For those not in the know, I watch YouTube like old fogeys still watch cable or satellite. Often as not, I spend a not insignificant amount of time scrolling through thumbnails looking for what I’m interested in watching, which also involves reading the titles of said videos. So a title about cheap vegan grocery shopping (“less than $30 a week!”*) caught my eye. On closer inspection, the young man who’d made the video selected for his thumbnail the part where he’s anywhere near the prepackaged frozen food section.
My first instinct – my more or less literal gut reaction – was to disparage this video mercilessly whilst also not spending even one moment of my time actually watching it on the strong suspicion that the naivite (some would say ignorance, in this Age of Google) of its content will make me angry.
In the interest of fair play, that is not the plan.
I acknowledge, and even understand, that youngsters are busy folks with at least one job, along with countless side-hustles, working desperately to pay off loans for schooling that has yet to justify itself beyond ‘the piece of paper that got the job’. So, it’s not like they have a ton of time to dedicate to extras like feeding themselves well. They long for the simple and the familiar, hence the market share for ‘healthy’ versions of junk foods that often equal – or even outstrip – the badness of the actual junk foods they’re intended to replace (I’m looking at you , tofu hotdogs full of sugar and sodium).
No, I’m not here to disparage, nor to shame anyone into cooking everything from scratch. And I recognize that the easiest way for anyone to begin eating more healthfully (and cheaply) is to ditch the meat and dairy. To that end, what I propose is presenting three levels of culinary commitment, none of which rely on prepackaged mass-produced garbage, but each of which involves a trade-off.
There’s an old adage that involves a triangle. Each point of the triangle represents an element: one is speed, one is quality and one is cost. The thrust of the adage is that you can have any two elements, but never all three. So you can have something fast and cheap, but of low quality; or you can have something fast that is of high-quality, but it won’t be inexpensive.
That said, here are the levels.
Fast and quality
Pay some company for food boxes. No thought, no effort, delicious foods. Costs an arm and a leg, but makes sure your convenience food that’s supposed to be good for you doesn’t actually end up giving you a heart attack from added sodium.
Fast and cheap
This will involve some packaged goods, but not packaged products. Things like canned beans or tomatoes, whole grain tortillas and rice, but not frozen bean burritos. Get it? Stick to rudimentary veggies that are cheap and plentiful, especially those that can be prepped in advance to save time during the week, and avoid spoilage – carrots, celery, onions. For singles, this should come in at well under $30 per week, though this will depend on the proportion of packaged ingredients, and what can be gotten on sale. An advantage here is that you can grab up something like whole grain tortillas when they are on sale and put those in the freezer, instead of boxes of veggie burgers.
Cheap and quality
There are varying degrees with this one, but essentially the more you’re willing to put in, the less costly your groceries will be. To a point. At its most basic, you’re cooking your own beans instead of buying canned, possibly whipping up a weekly batch of veggie broth, and you’re making an effort to get a variety of seasonal veggies into the rotation (go Team Leafy Greens!) Maybe you’re doing a weekly hike to a farmer’s market, or fronting cash for a CSA box. After that, you could get into fermenting, canning and other kinds of home preservation in order to take advantage of seasonal gluts. From there, we’re getting into gardening territory, but you get the picture. One thing to note here is that although the overall weekly average cost of this will be low (if not lowest), there will often be larger up-front costs (like that CSA box).
Which path you choose depends on several factors, not least of which is how much time you have in a day to commit to buying and making food. The point is that if you have time to fry up a veggie burger, you have time to make yourself something proper to eat. Seriously, have some self-respect.
*To my mind, it would take effort to complete a vegan shop for more money than that, but maybe I’m the crazy one.