What about organic food?

When trying to keep the grocery budget down, one of the first questions a lot of people ask is ‘What about produce?  I buy organic for my family and it is so expensive!’

I agree that organic produce can be crazy-expensive.   But there are ways to decrease your family’s pesticide exposure without buying all your produce organic.

First of all, remember that in the case of thick-skinned produce, like melons, citrus, and bananas, simply removing the skin will bring the pesticide level in the fruit  down almost to zero.  No need to buy those items organic.

You can also reduce the pesticide load on thin-skinned items to a certain degree by simply scrubbing well and removing the peel.  However, some  veggies and fruits have an incredibly high pesticide load.  If you are trying to keep your grocery budget down, here’s where to focus the majority of your ‘organic’ budget:

  • Apples
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Peaches
  • Celery


Along with focusing your organic dollars on the above list, there are other tactics you can use.

1. Grow as much of the above produce yourself as you possibly can.  Every year we grow grapes, apples, strawberries and sweet peppers.  I still buy some of these items at the store– I’m a sucker for strawberries.  But our garden dramatically decreases our need to buy pesticide-laden produce at the store, especially during the summer months.  (We do spray our apple trees– otherwise there’d be worms in every bite– but we spray much, much less than commercial growers.)

2. Avoid or severely limit the purchase of expensive produce  (see: How to Fight Rising Produce Prices) especially items on the ‘dirty dozen’ list which you would need to buy organic.  Carrots, cabbage, onions, oranges, and bananas are versatile, affordable, and lower in pesticides.

You can feed your family healthy food without going broke.  Different folks have different needs and different comfort levels. When children are very young, you may feel more comfortable buying more organic items, especially in the case of your child’s favorites. Budget cutbacks in other areas can subsidize increased spending on produce. But with a little knowledge,  some selective shopping tactics, and the willingness to leave some things on the shelf, you will probably find that feeding your family healthy AND affordable food is actual a goal you can achieve.




  1. It is more than the pesticide load that some of us are trying to avoid, however, though obviously that’s a part of it (one of my children cannot clear most of that stuff from his body). There’s also concern over the massive proliferation of GMO’S (Genetically Modified Organisms). Then there are the hormones, feed and even antibiotics used in agriculture, rBGH and rBST in dairy cows, for one prominent hormone example. The FDA statements saying that there is “no difference” are bogus: not only is there much evidence to the contrary, the FDA guy in charge responsible for this legally required declaration (which was based on no research– that’s why there’s no evidence, I guess) has had a revolving door between his position in the FDA and his position for the company that manufactures the substance. It’s illegal in Europe and elsewhere. The recently famous exploding watermelons in China highlighted hormone use in growing some produce as well. Then there are more indirect concerns over agricultural practices, particularly in the treatment of animals. Always tough choices!

  2. My aunt and uncle have a farm in Western Maryland, and I asked them one time about this whole organic thing. They do not spray their produce, but they informed me that they can’t label their produce as organic. I guess there’s a certification process or something. They do, however, make sure that their customers know that they do not spray their crops. So another thing to keep in mind is that if you buy your produce directly from a farm, or at a farmer’s market, you can ask the people who grew the produce about whether any sprays were used on the produce. I know that doesn’t help out those who shop for their produce at a grocery store, but it is still another option.

  3. This is probably a stupid question, but I am unclear on something. You have:
    •Grapes (imported)
    •Nectarines (imported)
    Does that mean that it’s only the imported grapes and nectarines that have heavy pesticides?

  4. Mary, do you know where lettuce stands as far as pesticide load?

    • It’s currently #11 on the Dirty Dozen list just released by the Environmental Working Group.

      • Krystal says:

        I went to look at that list. Wow. Oh, wow! We eat most of that stuff! And often don’t buy organic in those items! I pick other ones. I feel so stupid, but this I something I am going to work on. Thanks so much for making us aware. Some of these other ladies are right, there is a lot of troubling info. out there about our food. But like a lot of choices, we have to make ourselves informed and do what we can right now. Then work at it as we have the chance. Thanks!

  5. Great topic of a post. We too buy local “pesticide free” at farm stands here, people who don’t have the organic label but are working hard to reduce chemical use. And Costco has more and more organic choices for reasonable prices – love that! Their huge bag of organic carrots (which I realize are not on the dirty dozen anyway) is the same price or cheaper than the regular carrots at our grocery, making organic the cheaper as well as more environmentally sound choice for our family.

  6. I’m glad you brought this up because I’ve been wondering about it for awhile. One more question, though, if you don’t mind… Have you given much thought to other culinary ethical dilemmas? I went to a seminar recently about fair trade chocolate and learned some pretty shocking things about Hershey’s and Nestle’s cocoa suppliers…and coffee too. And then there’s the treatment of animals in the production of meat and eggs, as Marian pointed out above. It’s overwhelming, and I’m just one person. I’m sure it must be difficult to face these questions as the mom of a large family.

    • There is a lot to think about. But don’t think of yourself as just one person. Think about how much money you spend on groceries. Each dollar is a vote. Not only do you buy healthy organic food with that money but you also buy a vote– A vote that tells grocery stores which products are most popular, what practices are being supported by consumers, and of what you want to see more.

      So I ask myself where is my vote going?

      • I agree, Kelly–every person’s choices count. What I meant, though, is that if I’m convicted to change my habits on something (say, buying free trade chocolate), I have only myself to pay for. And as overwhelming as the thought of changing my purchase habits may be (changing to organic fabric, avoiding plastic & styrofoam, buying local and free trade, etc, etc), it must be that much more difficult for families.

  7. Kate in NY says:

    I am reading a great book right now – – – “Wildly Affordable Organic: Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet: All on $5 a day or Less,” by Linda Watson. The philosophy itself is nothing new – the more you cook from scratch, the more $$ you can save and the better quality food you can purchase. But the author gives very specific advice on how to do that – what is OK to scrimp on, what isn’t – and she offers a ton of seasonal menus and shopping lists, so the focus can be more on local (or at least US) produce, rather than on imported. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in eating organically, ethically AND cheaply! Caveat: the book is vegetarian based, but many of the recipes are adaptable for meat-eaters.

  8. Hi Mary!

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    We will be moving into our first house later this month. Once we are settled, I will be using all your charts in your book regarding produce. I can’t wait! I want to buy organic items from the dirty dozen list…buy non organics from the safe list…buy produce that is in season…and schedule my menu planning based on when foods spoil based on your list.

    My favorite part is the “buying in season.” Not only is it cheaper (and taste better), but it changes things up all year. I look forward to fall to start cooking with butternut and acorn squash…I’ve been too afraid in the past lol!

    I will be making a goal that will challenge me. And that is…not throwing away ANY produce for a year. That means I have to pay attention to what’s sitting in the crisper. Save peelings and scraps for chicken/veggie stock…and composting the rest. I don’t want a single piece of produce to go in the garbage.

    Let’s see how that goes.

  9. This is definitely an area I have probably not given enough time on. We live in an agriculture community and talking “organic” is often very taboo. Reading stats on both sides leaves my head spinning. I usually shut down and don’t go further. We eat quite a bit of fresh fruit/veggies though and I think I should investigate further. Thanks Mary for addressing this touchy topic.

  10. Another reason to buy organic is to snub Monsanto – who makes round-up ready crops that are genetically altered. Get educated about this by watching You Tube available videos on GMOs, GMO Corn, patented seeds, and more. The food supply issue also extends to animals — and the more organic you can get, the better off it is for everyone on the planet (animals included). Pesticides and hormones are causing our cows to miscarry and tainting our milk. Scary world we live in.

  11. The Organic Trade Association would like to remind readers that while choosing organic helps to support personal health by enabling consumers to avoid pesticides, this is just one of the many benefits it offers. Choosing organic also helps to reduce exposure to synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, irradiation and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. It also helps to ensure that the animals from which organic products are fed 100% organic feed and are raised in a manner that supports good health and promotes natural behavior. Moreover, choosing organic supports a system of sustainable agricultural management that promotes soil health and fertility through the use of such methods as crop rotation and cover cropping, which nourish plants, foster species diversity, help combat climate change, prevent damage to valuable water resources, and protect farmers and farmers’ families from exposure to harmful chemicals. In this sense, buying organic is a commitment to the bigger, more complex picture of which our personal health is a part.

    In thinking about which organic products to buy, consider choosing organic versions of the products you buy most. Whether that is milk, produce, or personal care products, buying organic will not only help reduce your exposure to a number of unwanted substances, but also support a system of agricultural management that is great for the planet.

    Organic. It’s worth it.