“The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.”
This is how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) talks about organic farming on their website. The statement is specific and scientific and quite aspirational, in a do-better-when-you-know-better kind of way.
It’s not really how I think about organic foods on an average day, however. On any given Tuesday, in seeking out organic products, I am just trying to do right by my family. I’m trying to make savvy shopping decisions about produce and ingredients that are good for their minds, bodies and souls.
I’m also trying to look out for my fam by being smart budget-wise. Organic foods are an investment, no doubt, but they are a worthy investment. With a little homework and some thoughtful planning, I absolutely can make organic work for my family, and maybe you can too. Start here, with my best tips for buying organic on a budget:
Learn How to Read Organic Labeling
Before you even get to the grocery store, do some research. Familiarize yourself with the labels you’ll see when you get there, as well as the availability of canned and frozen organic food, which is often reasonably priced, not to mention convenient!
You can also search for “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” lists, which are released each year. In 2016, the “dirty” fruits and vegetables were apples, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, blueberries and sweet bell peppers, so try to purchase the organic versions of these. On the other hand, you might consider buying the non-organic versions of the following “clean” produce: onions, avocados, (non-GMO) sweet corn, pineapple, mango, sweet peas, eggplant, cauliflower, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and honeydew melon.
Mind the Season
Put yourself in the mindset of a farmer. Piece together your grocery list based on the foods you know he or she can grow right now – root veggies in winter, spinach in spring, berries in summer, pumpkins in fall. Can a farmer grow a juicy, red tomato in the middle of winter in the Midwest? Only in a very well-lit greenhouse. Most likely, any tomato you buy during a cold winter will have been shipped thousands of miles. So, save your fresh tomato recipes for the summer when you know they will be coming from a nearby farm and a farmer who is your neighbor; the local abundance and next-to-nothing travel costs help drive the prices down.
Buy in Bulk
Just like any other item you buy in a 10-gallon drum, the more organic produce you buy, the less expensive it will be. Use this reasoning to determine where you will buy your organic foods. Choose markets and stores where a large variety of organic products are offered and the inventory turns over rapidly. Often these businesses are buying in bulk from local farms, and their prices will reflect that.
You can buy in bulk too! Grab a whole flat of tomatoes at the end of summer. Use what you need for the recipes you’ve got teed up, and can or freeze the rest. Come winter, when you’re dreaming of warmer days, you’ll have fresh tomatoes to use in your favorite salsa or flatbread recipe. (And if you didn’t preserve your own, there are always canned organic diced tomatoes … just drain and use like you would fresh tomatoes!)
Go Beyond Produce
Produce isn’t the only thing to consider when you buy organic. Look for organic eggs and cheese, as well as meat that isn’t treated with antibiotics, hormones or steroids. Even if you can’t always buy 100% organic meat, untreated meat is still a better option than heavily processed meat.
Same goes for canned beans. You can find an organic version of almost every kind of bean, including pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans and even baked beans. This makes it easy to substitute organic beans for non-organic in any bean recipe, from bean salad recipes to pasta salad recipes.
Seafood is a little trickier. There aren’t currently official standards for organic seafood in the U.S., and if there were, they would apply to farm-raised seafood, not wild-caught seafood. So when you’re shopping for seafood, such as salmon for this salmon lunch recipe, my best advice is to buy from a store you trust, and don’t be shy about asking questions about where the fish comes from.
Food deemed “organic” is generally very good for us … and generally a little pricier too. But with some easily accessible information, seasonal shopping smarts and basic supply-demand knowledge, the good stuff can be more affordable. Plus, organic ingredients will only make your favorite recipes taste even better!
Buy Directly from Farmer
Skip the middle man and buy directly from a farmer. Check out your local Farmers Market, join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share or visit a farm nearby to pick your own organic produce.
Shop your local farmers market: Farmers Markets are a great source of fresh local, organic produce. While Farmers Markets can range in price, be sure to ask several questions so you can get the best bang for your buck. Ask to see the organic certification; ask to taste the produce before buying; and ask if there is imperfect produce available to purchase at a lower price.
Join a CSA farm share: By joining an Organic CSA farm share, you will receive a weekly box of organic produce, eggs, and/or meat directly from a local farm, at a fixed price, for about 20-25 weeks. It’s a great way to experiment with produce you’ve never tried before. If the amount is too big for you and your family – split it with a friend and reduce food waste, plus cut the price in half!
Visit your local, organic farm: Apple season isn’t the only time to pick your own produce. Some farmers allow visitors to pick their own produce for a fixed price per pound. Check out your nearest organic farm.