If you shop carefully you can eat a healthy vegetarian diet on a limited budget.
When buying your fruit and vegetables, remember that fresh, frozen, canned and dried all count towards your 5 A DAY, as do juices. So there are lots of ways to include a variety of fruit and vegetables in your diet without breaking the bank.
The following tips will help you get the nutrients you need while keeping the costs of a vegetarian diet low.
- Borrow a vegetarian recipe book from your library or look for recipes online. That way you’ll never be short of ideas.
- Plan your meals before you go shopping so that you can mix and match ingredients to avoid wasting leftovers.
- Make a list to help you avoid buying things on impulse.
- Dried, frozen and canned goods often have a long shelf life so try to always have some basic ingredients stored at home, such as rice, frozen vegetables, tinned beans and pulses, and pasta. You will always have the start of a healthier meal.
- Buy foods that are in season. Seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables may be cheaper.
- Buy frozen vegetables, which can be stored for longer so you don't need to use them all at once.
- Buy canned fruit (choose varieties that are canned in juice rather than sugary syrup) and canned vegetables (without added sugar and salt).
- Special offers to buy in bulk can be a great help with your weekly budget, but be careful to choose wisely. Avoid foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt.
- Avoid buying fresh produce in too large quantities as they have a short shelf life. Stick to non-perishable or foods you can freeze when buying large amounts.
- Take advantage of reduced-price items that you can freeze. Remember to freeze food on the day of purchase, thaw thoroughly and if it needs to be cooked, make sure it is piping all the way through.
Preparing and storing
- Prepare meals in bulk and freeze extra portions.
- Put your shopping away at the back of the cupboard so that older produce is used up first. Then you won't throw away food because it's passed its use-by date.
- Label leftovers so that you know when they should be eaten by. Cool as quickly as possible, ideally within one or two hours, and then store in the fridge.
- Eat any leftovers within two days, except for cooked rice which you should eat within one day.
“Preparing and cooking your own meals can be much cheaper than buying ready meals,” says Su Taylor, who works for the Vegetarian Society.
“Often we don’t feel like cooking in the evening after a busy day at work. A cheap and time-saving solution is to cook in bulk and freeze the leftover portions.
“It can reduce the cost of each meal and can be a healthier way of making dinners that are quick to prepare.”
Five a day
Variety is the key to a healthy balanced diet. You don’t have to stick to just fresh fruit and vegetables, or organic varieties which can be expensive.
There's no scientific evidence that organic food is healthier. Eating organic is a personal choice and many people eat organic for its environmental benefits.
Remember that food which is frozen, canned, dried or juiced all count towards your 5 A DAY, so there are many ways to include a variety of fruit and vegetables in your diet at a lower cost.
Try not to waste the fresh fruit you have bought. If your fruit has seen better days, don’t automatically throw the soft fruit away.
You could use up droopy bananas with some other fruit, or 1% fat milk, in a liquidiser to make a home-made smoothie.
Wrinkly peppers may not look great in a salad but you can still add them to cooked dishes to give flavour and colour.
Use the 5 A DAY weekly meal planner to help you get your five portions a day.
Taking your own lunch into work is not only healthier, since you can decide what goes in, it's also much more economical than buying out.
“Make your own sandwich fillings from leftovers,” says Taylor. “Or if you cook the night before, cook an extra portion and take it to work with you the next day.”
If you invest in a flask, you could take in home-made soups or stews, which can be eaten with bread.
Store cupboard basics
A well-stocked store cupboard plays an essential part in creating budget-friendly, healthy meals. Here are some ideas for basic ingredients to keep in good supply.
- rapeseed oil: contains omega 3 fatty acids and can be used as an alternative to olive oil
- lemon juice: can be used in salad dressings and is cheaper than balsamic vinegar
- wholemeal flour: can be used to make your own bread – it’s easier than you think
- canned beans and pulses: economical, particularly own-brand varieties – choose no or reduced salt and sugar varieties and rinse under the tap before using
- tinned tomatoes: a basic ingredient in many dishes including pasta and casseroles
- dried pasta is delicious with simple sauces and can also be used in pasta bakes
- rice is a useful staple – brown rice is better than white as it contains more fibre
- noodles are quick to cook and go well with stir-fry vegetables
- couscous is ready in minutes and great with roasted vegetables
- red lentils don’t require soaking – try delicious and easy-to-make dahl recipes
- dried soya can be used instead of mince in many recipes – they're great in sauces and stews
- baked beans on toast is a vegetarian staple and a source of protein – choose lower salt and sugar varieties
- vegetable stock cubes are great for adding flavour to sauces – use reduced salt varieties
- dried herbs and spices give your food more flavour and help cut down on added salt
- yeast extract (for example Marmite or Vegemite): a source of vitamin B12 – use low-salt varieties
- soy sauce is tasty with noodles or rice and some fried vegetables – beware of its high salt content
“Pasta, rice, noodles and couscous all make very good bases for meals to which you can add anything you like,” says Taylor.
If you have a window ledge, grow some fresh herbs from scratch. It can be a lot cheaper and less wasteful than buying bunches from the supermarket.
“If you can grow some of your own produce in your garden or an allotment you could save money,” says Taylor.
Are you entitled to free food?
If you are on income support or other income-based allowances, you may be entitled to free school meals for your children. To apply for free school meals, contact your local authority.
Milk tokens and free fruit and vegetables are also available for some children and pregnant women, as part of a scheme called Healthy Start.
For more information, talk to your health visitor or visit the Healthy Start website.