“Organic food is too expensive”, “I can’t afford to eat healthy all the time”, “you don’t really need to buy organic, it’s a waste of money”. These are just some of the comments I hear all too often when people try to explain to me why they can’t commit to their ideal healthy lifestyle. These obstacles were echoed in responses to our September survey asking what you, our readers, were most concerned about when attempting to eat a whole foods, healthy diet. The most common hesitation you reported was that you weren’t sure if eating 100% organic whole foods would fit your budget.
As the organic foods industry becomes more desirable, larger specialty food retailers have tapped into the sector’s popularity as a profitable avenue to increase the markups on organic products. Many retailers have made organic products almost unattainable for lower income households in their assumption that middle class consumers will pay top dollar for healthy foods they prioritize as part of their lifestyle values. Because of this, shoppers at specialty retailers may feel pressure from others to keep a low profile on their shopping habits for fear of being viewed as self-proclaimed upper-class or snobbish. One reader wrote to us explaining, “Sometimes I feel I am being judged for shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's for my organic foods and veggies. Sure I can get some organic food at grocery stores and I do, but they don't always have what I need. I am so tired of having to defend ‘wasting my money!’ What is important is knowing I am not.” I agree, and know as well as anyone that shopping for organic, healthy foods does not mean you are a frivolous, trend-seeking shopper. However, it does tend to take its toll on a monthly food budget.
As someone who has used SNAP, government assistance and food pantries in order to obtain groceries during tough times, I know how tight a food budget can get. Stretching every dollar becomes your top priority when there isn’t a spare cent to exceed a monthly stipend. That’s why I created this meal plan. So that anyone- college students, SNAP recipients, seniors, or consumers who are just careful spenders can all reap the benefits of a whole foods, organic diet. I made sure to research foods found at common grocery stores rather than more expensive specialty retailers. By spending just $50 a week, you can buy enough food for 3 meals and 2 snacks every single day of the week for one person. The diet does contain animal products and meat, however if you choose a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle you are likely to spend even less per week by buying tofu, tempeh, quinoa, beans and other vegetarian protein options. The diet plan assumes that you already have some common ingredients in your pantry such as cooking oil, spices and honey. All food prices are from a common New England grocery retailer obtained in October 2016.
Before we dive into a meal plan, here are some tips for stretching your food budget as you shop for the week:
-Shop local first. Not only is it better for your local economy, but local producers usually have pretty good prices at markets or direct from their farm. You can also assume their produce and meat is exceptionally fresher and more nutrient dense since it traveled minimal mileage to get to your hands. Joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a great way to get weekly seasonal, organic produce in an affordable package deal.
-Buy frozen produce when possible. Frozen produce is significantly cheaper than fresh produce, easier to store, and more convenient to buy in larger quantities for recipes and meal prepping. A single head of fresh organic broccoli can cost about $4.29 while a 16 oz. bag of frozen organic broccoli is $2.29 (that’s just 14 cents per ounce!) Plus, according to Gene Lester, Ph.D., a plant physiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco, Texas, frozen vegetables have just as many nutrients in them as fresh vegetables. While frozen is fine, avoid canned meats and most vegetables when possible. Although the price is appealing, the foods can be far less nutrient dense and be packaged with preservatives, sodium and other additives you just don’t need. Canned beans are an exception but make sure they are organic to avoid preservatives, and be sure to rinse them well before using to eliminate excess sodium.
-Buy seasonal fresh produce when possible. It is much more sustainable for the environment to grow and consume produce at the time of year it ripens naturally, however it is also easier on your wallet. Fall is the time for root vegetables, mushrooms, apples, and leafy greens. You are much more likely to get these products fresh and affordable this time of year as opposed to seeking them out in the spring or summer months. If you don’t live in a tropical area, avoid fruits like bananas and mangos. If you live in the middle of the country, maybe fresh seafood isn’t the most cost-effective option for you. Use this guide as a reference for what’s in season now (keep in mind, this changes based on where in the country you live).