VEGAN on a Shoestring

Can a Low-Budget Vegan Menu Be Nutritionally Adequate?

By Karen Leibowitz

Former VRG intern Kitty Jones wrote a blog post, "Being Vegan and Saving Money" (, which refutes the misconception that following a vegan diet is expensive. She demonstrates that eating a plant-based diet is not difficult for someone on a budget. She buys her food from bulk bins or in bulk portions, from farmer's markets, or finds free food from food pantries and organizations like Food Not Bombs. She buys powdered soy and rice milks and even makes her own liquid nut milks. She cooks her foods at home in large batches and enjoys potlucks with friends rather than eating out or buying pre-cooked foods.

In her article, she includes a rough estimate — and a delicious composition — of her weekly food intake while on a limited income. It consists of a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and a daily 1 Tablespoon to 1 cup serving of vitamin B12-rich nutritional yeast.

While expenses are important, it is always critical to keep health in mind as well. Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) provide general and age/weight/sex/lifestyle-specific guidelines for daily nutritional intake. The following sections contain Dietary Guidelines and RDAs for a college-aged female of normal height and weight, who is not pregnant or lactating, and lives an active lifestyle. I have asked Kitty for more specific portion sizes of the foods mentioned in her blog posting. With this, we can see how Kitty's diet compares to federal guidelines and recommendations, and decide whether a vegan diet that is low income is also wholesome. For the nutrient content of foods, we used the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

Kitty's Menu

Dietary Guidelines

"Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas." - USDA

Kitty's diet consists of a wide variety of vegetables ranging from kale and arugula to sweet potatoes and white beans.

"Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D." - USDA

Because Kitty's diet consists of all plants, it is loaded with dietary fiber. The bananas, honeydew melon, white bean chili, and several other foods contain potassium. Kale and fortified tofu (Vitasoy Organic Nasoya Tofu Plus Firm was used for this analysis) also provide calcium, as well as vitamin D in some tofu brands.

Recommended Daily Allowances

I have included calories, fat, protein, and selected vitamins and minerals.


Recommendation: 2,278 calories/day based on Kitty's age, gender, weight, height, and activity level

Kitty's Average: 2090 calories/day

Kitty consumed an average of 2,090 calories per day, ranging from 1,448 — 2,963 calories on a given day. Although Kitty's average intake seems to be about 200 calories less than her calculated calorie recommendation, Kitty's weight is stable. Since she's not losing weight, she's probably getting enough calories. It is a good idea to consume more calories on very active days.


Recommendation: 51 - 89 grams fat/day based on Kitty's age, gender, weight, height, and activity level

Kitty's Average: 37 grams/day

Kitty consumed an average of 37 grams of fat per day, ranging from 21-60 grams. A suggestion for someone slightly under the recommended amount of fat intake would be to consume more nuts and nut butters. For example, Kitty's meal plan would only need an additional 2 Tablespoons of peanut butter each day to reach the recommended amount.

"Keep saturated fat to less than 10% of calories [...] keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible." - USDA

Fast food and processed foods — which have substantial amounts of saturated and trans fat — are not the only options for a tight budget! Kitty, while keeping under budget, eats whole foods and thus consumes virtually no trans fat and very little saturated fat.


Recommendation: 46 grams protein/day based on Kitty's age, gender, weight, height, and activity level

Kitty's Average: 86 grams/day

Kitty eats on average 86 grams of protein, ranging from 55 - 143 grams on a given day. Because Kitty lives an active lifestyle, it is important for her to consume adequate protein to properly repair muscles.

"Choose a variety of protein foods, which include...beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds." - USDA

Kitty's choice of protein sources come from a variety of plants. Her protein sources are tofu, hummus, white bean chili, black beans, pistachios, cashews, and brown rice.


Note: The major sources are listed below, but keep in mind that almost every food plays a part toward getting the recommended amount of nutrients.

Recommendation: 1,000 mg calcium/day
Kitty's Average: 1,181 mg calcium/day

Kitty's use of calcium-fortified foods and green vegetables helps her to have an adequate calcium intake.

Major sources: breaded fortified tofu, veggie stir-fry with fortified tofu, whole-wheat pancakes (made with soymilk)

Recommendation: 8 mg zinc/day
Kitty's Average: 7.78 mg zinc/day

Kitty's use of beans and brown rice contributes to her adequate zinc intake.

Major sources: white bean chili, brown rice bowl, tortilla wraps, sweet potato soup

Recommendation: 18 mg iron/day
Kitty's Average: 22.3 mg iron/day

Vegetarians may need as much as 1.8 times the RDA for iron. Because Kitty eats brown rice, beans, and other iron-rich foods, her iron intake is about 1.3 times the RDA for iron.

Major sources: sweet potato soup, red bean chili, white bean chili, chickpea saag, tortillas, breaded fortified tofu

Recommendation: 4,700 mg potassium/day
Kitty's Average: 4,637 mg potassium/day

Kitty consumes potassium from melons, grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes.

Major sources: watermelon, honeydew melon, chard wraps, brown rice bowl, white bean chili


Recommendation: 400 mcg folate/day
Kitty's Average: 674 mcg folate/day

Because of her high consumption of legumes, fruits, and vegetables, Kitty gets an ample amount of folate daily.

Major sources: white bean chili, chickpea saag, sweet potato soup

Vitamin B12
Recommendation: 2.4 mcg vitamin B12/day
Kitty's Average: 3.5 mcg vitamin B12/day

Vitamin B12 can be easily incorporated into a vegan diet by using fortified products like fortified tofu, fortified nutritional yeast, and fortified cereals, nut milks, and juices.

Major sources: breaded fortified tofu, vitamin B12-rich nutritional yeast

Vitamin D
Recommendation: 15 IU vitamin D/day
Kitty's Average: 3.73 IU vitamin D/day

Vitamin D, an aid in calcium absorption, can come from foods or be absorbed from ultraviolet B light. With just 5-30 minutes of sunlight on arms and legs twice a week, one can stimulate vitamin D production. Kitty spent time in the sunlight every day, sometimes several hours. Her calculated daily average excludes her vitamin D production from sunlight. See link for more information on getting adequate vitamin D from sunlight exposure and foods:

Major sources: breaded fortified tofu, veggie stir-fry with fortified tofu

Karen Leibowitz wrote this article while interning with The Vegetarian Resource Group. She is studying nutrition in college and hopes to become a Registered Dietitian.

Note: These menus are not necessarily perfect nutrition, but based on the reality of access for one low income person. We are not endorsing the specific food choices in these menus but are pointing out that it is possible to eat a nutritionally adequate diet using donated and low-cost foods. Not everyone could eat some of these quantities without stomach discomfort. Take into account your specific needs and circumstances.