Why a Food Budget Changed How I Ate — Permanently

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Martin Poole/Getty Images)

I graduated from college in the wake of the Great Recession, with a mathematics degree that didn’t easily translate into gainful employment. During a stressful stint as a call center customer service rep (not a good fit for an introvert who hates talking to strangers on the phone), I realized that my best course of action would be to quit my job and go back to school full-time to earn a paralegal certificate.

I was incredibly fortunate in that my husband earned enough money to cover the necessities. But there wasn’t much wiggle room, so we eliminated discretionary expenses and carpooled to save on gas money.

Another obvious thing to trim? Our grocery bill. When I studied our receipts, I noticed that a good chunk of our food budget was going to meat. If we replaced the chicken, beef, and pork with something more cost-effective, it would make a substantial dent. Vegetarian options aren’t always more inexpensive, but we wanted to explore this diet to see if it worked for our budget.

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

Why (and How) I Decided to Go Vegetarian

Going vegetarian wasn’t a totally foreign idea for us — there were already a couple of meat-free pasta dishes we enjoyed, and my husband lived in a vegetarian household during his teenage years. And it would only be temporary; once I finished my program and was earning a paycheck again, we could go back to chicken marsala, barbecued ribs, and beef fajitas.

The vegetarian experiment started with a handful of recipes that were already in our repertoire, like tofu stir-fry with peanut butter noodles and my mom’s spinach lasagna. Canned beans took on a starring role, in huevos rancheros and slow cooker minestrone soup. We also added more vegetables to our diet, in the form of store-brand frozen corn, peas, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. We ate baked potatoes for dinner probably more than we should have, but they were easy to get on the table when I had to study for a quiz on contract law.

Vegetarian Recipes I Love

An Unexpected Result

Going meatless had the intended result: We were spending less at the grocery store. But as time went on, something unexpected happened: I became a more adventurous cook. When we were eating meat, I relied on favorite recipes from my childhood and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. With meat out of the picture, I started trying new things.

I made a batch of vegetable fried rice that tasted better than the takeout chicken fried rice we used to eat. When cheese was on sale, I cooked up an incredible batch of homemade macaroni and cheese. I expanded my tofu horizons, serving it as broiled “steaks” with a jalapeño vinaigrette and in a coconut curry sauce.

Instead of relying on meat, I learned to develop flavor with spices, a spoonful of apple cider vinegar, or a sprinkling of fresh cilantro.

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

A Temporary Budget, a Permanent Change

After a blur of research papers on insurance laws, drafting wills, and memorizing legal vocabulary, I finished my paralegal program and landed a full-time position with a small law firm. We were a double-income couple again, and we didn’t need to be as rigid about our food budget—we could go back to eating as much meat as we wanted to.

But the thing is, we didn’t really feel like eating meat again. Our new recipes — the coconut curry tofu, the huevos rancheros with fresh cilantro, the homemade macaroni and cheese — were tastier than a parade of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The sticker shock at the meat department made it difficult to justify the extra expense, and we appreciated how easy it was to eat more vegetables when they played a more prominent role on our dinner plates.

Several years later, our meals are about 90 percent vegetarian. Our grocery cart is still filled with lots of canned beans, tofu, and frozen vegetables, although we splurge on a CSA during the all-too-brief Minnesota growing season. Sometimes I get confused looks when I try to describe my diet (I’ve settled on the phrase “mostly vegetarian” since it’s easy to understand); other times I get lectured about how I should be eating a completely vegetarian diet.

Honestly, I’m not concerned about strict rules or definitions. I just feel grateful to be able to afford and cook delicious food, whether that’s a tofu stir-fry or the occasional pork roast.

Are you feeling the need for your own budget? Start here: