Yes, you read that headline right: Switching to organic food can help you seriously slash your grocery bill.
Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. I didn’t believe it, either, until I cut my family’s spending in half by changing where we shopped, what we bought and how we cooked. We used to spend CA$250 or more (about US$200) on a week’s worth of food for the four of us, but we’re down to about half that now, and often quite a bit less — all while buying almost exclusively organic items.
My informal poll of friends with children reveals that weekly grocery bills in excess of CA$300 (about US$240) are fairly common, and that organic produce, dairy, eggs and meat are a priority for many of us despite the higher costs.
While item for item, organics are more expensive, a few tweaks to my family’s habits help me spend less on organics than I did on conventional groceries.
1. Get Out of the Grocery Store
Grocery stores are convenient, and there’s something to be said for one-stop shopping once a week. Rather than avoiding the grocery store entirely, make it your last stop, after you’ve bought everything you can from other, cheaper sources.
Where can you buy affordable organic groceries if not in a grocery store? Well, that depends on the season. In spring and summer, thousands of local CSAs and community gardens operate with low overhead and even lower consumer costs — as low as $0 if you’re willing to do some gardening work, and up to about $50 per week for summer CSAs in my area.
Year-round, I like to take advantage of grocery delivery services that save me both time and money. We pay $55 to have a week’s worth of organic produce brought right to our door, and plenty of companies will do the same for you. The hidden benefit of these services, I’ve found, is that they save me from making impulse purchases: When a prepaid box of food is delivered to my door, I don’t have to go out and find each individual item, which means I spend a lot less time going up and down the aisles finding things I “forgot” we “needed.”
I’ve also saved a lot of money by setting up Craigslist and Kijiji alerts for postings that include the word “organic.” I found eggs this way: free-range, organic and delivered to a central pick-up location every week for $3 a dozen.
Naturally, farmers markets are a good source of organic products, but you have to know when to go. Instead of showing up first thing in the morning to peruse tables full of fresh food at full price, make a mad dash through the stalls 10 minutes before closing time. The food is just as fresh, but the selection is more limited and the vendors don’t want to pack it all up if they can help it — so they may be more willing to offer discounts. I’ve scored produce, meat, eggs and more at up to 50% off the sticker price, just by being the last customer.
2. Find the UNcertified Organics
For many excellent reasons, grocery stores carry only certified organic items. The certification logo is the buffer between the grower and the purchaser; it’s our guarantee that what we’re buying was grown according to established organic principles, since we can’t ask the farmers directly.
But certification is expensive, and those costs get passed on to consumers. When small operations can’t pursue certification, what do they do? They advertise differently, and they sell more cheaply.
You’ll find them at the farmers market, identifying their produce and meat as “grown/raised without chemicals.” You’ll find them on the roadside advertising “pesticide-free peaches” and “free-range jerky.” You’ll find them tending “chemical-free U-Pick gardens.” Because the growers are right there, you can just ask if their food is organic. Sometimes it’s not, but I often get a response like, “We farm organically, but certification was too expensive for us.”
Of course, we all have to decide for ourselves whom to trust and which organic criteria are non-negotiable for us. But many farmers’ commitment to sustainable growing practices and smaller operations means families can eat healthily and well, without the extra surcharge.
3. Group-Date Your Grocers
Once I’ve purchased as much of my weekly grocery list as possible from the above food sources (totaling about $90 in the spring), I’ll allocate another $40 or so for organic dairy, pantry and miscellaneous foodstuffs from the stores. I say “stores”, plural, because being too loyal is a great way to overspend on organic groceries.
I dedicated one weekend a few years ago to finding out the base prices on all my staples at five different stores (a warehouse club, a conventional grocery chain, a national organic chain and two locally owned grocers), and of course, they all have better pricing on some things and worse on others. They all offer different customer appreciation days and rewards programs. They all prioritize different items for sale pricing as a way to lure shoppers in.
Once I understood the game they were playing, I decided to join in. That doesn’t mean I run around to six different stores for my groceries every week (I used to; it’s not worth it!), but it does mean I collect my groceries from a couple of different sources. I consider my time as a legitimate currency in exchange for food, so I consider how much I’ll save by adding one more stop to my shopping trip to decide whether it’s worth it.
4. Stop Meal Planning
While we’re at it, stop following recipes, too.
Look, I actually love meal planning. I love cookbooks and food blogs and everything that goes along with creating new and exciting meals for my family. However, reading these inspirational guides made me too ambitious, and I ended up with gasp-inducing bills and a lot of waste.
When I decided to reverse the entire process — to get my groceries first and build meals around what we had — our bill was so low that first week that I was sure we wouldn’t make it seven days without having to restock.
I was wrong. The box of produce arrived, I supplemented it with whatever I could get on sale, and we just made do. I threw together random combinations, I added a sauce or seasonings, and we all sat down to eat. Our meals were simple, delicious, organic and cheap.
Today, I let the produce delivery surprise me with its contents, and I store-hop for an hour or two to stock up on cheap pantry basics. When I do follow a recipe, I generally either replace what it calls for with something I’ve got on hand, or just leave it out completely and seee what happens. So far, the world has not ended, and we’ve enjoyed the results.
5. Change Your Breakfast
I had a good run in those early years when my two kids didn’t know cereal existed, but once they found it, it quickly became their favorite way to start the day. They would empty a big box in two days flat.
I get cereal’s appeal, from a busy-mom-in-the-morning’s perspective. Making anything that takes more than a couple of minutes is unrealistic for us most weekdays, but when I learned that cereal has one of the highest profit margins of any item in the store, it became a business decision for me: No more cereal. We can’t afford it.
I crunched the numbers on some equally quick weekday breakfast ideas, and I was thrilled to learn that literally every organic breakfast I came up with was cheaper than what I’d been spending on brand-name cereal.
- Organic yogurt with homemade granola and a piece of fruit? CA$1.43.
- Two free-range eggs (hardboiled the night before) with a mini-bagel and jam? CA$1.18.
- Organic cottage cheese with a buttered English muffin? CA$1.11.
- Organic toast with nut butter and fruit? CA$0.75.
Cereals may cost less per serving, but when your kids eat multiple servings at once in an attempt to fill up, there’s nothing cheap about it.
When there’s more time to be had, like on weekends or holidays, we make organic oatmeal (pennies per serving), crepes, frittatas and fruit salads. Frankly, it doesn’t seem to matter what we make. We still spend less than we ever did on cereal.
6. Make Everything a Side Dish
I used to wear myself out brainstorming protein, vegetable and grain combinations to fill the proper pie chart proportions of a dinner plate. Now, our meals are almost exclusively of the one-pot variety (hashes, parfaits, granolas, stir-frys, soups, stews, salads and roasted trays).
The categories are infinitely adaptable, but this approach has some even bigger advantages: none of these meals spotlights any particular ingredient, is overly concerned with exact proportions, or costs much to create. One-pot dishes allow me to use organic ingredients, all in moderation, and still create big meals with plenty of leftovers.
When everything is mixed together with sauce or dressing, the experience of eating is less about any single item (which makes replacing things easy), and more about how well everything works as a complete meal.
7. Cook Leftover Soup
Whatever is left at the end of the week goes into a huge soup pot that feeds my family for two days. We always have onion, carrots and celery left over, and if I add those to a pot of water (along with a can of diced tomatoes, some chickpeas, spices, sausage and rice or barley), I can fill every hungry belly in my house and completely eliminate produce waste.
We’ve developed a reputation of sorts for our vast library of soup recipes, but the secret is that there’s no recipe at all, ever. Whatever’s left becomes soup.
Going organic has had many benefits for my family, not the least of which is a drastically reduced grocery bill. All told, we spend about CA$130 ($104) a week on groceries. If we happen to have pantry staples leftover from the week before, we can spend as little as CA$58 ($46) for a week’s worth of organic produce and eggs.
Your Turn: Have you tried switching to organic groceries, and did it help you save money? Share your strategies in the comments!
Chantel Hamilton is a writer on a mission to prove that organics can be cheaper for families everywhere. Try it out for yourself, and see how much you can save.