The following is a guest post by Mara Strom from Kosher on a Budget.
When it comes to saving on your grocery bill, even the most frugal minded families have to draw the line somewhere.
Feeding our families can’t only be about doing what’s cheapest. Maybe you have a family member with a serious food allergy. Maybe you keep kosher – like my family. Or maybe you have made the decision to incorporate more organics into your diet because eating clean, sustainable food is a top priority for you.
But what happens when our budgets just aren’t big enough to afford all the gluten-free, kosher, organic, free-range, whole foods our families want and need? How can we eat within our means when our food-related principles, convictions and standards are expensive?
The answer for my family has been to create margin. Margin lets us afford the things that matter the most to us – like eating an organic diet.
So, how do we create this margin? While there is no right or wrong answer, I have found that these five strategies work well for my family – and I hope they will work for yours.
1. Make and stick to a budget
I know this seems so basic. But for many families, it’s not. A budget isn’t always fun, and it definitely isn’t easy, at least not at the beginning.
But as I discovered with my family, once we started following a budget, we felt – as Dave Ramsey often says – that we had gotten a raise. Instant margin!
If eating organic is non-negotiable for your family, then you may find that you need to bump up your food category a bit. Just make sure that the number fits in relation to the rest of your budget.
2. Prioritize produce & dairy.
While all-organic-all-the-time might be nice – and it would certainly help to support the sustainability industry – it may not be realistic for your budget. I have found that we can still enjoy most of the benefits of eating an organic diet by prioritizing our shopping list.
The Environmental Working Group’s list of the Dirty Dozen – the twelve fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide count – has been very helpful in this process. Rather than pay twice as much for produce with virtually no pesticide traces, we instead avoid the twelve “dirtiest” items.
The EWG also stresses the importance of buying organic dairy. My family’s budget doesn’t allow us to buy exclusively organic in this category, but we have prioritized buying organic whole milk and yogurt for my toddler. For the rest of us, I pick up a gallon of 1% at Costco – which, although not organic, is RBST-free.
3. Think outside the (big) box.
More and more grocery store chains are offering organic options these days – which is great. Unfortunately, though, it may not be the best value for your money, especially when it comes to produce.
Loss leaders at the grocery stores are always a good deal, but with summer coming, farmer’s markets will become an increasingly viable option for affordable organic produce.
If you don’t see a sign that says the produce is organic, inquire with the farmer. Many are working on organic certification or practice organic farming, but can’t afford the certification – which should be reflected in their lower produce prices.
You can also buy a share in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where you pay a set fee — usually upfront — in exchange for a weekly portion of your local farmer’s harvest.
I have organized a CSA for our synagogue community for the past three years and I love knowing where – and by whom – our food is grown. To find a farmer’s market or CSA in your area, just plug your zipcode into the free Local Food Finder at LocalHarvest.org.
4. Buy in bulk.
Buying organics in bulk can really help you to create margin within your budget – as long as you have proper storage. Just make sure to bring your calculator and your price book with you – as not every bulk item is actually a good deal.
In addition to buying things like dried beans, legumes, flour and oats in bulk, you can also buy produce “in bulk” – assuming you have the room (and inclination) to freeze it or can it.
The beautiful thing about produce is that its flavor peak is conversely related to its price peak. So, go ahead and stock up on strawberries in June and July, when they are sugary sweet – and less than $1/pound. By freezing them whole or making preserves, you can enjoy that summer goodness all year round.
Our food budget is really a food-and-household-items budget. In order to create margin within this budget to be able to afford organics (and, in our case, more costly kosher meat and dairy products), I like to compartmentalize our needs into two categories: Organic/Kosher… and Everything Else.
To create real margin in our food budget, I have chosen to focus most of my saving efforts on the Everything Else category.
Thanks to the marvels of Extra Care Bucks at CVS and $5 gift cards at Target, for example, we manage to pay almost nothing for household items. And when our toothbrushes, shampoo and body wash are free, that frees up $20, $30 or even $50 a month worth of margin.
Has your family used any of these strategies to cope with the higher cost of organic food? How else have you found margin in your budget?
Mara Strom can be found at Kosher on a Budget, blogging about tips, strategies and deals for creating margin in your budget to afford the things that matter most. To her, those things include eating a healthy and kosher diet, spending quality time with her family, and saving for the future.