June 2011 Issue

Savvy Shopping — Cost-Cutting Shopping Tips for Families on a Budget
By Juliann Schaeffer
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 6 P. 22

By buying in season and searching for in-store sales, your clients can indeed afford more organics—if doing so is a priority for them.

“Why does organic food have to be so expensive?”

If you hear this gripe often from clients who would be interested in organics were it not for their higher price tag, you’re not alone. All experts interviewed for this article said cost typically tops the list of reasons why clients don’t incorporate more organic foods into their diet.

“Expense is usually one of the top reasons I hear [for why parents don’t buy organic foods for their family],” says Cathi Brese Doebler, author of Ditch the Joneses, Discover Your Family, a budget-friendly guide on how to thrive on less than two incomes.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, higher production costs and a limited supply compared with demand are two factors that lead to the higher price of many organic products. Alas, this is the world in which we live, and most economists are predicting only rises in overall food prices the world over.

Yet eating organic on a budget isn’t impossible, say experts; it just takes a bit of planning and some strategizing. “As with anything, thinking and planning carefully over purchases takes effort. If having some organic foods in your diet is important to you, then you will be more willing to put effort into finding good deals on organic foods,” says Doebler.

In addition to adding your own solutions to the mix, help clients who wish to include more organics in their diet by passing along the following tips for eating organic on the cheap.

Organic-on-the-Cheap Solutions
Prioritize What’s Important
According to Doebler, consumers who are trying to determine where to spend vs. save should first consider their priorities. “Once you have those priorities in place, it is easier to make decisions about what to spend your money on,” she says. “For some families, organic food is a high priority. For other families, something else may be a higher priority. Those two families will make different decisions about purchases based on what is important for their own family during this time of their lives.”

Once a client has decided that eating organics fits his or her priorities, Doebler says, “Think about which items are most important for you to buy organic vs. nonorganic. For example, there are certain fruits that I prefer to always buy organic and others that I don’t, simply because of researching which fruits are sprayed more heavily with chemicals when they are not organic.”

In general, the widely cited Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list can be a good starting place. For those who are unfamiliar with it, this list of foods most likely to have high pesticide residues consists of celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, pears, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach, cherries, potatoes, imported grapes, and lettuce.

Yet Ashley Koff, RD, founder of Ashley Koff Approved, recommends considering the dirty dozen list in relation to what you actually eat daily. “While the ‘dirty dozen’ can be a great place to start, if you are not eating those foods regularly, it won’t make the impact that switching out foods you consume daily [can make],” she says. “Additionally, there is health gain to be made by choosing organic for foods higher up the food chain like dairy, meats, and other animal products.”

She recommends clients choose organic for the items they consume most often during any given week, whether that’s dairy, potatoes, apples, or another item. “By starting with your most frequently consumed, you get the biggest health bang for your dollar,” says Koff.

Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, corporate dietitian for SuperValu, whose family of grocery stores includes Acme Markets, Albertsons, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Shop ‘n Save, and Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, says her recommendations for what consumers should buy organic when on a limited budget will depend on where their priorities lie.

“For example, if avoiding pesticides is a personal choice, organic produce would be a good place to start. If avoiding growth hormones in milk is a question, then organic dairy is a nice way to go. That's the fun of food shopping. There are no wrong answers, really—it's just a matter of personal importance, especially true when it comes to health goals,” she says, noting that she suggests customers visit the USDA Organic program's website to learn more about organics to make informed decisions.

Karen Hawkins, MA, RD, LD, a dietitian for the Defense Commissary Agency, finds many clients will first buy organic for their No. 1 priority: their children. “Many consumers will buy more organics for their children as they are growing and have developing brains,” she explains.

Hawkins’ best advice for making those priorities stick? Saving elsewhere. “When buying organic foods is a priority, then finding ways to save money in other areas can be helpful. Making your own latté and packing lunch for work are simple ways to save money for those [who] want to buy more organic foods while watching the budget,” she says.

Buy in Bulk
Buying frequently used items in bulk or in larger amounts is a common way people choose to save when buying conventional products, and Doebler says this purchasing strategy works for organic foods, too.

“Many organic items have become more available in bulk,” she says. “Buying the items you use most often in larger amounts can save on costs. For example, I often buy the large tub of organic yogurt rather than the smaller individual serving size containers because the overall cost is lower when you consider how much product you are getting for your money.”

Koff says bulk buying is a great way to save money, especially now that so many stores carry organic items. But she recommends that clients buying in bulk store items in portions at home to avoid the risk of overconsumption, she notes.

Buy in Season and Save
When trying to get the most for your organic-only dollars, Doebler says seasonal shopping can definitely help. “For example, certain fruits will cost more in the winter, and I’m less likely to buy those fruits then. Also, I belong to a vegetable-share group from a local farm, which supplies us with organic vegetables from spring through fall at a cheaper rate,” she says.

Kirchherr says that in addition to being cost-effective, buying produce in season (both conventionally grown and organic) can be a great way to brighten up a weekly menu and highlight a particular season.

“From a menu perspective, this is a great way to maintain interest on the menu and welcome the changing of the seasons. Squash and apples in the fall and asparagus and strawberries in the spring makes for a great-tasting mix of nutrients that can be wallet friendly, too,” she says.

Suggest clients make friends with their local farmers, whether through a community-supported agriculture group or a farmers’ market, and the savings can really add up. While Koff says organic produce seasonal availability can be a challenge depending on where you live, “One trick is to buy in-season at the farmers’ market, then freeze at home for future use.”

Search for Sales
Paying attention to sales when walking the grocery store aisles is another budget-friendly way to go organic. Then stock up when your go-to items are on sale, says Doebler: “Buy your favorite healthy and organic foods in bulk when [they are] on sale. For example, I’ll often buy several containers of peanut butter or oatmeal when it is on sale.”

Kirchherr says stocking up on shelf-stable items when they go on sale is another great way to stretch customers’ organic dollars. “Buy organic frozen—less waste/prep time, with all the nutrients as conventionally grown—as they’re easy to stock up on when they go on sale. Canned organics are good for this reason, too,” she says.

Utilize Private Store Brands
As the popularity of organic foods catches on with consumers, more mainstream food purveyors are developing their own organic brands, and Kirchherr says consumers should take advantage of these often lower-priced items.

“One of the great things that is happening now is [that] private/store brands are available in organics,” she says.

For example, she notes that SuperValu stores now exclusively carry the company’s organic Wild Harvest line, which offers organic bakery items, baby food, fresh produce, dairy, beverages, meat, poultry, and other items. “This makes them more in reach for more customers and brings bigger awareness of organics as a category, too,” says Kirchherr.

Even when a grocery store doesn’t have a separate organics store brand, many still offer organic options under their private label brand. Have consumers compare prices of national brands with store brands, and they could find some hidden savings.

Watch the Waste!
While you might think it goes without saying, remind clients to plan as necessary so their organic savings don’t end up thrown out with the trash. “It’s important to eat food fresh and avoid spending money to feed the garbage disposal instead of your family,” says Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, LD, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

“When buying organic food in bulk, consumers should pay close attention to the ‘use by’ date so that their purchases won’t go to waste,” suggests Doebler. “I typically only buy organic foods in bulk that I use often and in large amounts so that I won’t waste any of the products I purchase.”

When buying produce, which won’t stay fresh for long if not handled properly, consumers can use several strategies to make the most of their organic dollars.

Kirchherr says food safety, selection, and storage are all critical in terms of slashing food waste. “Fresh items typically last longer when cared for—from cart to table. Be sure in hot summer months to use a cooler and ice pack in the trunk [when buying groceries] to ensure that the foods carefully selected at the store make it home at proper temperatures,” she says.

“Label and date items and store in packaging that is proper for freezer, fridge, etc. Invest in reusable containers that go from freezer to oven to table to save on dishes and ultimately conserve natural resources even in the process of storing/cooking food,” she continues, recommending that clients invest in a refrigerator/freezer thermometer to ensure proper storage temperatures.

A little organization can go a long way to saving pricey organic items from the trash bin. “Keep the kitchen, fridge, pantry, and freezer well organized so food doesn't get forgotten,” says Kirchherr. “Organize either by food group or meal, whichever is best for your household to keep track of items.”

Plan Ahead
Planning ahead can be an economical way to not only reduce waste but also make the most of the money spent on organics. Kirchherr suggests creating weekly menus that utilize the items purchased so nothing goes to waste.

“Plan a few vegetarian or plant-based meals. Plant proteins are quite economical, so consider the legume or bean, [which is] loaded with nutrients and [is] a true nutritional workhorse for minimal cost. [It’s] easy to prepare, too,” she says.

Clients can also save by making a grocery list beforehand and keeping in mind which items they already have in their home when shopping. “Use recipes to guide the purchases, and be sure to choose recipes for the week that use up the fresh items on hand,” Kirchherr adds, noting that monitoring portions can sometimes be the simplest way to save. “Many times, eating what is recommended is one of the most basic ways to save on food costs.”

Social Media Savings
With Facebook’s increasing popularity among the masses, more and more companies—including grocery stores—are jumping on the social media bandwagon. “Facebook is another great resource for learning more about the organic community,” says Kirchherr. “We post tips on our Wild Harvest page each week and respond to questions.”

Koff recommends consumers check out an organic brand’s website or Facebook page, as they may discover a great online deal. “Facebook giveaways, even writing the companies, may yield you freebies or coupons,” she says.

“It's best to check each website/Facebook page for brands you are interested in to review the available options,” notes Kirchherr, who says blogs can be another organic cost-cutting resource. “Join blogs to get tips from others, learn about new products, and find fun sales and recipe ideas.”

Clip Coupons to Cut Costs
Suggest clients try couponing to help stretch their organic food dollars. While Kirchherr can’t comment on what competitors do, she says products under SuperValu’s Wild Harvest brand “go on sale often along with occasional coupon offers that can be found online. Customers can also sign up for general coupon savings sent via e-mail and in store.”

“Couponing is a great way to save money,” adds Hawkins, noting that consumers should keep on the lookout, as companies will oftentimes offer coupons to introduce consumers to a new organic version of a food.

To take advantage of all available deals before they expire, Kirchherr suggests organizing coupons as another budget-friendly strategy.

However, to keep this strategy from backfiring, Doebler recommends consumers “only cut out coupons for products you were already planning to buy. Otherwise, you might buy products that were not already on your list simply because you have a coupon rather than because it is an item you truly need.”

Review Your Budget
When deciding to go organic, clients should thoroughly evaluate their budget to determine any potential for savings, advises Kirchherr. “Reviewing the budget is overall a good idea to see where savings can be found,” she says. “It also may be prudent to keep a food log to see what types of foods are being eaten: Are food dollars going toward nutrient-rich foods or being spent on more treats?”

She suggests clients make sure the foods eaten most days of the week are the ones that support health goals. “If the choices are mostly ‘empty’ calories vs. a nutrient-rich choice that has vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc, the true cost of the item may be seen in a different light. How many nutrients per forkful and the quality over the quantity consumed should be considered,” she adds.

Shop Smart
Not all retailers have the same layout or offer the same deals, but Doebler says knowing the store you frequent inside and out can help uncover some otherwise-hidden steals. “One of the stores where I shop has a section with items that are marked down on price. I always check that part of the store first before making any other purchasing decisions,” she says.

Another way clients can shop smart, according to Koff, requires them to altogether rethink their shopping habits. “It’s worth considering if you say you don't have the money for better-quality food but then buy a $4 latté daily, a $3 single-serving energy drink/bar, a $6 pack of cigarettes, or rely on ready-to-eat meals vs. assembling your meal from ingredients at home. It's good to look at daily habits to see how you can budget more effectively to include better-quality foods,” she says. The savings from this strategy could mean more than just a balanced budget.

— Juliann Schaeffer is an associate editor at Great Valley Publishing Company and a regular contributor to Today’s Dietitian.