The price of being a vegetarian: does a meatless diet take a bigger bite out of your bottom line?

by Toni Apgar of Life and Health Library

THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME since I started paying for my own groceries that I actually looked forward to the super-market checkout. I wanted to prove that my vegetarian family of four spends less money and less time preparing a week’s worth of food than a similar non-vegetarian family of four. I had no doubt: I was going to win this contest.

In the lane next to me was a longtime friend, Jamie Freitas. Jamie had taken my dare to shop for and cook our families’ typical menu for one week, then compare cost, preparation and cooking times, and nutritional profiles. It seemed like a fair comparison; Jamie lives in the same small suburban New York town as I do, shops in the same overcrowded grocery store, has two kids about the same age as mine and considers herself to be a fairly health-conscious person. Though Jamie’s family eats meat, she cooks pretty much like I do–usually in a hurry but with an emphasis on healthful, appetizing dishes.

But this story is not simply about how two families cook and eat; it is about the perception that a vegetarian diet is more expensive and more time-consuming to prepare than a meat-based diet. Last summer, Vegetarian Times received a letter from a reader who complained, “I’ve been a vegetarian for six years. Sure, I look and feel great, but my family is suffering economically. People who eat animals pay 89 cents for turkey franks while we’re paying $3 for veggie dogs…It’s just not fair.”

Other readers responded to our forlorn subscriber with words of encouragement. One suggested that vegetarians make their own soymilk (“one gallon can be made from only one pound of soybeans in about an hour”). Another admonished, “Change the way you eat. Stop thinking in terms of meat (or meat substitute), potato and veggie. Start thinking of food combinations that supply protein, vitamins and minerals.” She suggested keeping marinated tofu cubes in the fridge in place of hot dog substitutes, ready to grill anytime.

But I wondered just how practical making your own soymilk is for time-pressed cooks (including me) and if marinated tofu cubes might make my life any easier. These letters led me to wonder whether I’m spending a lot more money on food and more time in the kitchen now than in my pre-veg days.

I feared the answer might be yes. Say I want to have burgers for my family of four. A pound (16 oz.) of lean ground beef would cost me $1.09 while four burger substitutes (10 oz.) cost me $4.79 at the local natural food store. I know, I know. There are other costs associated with eating meat–environmental, possibly higher health care (like heart bypass surgery from eating too much of it) and perhaps a spiritual cost, too.

And because I like to experiment with exotic vegetables and different grains, my grocery bill could exceed just about anyone’s. At $5.99 a pound for portobello mushrooms, I don’t want to make a mistake grilling them. And before paying $2.79 for a box of bulgur wheat, I want to be sure I can make it into a flavorful dish. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up learning how to cook portobellos or bulgur; I learned how to make meatloaf. Particularly for the novice vegetarian cook, preparing unusual foods for family and friends can be scary. The financial–not to mention emotional–risks associated with cooking trendy gourmet vegetables or unfamiliar grains can often seem substantial.

Unfortunately, the perception of vegetarian food as high-cost and high-involvement can prevent people from eating a more healthful diet. In a survey of 1,000 adults published last spring by the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute, 47 percent of respondents said “it costs more to eat healthy foods.” Even more distressing, that figure was up from 43 percent in 1992. About 40 percent agreed with the statement, “I can’t eat a healthy diet and still eat the foods I like,” and almost 30 percent said that “healthy foods are not convenient to make.”

Another larger study published in 1992 by the Consumer Network, a market-research firm in Philadelphia, concluded that consumers think “healthier foods cost more, frustrating many consumers who feel priced out of a realistic healthy diet” and “healthful eating is associated with work, effort and expense–all of which are considered unpleasant and not fun.”

Many of my meat-eating friends share these perceptions. I can’t begin to tell you how many times a mention of my vegetarian diet has brought forth the response, “I’d like to eat a lot more vegetarian meals, but frankly, I don’t have the time for it.” My unspoken response is, “I have two active kids, a husband who has a demanding job, and I work full-time myself. What kind of time do you think I have for cooking?” However, my more polite response is usually along the lines of, “It really doesn’t take any more time to prepare healthful, good-tasting vegetarian meals than it does to make typical American meat-laden meals.” If I’ve got a willing adversary, I’ll compare the time it takes to cook what he or she is preparing tonight with what I’m making for dinner. Sometimes I’m happy I asked; sometimes I’m not.

Then the conversation turns ugly: We talk money, and I have had to admit that paying $6 per pound for bright red tomatoes still attached to the vine like an umbilical cord can appear a little steep. When given the chance, I explain that the high price of fresh, organic vegetables is offset of by not buying meat. But that is an oversimplification and doesn’t do my vegetarian diet justice.

THUS, WITH THE HELP of Food Editor Carol Wiley Lorente, my experiment was born. Jamie and I worked out a week’s worth of menus (see p. 66), and pledged to keep track of everything we cooked and the time we took to prepare it, from cutting board to table. We included baking times when appropriate, even though we both attended to other chores (usually a child’s homework) when something was in the oven. We included weekend breakfasts in the test because those meals at her house usually include meat and they don’t at mine. We omitted weekday lunches because they’re eaten away from home; at both homes, Sunday morning’s late breakfast did double duty as breakfast and lunch. Convenience is important to both of us, so we decided that I wouldn’t make my own soymilk, and she wouldn’t milk her own cow.

Then we drove off to the grocery store together, grabbed our carts and headed for the produce aisle. We opted for organic produce when it was available, and we tried to be even-handed in our shopping: We bought the same brand of basmati rice and the same number of bananas. We each splurged on a box of clementines, and we determined that we had enough oatmeal and Cheerios in our respective pantries for a week’s worth of breakfasts.

Our individual preferences showed up in a few aisles: Jamie bought popsicles ($2.45) and I bought frozen juice bars ($3.25); she bought soy sauce ($.89) and I bought tamari ($3.29). At the end of the shopping trip, she was off to the meat section, and I took off in search of organic black beans and smoked mozzarella. When we met at the checkout line, I was quietly happy that my cart was full to the brim like hers because I know that a lot of non-vegetarians think vegetarians don’t eat enough food. My heart sank, however, when I noticed the $3 price on her sausage links, compared to $3.49 for my soy sausage.

Both of us made one other shopping trip during the week: Jamie to the grocery store to buy steak, fish, more chicken and some French bread, I to the health food store to buy organic lentils, our favorite cornbread mix and whole wheat breadcrumbs. We figure shopping time was about even.

What was the bottom line? Jamie spent $191.05, and I spent $158.71. Most of the $32.34 difference was due to the price she paid for meat, chicken and fish. We both had enough leftovers for three or four days. Since the cost of this grocery bill fed our families for about 10 days, we determined the cost of a year’s worth of food by multiplying each total by 36.5. My food bill for the year figured out to be $1,180 less than hers.

Jamie was surprised enough about the money, but here’s what really shocked her: She spent 10 hours preparing her week’s menus and I spent 8 1/2 preparing mine. Her average meal took 60 minutes to make, while mine took 51. At last, I had proof: Being a vegetarian costs less and saves time.

To figure out the nutritional content of our week’s menus, we entered them into a nutritional software program called “Dine Right,” the same one we use to do nutritional breakdowns for all Vegetarian Times recipes. Jamie’s average meal contained 1,018 calories, 63 grams (g.) of protein, 46 grams of fat, 91 grams of carbohydrates, 290 milligrams (mg.) of cholesterol, 2,223 mg. of sodium, 7 g. of fiber and 17 g. of saturated fat.

My average meal contained 752 calories, 33 g. of protein, 18 g. of fat, 111 g. of carbohydrates, 55mg. of cholesterol, 1,290 mg. of sodium, 14 g. of fiber and no saturated fat. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Jamie’s family is now willing to try a week of vegetarian food.

The statistics professors among you are probably clucking your tongues disapprovingly and muttering, “You can’t draw conclusions from a survey of one.” True enough. So why not set up your own experiment, comparing your family’s costs and preparation times with a similar meateating friend’s family? We’d love to hear the results. As for me, I have all the proof I need.


Popsicles $2.45

Tomato sauce $1.98

Pancake mix $2.49

English muffins $4.58

Dairy Ease $1.19

Broccoli $3.38

Frozen peas $1.35

Ground turkey $2.93

Chicken cutlets $11.38

Ground beef $3.99

Celery hearts $1.89

2 pounds bacon $7.78

Orange juice $2.29

Maple syrup $2.45

Ricotta $4.49

Basmati rice $3.58

Cauliflower $2.49

Pie crust $2.85

Sausage links $3.00

Scallions $0.34

Lasagna noodles $3.30

Potatoes $5.76

Yellow onions $0.46

Ice cream $2.59

Walnuts $3.29

Nonfat ice cream $2.69

Mustard 1.59

2 jars olives $3.50

Mozzarella cheese $3.99

Cantaloupes $3.98

Carrots $1.78

Cucumbers $0.89

Cheese $1.99

Broccoli $1.69

2 dozen organic eggs $2.78

2 cans tuna $3.10

Apples $1.29

Green peppers $0.68

Soy sauce $0.89

Butter $2.15

Romaine lettuce $1.46

Zucchini $0.88

Medium onions $0.92

Garlic $0.52

Bibliography for: “The price of being a vegetarian: does a meatless diet take a bigger bite out of your bottom line?”

Toni Apgar “The price of being a vegetarian: does a meatless diet take a bigger bite out of your bottom line?“. Vegetarian Times. 13 Apr, 2012.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Vegetarian Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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