Eating Organic? Going Gluten-Free? How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

When a nutritionist suggested I give up gluten early this year, I was horrified. No bread, no doughnuts, no pizza? No way. But after a few months of continuing to feel awful, I decided to give it a try. I braved the specialty foods aisle at the grocery store to stock up and found myself horrified again -- this time by the prices.

It wasn't my first exposure to the high cost of healthy eating. I had the same experience when I first started buying organic foods. Over time, I've learned some tricks to saving on organic items, and I've started applying those tips to my gluten-free shopping as well.

The good news is that as the popularity of organic, vegan, gluten-free, and other nontraditional foods grows, the more products become available. More competition means better quality and, over time, lower prices. In the meantime, here are some ways to save.

Comparison-shop
Don't assume specialty stores like Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM  ) are always a ripoff. Because they sell high volumes of organic meat, produce, and other staples, they can sometimes negotiate better deals with suppliers. As shown in the chart below, Whole Foods beat out my local grocery chain on three out of four items!

As with any purchase, it pays to compare prices on items you buy often. Sign up for your store's weekly newsletters and watch for special offers on your favorites.

For nonperishables, Amazon.com  (NASDAQ: AMZN  ) is a surprising source of savings -- especially if you're willing to buy in bulk -- and offers a decent selection of organic and gluten-free packaged goods. Amazon won or tied on all four of the items below.

Sign up for the Subscribe & Save program and you'll get an additional discount (you can pause or end your subscription at any time). Amazon is especially helpful for those who live in more rural areas, where grocery stores may not stock many specialty items.

Here's a sample of how prices vary on a handful of randomly chosen organic and gluten-free items.

Product

Giant

Whole Foods

Amazon

Annie's Homegrown Gluten-Free Mac & Cheese (6-ounce box)

$3.59 ($0.60/ounce)

$3.49 ($0.58/ounce)

$29.18 for a pack of 12 with Subscribe & Save discount ($0.41/ounce)

Kashi Organic Promise Cinnamon Harvest cereal (16.3-ounce box)

$3.99 ($0.25/ounce)

$3.69 ($0.23/ounce)

$16.05 for a pack of 4 with Subscribe & Save discount ($0.23/ounce)

Bob's Red Mill All Purpose Gluten-Free Flour (22-ounce bag)

$4.39 ($0.20/ounce)

$3.99 ($0.18/ounce)

$14.40 for a pack of 4 with Subscribe & Save discount ($0.16/ounce)

Ancient Harvest Quinoa Spaghetti (8-ounce box)

$2.99 ($0.37/ounce)

$4.49 ($0.56/ounce)

$36.31 for a pack of 12 boxes ($0.38/ounce)

Don't rule out the warehouses, either. Both Costco (NASDAQ: COST  ) and Sam's Club have gotten on the healthy food bandwagon over the past few years. As each location offers different items, you'll have to check your local store for specific savings.

My Washington, D.C.-area Costco sells a wide variety of organic foods and a decent selection of gluten-free items as well. They aren't always cheaper, though, so just as with the stores above, it really pays to shop around.

Think outside the big-box store
Farmers' markets, CSAs, and co-ops can all be good sources for organic produce, dairy, eggs, meat, and more. Often, the cost is on par with your grocery store, but there may be a broader variety of items available, and you can feel good knowing you're supporting local farmers.

Many CSAs even deliver, and if you are savvy about using up your weekly bounty, you can save money and enjoy superior produce. My local CSA costs about $30 a week for a large box of seasonal produce (enough for a family of four), delivered to my door. That also includes free "U Pick" days at the farm when we can forage for even more fresh fruits and veggies ourselves. Just confirm that the farm you choose is Certified Organic. You can find a CSA near you at localharvest.org.

Prioritize
If your budget just won't stretch to cover all organic items, simply prioritize. Many experts advocate buying organic meat and dairy products, along with the Environmental Working Group's "dirty dozen" produce items (here's a handy printable wallet card). These are the most likely to be exposed to pesticides. (On the flip side, it's safe to skip organic versions of the EWG's "Clean 15.") If you focus your spending on those, you're off to a good start.

A little more room in the budget? Add organic cereals, peanut butter, and ketchup to the list and stock up when they're on sale. Store brands offer good value here -- for example, Giant's generic Nature's Promise brand of organic ketchup costs only $0.12 per ounce, half the price of Heinz's organic offering.

Do it yourself
If you've got the time and interest, you can save a ton by skipping convenience foods and making your own. I am not an accomplished cook, but even I've been successful making my own inexpensive organic Greek yogurt, ice cream, granola, and popsicles, and the kids have been begging to have my gluten-free brownies and peanut butter cookies in their lunchboxes instead of store-bought treats.

You can take it even further by blending your own baking mixes (especially good for the gluten-free crowd, as store-bought blends often contain traces of gluten), growing some of your own produce and herbs, and learning how to preserve cheaper in-season organic produce for the winter months when prices shoot up. To urbanites like me, it may sound extreme, but it can also be fun and, just as important, financially rewarding.

Rethink your diet
Ultimately, this was the best solution for me. Rather than continue to fill my cart with gluten-free versions of my old favorites, I've challenged myself to find new recipes using foods that are naturally gluten-free. Sure, I still buy some specialty items, like my beloved pizza (psst...Bob's Red Mill makes the best gluten-free pizza dough!), but I have enjoyed finding new favorites, too.

Shopping for groceries has changed forever
Just a handful of years ago, who would have thought you'd shop at Amazon.com for groceries? The e-tailer of everything has changed our shopping habits forever -- and it continues to find new ways to do so. But Amazon isn't the only company angling for our shopping dollars -- and making a lot of cash doing so. In The Motley Fool's special free report, "The Death of Wal-Mart: The Real Cash Kings Changing the Face of Retail," details the prospects and plans for another company that's riding the waves of retail's changing tide. You can access the free report by clicking here.


Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2013, at 3:08 AM, emjayay wrote:

    So, you can become a subscriber to Amazon and save virtually nothing on the Kashi cereal, which is on sale for less at Rite Aid or supermarkets all the time anyway and maybe at Trader Joe's as well, and pay more for the spaghetti than at the supermarket.

    Good plan. Definitely worth it.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2013, at 9:16 AM, pondee619 wrote:

    What's wrong with gluten?

    "Most people have no need to cook gluten free..."

    http://www.eatingglutenfree.com/why_gluten_free/

    " there's nothing inherently healthier about a gluten-free diet. "

    "Some of the many gluten-free products on the market can be unhealthy, Fasano says, because manufacturers add extra sugar and fat to simulate the texture and satisfying fluffiness that gluten imparts"

    " gluten-free products are less routinely fortified with iron and vitamins B and D than regular bread products,"

    "If you plan to go gluten free, select more fruits, vegetables, and lean meat, and more naturally gluten-free grains like brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, rather than just buying prepackaged products labeled "gluten free,"" (Or just eat healthier with or without gluten)

    "that gluten-free products are "evolving" and MAY become healthier overall as manufacturers develop ways to fortify them."

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/04/12/gluten.free.diet.improv...

    Without being diagnosed with celiac disease, why avoid gluten?

    "When a nutritionist suggested I give up gluten early this year..." Was this YOUR nutritionist or just A nutritionist? Why did YOUR nutritionist sugggest that you give up gluten? Did going gluten free aleviate your complaints? Was this because of going gluten free, or just overall better eating? More fruits, veggies and whole grains, less processed foods etc.

    Is gluten free a fad or is there some reason for it? Just asking.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2013, at 10:50 AM, jimmoy wrote:

    I have very mixed feelings about WMF. It needs to decide if it is a quality food retailer or a fad food company. At the moment it is trying to do both. We have good quality meat alongside shelves of pseudoscientific mumbojumbo products and fad foods such as gluten free stuff.

    As a fast expanding business, it needs to identify its market better.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2013, at 6:15 PM, todamo13 wrote:

    If you buy a full case of something at Whole Foods, you generally can get a 10% bulk discount so you can save there too (even with meat).

    It's smart to cut back on grains, not only because of gluten but because grains are basically like eating sugar. We need to be eating much less grains, and a lot more good saturated fat like what is in pastured eggs, grass-fed raw butter and cheese, etc.

    That would solve a lot of America's wretched health issues. Not eating enough healthy fat leaves your body craving more food, which in America usually means more corn/soy processed sugary vegetable oil junk food. Vicious cycle...

    A great, super-healthy way to preserve your vegetables is to ferment them into sauerkraut. I put in all sorts of stuff, like onions, garlic, carrots, peppers, lemons, celery, spices, etc and I usually have some of the sauerkraut at every meal. The beneficial bacteria and enzymes help your digestive system and general health and also help detoxify you of toxic chemicals and metals. It has also been shown to help fix gut problems caused by imbalances of bacteria. Raw grass-fed milk is great too.

    I have to take issue with one small thing you said- that organic is "nontraditional." Really, what is non-traditional is our toxic-chemical industrial factory farm agriculture of the past 100 years. Before that (and hopefully again, soon) there was only 'organic' food.

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