1. Purchase the prepared or pre-chopped produce.
You know how it is. You see pre-chopped produce packages and you throw some shade in your mind about who on earth is really too lazy to cut up their own carrots, celery or onions, right? If you find yourself reaching for take out menus or processed foods because you are out of energy at the end of the day to prepare a meal and need to revert to something familiar, fast or easy, give yourself and your family a break. Although I am not typically a proponent of buying in the package what you can prepare more inexpensively at home, I want you to feel good about your meal! Sometimes these items can be helpful in a pinch, like when you are traveling, moving, working late on a project or have little ones. Try a few prepared produce options out and see if the time and energy you save in the decision making and chopping helps you to simplify your meals.
2. Purchase sauces and toppings from a favorite restaurant.
You like the flavors but not the entree’s price tag. Ask your favorite Indian place to sell you a container of that green chutney your family really enjoys. Get some extra salsas to go from Chipotle. You love the tahini sauce from that falafel store? They will to sell it to you! Bring it home and add it to your beans, grains, pasta or salad. For a fraction of the price, you get a flavor profile you love.
3. Lunch specials.
An oldie but goodie: get the cheaper lunch special and bring some home for another meal. Lunch specials tend to be lower cost than dinners, often for a similar amount of food. Bonus points for bringing your own reusable container.
4. Use a pressure cooker.
You are likely hearing a lot about pressure cookers in the last few years — in part because of my friend JL Fields and her excellent classes and cookbook: Vegan Pressure Cooking: Delicious Grains, Beans, and One-Pot Meals in Seconds. Once scary, newer electronic models are easy to use; their resurgence is not accidental. Save a lot of money and time by pouring some broth and lentils into your pressure cooker. Add frozen or prepared veggies, maybe a grain if you want. Cook. It is that simple, super-tasty and delightfully inexpensive.
5. Roast and bake.
This sometimes-lazy lady’s favorite is to roast up some veggies, sprinkled with spices and drizzled with oil, serve and watch disappear. Fun fact: you can roast veggies while simultaneously baking veggie burgers (store-bought or homemade). Roasted cauliflower, oven fries and veggie burgers are all popular foods that combine to make a healthy meal.
6.Utilize prepared grains/protein.
You have gotten the animals walked and fed, the kids their breakfast and made their lunches and managed to clean the kitchen while doing so, which leaves you all of 97 seconds to prepare your own lunch or be stuck with yet another slice of cheese-less pizza from the place two doors down from the office. You call on your pre-made rice or couscous, or pull some out of the freezer and microwave for 40 seconds. While it defrosts, you throw your salad greens, prepared marinated tofu or canned beans and some prepared veggies into your container, throw in some dressing and nuts, toss the rice on top, cover it and you are out the door with 20 seconds to spare. This is not a fictional scene. That batch of grains or package of seasoned, prepared seitan or tofu can make a difference.
7. Bulk cook or pre-prepare.
You don’t have to give up your entire Sunday to bulk cook. Little Pinterest-perfect mason jars of deliciousness parceled out for the week are great. However, you don’t have to be fancy: sometimes you can just double the amount of quinoa or beans that you are making and suddenly you’ve got another meal.
Identify ahead of time what you are making, who is responsible for specific ingredients and how you will transport finished items. Enjoy as a group or take home for the week ahead.
9. Stock your freezer.
Keep a ready supply of frozen veggies, grains and meals and snacks to grab when time and energy are at a premium. This is an unbelievably easy way of getting cheap and easy vegan meals into your tummy.
10. Use up your leftovers.
Yes, vegans are leaving a lighter environmental footprint but aren’t immune to the ongoing problem of food waste. Soups are a good choice and I learned a great trick from the wonderful book Raising Vegetarian Children that you can puree a variety of leftovers together with a savory base and call it a spread, dip or pate!
11. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!
As I tell my classes at MSVA, not every meal has to — or is going to — be perfect. Sometimes our bodies just need a little well-balanced fuel to keep us motoring. Don’t stress the easy choices, and embrace those moments when you have more to give.
Jennifer Gannett is a faculty member at Main Street Vegan Academy, a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, a cat socializer, dog lover, and busy mom, who works formally and informally to make the world a better place.