Many vegetarians have heard a friend or family member say: “I’d like to go vegetarian, but it’s too expensive.” But it turns out eating vegetarian is actually much more economical than eating meat.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, researchers found that a meat-based diet in the United States costs $53.11 per person per week compared to $38.75 for a plant-based diet. Over the course of a year, according to the study, eating a vegetarian diet can save $746.46. The study is based on foods that food pantry clients can typically obtain – not the expensive foods (grass-fed beef, free-range eggs) that people with more income can afford.

“Meat is more expensive than people realize,” the study’s lead researcher Mary M. Flynn, a nutritionist at the Brown University medical school in Providence, Rhode Island, told me. “When I suggest to patients that they look at how much they spend on meat, they are always surprised that it is so much. Meat represents 51 percent of food costs for low-income people.”

Flynn’s work in this field grew out of research she conducted from 2004 to 2007 with breast cancer patients. She was surprised when participants, many of whom relied on Social Security income, told her “they could not afford to eat healthy.”

Yet once they began the eight-week trial, where patients ate simple vegetarian and vegan dishes prepared with olive oil, Flynn said: “I received unsolicited comments on how inexpensive my diet was compared” to the meat-based meals they were accustomed to eating.

Others have also developed cost-conscious plant-based recipes. Ellen Jaffe Jones of Anna Maria, Fla. wrote the 2011 book “Eat Vegan on $4 a Day” after she started tracking food costs at Walmart in 2008.

“This perception does exist that you have to buy food from a health food store to be healthy,” Jones said. “I really wanted to use Walmart foods to show that people who are the most underserved” can eat vegan too.

Jones said while dry beans at Walmart cost a dime per serving, “the cheapest form of hamburger is seven times more expensive. Beef tenderloin at Walmart is 37 times more expensive.”

Both Flynn’s study and Jones’ book reflect food prices at budget supermarkets, rather than health food stores or farmers markets, and they compare food costs among low-price, whole groceries items such as hamburger, eggs, beans, frozen vegetables and fresh fruit.

Crunching food cost numbers is something that comes naturally to Jones. As a former television reporter covering investigative stories and consumer news, she was always tracking the consumer price index. As a former financial planner, she knows her way around a spreadsheet.

She used both her investigative skills and her number crunching skills to write her penny-pinching cookbook. It provides recipes and menu planning advice for those on a budget who want to eat plant-based meals.

“I kept thinking no ones has ever crunched the numbers on every single recipe to figure out how much it cost per recipe,” Jones told me. “What put me over the edge was watching a story on the news about food stamps. It showed a morbidly obese woman putting Twinkies in her cart and she said, ‘You can’t eat well on food stamps.'”

Since Jones had been following food prices for years by this point, she knew this statement was untrue. She decided to write the book.

In 2013, Flynn at Brown University published the results of another study, also in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, which examined the money spent on groceries by food pantry clients after they participated in a six-week, plant-based cooking class.

The study found that participants “will (1) decrease total food expenditures and purchases of nutrient-poor food items and (2) improve food security. Further, our results suggest that use of the recipes for an average of 2 to 3 meals per week could significantly improve body weight and may improve their diet by increasing the variety of vegetables and fruits they consume.”

Flynn’s research trials use the vegetarian Raising the Bar on Nutrition recipe plan she developed. The plan is also used by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and other hunger relief agencies throughout the country. She is building a website at medfooddiet.com to make the program more widely available. For now she shares information – including a recipe booklet – with interested organizations via email.

Recipes in her budget-conscious plan include dishes such as corn and peas fried rice (92 cents per serving), vegetable stuffed baked potato (74 cents per serving), frittata with broccoli and potatoes ($1.10 per serving) and spinach, beans and pasta ($1.16 per serving).

“Educating people that they do not need meat, and it does not improve their health I think is helpful as it will decrease food costs and improve their health if the substitution is plant-based meals,” Flynn said.

Jones echoed Flynn’s comment. “If you get rid of the meat and you trade it out for beans and grains and greens,” she said, “you have plenty of money left over to buy the produce that might be more expensive. And it’s not only about the money you save at the store, but it’s also the money you save by avoiding doctors and disease.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

STONE-BROKE SOUP

From “Eating Vegan on $4 a Day” by Ellen Jaffe Jones.

“This colorful vegetable soup features the same ingredients, minus the costly chicken, that are used in the popular children’s story by a similar name,” according to the book.

Makes 4 servings, 50 cents per serving

8 cups water

2 russet potatoes, diced

3 tomatoes, chopped, or 1 can (14.5 ounces) unsalted diced tomatoes, undrained

2 onions, chopped

2 large carrots, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices

3 celery stalks, chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons vegetable broth powder

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup brown rice or hulled barley

Salt

Ground pepper

Put the water, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, celery, parsley, vegetable broth powder, basil, marjoram, thyme and bay leaf in a large soup pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Stir in the rice or barley, cover and decrease the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Remove the bay leaf and season the soup with salt and pepper to taste.

TIPS

If you’re making this soup with children, you can add stones, just like in the Stone Soup story. Have your helpers find two round, smooth stones of a fairly good size (so they’ll be easy to spot in the soup). Scrub the stones well and put them in the soup pot with the other ingredients. Just don’t forget to remove them before serving!

For more protein, add 2 cups of cooked beans.

For a thicker soup, use more potatoes; for a thinner soup (or more servings), add more water.

To prepare the soup in a slow cooker, combine all the ingredients and cook on low for 3 hours.

BROCCOLI AND PEPPERS

FRIED RICE

From “Raising the Bar on Nutrition” by Mary M. Flynn

Makes 4 servings, cost per serving 66 cents

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Dried oregano and/or basil, optional

2 cups frozen, defrosted broccoli, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 cups frozen, defrosted peppers, chopped or cut in strips

4 cups cooked brown rice

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan about 12 inches wide.

Add any herbs and stir to coat with the oil.

Stir in the broccoli; season with salt and pepper. Cook 5 to 10 minutes.

Stir in the peppers and cook 5 to 10 minutes longer. Stir in the cooked rice, stir to combine and heat through.


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