11 Cheap Plant-Based Meals

Ruben Castaneda, Michael O. Schroeder
·8 min read

More than leafy greens

What grows from the ground and lands on our table tends to be less environmentally expensive than meat, which usually requires significantly more resources like fuel and fertilizer. Not only can they be better for the environment, but plant-based foods are often easier on our wallets, too.

Options for plant-based eating include:

-- Veganism.

-- A vegetarian diet.

-- Meatless Mondays.

If you are hesitant to cut back on eating meat because you worry about the cost or fret that such an eating regimen may be bland, think again. Diet and nutrition experts say there's no shortage of affordable dishes that are plant-based.

Here are 11 economical plant-based meals:

Burrito bowl

Meatless burrito bowls are tasty and affordable.

"Burrito bowls are insanely inexpensive," says Brian Kateman, co-founder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit which promotes reducing meat consumption to "improve human health, protect the environment and spare farm animals from cruelty."

In addition to being economical, burrito bowls are also quick and easy to make. Instead of chicken or beef, couple rice or quinoa with lots of veggies and beans, suggests Kateman, who draws recipe suggestions from "The Reducetarian Cookbook: 125 Easy, Healthy, and Delicious Plant-Based Recipes for Omnivores, Vegans, and Everyone In-Between," which he edited. Add avocado or tofu for additional protein, taste and texture.

You can spice up burrito bowls with ingredients like:

-- Bell peppers.

-- Tabasco sauce.

-- Serrano peppers.

-- Red pepper chili flakes.

Other plant-based bowls

For a variation on the burrito bowl, try one that features squash, bean and corn, Kateman suggests. It's easy to make: Bake butternut squash in the oven until tender and combine with garlic, kale or spinach, beans and corn, and then cook in a skillet over rice or quinoa.

The concoction "goes well as is or with a peanut sauce or chipotle-like sauce," Kateman says. Get in on the grain bowl trend with whole grains, suggests Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and food writer in the Los Angeles area. She's the author of the books "The Plant-Powered Diet" and "Plant-Powered for Life," and she also writes "The Plant-Powered Dietitian" blog. "You can rely upon brown rice, which is less costly, canned beans (very economical) and seasonal veggies, like carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and Brussels sprouts," she says. Try it with a flavorful sauce like a vinaigrette.

Lentil burgers

A good source of plant-based protein, lentils can be used not only in soup but homemade burgers. Kateman recommends lentil sliders, which combine the popular nutritional powerhouse pulses with vegetable broth and inexpensive staples like onion, garlic and carrots.

Pulses are a subgroup of legumes that are harvested to consume the dry seed and include:

-- Lentils.

-- Peas.

-- Chickpeas.

-- Dried beans.

Or you can try several other homemade veggie burgers for variety that "are jam-packed with disease-fighting fiber and phytonutrients in a convenient package," says Julieanna Hever, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition." "You can batch cook healthy beans, rice, oats, nuts, seeds and any herbs/spices you enjoy," she says. "Freeze them for quick grab-and-go meals you can heat up." Serve on a whole grain bun or in a salad.

Chickpea curry

When you think of traditional curry dishes, you might think of something that's beef-based -- or which at least revolves around another meat or seafood. But plant-based proteins can also feature in curry dishes. To spice things up while holding down cost, try this Indian-style curry with chickpeas and basmati brown rice. It's very inexpensive, Palmer says, since it's based on canned chickpeas, canned tomato sauce, spices, onions and brown rice. "Plus, it's really easy to make."

A quinoa- or brown rice-based lunch

Why wait until dinner to mix things up? There are plenty of tasty and healthy plant-based lunch options. "My go-to lunch is brown rice or quinoa (cooked in a rice cooker) mixed with sauteed vegetables (I toss in onions, peppers and broccoli, but one can use whatever is on hand) and black beans," Kateman says. You can add whatever sauce you have available -- such as soy or Buffalo sauce -- to kick it up a notch, he says.

Bonus: You can make enough for multiple meals, so you spend less time on preparation. "I love recipes that allow me to easily make extra portions," Kateman says, "so I don't need to worry about lunch the next day."

Spaghetti

Transitioning to a plant-based eating regimen doesn't have to be difficult or complicated, and it doesn't mean you have to give up all your favorite and familiar foods. In fact, you can revisit many classics -- like spaghetti. Palmer recommends trying a bean spaghetti, which is higher in protein, or whole-grain pasta. She proposes making a vegetarian tomato sauce with lentils as a "vegetarian bolognese." It's an easy dish that's also very economical, Palmer says. Along with it, "I love just a side salad with spaghetti, made with leafy greens and a healthy vinaigrette."

Pasta beyond spaghetti

In addition to classic whole-grain pasta, a plant-based eating regimen can emphasize veggie pastas.

You can also combine whole-grain or legume pasta with marinara sauce and vegetables -- and using frozen veggies is a great, inexpensive, nutritious option. "Pasta comes in so many healthful varieties now -- from edamame to lentil and quinoa and brown rice noodles," Hever says. "These ingredients are all shelf- or freezer-stable and can be cooked up for a satisfying, nutritious meal in minutes." It's a tasty, satisfying way to enjoy legumes or grains and incorporate more vegetables into your diet, she adds.

Tofu and vegetable stir-fry

For a healthy alternative to beef, chicken or pork, try tofu with veggies. "Heat up some tofu with frozen or pre-chopped fresh vegetables and top with a bottled teriyaki or sweet and sour sauce. This takes a few moments, and you can serve it over noodles or rice for a substantial and healthful meal," Hever offers. It's a heart-healthy alternative to red meat, which can promote inflammation in the body. "This traditional Asian dish," she says, "offers a simple way of including a variety of nutrient-dense vegetables in your diet without saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, heme iron and other disease-promoting compounds found in animal products."

Veggie-stuffed tacos

While you're thinking outside the bun, don't be hemmed in by the traditional contents that fill the taco shell, either. It's so easy to make tacos plant-based with refried beans and veggie fillings, Palmer says, and it's really economical as well. "Just use corn tortillas, refried canned vegetarian beans and fillings according to your preference, such as shredded cabbage or lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, avocados, onions," she says. "You can also do a tofu mushroom filling or meat (substitute) crumbles." Make it a taco bar for the whole family, so everyone gets what they want on the cheap.

Veggie chili and other chili variations

There's a heck of a lot more you can put in a pot to stew than vegetable soup when you're taking a plant-based approach. This take on another classic is one more example. Simply skip the meat and add more veggies. "You can even add steel cut oats, which give it a kind of 'beefy' flavor," Palmer notes. "The primary ingredients are beans, canned tomatoes, onions and seasonings," she says. It's a low-cost meal that can easily be made in a slow cooker. To round things out, Palmer suggests, "Serve with a salad and some whole-grain bread for a balanced meal."

It's important to remember that plant-based eating is a dietary regimen centered around plants but does not require you to eliminate all animal products, says Brittney Bearden, a sports dietitian with Texas Health Sports Medicine in Dallas. A typical three-bean chili dish includes lean beef, but that can easily be removed for a 100% plant-based meal. "This chili is primarily comprised of vegetables, beans, herbs and spices so it provides a nutrient punch," Bearden says.

In addition to lean beef, the recipe for three-bean chili includes:

-- Carrots.

-- Red bell pepper.

-- Crushed tomatoes.

-- Chipotle chile.

-- Adobo sauce.

-- Olive oil.

Plant-based dessert

No plant-based meal is complete without a satisfying dessert, say Jill and Jeffrey Dalton, creators of "The Whole Food Plant Based Cooking Show" on YouTube. The husband and wife team are also co-authors of "Plant Based Cooking Made Easy: Over 100 Recipes."

Many people would be surprised to learn that favorite desserts like cakes, cookies and brownies can be made with whole food plant-based ingredients without the need for refined oils or sweeteners or even gluten-based flours. For example, vegan chocolate brownies taste decadent and are easy on the wallet, they say.

To recap, here are 11 plant-based meals:

-- Burrito bowl.

-- Other bowls.

-- Lentil burgers.

-- Chickpea curry.

-- A quinoa- or brown rice-based lunch.

-- Spaghetti.

-- Pasta beyond spaghetti.

-- Tofu and vegetable stir-fry.

-- Veggie-stuffed tacos.

-- Veggie chili and other chili variations.

-- Plant-based dessert.