Smart Money Podcast: Toni Okamoto on Plant-Based Recipes for Less
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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your real-world money questions.
This week’s episode features Toni Okamoto, author of “Plant-Based on a Budget Quick & Easy.” She chats with Nerds Sean Pyles and Kim Palmer about how to prepare healthy and affordable vegan meals, and she explains how incorporating plant-based recipes into your cooking routine can help you save money and eat healthier. She also shares her tips on finding deals on kitchen equipment and how to keep meals interesting, even when you’re on a budget.
Check out this episode on either of these platforms:
With inflation pushing food prices higher, it’s harder than ever to stick to a budget when shopping for groceries. But incorporating plant-based meals that feature staples like vegetables, beans and rice can make it easier to eat well while still keeping grocery spending under control.
Strategic shopping can also help, such as purchasing kitchen essentials like mixers and pressure cookers gently used or when they’re on sale — or buying pasta and rice in bulk. Trying out new recipes and learning to turn leftovers into new dishes can also keep cooking at home fun, which is key to avoiding pricey last-minute takeout orders.
Taking time to plan out the week’s meals in advance makes it easier to cook more at home and to avoid impulse purchases when shopping at the grocery store. Using apps like Flipp to find discounts and signing up for your local store’s loyalty program — which can give you access to additional savings — also helps lower your overall food bill.
Food is one of the most variable expenses in most people’s budgets, which means a few changes can have a big impact, something that’s especially useful when rising prices are straining budgets.
Choose recipes and plan out your shopping list in advance. It’s easy to overspend at the grocery store if you start shopping without a concrete plan for what you are going to cook for the week, especially if you shop when hungry. Instead, make a list that corresponds to specific recipes before you hit the aisles.
Find cheaper substitutions. You might notice a deal on tomatoes in the vegetable aisle, which means you can substitute them for the chilis you’d planned to purchase. Similarly, buying in bulk or switching out spices for the ones you already have can result in creative, lower-cost dishes. Subbing meat-heavy meals for a few plant-based alternatives can also help.
Get access to the best deals. By using apps like Flipp and signing up for grocery store loyalty programs, you ensure you’re getting the lowest price available for shoppers. You might also want to consider a credit card that offers cash back for grocery purchases to further extend your budget.
More about how to spend less on food on NerdWallet:
Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.
Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast. I'm Sean Pyles.
We have a special episode in store for you today for our Nerdy Book Club series. Regular Smart Money guest and personal finance Nerd Kim Palmer and I will be talking with Toni Okamoto, author of “Plant-Based on a Budget Quick & Easy,” a cookbook that features affordable vegan meals.
Kim Palmer: That's right. We're going to talk to her about how we can all incorporate more inexpensive and also easy-to-make meals into our lives, even for those of us who aren't fully 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: All right, well, let's bring in Toni.
Kim Palmer: Toni, welcome to Smart Money.
Toni Okamoto: Hi. Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to chat with you today.
Kim Palmer: We are, too. So let's start with what initially made you want to switch to a plant-based diet.
Toni Okamoto: Well, it was very, very long and slow and gradual, and it originally started because I was an athlete and I was eating a lot of fast food. I went to high school right across the street from Taco Bell, and I loved Taco Bell, so I was going there all the time with my friends and then going and running track. And I had never thought about how what I was eating impacted how I felt. And so when my coach asked me, "Hey, what are you eating that's making you feel sick after practice?" I thought that was a very strange question.
So he ended up telling me that I should cut back on my red meat, cut back on fast food and try to eat more vegetables. And so that was it for me. And honestly, my parents had such a hard time with that. I could have told them that I was now thinking I'm going to go live on Mars. They were just so confused as to how they ended up with this hippie dippy daughter who didn't even eat red meat.
So that's how it all started. And I slowly, slowly, slowly and gradually went over to eating less meat. So that was when I was 16, so when I was 20 I became vegan and that was through a college vegetarian club.
Sean Pyles: Well, one thing I'll say is that it's actually quite easy to get some vegan and vegetarian options at Taco Bell. But probably not the best to eat before doing anything active because it can make it feel like you have a bunch of bricks in your stomach.
Toni Okamoto: That is so true. I still do love me some Taco Bell. I'm not going to lie.
Sean Pyles: Yeah, I'm with you. Well, Toni, the recipes in your book will also help people who still eat meat, right?
Toni Okamoto: Absolutely. I actually polled my audience and 65% of the people who enjoy my recipes also eat meat and they're looking to incorporate more plant-based dishes into their lives. Either that or they're trying to eat a little bit healthier or they're trying to save money.
Kim Palmer: I think that's one thing that I like about your recipes so much. Because I make dinner for my three kids and they are total carnivores, but with your recipes, it's easy to incorporate — even if it's a side dish for my kids — it's easy to incorporate some more plant-based things. And two areas that jumped out are the smoothies and the desserts. So with the smoothies, can you explain the freezer pack concept and how that works?
Toni Okamoto: I love smoothie packs because mornings are so hectic at our household and that got us into doing multiple smoothie packs. You can either do them in a Mason jar or a plastic bag or Tupperware, whatever you have. And you put all of the frozen goods in there — like fruit, sometimes we do some spinach or some kale — and you pack them all up for the week. And in the morning all you do is add your plant-based milk and you're good to go. It's much easier for hectic morning times.
Kim Palmer: That's awesome. I also really liked your Depression-era cupcakes recipe. That was actually the first thing I made from this book. And one thing that I liked about it is that I had all of the ingredients in my home already. I didn't have to go out and buy anything. Can you explain the concept or the story behind that recipe?
Toni Okamoto: Absolutely. Depression-era baking is very common and well known, and it is from an era where people had to rely on their pantry staples and they didn't have things available easily and affordably, like eggs and butter. So you'll find that a lot of Depression-era style baking recipes don't have those things and instead use what I used in my recipe: vinegar and baking soda for leavening.
Kim Palmer: And one thing I noticed — I don't know if this was just the way I made them because I actually didn't have a stand-up mixer and so I used a hand whisk. So I don't know if this is what caused them to come out like this, but to me they were very filling almost like bread, and I didn't know if that was because of my hand whisking or if that was just because they were designed to be more filling.
Toni Okamoto: They should be a little bit on the fluffy side, but it could have been the mixing part on your end. But I'm glad that you liked them either way.
Kim Palmer: I did. I did. I might invest in a stand-up mixer at some point.
Toni Okamoto: I got a free hand mixer on my buy-nothing group on Facebook for our neighborhood. Someone was giving away a Cuisinart hand mixer, an electric one, and I got it for free. So if you check around your neighborhood in the buy-nothing group, you might be able to get a really good quality one for free.
Kim Palmer: Yes. OK. That's a good tip.
Sean Pyles: I think people might hear Depression-era cooking, Depression-era cupcakes, and think that it might be lacking in flavor or maybe a little depressing. How do you keep these recipes exciting and flavorful?
Toni Okamoto: I like to do a few things. I make things that, one, my family is already familiar with. I'm Mexican and Japanese, so my family eats Mexican food a lot, and I try to keep the food that I'm cooking very familiar to my audience. So whoever I'm cooking for, I want to make sure that they're going to enjoy the flavors.
And the simple swaps that I make are things like, when I'm cooking for my family, instead of beef tacos — beef right now is pretty expensive — I will swap in lentils and use all the same flavorings. You can use one of those 50 cent taco seasoning packets to saute the lentils in. So I cook the lentils exactly in the same way I would cook the ground beef. And because the texture is similar and because the flavors are similar, nobody thinks twice about it at the table. I'm using all the same toppings, familiar ingredients and flavors, and so it's usually a well-loved recipe and I do that over and over and over again so that people don't think anything’s depressing or they're lacking in what they like to eat.
Sean Pyles: Oh, I love that.
Kim Palmer: One thing I noticed when I made the Depression-era cupcakes is that my kids were a little suspicious before I put the icing on, and then once I added the icing, they were like, "OK, these are fine."
Sean Pyles: Yeah, "There's sugar on this, that's familiar to me."
Well, I'm a big snacker and I loved your recipe for the crispy garbanzo beans. For those of us who want more tasty, easy vegetarian snacks, what do you recommend?
Toni Okamoto: I totally understand that because I get hangry easily. If I don't carry snacks with me, it might not be a good time for anyone in my company.
So I like to carry around the date bars in the book. They are very easy to make. They're portable. They don't make a mess. They hold for a long time in the refrigerator so you can batch make them for the week, and they're very simple. So I like to do those. Those chickpeas are delicious. And I also always have trail mix on hand because it's easy and you can customize them with different fruits. Or if you're like me and you like a little bit of extra sweetness, you'll throw in some chocolate chips with nuts and seeds. And nuts and seeds can be a little bit expensive, so knowing what is the most affordable option is key. For me, I tend to go with things like peanuts or sunflower seeds, raw sunflower seeds, those are going to be the cheapest options.
Kim Palmer: At NerdWallet, as you know, we are all about saving money. And it seems like for a lot of your recipes — I mean, it's in the title of your book, too — eating a plant-based diet, you can do it on a budget. So let's talk a little bit more about just how to make it affordable. You talked about nuts and seeds, but also fresh fruit and vegetables can be very expensive. How can we make it more affordable?
Toni Okamoto: Well, I have studied every cookbook possible written about saving money, vegetarian or not, and one thing that is common throughout is eating less meat is going to save you money. So a lot of other budget cookbooks talk about maybe doing a meatless Monday or not eating meat before dinnertime. And when you're removing the meat and going toward a protein like lentils or split peas or quinoa or things like that, you can really save on money.
And other things that I like to do is be really, really thoughtful about purchasing food. And I think that that's something that not everyone does, and actually very few people do. They go to the grocery store without a plan. They don't look to see what they have on hand first. They shop impulsively based on what looks good in the moment. And all of those lead to spending more than you should.
And what I've done over the past 11 years, that's how long I've been running Plant-Based on a Budget, is help people learn to navigate the grocery store. Because once you're there, it is really tough with all of the beautiful marketing in place and strategies that are designed to get you to spend money on all of the new beautiful packaged foods. So if you can be thoughtful before getting there, you're going to be in a better position.
Sean Pyles: One thing that I really like to do with my partner is on Saturday afternoon, we'll typically put in a grocery order for Sunday, where we'll go through our favorite cookbooks. We have this Mediterranean cookbook that we really like, another vegetarian cookbook that we reference a lot, and we'll pick out a handful of recipes that we want to make throughout the week, and then we order them through curbside pickup through the grocery store app. And that way we don't even have to go into the store; we completely avoid the temptation of picking up things that we don't need for our recipes, but we can ensure that we are getting everything that we do need.
Toni Okamoto: That's smart. I was chatting with a friend and I was talking about navigating the grocery store and the challenges that come with that, and she was convincing me that the Instacart annual fee pays for itself by not having impulsive purchases once you're at the grocery store. So I'm wondering if you feel the same.
Sean Pyles: Well, I don't even pay for Instacart. My grocery store that I go to primarily, and a lot of grocery stores across the country, have their own apps where you can just do curbside pickup. It requires you to go to the store, but you do get what you want. And again, no annual fee, so I'm a big fan of that.
But I noticed that when I began transitioning to a more vegetarian diet that I started saving around $40 a week just by cutting out meat. I was pretty shocked by how affordable it can be to be vegetarian.
Toni Okamoto: Yes, back in, I want to say 2013, there was this big campaign called the SNAP Challenge that was trying to bring light to how little food money people were receiving when they had government assistance for food. And I saw a lot of different influencers and politicians and celebrities taking this challenge and what they were eating seemed to be highly processed.
So I did my own challenge, called the Plant-Based on a Budget Challenge, where I tried to show how little you can spend while eating healthy. And at the time, I was able to get down to $25 a week. And I did this challenge with several thousand people from my audience, and they were also able to get into the $20 to $30 range for groceries for the week for one person, three meals per day plus snacks.
Sean Pyles: That's pretty incredible. I think especially amid inflation with groceries becoming so much more expensive, people will wonder if that's still possible. What were some of the ways that you were able to make your groceries so affordable?
Toni Okamoto: I would say now it would probably be about $35 to $40 for the week using the same grocery list, and it would be learning to like your leftovers and shopping in bulk, not relying on convenience foods if you are trying to save money. My new book, “Plant-Based on a Budget Quick & Easy,” gives a mixture of using canned beans for example, instead of cooking them from scratch, knowing that you're going to spend a little bit more money because you don't have the time to sit and watch your stovetop for two and a half hours or three hours.
So you have to assess what you have more of. Sometimes it's worth the splurge to buy your own bread instead of making your own bread and spending the several hours it takes to allow it to rise and things like that. So that's something that you're going to go back and forth on.
But I think that shopping in bulk, having a well-stocked pantry and freezer, and learning to love your leftovers are key when trying to save money. Because when I'm meal planning, I cook four entrees for the week and those stretch for lunch and dinner.
Sean Pyles: One thing that I struggle with is getting bored when cooking and trying to save money like the big batch meal prep. And I know it's bad, leftovers are not really my thing. I just have a hard time keeping it interesting. So how do you keep cooking interesting and exciting when you're making things in bulk and you are eating maybe the same meal a couple of days in a row?
Toni Okamoto: This is one of my favorite things because like you, I don't love eating the same thing every day. And so what I like to do is we'll take a big pot of chili. The first day you make a big pot of chili and you eat it as-is. Then the second day I would serve it over roasted sweet potatoes with some cilantro on top. And then the next day I would eat it over a bed of brown rice with some lime juice and chopped onions and adding some avocado — if that's within your budget here, it's about 50 cents to get an avocado, so we eat those, but I know that's not the case everywhere. And just trying to switch it up so you're not eating just the bowl of chili every day.
Sean Pyles: You can apply that to a lot of different types of cooking as well. Like in Italy, polenta is sometimes called a three-day meal, where the first day you'll make it and you'll have it as a meal-y polenta, and then the second day you can make patties out of it and maybe put that on a sandwich, and then the third day you'll take the patties that you have left over and you can make those and almost do fries. And so you're getting three different types of meals from a single dish.
Toni Okamoto: Yes, that's my favorite.
Kim Palmer: If someone is listening and they're new to plant-based cooking, what would be a good recipe to try out first?
Toni Okamoto: Everybody loves a hearty soup, and one that's packed with veggies is more like a stew, is usually loved by the whole family, or a chili.
Sean Pyles: One of the biggest challenges that I had was shifting over to a more vegetarian or vegan diet was convincing my partner that these meals were one, tasty, and two, will leave you satisfied, as in you won't be hungry again in an hour. How do you think about addressing these challenges to vegetarian cooking?
Toni Okamoto: What I've found through my audience and friends is that making a base that everyone will enjoy, that people can add what they want to, makes everyone satisfied. So if your partner wanted to add a different protein to their meal, that's totally fine and it's something that you still both can enjoy.
Another thing to do is go back to those very familiar meals that don't rely on substitutes, like burritos or pasta dishes or wraps, things like that that you can start to ease your family into that they won't think twice about how it doesn't have meat in the meal.
Kim Palmer: I love that. I know for my kids, too, as long as I have something like ketchup to add to anything, it can help make them eat whatever I am serving.
One thing that you mentioned is how it can be really helpful to have some key tools, maybe some ingredients, maybe for me it's that hand mixer, that everyone can just have on hand so they're ready to cook and can save money while they're doing it. So could you just give us a little overview of some of those essential tools, like what should we all have in our kitchens to make it easy to cook and save money?
Toni Okamoto: What's cool is that you can have very, very bare minimum. When I started, I had so many hand-me-downs from my parents, and it wasn't until I was maybe five years into cooking more regularly that I started to invest. And when I invested, the things that I found that really changed my life dramatically in the kitchen are good knives.
Having a pot with a lid. I used to not have a pot or a pan with a lid, so I would have to put another pan over a pot to cook rice or things like that. But it's so much easier if you have a lid.
Having good quality storage containers, like airtight containers with the snap tops, those are really worth the investment.
And if you have it in your budget, having an Instant Pot has totally revolutionized my cooking. It allows me to buy a lot in bulk and not have to worry about the time it cooks on the stovetop. So for example, instead of 20 minutes for quinoa on the stovetop, I spend about five minutes in the pressure cooker and it helps me eat healthier and save money on the ingredients. And I've been using it for probably six, seven years and it's definitely paid for itself.
Kim Palmer: Are there any tricks or tips you have on how to get good deals on those kinds of items? Like if you're in the market for a new set of knives or one of these other essentials, is there a certain time of year you should make the purchase or a way to find the best discounts?
Toni Okamoto: I used the Amazon used section for my pressure cooker, and I don't know if you're familiar with this, but it says "new at this price or used at this price,” and that means it's been returned. And mine had a dent in it that was only cosmetic and it was $30 off. So I was able to save $30, and I don't care personally about the dent in it.
But you can also check your Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for even cheaper deals. As for sales or best time of the year, I like to buy the big purchases at Presidents Day sales or Labor Day sales or Prime Day. And you can also find really high-quality stuff at places like Marshalls or Ross or HomeGoods that are really well-trusted brands at a much more discounted price.
Kim Palmer: Those are great tips. Thank you.
Well, thank you, Toni, so much for being on our podcast. Do you have any final thoughts to share with our listeners?
Toni Okamoto: I am so appreciative for being able to chat with you today, and if anybody has any other questions, they can contact me at Plant-Based on a Budget on Instagram, and I am happy to answer any questions big or small.
Kim Palmer: Well, thank you so much. That is all the time we have for 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: This episode was produced by Kim Palmer and myself. We had editing help from Tess Vigeland. And a big thank you to the folks on the NerdWallet copy desk for all their help.
Here's our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.
Kim Palmer: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.