No matter who you are or what your background is, you have to eat, and your child has to eat. It’s a simple fact. That means we’re all exposed to chemicals through food.

But if you’re trying to avoid toxins and pesticides, this fact probably worries you. How do we ensure clean eating for our families? In fact, one mother wrote into me, asking,

Toxins in foods is a topic I would like more information on. Do I have to buy organic? Are there easy and inexpensive ways to insure our food is safe?

…Just some of the questions that run through my mind on a semi-regular basis. The mom guilt is real.

That sounds like a lot of stress to carry! And I know she’s not the only one.

Many of us are confused about what is in our food, whether we need to buy the more expensive food in order for our kids to get good nutrition…

(BTW, interested in how to get the most nutritious foods you can while saving money at the grocery store? Check out this post).

RELATED: Saving money on healthy food at the grocery store

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. You can read my full policy here.

Pesticides and child development

Before I get into this topic, I want to let you know that my purpose isn’t to scare you, or to make you worry that you’ve somehow failed your child. The purpose is to give you the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about food.

Usually, when people ask about organic food, they actually want to know about pesticides.  

Worried about heavy metals, particularly in baby foods? Check out this article.

Parents who want to encourage clean eating are concerned about whether or not pesticides can really affect their kids.  The answer is complex, but the best I really know to say is, “Potentially, yes.”

I’ve spent over a decade of my life learning about insecticides. It’s what I got my PhD in! With that said, I know a fair amount about how pesticides affect kids.  While there are several classes of insecticides, they all target the nervous system (including the brain).

The most important thing to know is that insecticides affect young children even more strongly than adults.  In fact, it’s not just when you feed your baby that this can happen. Babies in the womb are especially susceptible to the dangers of pesticides.

Pesticides affect young children more than adults for several reasons, but the most important one is that young children and fetuses are undergoing a TON of brain development.

During pregnancy and early childhood, thousands of nerve connections are being made all the time. If something goes awry in such an early, important stage, the effects are going to be much more long-reaching than it would be in adults, whose nervous system is already pretty-well laid out.

Over the past decade, so much research has come out linking insecticide exposure with kids’ behavioral and/or mental health problems, including ADHDautism, and depression, behavioral regulation, and emotional control. In addition, pesticide exposure during pregnancy can affect kids’ IQ, even years later.

While some of these studies have been with kids with high pesticide exposures (for example, kids of farm workers), many studies are with children with more typical exposure levels. 

Does buying organic avoid pesticides?

So how do we avoid insecticides in food?  Buying organic food might be an option, but it’s expensive, and to be honest, organic does not automatically equal pesticide-free. There are fewer pesticides in organic food, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all gone.

Plus, some foods are more likely to contain pesticides than others, regardless of if you buy organic! Perhaps you’ve heard of the dirty dozen from the Environmental Working Group?  These are the twelve types of produce with the most pesticides on them.  

The list is updated annually, but generally, it doesn’t change much. Spinach, strawberries, kale, and tomatoes routinely top the list. These are foods that are best to buy organic if possible.

Want to save money on your groceries? Check out the Ibotta app, where you can find coupons online and upload receipts from both local and big chain grocery stores to save! It’s free, and if you use 10 coupons within the first fourteen days, they’ll give you a bonus $20!

On the plus side, the EWG also lists the clean fifteen, or the list of produce that’s least likely to contain pesticides. This is the Environmental Working Group’s list of produce least likely to have pesticide on them.  So you can buy avocados, onions, and peas, for example, without stressing about organic or regular.

Is organic food always healthier?

A lot of times, we have this perception that if a food is labeled “organic” or “natural,” it must be healthy. But this isn’t the case at all!

For example, if you’re buying something that’s heavily processed, like crackers or frozen chicken nuggets (not knocking either of these, I like crackers and frozen chicken nuggets can be a life saver with kids on a busy night), it really doesn’t matter if it’s organic or not. Neither have a ton of nutrition to them.

Really, you’re better off focusing on whole, minimally processed foods, not just on whether it’s organic or not.

And if your kid only eats the frozen chicken nuggets and turns her nose at every fresh veggie out there? She’ll likely be okay for now (but here’s some tips to help you get her interested in other foods!).

RELATED: 5 ways to help your picky kid eat better

Be aware of where you buy food from

Here in the United States, there’s a lot of regulation through the FDA and the EPA on produce sourcing and pesticides. But that doesn’t mean foods with more pesticide can’t slip through the cracks. Here’s ways to think about where you shop.

Buy produce in-season

Obviously, the most regulation is going to be with grocery stores who buy from large suppliers. However, foods that you buy out-of-season (like blueberries in January, for example), tend not only to be more expensive, but they also tend to have more pesticide on them. So, for this and many other reasons, try to buy produce in season. If you have to have it, buy frozen!

Watch home-grown produce

If you or your family home gardens, be aware of if and when pesticides are used. When I was in grad school, I was looking in my parents’ garage and saw a big bag of diazinon. Horrified, I told my dad that that particular pesticide had been banned in the US for over five years at that point!

His response? “It’s great at keeping bugs off the blackberries.”

I’m sure that was true, but the reason it was pulled from the market was the health effects of the pesticide on humans, not because it wasn’t effective at killing bugs.

Basically, make sure your family is informed and responsible with pesticide use.

Be aware of this idea when you’re visiting pop-up roadside produce stands. I know, these places are where you’ll find the prettiest, tastiest tomatoes out there. I love them.

(Also, please don’t get mad at me for saying this. I’m sure most of these places are responsible, but it’s just something to think about).

However, I don’t know how much regulation there is on these stands, but if they don’t follow best practice (and they may not, because it’s just easier to kill all the bugs than to worry about pesticide health effects), these foods could have way more pesticides than the legal limit on foods.

How to eat clean and avoid pesticides without buying organic food

You don’t have to buy organic to avoid pesticides. Sometimes just how you prepare your foods makes a big difference!

Peel food

Some foods you automatically “prep” the right way to avoid pesticides. For example, think about bananas. Even if they are sprayed with pesticides, those pesticides stay on the peel. So once you peel the banana to eat, you’re good to go!

Peeling produce can remove a lot of pesticides But at the same time, peeling produce like apples or potatoes often removes most of the nutrients and a lot of the fiber. So peeling produce is kind of a catch-22.

Even better – wash your fruits and vegetables!

Instead, make an effort to wash your produce before prepping it. If you wash and scrub (instead of just using a quick rinse), you’ll actually remove a lot of pesticide while keeping the nutrients. And no, you don’t need a fancy fruit rinse. Just water will work fine.

It’s especially important that you rinse rice to remove arsenic. Rice uptakes a lot of arsenic, and it’s actually worse in brown rice than in white. If you want to eat rice, choose Basmati (like this brand) as it contains the least amount of arsenic.

RELATED: Can I skip rice cereal for my baby?

More food prep to get rid of pesticides

Finally, cooking food will naturally destroy pesticides in it as well. Just the high heat will break down many of these dangerous chemicals, while boiling and draining off liquid can remove other pesticides (but that also removes vitamins and minerals, so you might want to avoid boiling food).

(Note: Some toxins, like arsenic in rice, are not destroyed by cooking. Rinsing your rice before cooking is the best way to remove arsenic.)

Conclusions on clean eating for families

I’ll be honest: It’s not possible to 100% avoid every pesticide all the time in your food. But, with the tips here, you can greatly reduce the pesticides your kids are exposed to, while feeding them healthy food!

Clean eating – 5 easy ways to avoid pesticides in food
Want to learn 11 easy swaps to reduce the chemical burden in your home (plus 4 no-cost ways to get rid of toxicants already in your home)? Sign up to get my Simple Swaps for a Healthier Home Guide. And because I’ve got a PhD in Environmental Health, you’ll know it’s info you can trust.

Questions or comments on how to avoid pesticides? Let me know and I’ll be glad to help!