Food & Drink

Does Everything I Buy Really Have to be Organic? A Dietitian Shares What to Prioritize

written by EMILY C. SHEPARD
Source: Canva
Source: Canva

Cooking healthy meals for my family while staying on a budget feels like nothing short of a miracle. The cost of healthy (and unhealthy…) food never ceases to shock me. Plus, the constant influx of information about toxins and pesticides makes me feel like I’m sacrificing my children’s health if I don’t buy organic food. However, when I do buy organic, I feel outraged at the cost. For example, a jar of peanut butter with 10 ingredients is half the cost compared to an organic jar of peanut butter with two ingredients.

I know I’m not alone in my frustration and confusion about the price of our food and the ingredients. My goal is to feel more in control by expanding our vegetable garden, shopping at our farmers market weekly, and consistently reading labels. To feel less overwhelmed and indecisive at the grocery store, I’ve also connected with an amazing dietician to simplify my shopping. Hannah Holzum, RDN, is a registered dietitian and founder of Wholesome Nutrition Co. She shared her expert advice about what to buy organic as well as more healthy eating tips for families.

Meet the expert
Hannah Holzum
Registered Dietitian
Hannah Holzum is also the Founder of Wholesome Nutrition Co. where she coaches busy moms virtually and teaches them how to improve their metabolism and learn how to eat in a balanced way so they never have to "diet" again. She lives in Missouri with her husband and their three daughters.

What to Buy Organic

“It can feel confusing when you go to the grocery store and see all of the organic versus non-organic foods and wonder what on earth you’re supposed to purchase,” said Holzum. When considering organic versus non-organic, Holzum said it’s important to look at it from two viewpoints:

First, the nutrient profile of produce does not change if it’s organic versus inorganic, meaning that if you purchase non-organic, you’re going to get a ton of wonderful nutrients just like you will on organic foods.

Second, the cost. If you’re on a budget, choosing non-organic foods may be a better choice for you financially, and you can rest assured knowing that it’s still better to eat those non-organic fruits and vegetables to reap the benefits of those nutrients than to not eat them at all.

Holzum buys organic when she can, especially when the cost is similar and for produce like apples, berries, and greens, but her fruits and vegetables are not always organic. “Typically, foods like pineapple, bananas, avocado, melon, sweet potatoes, and carrots are less likely to be impacted by pesticides and are foods I don’t hesitate to purchase non-organically. Many of these foods have a thick outer layer that helps protect the produce inside.”

Should I Follow the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” Guidance?

To help consumers understand exactly what they’re buying, the consumer advocacy group Environmental Working Group created a “Dirty Dozen” list of produce that they have found to have the most pesticide residue. The Environmental Working Group also has a “Clean 15” list of foods that their research shows are less impacted by pesticides.

When it comes to the “dirty dozen”, Holzum said, “This does not necessarily mean that these foods will always have pesticides or will always have a large amount of pesticides, but according to their research, these are the foods that would be more likely to have pesticide residue and is something to consider while shopping,” she said. It’s worth noting that USDA research found over 99 percent of foods tested had residues below the safety standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency with 27% having no detectable pesticide residues at all. 

Other groups say consumers should be cautious of fear-mongering surrounding the “dirty dozen” so that it doesn’t dissuade families, especially low-income families, from gaining the nutritional benefits from fresh produce. In a report released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only one in 10 Americans consume enough fruits and vegetables each day and washing fruits and vegetables often removes or eliminates any residues that may be present—more on that below.

The net takeaway: incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your family’s diet, whether organically or conventionally grown, is a good thing!

the dirty dozen
the clean 15

Washing Produce

“Remember that it’s important to always wash your produce, no matter if it’s organic or non-organic,” said Holzum. “Run your produce under cold water and scrub the outside with a brush. Or you can use a white vinegar and baking soda solution and let your product soak for ten minutes, then rinse with cold water. After washing all produce, it’s best to lay it on a paper towel to dry and then store it.” 

I’ve found that it’s best for us to wash all my produce right after grocery shopping. Then I put all our berries and other produce in a glass bowl in the fridge so it’s ready to eat. When clean, healthy food is readily available, like peeled and sliced carrots, my family snacks on that throughout the day rather than reaching for chips or other convenient items. (Usually!) 

Eating Healthier on a Budget

Here are some other budget-friendly ways to eat healthy, according to Holzum.

Cook at Home

While on my mission to feed nutritious and affordable meals to my family, I’ve found that convenience can’t always be a priority. For example, eating out is convenient but not always healthy or cheap. Cooking homemade meals and encouraging my daughters to cook with me takes extra time and patience, but it can be absolutely worth it. And if I plan ahead, cooking at home doesn’t always have to be so time-consuming. Holzum understands, “As a dietitian and a busy mom of three, I know how hard it can be to find the time to cook at home and eat healthy while not spending a fortune,” she said. “The great news is that it’s much easier to eat healthy and on a budget when you cook at home.”

Buy Frozen

“Frozen produce is a great, cost-effective way to get in good nutrients without breaking the bank. Frozen fruits and vegetables are every bit as nutritious as fresh, too! Plus, you don’t have to worry about them going bad,” said Holzum. “Personally, my freezer is always stocked with the steamable bags of vegetables for an easy side (hello, no dishes and ready in four minutes!), and I love to keep frozen berries on hand for smoothies for after-school snacks. You can also purchase frozen fish and frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts for a nice high, lean protein option, and typically these are cheaper than fresh.”

what to buy organic
Source: Hannah Holzum

Buy Foods in Season

This one’s pretty straightforward: Foods that are in season will always be cheaper.

Have a Handful of Easy Go-To Meals

“While meal planning, consider sprinkling in a few easy meals for busy nights,” Holzum said. “On nights when all three of my kids have practices, we may go for a pre-packaged salad topped with some lightly breaded chicken tenders for a quick, easy, nutritious option! If we can make it less overwhelming, you’re more likely to stick to it. [You could also] consider purchasing a rotisserie chicken so you have prepared meat that is ready to add into your recipe. This will save you a ton of time!”

Eat a Whole Food Every Time You Eat

“As a dietitian, I cannot stress enough the importance of REAL food! The more natural state of the food, the better. While it’s likely not realistic to eat a completely whole food diet, especially those of us with kids, our goal should be to eat as much whole foods as we can,” Holzum said. “A good rule of thumb would be to try to eat a whole food every time you eat, even if you’re eating something processed with it. That helps us get in the habit of focusing on eating more whole foods.”

“Along with this, not all processed foods are bad. Many brands today are doing a much better job of using quality ingredients in their products to make it a little easier to get healthy foods in our bodies in a pinch. It’s important to read your labels and check your ingredients to ensure that you’re getting the best option for you,” she said.

Family Meal Plan Together

“One thing we like to do in our family is get everyone involved in our evening meal planning,” said Holzum. “Every Sunday, when I sit down to meal plan, I will ask each family which meal they’d like to have one day for the upcoming week. This takes the work off of me because suddenly I have five different ideas, and the kids will be much more likely to eat the meals they have chosen and be excited about it.”

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