Whenever I talk to the veg-curious, two of the most common questions are "What do you eat?" and, for the more-serious, "So, how does it work?" meaning, how do you navigate a grocery store, memorize all the non-vegan ingredients, learn how to read nutritional labels, and how do you keep it nutritionally sound? It sounds like a massive task, but once you start and are serious about it, shortly it becomes second nature. Read on for pantry-building tips & a run-down of our own shopping list, so that you can get a better idea of how we do it!
Being vegetarian for three years, and now vegan for an additional four years, I've come a long way and have learned a LOT about shopping. (Maybe too much.) I started in college with a $20/week food budget and I spent it poorly. I had little access to cheap, healthy foods - the dining hall was super expensive and there was only one grocery store in town, where a single box of cereal would run you five dollars or more.
Price and physical access are two big problems for so many people in the U.S., so I want to add this caveat. I'm at a point now where I have good access to healthy food, even without a car, and my monthly food budget is more like $250-350 for two people (and two roommates who also eat food.) I'm not trying to preach to anyone about how you should always buy organic, or only buy ~the best~ ingredients, because that's not how I live my life, so I don't expect anyone else to. I'm also not trying to ignore the people in need of good food, this is just my experience that I hope helps anyone who's thinking about going vegan. :)
First things first, let me give quick answers to the questions I asked (myself?) above.
How do you navigate a grocery store?
Stick to the outside, mainly, and only go inside for essentials. (Such as the bulk section, canned/jarred foods, etc.) Things are cheaper in the non-"healthy market" (but actually just processed junk) sections and in international/kosher aisles.
How do you memorize all the non-vegan ingredients?
When you go vegan, there's just this span of time where you obsess over learning as much as you can. (Or was that just me?) I did it by finding a couple of good lists and either downloading them to my phone or bringing them with me to the store, then learning label by label. Lists: basics / alcohol / a "complete" list (for beauty products & food)
How do you read nutritional labels?
Usually a label will BOLD any ingredients that are common allergens - so go straight for the bottom of the list and it'll say "Contains: Dairy, Eggs" - that's the fastest way to know. If there's nothing there, then skim the whole thing and check your reference list if you're not sure.
How do you keep your cart nutritionally sound?
Buy a wide variety of foods. Not all at once, because that'd be expensive, but switch it up every week or so. Get lots of greens & vegetables, and don't only eat tofu or black beans for every single meal. Get fortified foods and try new things. Don't rely on super-processed vegan/vegetarian foods - they're just as bad for you as their non-vegan counterparts. If you're not sure how to cook something, look up recipes or guides online. That's how I started years ago!
Our Shopping Tips
Come with a plan in hand - have an idea of what you want to make that week, and what you need to buy. Our printable meal planner has been incredibly helpful in getting us prepared every week! We wrote more about meal planning a couple of weeks back here.
Explore your locale
I can't stress enough how important this is! When I first moved to this city I assumed there was only one or two standard options for buying food. But as I searched and asked local friends, more possibilities opened up. Look for international groceries (we have a few Asian & Indian stores in unexplored pockets of town, who knew?), public farmer's markets (you can search for some in your area here!), food co-ops, bulk groceries, CSA's, farm stands, and farms where you can pick your own food. By finding out what your options are, you can see who has the cheapest ingredients, the widest selection, etc. At our city's Indian spice store, you can find grains & legumes for half or a quarter of the cost of the standard grocery store; at the farm stands outside of the city you can find strawberries freshly picked & sold by the bucket for only a few dollars. Explore!
Shop by season
Even if you don't have a massive fresh market to go to, you can sometimes find deals on seasonal produce at a conventional grocery store. In winter, strawberries can go up to $10/pound, but in summer you can get twice as much for $3.99. Here's a good seasonal foods guide.
This is an important point - if you can buy those seasonal foods, chances are that they're a better quality because they're local to you. If you buy a bunch, you can use the excess for eating for the whole year. We buy locally-grown strawberries in the summer when they're cheap and taste amazing, then freeze them for smoothies & pies if we want them in the winter. We do this for vegetables & fruit all the time, because frozen (or fresh) fruit is really expensive here.
By buying whole ingredients, you can save a lot of money, it's more environmentally economical, and it's healthier in almost all cases. Rather than buy small packages of seasoned rice, get a small sack of untouched rice and season with your own spices. It saves on packaging, production costs, and preservatives. Though, if you're into couponing I've heard those packets are pretty great ;)
It may take a little more time to cook from scratch, but as I decided to go vegan & unprocessed, cooking became a fun activity for my house, rather than a chore, where even at our most tired we come together and make meals and actually look forward to it. And that's not to say that you should ONLY buy plain dried beans for all of your meals, but it helps for the things you make the most of. (I still buy vegan candy bars on the regular, don't get me wrong!)
Here's our grocery schedule: we buy the more expensive items once a month, and only then do we buy the things you'd normally only buy once a year, like spices, oils, vinegars, rice, etc. We'll only buy one spice, one bag of rice, etc. and build up our pantry over time. That's how we did it in our house and now how we're doing it as we build our studio kitchen for Chickpea Mag.
So while some of these on the list are more costly, we don't buy them all the time and they last forever. Then every week we'll buy enough fresh food & bread to last for the week. Our first week's trip, usually right after we get paid, is a $100 trip, and the next three are $50 trips. It makes it really easy to budget and minimizes the amount we waste on frivolous stuff. (Such as...candy bars. I have an obsession.)
Try out these tips and see how it works for you. Be sure to check out all of our back issues and kitchen section for help around the kitchen & grocery store! :) Got any questions for us? Leave them in the comments below!