The holidays are fraught with opportunities to indulge. From Halloween candy to New Year's Eve Champagne, it's easier than ever to unconsciously consume calories and spend money. But swapping out some holiday staples with inexpensive vegan dishes can help you keep your finances and your health in check.
"Going vegan even for a couple of days a week gives your body a little bit of a break. Consuming lots of processed foods or animal proteins can be hard on your digestive system," says Danielle Nierenberg, president and cofounder of nonprofit organization Food Tank, and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues.
There are so many vegan foods people are already eating, she says. "I think people think [eating vegan] is going to be so radically different than what they're eating now."
Nierenberg shares her best tips for adding low-cost plant-based foods to your diet for a healthier holiday season and a seasonal vegan succotash recipe that costs $2.51 per serving.
"Just being a vegan doesn't make you skinny and it doesn't make you healthy," says Nierenberg, who has a master's of science in agriculture, food, and environment from the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Prepared foods like vegan cheese are animal-product-free but they have a high calorie count, she explains. "Potato chips are vegan. You can't just eat a lot of processed crap, you have to eat things in moderation and understand that sometimes foods are meant to be eaten once a month, or once a week, and not every day."
If you decide to experiment with veganism part time, it's important to eat a diversity of foods. "Have a rainbow on your plate," she says.
Cooked vegetables are easier to digest, and high-fiber produce like pears, strawberries, and broccoli can get you more bang for your buck at the grocery store. Fiber takes longer for your body to break down, making you feel full even though you're consuming less, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A little planning ahead can help you avoid wasting money on uneaten produce. "Freezing things has been really helpful to me, or cooking in bulk. Make [vegan] soups ahead of time and freeze them, so that you don't turn to unhealthy foods," she says.
Nierenberg has spent much of her career studying livestock production, and although she is a practicing vegan she believes that animals are an important part of our food systems.
But swapping out animal-based proteins for plant-based proteins a few days a week can save you money, and it isn't any less nutritious, she explains.
"There's a myth that you can only get protein from eating meat, and that's certainly not true. You can get it from all sorts of vegetables, beans, and things like hummus. There's a lot of different ways to get it, including plant-based milks and lots of nuts," she says.
You can make small but significant changes. Instead of buying an $8 pound of beef, buy a block of tofu for $2. Cashews are another easy, inexpensive way to incorporate protein into your diet. You can keep cashews on hand by storing them in your freezer for up to a year, which will help you avoid unhealthy snacking.
Since swapping out beef for tofu may seem unimaginable if you're not used to it, there are simpler and more familiar ways to eat vegan proteins. "Almost everybody I know has peanut butter or almond butter in their cabinet. You could start your day off with some whole wheat bread. Spread almond butter on it, and dribble some agave, or put jam on it," Nierenberg says.
Remember, too, that your body may need less protein than you assume it does. "In some cases, people, in the United States especially, are eating too much protein and it's sort of wearing on their kidneys, and it's not as healthy as everyone believes it is, because of the hype about keto and Atkins," she says.
To elevate your vegetables and incorporate holiday flavors into them, Nierenberg suggests adding the herbs and spices that you'd normally use for holiday staples like sage, rosemary, and thyme.
"We don't cook vegetables well. I think that's kind of an art that maybe we didn't grow up learning how to do. It's sort of the same way we learn to roast meat, like a pot roast or something. You can do the same with vegetables," she says.
You can also experiment with using condiments like harissa, which can elevate the flavor of carrot soup, eggplant, or chickpeas. And if you're anticipating the disappointment of sacrificing cheese, try nutritional yeast, she suggests: "Nutritional yeast sprinkled on popcorn is a great snack that tastes really cheesy, and it provides the essential amino acids and B12 that are often missing from animal-free diets."
Whether you decide to go vegan a couple of days a week or once a month, or you choose it as a lifestyle, it's all about experimenting, Nierenberg says. "It's eating different foods that you normally wouldn't be eating. Food is such a personal thing I want people to eat what they want, to be honest. I want people to have delicious experiences with food that they feel comfortable with."