Plant-Strong on a Budget
There are plenty of myths surrounding college life that we’re all familiar with: we party, we get only a handful of hours of sleep each night, and, the one that’s been particularly been on our minds lately, we abide faithfully by the Ramen noodles and Easy Mac diet. Now, to be honest: We grew all grew up eating Ramen noodles from time to time – and Craig not only ate them regularly, but often daily. And without knowing any better, he was perfectly content eating Ramen noodles regularly. Fortunately, the years have distanced him from the highly processed packaged dinners of his youth. However, we do understand that for a quick and filling meal that costs about a dollar and two minutes of waiting for the microwave to beep “voila!”, Ramen noodles can seem like a cozy fit for the time- and money-crunched student. But if this renowned student staple, like so many convenience foods, is cheap in dollars and cents, it’s also cheap in nutrition, with a high tax on your body’s wellbeing.
But this is just what us poor college students have to live with, right? We have money for beer and textbooks, but certainly not for food. …Right? At least that’s what our friends try to convince us of when we come back from the grocery stores with bags and bags of produce.
So we got around to doing some research. More truthfully, we got around to proving to our friends that we weren’t just snobs for choosing potatoes over a bag of potato chips, or tofu over a bag of frozen chicken nuggets; we were just thinking carefully about what our money was going toward. The health end of the argument spoke for itself, but to save face for our wallets required us to dig up some hard numbers.
Here’s the method: we priced two plant-strong recipes, one that’s quick and simple, and one that’s more involved. Then we priced two comparable Standard American Diet (SAD) recipes, adjusted to keep the serving sizes and basic ingredients consistent (for example, because we used frozen veggies in the quick plant-strong meal, we modified the SAD to use frozen veggies as well). We should note that we didn’t factor in spices, assuming a kitchen that’s stocked with them. All ingredients were priced from a local grocery store (Wegman’s). Here’s what we came up with:
For the quick plant strong meal, we used one of Jeff Novick’s quick and easy meals, corn pasta primavera, and doubled the recipe to make sure we’re getting every last bite’s worth of what we would deem a generous 4-6 servings.
|Quick corn pasta primavera||Serves 4-6|
|corn pasta||2 12 oz boxes||5.48|
|canned tomatoes (no salt added)||2 28 oz cans||3.38|
|frozen cauliflower, broccoli, carrot mix||2 1 lb bags||3.98|
|frozen peas||16 oz bag||0.99|
|frozen Italian mix vegetables||16 oz bag||1.98|
And as for the quick SAD meal, we went with a “Low Fat” chicken primavera. We’ll steer away from commenting on which of these recipes really deserves the “Low Fat” label, given that this is supposed to be a discussion about cost…
|“Low fat” chicken primavera||Serves 4-6|
|fettuccine noodles||12 oz||1.79|
|cream of mushroom soup||1 can||1.19|
|mushroom stems||2 small cans||1.50|
|frozen veggie mix||1 lb bag||1.99|
|chicken broth||4 cans||2.76|
For the “involved” plant strong meal, we went with one of our favorites: Engine 2’s Raise the Roof Sweet Potato Lasagna. Having cooked this a few times, we speak from experience when we say that it is no small share of veggies packed into these noodles, as the recipe can attest to.
|Raise the Roof Sweet Potato Lasagna||Serves 12|
|garlic||1 small head||0.68|
|red bell peppers||2||3.43|
|Silken Lite tofu||1 package||2.50|
|pasta sauce (Muir Glen)||2 jars||6.98|
|whole grain lasagna noodles||2 boxes||5.28|
|frozen spinach||16 oz||2.55|
|raw cashews||1 cup||2.40|
And lastly, for the SAD “involved” meal, we picked a meaty lasagna recipe titled, “Yummy lasagna.” Once again, we’ll withhold our comments as to which of these recipes really deserves the title, “Yummy”…
|“Yummy lasagna”||Serves 12|
|lasagna noodles||1 lb||1.99|
|lean ground beef||2 lb||8.00|
|spaghetti sauce||28 oz jar||2.27|
|ricotta cheese||4 lb||10.76|
|romano cheese||1 cup||1.50|
|pepperoni sausage||2 8 oz packages||10.36|
|mozzarella cheese||1 lb||5.00|
You can see that based on the recipes we considered, the plant-strong meals happened to be a little more wallet-friendly. You could chalk it up to bias if you want (although we can assure you that these were the first and only four recipes we picked out, and we priced them all as accurately as possible), but we think the comparison is pretty straightforward. A whole foods, plant-based diet opts for whole foods over processed foods, and plant foods over animal products. Generally, whole foods are more expensive than processed ones, but plant foods are less expensive then animal products; no matter what recipes you choose from, that puts a plant-strong diet somewhere in between the Ramen noodle diet and the typical American meat and dairy diet.
But most importantly, if you’re looking for a diet that’s rich in health without giving up taste or satiety, there’s no better value than going plant-strong. You get the most nutritional bang for your buck. We could try and start digging up more numbers for the potential “hidden costs” of the SAD – things like blood pressure meds, insulin shots, or even a bypass procedure – but we prefer to look at things from the other end: what’s the real worth of a long, happy, healthy and vivacious life? There are simply no numbers that can begin to capture it. And in our minds, there’s absolutely no competition as far as which diet our dollars are going toward.
And while slightly more time consuming, with a little planning ahead a plant-strong meal can be whipped up just as quick as the ole’ Ramen. If you make a big meal at the beginning of the week, you can freeze a few Tupperware containers of leftovers, and these can be reheated in the microwave whenever your tummy calls throughout the week. And as shown above, these meals can be as simple or elaborate as you want. Some time savers: parboiled brown rice, frozen fruits or veggies, pre-cooked or microwaved baked potatoes, canned beans (no/low-sodium!), etc.
The bottom line is that practically anybody, even the proverbially poor college student, can make a whole foods, plant-based diet work on a budget. And you can do it at any local grocery store; Whole Foods and other health foods stores are great when you have access to them, but they are by no means necessary to get all the foods you need. As always, save where you can with coupons, weekly sales and store bonus cards. For those items you may not be able to find at the grocery store, such as nutritional yeast or certain non-dairy milks, consider buying in bulk online. Take advantage of your area’s farmer’s markets, food co-op or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs to get fantastic local produce at great prices.
And if you’re really in a pinch, you may find that pulling a few bucks from the beer fund may not be such a terrible thing after all.
-The College Greens
P.S. Here are some more great money-saving shopping tips from our friends at No meat athlete:
P.P.S Here are links for all the recipes we used:
Jeff Novick’s Corn Pasta Primavera:
“Low Fat” Chicken Primavera:
Raise the Roof Sweet Potato Lasagna