upper waypoint

A New Cookbook Shows That Going Vegan Doesn't Have to Break Your Budget

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A tray of miniature pizza bagels topped colorfully with chopped herbs and vegetables.
Vegan cookbook author Toni Okamoto, posits that cooking plant-based food doesn't need to be expensive and super-time-consuming. (Courtesy of BenBella Books)

Toni Okamoto spent most of her childhood in Sacramento with her Mexican grandmother and Japanese grandfather.

From her grandmother, she learned to cook calabasitas, sopa de fideo and tacos of all kinds. From her grandfather, she learned the value of cultivating your own ingredients — he returned to work on the family farm after surviving World War II internment camps.

Those influences now show up fondly in Okamato’s work as a vegan cook, a path she started in 2007, when she was 20 years old.

Earlier this year, she released her fourth cookbook, Plant-Based on a Budget Quick & Easy, which offers vegan recipes that are inexpensive and culturally relevant. She’s on a mission to re-educate people on how to cook better for their health, well-being and bank accounts while staying true to their identities.

In that way, Okamoto’s work echoes that of other Northern California cookbook authors including Bryant Terry, Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel, whose decolonial approach to cooking challenges the widely accepted narrative that cultural or “ethnic” foods are inherently unhealthy — and that they must showcase meat.

Sponsored

Okamoto’s new cookbook has a recipe for udon noodles with peanut sauce, sheet pan nachos, cauliflower fried rice and vanilla buttercream frosting. There is an entire section on grains and legumes, ranging from amaranth to Mexican-style rice.

Meanwhile, her sopa de fideo — a tomato broth–based pasta dish — is a version of a meal I make for my kids about once a week based on a recipe I learned from my mother. Okamoto spruces hers up by adding diced zucchini and fresh tomatoes for texture and using vegetable broth instead of chicken bouillon. It takes less than 15 minutes to prepare and tastes like a bowl of grandma hugs. It’s also the kind of dish that can be reduced to a few steps or dressed up with a bit of extra effort, which reflects another one of the book’s themes: Make your food as easy and simple as you want, and level up as you see fit.

The release of Plant-Based on a Budget Quick & Easy also coincides with a time of steep inflation. In 2022, food prices shot up by 10 percent and consumers spent 11.3 percent of their disposable income on food — the sharpest leap ever recorded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And so the book also teaches readers how to master the basics with an eye toward frugality — properly stocking your pantry, cooking enough for multiple meals and planning ingredient lists ahead of time to avoid over-buying.

I talked to Okamoto about her journey as a vegan cook, her tips for eating more plants and how she fights the perception that veganism is mostly just for wealthy white people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

***

Blanca Torres: There is a perception that healthy eating is expensive. What are your thoughts on that?

Toni Okamoto: There has been this narrative that’s been created that processed food and fast food are the more inexpensive route to go. But when I teach people how to eat healthy and on a budget and to think beyond one meal, a light bulb will go off in their head. It will become clear that this is the cheapest way to be eating. I buy things like rice and beans, some frozen vegetables, some fruit like bananas and some sunflower seeds that can really stretch me the entire week, and I’ve shown countless people how to do it.

A smiling woman in a white blouse holds up a grocery store receipt.
Okamoto shows off her budget-friendly meal planning skills. (Michelle Cehn)

Do you have basic tips that you start out with?

I would start out by creating a meal plan and taking note of what you have in your pantry and your refrigerator already. Then I take a shopping list to the grocery store. It’s so stressful to go in there and see all the things that I want to buy. But if I stay the course, I will save a lot of money, which will ultimately make me happy. You can buy a whole large container of oats for about $2.50. I’ll do overnight oats with sliced banana and some raw sunflower seeds for breakfast. For my entrees throughout the work week, I’ll do something like a big pasta dish with some fruits and veggies, maybe a can of beans and marinara sauce. Very simple and also economical. Another idea would be chili using pantry staples like canned beans, canned corn, canned tomatoes. Those will all be inexpensive.

When I was on a very, very, extremely tight financial budget, living in a lot of debt, I chose to cook dried beans, and I would have to soak them the night before and then watch them on the stove for a few hours as they cooked. Now I don’t have that time and have a little bit more money, so I’m choosing cans.

You were vegetarian, and then you became vegan. How do you define being a vegan?

[In college] I joined a vegetarian club on campus, solely so that I could receive extra credit. I found incredibly inspiring people who taught me that it was possible to be on a budget, to be tied culturally to food that you grew up eating and still be vegan.

Veganism often comes off as elitist or that it’s a “white people thing.” What are your thoughts on breaking those perceptions?

Being vegan for the past 16 years, I see it is becoming far more diverse than ever. The Black community is leading the way for people becoming more interested in vegan living. And I think it’s now not only about the ethics of the environment or animals, but so many people are looking at their families and the suffering that they’ve experienced health-wise. I am so inspired by the vegans of color out there using their platforms to educate people on the benefits of plant-based eating.

A bowl of sesame ginger noodles topped with tofu and sliced red pepper.
Okamoto believes vegan dishes — like this bowl of sesame-ginger noodles — can and should reflect people’s cultural identities. (Courtesy of BenBella Books)

Why do you use the term “plant-based”? What do you think that means?

I wanted to create a resource that was as inclusive as possible. I originally started Plant-Based on a Budget to solve some of the issues that my own family was experiencing. There was type 2 diabetes and heart disease that were causing so much suffering and sadness. We lost some family members to those things, and they experienced hardships before that, like heart attacks and amputations. I wanted to relieve some of the pain points like cost when it came to eating healthier and combating those diet-related health issues.

There are a lot of struggles that people are facing in their lives. And it’s so easy to think that someone doesn’t care about their nutrition or what their children are eating. But the fact is that people really do care. They just don’t have the skill set and the knowledge to change their habits.

How did your upbringing influence your cooking?

When my dad came back from the Navy after being deployed, I went to live with him. And we lived sort of the bachelor life together. I started eating foods that were more processed and more convenient. My dad worked a lot trying to give us the best life possible, so we relied on convenient foods like a can of chili and hot dogs or Hamburger Helper, things like that. It wasn’t until I ran track in high school that I started feeling ill all the time, and my concerned coach suggested that I cut back on red meats and fast food so that I could perform better, feel healthier. It was the first time I thought about the food I ate and how it impacted my health.

A woman seated outdoors next to a garden bed holds up a stalk of kale.
Okamoto believes most people can add more plant-based foods into their diet, even if it’s just one or two meals a week. (Michelle Cehn)

At first, your family disagreed with your decision to stop eating meat. Now that your parents have come around, what is that like for you?

Ultimately, I think there’s a mutual love and respect that we’ve shared for each other that wants us to continue being close. And they want to see me happy. They want to see me thriving, They want to see me healthy. And they know that this is the path I believe is going to make those things possible. So they support it. I appreciate how they’ve opened their minds and hearts. My parents no longer buy meat-based chorizo, they buy Soyrizo. If you knew my parents beforehand, you would also really appreciate that change.

Do you have any general guidance for people interested in expanding their diet to include more vegan foods?

Sponsored

You can start with Meatless Monday or “Vegan Before 6:00” or one or two vegan or vegetarian meals per week. Eating more plants is going to help your gut. It’s going to bring you more energy, provide your body with more nutrients, and those are all positive things. It’s about giving yourself space to make those changes and also grace when you’re not meeting your goals.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
The Best Filipino Restaurant in the Bay Area Isn’t a Restaurant at All105-Year-Old Great-Grandma Receives Master's 83 Years After Leaving StanfordMC Hammer ‘Will Beat Yo' Ass’—and Other Hard Tales of the MTV-Friendly RapperWant to Fly With Your Dog? Bring Money.‘Under Paris’ Is a Seine-Sational French Shark MovieSun Ra and Kronos Quartet Collide in the SpacewaysJuneteenth Celebrations in San Francisco and Around the BayYour Favorite Local Band Member Is Serving You Pizza in the Outer Richmond‘Treasure’ Could Have Gone Terribly WrongA New Art Installation Blooms on the Presidio Tunnel Tops