Buy organic foods? What are you crazy? I'm trying to save money! I know that it does seem like organic foods cost twice as much as buying "regular" food, but it doesn't if you know how to shop. I avoided my local co-op for years because I was terrified that my already high food bill would skyrocket if I dared buy the organic versions. But, I was wrong.
It took a little change on my part, but I knew my family had to eat better and so I took what I call the "Three-Month Challenge." I vowed to find a way to incorporate organic and locally-grown foods into at least 90 percent of our diet within that time frame. It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be.
First, I had to dispel the notion that eating healthy food was more expensive or required a lot of cooking. And second, I had to stop letting the children dictate what goes into the pantry. Yes, my children thought I was a goddess if I let them have gummy, sugary, cartoon-character "fruit snacks," but that no longer matters. They alternately think I'm a goddess and dislike me on any given day anyway, so I've decided that I'm in charge of what goes into their bodies and they'll just have to live with it. And you know what? They do. They might roll their eyes (my 13-year-old daughter is especially good at this) that there are no pre-fab "granola" bars in the pantry, but she gives me just as big a hug when I put mangoes in the fruit basket. Relying on the approval of children is a silly way to shop.
Children will never choose an apple or a yogurt after school if there are chocolate chip cookies, Ring Dings, or Easy Mac in the house. But they will choose an apple, orange or organic granola bar if that's all there is.
I also stopped buying "snack cakes" and other desserts. Now, if we are going to have a sugary treat after dinner, I either make it from scratch or buy just enough for that evening. It has reduced the amount of money spent on such items greatly in our house and keeps the kids from snagging the two left in the box after school or stashing them in their backpacks for during the school day.
My new policy is to visit the food co-op or a local farmer's market once or sometimes twice a week and buy two or three bags worth of stuff at a time. This keeps my out-of-pocket expenditures to somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 at a time. For paper products and other sundry items like those organic granola bars, I started doing something really crazy. I started buying them online. Now, the UPS guy delivers a couple of boxes to my door twice a month. This does three things. First, it keeps me from spending money on gas to get to the store. Next, it keeps me to a list, instead of tempting me into things I really don't need. Finally, it allows me to shop slowly, examining labels so I know exactly what I'm getting, and my feet don't hurt when I do it!
I also buy organic foods in bulk with a local cooperative, so I can get big sacks of whole grain flours and oats. I like to bake, so this is a great deal for me.
- Shop Farmer's Markets: They only last from spring to fall in most places, but you will find great growers who can maybe provide you privately with some foods (particularly eggs, cheeses, preserved foods and root vegetables) throughout the year.
- Join a Co-op: Many food co-ops will give you a discount just for being a member, and some will even allow you to exchange volunteer work for credit at the store or for your membership fees. Years ago, I worked at a small co-op so that I could afford one of the first organic baby foods.
- Go CSA: Community Supported Agriculture is a great way to go if you have the money but not the time to garden. Farmers in your area will, for a fee that is usually around $300 at the start of the growing season, provide you with one or two bags of in-season produce each week for 24 or 26 weeks depending on your area. Just remember, though, that this is homegrown produce. Your tomatoes might be split occasionally and your peppers might have a funky curl on the end, but they will taste much better than anything you could get at your local supermarket and you'll be helping support family farms. If you don't have the money for this option, some will also let you exchange time in the garden for produce in a bag. Don't be afraid to ask. Many small farmers are happy for the extra help in the middle of a weedy season!
- Buy in Bulk: I know that everyone says this, but it's so true. Head straight for the containers of dried herbs, spices, oats, beans, etc. I started keeping my dry goods in rectangular plastic containers so that I could stack them in the pantry. I used to think the buy in bulk idea was a bit of a scam until I bought several jars worth of spices at a fraction of the cost of the tiny jars they sell at the supermarket. We also have "Iron Chef" nights at my house where we try to figure out what to make with what we have in the pantry. We get a lot of interesting dinners that way!
- Buy in Season in Large Amounts: This doesn't have to mean you'll spend a lot of hours over a hot canner. I am the queen of the Cuisinart and the freezer. I slice, dice, puree, etc. in the food processor and then store the proceeds in gallon-size resealable bags and freeze them. Consequently, I have julienned green beans fresh off the farm in January!
- Plant a Garden: I hate to weed, so I mulch a lot. I'm a lazy gardener. And even in those years when I've spent no time in the garden except to plant, I'm still surprised by the abundance. My younger children don't mind helping to pick. It's like a scavenger hunt between the weeds!
- Be Flexible: Again, don't let the kids dictate what's in the fridge. Buy what's on sale and do something with it. Buy what's in season. Buy what's cheap. If avocados are on sale, buy more than two and make up enough guacamole to serve at your holiday party. All you have to do is mush it up and freeze it. When you're watching the Super Bowl with your friends, you'll have fresh guacamole to go with those (organic) chips!
- Go Slow: If you're afraid your family will think you're crazy, buy a few things that are organic at a time. I started purchasing organic cereals (on sale) and all of a sudden Cocoa Puffs have no meaning in my house.
- Cook More: It's so easy to just stop at a restaurant on the way home from soccer, but I've learned to become friendly with my slow cooker. It's just as easy for me to make two lasagnas at one time and freezer one of them. Changing how you look at food goes a long way to changing your habits. Have fun with food. Subscribe to a couple of food-related magazines that have great recipes and you'll start experimenting more.
- Shop Online: The kids think this is really cool because they love to get stuff in the mail. Even Amazon.com is now offering organic foods online. Throw a couple of boxes of Kashi granola bars in with your son's next order of CDs, and I guarantee that he'll eat them!
Michelle Kennedy has written 11 books and has been featured in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Family Circle, Redbook and many other publications. She lives in Vermont with her husband and five (soon to be six) children.
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