Save: You can forgo organic for fruits or veggies that have thicker skin: Think avocados, mangoes, onions, pineapple, and bananas. And store-brand organics, like Whole Food's 365 label, are often cheaper than conventional versions, assures Laura Klein of OrganicAuthority.com.
Splurge: Meat and dairy are the most important items to buy organic and grass-fed (or from a local supplier whose practices you have confidence in). Conventional versions usually come from animals raised in poor conditions and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, both of which are linked to rises in early puberty and superbacteria. As for produce, Klein has an easy rule of thumb for when to spend more: If it's sweet, go organic. Pests tend to like sweet things as much as we do, so more pesticides are needed to keep them away from berries, nectarines, peaches, pears, apples, cherries, tomatoes, and sweet bell peppers.
8. Olive Oil: Expensive is overrated.
Save: When oil is going to be cooked, you can usually substitute vegetable or regular olive oil (even if the recipe calls for extra-virgin), says Eve Felder, associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America. As for vinaigrettes: Felder advises using a blend of two-thirds low-priced olive oil (the plain type, without any virgin or extra-virgin labels) and one-third "kind of nice, but not really nice" olive oil.
Splurge: Use extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle over foods just before serving. Look for a regional seal of certification on the bottle, say, from California's Olive Oil Council (COOC) or Italy's Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC). Choose a dark-colored bottle and store in a cool, dry place, which will keep light and heat from oxidizing your oil. And expect to pay $10 to $15 for a 500 milliliter bottle—good olive oil is expensive to make, says Fran Gage, author of The New American Olive Oil.
9. Coffee: It's all in the beans (not the machines).
Save: For excellent coffee on a shoestring, skimp on everything but the beans. Fortunately, the rest of a brewer's paraphernalia comes at budget prices. For crushing those beans, coffee consultant Erin Hulbert says that a simple $20 grinder works perfectly. For brewing, she suggests an inexpensive French press or a $5 Melitta drip coffee funnel; no coffee machine required. Now there's even an espresso machine that Hulbert considers a bargain: "The MyPressi Twist is $150, but the espresso is better than ones I make on $20,000 machines." If all of this sounds like more than you can handle on sleepy mornings, the grocery-store brand Eight O'Clock was the nonprofit Consumer Reports' taste-test winner. It retails for just $6 a pound.
Splurge: Freshly roasted beans, ground just before brewing, are key. To ensure that your beans are hot off the roaster, buy direct from your coffee shop (whether Dunkin' Donuts or a local favorite) and ask for the beans they use in the store. Beans are best used within two weeks of roasting; Hulbert says their ideal life span is close to that of fresh bread.
10. Meat: Happy animals mean happy meals.
Save: Skip the imported prosciutto or other cured meats when wrapping shrimp or asparagus. Use domestic, or Felder's favorite: good old bacon. Reserve the nice stuff for when you're serving it straight up.
Splurge: In a recent experiment, food experts were unable to tell which ingredients in a meal were from Walmart and which came from Whole Foods—except when it came to the factory-farmed Walmart chicken. Organic, pastured chicken has a truer flavor, and usually hasn't been injected with salty chicken broth. Likewise, grass-fed meat often tastes better, and is also good for the planet and for your health. That's because it contains more beneficial fat and less saturated fat. Look for the designation "grass-fed from birth to market," which ensures that it wasn't fed corn at the end of its life (the organic label doesn't guarantee this).
11. Fruits and Vegetables: The freezer is your friend.
Save: When a vegetable is out of season, buy frozen rather than imported-from-afar fresh. The nutrient levels are comparable, and they won't perish in your fridge before you have a chance to enjoy them. Berries, mangoes, pineapple, peaches, spinach, corn, and peas all freeze well. The only veggies that don't hold up well when frozen are the starchier ones, like carrots, potatoes, and cauliflower. In the canned foods aisle, you can now find butternut squash and sweet potato purees alongside pumpkin—all good choices when winter favorites are unavailable.
Splurge: Remember the taste of a true August vine-ripened tomato? Or corn on the cob from a roadside stand? When fruits and vegetables are at their peak, spend a little extra for local, juicy produce, and you'll still be remembering those perfect bites come January. Ramos always keeps fresh lemons on hand for recipes that call for juice. "It can cost a bit more, but their acidic brightness makes so many foods pop, and pre-squeezed and artificial juices can leave a strange aftertaste because of the preservatives."
12. Cheese: Go fancy when it stands alone.
Save: Inexpensive cheese works for most uses, like cooking and salads, say Felder and Ramos. For example, if you're grating Parmesan over pasta, a $9-a-pound brand will suffice. And whenever you use a stronger cheese, like feta, you can use less.
Splurge: Choose that over-the-top, close-your-eyes-it's-so-good, $17-a-pound cheese when you're offering it on a cheese plate or as the star of a dish like fondue. "If you're serving a wheel of Brie and having a glass of wine—that's when you want the fancy stuff," explains Ramos.