Budget Vegan: Making Cajun Rice with Lentils and Meatballs for $9

Eating vegan can seem daunting, expensive, and inaccessible. In Budget Vegan, Chef Biju Thomas shares easy, healthy meals you can make from ingredients available around the corner.

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One of the things we hear a lot is that veganism is something only wealthy, privileged people can really pull off. And while plant-based eating is by no means something invented by fancy juice bar girls, it is true that huge swaths of the population do not have easy access to health food shops and organic supermarkets or the ability to spend $10 on a single avocado. That’s where our new series Budget Vegan comes in. We’re sending chef and cookbook author Biju Thomas out to shops that might seem less-than-obvious with a budget of $15 to find ingredients to make a wholesome, home-cooked meal for four.

In this inaugural edition, he finds supplies to make multiple servings of Cajun Rice with Lentils and Vegan ‘Meatballs’ for just $9 while shopping at a Dollar Tree store in Boulder, Colorado.

The Dollar Tree had a fairly large number of options and choices for everyday staples. I found a great selection of canned and frozen vegetables, all the common grains and spices, and even a few surprising selections mixed in.  

Rolling through the aisles, I immediately knew that for a filling meal the base would be key.  For this dish I landed on brown rice and green lentils, both of which are nutritious, high in fiber, and versatile enough for most any type of cuisine. Next up the spices, a small container of coconut oil, and some crushed tomatoes, and I had dinner mostly figured out. 

While it’s good on pantry staples, this store offers no fresh produce. That sent me to the freezer section, where I dug around and checked labels until I found some vegan meatballs. The box says “Indian spiced,” which essentially meant cumin, cinnamon, and coriander; flavors that will work nicely with a lot of food combinations. 

My budget really stretched with this. The lentils and brown rice are so filling and nutritious on their own, that with some very minor additions and adjustments you can keep using the leftovers for more meals beyond this one. The tricky part is keeping it interesting, having variety meal after meal, and of course keeping in mind your overall health goals.  

– Biju Thomas

More Related Recipes to Try Next:
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Chickpea Salad
Pipian Mole Pumpkin Enchiladas

Cajun Rice with Lentils and Vegan ‘Meatballs’


  • 2 cups dry rice
  • 1 cup dry lentils
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil + more for frying
  • 1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon garlic and onion seasoning
  • 15 ounce can of tomato sauce
  • 3 boxes of frozen vegan meatballs


  1. Rinse rice under cool water.
  2. Combine rice with lentils, water, and salt and cook on the stove top following directions on brown rice package or using rice cooker. (If your package doesn’t have instructions, bring to a boil, then simmer with lid on for 15 min.)
  3. Once most of the liquid has cooked out, add tomato sauce, coconut oil, and seasonings. Mix thoroughly. Close and let cook for another 10 min on low heat.
  4. Turn off and leave covered while preparing frozen ‘meatballs.’
  5. To prepare ‘meatballs,’ pan fry in coconut oil on medium heat until golden brown on all sides. Cover and let cook on low heat until warmed through.
  6. Scoop rice mixture onto plates and top with meatballs. Note: Cubed tofu, falafel, or other protein of your choice would also work great if you don’t find vegan meatballs.

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