Friday, July 26, 2013

Clean Eating on a Budget: Can it be done?

There’s a lot of hype these days about clean/paleo/organic diets.  I don’t mean “hype” in the typical negative connotations, just that it’s a very popular topic in today’s society.  We’ve all seen the swings of diet crazes that go on throughout our lives… I mean, anyone else out there remember when pasta was considered really healthy because carbs were good for you? 

Sweet, sweet sketti. I miss those days.

Last year, a friend’s family member was suffering from cancer.  He visited with a Doctor Hoover who is a proponent of the alkaline-foods movement and started Dr. Hoover’s diet.  This year, the family member passed away—however, over the last year a vast improvement was seen in his quality of life, and it did extend the life expectancy that his oncologist had given him.  Therefore, my friend is now moving toward the alkaline diet and organic foods as well.  She recently went to our local health food market and spent over $500 on food items… I should point out that she & her husband have four kids.  So that’s a 6-person family on an organic diet.  That’s not cheap. Oh…and said friend is a stay at home mom, so they’re doing this on one income.  Ouch.

The Hubs & I don’t typically buy organic foods, because we’re kind of cheapskates.  However, I see the value in moving toward that route.  So I wanted to do some research and see what our typical shopping list would look like if we went all-organic.  And the answer….kind of terrified me.

I made a list of about 40 staples that we always have in our house, and our typical price points for those items.  Now—bear in mind, we almost NEVER buy something at full price.  When it goes on sale, we stock up, or we buy generics.  So these are our “buy” price points—not necessarily the typical regular prices for these items.  But, to be fair, I also reviewed our sale ads for the last few weeks and used the sale prices for any of the organic items on this list as well.


As you can see, if we decided to move to an all-organic diet, our average bill would increase by almost 150% percent!!!  Our monthly grocery budget for a two-person household is $200; therefore, over the course of the year we would be spending about $1600 more PER PERSON on food.  For a 4 person family, that would be an extra $6,400 per year.  I don’t know about you, but we don’t really have an extra $3200 in our annual budget to dedicate exclusively to food.

So, the more important question is:  which items on this list are the MOST IMPORTANT to buy organic?  You may or may not have the time to track down the answer to that question for everything on your grocery list.  But I, the food nerd, have done it for you—at least for the above 39 foods.


Cheese/Dairy/Beef/Butter/Sour Cream:  This probably depends on how much of these products you eat.  But dairy/beef products are hot topic in the food world.  There’s concerns over rBST hormones (which, most studies show don’t transfer into food products in significant enough levels to be harmful to humans) but more so the antibiotics that are fed to cows, which can transfer into milk and beef and cause us to build up a resistance to antibiotics.  Answer: Splurge on the organic cheese if your family eats a fair amount of it. If you want a better butter, Kerrygold Irish butter gets rave reviews; it comes from grass-fed cows and it’s relatively cost-effective at places like Sams & Costco ($4.50/lb)---or, if that’s still too steep for those “Country Crock-ers” out there (hey…me too), did you know you can often replace butter/oil in recipes with avocado or Greek yogurt?  WAY cheaper.  If you’re looking for a cheaper option than organic milk, try soy or almond milk!  They’re actually a good middle ground between the two price points ($4/gallon, rather than the $6 for organic).  Sour cream…meh.  It doesn’t likely represent a large enough portion of your diet, so go ahead & get regular (but get the light version to save calories & fat).  As for beef:  hormones & antibiotics tend to concentrate in the fat of animals rather than the muscle, so just opt to buy the 90-95% lean beef ($3.89/lb), rather than splurging for organic (closer to $10/lb) if you can’t afford it.  Or, find a local natural meat provider like Crooked Creek Beef and offer to split a side of beef with another family to save on costs.

Produce:  If you peel it or don’t eat the outside of it, you don’t need to buy it organic.  The pesticides concentrate on the outside of the item; yes, some pesticides can be taken up into the plant while growing, but it’s significantly less than what’s on the outside.  You should still give these a good washing when you bring them home so there isn’t transfer from your hands while peeling.  That being said, every year the Environmental Working Group tests produce at stores for pesticide concentrations, and releases their “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” food lists.  On the Dirty Dozen? Strawberries, bell peppers, leafy greens, tomatoes, celery, apples, grapes, etc.  Clean?  Corn, onions, watermelon, avocadoes, pineapples, etc.  Like I said—things you can peel.  Also—mushrooms are on the Clean list.  Makes sense…wouldn’t want to use a fungicide on a fungus, now would you? :)  Answer: For your organic options, buy what’s on sale—and stock up if it’s something you can freeze.  Also, check out the prices at your local farmer’s markets.   But as far as onions, corn, avocadoes, bananas, & cucumbers (wash & peel them), just buy the regular ones.  Oh, and on baby carrots?  I find that the price difference isn’t that huge on organic vs. regular, so just splurge on the organic.  And unfortunately, white potatoes are on the Dirty Dozen.  But a simple fix?  Buy sweet potatoes---these are on the Clean list. Plus they’re better for you anyway.  Oh, and when it comes to frozen veggies, same rules apply—if it’s something that has been hulled before it was frozen (corn, peas), you’re probably fine buying the regular version.  If you’re worried about GMO corn, buy local, and it’s far less likely to have been treated, and is probably cheaper too.

Canned goods:  Some people are anti-cans altogether.  Or they say “do your own canning with mason jars!”  Yeah…because we alllllll have time for that.  If you’re like me and don’t have time to play Aunt Bea, you occasionally need canned goods.  Answer: for veggies, same rules apply as above—if it’s been hulled (beans, peas, corn), buy regular.  If it’s not (green beans, tomatoes), buy organic.  If you’re vegetarian, you might want to get your beans organic as well, since they probably represent a larger portion of your overall diet.  Luckily stores are pretty good about running sales—organic canned beans are only $1 this week at our local Dillons.  As far as canned soups and pastas…I find that the overall quality and taste is better in the organic versions, so it’s best to splurge.  The veggies are crisper and there’s usually less sodium, too.  Think of it this way—a can of soup usually represents a meal by itself, right?  Spending $2.50 on a can of soup is still cheaper than any fast food value meal out there, and it’ll be way better for your waistline.

Cereal/Granola:  Organic cereal & snack bars are ridonkulous.  I’ll just go ahead & say that.  Plus…it’s almost ALWAYS some form of granola.  Which gets boring (and you can make it cheaper yourself).  Answer: Focus more on the list of ingredients.  If it’s about 5-6 items long and you can easily read all the words, you’ve hit the jackpot.  I recently founds some tasty Nature’s Path shredded wheat bites at Big Lots for $2.50 for a HUGE bag.  Kashi typically keeps their ingredient list short too, and they run coupons almost all the time.

Chicken/Eggs:  *Gulp*  We eat a LOT of chicken & eggs in our house, and I’ll be honest…I’ve never bought organic.  Not when regular chicken pieces seem to be on sale almost every week for 99 cents.  But if you’re diligent, you CAN find good deals on organic chicken now & then.  Answer: Smart Chicken is widely available in supermarkets. (Note: Regular Smart Chicken is not “certified organic”, but their website states that all their chickens are “raised without animal byproducts, antibiotics, or hormones”)  Around here it’s regularly priced at $5.49/lb, but sometimes goes on sale for $3.99, and since they’re a bigger company, they run coupons every so often.  If you time it right, you could potentially get your Smart Chicken as cheap as $2.71/lb!!!  As far as eggs go, Eggland’s Best is probably your best bet.  They’re also not “certified organic”, but their chickens get feed that “contains no added hormones, antibiotics or steroids, and no animal by-products, recycled or processed foods”.  I’ve seen them on sale for about $2.33/dozen (compared to $4/dozen or higher for organic).

Coffee:  Coffee beans are pretty heavily doused with pesticides, and even though a lot of that may come off during the roasting process, you just never know.  Thankfully, many organic coffee options are the same prices as their non-organic alternatives.  Answer:  Buy organic if you can—especially if it’s the same price.  At Sam’s/WalMart, I can get organic coffee K-cups for the same price as the regular stuff.  However, I do still occasionally buy non-organic…because Caribou Coffee is my fave and they don’t have an organic K-cup option. Psstt…you can buy K-cups in bulk at Sam’s for about 50 cents a cup.

Yogurt:  I love Chobani…and most “clean eating” sources consider Chobani to be a good option, since they use dairy from non-rBST treated cows.  And I can get coupons for Chobani.  But if you simply MUST have certified organic, check out Stonyfield Farm.  They run coupons & sales as well and make a pretty tasty product.

Ice Cream:  Organic ice cream is about twice the price of regular.  That seems silly to me. Answer:  Go even cheaper and make your own, using frozen fruit, a splash of vanilla, and a little cream (optional—without the cream, its a sorbet).  My favorite version is with bananas, and some chocolate chips mixed in.  YUM. And it takes all of about 5 minutes to make.

Lunch Meat:  Okay…I had NO idea what organic lunch meat costs because I had never SEEN it before. It’s just NOT mass-marketed; I had to go to the health food store.  Probably because of the crazy price.  We typically pay about $2.50/lb for Oscar Meyer on sale.  Organic lunch meat is about $10/lb!!!!  That’s four times as much!!!   Answer: It really depends on how often you eat lunch meat.  If it’s once or twice a week, then get the regular stuff, by all means.  But if you’re packing lunches for kiddos every day, you probably don’t want to send them to school with that stuff.  In that case, opt for shredded chicken.  If you stock up on the Smart Chicken, you can roast it & then slice or shred it & use that on sammies instead.  Even NOT on sale, $5.49/lb is better than $10.

Bacon:  This was another one that floored me.  We buy bacon on sale, typically when it hits $1.99 or lower (easiest to do when they run BOGO specials).  Organic bacon is $11/lb.  ELEVEN DOLLARS??? *head desk*  Answer:  I’m sorry, but I would GIVE UP bacon before paying $11/lb for it.  If bacon represents a relatively low portion of your overall diet (i.e., you eat it a couple times/week)---which it probably should because we ALL know bacon is bad for us-- just get the regular stuff.  And remember that the hormones & antibiotics concentrate in the fat of animals, so buy leaner cuts, use a grease trap tray, and/or blot the bacon before eating it to lower your risk without breaking the bank.

Pasta Sauce/Salsa:  Remember that tomatoes are on the Dirty Dozen, and pesticides don’t necessarily “cook out”.  Answer:  Go organic, or make it yourself with organic tomatoes (or even grow your own ‘maters & cut out the middle man!)  Sam’s sells an organic pasta sauce for only $2.22/jar (granted, you have to buy it in a three pack, but if you love pasta like we do, that’s not an issue).

Peanut Butter:  This one’s a little controversial, but it shouldn’t be.  Peanuts are hulled before they go into the process.  Most of the pesticides are concentrated on the hulls.  Answer: Meet in the middle, and buy the “natural” versions.  These are the ones with the short ingredient list and use natural sweeteners like honey or cane sugar instead of HFCS.  And their price point is much more reasonable ($3/jar vs. $6). (PS—if you’re confused on the differences between “organic” and “natural”, here’s a good article.)

Salad Dressing:  This one is entirely up to you.  Most of the things that go into a salad dressing (oil, vinegar, spices) usually aren’t high risk, and it doesn’t represent a large portion of your diet (2 tbsp/day, maybe?)  Just buy what you like.  It’s more important that the items IN your salad are pesticide-free.  But use the “simpler is better” rule of thumb and look for lower ingredient counts and fewer 6-syllable chemically sounding words. (Note: I’m a wee bit of a hypocrite, because THIS is my favorite dressing on the planet, and there’s a few preservatives in there, and HCFS…but again, I only eat a few salads a week, so it’s not a big portion of my diet.)

Sausage:  Meats are tough ones.  I usually buy smoked sausage when it’s on sale for about $1.50-2.50.  The cheapest organic sausage I could find was $7.99/lb.  So here’s a time where it’s good to remember that bit about the hormones & antibiotics concentrating in the animal fat.  Answer:  Do some Nutrifacts comparing and find a leaner sausage option.  Chicken sausage usually wins out, and I can usually find it for about $3.99/lb.

Shrimp:  I usually pay about $4.99/lb….organic shrimp are $11.99/lb.  OUCH.  Answer:  Look for Gulf-caught skrimps.  You’re buying local and they’re wild caught—which means they probably haven’t been treated. Regular price on those is typically about $7.99/lb and the stores run sales fairly often.  It’s a good compromise.

Tea:  Tea leaves are pretty notorious for having been treated with pesticides…in fact, Celestial Seasonings and Teavana both got into some big trouble about this a while back.  It’s best to go organic on these. Answer:  If you have a Sam’s card, you can get 100 bags of organic tea for about $8, in comparison to $5 for regular tea.

Tortilla Chips:  Corn is on the Clean List, but a lot of people still give corn flack because of the GMO issue.   In our house, we LOVE us some tortilla chips & salsa, and Mama Lupe’s are 99 cents a bag.  Answer:  I’m sticking with Mama Lupe’s, again because it represents such a small portion of our typical diet.  We munch on chips a couple times a week.  If you have them more frequently, then you may want to spring for organic or non-GMO chips, or go for a different type of regular chip, like pita, Triscuit, etc. As always—watch for sales.

Whole Wheat Bread:  When it comes to bread, the ingredient list is WAY more important than whether it’s organic or not.  Many organic breads still have a lot of sugar, oils & refined flours.  Answer: Look for brands featuring a short ingredient list with no added sugar. Whole-wheat, rice, spelt and millet breads all offer fiber and a rich mix of vitamins and minerals, thanks to the whole grains in each slice.  And buy it from a discount bread store.  We have a Sara Lee store here in town, and they keep loaves that are getting close to their expiration date up front for about $0.99-$1.50 a loaf.  Stock up & put a couple loaves in the freezer.


NOW…*drumroll* What does that grocery bill go to if we follow these rules?  ANSWER:  About $102, which is only a THIRTY-FIVE percent increase.  For our two-person budget, that ends up being about $70 more per month, adding up to an extra $840/year, or $420/person.  WAYYYYY better than $1600/person, amiright?

Thanks for reading, and I hope someone out there finds this helpful!!!

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