NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast is where we answer real money questions. Toni Okamoto is featured in this week’s episode. She talks with Nerds Sean Pyles, Kim Palmer, and Kim Palmer, about how you can save money by incorporating vegan recipes into your daily cooking routine. She shares tips on how to find deals on kitchen […]

NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast is where we answer real money questions.

Toni Okamoto is featured in this week’s episode. She talks with Nerds Sean Pyles, Kim Palmer, and Kim Palmer, about how you can save money by incorporating vegan recipes into your daily cooking routine. She shares tips on how to find deals on kitchen appliances and keep your meals interesting even when on a tight budget.

Watch this episode on any of the following platforms:

Our Take

It’s more difficult than ever to stick to your grocery budget due to inflation. Plant-based meals, which include staples such as vegetables, beans, and rice, can help you eat healthy while keeping your grocery budget under control.

Strategic shopping is also helpful. For example, buying kitchen essentials such as mixers and pressure cooks gently used, or on sale — and purchasing pasta and rice in large quantities. Cooking at home can be fun if you try new recipes or learn to use leftovers in new dishes. This will help to avoid expensive take-out orders.

Plan your meals for the week in advance to make it easier to prepare more food at home. You can also avoid impulse purchases at the supermarket. Signing up for the store loyalty program and using apps such as Flipp, which offer discounts, can help you save money.

Most people spend a lot of money on food, so a few small changes can make a huge difference. This is especially helpful when budgets are being squeezed by rising prices.

Our tips

  • Plan your grocery list and choose recipes in advance. Shopping when you’re hungry can lead to an overspending at the store. Make a shopping list based on specific recipes, before you head to the store.

  • Find cheaper substitutes. If you see a good deal on tomatoes at the vegetable section, you could substitute them for chilis that you had planned to buy. Similar to buying in bulk, or substituting spices with ones that you already own, can lead to creative and cost-effective dishes. Substituting meat-heavy dishes with a few vegan alternatives can help.

  • You can get the lowest prices by using apps such as Flipp or signing up for loyalty programs at grocery stores. Consider a credit card with cash back on grocery purchases. This will help you stretch your budget.

Learn more about NerdWallet’s tips for saving money on food:

Episode Transcript

Sean Pyles welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast. Sean Pyles.

Today we have a special edition of our Nerdy Book Club. Kim Palmer, a regular Smart Money guest as well as a personal finance Nerd, and I will talk with Toni Okamoto. She is the author of a vegan cookbook called “Plant-Based on a Budget: Quick & Easy.”

Kim Palmer: Right. We will talk with her about ways we can incorporate more affordable and easy-to-make food into our lives. This is true even for those who aren’t vegan. And remember, if you want the chance to win our book club giveaways, you can visit nerdwallet.com/bookclub to learn how to enter the next one.

Sean Pyles Okay, then, let’s bring Toni in.

Kim Palmer : Toni – Welcome to Smart Money.

Toni Okamoto: Hi. Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

Kim Palmer: Yes, we are. Let’s begin by asking what made you decide to switch to a vegan diet.

Toni Okamoto : It was long, slow, and gradual. It started when I became an athlete, and ate a lot fast food. I attended high school across from Taco Bell and loved it, so I would go there with my friends all the time and then run track. It was the first time I thought about what I ate and how it affected my mood. So when my coach said, “Hey what are you eating to make you feel sick?” This seemed like a strange question.

He told me to cut down on red meat and fast food, as well as eat more veggies. So that was the end of it for me. My parents were really upset by this. I could have said that I thought I would go live on Mars. They were confused about how they got this hippie-dippy daughter, who didn’t eat any red meat.

That’s where it all began. I gradually, slowly, and slowly reduced my meat consumption. When I was 16 I went vegetarian. At 20 I turned vegan. I did this through a college vegetable club.

Sean Pyles: I will say that Taco Bell has a lot of vegan and vegetarian choices. It’s probably not best to eat this before you do anything physically active, as it can feel like your stomach is full of bricks.

Toni Okamoto, That’s so true. Taco Bell is still my favorite. I won’t lie.

Sean Pyles: I agree with you. Toni, your recipes will help those who still eat animal products, right?

Toni Okamoto: Absolutely. I polled my readers and found that 65% of them eat meat, and are looking to add more plant-based meals into their diets. They’re either trying to eat healthier or save money, or both.

Kim Palmer: That’s what I love about your recipes. Your recipes make it easy to include more plant-based foods in my dinners for my three children, who are all carnivores. The smoothies and desserts are two of the areas that stood out. Can you describe the concept of the frozen pack for smoothies?

Toni Okamoto : We do multiple smoothie packs in our house because the mornings are hectic. You can do them either in a Mason Jar or a Tupperware or plastic bag, depending on what you have. You can put everything in the jar — fruit, spinach, kale or other frozen items — and pack it all for the week. In the morning, you just need to add your plant milk and you are ready to go. This is a great option for busy mornings.

Kim Palmer: Wow! Your recipe for Depression-era Cupcakes was also very good. This was the first recipe I tried from this book. All the ingredients I needed were already in my kitchen. I didn’t need to buy anything. What is the concept behind the recipe?

Toni Okamoto: Absolutely. Baking from the Depression-era is well known and very popular. It is from an age when people relied on their pantry staples, as they couldn’t afford things like butter and eggs. You’ll notice that many Depression-era baking recipes do not use eggs or butter, but instead use vinegar and baking soda as leaveners.

Kim Palmer: I’m not sure if it was the way I made these, but I didn’t use a stand mixer. I instead used a whisk. I don’t think this was the reason they turned out this way, but I thought they were quite filling, almost like bread. I wasn’t sure if it was my whisking, or if they were just designed to be so.

Toni Okamoto : They could have been a bit more fluffy, but that may have been due to your mixing. It’s great that you enjoyed them.

Kim Palmer: I did. I did. I may buy a stand mixer in the future.

Toni Okamoto : I received a hand mixer for free on Facebook through my Buy-Nothing group. Someone gave away an electric Cuisinart mixer and I received it free. If you look around in your area, you may be able get one of these for free.

Kim Palmer: Yes. Okay, that’s a great tip.

Sean Pyles: People might think of Depression-era food, Depression-era cakes, as being bland or depressing. How do you make these recipes flavorful and exciting?

Toni Okamoto : I enjoy doing a few different things. I cook things that my family already knows. My family is Mexican and Japanese so we eat a lot of Mexican food. I also try to make the food I cook familiar for my audience. If I’m going to cook for someone, I want them to be able to enjoy my flavors.

When I cook for my family I swap out beef tacos with lentils. Because beef is expensive right now, I use the same flavors. Use one of the 50-cent taco seasoning packets for sauteing lentils. I cook lentils the same as I would ground beef. Because the flavor and texture are the same, no one thinks twice at the dinner table. I use the same toppings and ingredients, so I don’t have to worry about people feeling deprived.

Sean Pyles Oh I love that.

Kim Palmer: I noticed that when I made the Depression era cupcakes, my children were suspicious of the icing before I added it. But once I did, they said, “OK, this is fine.” ”

Sean Pyles: “There’s Sugar on This, That’s Familiar to Me.” ”

Well, as a snacker I really liked your recipe for crispy garbanzos. What do you suggest for vegetarians who are looking for more delicious, easy snacks?

Toni Okamoto : I can totally relate to that, as I am prone to getting hungry easily. It might not be the best time for my friends if I don’t bring snacks.

The date bars are handy to have in my book. These are easy to make. They’re portable. They are easy to clean. These are easy to make and last a long time. These are the ones I prefer to make. Those chickpeas are delicious. It’s so easy to make and you can add different fruits. If you are like me, and like to add a bit more sweetness to your trail mix, you can also include some chocolate chips along with the nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are expensive so it’s important to know what the cheapest option is. Peanuts, sunflower seeds or raw sunflower seeds are the most affordable options for me.

Kim Palmer: As you may know, NerdWallet is all about saving money. It seems that you can eat a plant-based food on a budget for many of your recipes. I mean, the title of your cookbook says it all. Let’s discuss how you can make this affordable. Fresh fruit and vegetables are also expensive. How can it be made more affordable?

Toni Okamoto says: I’ve read every book on saving money written, whether it is vegetarian or non-vegetarian, and the one thing that has been consistent is eating less meat will save you money. Other budget cookbooks suggest doing a meatless monday or avoiding meat until dinner. You can save money by removing meat from your meals and replacing it with a different protein, such as lentils, split peas, quinoa or other similar foods.

Other things I do are to be very, very thoughtful when purchasing food. It’s not something everyone does. In fact, very few people. They don’t have a plan when they go shopping. They do not check what they already have. Shoppers make impulsive purchases based on what they think looks good at the time. All of these lead to overspending.

Over the last 11 years that I have been running Plant Based on a budget, I’ve helped people navigate the grocery store. Once you are there, you will find it difficult to navigate the grocery store with all the marketing and strategies designed to make you spend money on the latest packaged foods. If you are thoughtful before you go, you will be in a much better position.

Sean Pyles: I like to order groceries for Sunday with my partner on Saturday afternoon. We’ll then go through our favorite recipes. We have a Mediterranean cookbook we love, a vegetarian cookbook we use a lot and we will pick out recipes we want to cook throughout the week. Then we will order them curbside through the grocery app. We can order curbside pickup through the grocery store app, and we won’t have to even go into the shop. This way, we avoid picking up items that aren’t necessary for our recipes.

Toni Okamoto : Wow, that’s clever. I was talking to a friend about the difficulties of navigating the supermarket and how Instacart can help. She convinced me that it pays for itself because you won’t make impulsive buys at the store. I wonder if you agree.

Sean Pyles: I don’t pay anything for Instacart. Many grocery stores, including the one I frequent, offer their own apps that allow curbside pickup. You have to physically go to the store to get your items, but it’s worth it. Again, there is no annual fee. I am a fan.

When I switched to a vegetarian diet, I found that I was able to save around $40 per week by eliminating meat. I was shocked at how affordable being vegetarian can be.

Toni Okamoto : I remember, in 2013, this huge campaign called SNAP Challenge was launched to highlight how little money people received for food when they were on government assistance. I watched a number of celebrities, politicians and influencers take on this challenge. Their food was highly processed.

I created my own challenge called the Plant-Based on a Budget Challenge. I wanted to show people how much you can save while still eating healthily. At the time, my weekly budget was $25. This challenge was also done with thousands of people in my audience. They were able to spend between $20 and $30 for groceries per week for one person eating three meals a day plus snacks.

Sean Pyles: Wow, that’s incredible. I think that people, especially with the inflation and groceries getting so expensive will wonder if it’s still feasible. What were some ways you were able make your grocery bills so low?

Toni Okamoto says that if you want to save money, it’s better to buy in bulk and learn to love leftovers, rather than relying on convenience food. In my new book “Plant-Based on a Budget Quick & Easy”, I give a mix of options, such as using canned beans instead of cooking from scratch. This will cost you a bit more, but you won’t be spending the time or money to cook them yourself.

You have to decide what you can do more of. It’s sometimes worth it to spend a little extra to buy your bread rather than make your own and take the time to let it rise. You’re probably going to have to think about it again and again.

When trying to save money, I believe that buying in bulk, keeping your pantry and freezer well-stocked, and learning how to enjoy leftovers is key. When I plan my meals, I make four entrees that can be used for both lunch and dinner.

Sean Pyles: I find it difficult to cook because of boredom and also trying to save on food costs. I’m not a fan of leftovers. It’s just that I have trouble keeping things interesting. How do you keep your cooking exciting and interesting when you make things in bulk, and you eat the same thing a few days in a a row?

Toni Okamoto : This is my favorite thing because, like you I do not love eating the same food every day. What I do is make a large pot of chili. You make a large pot of chili the first day and eat it straight away. On the second day, I served it with roasted sweet potatoes and cilantro. The next day, I’d serve it over brown rice, with lime juice, chopped onions, and avocado. If you’re on a budget, an avocado costs about 50 cents here. But I’m sure that isn’t the case everywhere. Just to change it up a bit so that you don’t eat the same bowl of chili everyday.

Sean Pyles: This is a principle that can be applied to many different types of cuisine. In Italy, polenta can be called a “three-day meal” because you can eat it the first day as a mealy polenta and the next day make patties and put them on sandwiches. The third day, you can use the leftover patties to make almost fries. You can get three different meals out of a single meal.

Toni Okamoto That’s my favourite.

Kim Palmer : What would you recommend someone who is new to plant-based food to start with?

Toni Okamoto : Everyone loves a soup that is packed with vegetables. It’s more like a stew and is loved by everyone in the family.

Sean Pyles: I found it difficult to convince my partner that the meals that I was preparing were both tasty and satisfying. What are your thoughts on overcoming these challenges in vegetarian cooking?

Toni Okamoto : I have found that my friends and audience are satisfied when you make a base to which everyone can add their own ingredients. If your partner wants to add another protein to the meal, it is perfectly fine. You can still enjoy both meals.

You can also start by introducing your family to familiar dishes that do not rely on meat substitutes. For example, you could introduce them to burritos, pasta dishes, or wraps.

Kim Palmer: That’s great. Kim Palmer: I love that.

You mentioned that it is helpful to have a few key tools on hand, such as a hand mixer or some ingredients. For me, it was the hand mixer. This way, everyone will be ready to cook, and they can also save money. Could you give us an overview of the essential kitchen tools that we should all have to save money and make cooking easier?

Toni Okamoto says that it’s great to have the bare minimum. When I first started cooking, I used a lot of hand-me downs from my parents. It wasn’t until maybe five years later that I began to invest. When I started investing, I discovered that good knives were the thing that changed my life in the kitchen.

A pot with a cover is a great idea. In the past, I didn’t have a pot with a lid. I had to use another pan to cover a pot in order to cook rice. It’s much easier to cook with a lid.

It is worth investing in good storage containers. For example, airtight ones with snap-tops.

If you can afford it, an Instant Pot will revolutionize your cooking. I can buy in bulk without worrying about how long it will take to cook on the stovetop. For example, instead 20 minutes on the stovetop for quinoa, I only spend five minutes with the pressure cooker. It helps me save money and eat healthier. It’s paid for itself after about six or seven years of use.

Kim Palmer: Do you have any tips or tricks on how to find good deals on these kinds of products? If you are in the market to buy a set of knives, or any of these essentials, do you have a particular time of the year that you would recommend making the purchase?

Toni Okamoto : I bought my pressure cooker from Amazon’s used section. It says “new for this price” or “used at this cost,” which means that it has been returned. Mine had a cosmetic dent and was $30 off. So I saved $30 and didn’t really care about the dent.

You can also search Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace to find even better deals. When it comes to sales, or the best time of year, I prefer to make my big purchases during Presidents Day or Labor Day sales. You can find high-quality items at stores like Marshalls, Ross or HomeGoods at much lower prices.

Kim Palmer: These are some great tips. Thank you.

Thank you so much, Toni. What final thoughts would you like to share with our audience?

Toni Okamoto : Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today. If anyone has any further questions, please contact me via Plant-Based On A Budget on Instagram. I will be happy to answer all questions.

Kim Palmer: Thank you very much. This is the end of this episode. To share your thoughts on how to budget, pay off debt or manage finances, shoot us an email at [email protected] Visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode and remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

Sean Pyles: Kim Palmer and I produced this episode. Tess Vigeland provided editing assistance. Thank you also to all the people on the NerdWallet Copy Desk for their assistance.

Please read our short disclaimer. We are not investment or financial advisors. This information is for entertainment and educational purposes only and may not be applicable to your particular circumstances.

Kim Palmer : Turn to the Nerds until next time.