Organic? Vegan? Vegetarian? What Does It Cost?

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Vicki asked “what impacts going organic vegan has on your food budget—do you end up spending more or less than you did when you ate a more typical diet?”

I’ll start off by giving you a simple answer and then elaborate on it: eating organic foods caused the food budget to go up, while eating vegan foods caused it to drop a bit.

First, let’s back up and define what we’re talking about here, for those who might not be familiar.

Organic foods refer to “foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.” (source) Our biggest reason for deciding to eat a large proportion of organic foods were articles relating various food additives and hormonal injections in animals to such effects as early onset puberty in children. We decided, on the whole, that we preferred to minimize the additives in the foods we feed our children (as much as we reasonably can) and one simple way to do that is to just watch for the USDA Organic label on foods.

Vegan foods are ones that do not involve the use of non-human animal products. In other words, vegan foods exclude meat, eggs, and dairy products, along with a few other minor ingredients. We chose to go this route because of personal health concerns and a recommendation from a dietitian to try a “vegan plus fish” diet for a while. I am not vegan for political reasons, I am following a “vegan plus fish” diet for now, while my family often eats much the same food, sometimes supplemented with meat and dairy products. For example, if we make a pizza, they’ll often have regular cheese as a topping while I’ll either have no cheese or soy cheese. At the grocery store, we tend to spend a lot of time in the produce section these days.

So, what impacts have these choices had on our food budget?

Organic foods and our food budget
We started eating a slowly-growing proportion of organic foods at about the time our first child was moving to table foods in late 2006. This choice caused a decided increase in our monthly food budget.

Why? Usually, organic foods are strictly more expensive than non-organic foods of the exact same type. Organic milk costs more than non-organic milk. Organic vegetables cost more than non-organic vegetables.

Of course, while this increase was a real one, the increase was somewhat mitigated by other gradual changes in our diet that came hand-in-hand with having young mouths at home.

First, our gradual move toward preparing more food at home reduced our monthly food costs. We started eating less take-out and making our own meals right at the same time as we were switching to organic foods, and for the same reason. We wanted more control over what our children were eating.

For similar reasons, we gradually moved away from prepackaged meals and toward meals from scratch, which similarly reduced our food costs. Believe it or not, it’s cheaper to actually plan out your meals and understand how to use herbs and spices than it is to throw a boxed meal or a frozen meal into your cart. I can make a far better tasting pan of lasagna than a frozen lasagna at about 60% of the price.

These changes happened gradually over roughly the same period of time and resulted in a net slight reduction in our food budget. It’s pretty easy to see that there was one cost-increasing factor (organics) and two cost-decreasing factors (preparing more food at home, preparing more food from scratch).

Vegan foods and our food budget
Last October, I made a switch to a vegan “plus fish” diet, for reasons described above. This meant our food purchasing changed a bit. We began to purchase less meat, milk, and cheese, and we began to purchase more fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The net impact on our food budget of this change was a reduction in food costs. On the whole, the increase in fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and so on had less of an impact than the decrease in meats, milk, cheese, and so on.

The interesting part is that this dietary change pushed us to really start using a lot of new things. For example, we discovered how tasty and versatile quinoa is – that was really our top discovery here. Quinoa itself can be a bit expensive if you don’t look very hard for it, so we started really shopping around for it. Even given the relative expense, though, it didn’t compare to the ongoing cost of meats and cheeses and milk, which can really add up.

One example of a cost reduction that’s clear cut is the fact that our usual dinner beverages shifted, too. I always drink water with dinner now (sometimes with wine, depending on the meal), whereas before I often drank milk. My wife now often drinks water, too, though our kids typically still drink (organic) milk. That’s less milk purchased each week, which is a direct savings.

So, what saves money?
If your primary aim is to reduce your food budget, what can you learn from the above items to save money?

First, prepare your own food at home. Simply switching from eating out is a big cost saver. Virtually every meal you can eat at a restaurant is far cheaper to eat at home.

Second, make your own food from scratch as much as possible. The key here is simply learning how to cook things from scratch. Many people fall into the trap of using prepared meals at home because it’s easier than learning how to prepare them yourself, even though there’s often not much of a time savings from using a packaged meal.

Finally, use more fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains whenever and wherever you can, and drink water as your main beverage. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains are all usually bargains in your store, especially compared to the costs of meats and cheeses. Similarly, water from your tap is the biggest bargain there is for beverages, so take advantage of it.

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