Can Healthy Food Be Frugal? Part 1

This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately:

“What am I putting in my grocery bag?”

I alluded to this here when I talked about our goals for the new year. Because of this question, one of my goals is to explore some new methods of getting more real foods into our house while still staying in our new, lower, budget.

What started me down this path? I’ve been thinking about this for the past few months, actually, wondering how I would be able to put these thoughts into print. I’ve decided that it needs to be in two parts (to spare you from reading a book), and that I’m going to start with the, well, beginning (duh). Please feel free to comment…I’d LOVE to hear what you think on these issues and what choices you’re making for your families.

In that light, here’s a little background information (if you haven’t figured this out from reading here:-):

–1. I’ve had an organic garden since I started gardening 15 years ago. I read Organic Gardening magazine and realized that was the only way for me to garden, for a number of reasons (but to be brutally honest, frugality was probably #1- it’s just cheaper).

–2. I’ve read books on organic gardening, where our food comes from, reasons why people are fatter now than ever (including the books by Michael Pollan). Because of these, I don’t buy foods with high fructose corn syrup, msg, preservatives, etc. We are trying to stay away from foods with dyes and things with longs ingredient lists.

–3. I make a lot of our food from scratch, and have made all of our family’s bread for more than four years.

–4. As an organic gardener, I’m appalled at all the foods made from Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds: conventional corn, soy, cotton, and canola are the big GMO crops- and they’re in everything. These are not to be confused with hybrid seeds, which are simply a crossing of two parent plants (say, tomatoes) in order to get the best qualities of those in the “baby” plant. This sometimes happens in the wild on it’s own, which is where we get various kinds of plants even in the wild. GMO seeds, on the other hand, have other, foreign things implanted in them (fish DNA, roundup herbicide) that create something otherworldly- and definitely not anything you’d find in nature. Plus, there is good research into how these are not so good for us or the gardening world. So now I’m trying to buy organic versions of corn chips, cook with olive oils, etc. to try and avoid these, but it’s hard and slow-going. Go here if you’re interested in more information.

BUT (and it’s a big “but”),

I don’t buy all organic produce (in the winter when the garden is not producing) and foods such as pastas, and I don’t really feel the need to.

I know, heresy. Have I left you scratching your heads? OK, these are the things that whirl about in my head over this issue:

-It’s more expensive, period. I don’t care if you follow a blog about “how we eat organic on a budget” it’s going to cost you more. And the good bloggers will be up front with that and tell you that it’s just a choice they’ve made to spend more on food. Unfortunately, most of the ones I’ve read don’t have kids or have little kids. I’ve got four adults to feed (teens have been known to eat more than adults…) and it just doesn’t compute for us.

-I hear a lot of people say that the stores that specialize in this type of food (whole foods, etc) just “feel good” to shop in. Uh-em…they are marketers trying to get your money, people! Of course they want to get you in the store and keep you there. Even Michael Pollan in Omnivore’s Dilemma (who’s passionate about organics), pointed out the fact that the nice farm scenes and stories above the produce and dairy items were not even related to the items anymore. There are “free range” chickens that never free range, and organic farms that rival the size of conventional with all the crowding that goes along with it.

It’s not a religion, it’s just food. You’re not “good” if you do, or “evil” if you don’t.

And don’t even get me started on packaged “convenience” foods labeled organic…if something’s been processed, freeze dried and run through machines, does it matter? I’ve actually seen a label with “organic modified food starch” as an ingredient. I just can’t pay more for this stuff. Although I do have a caveat: I find I need to buy organic on things like cereal (processed and run through machines) in order to stay away from ingredients like HFC and BHT, and so I do pay a little more- but never more than half the amount of regular, and I will buy regular when it doesn’t have those things…like cheerios.

I guess I’m really trying to say: know what you’re buying and make informed choices. Don’t just buy something because it says “organic” or “natural” or comes from a store you feel good being seen in. Well, unless you have the money to do so, which isn’t most of us Dave Ramsey-ites. :-)

-This really is heresy: I think the jury’s still out on the health impact of conventional vs. organic foods in the long run. I know there are studies that show all the health benefits of organic, the more vitamins, etc. and I do think it’s true. I garden so our produce for most of the year can be organic. But fresh produce starts losing it’s vitamins as soon as it’s picked, organic or not. I’m just not convinced it’s worth more than twice the amount of money.

And as for health problems, cancers, etc., well, they’ve always been around. We now know of them a lot more because of reporting and science, but, really, when Aunt Millie died 100 years ago of “natural causes” who knows if it wasn’t cancer or heart attacks? The medical establishment just didn’t have the ability to know back then. In light of history, our knowledge and what we’re basing a lot of information on is relatively new. At the turn of the 20th century, doctors were just starting to wash their hands before procedures!

Again, it seems like herbicides and pesticides should cause a lot of problems, and I don’t like them, but I can’t yet spend twice as much on food because of something I’d like to be true. As an organic gardener, I’d like to one day “vote” with my dollars, but right now I have to look for the healthiest options for our budget.

-As a committed Christian, it just seems sad to me that a large focus of so many people’s lives, time and energy is what they put in their mouths. This is not the most important thing in the world, and we cannot determine our time on this earth by what we eat. It’s hard for us “modern” people to hear it, but we are not in control of when we live or die. We are supposed to be good stewards of our bodies and the land, and our lives will probably be better for being healthy, but we all know people who have died young and healthy and those who have lived long with diabetes and smoking like a chimney. God is the only one in control of this.

What are your thoughts on these issues? Or, do you even think about them?

Anyway, over the past few years I’ve sorta come to the conclusion that the healthiest way to eat on a budget is to cook as many things from scratch (therefore controlling the ingredients) as possible, while buying what you can organic and staying away from junk as much as possible. It’s all about balance. For a number of years I’ve made homemade versions of things I use to buy all the time like mayonnaise, chocolate syrup, and ketchup (see more in Pantry Basics). I’ve written here about the granola we like to eat daily, the sandwich bread I’ve made for years, and the soups I make out of bones.

But then last year I embarked on a journey to lower our food bill, which led me to the world of coupons, “buy $25, get a $10 coupon” promotions, rebates, and blogs that keep you updated on all the “hot” deals.

In the thrill of the hunt, the joy in the deal, I got…sidetracked.

Which is why I started asking myself,

“What am I putting in my grocery bag?”

To be continued…






  1. says

    I’m not surte if I’ve said this yet:
    I LOVE your blog. LOVE it. I love our writing style and the points you make. This post makes every point I think of when shopping/planning/etc about food in our house.
    Yeah, i love this blog

  2. Jenelle says

    I LOVE this post. I think I have gone the same journey as you. I started making everything from scratch and then started looking into organic fruits and veggies. I can to the same conclusion as you. It is just too expensive. I tried for a few months shopping at the local farmer’s market. But the rule of thumb around there is that pretty much everything is $2/lb. And I cannot fit that in my budget. And that’s ok. I think as long as my family is eating pleanty of fruits and vegetables we will be healthy.

    This year I have the space to make my veg garden 8x as large as it was last year. So I hope that this summer I will be able to produce most of our vegetables myself. Which reminds me. you said you have read several organic gardening books. Are there any that you recomend?

  3. says

    Noooooo…… you can NOT leave a blog partially written! I have to wait??? You have got to be kidding!
    I am reading along, nodding my head (looking like an idiot in my office) and THEN a “to be continued”…. You’re killin’ me!

  4. Tracy says

    I am in agreement with you. I watched Food, Inc. (the movie) over the holiday break and it really made me think I’m on the right track. Because of that movie, I will start making my own mayo. We have chickens so eggs are abundant for our family. We also have a large garden.

    I do have worries about meat. I prefer to not eat meat, but my family does enjoy it. I would like to find more local choices for chicken. Are you aware of anything in this area? But I can afford ridiculously expensive poultry.

    I think forward to part 2.

  5. Anonymous says

    I enjoyed reading your post. It reminded me of a few things. In the 1980’s I went on a liquid fast and lost a lot of weight. Then the doctor put me on a high carb, low fat diet and I lost all ability to digest any milk products and developed gall stones & kidney problems.

    5 years later I had gained back all the weight I lost. I started gardening and making lots of stir frys and using Olive oil and getting myself back to a balanced diet based on common sense,not the one the doc had put me on. I finally regained my health.

    I feel as the person who puts the food on the table in your home you have an Awesome Responsibility given to you by God.

    The life is in the blood and what we eat feeds the blood. I think the sense God gave you will keep you balanced and heading in the right direction when it comes to feeding your loved ones.

    Sometimes like at Christmas we go overboard. The body is miraculous and able to recover from the abuse we give it at those times. Thank you Jesus!!

    Just keep up the gardening and doing the best you can with the knowledge you have. I think you are on the right track and God Bless You! P.S. I am sure God put Chocolate here for us!!

  6. Jami @An Oregon Cottage says

    Wow, guys- thanks for your great comments! I was a little nervous about puttin’ it all out there, so your words are really encouraging.

    I had to laugh, though, as I saw that the following post on the blog is a big ol’ picture of four bags of M&Ms…he, he, guess you know what we’re not giving up. :-)

    It’s good to know others going down the same path, let’s pass on anything we learn!

    Shanzanne- I looked into Northern Lights tree farm last year and all their meat was $4/lb and up. A little farm market near me has pork, but only lard is $4/lb there, and goes up to $10/lb! We have occasionally gotten 1/4 lamb or beef, but it’s consistency that I haven’t yet found.

    Jenelle- There’s lots of great books! I like Steve Solomon’s book about growing in the Pac. NW, also “Straight Ahead Organic” by Shepherd Ogden, and anything by Barbara Damerosh or Elliot Colman, just to name a few. That should keep you busy. :-)

  7. Cathy says

    I have been reading your blog for a while now and love it. My family has been slowly switching to all organic and just today I came across They deliver free to some areas of portland and outskirts, but i live in Forest Grove so i have to pay for delivery. I had been doing couponing and eating everything from a box for the past few years and well, I got fat and unhealthy. the past six months I have been ordering online at New seasons, but i no longer have a car during the week and was looking for a way to get delivery, I’m too far for New seasons delivery. has a box of all organic fruit and veggies along with other local products, i did a search and there are coupon codes out there to use too. Check it out, some things are cheaper than Trader Joe’s, some things, like milk are more, but i am looking forward to my first delivery next week. I also like for grass fed beef, and of course Bob’s red Mill :)

  8. Shanzanne says

    Great post! I have been reading your blog for almost a year, and have always thought you strike a good balance between frugal and healthful. I shop for just my 4 year old daughter and me, and try to make tiny little changes, one at a time. During the summer, I buy most produce at farmer’s markets. The only desserts in our house besides ice cream are homemade, and I try to only buy tortilla chips (can’t live without those) and not many other premade snacks. Right now, I’m working on good, cheap sources for meat, after reading Michael Pollans’s books. We buy fresh milk and eggs from a farm near Marcola (very reasonable prices) and have been buying grass-fed great quality ground beef when they slaughter for $2 per pound. Theres a farm in your neck of the woods that is selling grass-fed beef very inexpensively… I think its the Christmas tree place? I think its good to just be aware and make the best choices we can with the resources we have, and try to honor God in the process but not obsess over making the perfect choice, becuase there is no PERFECT choice. I’ll look forward to the rest of your post!

  9. Anonymous says

    I am on the same journey. I cook from scratch more from the frugal issue and because I can control the ingredients. In the winter when I don’t have access to farmers markets/ gardens for produce I concentrate on root veggies for organics — carrots, potatoes, onions are always organic. I really watch for any highfructose cornsyrup in our food.
    I really concentrate my $$ for dairy — I do not buy organic milk or eggs at the supermarket, but instead have found a regional farm that sells milk, butter. And I purchase farm eggs from another source. All the meat I buy is hormone/ antibiotic free, but not necessarily grassfed/ free range.
    It is a fine line and I try to spend my $$ on the most important items.

  10. Jackie says

    I love your blog, I subscribe, save it in a folder in my emails & read it regularly.
    It is such a relief to finally know someone else says that organic is wonderful, but there is a limit to what we can pay & we have to be able to make choices we can live with. When a pound of organic strawberries costs $8.00 in the grocery store & they are not even good looking strawberries, they stay in the store. I do envy your long gardening season in Oregon, ours is painfully short in the middle of the Canadian prairies.
    As a cancer survivor & a mother of teenagers, one who was very sensitive to food additives as a young child, I try to cook from scratch & watch the ingredient lists on foods. I garden, make my own jams & jellies, &freeze produce. Olive oil & honey are staples in my house. Did you know that you can substitute olive oil for butter or shortening in many recipes, the general rule is you use 25% less olive oil than you would butter. I have come up with my own baking mix recipe using olive oil instead of shortening, it is a great pantry staple. My son loves the Half Hour Puddings, you know the kind that bake with the cake on top & sauce on the bottom. They are so easy to make from scratch, taste better & you can even package them up to keep in the pantry just like the commercial ones.
    I have shared many of your ideas with friends & look forward to sharing many more.
    Thank you!

    • says

      Good for you, Jackie – you sound like you’re making the best of your short season there! Thanks for your insightful comment. :)

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