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