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Your Personal Vegan Shopping Assistant

This weekend, a friend of mine asked if I could accompany her to the grocery store and help her shop for vegan items. To be honest, I was incredibly intimidated. She is the ultimate foodie and I am 99.9% sure she cooks like…quadruple what I cook. What could I possibly teach her!?

But at the same time, I was thrilled that she asked and excited about the challenge! We met up at Trader Joe’s and set off on this little adventure.

She was picking up the basics—almond milk, flour, some nuts, canned beans, sauces and salsas. She also picked up some tofu and asked about how the different types of tofu are used. Extra firm and firm are used more as the center of the meal (e.g., as the “meat” of a sandwich or chunks in a mock general tso’s dish). Soft works as a good tofu scramble, and also serves well as a base for baking. Likewise, so does silken, and silken tofu works as added protein in smoothies. 

After Trader Joe’s, we headed over to Whole Foods for some complementary items. Here, we picked up vegan meat alternatives (Light Life bacon), soy-based cream cheese and sour cream by Tofutti, and Earth Balance margarine. We would have bought some dairy-free yogurt, too, but the deals at WF were too good and they were sold out. At the end, I think she walked away with a better understanding of vegan products, and I can’t wait to see what she cooks up!

Accompanying her to the store was a great opportunity to share some of my secrets but also to reflect on my own buying habits. Now, while I would love to offer this same service to everyone I know, I just can’t be that available. But, here’s something even better: a vegan shopping assistant in your pocket!

What to Buy | Navigating the Store | How to Save | Spotting Non-Vegan Ingredients

What to Buy

There are so many mind-blowing vegan alternatives to everyday items, it’s overwhelming, truly. There’s vegan mayo, dairy-free milk, egg replacers, nut-based cheeses, and this list goes on and on. While I highly recommend trying all of these delicious foods, this isn’t the place to start.

The Basics

This list is essentially the same as what you’re already buying, with some considerations in parentheses.

  • Whole Grains — rice, beans, farro, bulgur, etc.
  • Legumes — beans, lentils, chickpeas, lima beans, soybeans, etc.
  • Pasta (no egg-noodles)
  • Bread (look out for breads that use milk, honey, or egg)
  • Broth (vegetable broth, no animal ingredients)
  • Canned and Frozen Produce
  • Baking supplies and cooking needs (e.g., flours, coconut oil, etc.)

Once you have the basics down, then you can think about adding in specialty items one-at-a-time, as-needed.

The Dairy + Egg Section

Of the following, it may take some exploring before you find a brand and flavor that works for you—the alternatives are all very unique:

  • Milks (sources: soy milk, nut milk, hemp milk, rice milk, oat milk, coconut milk, etc.)
  • Non-dairy yogurt (sources: soy, coconut milk, almond milk, etc.)
  • Egg replacers (brands include: Bob’s Red Mill Egg Replacer, Ener-G Egg Replacer, The Vegg, The Vegan Egg, etc.)
  • Egg substitutes (e.g., bananas, avocados, chickpea flower, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, cornstarch, tofu, etc.)
  • Butter (brands include: Earth Balance, Miyoko’s Kitchen, etc.)
  • Cheeses (sources: soy, nut cheese, chia, tapioca, etc.)
  • Cream Cheese
  • Sour Cream 
  • Ice cream and sorbet (too many brands to name!)

The Snacks and Treats

I don’t know about you, but I don’t grocery shop without buying myself either (or both) a sweet or salty treat.

  • Nuts
  • Dried fruits
  • Chocolate/candy — chocolate =/= milk. But a lot of chocolate does have milk in it, even if it says “dark chocolate.” Don’t get me started…
  • Chips (without animal-based ingredients)
  • Pretzels (without animal-based ingredients)
  • Crackers (without animal-based ingredients)
  • Popcorn
  • Olives
  • Dips — hummus, salsa, guacamole, bean dip, etc.

The Proteins

I almost hate to pull this out as its own section, because it’s not hard to get protein on a vegan diet, as people wrongly assume. However, everyone does need protein, so here are some items to find:

  • Veggie proteins, i.e., vegan “meat” alternatives. Typically in the refrigerated or  section.
    • Tempeh
    • Seitan
    • Tofu
  • Processed vegan meats (usually boxed foods, in both the refrigerated and frozen sections)
  • Beans and lentils
  • Other vegan sources of protein

The Flavor

Just as the case with cooking animal products, the flavor depends on how the meal is seasoned and garnished. So don’t forget these essentials:

  • Pasta sauces (non-dairy)
  • Marinades and simmer sauces (non-dairy; look out for other animal ingredients, e.g., anchovies, et al.)
  • Dressings (non-dairy and egg-free)
  • Spices and Dried Herbs
  • Nooch, a.k.a., Nutritional Yeast — despite the gross name, it’s delicious and tastes cheesy
  • Spreads (including non-dairy butter/margarine)
  • Nut butters (beware the chocolate/hazelnut spreads, which typically [but don’t always]  have animal ingredients in them)
  • Sweeteners (e.g., agave; note that honey isn’t technically vegan )
  • Condiments (e.g., vegan mayo)
  • Other toppings (nuts and seeds, crispy onions, croutons [without animal ingredients], bread crumbs, etc.)

Remember, you can find almost anything veganized. So above is a list of basics, with minimal mention of processed foods. But rest assured you can buy yogurt, queso, bacon, bacon bits, ceasar salad dressing, jerky, and everything else completely vegan!

Navigating the Store

Most conventional markets, will have a separate “health food” section where some of the more specialty items are located. But the more basic foods will be just where you would normally find them—that is, vegan-friendly pastas on the same shelf as egg-noodles, vegetable broth next to chicken broth, soy milk in the dairy section, or egg replacer in the baking section, for instance. Your first trip will require a bit of familiarizing yourself with your store.

As a rule of thumb, stick to the outer edges of the grocery store as much as possible (e.g., fresh produce, bulk grains, etc.) and venture into the aisles only periodically for something to complement the items in your cart. Other tips include:

  1. Start in the produce section and fill your cart! Make it colorful and bountiful!
  2. Dry/Bulk aisle: grab your grains, seeds, popcorn kernels, etc.
  3. Bakery/Deli: fresh bread (without animal ingredients) and sometimes you’ll find vegan meat or cheese in a deli section.
  4. Canned Goods: don’t underestimate the canned goods aisle! Grab veggies and beans!
  5. Refrigerated: get some vegan milk, cheese, deli items, tofu
  6. Frozen: frozen veggies and fruits (frozen is better than nothing!!)

Spotting Non-Vegan Ingredients

One of the tricky parts of shopping vegan is to spot some of those sneaky non-vegan animal ingredients that are listed under unfamiliar names. As a first step, look at the bottom of the ingredients for any allergens—if you see “contains milk” or “contains egg,” it’s obviously not vegan. But what about those stealth animal ingredients that aren’t allergens? The simple way to avoid buying something made with animal ingredients is to download an app that scans the bar-code and returns a “vegan” or “not vegan” analysis. My favorite apps include:

  • Is It Vegan? — to see if a product is vegan or not. Great for finding “accidentally vegan” products, like Oreo’s!
  • PalmSmart — to avoid products with unsustainably harvested palm oil ingredients
  • Vegaholic — for all your alcohol needs ($1.99)

Alternatively, you can try to become an expert at what seams like the never-ending list of non-vegan ingredients, and the multiple names they can go by…

But with that, I hope I’ve given you everything you need to get started on your next grocery trip! If you feel I’ve missed anything, please contact me and I’ll be sure to add it! Until then, happy shopping!!


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