Vegetarian food on a budget

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.

Planning vegetarian meals

  • Borrow a vegetarian recipe book from your library or look for recipes online. For example, the Change4Life meal mixer has a selection of vegetarian recipes – click on the "recipe finder" and type "vegetarian" into the search box to get suggestions.
  • 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 healthy meal.

Shopping for vegetarian food

  • 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 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 hot all the way through.  

Preparing and storing vegetarian meals

  • 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 from 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 for vegetarians

Variety is the key to a healthy balanced diet. You don’t have to stick to just fresh fruit and vegetables, or buy 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 environmental reasons.

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.

Leftover veggie lunch

Taking your own lunch into work can help you to make healthier choices, since you can decide what goes in it. It can also be 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.

Using leftovers

  • rice: use in a salad
  • ripe banana: make banana muffins or a smoothie
  • leftover vegetables: blend to make a soup
  • mashed potato: make bubble and squeak

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 when cooked 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-fried vegetables
  • couscous is ready in minutes and great with roasted vegetables
  • red lentils don’t require soaking before use – try delicious and easy-to-make dahl recipes
  • dried soya mince can be used in many recipes – it's great to use for a spaghetti bolognese or a vegetarian chilli
  • 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 reduced-salt varieties
  • soy sauce is tasty with noodles or rice and stir-fried vegetables – beware of its high salt content and choose reduced-salt varieties 

“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.

Vouchers to spend on milk, fruit and vegetables are also available for some pregnant women and families with young children, as part of a scheme called Healthy Start.

For more information, talk to your health visitor or visit the Healthy Start website.

Page last reviewed: 19/10/2013

Next review due: 19/10/2015


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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

johandrew said on 15 August 2011

I'm a bit surprised at some of this advice. Shop bought tinned baked beans are not particularly healthy as they can contain significant amounts of added sugar and salt. Also tinned foods are probably best to be avoided because of the resultant exposure to Bisphenol A used in the tin's inside coating.

It is always best to use fresh or frozen ingredients which have not been adulterated with additional items such as sugar, salt, additives and colourings.

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