How to Save Money by Going (Mostly) Meatless


Let me start by saying this — I like a big, fat steak as much the next omnivore. I like roasted chickens and sausages. And I really like bacon.

My wallet doesn’t love it quite so much, however.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meat makes up about 21% of the average American grocery budget, making it the most expensive category after processed foods. That suggests that many of us eat quite a lot of meat, and that it has a pretty significant effect on our bottom line.

Of course, most of us also know that adding more plants to our meals is good for our health. A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in June found that those who followed a vegetarian diet were less likely to have heart disease, diabetes, and colorectal cancer. They were also less likely to be obese. In other words, money isn’t the only reason to consider cutting a down your meat consumption. (See also: 25 Tasty Vegetarian Crock Pot Recipes)

Meat and Money

How can adding a few vegetarian staples to your week cut your grocery bill? Let’s break it down.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, common cuts of meat cost between $1.59 per pound (for chicken legs) to $4.90 per pound (for steak). (My old friend, bacon, comes out at $4.53 per pound.) According to the U.S. food pyramid, which calls a serving 2–3 ounces, that pound of meat should feed between five and eight people.

That sounds pretty frugal, but most meat wouldn’t stretch that far in my house, especially when you add the weight of the bones and loss of weight in cooking into the equation.

The BLS says that dried beans, for example, go for about $1.46 per pound. If you consider one cup of cooked beans to be a serving, that means you’ll get up to five servings in each pound, bringing each person’s serving of protein to about 29 cents. That’s the base of a very inexpensive — and healthy — meal. So, even when you weigh them against the cheapest meat options, most vegetarian options are a whole lot cheaper.

Ways to Go Meatless

Cutting grocery expenses is just one of the many great reasons to reduce the amount of meat in your diet. But the question for many meat eaters is how to do it without missing, well, the meat. Here are some ideas.

1. Look to Culture

There are several cultures that are entirely vegetarian, such as some Sikhs and Hindus, Jains, and Seventh Day Adventists. Many others use meat more as a garnish than as a main course. Because these groups have been using vegetarian ingredients for many generations, they’ve figured out how to make their signature dishes as comforting, delicious, and filling as any meat-based meal.

  • For example, red bean curry is a popular staple in some parts of India.
  • Or try a Pakistani lentil curry.
  • And if you want to try tofu, check out a cookbook from Japan, where tofu has been an important staple for centuries. Miso soup anyone?

Note that cooking ethnic recipes does require some investment in terms of spices and other pantry staples. The good news? A little goes a long way with most of these ingredients. Look for them at an ethnic grocery store if you have any near you — they’re likely to be cheaper.

2. Spice Things Up

Speaking of spices, there’s a reason they’re so prominent in vegetarian recipes.

Unlike a steak, which tastes pretty great seasoned with only a little salt, a kidney bean needs a little more finessing. That isn’t to say that vegetarian food is bland, but cooking vegetarian does require a bit of a shift in thinking.

If you’re a meat-and-potatoes kind of person, you probably think of meat as what’s for dinner. When you’re cooking vegetarian, you need to think of your proteins as just one of many ingredients that go into the pot. Individually, none of them will knock your socks off. Together, they can be magic!

3. Ease Into It

If you don’t eat any vegetarian meals, just reducing the amount of meat in your meals using vegetarian ingredients can be a great start. For example, rather than cutting meat right out of your chilli, why not cut the usual amount of meat you use in half, and fill up the rest of the pot with more beans and vegetables?

I also recommend bacon (did I mention that I like bacon?) as a substitute in many dishes. Just a couple of slices can make a big pot of (mostly) vegetarian corn chowder, or this healthy version of baked potato soup, taste as rich and delicious as any meat-based meal. Plus, if you can learn to make a little bit of meat go a long way, it’ll be good for both your budget and your body.

4. Eat Whole Foods

If you’re going to try eating vegetarian, there’s one big trap to avoid in terms of cost — processed foods.

Whole foods are always the way to go in terms of price; eat a lot of beans and rice and you can survive on a few dollars a day. Veggie burgers and tofu dogs? Not so much.

In fact, processed vegetarian items are often a lot more expensive than their animal-based buddies in the meat aisle. That price discrepancy isn’t discrimination against those who abstain from meat; it’s just simple economics. Less demand equals higher prices. If you’re eating vegetarian to save money, stick to whole foods and learn to cook them, otherwise you may end up paying more for your veggie burger than you would for the real thing!

Eating more vegetarian meals can help you cut down your grocery bill, but it doesn’t have to be an exercise in culinary asceticism. With a few pantry staples and a little practice, you can cook vegetarian meals that’ll have you saying “hold the meat” more often.

Have any staple vegetarian recipes of your own? Share them in the comments!

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Meg Favreau's picture

I mostly cook vegetarian food, but several of my favorite dishes use a little bit of meat or fish for flavoring -- baked beans cooked with salt pork, pizza topped with some chicken sausage and veggies, or salad that features both fish and beans as protein. Yum!

Guest's picture

Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps are super delicious! Lots of recipes can be googled.. Water chestnuts chopped finely or minced with soy sauce, garlic, onion and maybe whatever fresh stuff you have available.

Great appetizer for a tofu pad thai dinner.

Tara Struyk's picture

Great recipe! I get the sense the Pioneer Woman likes her meat too. If she can do vegetarian once in a while, there's hope for all of us:-)

Guest's picture

Since I've cut out most meat from my diet I have definitely seen a major difference in the amount of money I spend on groceries. Even though cans of tuna are expensive, when I buy more vegetables, fruit, eggs and yogurt to cook throughout the week, it significantly reduces the amount of money I spend compared to when I used to buy a package of chicken breast, deli meat and ground beef.

Guest's picture

While meat is essential, I try to eat organic meat, which because it is so expensive means I eat less of it. The best way to eat less meat is to cut it into thin strips like the Chinese do and mix it with vegetables. With all the crazy things they do to American Meat it is downright dangerous to eat anything but organic meat. Anything more than a fistful is too much according to Dr. Oz.

The main thing is eat a variety of food, don’t get into a rut and eat the same thing week in week out. Make a point of visiting at least one ethnic store every month and find out what is healthy in their cooking. Exposing children to a variety of foods at a young age helps them understand, experience and appreciate the health benefits and taste sensation of these exotic foods that will remain with them for a lifetime.

Tara Struyk's picture

I agree. A lot of cultures have figured out how to use less meat in very satisfying dishes out of necessity. In North America, our relative wealth has allowed us to think of meat as what's for dinner. I think that a shift in that kind of thinking would be healthy for our bodies and our budgets.