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vegetarians: how do you keep your grocery bill down?

We are trying to save $ on our grocery bills. We cook vegetarian about 99% of the time. I have a lot of time, so I cook and bake from scratch most of the time. I try to buy seasonal produce and support small local producers for milk, butter, eggs, bread and coffee beans. I'm a sucker for ethnic grocery stores. But we seem to spend so much! Any advice?

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  1. I think being vegetarian already should save a lot (even if you're supporting small, local producers). I think eating low on the food chain and avoiding packaged / premade products is the secret here (lots of rice, whole grains, and legumes), but it doesn't sound like you're buying a lot of packaged food to start with.

    The other thing is just to avoid waste - try to think of creative ways to use up leftover cooked food, as well as to use or preserve unused ingredients.

    In a lot of ways, the better question is why aren't other people spending a *larger* portion of their income on raw ingredients. Percentage-wise, from what I've heard, we spend less on food than people did years ago, partially because the industrial food system keeps costs low.

    If you enjoy baking, you could bake big batches of bread rather than buying it, and freeze it (slicing first, if you like).

    1 Reply
    1. From a vegetarian college student:

      Buy dried beans rather than canned. If you're a quinoa person, Costco recently started selling a 5lb bag of organic quinoa for about the same price as a 1lb package of the Red Mill version in grocery stores. Costco has gotten much better recently at stocking organic, local, and fair trade products and has many vegetarian-friendly options.

      Another option is to find ways to integrate tofu into your dishes. As a dense protein, it fills you up quickly, and at $2.50 for a pound of organic you get a lot for your money. Add in any number of sauces and veggies and you have a complete meal that can be different every time.

      1. Stop trying to support small local producers.

        Economies of scale is more than just economic theory, it's more often than not a fiscal windfall for the consumer.

        2 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          Agree. If cost is your concern, the smaller and more local you get, the more expensive it is. It is often less resource efficient than larger or distant (yes, even foreign) producers.

          Also, buy dry beans rather than canned, grow your own herbs (easier and higher yield than veggies), buy in bulk on sale and freeze (may need 2nd freezer), and make your own bread

          1. re: mrfood16

            the electric bill associated with a second freezer wiped out all the savings and more.
            i got rid of the freezer once i crunched the numbers.
            not to mention, that much of the food, like practically all the pasta dishes, really didn't taste that good after freezing.

        2. Avoid the faux soy processed meat replacements. They're often as expensive or even more expensive than real meat per pound. Tofu is economical, nutritious, and healthy.

          It's excellent that you have lots of time and like to cook and bake from scratch. You can learn how to make your own vegetarian protein sources like seitan easily. Once you have some basic spices in rotation you can cook ethnic very cheaply.

          The freezer is your best friend. Make large amounts of everything and freeze it for later. Consider baking your own bread. A loaf of my favorite at Whole Foods is over $5. I can make the same thing once I have all the ingredients for under a dollar. Buy in bulk. Compare the cost of packaged items over what's in bulk. You can even get a lot of organic items this way. It's much cheaper. Buy dried beans, legumes, and lentils instead of canned. Take care that the pantry moths don't destroy your food supply by keeping dried foods in the refrigerator or freezer if you can.

          Grow your own vegetables if you're able to and can them to get you through the winter. Eat simple food. Make entire meals around vegetables. Often you just need a little bit of seasoning and nothing fancy. Be wary of anything prepared, ready to go, and packaged up all nice and neat for you. You can even make your own gourmet vinegars for pennies.

          When you start with this way of thinking you'll see lots of opportunities to still eat well, but to do it for a fraction of what you're spending now. This seems to be a topic of interest these days and I plan to begin exploring it in detail on my vegetarian and vegan blog at http://thrivingvegetarian.com/blog/ta.... Good luck!

          1. Animal products are relatively expensive, especially local and organic. Reduce cheese and eggs and you'll also reduce your grocery bill and medical bill

            1. These are awesome suggestions; thank you! Here are what I'm going to do:

              - buy dried beans instead of canned. Continue to buy bulk grains. This basically means a monthly shop at whole foods. Oddly, plain, full fat yogurt is cheapest there, too. Buy good parmesan, but cut out lots of other cheese in our lives.
              - try to source as much produce as possible from asian markets first. Get tofu from there often as well. Local, organic smoked tofu is sublime, but not necessary weekly.
              - once we've returned from our winter break travels: plant herbs. We do not have garden space, alas, but can try to do tomatoes in pots on balcony this summer.
              - Stick to local producers for the gourmet essentials to allow some luxury in our lives. Local bakery's bread is far superior to mine/whole foods. Local coffee is pricy, but husband is willing to drink some cheaper beer. I've pretty much stopped drinking, so that saves some $. For the moment, I'm still gonna be prissy about the good, local small supplier eggs. But do not need the fancy local butter/milk (which isnt even organic, it just has really cute packaging).

              8 Replies
              1. re: relizabeth

                Your plan sounds great. A couple of other things you might want to look into if you haven't already:

                There's a pretty nice website by a lady named Annette Cottrell, called Sustainable Eats. http://www.sustainableeats.com . She's started her own group bulk produce buying program and gets amazing deals that way. If you're interested in doing anything like that, I'm sure she'd give you good advice. Even though co-ops and CSA's work on the same principle, if you have time to form your own buying group, you can save a lot by cutting out even those well-intentioned middle men.

                Another thing is to look into Azure Standard, a direct-delivery bulk natural foods service. If you live anywhere near any of their drop points, they can offer pretty decent savings for bulk purchases. Again, more savings if you can do group buys.

                If you're in the US, every year right around Christmas (so, right now) Gold Mine Natural Foods offers free shipping on orders over $50, and has sale prices on some things, too. Depending on where you live, their prices can be higher or lower than buying at local health food places or Whole Foods, but if you poke around the website, you can usually find some decent deals on bulk grains and legumes. They also offer giant bottles of Shoyu and things like that that might not be available at the store. These items become way too expensive when shipping is not free because they weigh so much, but this annual deal makes it worth a look.

                If you can buy and store really large bulk amounts -- like 20lb sacks --, it's worth talking to your local food co-op about special ordering them. I've found most co-ops will usually give at least a 5% discount to members special ordering in bulk. This is a good thing to do for organic root veg, grains and beans, and even cases of peanut butter and bottled juices, if the group buying is just not an option and you have room to store it all.

                And last, (again, if you have space) a freezer can make a big difference in food costs, either by letting you freeze a lot of veg and fruit in the summer or by letting you take advantage of places like Bithell Farms, which deliver 14lb cases of organic berries and other produce quarterly to various drop points around the country. Yes, you'll take a nutritional hit and some of what you save in food dollars you pay in electric bills and carbon footprint, but there's not as much loss in nutrition or waste of electricity as one might think.

                At the end of the day, it seems like pretty much everything you save in dollars, you'll spend in time and/or space and/or energy (even just the emotional energy of dealing with other people). Hope you find a balance that works for you and lets you keep eating well.

                1. re: relizabeth

                  It is worth looking at some of Whole Food's house brands for other items. Their size allows them more bargaining power for some things. For example, they are the cheapest place for soy milk, tofu and faux meats in my neighborhood. Even the "discount" grocer is more expensive. Granted, I live in Manhattan so rents distort grocery prices, but it's worth looking at items you buy frequently.

                  1. re: CloggieGirl

                    +1 on this. 365 items are usually quite reasonably priced, especially if you are buying organic stuff. I can get organic staples for cheaper at Whole Foods than anywhere else around here.

                    1. re: CloggieGirl

                      CloggieGirl and antennastoheaven:
                      i did a blind taste test of 4 different brands of soy milk with 4 different tasters, and the organic 365 brand original flavor was the clear winner.

                      also, their organic balsamic vinegar is superior to all the other brands i've tried.

                    2. re: relizabeth

                      Limit how much you waste. Plan your menus (or at least a rough idea) and decide what you're going to purchase.

                      Buy in bulk, but make sure you store it correctly. You don't want to have to toss something because it was stored properly.

                      I love cheese, but it was going bad before we could finish the different types. I keep Parmesan in the fridge at all times. Rinds get saved for soup. When bricks of mozzarella are on sale, I buy a whole one, shred it, freeze it for pizza, lasagna or whatever. With any other cheese, we rotate. I keep only one open package of "different" cheese in the fridge. Right now it's feta. But I've rotated between Brie, Camembert, Gouda, asiago...

                      1. re: relizabeth

                        Here's a cool time-saving tip I learned. After you soak dried beans overnight, you can freeze them to cook later. Just portion the soaked beans into ziplock bags and toss in the freezer. It's not exactly a convenience food, but it means you can cook up a pot of homemade beans the same day you get the hankering for them, without having to plan ahead for overnight soaking. When you're ready to cook, dump the frozen beans into a pot full of water and start cooking. They thaw out and separate very quickly.

                        1. re: Carrollton Foodie

                          That's why we use our pressure canner to make sure we've always got beans on the go!

                          1. re: Carrollton Foodie

                            This is so helpful. Sometimes I soak beans and then end up not wanting to cook them after all. Good to know you can pop them into the fridge as is.

                        2. I will be watching this thread as at least in NE, the vegetarian grocery bill is bigger than meat bill. I have tried all farmer's market in my neighborhood and all are super expensive than my local grocery store.

                          I found an Indian and Chinese grocery store and they have these vegetables lot cheaper than farmer's market. You may have to compromise on the quality a little bit (i.e. have to search for a good produce from the lot) and have to visit twice a week, instead of once (to avoid spoiling these vegetables)
                          Indian food store sells 7lb packets of many beans and lentils. I just buy these packs.

                          Second thing is, I buy frozen food as much as I can from Costco. That turns out to be little cheaper but not great.

                          Whatever leftover I have, goes into freezer and if its not used within 2-3 weeks, I make vegetable stock out of it, use some of it right then and rest again goes in the freezer.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: vegiefudie

                            you can make terrific vegetable soup from those "older" frozen vegetables from costco.
                            the ingredients that i normally use are:
                            tomato paste
                            a tsp of lemon juice
                            a little hot sauce
                            frozen mixed vegetables
                            frozen green beans
                            frozen shelled edamame
                            and, add last, frozen chopped spinach or frozen chopped kale (this will give the soup some texture).

                            if you're not dieting, adding some olive oil or pesto will improve it too.

                          2. Pulses and grains! Use them as the basis for dishes and as the main source of carbohydrates/protein, then more expensive ingredients, herbs and spices can be used in lesser quantities as flavourants for the base.

                            1. I cannot stress meal-planning enough as well as having a well-stocked pantry with non-perishable goods (lots of frozen veg and fruit in the freezer is also good to have on hand too).

                              Knowing what you are going to make--or want to make--saves you multiple trips to the grocery store as well as being good to your grocery bill.

                              1. I hope this is not a stale discussion. I found that by buying and growing fresh herbs, I could save on my grocery prices considerably. Now, of course this type of activity needs decent amount of space (although a balcony or empty sunny corner in the house would suffice just fine), and elbow grease. But herb gardens are among the most low maintenance one that I've found.

                                Also, cannot overstress the importance of planning and adjusting measurements to cook just what's needed.

                                Yes, Asian grocery stores do offer a great value in produce. However, produce is rarely of first quality and almost never organic.

                                Having a second refrigerator or freezer to store excess works great. It's a one time money commitment but it pays itself off.

                                Being prudent about what vegetables cost more. For example for some reason, bellpeppers are super expensive. Never been able to figure why; since at least I do not relish them. Limit the use of those vegetables.

                                Simple advance planning such as making your own tomato sauce when tomatoes are in season and cheaply available. You can simply store it in regular (unsealed) jars and store in freezer for at least 1 year, if you can maintain the temperatures.

                                Hope this helps.

                                1. I find that what drives my food bill up are all the extra exotic ingredients that I need for each particular ethnic dish--things like kimchi, tamarind, curry leaves, posole, etc.--that I may not use again for several months. It's great to live in a city where these ingredients are available, and it's fun to branch out and try different cuisines, but it can get out of hand even though the ingredients are not expensive!

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: cassis

                                    I've had that issue. Now, I only get special ingredients like that if I can find more recipes to use them and put them in my menu plans for the near future. Theoretically, it's no different than using a non-perishable ingredient the same number of times in the future, but they don't get forgotten about.

                                    If you're still going through the tamarind, check out both Caribbean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Both use it a lot. Or, make your own chutney. Or just give it to me....

                                  2. get a pressure cooker and save yourself so much money on using cans of beans! I was so surprised about this.

                                    Check out your local overstock stores. I've found Muriel Glen Organic Tomatoes in cans for 49 cents a can. I bought all of the cans that they had. It is also a great place to get European Jam with no HFCS. I've also found great deals on flour, oatmeal, nutmilks and fancy pasta.

                                    Learn how to can and ferment at home. I make my own kraut and grew diakon this summer for Kimchi. So much cheaper than buying those 8 dollar jars of organic condiments. Also, if you have the space, grow some greens when the weather permits. Kale grows great and I didn't have to buy any all summer.

                                    Organic fair trade coffee does cost more. I've saved money buying the mystery bags at my local coop. Someone bags coffee and than leaves without paying for it. They sell it cheap. I don't think I've ever gotten accidental decaf.

                                    also be willing to accept the short falls of your food budget. I shop almost daily at our small local health food store. I also go a lot to our local coop, usually on Sundays when I get my student discount for bulk supplies like peanut butter.

                                    WhenI could drink milk I got it from the local dairy since the price was great. Shop around for local eggs. Some places had the eggs for less from the same farm. I also go to Trader Joes for some items, because on my budget I can get chocolate chips, soyrizo and a few other items there for so much less.

                                    Good luck!

                                    1. Actually, meat is heavily subsidized especially if it's regular supermarket meat so I'm not surprised that you are finding more expensive to be veg. I think it's easier to create completely veg dishes rather than to find substitute meat products. Fake meat is very expensive. Good luck

                                        1. Prices in Indian or Chinese grocery stores are much cheaper than chain supermarkets.Chinese stores are ideal for buying produce and Indian markets for dry goods such as lentils,spices and beans.In Toronto where I live,there are very large populations of Indians and Chinese like many US regions such as Chicago,Los Angeles,and New Jersey.

                                          Typical prices are (cheaper when on sale)
                                          $6.99 for 16lb bag long grain rice
                                          $2.99 for 4lb bag red lentils
                                          $2.99 lb raw almonds
                                          $5.99 to $10.99 for basmati rice
                                          69 to 99 cents 1lb tomato
                                          $1.99 to $2.99 10lb bag potato or onions
                                          $ 1.49 1lb garlic
                                          $ 2.99 to $3.99 4lb bag chick peas and most beans
                                          $1.99 to $2.99 8oz bag whole spices

                                          What are prices like in Chinese and Indian markets in your area?

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: computer5t

                                            Have to agree. This is the case in Toronto as well. I'm in walking distance of 7 or more places to buy produce, and the smallest Chinese owned corner grocery has the others beat for the most regular of purchases, often even when there are sales at the more expensive stores.

                                          2. It just is down.

                                            Buy on sale, buy in bulk, buy the least processed food and cook at home from scratch.

                                            Interesting packaged or processed food and seasonal fruit and veg are treats when the rest of the budget produces a savings.

                                            1. I'm not a vegetarian, but I always take steps to keep our produce fresh but affordable. 1) I try new items that sometimes are introduced at low cost because growers and sellers need to find out if there's a viable market. 2) Make the most of preserving appropriately. Just because something can be canned, frozen, or dried doesn't mean it makes sense. We never can/jar our own food because I won't take the time and don't like enough food items to make it worthwhile. We dehydrate and freeze a lot for the opposite reason. In addition, dehydrating has proven to be the best and safest way to have treats on hand for our dog. 3) Grow your own spices when you can. From spring to fall, we grow our own basil, parsley, thyme, and rosemary. It only takes a few pots, and when used as they grow is always better than buying. It can be a challenge to make it through a pack of seeds. If I had more space, I'd do some vegetables and fruits, but I don't. 4) Split the cost of items. Buying a bushel of corn and splitting it with neighbors is much cheaper than corn by the ear. 5) Buying local can be done - you just have to be willing to accept that what often appears as economies of scale from large sellers may actually be "subsidized scale." Most mass-produced foods, even organic, have been subsidized by either some branch of government or the large food-opoly that owns and operates them. If cost is your real need, they provide a service. Locally produced and delivered often means someone had to invest more of their labor to get it to you. It's not at all unlike that fact that you can get a pre-packaged meal for a few bucks or have it chef-prepared for several dollars. Both will meet your want and need, but neither in excess or exclusivity is likely to be 100% perfect.

                                              I have also found that the top way to adjust food costs is in serving sizes. I realize I eat way more than my body actually needs and could easily cut my portions by 25-50% and be fine. The amount of waste we produce (biologically) indicates that we're well-, strike that, over-fed. My point here is only that quite often the answer can be not to buy something rather than look for the best price. Storing too much by it's very nature leads us to not eating the freshest available.

                                              1. be sure to actually consume the food you buy.
                                                this may mean shopping less frequently.
                                                lots of studies show that, as a society, we throw out much of the food we grow and buy.

                                                actually eat that stuff that is sitting in your pantry, refrigerator, freezer, etc. BEFORE it is really too far gone to eat.

                                                1. Supporting a local CSA (community supported agriculture) group is a great way to save money, get fresh produce, and now is the perfect time to start looking for one.

                                                  This site has a pretty big listing of them - http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

                                                  1. I'm not sure where you live, but if there's an Aldi near you, that's your solution. It's a life saver for me. They don't have tofu, seitan, etc, but they have all your basic fruits and vegetables for a fraction of the price of chain grocery stores, and especially of local grocers. If you can make it to an Aldi, compare the price of things like butter, eggs, and milk, and you'll be shocked. You'll also find canned items, dried beans, rice, pasta, broth, etc.

                                                    Even staples like toothpaste, paper towels, and baby wipes are cheaper. It's awesome.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: korrie

                                                      I'll second this. The produce, dairy and canned selection has never let us down. Plus due to the size of the store its easier to get out of the store for less.