Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission.Reviews ethics statement
CNET editors independently choose every product and service we cover. Though we can’t review every available financial company or offer, we strive to make comprehensive, rigorous comparisons in order to highlight the best of them. For many of these products and services, we earn a commission. The compensation we receive may impact how products and links appear on our site.
Forget the bougie image: Plant-based eating is the cheap, tasty way to save us all
Celebs, plant-based burgers and faddishness have shrouded the fact that a true "frugal gourmet" lifestyle is plant-based.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
A recent survey of 1,072 Americans found that a plant-based diet was about $23 a week less expensive than one with meat (and that scales with household size) even though most of us assume the opposite. Much of that misperception might be due to the blurring of plant-based food vs. plant-based processed food.
Highly processed plant-based food like new alternative meats and cheeses, while very impressive, are often more expensive compared to animal products. That's where the savvy diner will discern between processed and whole foods. There's nothing radical here: The standard food pyramid has long been composed primarily of minimally-processed vegetables, fruits and grains, long before Beyond Sausage and Impossible Burgers existed.
There are so many tempting pasta and vegetable combinations that you can fill a kitchen shelf with cookbooks devoted to them. And I would hazard a guess that, in most American homes, such pasta dishes have an easier road to acceptance at the dinner table since they print "Italian" more than "plant-based."
I have a hack theory called the "minimally viable meal," which recognizes that most people feel meat anchors the center of a plate in any proper meal while confirming a subconscious sense of financial well-being -- not just dietary satiation. The age-old saying "putting meat on the table" confers more about household income than diet, though. Having meat on the table is what persuaded the Joad family's patriarch in The Grapes of Wrath to stay in an exploitative work arrangement rather than join fellow migrant workers striking for a livable wage: "Tonight we had meat, not much, but we had it. You think Pa's gonna give up his meat on account of some other fellas?"
Meat therefore ends up defining the parameters of dining, often leaving plant-based diets as underdogs in a clear-eyed analysis of nutrition vs. tradition. How can the cost and nutritional merits of plant-based eating be considered if the gut reaction is to rule them out? This is the kind of long game plant-based diets have to play.
How to shop
If you're ready to clear your mental deck and economically migrate to a plant-based diet, here are the best tips:
Rice, beans, grains and pasta are cheap, crave-able and never go bad. (Get over the old idea that carbs make you fat: They don't.)
Buy vegetables and fruit in season, not off-season oddities that have the cost of shipping from another hemisphere built in.
Watch the "alt meats". I hate to say this, because I really like them, but if saving money is your main focus, plant-based burgers and sausages aren't quite there yet. Enjoy occasionally.
Cook for two: Two meals, not two people. Making double of any dish and storing half for later in the week is cheaper than making just a bit more than you need and either throwing out the remainder or letting it go bad in the fridge as it waits for a time when it's enough to do something with.
Don't conflate "plant-based" with "organic." This happens all the time, but they're different concepts. Unless you specifically want organic food, buy conventional and save money.
Spend on key seasonings: Buy good oil, quality salt and fresh herbs. These go a long way toward elevating any dish and are worth the money.
The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.