How to Incorporate Organic Produce into Your Monthly Food Budget

dirty dozen clean fifteen

As a health coach and someone who loves to cook, a lot of people ask if I buy only organic.

The answer?  Not at all!

While I do try to consume organic as often as possible, eating only organic isn't realistic and at times not even necessary. Plus, it can get expensive fast. 

Here's how I navigate the world of organic produce and make smart choices for my family. 

1. Go Local. 

In an ideal world, we would buy all of our produce from the farmers in our local community. And while this isn't possible for every shopping trip, you'd be surprised how many towns and cities have weekend farmers' markets. You'll find peak season produce, fair pricing, and best of all - be able to meet your farmer!

Use this opportunity to ask vendors about their farming methods. A lot of smaller farms implement organic practices, but aren't fully certified as organic due to the expense. Personally, I would much rather buy a pint of in-season strawberries from a trusted farm just up the road than certified organic ones from California. 

Farmers' markets have so much more than produce too. You can find local honey, dairy, eggs, fresh baked breads, and even flowers. 

For a list of farmers' markets in your area search here

2. Shop Smart.

When it comes to shopping for produce in big-box grocery stores, I follow the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.

The EWG is a non-profit, non-partisan environmental research organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. They research everything from pesticides in our food to what's in our tap water to the safety of our cosmetics. In other words, they've got our backs. 

The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ (aka The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen) is updated every year and the most current findings are below. I copy and paste these lists into the Notes app on my iPhone. This way, I have easy access to the information whenever I'm at the grocery store. Spinach for example, I'll always buy organic. Avocados on the other hand - no need! 

The Dirty Dozen (as of March 2017)

1. Strawberries
2. Spinach
3. Nectarines
4. Apples
5. Peaches
6. Pears
7. Cherries
8. Grapes
9. Celery
10. Tomatoes
11. Sweet bell peppers
12. Potatoes
+ Hot peppers

These fruits and vegetables have the highest amounts of pesticide residue. Strawberries in particular showed 20 different pesticides from a single sample. Spinach samples, on average, had twice the pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. Pears and potatoes are new additions to the 2017 list, edging out cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from last year. (To note: I still buy these organic.) 

The + symbol denotes produce that does not meet the EWG's traditional pesticide ranking criteria, but was found to be contaminated with insecticides toxic to the human nervous system. If you eat a lot of hot peppers, the EWG recommends you buy organic if possible. 

The Clean Fifteen (as of March 2017)

1. Sweet corn*
2. Avocados
3. Pineapples
4. Cabbage
5. Onions
6. Sweet peas (frozen)
7. Papayas*
8. Asparagus
9. Mangos
10. Eggplant
11. Honeydew Melon
12. Kiwi
13. Cantaloupe
14. Cauliflower
15. Grapefruit

This list of produce is least likely to contain pesticide residue. Only 1% of samples taken from avocados and sweet corn showed any detectable pesticide. No single fruit samples in this group tested positive for more than four types of pesticides, and only 5% of the vegetable samples had two or more pesticides. 

*From EWG: A small amount of sweet corn, papaya, and summer squash sold in the US is produced from genetically modified seeds. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid genetically modified produce. (This is something I personally practice.)

For the complete list of all 48 fruits and vegetables tested as well as a summary of the 2017 findings, you can visit the EWG website here

If you look at the full list, you'll see that certain foods such as raspberries, carrots, summer squash, and mushrooms fall somewhere in the middle. I try to buy these organic when possible, but if the conventional produce is better quality or the organic prices are astronomically high, I'm likely to go the conventional route. 

Also - don't forget to utilize the frozen foods aisle. 

Frozen fruits and veggies are a great way to buy organic produce that might otherwise be too expensive. They're typically packaged at their peak, which means they taste super fresh and will last for months. Plus the cost is usually much lower than out-of-season fresh produce. In the wintertime especially, I always stock up on frozen berries for smoothies at my local Trader Joe's. 

3. Eat Your Veggies. 

Getting our fill of fruits and vegetables is still #1 priority, and consuming organic shouldn't be viewed as all or nothing. I would much rather you eat a head of non-organic kale than consume none at all.

When you do buy conventional produce (and even organic), be sure to wash it very well. Washing won't remove of all the pesticides or chemicals that a plant absorbs as it grows, but it can reduce your risk to exposure. 

So, on your next grocery trip, be sure to stock-up using my budget friendly tips and try one of these veggie-focused recipes while you're at it.