I Want to Eat Organic Food But How Can I Afford It?

January is a time for resolutions, many of which focus on health and finances. To help people get off to a good start on their goals this year, I want to discuss a topic that comes up frequently as we chat with other parents. How the heck is it possible to eat organic food when finances are tight?

We’ve been able to switch almost all of our food purchases to organic items without increasing the money we spend on food. Here is what helped us:

1)  Shop only from a list. We keep a white board in our kitchen. As we begin to run low on an item, we write it down on the board. When we’re ready to go to the store, what is on the list is what we buy and nothing more. This helps us avoid the tempting, and often expensive, items that sing a siren song while also cutting down on our food waste.

2)  Identify areas of weakness. The list idea works great when it is followed. However, we learned the hard way that going shopping with two cranky children makes it much harder to stick to the list. After one truly horrendous shopping trip, we banned grocery shopping after birthday parties – the switch from cake and games to walking quietly by the cart was just a bridge too far. And I know that if I am facing a big deadline, I am much more likely to swing by the candy section where for some reason there aren’t a lot of healthy bargains. Now we try to be more thoughtful about who will go to the store and when they will go so we can stay strong.

3)  Select a couple of quick, healthy meals and keep their ingredients on hand. Some of our family favorites turned out to be easy to put together. One example is brown rice with refried beans and cheese. Another is nachos made with corn chips and cheese (just put in the oven at 250 until the cheese melts) with beans (black, pinto, and refried beans all work well), sour cream, and cheese. Both of these can be ready quickly, especially if there is cooked rice already in the frig, and the ingredients can be easily kept on hand. This makes it easier to avoid the last minute orders for pizza.

4)  Join a CSA.  I’ve written here and here about our experiences with Community Sponsored Agriculture. Joining a CSA did more to save us money and shift our eating to organic options that anything else. Check out Local Harvest to find one near you.

5)  Explore farmer’s markets.  If you don’t have easy access to a CSA, want to buy smaller quantities, or need to supplement your CSA share, farmer’s markets can be a gold mine for inexpensive organic options. There is no middle man between you and the grower so prices are often lower than in the stores. Make sure to ask if items are organic – just because someone is selling at a farmer’s market does not mean they grew the food organically. Also know that many small farms cannot afford the organic certification but may still utilize organic farming methods. It will give you an excuse to strike up a conversation and get to know the people growing your food! Local Harvest can point you to your area’s farmer’s markets as well.

6)  Buy ingredie nts rather than dishes. Whether you are shopping in a grocery store or at the farmer’s market, focus on buying items as close to their natural state as possible. Apples are cheap while apple pies are not.

7)  Cook more often.  Buying ingredients means you’ll be doing more in the kitchen than opening a box and firing up the microwave. There are tons of sources for recipes online. I particularly like Cooking Light’s Recipe Finder because it is possible to search by ingredient – handy when a new item shows up in our CSA box. Richard is a huge fan of Alton Brown; here are his is most popular recipes from Good Eats.

8)  Use meat thoughtfully.  Currently we are an omnivorous family. Vegetarianism does a lot to lower food costs, since meat is one of the most expensive items people buy. (This switch also does a lot to reduce one’s carbon footprint.) While we aren’t vegetarians yet, we purchase and use meat carefully. Our eggs come from a local family that raises truly free range chickens. When we buy beef, we buy grass-fed pastured beef. If you are not in the Austin area, check out Eat Wild to find humane sources near you. We then use meat more for flavoring than for the main entree. Think stir fry rather than a steak or pasta with meat sauce rather than sausages. And, as you can see from our favorite meals above, we simply don’t eat meat with many of our meals.

9)  Shop smart.  These apply whether you are looking for organic food or not. Compare prices, be willing to try new brands, focus on produce that is in season (see the National Resources Defense Council’s food miles tracker for a helpful listing of what is in season in your area), use coupons (try Mambo Sprouts and VegWeb for organic food coupons), and watch sales.

If your pocketbook can only handle a small shift to organic food at a time:  First target the items that are located higher on the food chain (meat, eggs, dairy), then find organic options to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen (click here for a handy wallet-sized guide), and then work on switching out the foods your family eats the most. If you have a baby or are pregnant or nursing, however, these three options should shift down a notch and purchasing organic options for the growing baby should become the first priority.

Here’s to a fiscally sound and healthy 2010!

Do you have any other tips for eating organically on a budget? Please share them at Greening Families  where this article was posted originally.

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