When I first started trying to eat organic, I went about it like I was mentally compromised. I could have been almost as efficient by just setting fire to my money and eating the ashes. I’d pick a recipe I wanted to make, then go to the store to buy the organic ingredients required for said recipe. I’d buy organic tomatoes in December, pick up full-priced grass-fed ground beef, despite the fact that pastured chicken thighs were 40% off that week. I’d buy a plastic jar of organic rice, paying 3x as much for the packaging as I did for the actual rice itself. It was an exercise in stupidity, inefficiency, and money wasting. Evangelizing for organics was basically saying to people “hey, everyone should have barrels of disposable income, time to grocery shop every day at a Whole Foods, and ignore all considerations besides organics.”
I’ve been at this for a while now, and I like to think I’ve gotten more efficient at it. I live in Colorado, which means two things. First, I have access to really nice grocery stores. Second, produce season out here is short-lived and limited. Someone in Portland or Napa Valley can access all varieties of fantastic, gorgeous, organic produce with very little effort. Someone in Biloxi may have nothing but Wal-Mart for shopping options and sand for soil. There are cities in the US where produce is basically nonexistent. Poor communities sometimes have only convenience stores for grocery options. So I’ll start by acknowledging that not everyone has access to a full range of organics. And that sucks.
But there are things that most of us can do, for a reasonable price, and without a ton of inconvenience. I’m going to list them here, add to it as I learn more, and invite you to do the same in the comments. The hope is that people who are new to organic, humane eating or want to learn more will be able to use this as a resource.
Most of us already know WHY we want to eat organic, humane meat and dairy. And most of us know the health risks of eating produce that’s coated in pesticide. So I’m going to skip over that for now and just list some of the tricks I’ve learned for saving money and time.
–The larger the cut of meat you buy, the less expensive it’s going to be. Buy a whole chicken and cut it up. Wrap the pieces separately for use in different dishes. Boneless, skinless breasts are the biggest waste of money out there. Often times you’ll see a boneless, skinless breast selling for more than a whole chicken. Ridiculous.
–If you have the capital up front, buying a share in an animal with some friends is a fantastic way to save money. Find a farm nearby that treats its animals well, then buy a quarter cow or a half a pig at once. Split the cost with friends and divide the meat up. Spending $100 on a chest freezer is going to be the best $100 you ever spend, because it’ll allow you to buy in bulk and save money.
–Humane meats go on sale, too! Buy a bunch of whatever is on sale, freeze it, then “shop” from your freezer for whatever meat you want to eat that night. The butcher can freezer wrap your meat for you so it won’t get freezer burn. The styrofoam and plastic wrap packages at normal grocery stores allow your meat to freezer burn almost immediately. If you buy meat in that packaging, take it out and wrap it separately in butcher paper.
–Research what companies will sell you humane meat. Don’t fall for key words like “all-natural” or “certified Angus” that sound like the meat is higher quality than it is. Go to the store knowing what brands are “safe” and what brands aren’t. Whole Foods has a humane ranking system of 1-5 that they just implemented, so that’ll save you a hassle. If you don’t live near a Whole Foods, it can help to find the most “natural” grocery store you can, then make bulk purchases from that grocery store every few months. Farmer’s markets are a fantastic resource, too, and mean you’re supporting local agriculture. Don’t be afraid to ask! Was your chicken pastured? Is your meat grass-fed?
–In restaurants and grocery stores alike, buffalo is *usually* a safe option. Buffalo hasn’t been shunted into the feedlot system in large numbers yet, so is by its nature normally pasture raised. If you’re at a burger place and see buffalo burger on the menu, get it! It’s certainly going to be a better bet than the beef burger. It tastes like grass-fed beef, and it’s leaner and better for you.
–Remember when I said you should ask your butcher if the meat is humane and organic? Ask your server at restaurants, too. Ask, ask, ask. Even if you know the answer. It costs you nothing, and it lets the restaurant know that people are demanding humane meat. If enough people demand it, it will eventually happen.
–Consider being a “restaurant vegetarian.” If you can’t verify that the meat/eggs/whatever are humanely sourced, then order a vegetarian option. It sounds harder than it is. Chris and I started doing this a couple of years ago, and we’ve discovered that the vegetarian meals are often cheaper and just as delicious as the meaty meals. If you find that a restaurant has piss-poor veg options, tell them. Be like, “your options are weak.” Then poke around your plate forlornly and whimper a lot. I’m kidding. Maybe.
–Buy organic milk and pastured eggs. Demand for them has gotten so great that grocery stores almost ALL carry them, and for similar prices to the non-organic options. Paying a little bit more is to be expected. It costs more to do things right. But it’s worth it ethically, and to avoid ingesting hormones. Seven year old girls and 25 year old men shouldn’t have titties.
–Buy in season. If you’re buying an organic tomato in December, you can be guaranteed two things. One, you’ll pay through the nose for it. Two, it will taste like ballsack. Figure out what grows at what time of year, then only buy what can reasonably be considered “seasonal.” If it’s out of season, buy frozen. Frozen are often very high quality, and taste great. Plus, they’re cheaper. Hint: Green beans are in season in the summer. If it’s not summer, buy frozen green beans. That includes Thanksgiving.
–Buy as locally as you can. With gas prices going up, you’re going to pay more for things that have had to travel further to get to you. If the plum you’re picking up was grown in Chile, chances are that they’re a) out of season and b) expensive. Plus, they won’t taste as good as fresh, USA produce. Team Amurrica! Fuck yeah!
–Find a farmer’s market in your area. Buy cheap produce there each week, and enjoy it. I hated tomatoes until I tried a fresh, vine-ripened, local tomato. It’s a whole different fruit, I swear to God, than the nasty, mealy crap they put on your salads at Wendy’s. Get to know the farmers. Find out if they grow organic. Chances are, they do. Even if they aren’t certified organic because they’re small-scale. Hit up the organic stands and tell them you appreciate their efforts.
–Buy extra from the farmer’s market, and freeze it! Not all of us can our own food, but most of us do freeze things. Remember that chest freezer I told you about? Still paying for itself…
–Grow your own! Not pot. Vegetables. Figure out what will grow easily in your climate and give gardening a shot.
–Choose your battles. If you have financial restrictions, and can’t afford to go 100% organic, then decide what’s the most important to you. Meat is the #1 for me, since hormones and e-coli and ammonia aren’t something I want in my body. Plus I like animals and want them to be happy. Then, consider the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables. These are the ones that have the most pesticide residue, and are the most important to purchase as organics:
Grapes, imported (Chili)
–Hit up Costco. I can’t emphasize enough how much money this will save you on organics. They’ve got organic canned tomato products, organic quinoa, organic farro, organic rice, fair trade organic sugar, fair trade organic chocolate, organic fruits and vegetables, organic stocks, humane eggs, milk, and cheese…seriously, they have done an excellent job of adding organic products to their selection, and they do it cheaply. If you don’t have and can’t afford a membership, find someone else who has one. Members are allowed to bring a guest, provided that the member writes the check to pay. Cash is accepted, but most credit cards are not.
–Bulk bins rock. For things like lentils, beans, grains, granola, etc, check the bulk bins at your nearest natural foods store. You’ll save a ton on packaging, and keep some plastic out of the landfills. I have Oxo Snap containers that are labeled for each item I buy in bulk, and I reuse the plastic produce baggies from the bulk area to refill them as necessary. It costs me about $2 to buy a gallon-sized container of dried beans.
–Same goes for herbs and spices. Most natural food stores have bulk spices, so I buy a few tablespoons worth at a time and refill my spice containers at home. The spices are way, way cheaper, and fresher because I only buy what I need for about a month at a time.
–Eat meatless once a week. Meat is expensive! High-protein grains like quinoa are not. And beans are absurdly cheap. You’ll save money, save the planet, and save your arteries by just going meatless once per week. You may find, as we did, that it’s enjoyable enough to do more than once per week. If that seems extreme to you, start by cutting out the big slab of meat on the plate. Use small bits of meat, like diced bacon, to flavor a primarily bean dish. There’s no reason we have to have ginormous hunks of flesh in the center of our plate. In many cultures, meat is used more as a flavoring agent than as a primary source of nutrition, because it’s expensive.
Anyway, this is just a start. If you have tips, please add them. And I’ll continue to be on the lookout for ways to make this whole responsible eating thing a little more accessible and convenient for all of us.