went, zooming over budget. I want to say those extras don’t count, but the truth is I’m always out of something that needs to be replaced, so every week there will be something I need beyond my meal plan list. So now I’m aiming for $165.12 for the month. Wish me luck! (How the heck do people eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and stay on budget? Greens are $2/bunch, even non-organic at Safeway. If you know about this, please let me know.)

Cheryl, the author of Gluten Free Goodness and organizer of the Gluten-Free Menu Swap, is hosting the swap this week with the theme of soups. I know soup is the most budget-conscious meal you can make, but I just don’t really like it… I make these big pots of soup and they end up either rotting in the fridge or going neglected in the freezer because I never remember to defrost them in advance. Maybe the swap will inspire me to get my soup act together for next week!

Many more menu plans from around the web can be found at OrgJunkie, so check there for inspiration as well!

Vegan Spanish omelette/tortilla
Dandelion greens with balsamic and almonds

Yam, black bean, and amaranth burritos (defrost GF tortillas, make 1/2 recipe only)
Mustard greens

Creamy (vegan) millet and kale salad (soak cashews)
Sweet potato fries withΒ vegan aioli

Cannellini and chard risotto (defrost 1.5 cup stock)
Roasted broccoli with lemon zest and pine nuts

Buckwheat and black kale with brussels sprouts

Chesapeake tempeh cakes (use GF waffles in place of panko bread crumbs)
Roast asparagus with lemon (if cheap) or green beans

Pinto bean corn cake fritter things with salsa (defrost cranberry beans)

Make turnip pickles

Shopping list: 5 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, buckwheat, 2 bunches of kale, 2 parsnips, 1 bunch chard, 2 red onions, 1 small beet, romaine, amaranth (1/2 cup), 2 large sweet potatoes, avocado if cheap, green vegetable (cheap and in season), dandelion greens, millet (1/2 cup), cashews (1/2 cup), GF waffles, 1 can cannellini beans, 3 lemons, broccoli, asparagus (if cheap), onions if under $.39/lb, fruit

13 comments on “Trying to get budget-conscious on a vegan, gluten-free Menu Plan Monday

  1. I hear you and I feel you. I also realized I needed to cut back on the food expenses we have month to month. Most of my meals are rice/beans/lentils/grains based, but my husband is totally cut from the meat-and-potatoes-each-meal cloth. Plus, I like lots of vegetables on my plate, too, so that means expensive greens and stuff. I try to go local and in season as much as possible, but even local vegetables aren’t always the cheapest.

    One thing that has been working for me is winter squash – it runs about 50 cents/LB at my grocery store (and I often shop at Whole Foods) or even cheaper when I can get it before the farmers market closes. As long as you can get it cheap, it’s good for a lot of different things, at least in my book… roasted, in risotto, in pasta, in grain salads, in soups (although you said you don’t like those), and I often puree it with a bit of olive oil and some brown sugar, salt and pepper. Makes a fabulous sauce for just about anything, and pretty delish by itself, too!

    The other thing I’m going to try doing is being a little more flexible with my planned dishes each week, so if I go to the store and they have, for instance, bok choy on deep discount… I’ll buy enough bok choy for at least one or two meals that week, and then figure out what to do with it when I get home. I don’t exactly like this plan (I like to plan recipes out, especially because of the blog) but I figure it’s just a different way of cooking, you know? It might even be fun to try and wing it once in a while. Not everything has to taste straight off a five-star menu (or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself!)

    Sorry for the never-ending comment. But you really sparked my interest today!

    • scrumptious says:

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, Carter. The winter squash tip is a great idea. Like you, I really don’t feel healthy if my meals aren’t mostly vegetables, but like you said, greens can be really pricey! I’m inspired to include lots of squash in my menu next week.

      You mention about seeing what is discounted, produce-wise – does this happen even at Whole Foods? It never seems at Rainbow (my food coop) like anything is ever deeply discounted. There were definitely some discounts at Safeway last night that I probably could have taken better advantage of if I hadn’t been shopping at 1 in the morning. I only had the mental energy to follow my list, not to get creative. I did stock up on brussels sprouts at 99 cents/lb, but of course brassicas like broccoli and brussels sprouts are pretty bad for pesticides so I feel guilty buying them non-organic…

      It sounds like you and I are on exactly the same page when it comes to making meals. I rarely wing it because I like my dishes to be five-star menu items, too! Maybe you and I can be budget-buddies – I have definitely gotten so much help from fellow bloggers on cooking more casually (previously not because of finance but because it was taking me 2+ hours every night to make dinner), and I know we’re up to the challenge of exploring a new way of planning, shopping, and preparing food!

  2. I wish I could get us down to $165 a week. But when I think that son was on $500/mth worth of prescription drugs 5 years ago, our food budget doesn’t seem so bad. Our food is medicine. Your menus are always inspiring even when you are on a budget.

    • scrumptious says:

      Wendy, it is super moving and inspiring to hear how a change in diet has healed your son so dramatically. I completely agree with you that food is medicine (which is part of why I’m so nervous to switch from organic to conventional produce) and it has always been my financial priority. We’ll see how well I do on this new challenge… it’s so great to know all my blog friends will be with me for the journey. πŸ™‚

  3. cheryl says:

    Hi Scrumptious–sorry to hear about the shock, if it makes you feel better I think everyone experiences that at one point or another in their lives. The millet and kale salad sounds delish!

  4. I seriously do not know how to get our food budget lower. I only buy (conventional) produce in season, everything is vegetarian, mostly based on beans and grains. I am cooking for six people, but it has to be gluten-free, vegetarian, and mostly dairy-free.

    I’ve got to get back on the MPM plan, it’s not good around here!

    • scrumptious says:

      Argh, I totally hear you, Deb. It’s comforting to know other people are working out the same problem. It’s kind of ridiculous how much more expensive it is to eat vegetarian and allergen-free! Come back to the MPM fold… it really does help with the budgeting! (Plus I miss you in the menu crew!)

  5. We are in the same boat as you — really needing to fit into a budget, spending too much money on food, but wanting to eat healthy & needing to as my son is intolerant to dairy and soy. We are just trying to reintroduce wheat, but we shall see.

    Whole Foods does sometimes have good deals on produce. I can’t wait till our local farmers markets start up again in the spring.

    • scrumptious says:

      Thanks for commenting, Kristen! It is such a comfort to hear from other people who are working on their food budgets, too. I’m also yearning for my farmer’s market to come back (there are a bunch still happening in the city, but the one by my house doesn’t start up again til April) but I think I end up spending more on produce there than anywhere else! I don’t know if it’s actually more expensive, or if I tend to buy different/more stuff because I get attracted by shiny exciting things like poblano peppers and dry-farm tomatoes that I normally wouldn’t buy. Now that I’m really trying to stick to a budget, I’ll have to do a little farmer’s market comparison shopping. Of course there’s no comparison in terms of local food grown by small independent farmers, pretty much all without pesticides. That’s hands down the best there is. But I may have to sacrifice my food principles for a while!

  6. Sandra says:

    Scrumptious, I feel your pain! My husband and I have decided we really need to tackle the credit cards this year (we racked up a crazy amount with house renovations).

    Except for some items that they don’t carry, I shop at the Food Lion. I shop the specials and incorporate them into menus for the next week. For example, I got 10 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes for 3.99 this week so we will be eating potatoes next week.

    It may make you a little crazy, but frozen veggies such as spinach and corn can be cheaper than fresh during the winter.

    And my husband, when he is feeling broke, never fails to mention beans and rice or, for variety, rice and beans. πŸ™‚

    Why Oh Why can’t good healthy food be cheaper than junk????

    • scrumptious says:

      Right, Sandra??? Why is chicken pennies per pound while produce is sky high? I mean, we all know the reasons, but it still makes me cranky! I just today discovered FoodsCo, right around the corner from my natural foods coop. It sounds like your Food Lion – I think I’m in love!

      And rice and beans really are the best. I am finally motivating to learn to cook beans from scratch rather than relying on canned ones. I’m so scared of dried beans for some reason, but it’s time to bite the bullet!

  7. I too feel your pain! We are trying to cut our grocery budget also but it is very hard. We eat vegetarian, try to eat as much organic as possible, and eat little processed foods. I am bad at using coupons and have the same problem with going to multiple stores. I am trying to figure out the best way for us too. I will be checking in with you on your journey too!

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