A week’s worth of healthy and delicious plant-based food for less than $30 – that’s Toni Okamoto’s super power. As the founder of Plant-Based on a Budget, Toni has done the research and perfected the ways to make your budget line up with healthy eating habits.
Plant-Based on a Budget is a popular website and meal plan that provides the information you need to save money by eating vegetables. She’s the author of multiple books including the Plant-Based on a Budget cookbook and The Super Easy Vegan Slow Cooker Cookbook. Toni also co-hosts The Plant-Powered People Podcast.
In this week’s episode, Sonya and Toni talk about her path to plant-based, the necessity that created plant-based on a budget, the secrets to grocery shopping and her recipe inspirations.
“So I started Plant Based on a Budget after I had already been plant based, and a lot of my family was experiencing type two diabetes, heart disease. My grandpa died from complications in a triple bypass surgery. And my aunt died of type two diabetes. So I was already plant based. Meanwhile, I was watching people I love suffer severely. And I wanted to share this information that you didn’t have to be sentenced to poor health because of your finances. And I created recipes first, put them on plantbasedonabudget.com. And quickly realized that recipes aren’t really enough, because people also don’t know how to shop at the grocery store in a way that is going to make the most sense financially. So they would pick recipes of mine, maybe three or four recipes, but the ingredients didn’t match. So they couldn’t reuse the celery that they have leftovers of in this meal. And so they had to buy totally different ingredients. And when I learned that about my audience, I started thinking more about meal planning. And I went into the government’s SNAP benefits to see what people had in terms of government assistance for food. And I use that as my base. I took that number and I tried to go to the grocery store and create a meal plan with it. And that is how I started finding the most nutrient rich, easy to make, cheapest food that was delicious.”– Toni Okamoto
- Toni’s path to plant based
- The power of online community
- First steps to transitioning to plant based
- Understanding the grocery store
- How to be plant-based on a budget
- How to make plant-based meals taste good
- Time-saving tips for plant-based cooking
- Pressure cooker and slow cooker tips
- Prioritizing food waste reduction
- Recipe inspirations
- It’s okay if it’s not organic
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- Learn more about Toni
- Check out The Plant Powered People Podcast
- Get a copy of Toni’s book Plant Based on a Budget
- Related podcast: Climate Change Solutions with Dr. Jonathan Foley
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Sonya Looney: Toni, welcome to the show.
Toni Okamoto: Thank you so much, Sonya. I’m so excited to be here.
Sonya: I’m so excited to meet you. I think, I can’t remember for sure, but I was on a panel at the Toronto Veg Fest a long time ago and I seem to recall a plant based on a budget and I was wondering if that was you?
Toni: No, I have not been to Toronto Veg Fest, but I have been to London Veg Fest. Oh, that’s not too far.
Sonya: So you’ve been plant based for a while.
Toni: I have been. I’ve been plant based now for 16 years. And before that I was vegetarian for two.
Sonya: Yeah, I’d love to hear about your history because I think there’s a lot of people interested in changing their diet right now or just shifting towards more plant based and they’re coming from different backgrounds. So I’d love to hear how you got interested in eating plant based 16 years ago.
Toni: Well, I had never thought about the food that I put in my body and how it would impact how I feel. To me, it was all about how it tasted and making me feel full. And at the time I was a track runner, so I was about 16 years old or so. And I was getting sick to my stomach all the time. I was eating a lot of fast food, a ton of red meat, a lot of processed food at home. I loved Hamburger Helper and Spaghettios and things like that. And then I would go run my heart out. And here in Sacramento, it’s really hot. And when we’re running in the summer, it’s 110 degrees. So it’s really hot. Think about all of those things together, it is not a good combination. Having no vegetables in my body and not thinking about how the food I was eating impacted it made my coach concerned. And I was getting sick to my stomach after every practice. And he suggested that I cut back on my fast food and cut back on my red meat. So I did that and I began to feel a little bit better. And the more vegetables I ate and the more diverse foods that I introduced my palate to my body, it began to thrive. So that was the genesis of it all. And it continued until I was out of my parents’ house. My parents had a rough time, they thought, how did we end up with this hippie dippie vegetarian daughter. I wasn’t even vegetarian, I stopped eating red meat. And they’re like, oh my gosh, like so dramatic about it. And I became what I thought was vegetarian after I left their house. I picked the pepperoni off of a pizza, I didn’t think about vegetable broth or chicken broth or whatever. I just ate it if it had vegetables in it. And it wasn’t until I started in a community college, that I learned more about the animal ethics component of it all and that resonated with me. And also at the veg club at my school, having a sense of community and feeling inspired by other people who are in a similar position to you in life being able to do it really led me down the path. It was having like-minded people who were also on a budget who were culturally tied to their foods, who were a similar age group and had similar obstacles as me, watching them do it and do it successfully led me to do it successfully as well.
Sonya: Yeah, I mean, I think today, it’ll be great to cover some of the barriers that people have when it comes to shifting their diet. And you mentioned a couple there, like one of them is almost an identity piece and the people around you, like what is my family going to think or, culturally, this is what we do and now I’m not doing that anymore, how do I overcome that? And you said that being around like-minded people was really helpful.
Toni: Yes. And it’s cool, because at that time, social media wasn’t what it is today. Now you can listen to podcasts like yours, you can go on social media and follow accounts that may resonate with you and feel that kind of support that I didn’t have. I needed to find it in person because those resources weren’t available. But now you can go and there are so many free resources available and you can build a community even if you live somewhere that’s rural, even if you are super busy with your family and you don’t have the time to go meet up with people at a coffee shop or wherever. You can build those communities online and that is so cool.
Sonya: Yeah, and you’ve amassed a massive community online. What do you think were some key components to doing that?
Toni: I think because I was living it. I lived under the poverty line up until probably six or so years ago. I was living it and experiencing what I was also teaching, through plant based on a budget, and could relate to the struggles that other people were facing as well. And I was sharing my experience, and having that firsthand experience I think led to credibility, and helped me build a community where we were all together.
Sonya: Yeah, that authenticity piece was really resonating for people when following you, and still does.
Toni: I also feel like coming to it with love, and compassion, and understanding that people do face real obstacles. And I never call them excuses to why they’re not being plant based today. I give them all of the information I can to make it easier. And if they make a mistake on purpose, or by accident, I encourage them to continue on tomorrow. And I say it’s not all or nothing we can keep choosing plant based every day. And you’re still welcome here in my community.
Sonya: Yeah, the progress over perfection piece is huge. And then the labeling piece – I think people think, well, if I if I call myself plant based, and I can’t ever do you know, whatever the thing is, or eat whatever their favorite food is ever again. And the label piece makes it black and white for them that they can’t do it unless they call themselves out and go 100%.
Toni: And also that was not my journey. As I mentioned, I slowly transitioned. And I set myself up for success long term, when I was little by little doing what made me feel comfortable. And I, I feel like if I had done it differently, I could have at some point set up I tried it didn’t work for me. But I’m glad it did.
Sonya: Yeah, I did it similar to you in the fact of I gradually shifted. I didn’t just all of a sudden overnight, say, okay, I’m doing this now, it was something gradual. But some people need to just all of a sudden flip the switch and a lot of people need the permission to slowly ease in just to see how it feels.
Toni: Yes, I’ve seen that a lot, especially in the new year, we’re in the first quarter of the year right now. And at this time, people are very motivated by their New Year’s resolutions and want to go all in. It’s like, last month I was eating all of the things, this month I am going to be very strict about it. And it kind of reminds me of, maybe you’ve read this book too, the book Born to Run, I think that this is the book it’s coming from but the author was talking about how, when you start running you, there are people who go out and they buy all new running clothes, and they get all of the top of the line stuff, new shoes, new pants, new fanny pack and don’t give themselves a chance to first learn a thing like running. It kind of reminds me of the same like getting rid of all of your old food, buying all the vegan stuff and going all or nothing, and then you find out, it might be a little bit too hard too fast. Maybe you don’t have all the right knowledge in place to make those big changes. And so for me, both as a runner and as a plant-based enthusiast, I really like easing myself in until I get into it, then I make those investments.
Sonya: Yeah, and I mean, you are incredibly brilliant when it comes to saving time and money. And those are two really big barriers for people when teaching their diet. It’s too expensive. I can’t cook. I don’t have all the tools. And you have a lot of resources on how people can eat a plant-based diet and be able to afford it. If somebody is looking at this and they want to take that very first step and they’re taking these time and money factors into account what is a good first step?
Toni: I really think it’s just what we were talking about, which is the first step is getting into the mindset of meal planning of what you’re going to be eating, of looking at what you’re currently eating and seeing how you want to differ and also what you can still use up while you’re going to the grocery store. So that’s where I start. I start with what I have. I make a list and see which ingredients can be used to build my meal plan for the whole week. So if I have split peas, but I don’t have any vegetables, I now know that I can make split pea soup or like some type of porridge with it. And all I need to do is buy the vegetables, because that’s taken care of. Then once I’m at the grocery store, I have my list and I can stay disciplined. That is the hard part is going there and not being distracted by all the beautiful colors and the marketing and staying on course. You don’t realize when you’re just casually shopping, what marketing is like for you as a consumer. When you go in, you’re bombarded with all these sales. But if you dig a little deeper, that’s paid placement often, that’s probably not the cheapest thing. And if you go into the aisle, and look around the whole section, you may find something cheaper, that’s probably the store brand. They do end caps for payment right up front when you walk in for payment and also eye level for payments. So you have to look around and make sure that you’re getting the biggest deal because the thing that’s the brightest in your face may not be the best deal. And then look for price per ounce. That is so easy to overlook. You see a big jar or a little jar like oh, the little jars cheaper. But the other one might be a better deal overall for what you’re getting. And then, of course, bulk bins, love bulk bins. And lastly, while you’re at the grocery store, watch what’s being rung up, especially if you’re getting stuff from the bulk bins. I have countless times been in conversation with the person ringing me up and we’re both getting distracted, but if I look over, I can see that maybe I was charged for lentils, instead of split peas. And lentils are a little bit more expensive. And that’s why I went with the split peas. So just paying attention while you’re at the grocery store.
Sonya: Now, those are some great tips. And I think that some people think that the store brand or the off brand, brand of food isn’t going to be as good. And that’s not the case. The branded ones are expensive because there’s a marketing cost built into that.
Toni: Yes. And I actually I was invited to a grocery store, they had a plant-based influencer retreat, and it was a big grocery store. And I was really surprised with the transparency of it all and I got to learn about private label and you don’t realize, well maybe you have an idea, that sometimes it’s literally the same product with a different label on it. So let’s say, I’ll talk about the vegan marshmallows at Trader Joe’s. They say Trader Joe’s vegan marshmallows, they’re really Dandies marshmallows. And they do that a lot with different products, not just Trader Joe’s, but across the board. Someone’s got to make the product and so you may as well get the cheaper version that just has the store label slapped on it.
Sonya: What were some other things that came up that surprised you from that?
Toni: Okay, well, the very first thing that surprised me of it all was that no one really knew what plant based was. I actually was the only person who ate plant based who showed up at the plant-based influencers retreat, which was really interesting. A lot of people ate everything, but also promoted vegetable dishes. And then once I was there, I got to speak with all the executives, and they did not really have an understanding. And they were mostly looking from a marketing perspective what insights they can gain from me as someone who is in it on a regular basis. And what I tried to convey was they believed that, this was back in 2018 or ‘19, that this was a trend and that it could pass quickly. And I explained that I believed it was the shift. And people are now looking to incorporate more plant-based dishes into their lifestyle forever because the information is becoming more front and center.
Sonya: That’s a huge shift.
Toni: The positives of eating more plants.
Sonya: This is a new way of living life not this is a quick fix, little thing that somebody’s going to do for the new year resolution.
Toni: Yes, I was actually I was on hold I have Kaiser that’s my doctor office, health care insurance. And I was really surprised one time I was on hold and they were talking about plant-based eating and I was like, what in the heck, how did this happen? I have people all over like my parents who were like, what, no way that is too extreme. And now, people are talking about preventative health measures like eating plant based. And I thought it was such a beautiful moment in my life.
Sonya: Yeah, it’s come so far. And I mean, just the food guides, taking dairy off the food guide, and how a lot of people seem to just think, you know, I want to get healthier so I’m going to eat plant based or before it wasn’t like that.
Toni: Mm hmm. Yes, I am all for it.
Sonya: So what makes eating plant based expensive, because it can be really expensive?
Toni: There are a few things, I tend to promote mostly whole food plant based diet, if you can stick to the basics like rice, beans, lentils, split peas, quinoa, and vegetables and fruits, and even seeds like sunflower seeds, very inexpensive, very delicious, peanuts. That’s what I believe is the cheapest, but some people tend to try it out and want the replacements and that’s where it gets expensive. And not just if you’re eating vegetarian or plant based, but even when you’re eating everything, is those specialty products can get you a higher dollar amount on your grocery bill.
Sonya: How did you initially figure all of this out? Because I think that a lot of people do come in with that idea that it’s going to be expensive. And you have a very, very clear way, you have must buy ingredients for a week’s worth of food. How did you come up with this framework?
Toni: Well, I really believe because I was on a tight budget, I needed to create the framework. So I started Plant Based on a Budget after I had already been plant based, and a lot of my family was experiencing type two diabetes, heart disease. My grandpa died from complications in a triple bypass surgery. And my aunt died of type two diabetes. So I was already plant based. Meanwhile, I was watching people I love suffer severely. And I wanted to share this information that you didn’t have to be sentenced to poor health because of your finances. And I created recipes first, put them on plantbasedonabudget.com. And quickly realized that recipes aren’t really enough, because people also don’t know how to shop at the grocery store in a way that is going to make the most sense financially. So they would pick recipes of mine, maybe three or four recipes, but the ingredients didn’t match. So they couldn’t reuse the celery that they have leftovers of in this meal. And so they had to buy totally different ingredients. And when I learned that about my audience, I started thinking more about meal planning. And I went into the government’s SNAP benefits to see what people had in terms of government assistance for food. And I use that as my base. I took that number and I tried to go to the grocery store and create a meal plan with it. And that is how I started finding the most nutrient rich, easy to make, cheapest food that was delicious. And it was very, extremely challenging. I’m not going to lie. I remember tears coming down my eyes because I went with $25 for a week’s worth of food trying to figure it out, sitting on the floor with my notebook. Actually, I have my notebook right beside me. That’s my meal planning notebook. And that’s where all the magic has happened for all of the meal plans that I’ve written. But that is that is how I’ve learned really is going to the grocery store, studying grocery prices, understanding what people have to spend on food if they are on a really seriously tight budget.
Sonya: Yeah, because there are a lot of people that live below the poverty line. And like you said, planning a meal plan can be really complicated, especially whenever it’s different ingredients and that must have taken an incredible amount of work and creativity. And now you offer it for free on your website, free meal plans.
Toni: Yes, I am really grateful to have people use those and I feel like it makes me feel fulfilled in my work that what I set out to do is there for free in those meal plans.
Sonya: As you were telling me earlier about the food that you use to eat like the Spaghettios, and the processed foods and the fast food, a lot of times people think, well, if I change my diet, the food’s not going to taste good, like people might be hearing split pea. I don’t even know what a split pea is, and lentils and like, that’s not going to taste very good. How do you shift your palate whenever you’re used to eating lots of meat or processed foods?
Toni: I’m so glad you asked me this question because that was me. That was 100% me. I remember the first time I went to a vegetarian restaurant when I was not a vegetarian. And my friend said order anything you want in the menu, it was a Vietnamese restaurant, and I literally ordered white rice. That’s all I ordered. I didn’t feel comfortable because everything was unfamiliar to me. And at that time, I had not had a lot of different international cuisines. I had like, pasta, pizza, Chinese food, Mexican food and so my palate was very extremely limited. I had never had kale. I had never had brown rice, quinoa butternut squash. And it took me a long time to like those foods. So my advice to anyone who is listening right now, keep trying them. You may not like brown rice on the first try. I didn’t like it until the 10th try. But now I love it. It’s a staple in my diet, I have stopped eating, I have mostly stopped eating white rice. If I can choose brown rice, I choose brown rice because it’s more nutrient rich. But I feel like you’ve got this, just keep trying. And also if you have children, I know a lot of people with kids have had the same experience as me where you have to give your kids foods multiple times in different ways to get them to like it as well.
Sonya: That sounds like openness and curiosity are the key to continuing trying the food and having faith and courage that your palate will change.
Toni: And I feel like there are still some things that I don’t love. Mushrooms are one of them, which is funny because I’m vegan and everything is a mushroom. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been served a giant mushroom, but I feel like for the most part, my palate has changed dramatically. And it has not been restrictive to me. And in fact, it has been the opposite. It has been a whole world of flavors and textures and different types of protein, different types of produce and different types of international cuisines.
Sonya: I had the same experience. There were so many foods, I never tried before never even thought of trying, was afraid to try. And now there’s just hearing you chronicle this experience reminds me that hey, I’ve had a similar experience too, and I didn’t even realize it.
Toni: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. What are some things that you hadn’t had, but now you like?
Sonya: A ton of the beans – I did not eat any beans before I changed my diet. I thought they were going to be disgusting. And I also think that the preparation of the food is something important to consider because a lot of people had like canned peas or canned corn or things in their past that maybe the texture of the vegetable was gross or maybe they never had a vegetable cooked in a way that it actually tasted good.
Toni: Yep. And I actually had not had broccoli or cauliflower that hadn’t been boiled. I had had both of those but it was always boiled and sort of mushy. And it’s a totally different experience when you have it prepared properly and also seasoned.
Sonya: We talked about some money saving tips, what are some time saving tips because that’s another huge barrier that people have like I don’t want to spend time cooking?
Toni: I think for me the biggest thing, and this is an investment, this is an investment and I can talk about different investments you can or cannot make, but I got an instant pot, any electric pressure cooker, and it really revolutionized the way I save time in the kitchen and the way I cook. It is amazing because it allows me to have full meals ready with minutes of prep work. And meanwhile I can go take my dog for a walk, clean my house, get ready for my evening and not worry that dinner is going to overflow and burn my house down on the stove while I’m gone. So that’s one. If you don’t want to get an Instant Pot or any electric pressure cooker, that’s totally fine. Also, there are slow cookers. I got my slow cooker for $4 at Goodwill. So there are budget options. And if you don’t want to do that at all, there are some things I do like to invest in like a knife that cuts quickly, watch your fingers, or you can also get a knife glove. That’s what I bought my husband because it stresses me out so much when he chops…So those are some things that have saved me time in the kitchen. But also not thinking about every meal being super elaborate. Like one of my favorite things to eat is to prep some brown rice or quinoa for the week. And then for lunch, on a daily basis, you can either throw together a hummus wrap with some vegetables chopped up and you can even buy pre chopped vegetables and make a hummus wrap. Or you can do a burrito with some salsa and a can of beans, your choice, black, Pinto, and that’s a full meal. So you have options for quick meals. And then when it comes to back to meal prepping, once you get in the habit of having a plan, I promise you’ll make good decisions. For me, I make bad decisions when I don’t have a meal plan in place or when I don’t know what I’m going to be making when I get home. And I used to have a one-and-a-half-hour commute and I knew if I didn’t have anything waiting or any idea of what I would make, I would probably make a stop at like Chipotle or something like that. So making sure I have something quick to throw together when I get home has saved me a lot of money and also time. Those things include either batch cooking something like quinoa or brown rice to throw together something like I mentioned, or you can do freezer friendly meals. When you’re cooking one meal, create a second batch of the same thing and freeze that for later. You can do all kinds of things that don’t seem like they would do well in the freezer, but really do well and have a bunch of Plant Based on a Budget quick and easy like breakfast burritos, and pasta dishes and soups and all kinds of different things, even pancakes and waffles and those types of things. So there are lots of ways you can save time in the kitchen, you just have to put a little bit of thought and effort into it prior to getting in the kitchen.
Sonya: Yeah, the planning piece, some people are very disciplined and planners and others aren’t. And you’re so right that if you don’t have a plan, and you don’t have things already made, you tend to buy things which ends up making it more expensive. And then the things that you buy are probably going to be less healthy than the things that you’re going to make at home because there’s added sodium and all these different things that are added to it. And something else that you said was you said you can make a wrap and add hummus to it. And I think that a lot of times people think, well, I have my rice, beans and veggies in there. But that just doesn’t sound good. Like I want to feel comfort whenever I eat, I don’t want to feel like I’m just eating a salad or eating something that doesn’t make me feel, I don’t know, comforted is the word that just keeps coming to mind. And the sauces that you can put on your food can really add that sort of comforting, just fulfilling feeling.
Toni: Yes, actually, I have a section on mix and match bowls. And the formula is a protein, a grain, a vegetable and a sauce. And that’s how I personally eat at home. It’s so easy to just quickly throw it together because I’ve batch cooked stuff in my pressure cooker. Quinoa comes together in five minutes of cook time. And you can do beans from scratch in one hour, lentils in eight minutes. So just quickly throwing those in the pressure cooker or on the stove, which is still not a lot of time, like 20 minutes for quinoa, you can save yourself throughout the work week when things get really busy.
Sonya: Can you give me some pressure cooker tips because I actually had an Instant Pot and every time I tried cooking with it, it just seemed like my vegetables and things were mushy and I probably just wasn’t using it right and then I got rid of it.
Toni: There are a lot of tips and tricks online and it does take some effort if you’re going to try to do it by yourself. So if you go and find, actually the Instant Pot website it is really good, they give you the exact amount of time that you should be cooking, but you can find vegan pressure cooker websites that give you the exact times for specific vegetables. Or if you’re doing soups, I do most of my soups in four minutes. That makes it so that I don’t make them too mushy because my husband won’t eat mushy, I’ll eat mushy, I told you I grew up eating mushy. So it’s fine with me. But my husband is like, very big on texture and does not like the mushy vegetables. So I feel you on that. And that would be my recommendation, everything has a different time and a different setting, so it’s good to have a printout right there next to you so you can say okay, quinoa, four minutes, quick release, soups, four minutes, quick release. But then something like beans, I do 25 minutes, high pressure, quick release, and then I cook it for 25 minutes without the top on so that the water goes away and that’s my favorite way. So there are different methods for each thing and if you have your printout, you’ll be good.
Sonya: Okay, so basically, if it’s coming out mushy, you’re probably doing it wrong. And there’s resources. Yeah, that’s amazing. The four-minute hack I didn’t even know that you can make or that you can make quinoa in five minutes. That’s fantastic.
Toni: That’s my go to because it’s so fast. Every night, I feel like we’re eating quinoa. And you can you can spice them in different ways to or spice quinoa in different ways. So I’ve started instead of like a Mexican rice that’s red, or like Spanish rice that’s red, I’ve started cooking my quinoa that way in the pressure cooker. And it’s awesome, because it tastes so different than the night before when I cooked quinoa with vegetable broth or the night before that when I cook quinoa with some turmeric and some spices in it. So you can make it versatile.
Sonya: Something you said earlier that I just wanted to highlight was about food waste. And you said that it saves money if you can reuse ingredients so that you don’t buy a bunch of celery and then just throw the rest of the celery out. And for the people who are interested in eating plant based for environmental reasons, food waste is one of the number one problems of global warming and climate change. And it was really cool to hear you talk about how to reduce food waste, because that is a huge priority in our house. And I interviewed the executive director of Drawdown and they have so much free information on their website on how you can educate yourself and contribute to preventing further climate change. And the food waste piece was just a huge part of that.
Toni: That’s something that’s been more on the forefront of my mind. lately. I’ve gotten past a lot of the time and money saving strategies in the kitchen. And now I’m trying to cut back on my waste in general, that’s plastic, that’s wasting food and proper storage. There are tips in my book for how I store herbs and lettuce and things like that to give it a little bit of a lifespan. But if you find yourself to be a really super busy person, there’s nothing wrong with frozen foods. Or if you see that your produce is going bad on the counter, quickly chop it up and toss it all in a bag and put it in your freezer. It just takes one minute to chop all your bananas up before they go bad or to throw your whole bag of spinach just directly in the freezer so that you can throw it in a smoothie later.
Sonya: What are some other reduction of food waste and packaging waste tips that you have?
Toni: Stop buying so much. I I’ve suffered from this mentality too that I need abundance and I need a lot and it makes me feel good to have a refrigerator full of delicious food. But I really only need to be buying what I’m going to eat. And that’s another great thing about meal planning is that it puts you in the position to use all of what you purchased because you’ve been intentional and thoughtful about the ingredients that you have on hand. I find that when I go and purchase them impulsively, because it looks good and I don’t have a plan for it, my Cilantro is gone in like five seconds. I feel like as soon as I put it in, it’s wilting. So I have to know that in the next couple of days, if I’m not going to store it properly and put it in water and treat it like a bouquet, it’s probably gonna go bad if I’m not gonna use it immediately.
Sonya: And something else that I’m thinking about is, we kind of touched on this earlier, but people who have never cooked before. So we talked about people who don’t know how to make a meal plan. You said that just looking at recipes isn’t enough. But for some people just looking at a recipe can be confusing and they’ll see something on there and then they’ll just substitute it with something else that sounds similar. How important is it to follow recipes exactly. And when can you make substitutions if need be?
Toni: In my book, I want people to use it as a base, I want them to switch foods out. And I even left a space for what’s called my tips. And there are these blank lines for you to write in how you and your family changed it up to fit your palate and your preferences. I love that. That’s how I learned how to cook. I used to go to libraries and checkout books and say it called for kale, but I have spinach or spinach was cheaper at the grocery store, I just made the decision and hoped it worked out and wrote if it worked out or not. And I want people to have that same freedom. In terms of cooking skills, I have a lot of people I work with who are very, very, very, extremely new to cooking. Like don’t know what mince, don’t know what chop is, don’t know what dice is. And I’ve tried to create a lot of resources around the basic cooking skills to teach people what those words mean, and give some initial support when you’re just learning how to prep vegetables. Like I remember I mentioned I had never had a butternut squash, I got a butternut squash, and I tried to chop it and peel it. And I was like this thing, what am I supposed to do with this? And so those types of things I totally understand can be intimidating.
Sonya: I still feel that way sometimes after like many years of eating this way. Yeah, what I love about your book is it makes it so approachable. And like you said, you don’t have to be an expert in the kitchen, you don’t have to have a lot of money. You don’t even have to have a lot of time, like you’ve taken all of these barriers that people have and made it really approachable, really easy, and also tasty.
Toni: Thank you, thank you, I have a lot of experience in doing it the hard way. And I’m hoping to take that experience away so that other people can have an easier transition or an easier experience incorporating more plant foods into their lives.
Sonya: Something that I’m always amazed at is whenever people come out with, not only one but a second cookbook, how you can keep iterating and creating new recipes, because that seems like a really big challenge.
Toni: It can be. I think I need a break after this. But I am really inspired. I’m here in the central valley in Sacramento. I grew up with a family of people who are with fresh food. So my grandpa was a Japanese gardener. That’s a thing here in the Central Valley. And then I’m also Mexican, I have people who have picked in the fields in my family. And so I feel so connected to it. And I also grow a lot of my own food. And so just going outside and touching and feeling and smelling and like deciding what to put in my garden keeps me inspired. And then of course, when you have a thousand pounds of tomatoes, you’re thinking, okay, I’m tired of this. I’m tired of this. I’m tired of this. What can I do with these tomatoes? So I’m constantly inspired by what is in my garden, as well.
Sonya: What’s your favorite meal in this cookbook?
Toni: Oh my – I would say is it’s called sopa de fideo. It’s like Angel Hair pasta, angel hair pasta that’s crunched up into little tiny pieces. And it’s sort of soupy, it’s more soupy than an Italian pasta. It’s got vegetables like onion, garlic, zucchini, and you can throw in some black beans in there. And I know that it’s my favorite because of the ties to my family. Those types of meals where you can eat it and feel a certain way and be brought to a certain place in your life is magical and beautiful to me. So that’s why I love that one. It reminds me of my grandma. It reminds me of my mom. And it brings me back to a place where I felt comfortable and good.
Sonya: Yeah, it sounds like even for people listening, thinking about their food in a mindful way, not only with how it tastes but how does this connect me to something in my family or in my past that had a lot of meaning for me, and that can make the experience of eating even better.
Toni: Yes, totally. I agree. And also you mentioned what inspires me and I try to draw from my family’s meals I mentioned that we ate a certain way but so much of what we ate can be made healthy and plant based like beef tacos for example. I grew up eating a lot of beef tacos. And now I use lentils as a base instead. And I flavor it the same. I use the same toppings, and it gives me the familiar textures and flavors that I’m used to, to enjoy it just the same.
Sonya: I think that’s something interesting about meat, because people think, well, I cook my chicken or my whatever, and plant based isn’t going to have any flavor, but people season or marinade or do stuff to the meat to make it taste good. Like, if they just boil the chicken breast or whatever, it’s probably not gonna taste very good.
Toni: Uh huh. That’s right. I used to feel that way about tofu. And I know that that’s something that some people still feel. But the more I’ve played with it, the more I have tried different marinades, I sometimes go to the store and buy the marinades and seasoning powders for meat. And I just season my tofu that way. And it really changes the game, it makes it so tasty. So if someone is hesitant and still eats meat, try using those same practices that you do with your chicken with your tofu, and it’s a very different experience.
Sonya: On the money saving front, I also wanted to ask you about organic because eating organic can be really expensive. What are your thoughts on saving money by not eating organic?
Toni: I want people to eat vegetables, period. So that is my encouragement. A lot of people who I work with don’t have it in their budget to buy organic, and it is important for me to encourage them in any way possible to get more produce into their lives.
Sonya: Now, that takes me that all or none thinking piece of it has to be this. There’s still a lot of amazing things about non organic foods, and not all organic foods are going to be the best quality, they’re not all going to all taste as good sometimes. So there can be a lot of benefit to getting the non-organic, cheaper version.
Toni: Yes, and I feel the same way about frozen produce as well. You can go to Dollar Store right now and buy a variety of different frozen foods like frozen berries, frozen broccoli, frozen mixed vegetables. And if that’s within your budget, go for it, eat those berries, and make those smoothies. Throw them in a breakfast dish, put them in your oatmeal. and don’t go without them because they’re frozen. And in fact, if you’re one who tends to not eat a lot of produce because of the chopping and washing and all the things that come with it, it could be a better solution more often than not, because those are already, pre washed, pre chopped, and ready for you to throw into your stir fry.
Sonya: Yeah, it’s good to hear that the Dollar Store is offering, like in Canada they don’t, but in the US that they’re offering food. It also makes me think of some of the food deserts and we’re food just isn’t available healthy foods aren’t available to people or it’s not affordable to people. And it sounds like things are hopefully moving in a positive direction. But I don’t know. Can you answer that?
Toni: Yes, I’ve done a lot of what I buy at Dollar Tree at Walmart, at other grocery stores that are big boxes in specific places that are regional. And I’m surprised by how vegetarian friendly, plant based friendly those types of stores are. I did a whole both what I make in a day with these ingredients plus what I buy at Dollar Tree and I found brown rice. I found soy milk. I found frozen vegetables. I found a spice packets. Spices are $1. So well now they’re $1.25. But still, I was able to shop for four days for $7 and still have a ton of leftovers and still not have had used all of my brown rice and a few other different things that I had purchased.
Sonya: Wow. How have your hopes changed over the years with creating these recipes and connecting with people? You did mention less food waste, but what are some other things that have shifted for you?
Toni: In my own personal life?
Sonya: Yeah, and your hope for the people that are you know, following your work and connecting with you.
Toni: My hope for myself and for other people is to just continue to have grace and patience with yourself and know that, for me, perfection is not what I want to achieve, it’s to continue doing the least amount of harm to my body, to the environment, to animals and to make decisions that are in line with how I feel about those things. So I feel like at different times in my life, I have had a different mindset. I’ve been more aggressive. I’ve been more in your face about things. But right now I’m just living my life and teaching people as I go along who want to learn, and when they don’t want to learn, I say, okay, all right. Well, you do you. And I have found this approach to be the most accepted among my own community, my family and my friends and people online.
Sonya: Yeah, that’s so empowering. And something really important to remember, because it’s hard to remember sometimes whenever you’re making changes to have grace with yourself.
Toni: Yeah, I agree. I am especially feeling that way right now, not about foods specifically, but because it’s the beginning of the year, you have this vision of what opportunities and hopes and dreams lie ahead. And when they don’t go exactly as planned or when you feel off schedule, it can feel a bit overwhelming and discouraging. But to continue thinking positively and to know that every small decision that you make is still working toward this larger goal can be empowering, and continue driving you forward.
Sonya: Now, I’m going to repeat what you said because that’s so powerful – every small decision that you make that works towards a bigger goal is really powerful. So I want to hear about your podcast in the last couple of minutes here, the Plant Powered People Pod. So when did you start it?
Toni: I started in 2018. And I have this friend, her name is Michelle. She’s also a creator, she’s the one who inspired me to be full time as the creator back in 2016. And I have always wanted more with her, more than she could give me. The reason we became friends was because she first started her business and she was so committed and I asked her, hey, we just met and I would love to maybe grab some dinner or some coffee. And she’s like, I’m really focused on my business right now, but when I bring my head up for air, I promise I’ll get back to you. I’m like, but wait, maybe we can work together. And so that was the that was that. And then when I decided to start the podcast, it was the same thing. I was like, hey, Michelle, I think we should start a podcast. And she was like, I don’t know, I’m really busy. But I was persistent. And she ended up agreeing. And what the podcast is now is a resource for people who are experiencing specific challenges with plant-based eating, maybe their spouse isn’t on board, or their children are not on board, or maybe they work at a restaurant and they serve steaks, that’s their job. And they want to be plant based, but they get a free meal. So all of these people have come on to the show and shared how they have overcome those obstacles, whether they work at a restaurant, whether they have very, very in your face family members who try to make it miserable for them. How do you overcome those? That’s what we talk about on Plant Powered People podcast.
Sonya: Yeah. And I mean, that totally brings together what you were saying at the beginning of finding your community and knowing that you’re not alone, that this happens to lots of different people, and there are ways to navigate those waters.
Toni: Yes. And also, there are so many things that I don’t think of or experiences that I don’t have, and to talk to someone about their experience, like one that we hear about a lot. That is, is not my personal experience is she’s really active in her church community. And people who are active in their church community are not sometimes supported in their plant-based lifestyle. And so for her to share her tips, or someone who is really active in their Filipino community, for her to share her tips, what has been meaningful and empowering for people who are in similar communities.
Sonya: Well, thanks so much for coming on the podcast and for your awesome cookbook and all of the free resources that you have for people including the meal plans. Where can people find your book? And where can people find you?
Toni: You can find my cookbook at plantbasedonabudgetcookbook.com. And you can find me on Instagram @plantbasedonabudget.
Sonya: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. And I love all of these tips for people and it makes shifting towards a plant-based diet a lot more accessible. So thanks for coming on the podcast.
Toni: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you