Q&A Tuesday: Can you buy natural & organic foods on a budget?

Buy Organic Food on a Budget

Please, please – if you could offer suggestions on how to feed your family on a budget while trying to do so naturally. What I mean is that I try to stay away from foods with major additives, artificial flavorings/colorings and those with ingredients that most people cannot pronounce. :) -Kim

Many people have this misguided idea that it is impossible to feed your family a whole foods diet on a budget. If you live in Alaska or some remote part of the country, this may be the case, but in most areas, you can feed your family natural, unprocessed foods without spending hundreds of dollars each week to do so.

Sure, you might spend a little bit more than someone who is eating a diet composed mostly of processed foods, but it really doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg as some people will make you think — especially if you’re willing to get creative and think outside the box.

Now, let me be upfront and tell you that our weekly meal plans probably wouldn’t win us the Healthiest Family of the Year award. We eat some processed foods (though we do make the majority of our food from scratch), we like sweets and we certainly do not eat 100% organic.

I know some people are really bothered by this, but we strive to have a balance of serving lots of fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains while still enjoying the occasional brownies and ice cream or even letting our children have a Happy Meal every now and then (gasp! Can you believe it?!) ;)

So, despite the fact that I’m not the most knowledgeable and experienced person to be tackling this issue, here are some suggestions:

1. Plan a Menu Based Upon What is In Season and On Sale

If you want to feed your family on a budget, you need to have a plan for what you’ll be eating. If you can make your menu plan mostly based upon what is on sale at the natural foods store, what is in season at the Farmer’s Market and/or what you’re reaping in abundance from your garden, you’re going to significantly reduce your grocery bill.

2. Practice the “Buy Ahead” Principle

If you happen to come upon an incredible sale on tomatoes at the Farmer’s Market, or the health food store has organic frozen vegetables on a great sale, stock up. Buying items you routinely use when they are at their lowest price is another surefire way to savings.

3. Plant a Garden (Or Barter With Someone Who Does!)

If you can pull it off, plant a garden. Produce is typically only pennies per item from your own backyard, it’s tremendously fresh and you know exactly what you did or didn’t spray on it. Plus, you can can or freeze your extras — or bless your friends and neighbors with them!

Have a brown thumb? Find a friend who loves gardening and trade services (babysitting, breadbaking, car maintenance?) in exchange for their garden excess.

4. Stick With Simple Meals Using Inexpensive Ingredients

When you’re planning your menu, think about how much your recipes will cost you to make. It doesn’t have to be a scientific to-the-penny figure, but just having a good idea that there is a $10 difference between the price of making one meal as opposed to another meal can help you decide whether you can afford to make something or perhaps should save it for a special occasion.

5. Serve Meat as a Condiment

I shamelessly stole this idea from Family Feasts for $75 Per Week because it’s so brilliant. Serving meat in soup or on pizza is going to be a lot less expensive than serving roast and sirloin, especially if you’re buying high-quality meat.

Need ideas? Laura shows you how to make six meals out of one chicken.

6. Buy in Bulk

It is usually much more cost-effective to purchase meat and staple ingredients in bulk. Call around to local farmers and see what they would charge you for purchasing half a cow. In many cases, it’s at least $1 cheaper per pound to purchase in bulk. Buying grains, beans, as well as many other basic ingredients with long storage lives in large quantities will almost always save you at least 20%, if not more.

Costco, as well as many bulk foods stores and local co-ops, offer great pricing. You can also check with your local health food store to see if they’d offer you a discount for bulk purchases.

7. Consider Joining a CSA or Co-Op

If there is a co-op or CSA in your area, check into pricing and details for joining. You might find that it is an affordable and money-saving option for your family. If you can’t find an affordable co-op in your area, you could consider starting your own co-op.

8. Use Coupons on Non-Food Items

I know a number of my readers don’t eat processed foods, but they use coupons to save money on toilet paper, toothbrushes and other non-food items which they purchase. Your savings might not be so exciting as others who use dozens of coupons each shopping trip, but even saving $5 each week by using coupons can start to add up over time.

I know that I’ve just barely scratched the surface in answering this question, so I’d love to hear from you. What are your best ideas for buying natural and organic products on a budget?

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Comments

  1. Susan says

    I would say take all the wonderful advice here and do the best you can with what you have. Also, I know this may be slightly off color from what most people who are reading this blog think, but take time to make yourself really educated on foods, don’t just listen to you may here on the news or read on the internet. Organic and non-GMO – I think we have been made to believe to some extent that we have to care a lot about this because if we don’t, we are doing everything we can for our families. Case in point…the dirty dozen. The Environmental Working Group that puts out this list doesn’t really satisfy me all that much. I haven’t been able to find an actual scientific write up of what they did for their experiment. They say that celery is very high on pesticide content, but unless they can show their methodology, I have some problems with that statement. How was the celery sampled? Was is washed and thoroughly cleaned before taking measurements? I don’t think most of us would give unwashed veggies or fruit to our families whether is is organic or not. Washing gets rid of most a lot of pesticide residue; pesticides are not necessarily leached into the vegetable itself. Many of the studies I have read in actual reputable scientific journals would specify sampling techniques and many of them come back with information very different than the Environmental Working Group. This is just one example of just thinking critically for yourself and not listening to media groups that are reporting on things that they just don’t have the know-how to report on.
    For me, I have a garden, not necessarily to be organic or even green; it is cheaper and I have a fun time doing it. This is the same reason why I make a lot of my own beauty products and cleaning products. I just enjoy doing it. (Although my own beauty products aren’t always cheaper, but it is a lot of fun) I also enjoy making other things. But if something is too expensive, makes me worry, or it is just a drag, I will do whatever I can to make it cheaper, more simple, and fun.

    • Jaclyn says

      I had a family member with health issues and it caused me to take action – do the research and come up with my own conclusion. I wish I had done it sooner, that I had somehow been educated on this very important topic. I too read medical journal and studies but I also look at who fiananced those studies. Here are two books that I found eye opening: The China Study by T. Collin Cambell and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollin.

      I guess I just want to point out that if anyone is interested in this topic go out and do your own research – you won’t regret it! Libraries are great and if they don’t have a book you want ask for an interlibrary loan.

  2. Susan says

    One more thing…as for words you can’t pronounce on a food label, don’t let that guide you as to what to buy or not buy. Everything has a “chemically” sounding name, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. Examples: Tocopherol – vitamin E, docosahexaenoic acid – an omega-3 fatty acid. These are just a couple of widely known examples, but if you have a question about something on a label, look it up! Or ask someone who is an actual food scientist. Get their opinion. There are lots of them out there!

  3. Sarah says

    My trick is to find a bent and dent store and go every other month or so. They get overstock/close-to-date/outdated/dented items, many of which are organic, and VERY reasonably priced. We end up trying many new items (this month, it’s buckwheat), so we don’t get bored with the “cheaper” meals (chili with a little meat and a lot of beans, baked potato bar, etc.). And with the cheap prices, I can afford some organic “convenience” foods to supplement. They also have bulk sections, so I can get freshly milled flours and other baking goods and herbs for cheap.

  4. Becky says

    We buy a share from a local Community Support Agriculture (CSA) farm every year. We get 5-6 boxes of organic veggies for $205 and get a $200 rebate from our health insurance company. Can’t beat that value!

  5. Leah says

    As a single mama to a very big eater, I have learned that I have to prioritize. I work only part time, I do not want government benefits, and I have some hefty student loans to pay back, so I am on a strict budget. I choose not to eat out much (and to use coupons when I do) and to buy clothes second hand and allot more money to my grocery budget. My priorities right now are meat and dairy/egg products. I usually buy chicken and ground beef (the most affordable meats to buy grassfed/free range- I buy them at the local farmer’s market), and I buy local eggs and pastured dairy products. These products are the largest part of my grocery budget. I use the rest of my money on conventional produce, or organic if it is discounted/I have a coupon (Earthbound Farms offer great coupons and I can use them to get a lot of produce at the same price/less than non-organic). I buy many of my vegetables frozen. Occasionally, we eat conventional meat (maybe 10% of the time), but oh well. I’m doing the best I can.
    Anyway, my advice is to do your research and prioritize. Set a budget and stick to it. If you’re first priorities are covered, then go down the list to the “less important” stuff. If all you can afford are the first few priorities, then skip the rest and buy conventional. Avoid the most dangerous foods according to your own research/opinion (we don’t eat any GMO corn, for instance). And give yourself a break, you’re doing the best you can :)

  6. Lauren Wilson says

    After watching Food Inc., my husband and I made it a priority to buy all our meat, eggs, and milk from humane, local sources. We also eat quite a few organic fruits, vegetables, and beans. One idea is to go to your local farmer’s market near the end of the day. We often go about an hour before closing, and the farmers are willing to deeply discount any leftover items. The selection may not be quite as good as it is in the early morning, but it is still almost always fresher and better than what we find in our grocery store.

  7. Jan says

    Also watch for wild caught pacific salmon to go on sale- you can often find canned wild caught salmon at just about any store including Walmart and Big Lots! Wild caught salmon is the equivalent of “organic” fish- just don’t ever buy farm raised salmon- they are fed GMO corn.

    • Jerilyn says

      A co-op is a group of people that go in on orders together- and can order directly from where whole foods, etc. orders from. A CSA is typically produce, or meat, even. Where you pay the farmer in advance and you get shares of the produce throughout the season. Both are great and you could do a co-op and csa at the same time, perhaps through the co-op.

  8. A.S. says

    Husband and I shop at Whole Foods once a week (produce, bread, dairy, pasta, etc.) and at Stop and Shop (we love their Nature’s Promise brand). We eat a mainly organic diet, based on vegetables and whole grains. Our weekly budget is $40 – $60. However, we are vegetarians (no meat, fish), and that helps a lot. We actually find Whole Foods to be comparable to other stores in many ways. They often have select organic fruit/veggies on sale every week, so I center our weekly meal plan on their produce sales. Thanks for the post!

  9. Ellen says

    We pick our own berries in the summer (and sometimes peaches, too!) and freeze them for use all year long. We also grow a simple garden, which supplies us with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and fresh herbs for the warmer months of the year.

    I also pick ALL of my GREEN tomatoes, wrap them in newspaper, and store in the basement until they ripen. We usually have fresh tomatoes until December!!!

    • Sara says

      If you are southern, you would slice those green tomatoes, bread them with a little cornmeal and a generous serving of salt and fry them till soft and golden brown in hot oil in your grandmother’s cast iron skillet. Oh…wait…we’re talking about healthy food here! :)

  10. Ellen says

    “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver is also an excellent read that got the wheels turning in my brain about how our family could reduce our carbon footprint, eat more locally, and produce more of our own food ourselves. Really inspiring book.

  11. says

    I feed my family for $75 /week (that’s for 2 adults and 3 small children). We eat only lean meats, whole grains, and at least 6 servings of f &v daily.

    I follow the same advice that Crystal gave above. One area that we skimp on for this season of paying off debt is buying organic. I am planning on increasing our budget once we have reached our goal in order to buy more organic products. But I plan on only buying the dirty dozen organically. I would rather my family eat 6 servings per day of f/v than only 3-4 organic servings.

  12. says

    I never did coupons because I buy 80% organic items for my family. I decided to try it on just things like toilet paper, toothbrushes, etc. at first. I was then AMAZED to find all the ways that I can save on organic items as well! I just completed my first month of trying a grocery budget of $20/person/mnth and can say that I am right on track! I still have $63.29 left over for a few essentials this week!

  13. JuliB says

    The Chicago Tribune mentioned eatwild.com and I’ve found a couple of places that have grass fed cows, etc. I’m looking forward to it!

  14. says

    I don’t know if I can add more than has already been added, but I feed a family of 3 (2 adults 1 toddler that eats enough bread/fruit as an adult) on $200/month for a mostly organic/natural diet. I think the most important thing to do is to decide which foods are MOST important to you to buy organic and then work the rest of your budget around that. Cutting out most processed foods also saves a bundle. Then try the tips suggested.

    Mari @ Green & Thrifty

  15. Sarah says

    Keep your eyes peeled for deals on the daily deal sites like Groupon and Living Social. I’ve been seeing quite a few deals for natural food stores and CSAs in my area (Northern California). There’s a Living Social deal just today in Oakland for The Food Mill.

    I’ve also seen some nationwide deals for organic products that ship anywhere in the US.

    • Sarah says

      Forgot to mention if you have a Chinook Book in your area they have a TON of awesome coupons for organic items. chinookbook.net

  16. says

    I have switched to using ground turkey instead of ground beef. While farmers are allowed to treat the turkeys with antibiotics if necessary, it is against USDA regulations for them to be given growth hormones and steriods. While it may not be better than organic, grass fed beef, it is better than what we get in the stores.

  17. Jerilyn says

    We eat mostly organic/free-range/etc. We belong to a co-op and that is why we can afford to do this. We spend 400 dollars a month- groceries, misc. items, blow money etc. all lumped in one ;)

    We buy raw milk- to drink, to make yogurt and buttermilk from. It costs $8 a gallon and we restrict to 1 1/2 gallons per week. I water this down for recipes etc. as there is 3 inches of cream on top of the jar.

    We buy eggs and meat from local farmers. Buy in bulk (like half a cow) if possible.

    We buy organic fresh produce. I still buy conventional frozen fruit etc. for smoothies because of cost. Maybe this summer I can build up enough u pick etc. to freeze.

    This is slightly more than we used to spend on groceries and my two little boys eat a ton (3 & 1- what are the teen years going to be like!?!?!) but the farmers we support through our co-op get 77 cents to 82 cents per dollar back, which is way more than conventional farmers. I like knowing that I am not only giving my family the best, but I am helping a farmer provide a living wage to his family and he is putting money back into his farm and taking care of the earth. It was worth it to my family. I rarely ever used coupons for food anyways because most of those foods are just not nutrious.

  18. Amanda says

    Would anyone mind sending their “simple, made-from-scratch” meal recipes? I have been a vegetarian my entire life, but my family was not. My mother made meat as a main dish, and I either ate the “sides” as my meal or had cereal. Meaning, I never really learned to cook. Now I am married with children and step-children who all like meat. I feel like I have to “cook” a meal for the meat-eaters, and then make a second meal for myself, and quite honestly, as a full-time working mom, I don’t have the time for it. Also, I am embarrassingly, ridiculously picky… I don’t eat meat, tomatoes, eggs, etc., so this makes the whole food thing even harder. I would really, really appreciate any very simple and quick, healthy, vegetarian meal ideas.

    Also, on another note: being as incompetent as I am in the kitchen, when other commenters have said that they stock up on farmers’ market fruits/veggies in the summer and freeze or can them, how do you do it? I mean, is freezing fruit really that simple- you just wash and freeze? I have heard that you have to blanch veggies before freezing them. I have never blanched. And where do you find simple instructions for beginning canners?

    Thanks for any info.

    • Mrs. M. says

      I have been a Lacto-OVO Vegetarian for the past year because of necessary. Cooked all meals for the entire family from the age of 11.
      Buy Frozen fish sticks in one pound packages and take out what you need. Continue to prepare vegetarian meals just ad a side of meat or cheese casserole or sea food. Pop in the oven for 25 minutes. The kids must have milk every day. Try canned milk and reconstitute. Buy 32 oz pkgs of bulk cereal containing dried fruit and sweeten with honey, pour reconstituted canned milk on the cereal. Use honey to sweeten cereal and brewed tea. Add dried green vegetables to any meal that will boil for 25 minutes. Purchase dried vegetables in bulk. Make sure the kids have fruit (dried okay), milk, green vegetables, tomatoes and plenty of vitamin C daily. Meals take 45 minutes max to prepare at night for the entire family. Macaroni & cheese, Lasagna, tuna noodle casserole, fish and chips, cheese hoagies. If you can’t stand meat or to prepare it buy case lots of TV Dinners you cannot deprive the kids of milk, vitamin C, green vegetables or tomato. Since my teens I have been around Vegetarians who are hospitalized because of immune bad health. Buy Bulk TV dinners & soup & canned milk.

  19. Beth G. says

    Check out http://www.100daysofrealfood.com She did a series where for 100 days her family switched to healthy/real food and away from processed. Next, she did a 100 day series of “real food on a budget”. I learned a ton about buying healthy food on a budget!

  20. Mrs. M. says

    Grow tomato, lemon and herb plants. All will flurish in a Sunny Window, planted in large flower pots or large plant boxes. Follow instructions for indoor vegetable plants and indoor herb gardens also drying herbs. Buy whole dried peas in bulk and dried green vegetables in bulk include small amounts in dishes that boil for half an hour. Buy dried cheeses and make all your favorite dishes by adding the appropiate cheese. Buy cereal in bulk from the manufacturer. Most major cereal companies have 32 oz packages of cereal mixed with dried fruit.

  21. Ashley says

    Well I put this to the test yesterday at Publix! I still stayed within my budget of $100 a week! I was so surprised! I always use coupons and we always eat probably half processed, half natural foods. But I bought a gallon of organic milk, a ton of fruits and vegetables, very good for you bread, good meat, etc. Before tax I spent $87 and saved $57! I was very excited! I’m feeding a husband with a very large appetite, a toddler that never stops snacking, and myself (I am also nursing so my appetite is very large right now!). Thanks for the motivation!

    Oh BTW, I didn’t buy organic fruits and vegetables this time but plan to make a slow transition for the dirty dozen!

  22. Ashley says

    I was also wondering if anyone knew of someone in the Birmingham, AL area that sells grass fed beef for a good price! All the ones I’ve read up on are SO expensive!!!! More expensive than the grocery store! Yikes!!!

  23. says

    wow-good post and great comments!
    We’re a family of five, on a $340 a month grocery budget, and we’ve just started transitioning to an organic/whole foods diet. I now cook and bake most everything we eat from scratch, and I’m learning how to make more from scratch each week :) My goal is to be at 100% organic by the end of this year.

    Right now I shop at Coscto and Meijer, but this summer I’ll be replacing the Meijer with farmers markets and U Pick farms. I’m also starting a container garden this year-first time I’ve gardened and I’m so excited to try it :)

    I also just started using my swagbucks gift cards to buy organic food on Amazon-next week I’m getting organic oatmeal and organic popcorn kernels free this way!

    I think eating healthier/more naturally is possible on a budget but you just have to get creative :)

    Also-one tip is to check and see if you have a local bread outlet. I can get organic loaves of whole wheat bread (and several other choices like flax seed etc) for $1.39 and I can’t make it for that cheap. I’m in Michigan and use an Aunt Millie’s outlet-they’re in different states too
    http://www.auntmillies.com/About/ThriftStores.aspx

  24. says

    I love this because I love when people discover that they can eat naturally and even organically and do so on a budget! We have a family of four (including an infant who doesn’t eat a whole lot, yet), and we spend $61 a week on our groceries. We eat mostly organic and otherwise all-natural foods.

    I use a ton of coupons, maximize on sales, and am a part of an organic produce co-op. I actually host my group, and that saves us a whole lot! There are so many ways to be creative and trust the Lord to provide. He always does, and we are so very thankful!