Does it feel like your weekly grocery bills are approaching the national debt? Food prices are definitely on the rise, but this is no time to stop buying organic.
Deborah Madison, chef and author of Seasonal Fruit Desserts, refuses to compromise. "Buying organic remains incredibly important to me," she says. "I know the damage that's done through conventional farming and genetically modified crops, and it's considerable."
Michael Stebner, executive chef of the sustainable-food restaurant True Food Kitchen, agrees that organic shouldn't be considered a luxury: "There is this negative stigma to organic food prices, but you're buying quality." Still, if price is an obstacle, there are ways to cut costs without compromising on quality. Here, chefs and other food experts offer their best strategies.
1. Know the "Dirty Dozen."
When money is tight, says Stebner, focus on the "necessary organics," those fruits and vegetables on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list (or the latest list, released in June, see below). "In general, if it has a skin you don't eat, it's OK to buy nonorganic to stretch your dollars," he notes.
2. Rethink the center aisles.
The conventional healthful-shopping advice is to favor the perimeter of the store, where fresh fruits and veggies reside. But the center aisles also can be a great source of organic bargains, says Linda Watson, author of Wildly Affordable Organic. "Here's where you'll find organic dried beans, rice, tea, and flour for bread, and all of it is affordable," she explains.
Seek out store-brand organic products, which tend to be less expensive than those found in the natural-foods section, says Teri Gault, founder of thegrocery game.com and author of Shop Smart, Save More.
Cindi Avila, a vegetarian chef who has competed on the Food Network's Chopped, recommends browsing the international food aisle. "Much of the food here is organic, natural, and inexpensive," she says. "And when you're not seeing the same ingredients, it forces you to think outside the box and come up with different menus."
3. Use coupons.
"Yes, they do make coupons for organic groceries," says Paige Wolf, author of Spit That Out! Log on to mambosprouts.com, organicdeals.com, and recyclebank.com for the latest deals. "Whole Foods has its own coupon book, which you can clip online at wholefoodsmarket.com/coupons," she adds.
And don't be afraid to ask for a bargain, advises Domenica Catelli, a recurring judge on Iron Chef America and owner of Catelli's restaurant in Geyserville, Calif. "If you know of a lower price on an item, ask the store to match it," she says. "Not all stores will do it, but it doesn't hurt to ask."
4. Step outside the supermarket.
Farm stands or farmers' markets, where you can buy local produce in season (and often in bulk), can be a real value, says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute. Foods tend to be cheapest at their seasonal peaks, and just-picked quality will inspire you to eat it all up.
5. Choose sturdy, multipurpose veggies.
If you're throwing away parts of your food, you're throwing away money. That's why buying produce, such as pumpkin, where both the flesh and seeds are edible is a good bargain, says Tracy Wilczek, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian with Florida's Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa.
Broccoli is another economical option, says Madison: "Everyone eats the tops, but if you peel the stems you can use them in soups and salads."
"Sturdy" vegetables, such as carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower, are also smart buys. "Other vegetables wilt right away, but these will last a while," says Watson.
6. Edit your spice rack.
Dried herbs keep their potency for about six months, so it doesn't make sense to keep spice racks loaded with full jars, says Wilczek: "If you're using dried herbs, be picky. Buy only what you'll really use." Natural-foods stores and some supermarkets offer organic herbs and spices in bulk, so you can measure out what you need and pay by the ounce. (Tip: when discarding expired jarred spices, clean the jars and reuse for your bulk buys.)
7. Grow it yourself.
When it comes to fresh herbs, grow your own, advises Catelli, who keeps a couple of herb pots on her windowsill. Next time a recipe calls for fresh rosemary, skip the $2.50 clamshell pack in the produce aisle and head for the store's flower department. Invest $4 on a small rosemary plant, and you'll have a steady supply of the herb for years to come. "Why buy herbs when they're so easy to grow?" asks Madison.
Thinking beyond herbs, Mark Simmons, a caterer and contestant on season four of Top Chef, says the best plants for first-time gardeners are disease-resistant, high-yield veggies, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, peas, and bush beans. He also recommends spinach, kale, and Swiss chard. "These greens will produce all season long," he says.
8. Fatten your freezer.
When it comes to stretching food dollars, the freezer can be your best friend, says Kastel: "Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season, eat what you can, and freeze the rest."
Frozen organic fruits and vegetables (again, seek out store brands) can also be a bargain when fresh produce goes out of seasonplus, they're convenient, says Wilczek: "The produce has been cleaned and is ready for use."
Gilda Mulero, a natural-foods chef and cooking instructor, offers another tip: throw freezer leftovers into a blender and whip up a smoothie. "I freeze spinach, chard, beets, strawberries, and blueberries and make a smoothie out of it with coconut water. It's my power smoothie," she says.
9. Can it!
Buying produce in bulk and canning it is a way to save cash, as well as extend the summer growing season. "Food co-operatives and extension offices are offering more canning classes, and they're filling up," says Kastel. "It's part of a new self-sufficiency mind-set."
Suvir Saran, executive chef and partner of New York's D'avi Restaurant and a contestant on this past spring's Top Chef Masters, suggests another way to preserve local produce when it's in season: prepare chutneys and relishes. Because of their acidic content, they can sit on a shelf unopened for up to a year if appropriately processed and canned.
10. Hone your knife skills.
Mulero says learning to use a knife is one of the first skills she teaches students. "The cut-up fruits and vegetables in the market are usually three times the price and three times less quality," she notes. Rarely are they organic, and precut produce doesn't last as long in your fridge. Better to trim, chop, and dice yourself.
The New Dirty Dozen
According to the Environmental Working Group's latest findings (just released in June), these are the 12 most pesticide-laden conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, followed by the 15 lowest in pesticide residue. This year, apples move from the No. 4 position to No. 1 on the Dirty Dozen; mushrooms make their first appearance on the Clean 15. Shop accordingly.
Dirty Dozen (buy these organic)
6. Nectarines (imported)
7. Grapes (imported)
8. Sweet bell peppers
10. Blueberries (domestic)
12. Kale/collard greens
Clean 15 (least contaminated)
2. Sweet corn
6. Sweet peas
9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
13. Sweet potatoes