9 Easy Tricks to Buy Organic on a Budget


Buy OrganicAs Marc Bittman beautifully wrote this week there are tremendous bright spots in America's growing quest to bring better food to people's plates. As we head into one of the most food-centric times of the year, I thought I'd shun any kind of "dietitian-y" type advice  (i.e. what calorie bombs you should skip from the buffet table), and instead share with you my favorite strategies to help you buy better groceries in every sense of the word this season better for you, better for your budget, and better for the planet. Now, that's something to be thankful for long after the leftovers have been eaten.  

1. Go Generic. Nearly every major supermarket chain now carries its own line of USDA certified organic foods under their own private label (such as Safeway Organics), so look for them the next time you’re at your favorite grocery store. This not only saves you the cost of an extra trip to a more upscale market or a separate natural foods store, but it can cost significantly less than other organic brands.
2. Buy the Whole Bird. Don't just "buy the bird" one day a year at Thanksgiving, but if you do this year round you can eat organic poultry and save a bundle. Instead of buying thighs or breast separately, buy a whole organic chicken and ask the butcher cut it up for you; not only will this reduce the amount of plastic waste, but buying a whole organic chicken can cost the same amount as two large chicken breasts. If your'e feeling bold, try carving the bird yourself with this great how-to video by Rodale. Bonus: you'll save money on your sandwich the next day, too; tuck leftover roasted chicken into a whole grain pita with a half-cup of fresh veggies, and you’ll pack in organic protein while spending significantly less than buying pre-cut deli meat.
3. Be Picky About Portion Size. At the meat or fish counter, it is standard practice to tell a customer to estimate 6-8 oz per person when determining how much to buy. If you're cheffing up a feast for 12 like many of us do over the holidays, that calculation gets pricey fast. Stick to 3 oz. per person instead and cut your “main course” bill in half instantly; use the extra savings to splurge on organic meat or poultry instead (currently there are no organic standards for fish). Enjoy those 3 oz. portions with an abundance of seasonal vegetables (like a puree of celery root and potatoes)  and a side salad for a hearty meal that still leaves everyone satisfied. Bonus? Paring back on portions will help you stay slim while you savor the holidays.
4. Browse Big Box Retailers. Everyday staples such as organic milk, yogurt and produce are often available at big box retailers at closer-to-big-box prices, making these items more within the reach of everyone. And many of the companies who supply these chains offer downloadable coupons on their websites, saving you even more at the checkout counter.
5. Fill Up on Frozen. The freezer case is one of the best bargains in the supermarket when it comes to organic; stock up on your favorite frozen organic fruits and vegetables (with no added sauces or syrups) for baking, smoothies, soups and side dishes. The added bonus? Not only are frozen veggies and fruits often just as nutritionally sound as fresh (and in the case of limp looking veggies, even more so), they are on your schedule, meaning there’s no risk of costly spoilage if that last minute holiday party derails your cooking plans.
6. Skip the Salad. As a dietitian, of course I love to encourage people to fill up on foliage, but salad greens are the number-one food item that gets thrown out because of food spoilage. According to a 2007 UK report, a shocking 48% of all salad Brits bought was thrown away. If you're someone who commonly has what amounts to a science experiment in your bin because you're not getting to it in time, save money by skipping organic salad and buying something more forgiving instead, such as organic sweet potatoes (which last weeks in your pantry) or frozen broccoli (which lasts for months in your freezer).
7. Bulk Up. As Lia Huber noted, bulk bins are not anything like your dusty dim co-op aisles of yesteryear. Bulk bins are one of the best places in the supermarket to save money while still buying organic foods and stretch into new whole grains while you're at it. Stock up on salubrious staples like brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, teff, barley and more.
8. Love Those Legumes! Dollar for dollar, meat, fish and poultry are some of the costliest calories in your cart. During this meat and cheese heavy time of the year, serving delicious vegetarian meals on nights you're home from all the merrymaking is not only an easy way to help you avoid holiday weight gain, it also allows you to free up more food dollars to put toward organic options. Use your favorite organic canned beans (rinse first to remove excess sodium) for a satisfying soup or chili; save even more by soaking dried beans or lentils overnight. Sprinkle beans with organic taco seasoning for delicious Southwestern bean tacos that will even have carnivores asking for more.
9. Pass on Organic Junk Food. Just because it's organic doesn't mean it's automatically healthy; be sure at least three-quarters of your grocery cart is loaded with whole foods that look as close to the way they're found in nature as possible. Organic soda, whipped cream and snack chips, for instance, are still high calorie splurges that pack on the pounds and pad your grocery bill.
What are your favorite tips for buying organic on a budget? I'd love to hear from you!
With help from Lindsey Toth, MS, RD