We all want to eat clean, uncontaminated foods, but not everybody can afford to go organic. For those of us seeking to boost our defenses against cancer, this dilemma can be a real headache.
Because they are more costly to produce, organic foods can easily carry a premium of anywhere between 10% and 100% over their chemically-grown counterparts. For some people – especially families with ever-hungry children or people on lower incomes – this can seem excessive.
And yet, the cost of organic food doesn’t have to be prohibitive. Here I want to show you how you can eat organic food without exploding your food budget, by carefully choosing what you buy and how you shop.
1. Be selective
It’s not an “all-or-nothing” choice; if you can’t afford to go 100% organic, pick those foods that you eat frequently and/or that may be particularly prone to carrying pesticide residues and replace these with organics.
The Environmental Working Group publishes a Shopper’s Guide every year featuring the 12 foods that are highest in pesticide residues (the “Dirty Dozen” features apples (worst), celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce and cucumbers) and those that are least-contaminated (the “Clean Fifteen” include mushrooms (best), watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, kiwi, eggplant, mangoes, asparagus, sweet peas, cabbage, avocado, pineapples, sweet corn and onions). Print out this list and bring it shopping with you; when buying produce that’s high on the “Dirty Dozen” list, make sure it’s organic; when choosing from the least-contaminated foods, conventionally-grown items are fine.
2. Shop creatively
Instead of buying all your food at the supermarket – where the range of organic products can be limited and the cost premium hefty – find alternative sources of clean food such as farmers’ markets, health-food co-ops, community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes or farm shops. Not all the foods sold here are necessarily 100% organic, so if this is important to you, make sure to ask. Some farmers may be transitioning to organic farming, others may already be practicing organic farming methods but their businesses may be too small to warrant the cost of organic certification.
A good place to start exploring affordable shopping options is the Green People directory from the Organic Consumer Association or the Eat Well Guide. Local Harvest is an excellent website where you can search for farmers’ markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, and the Co-op Directory Service offers a comprehensive list of local food co-ops throughout the U.S.
If you don’t have the time or energy to traipse around stores and markets to compare prices, you can do so via the internet. You can even order food – mostly dried staples like beans, rice, grains or dried fruit – online. Organic Kitchen offers a list of online shops, and even Amazon.com sells a wide range of organic foods.
3. Shop in bulk
In some cases – especially at health-food shops – it is more cost-effective to buy dry goods loose from self-service bins rather than purchasing sealed packages. At farmers’ markets, buying a whole tray of peaches or zucchini is often less expensive than buying them individually weighed. Large bags of frozen vegetables and fruits often cost less than smaller portions, and since they are frozen, you can use as much as you need and return the rest to the freezer for later. Bulk shopping and bulk cooking go hand-in-hand; when you see a good bulk price for something, buy it, cook it and freeze it; you’ll feel so smart!
4. Shop for seasonal, locally grown produce
Fruits and vegetables that are not in season are often transported over long distances, making them expensive. Locally grown, seasonal produce is cheaper and also better for our environment. Moreover, eating with the seasons is a great way of varying the foods you eat – and variety is a key factor in dietary cancer prevention because it ensures that you consume a vast range of nutrients.
5. Buy house-brand organics
Most mainstream supermarkets now carry organic options. Since any food with the word “organic”on its label has to go through the same certification process regardless of its brand name, you might as well save some money by buying house-brand products. You may also want to start clipping coupons; these can be found in store fliers, Sunday newspapers and the inside of food packages.
6. Avoid “super-foods”
Don’t let advertisers fool you into buying exotic and costly “super-foods” with promises of miraculous health benefits. It is important to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; no single fruit or vegetable is superior to the rest.
7. Organic meat can be affordable
Organic meat carries a significantly higher price tag than non-organically reared meat, but you can offset the higher cost by eating less of it. Due to the artificially low price of mass-produced meat, many of us have gotten used to eating large slabs of meat; in truth, we don’t need more than 3 oz (the size of a deck of cards) per meal to supply the nutrients our bodies need. Eating smaller meat portions shouldn’t affect your overall nutrient intake much since organically produced animal foods are generally more nutritious than conventionally produced ones (and have the added benefit that the animals weren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones).
You can make further savings by buying meat and eggs directly from their producer rather than the supermarket. Meat can be stretched further by combining it with pulses – for instance, in any recipe that uses ground beef, such as lasagna, Bolognese sauce or Shepherd’s Pie, you can replace half the meat with pre-cooked lentils, thus adding crunch, flavor, fiber and plant chemicals. Lastly, instead of buying prime cuts such as steak, cheaper cuts of stewing beef or tasty morsels such as ox tail or beef cheeks make delicious stews. Using meat in this way, rather than as the all-dominating centerpiece of a meal, is typical of the Mediterranean diet and one of the reasons for its healthfulness.
8. Meal planning & leftovers
When you eat organic food, you want to make sure you’re not wasting any of this precious resource! Therefore, plan your meals around your budget, make a shopping list and stick to it; do not make impulse purchases based on alluring advertisements or sudden cravings, but buy only what you need. Freeze or recycle any leftovers into another dish to avoid waste.
Instead of buying pre-washed, pre-chopped vegetables or fruits, get them whole, wash and chop them yourself and pack them into containers for storage in the refrigerator or freezer. Make popsicles from frozen fruit juice or pureed fruit; these are usually tastier and healthier than their shop-bought counterparts, at a fraction of the cost.
10. Avoid processed organics
Natural, unprocessed organic vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat and eggs often contain higher levels of nutrients than their conventional counterparts so you are getting a greater nutritional bang for your buck. But when it comes to processed foods made with organic ingredients, just say no. While organic sodas, pretzels or cookies may sound like they’re healthier, they’re still packed with sugar, salt and/or white flour and devoid of nutrition. Don’t waste your money: junk is junk, no matter how green.
If you are interested in further ideas on “budget organics” you may be interested in this book: Fresh Choices: Easy Recipes for Pure Food When You Can’t Buy 100% Organic. It features information on organic food, tips on saving time or making cooking easier, entertaining tidbits on food history and 100 recipes.