Growing up I always heard to “buy organic.” Then I went to college, and I began questioning the importance of organic foods. I would look at the juicy strawberries in front of me and ask myself, “Is it really worth double the price simply because something is labeled organic?”

It is not easy to justify the more expensive purchase when living on a limited budget. Still, I want to fill my body with the finest nutrients without emptying my wallet in the process. This is when I took a step back to learn more about organic foods.

First, what are organic foods?

Organic foods are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and GMOs. They help nourish soil, do not affect wildlife, are less taxing on the environment, are higher in antioxidants and usually taste better. Contrary to popular belief, the pesticides used on non-organic produce cannot just be washed off. The food still holds pesticide residue.

Tara Hansen, local sustainable food advocate and food enthusiast, views local and organic produce as essential for an optimal lifestyle and environment. Growing up with a mother from Germany, the way Hansen buys and eats today was largely influenced by her upbringing. In Europe unlike America most of the produce sold in the markets are local and many of the ingredients commonly found on American food labels are banned. Now with a family of her own, Hansen strives to uphold this same standard for food.

Hansen also understands the structural concentration of health and how it has affected lower-income communities. To make healthier options accessible, she not only advocates for a change in the food system but is working with local farmers to get boxes of fresh produce from local farms, also known as Community Supported Agriculture boxes (CSA), to women’s homes and lower income areas.

For college students, who are constantly working, socializing, multi-tasking and putting stress on our brains and bodies, eating healthy should not be something that adds to our anxiety. To make this process easier, I have put together a list of tips and tricks that will allow you to become a better and smarter grocery shopper.

1. Understand the “Dirty Dozen”

The Dirty Dozen lists the 12 types of produce that contain the highest levels of pesticide residue, carcinogenic chemicals and dangerous ingredients known to cause birth defects when sprayed directly on food. Created and updated each year by the Environmental Working Group, the Dirty Dozen currently includes: apples, celery, tomatoes, cherries, grapes, kale/mustard/collard greens, nectarines, peaches, pears, spinach, strawberries, and hot and sweet peppers. When shopping for nutritious foods on a budget, these are foods that you should most often opt to eat organically.

2. Shop Seasonal and Local

Seasonal produce is much more abundant which lowers the cost. Foods in season also taste better, and minimize environmental harm because they are naturally ripe and take less time to travel to you. Eating seasonally also allows you to eat a diverse amount of nutritious and delicious foods. Check out a list of seasonal produce here.

Hansen strongly believes that the less your food travels to you, the better — not only in terms of nutrition but environmentally as well.

“Once your food is picked it’s losing nutrients within that 24 hours. Plus, what do you think goes into travel? It is not just distance, it is gas emissions, fossil fuels, plastic packaging and beyond.”

Shopping locally also lowers the price of foods, while directly supporting your community. “Helping the local economy helps local farmers, which helps sustain the land and decreases the demand of deforestation in other areas,” said Hansen. Sourcing where your food comes from becomes easier, as well, when you buy locally. To ensure that your food is local, talk to the person selling it to you! Ask about the farm, where it is, and pay attention to the seasonality of the produce.

Hansen suggests subscribing to your local farmer to get fruit and vegetables sent directly to you, which costs less than a typical grocery bill. Plus, you can freeze items to prolong freshness, including avocados! If you are unable to attend a farmers market, don’t hesitate to reach out to a local farmer and coordinate getting your produce at another time!

3. Plan out your week and make a list

Meal planning reduces food waste and saves money on groceries. While meal planning can sound intimidating, it doesn’t have to mean spending hours on a Sunday pre-prepping food. Meal planning can also be a general map of what meals you might want to eat throughout the week. For example, if you plan to eat out on the weekends, don’t buy seven days worth of groceries or purchase a bunch of produce towards the end of the week. For the meals that you do plan to cook at home, think of the recipes that you want to make; this will help you make a checklist for the store, by writing out the list of ingredients that you need. No more aimlessly shopping, grabbing random items that hike up your grocery bill.

Bonus Tip: Some applications that support this planning are “Grocery” and “Mealtime”. Grocery lets you easily add and check off items on a customized list. Mealtime gives you recipes to choose from and compiles the ingredients and required cookware needed from each recipe into one list.

Another easy tip to incorporate: Take a photo of your receipt or paste it on the fridge and plan your meals based on your receipt! Highlight the food once you eat it.

4. Don’t sleep on the frozen section when it comes to fruits and veggies!

Fresh fruits and vegetables (especially when organic) are usually the quickest item in the fridge to spoil. If your food is always spoiling before you have the chance to eat, consider buying organic frozen produce. Frozen produce still has great nutritional value and antioxidants, and it comes at a lower cost.

When you do buy fresh produce, make sure you are buying whole foods. I used to buy the pre-packed baby carrots until I realized that I could get a pack of about 20 whole organic carrots for the exact same price. Yes, it takes a little more time to prepare them to eat, but it is so worth longer shelf life, stronger taste and lesser cost.

Bonus Tip: I freeze my veggies before they get bad and save the “odds and ends”—the parts that would normally get thrown out—till I gather enough to make a broth! Also, try freezing herbs, like chives or rosemary, in olive oil before they go bad. You can use the frozen herbs next time you cook!

5. Sign up for a organic food subscription service

Two great options are: Community Supported Agriculture, which sends a huge box of clean, fresh produce each week, and Imperfect Foods, a company that takes food that would usually go to waste and sells it at an incredible discount. These options are sustainable and help to prevent food waste while allowing you to choose your specific preferences!

6. Cook with friends to avoid food waste

Finally, plan out some meals with your roommates! Sharing meals allows you to save money by buying in bulk and splitting the cost of groceries. Not to mention that it’s also a great way to let off steam and enjoy some laughs.

Filling your body with healthy nutrients in college should not be impossible. Food is fuel and medicine, and it is important that you are treating your body with love and care. I hope that these tips will help to ease some of the intimidation of shopping for nutritious foods. If you have any additional tips and tricks that help you to avoid food waste and minimize grocery spending, please share them with us!

Update made April 14, 2021 10:58 p.m.: A previous version said both of Hansen’s parents are from Germany. Only her mother is from Germany.