9 Ways to Eat Organic on a Budget

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Eating organic is one of those universal aspirational goals, right up there with finally getting to the gym before work and maybe learning how to clean your oven. We know it’s better for us, and (more importantly, unless you’re a selfish jerk) better for the planet. Finally taking the plunge, though, can give any budget-conscious grocery shopper serious sticker shock. So, we got some advice from nutritionists about how to ease into organic grocery shopping -- in a way that won’t cost you your whole paycheck.

Not every fruit and vegetable needs to be organic

That’s right, there’s no point to shelling out extra cash for some items at all because their skins are so thick, it’s impossible for nasty pesticides to get into the part you actually eat. Produce like oranges, lemons, limes, and bananas are perfectly safe to consume, organic or not. “Those peels are walls of armor,” says registered dietician Monica Auslander, MS, RD, LD/N, of Miami-based Essence Nutrition. The Environmental Working Group puts out a list of the so-called “Clean 15” -- fruits and veggies that you don’t need to buy organic. They also publish an annual “Dirty Dozen” list, i.e., the 12 produce items you should definitely buy organic if you want to avoid contact with pesticides and other gross stuff. Think foods where you eat the skin, like strawberries and apples, or items you eat right out of the ground, such as spinach.

Make friends with the frozen foods section

There are plenty of organic options in the frozen produce section, and it’s always cheaper than buying the fresh stuff. Plus, fruits and veggies can last months in your freezer -- so no need to worry if your meal plan goes awry in the middle of the week. And because nutrients like iron and fiber are hardy enough that they don’t break down in the freezing process, you don’t lose any nutritional value, Auslander explains. A study by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that there were even some frozen vegetables, like broccoli, that contained higher levels of certain vitamins than the fresh stuff.

Buy direct from farmers

Cutting out the middleman (aka the grocery store) and buying your organic produce directly from a farmer will definitely save you a buck. Other than heading to a farmer’s market, you can also join a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, recommends NYC-based registered dietician Pegah Jalali, MS, RD, CDN. A CSA is essentially a time-share of a farmer’s crop, so depending on the year’s harvest, you could be getting a ton of organic produce at a reasonable price. Just make sure to join one with a location that’s convenient for you (like near the office or home), as pick-up windows are normally at the same time each week.  Besides CSAs, simply shopping local items will translate to price, Auslander says. “When you take out transport, the cost is cheaper, and the produce may not require as much pesticide since the journey to your plate is shorter.”

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Check what’s in season

Do you really need fennel in July? Probably not. But if you shop for it anyway, prepare to be hit double at the cash register with the premium organic pricing, plus the cost of shipping an out-of-season veggie. Planning your meals around seasonal produce will not only get you better, fresher fruits and veggies, it’s also just more cost effective. Summer is prime harvest time for most produce, so you’ll be able to buy everything from fresh corn to apples at the best price. Come December, though, you’ll have fewer options -- so stick to things like brussels sprouts, citrus fruits, and yes, fennel.

Organic fish? It doesn’t exist.

Well, not in the U.S., at least. The USDA determines which foods are organic by how the animal was treated, what they were given to eat, and the type of soil in which produce was grown. As such, determining what makes a salmon or tuna filet organic has been a topic of debate for well over a decade. When it comes to finding good fish choices at a decent price point, Jalali suggests looking online. Her personal favorite brand is Vital Choice, whose fish are flash-frozen within hours of harvesting and delivered right to your door. If you’re iffy about buying frozen fish online, here’s an unfortunate truth: It’s probably fresher than the stuff you’re getting at the grocery store, as most of the fish that arrives there has been previously frozen, too. So, when searching out the best options, look for fish that have been sustainably sourced, and steer clear of anything that says “organic” -- it’s likely just a ploy to get you to spend more cash.

Coupons aren’t just for extreme shoppers

Just like regular ol' grocery shopping, extra effort pays dividends when buying organic -- that means taking some time to flip through coupons while catching up on Orange Is the New Black. The good thing, though, is that plenty of grocery stores now offer their coupons online, or via apps, so you won’t need to break out the arts and crafts supplies to save a few extra bucks. Jalali suggests downloading the Whole Foods app, because they’ll sometimes have coupons for $5 off $20 worth of fruits and veggies. “This will help me choose what I buy, based on what is on sale,” she says. So if cucumbers aren’t marked down this week, maybe nix 'em until you see a better deal.

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Read the milk label

If you can only budget for one dietary change, our nutritionists say switch to organic dairy products -- especially if you’re someone who consumes a lot of it. In addition to having slightly higher omega-3 levels, organic milk only comes from cows that aren’t treated with antibiotics or rBGH, a bovine growth hormone that’s given to increase milk production. Cows given rBGH have also been shown to pass on IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) into their milk, which, in high levels, was linked to tumor growth in some studies. So, if organic milk isn’t in your budget, Maya Rams Murthy, a registered dietician based in Mountain View, California, recommends you at least look for milk options that state they are “rBGH free.”

If you have the space, bulk shop

For organic dried goods such as beans, pasta, rice, and granola, you may be best served by loading up well in advance. Those last for months in your pantry, and are staples you can work into a meal with just a few spices and add-ons. “If my favorite granola is on sale, I usually buy a couple bags and store it in my pantry,” Jalali says. A membership to a wholesale club like Costco or BJ’s may also save you money on meat and poultry, Auslander says. Their bulk prices are lower per serving -- even if you’re handing over a bit more initially for a giant amount of organic, grass-fed steaks. “You can keep meat [or] poultry frozen for months and thaw in the refrigerator the night before you'd like to use them,” she says. Just portion out those big packages appropriately, to avoid having to eat six steaks in one week. (Although, that may not be a bad thing?)

Plan accordingly

The biggest waste of your money, whether you’re buying organic or not, is throwing out food that goes bad in your fridge. Americans are the worst offenders in the world; about 50% of all the produce we grow ends up in the trash. That’s obviously depressing and terrible on a global level, but when it comes down to you, that means nearly half of what you spend on groceries is literally just garbage. Avoid it not only by planning your meals, Jalali says, but by plotting out ingredients as well. If you’re going to spend the extra cash for organic broccoli, plan to use it as a side dish for two meals, and the leftovers in a pesto. That’s especially true for herbs, which can get pricey, and end up being wasted. If a recipe calls for only a sprig of rosemary, substitute a pinch of the dried stuff instead. If, however, you’re making that pesto, splurge on the entire bunch of basil. “I always tell clients the most expensive food is the food you buy but do not eat,” Jalali says.