How to stock a plant-based pantry (and fridge) on a budget

Uma Naidoo, MD


Given the current pandemic and related economic stressors, many of us are trying to maintain healthy habits while watching our expenses. One of the areas where we can support our immune system is through our food choices. We all have to eat, and eat several times a day, and selecting foods that support our health and our planet — while also saving money — is now a priority for many.

People are going meatless for many reasons

About a quarter of the US is now vegetarian, especially people ages 25 to 34. A survey from 2017 studied US attitudes toward animal farming, and found that 54% of Americans were trying to purchase less meat, dairy, and eggs, and buying more plant-based foods. A plant-based diet has been linked with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and overall mortality. Studies have also shown an improved mood with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

In additional to health reasons for eating less meat, many people are embracing a plant-based diet with fewer meats, or even starting with one meatless day per week, in order to save money. Meat is becoming expensive, and even scarce, as some supermarkets are setting limits on the number of packages of beef or poultry a person can purchase per shopping trip. Also, more people are at home, and with schools and summer camps being canceled there are more meals to make each day within a tighter food budget. Additionally, many people have reduced incomes and may be using food pantries, or may need to be very limited in their grocery shopping choices.

Focus on wholesome ingredients, even with a limited food budget

Our food choices truly do make a difference to our physical and mental health, and with a little planning, we can make good foods go further. While many processed carbs are cheap, you can get much more nutrient-dense food without spending much more. One example: a large family-sized bag of potato chips costs about the same price as a bag of dried beans, or several cans of beans. A box of sugary, processed breakfast cereal may last less than a week compared to a large box of fiber-filled oatmeal, which is not only a healthier choice, but one that will last longer and be more filling.

Shopping to stock a mostly plant-based pantry and fridge

Setting up or adjusting your panty and fridge to include more plant-based options can help your budget and your health. Your focus should be on whole foods such as fresh (or frozen) vegetables and fruit, protein sources that include legumes (lentils, peas, and beans), whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Long-lasting pantry staples include a variety of beans, chickpeas, spinach, coconut milk, tomatoes, olives, and corn. Some nondairy nut milks are shelf-stable, and can be great options for many recipes. Other shelf-stable options include whole-grain pastas (look for the Whole Grains Council stamp on the box), buckwheat noodles (which are gluten-free), rice, and pad Thai noodles. Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce (look for low-sugar brands) are great options for pasta sauces, lasagna, hearty stews, or vegetarian chili. Dry spices last a long time, and can help you add new flavors to your meals and change up leftovers to extend your budget even further. As an example, adding Mexican seasonings and a side of salsa to last night’s roast chicken can be today’s tacos!

Spend time in the frozen foods section and stock up on lower-cost frozen vegetables and fruit. Adding vegetables to meals will make them more filling due to the fiber content. Adding frozen berries to breakfast oatmeal or whole-grain pancakes is more cost effective than buying fresh berries. Many Asian-inspired dishes such as pad Thai, noodle soups, or salads can be bulked up by adding vegetables, and these dishes will add variety to your menu. Some low-cost fresh vegetable options for soups and grain bowls include shredded carrots, peas, scallions, spinach, and bean sprouts.

Try homemade instead of canned soups

Rather than purchase a canned soup, why not buy dried lentils or legumes and fresh veggies and make your own? Lentils are low in sodium and saturated fat but high in potassium, fiber, folate, and antioxidants. They are also a great prebiotic for your gut microbiome. You’ll also know exactly what’s in your soup, and you’re cutting down on the excessive sodium and preservatives in most commercial soups. When you make a large quantity of soup, it’s less money per serving than a single can of soup, and you can freeze leftovers.

Plant-based can be protein-rich

If you are concerned about not getting enough protein through a plant-based diet, you should know that 8 ounces (1 cup) of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein, and it has little to no saturated fat or sodium. Compare this to 4 ounces of ground beef, which provides 14 grams of protein, no fiber, and 11 grams of saturated fat.

In addition, plant-based options are great sources of folate, soluble and insoluble fiber, iron, phosphorus, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. Many plant-based options are neutral in flavor, lending themselves to creative cooking, from soups and stews to bean and lentil salads, stir-fry dishes, vegetable burgers, hummus, and bean dips.

Plant-based foods Grams of protein
1 cup cooked/boiled lentils 18 g
1/2 cup dry red beans 21 g
1/2 cup chia seeds 18 g
1/2 cup flax seeds 18 g
1/2 cup dry black beans 24 g

General tips for healthy, budget-friendly shopping

A helpful guideline at the supermarket is that fresh produce is on the outer perimeter of the store. Start there, see what is on sale that week, and stock up. Remember, you can freeze fruits and vegetables for later use by properly chopping and storing them in the freezer. The shelf-stable items and more processed foods are in the supermarket aisles. Again, stock up on sale items such as canned low-sodium beans, chickpeas, corn, dry lentils, or peas. Planning a plant-based diet on a budget is possible, and has several positive effects: you’ll benefit physically and mentally from a diet with less meat, and you may see savings at the checkout.

Paprika Roasted Cauliflower Florets

Set the oven to 400° F

Use a sheet pan or baking dish (a cookie sheet will work too)

1 bag of frozen cauliflower florets

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

Squeeze of fresh lemon

Add the dry spices to the olive oil

Toss the frozen cauliflower in the olive oil

Spread cauliflower on the sheet pan in a single layer

Oven roast for 25 to 30 minutes

Add a squeeze of fresh lemon before serving


  1. Golda

    It would be helpful to see the amount of protein in the cooked beans you listed. Thank you for an informative article.

  2. Seth Ferreira, MPH

    I found some good and practical bits of advice here. This article brought an important thought to mind, as a caveat. I always found it interesting, that throughout history, people tend to go plant-based during economic hardships (e.g., WWII) while inadvertently improving their health and longevity outcomes. Then, once the hardship is over, they begin abusing their bodies, once again, with massive animal product consumption—their disease state quickly returns and once again gives rise to western disease. Will people ever learn? Hopefully, during this COVID-19 pandemic, people just might. With today’s overwhelming evidence of the MASSIVE health benefits of plant-based eating, I think we’re on a better trajectory. I’m a believer that eating an overwhelming whole-foods plant-based (WFPB) diet with minuscule amounts of animal products (e.g., one 8oz serving a week max) can have massive health benefits! Many people often give up attempting an all or nothing mentality because it’s such a big shift overnight. It’s better to live 99.99% WFPB than a dismal 50% or less often eaten today in America. It’s when we consume animal products daily as a staple, they perpetuate the unhealthy microbiota species which interfere with a healthy gut microbiome leading to dysbiosis producing disease-causing metabolites such as TMAO, N-Nitroso (NOC), and toxic ammonia. All three of these, among many others, are what give rise to the destructive health consequences of “the western diet” while leading to “western disease.” This only hastens an already devastating environmental collapse as more people worldwide leave their traditional plant-based culture to follow the westernized animal-based eating lifestyle.

  3. azure

    “buckwheat noodles (which are gluten-free),” you have to be careful to check the list of ingredients on any package of “buckwheat” or soba noodles, many of them include wheat as an ingredient. US labeling laws are still pretty loose. Organic fruit & veg, beans, etc., are getting more expensive, in fact, the cost of most unprocessed foods (organic and non-organic) has increased substantially over the past year or two, at least in Oregon and NY, for basics such as bread. Those who can afford a CSA membership (or have time to work for a membership) may do better. Ditto people who have at least one freezer and know where to buy, say, 1/2 of a cattle or pig from a rancher/farmer. Or hunt and fish, so they can fill their freezer with venison, elk, fresh water and salt water fish. The meat of both of those options is probably healthier then much of the meat bought in a supermarket. Going by Jack Monroe’s website (author of “Cooking on a Bootstrap”), food is cheaper in the UK, even in parts of London, then it is many areas in the US. That wasn’t the case at one time.
    Nice that one of the protein amounts on the list is for cooked beans, but the other are still dried/uncooked quantities or foods usually eaten in relatively small quantities. Perhaps it would be helpful to tell people that 1 cup of dry beans = up to as much as 3 cups of cooked beans? So, if needed, they can calculate how to provide daily protein requirements for x number of people.

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