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Organic food, at least in the United States, is almost always more expensive than conventionally raised food. But do you really always need to eat organic, fresh food?

The Astonishing Cost of "Eating Right"

I'm writing this article from Austin, Texas, from my tiny home and office on Lamar Boulevard, just a few blocks north of the flagship store for American organic food retailer Whole Foods. While many in my neighborhood regard Whole Foods with something approaching religious reverence, here in Austin we also hear all the jokes about the "Whole Paycheck" markets told in other parts of the country.
  • Bell peppers of all colors, spinach, lettuce, salad greens, Irish potatoes, and cucumbers are often sprayed in the field. It's better to buy them organic when you can. Asparagus has very few pests and is usually not sprayed. Sweet potatoes aren't usually sprayed, either, although any tiny black holes in the skin indicate weevils—don't bring them into your house. Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are also often grown without pesticides.

Sometimes frozen organic produce is less expensive

Sometimes frozen organic produce is less expensive than fresh conventionally raised produce. Since vegetables and fruits are picked at the height of ripeness and frozen within just few hours of harvest, you may get better quality from frozen vegetables than from fresh. Frozen fruit and vegetables are a great way to make sure you get all the plant nutrients your body needs without spending the rent money or the car payment.

What about grass-fed beef and free-range chicken and eggs? Grass-fed meats of all kinds taste different (it's possible you won't recognize the taste of grass-fed beef because you are accustomed to the feedlot kind) and have higher content of beneficial fatty acids. If you have a health problem related to eating red meat, however, it's simpler just to eat less meat or no meat at all than to buy the same amount of grass-fed, organic meat. The quality of free range eggs is often so much higher than conventional eggs people don't mind paying a little more for this already-inexpensive food.

Just because you don't do all of your shopping your local Whole Foods market doesn't mean you should never shop there at all. Even Whole Foods offers some items priced competitively with other stores. The foods that make economic sense to buy at Whole Foods include:

  • Olive oil. Whole Foods sells Greek, Italian, Spanish, and blended olive oils under its 365 brand, usually at about 30% to 70% less than other specialty food retailers. The quality is better than you would find at the discount chain stores, for about the same price.
  • Water crackers. These tasty, crispy crackers of high quality sell for about 10% more than lower-quality competing brands at discount chains.
  • Nuts. Cashews and macadamias are often less expensive at Whole Foods than at other retailers.
  • Soft tofu is competitively priced at Whole Foods.
  • Organic broth is usually less expensive at Whole Foods than at other retailers.
  • Bulk cereals and spices can save you hundreds of dollars per year at Whole Foods, if you buy just the amount you need. Spending $0.10 instead of $4.00 on just a teaspoon of garam masala, or $0.50 instead of $5.00 on a single meal's Irish oatmeal, adds up fast. Of course, you have to have the willpower to walk past all the other expensive items you don't have on your shopping list without buying them.

Eating anything you want probably is for the rich only. Eating healthy is possible for everyone on a middle-class budget who can plan shopping needs and cook with skill.