I completely resonate with the message to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and to buy organic whenever possible.  When I buy meat for my family and myself I now choose grass fed, ethically treated meat and organic, free range poultry.

But what is often missing from this message are ways to make those purchases work within a budget.

There are great reasons to bring organic and fresh foods into your diet:

  • Purchasing organic produce lessons the toxic burden in our bodies, on the environment, and on farm workers.
  • Choosing to eat meat from animals that are ethically treated, raised in natural settings, and free from synthetic chemicals protects animal welfare and provides us with more nutritious, less toxic food.

But as my own shopping patterns shifted toward buying more fresh produce, organic choices, and ethically-treated sources of meat, it became obvious — these choices were pricier.

Most of us need to watch food costs as we manage our budgets while still prioritizing healthy, organic and fresh foods for our family.

Here are some ways to buy healthy while staying responsible to your budget.

1. Eat less meat.

There is no way around it — purchasing grass-fed, organic, pastured, free-range, or hormone-free animal products cost more. The good news is that most Americans eat more meat than they need to. Buying higher cost, quality meats but eating less of them is an excellent way to balance the costs.

2. Emphasize grains and legumes.

Grains and legumes are inexpensive and pack a nutritional power punch. Plus, they add a heaviness to a meal that most people rely on meat for. If you are new to using grains and beans in your cooking, here are a few beginner tips to get you started:

  • All grains cook basically the same way. If you are used to cooking rice, you have all the know-how to try different grains and mix it up a bit. Great ones to branch out with are quinoa for a lighter texture, or barley for a heavier, meatier feel.
  • Soaking rice in cool water for at least seven hours helps remove the phytic acid (which can bind to important minerals during digestion). Also, rinsing quinoa is helpful to remove a natural pesticide that may taste bitter when cooked.
  • I often rely on canned beans in our household for the convenience. I like the Eden Organic brand as they cook their beans in kombu, which helps the digestibility.

3. Buy in bulk.

Buying bulk can save a lot of money. You can purchase grains, pastas, dried fruits, nuts and flours in the bulk isles of your grocery or natural foods store. You can choose the amount that works for your family (bulk doesn’t mean you need 25 pounds of rice at a time!), and bulk food sections give a lower price per quantity ratio while saving on packaging.

Photo by Sue Richards

4. Make smart choices in organic produce: dirty dozen.

Remember these twelve fruits and veggies and prioritize purchasing them organically. The Environmental Working Group has tested fruits and veggies, and found these contain the highest levels and amount of pesticides:

  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Sweet bell peppers
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarines
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Pears
  9. Grapes
  10. Imported spinach
  11. Lettuce
  12. Potatoes

5. Clean non-organic produce well with pesticide washes.

For most of us, it’s not realistic to eat all organic all the time — organic options aren’t always available, and sometimes the cost is prohibitive.

When I purchase conventional fruits and vegetables, I clean them well. A quick homemade soak is equal parts water and white vinegar, or you can use a veggie wash like Environne, which removes chemicals from the surface.

Because pesticides are created to be water-resistant (they have to stay on even when it rains), just water is often not enough to get the chemicals off.

6. Buy locally.

Be sure to hit your local farmer’s market as soon as it begins in the spring. Ask the farmers how they grow their foods — sometimes foods are only minimally sprayed (or not sprayed at all), but the cost of organic certification is too high.

If there is produce you want to buy in bulk (so you can preserve it), be sure to see if local farmers will give you a discount for bulk purchases.

7. Invest in a Community Supported Agriculture program.

Check whether there is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in your area.

These programs allow you to regularly enjoy a share of a local farm’s harvest by receiving weekly boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“You can’t get it any fresher. You’re getting it straight from the farm, sometimes picked that morning,” says Ruth Katz, executive director of Just Food in New York City. “It’s usually organic and it’s much more delicious because it’s so fresh. And you’re supporting local farms.”
Photo by McKay Savage

8. Eat seasonally.

Seasonal foods not only taste better, they are more nutritious and they don’t need to be shipped in from half a world away!

Seasonal foods will often cost less as well. Think ahead and stock up on fruits and vegetables in their natural season in order to can or freeze them for the off season.

9. Grow your own.

If you really want garden-fresh organic produce, why not plant your own? Organic and heirloom seeds are available from companies such as Seeds of Change.

Start small — carrots, radishes and beets are easy to grow. Starting a family garden is a fantastic way to engage the whole family in prioritizing healthy foods. This is an excellent post on getting started with a garden.

10.  Preserve it when it’s cheap.

Depending on your storage capacity, canning, drying, and freezing fresh fruits and vegetables is an excellent way to cash in on seasonal foods that are lower in cost but higher in taste and nutrition.

In the summer when produce is plentiful, freeze fruits like fresh picked berries, nectarines, and peaches, or can tomatoes.  It’s best to freeze vegetables like green beans, corn, snap peas or spinach after they’ve been quickly blanched.

11. Forgo processed foods.

While it may seem like some processed foods are cheaper, the real steal is on the nourishment they provide.

Empty calories still leave us hungry for real food. When we spend money on real, whole, organic and fresh foods, it is essential that we shift our old ways of food shopping.

Many processed foods can be duplicated in the kitchen for much cheaper. Tsh shared cooking from scratch hacks in this post.   Things like frozen waffles, t.v. dinners, baked goods, or prepackaged kids lunches can be easily assembled in your kitchen for less. Other processed foods are simply fillers that can be weaned away, like candy, chips, and soda.

Each person and family must make financial choices that are right for them. Small shifts in the way we feed our families can help us find that sweet spot between staying responsible with our budgets, and feeding ourselves and our families healthy, organic and vital foods.

Have you found ways to save money while buying more fresh, healthy, or organic foods?