the organic dilemma

Probably like many of you, I shop according to sales. Buy one get one free? Sign me up. Grapes for $0.99/lb? Heck yes. 10 for $10? I just peed myself a little bit.

But that being said, I won’t buy just anything. I stay mostly away from pre-packaged stuff, unless it’s healthy-ish snacks for the kids to stash in my purse on the go. There are items where I go full-hippie: cage-free, hormone-free eggs, humanely-raised, organic meat and poultry, wild-caught seafood, milk, etc. There are foods where I’m willing to compromise and go non-organic when the price is right (strawberries, grapes, certain new-crop apples, and some other fruits and veggies, but not all).

At certain points in my life when I’ve insisted on walking to the grocery store and wearing crystal deodorant (which does in no way, shape or form deodorize anything, in case you were wondering. I’m sorry if you were in my company during that phase.), I’ve splurged and gone full organic on everything. And what I’ve found, I’m sorry to say, is that it’s not always worth it. I don’t know the science behind organic farming, but I’m fairly sure that the chemicals that could scare a Deadhead away from a reunion show are there partially for pest control and partially to preserve produce from farm to table. I can count on five hands the number of times I’ve spent double digits on organic fruits and vegetables only to find them spoiled the very next day in my crisper.

This blog post began seeding in my brain when I was out in the garden planting grape starts. Once I had them in the ground, surrounded by organic compost and ready to grow away on their hand built trellis, I needed a way to feed them. The only thing I had in the garage was scary-looking Miracle Grow crystalized all-purpose plant food, which is dyed a shocking electric blue. I use it to feed my potted flowers. Although the package insisted it could be used for fruits and vegetables, there was no way I was going to put that stuff on grapes I was eventually going to eat.

But the very same day I went to the market and purchased a package of non-organic strawberries (on a great sale), which had probably been fed with something akin to the electric-blue Miracle Grow.

Why am I a hypocrite?

It’s partially the distance; I don’t see the pesticides on the strawberry farm. I just know that the berries are sweet and pretty and two pounds for $5.99. Moreover, they won’t go bad in two days, giving my family more time to eat them. The organic ones are not as pretty and maybe as sweet, but twice (or three times) the price, and will go bad if I don’t use them in a very short window, wasting their expensive juiciness.

I suppose we all have choices to make when it comes to quality and budget. Sometimes our values of one override the other, and sometimes the two intermingle, as in my case. In an ideal word I’d shop for everything at the farmer’s market and not have to think twice about paying $15 for apples. But the reality is that our family goes through an enormous amount of food and we’re enormously busy. I make the best choices I can and try to keep the credit card in check.

Tell me in the comments: What do you absolutely buy organic? What do you compromise on?

how to be a frugal cook

We all know the scenario: it’s 5pm. You’re tired. The kids are cranky. You have no idea what’s for dinner. Will it be $40 takeout or a run to the grocery for 13 pasta ingredients you don’t have? Sigh.

Luckily, this type of thing can be prevented (not all the time—let’s face it, we’re all busy and human). You don’t need to spend a fortune to eat well, and you certainly don’t have to scramble every night to get something on the table. With a little bit of planning, you can keep your grocery budget in check and be enjoying a glass of wine at 5:00 instead of running around in a hungry panic. Here are my guidelines for how to eat well and still pinch some pennies.

1. Follow the sales. Seems like a “duh” moment, but keep your eyes peeled for good sales on the things that you like most. Those flyers that appear in your mailbox on tuesdays? Study them. Take notes. Is it worth it to take a trip to an out-of-the-way grocer for a sale on tomato paste? No. But for organic chicken at $2.49 a pound? Go stock up.

2. Make your freezer your BFF. Keep a list of the items in it in order of “need to use.” That way your $2.49 organic chicken won’t go to waste because it was forgotten. Refer to the list as you plan your meals for the week. Cross things off as you use them. Clean it out once a month (plus if it’s not totally full, your freezer will work more efficiently, lowering your electric bill).

3. Make double batches. I plan two meals for the week, usually in double quantities. Not only does it save time (at 6:00 most nights I’m just reheating instead of cooking), but also it’s usually cheaper to double one recipe than purchase ingredients for two. Throw together a quick salad or steam some veggies on the side and call it dinner. If you are the kind of person who simply can’t eat the same dinner two nights in a row, freeze half the batch for next week. It’ll feel like a new meal again.

4. Omit. Substitute. Play. If that recipe calls for a jar of $7 olives, would it ruin the dish to leave them out? Doubt it. An ingredients list asks for shredded pork but you have a leftover rotisserie chicken to use up, so adjust the spices and go the cheaper route. A recipe is not cast in stone. Unless you’re baking (in which case amounts and types of ingredients need to be pretty exact), mess around with that recipe so it fits you and your budget.

5. Go to the bulk aisle. Most better grocers have a bulk foods aisle where you can buy just as much spice as you need. If you don’t think you’ll ever go through that whole jar of turmeric before it expires, grab just a pinch for only a few pennies. If you’ll never use almond flour again, buy just as much as you need for those cookies.

6. Grow herbs. For the $3.00 you’d spend buying a small package of cut herbs, you can buy two whole plants that will last you all summer long. Fresh herbs add sophistication to any dish (yes, even burritos). Then in the fall, cut your herbs back, dry, and store in your pantry.

7. Keep a stocked pantry, and know what a stocked pantry means for you. For me, it means flours and sugars for baking, chicken broth, diced tomatoes, beans, pasta and olive oil. But my list won’t necessarily fit your cooking style.

8. Purchase two things for the pantry on every grocery trip (and watch for sales on the stuff you use a lot). That way, when the time comes when you must toss together a meal from ingredients that you already have, it’s likely that you’ll actually have it.

9. Plan for nights out. Let’s face it: sometimes we can’t (or don’t want to!) eat at home. Don’t over-plan your home meals so that things will go to waste if you’re not dining at home every night of the week. Take count of how many times you realistically eat out and plan your home meals from there.

10. If you go to the big box stores, make a list and stick to it. It’s easy to get all dreamy-eyed at a 10 lb bag of chocolate chips, but will you use them all before they go bad? Do you even like the brand? Make impulse buys in small quantities. Purchase things you use everyday in large quantities if the price is right.

11. Spend more money where it matters to you. If grass-fed beef makes your skirt fly up, factor it in to your budget. If local strawberries are the only ones you like, set aside a few extra dollars. Then spend less on things that you don’t care as much about, like pasta, milk or cheese.

12. Keep a “greatest hits” list of recipes on the fridge. Refer to it if you’re struggling for dinner ideas. It’ll prevent you from ordering last-minute takeout.

Now you tell me in the comments: what are YOUR tips and tricks for eating well on a budget?