Twenty-Five Ways to Afford Organic Foods on a Budget
Organic foods do often come with a higher price tag, but there are many ways you can dramatically lower the cost.
Our family of seven eats mostly organic, non-GMO and natural foods, and we spend less than most smaller families do on conventional foods. On average, we spend between $100 and $150 a week on groceries to feed our family of seven (generally three meals a day, since we homeschool our kids and work from home). It involves a fair amount of extra work, but it's well worth it to me.
The more you're willing to work and be creative, the lower that price can get. Use these strategies and you can eat delicious organic meals at less than your neighbors spend on drive-through.
1. Grow your own.
This one is a no-brainer. Seeds cost literally pennies. Many crops can be grown in containers if you don't have a yard. Tomatoes, herbs, greens and strawberries are some favorite container plants. Easy foods to grow from seeds include lettuce, turnips, swiss chard, squash, radishes, carrots and beets, just to name a few. You can also purchase seedlings and transplant them into your garden. You'll be hard pressed to find a better tasting tomato than one you've grown organically in your own back yard!
2. Make your own.
Yes, organic granola bars are a lot more expensive than chemical-laden ones, but homemade organic ones are cheaper than both! Make your own breads, granola, snack items, sauces and such with organic ingredients and you're still going to pay less than you would at the grocery store. Once you get the hang of simpler items, branch out to items like pasta and jam. You'll be surprised at how affordable organic foods are once you're making them from scratch -- and how delicious they are. Here's our family's mix-and-match granola bar recipe, for example, and we also sometimes make other staples like gluten free pasta.
3. See if there's a Bountiful Baskets Food Co-op that delivers to a town near you.
This non-profit food cooperative delivers fresh produce via truck to small towns and large cities in 24 states (and counting). Participants get a large basket of half fruits, half vegetables for $15 a basket for conventionally grown produce or $25 for organic produce (plus a $5 delivery fee added to your entire order). In addition, there are different add-on items offered each week such as breads, granola, wraps and bulk produce. Some of these are conventional (though still all-natural) and some are organic. As an example, we got a flat of fifteen pounds of beautiful organic beefsteak tomatoes recently for $16, which is just over a dollar a pound for organic tomatoes. Our local grocery stores charges more than double that for conventional tomatoes, so it was a substantial savings.
The organic produce has always been very good quality for us. As an example of the assortment you receive, in one June week our box contained a clamshell of blueberries, several cucumbers, a bundle of baby broccoli, a bundle of cilantro, a purple cabbage, a large onion, several peaches, a large bunch of bananas, about five apples, a cantaloupe and a watermelon -- all organic and all in very good condition.
The participating cities are designated as week A or week B, and get deliveries every other week. We participate in two local cities that are alternating weeks so that we get fresh produce every week. The organization is all volunteer-run, so they ask participants to help out at the delivery sites if they can. Our family volunteers most weeks and even the kids get to play a part in helping out.
4. Join Azure Standard.
This is a natural and organic food co-op that delivers via truck to locations all over the United States. They generally offer very good prices on organic products both in bulk and in smaller quantities. I regularly order organic items such as coconut milk, sorghum flour, cereal, dry beans, raw cashews and peanut butter through Azure Standard. The prices on produce vary by season, but you can get very good prices on organic produce sometimes. During much of the winter, for instance, I get twenty pounds of high quality organic apples for $23. Last summer, I got 20 pounds of fresh organic peaches for $24. See Azure Standard delivers quality natural and organic foods at a great price for my detailed write-up about the company. Other national food co-ops are Frontier and United Buying Clubs.
5. Check your local stores online once a week for organic sales.
Every Tuesday, I look through the online circulars for stores in my rural area and the nearest city and make a list of organic foods that are on sale for good prices. Then I make stops at each store for just the items on my list, plus items that I buy every week at that store.
6. Make a price list for organic items at local stores and shop around.
It pays to know which stores offer the best prices on organic items you buy regularly. For instance, my local Hy-Vee sells organic bananas for .69 to .89 a pound, which is cheaper than any other store in the area. Our nearest Aldi has the best prices on tubs of organic spinach and salad mixes. Since I buy a lot of these items every week for green smoothies, it saves me quite a bit to schedule stops at both stores each week. I've also checked out stores in cities a little farther away that we visit regularly, and if I'm in those cities I'll stop for just the items that I know are worth the quick stop.
7. Follow Organic Deals.
This blog alerts you to sales, coupons, special deals and more on organic products (some of which are shipped right to you). They highlight weekly sales at stores such as Sprouts and Target, along with other specials online and off. You can also follow them on Facebook.
8. Join a CSA.
In a Community Supported Agriculture program, you buy a share of the produce supplied by a local farm (often organic). Each week, you get a variety of fresh, local, organic produce. One local organic farm that we participated in offered full shares for between $515 and $525 for the season (20 weeks). Each weekly box included between 7 and 14 different kinds of vegetables (and sometimes fruits) that were intended to feed an average family of four omnivores or two adult vegetarians. This averaged out to just over $25 a week for a large quantity of fresh-picked, organic produce. Some CSAs also let families work at the farm to pay off part of their shares. Many CSAs offer half shares or charge less per share, too.
9. Shop Amazon.
You can get some organic items at Amazon for exceptionally low prices, especially if you use Subscribe and Save (which saves you an additional percentage off if you ask for it to be sent to you on a certain time frame and gives you free shipping no matter how small the order is). Note that you can cancel Subscribe and Save or skip shipments at any time, and that prices fluctuate so you may want to watch them for a bit before ordering.
10. Eat less meat and dairy.
Organic meat and dairy are some of the most expensive organic items you can buy. If you're not vegan or vegetarian, start seeing these items more as treats and less as staples, and making meals that require less of them. Seek out local organic farm families for naturally raised meats and eggs (and CSA shares of these) and go for quality over quantity. Then supplement your diet with meals made with more affordable organic proteins like beans, brown rice and quinoa. Look to international menus for ideas on vegetarian meals, since other cultures tend to rely less on meat and dairy than ours. Mexican, Chinese and Indian dishes offer lots of meat- and dairy-free ideas.
11. Shop the Farmers' Market.
Other than growing your own, there's no way to get fresher, better tasting organic produce than to buy it at the Farmers' Market. Don't be shy about asking for deals, either. For instance, ask if you can get a price break for buying a lot or buying blemished produce. At the end of the day, many vendors will also offer bigger bargains.
12. Shop your local natural food coops.
You can often get bulk organic items such as flour, oats, beans and pasta for very good prices. Membership and volunteer discounts can bring the price even lower. Be sure to also stock up on sale items you use a lot.
13. Make friends with local organic farmers.
They're often more than willing to barter, trade goods or services or make deals, especially if they have extras of something that will otherwise go bad. You can also often get huge savings if you ask about "canning grade" produce. These are the fruits and veggies that don't make it to the store or farmer's market because of blemishes or imperfections. We've purchased misshapen (but otherwise perfect) green and red peppers for pennies from one local farm family and then froze them for use all year (here are instructions on how to flash freeze fresh produce to retain the colors, flavor and nutrition).
14. Learn to cook frugally.
Some meals are very affordable even when you use organic ingredients (such as pastas, stir-fries and soups). Use meal planning to reduce food waste, so those organic goodies don't rot in the produce drawer before you use them up. Re-purpose leftovers in soups or stir-fries. Stretch foods to get the most from every item. For instance, keep a container in the freezer for vegetable trimmings (such as woody asparagus or broccoli spears, mushroom stems and carrot tops) and boil it all for vegetable stock when it gets full (see The freezer stock bag: How to make free homemade broth from veggie scraps). Likewise, boil chicken and turkey carcasses or ham bones for broth and store the broth in jars in the freezer (leave space on top for expansion). Also learn to use every part of your fresh produce (see Root to stem cooking: How to use every part of your produce).
15. Join an online members-only store like Thrive or the Green Polka Dot Box.
Thrive and the Green Polka Dot Box are two members-only online stores that deliver organic foods right to your door at good savings. I have had memberships to both and ultimately kept my membership to Thrive because I find better deals there on organic products that our family buys. For 25% off your first order at Thrive, click here (affiliate link). See Is the Green Polka Dot Box worth the cost of membership? for my write-up about the pros and cons of TGPDB, which can be a great option for other families. Both of these services can be great for smaller families especially, if you are not able to buy in bulk and just want one or two of each item.
16. Stock up on deals if you're in a city with stores that offer good savings.
If you live in a rural area, you may not have access to stores that offer better prices on organic foods. It's worth it to set aside a little money every month so that you can visit those stores occasionally and stock up if you happen to visit the area for another reason. We are three hours away from the nearest Trader Joe's, for instance, but our family goes to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester occasionally because of my husband's artificial hip. On those days, I always set aside some time and money to stock up on items that are cheaper there that our family uses a lot of, such as organic taco shells, peanut butter and sauces.
17. Get a membership at a warehouse store like Costco.
We are 90 miles from the nearest Costco but it's still worth the cost of a $55 annual membership for us because we visit Sioux Falls once a month and I stock up on organic canned and frozen foods at that time. Costco has excellent prices on frozen organic fruits and vegetables and a lot of bulk canned and dry foods. Organic frozen broccoli florets are about $5.99 for a large bag of 4 individual one-pound bags, and it's very good quality. I pay less for better quality organic broccoli florets this way than I would at my local grocery store for conventionally grown. I also stock up on organic mixed vegetables, corn and peas, along with canned goods like six-packs of organic garbanzo beans, fire roasted tomatoes, kidney beans and tomato sauce, and bags of organic rice. Sam's Club is another members-only warehouse that offers more and more organic foods, though I prefer to shop Costco because they pay their employees better and seem to be a more ethical company than Walmart-owned Sam's Club.
It's important to know prices and know what to skip at warehouse stores, too, though. I don't bother buying fresh organic produce at our Costco, for instance, because I get better prices from my other sources and that location doesn't offer a very large selection of fresh organic produce either.
18. Visit "scratch and dent" stores.
You can often find incredible deals at these discount stores that are becoming increasingly common. We shop at a Mennonite-run discount store in a nearby town once or twice a month and get great prices on organic foods like cereals, spaghetti sauce, cake mix, white chocolate bars and olive oil. We even shop at a similar store when we go on vacation in St. Augustine, since we stay at a condo where we have a full kitchen. When we get to town, I visit that store first and stock up on any quality organic, gluten-free items that they have, and then get the rest of what we need at the local grocery store.
Quality can be hit or miss at these stores, so keep that in mind when deciding which items to purchase. I purchased jugs of organic lemonade for $1.25 a quart and organic chocolate frosting mixes for $1.25 each for a recent birthday party, for instance, but I generally pass up items like spices, tortilla chips and granola bars that may be stale. In general, look for shelf stable products that appear to be in good condition.
19. Gather wild edibles.
We are a homeschooling family, and we decided to learn about foraging for wild foods for a summer project a few years ago. It was such a wonderful success that foraging has become part of our life since then. What's better than fresh, pesticide-free, delicious foods you can get for free? We harvested about fifty pounds of wild asparagus (which is just asparagus that has spread from old homesteads and gardens into the surrounding countryside) in the month of May this year, for instance. We gather our own elderberries to make flu-fighting elderberry syrup every September, and also gather morel mushrooms, nettles (which taste like spinach when cooked and are incredibly high in iron and lots of nutrients, plus naturally help control seasonal allergies), mulberries, acorns for delicious acorn flour, walnuts, wild plums, gooseberries and lots more. Some of the foods will probably be well known to your family, such as raspberries and asparagus, while others may be brand new foods to discover, such as cattails (which are edible in all different ways during their growing cycle), ramps (which go for up to $15 a pound during their brief growing season if you try to buy them!) and mulberries.
Also remember that not all wild foods are that "wild." Your neighbor's backyard apple tree that is never sprayed is a source of organic apples, and she may be happy to let you come and gather them rather than letting them go to waste. We put up hundreds of pounds of apples in the form of applesauce, frozen apples, apple cider, hard cider and apple pie filling every fall, and much of it comes from people around town who have given us permission to harvest their apple trees. Many homeowners have trees that bear edible fruit or nuts that they have no interest in ever eating, and they're happy to see them go to use. Rhubarb is another plant that's in many back yards and often goes to waste, and you can usually get all you want if you just ask. It's nice to come back and bring a thank you gift such as baked treats or applesauce that you've made with some of the bounty, too.
When foraging for wild edibles, it's important to follow common-sense safety guidelines, such as never gathering a food you can't positively ID and not gathering near busy roadways or polluted areas. You should also make sure that it's legal to gather foods in each location or that you obtain permission. See 25 Fantastic foraging groups and pages on Facebook and visit my Wild Edibles board on Pinterest for lots more information. You can also follow my husband's urban foraging page on Examiner for regular articles about foraging.
20. Eat in season.
Learn to eat with the seasons and plan your menus accordingly. Not only are seasonal organic foods much cheaper, but there's a certain simplicity and harmony that comes in eating the foods that are naturally at their peak at the time where you live. Summer is the perfect time for fresh berries, salads, tomatoes and melons, while winter is perfect for hot soups made with root vegetables and wild rice.
21. Learn to "put things up."
We work together as a family to prep and preserve large quantities of foods when we get them so that we can use them all through the year. You'll often find fantastic deals on fresh produce that's just about to pass its prime, for instance, or people may offer you large quantities of "windfall" fruit (such as apples and pears that are blown from the trees during a storm). Learn to can, freeze, dry and otherwise preserve extra foods. This is one of the best ways to be sure that your family will be able to eat well on a budget all year round.
22. Clip coupons.
Many organic food products offer coupons on their websites, through coupon sites, in the local paper and in other places. Visit your favorite organic brands online and get on their mailing lists. If you like a company, send them a letter and say so, and you're likely to get coupons back in the mail (likewise, if there's a problem, make sure they know about it and they'll probably send some coupons to help make it right).
23. Buy in bulk.
You'll often get better deals if you can buy larger quantities of foods. I buy organic dried black beans in twenty-five pound bags from Azure Standard when they go on sale for 10% off, for instance, and it costs about $32. If I bought dried black beans from the local grocery store, I'd pay double or triple that. I transfer them to glass gallon jars (we pick up ice tea jars for this reason at garage sales) and keep them in our basement. Other items that I buy in bulk for the savings include rice, gluten free flours, nuts and canned goods.
It can be hard to find the extra money sometimes to buy in bulk, but this is another instance where it's good to just put something aside every week or month in order to have it when you get an opportunity to save money by buying a lot of something.
24. Serve whole foods and less processed foods.
Yes, organic cheese crackers and fruit gummis are expensive. You don't really need to buy items like these, though. Stock up instead of fresh and dried fruits, vegetables and basic staples. Make your own snacks like trail mix (our family's favorite is a mix of cashews, almonds, dried cranberries, raisins and dark chocolate chips) and then portion those out as needed. Likewise, skip the organic juice boxes for your child and just bring a reusable bottle filled with water and a piece of fruit. Serve items like homemade oatmeal for breakfast instead of processed cereal. Organic convenience foods can get pricey, so learn to make other healthy foods convenient instead.
25. Factor in other extras you're getting for your money.
Organic foods offer lots of hidden extras that you get with your money. They are often much higher in vitamins and other nutrients. They help keep you and your family healthy. They support sustainable farming practices that keep other families and communities healthy. They also just plain taste better!
In the end, it's quite possible to eat delicious organic meals for way less than most people imagine. It takes a little work, a little creativity and a little know-how, but it's well worth it.