Having the right ingredients in your kitchen is a necessity if you want to cook up healthy meals; and this requires regular grocery shopping. However, making your way to the grocery store every week can feel like an overwhelming task simply because there are so many choices; store shelves are jam-packed with tempting foods. There could be 25 different varieties of salad dressings or 50 types of frozen entrees.
To complicate things even more, confusing and oftentimes misleading claims on the front of packages lead us to believe that products are healthy when in fact, they’re not. Taking the time to read all the food labels and figure out which items are the most nutritious and the best buys can be daunting.
Healthy grocery shopping is a skill that you can master with a little guidance. Follow these 7 simple tips and you will make it to the checkout with a cart full of budget-friendly, healthy choices!
1. Plan ahead for success. Before you set out for the market, plan your meals for the week ahead. This is a practical way to eat healthier, eat less, and spend less. Use a meal planning template to plan your weekly menu; save it, and re-use it. Keep things interesting and fun by incorporating new recipes into your meal plan. Whether you’re looking for quick and easy meals or more elaborate creations, Pinterest is a great tool for finding healthy recipes.
2. Shop with a list. Rather than walking aimlessly around the grocery store trying to remember what you need, write out a grocery list before you go to the store. Start out with a staples list and add to it based on your meal plan for the upcoming week. It may take some effort to prepare your list, but it will save you time in the end because you won’t have to run back to the store for missing ingredients.
If you do your best to buy just the items on your list, it will keep you from overspending as well. Also, you won’t end up bringing home a lot of junk that tempts you away from your healthy diet plan. Let’s face it, no matter how committed you are, it’s nearly impossible to resist reaching for the bag of chips when you’re sitting alone watching TV in the evening. If you don’t keep any junky snacks in the house, you won’t snack on junk- it’s that simple.
3. Read package labels. The front of food packages are designed to get your attention. Many food manufacturers put health and nutrition claims on the front of their packages in order to get us thinking that their products are healthy. However, health claims are more about marketing than health. For example, a food labeled “lower sugar” like this instant oatmeal could be loaded with artificial sweeteners, sodium, and a long list of additives making it an unhealthy choice as compared to this oatmeal which contains only one ingredient.
Use this Nutrition Facts Label guide to learn how to read and understand food package labels so you can make healthier choices.
With regard to the ingredient list, read it! Use this guide call Chemical Cuisine to learn more about food additives. Because so many of the products found in grocery stores are processed in factories, chemical additives are a significant part of our diet. It’s important to know which additives are considered safe and which are best to avoid. As a general rule, choose products that have no more than five ingredients listed on the label. They are less processed and generally healthier. Better yet, choose real unprocessed foods such as fresh apples and broccoli more often. These foods don’t have labels with deceiving health claims. What you see is what you get – real healthy food.
4. Navigate the aisles. Ever notice how the healthy essentials like fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, fish, and bread are usually located around the store’s perimeter? That’s no accident. Supermarket layouts are designed such that you have to walk directly past the eye-catching highly processed items before you get to the back of the store to pick up the milk and eggs. For this reason, concentrate your shopping around the edge of the store. The end result will be a healthier (and cheaper) food shopping experience.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you should never venture into the middle aisles. This is where you will find condiments and spices, crackers, breads, cereals and pastas, and canned goods. Many items in these aisles are healthy, however many are not. The best way to make the better choice is to check the back of the package as mentioned previously.
Here are some examples of middle aisle healthier options.
- Frozen Vegetables: Vegetables are among the most nutrient dense foods you can eat and should be a central part of your diet. Unlike many canned vegetables, plain frozen individual vegetables usually have no other added ingredients. They can be thawed quickly and included as part of a healthy meal. Look for the plain bags of single individual vegetables or vegetable blends; and avoid those with added sauces that are high in salt, sugar, or fat.
- Frozen Fruits: The same reasoning for frozen vegetables also applies to frozen fruits. Look for the ones that contain just fruit and avoid the ones with added sugar or other sweeteners. Frozen berries are available year round and keep well in the freezer. They add the perfect touch of natural sweetness to breakfast cereal or a peanut butter sandwich.
- No Salt Added Canned Beans: Beans are one of the most nutrient rich foods out there. They are an excellent source of protein and fiber, and are relatively low in calories. Just open a can and add them to your favorite dish, recipe, or meal – no cooking involved. Two of my favorite brands are Eden Organic Beans and Westbrae Natural because they are lower in sodium and BPA-free. BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical with questionable safety that is found in the plastic used to line cans.
- No Salt Added Canned Tomato Products: Tomatoes make a great base for soups, stews, and meals such as chili. However, since tasty fresh tomatoes are seasonal and not always available, it’s often necessary to resort to canned tomatoes. Two brands of tomato products I like is POMI and Jovial as they are salt free, shelf stable, and BPA free. If you can’t find POMI or Jovial Tomatoes, look for any brand that has no salt added.
- Intact Whole Grains (Buckwheat, Barley, Quinoa, Millet, and Cracked Wheat): Whole grains that are consumed in their “intact” (unprocessed) form are low in calorie density, high in satiety, nutrient rich, and shelf stable. They are easy (just add water) and quick (about 15 minutes) to cook, and can be the base of many healthy meals and dishes. They also make great additions to soups and salads.
Oatmeal, buckwheat, and barley make a great breakfast and an excellent way to start the day. Brown rice, cracked wheat, quinoa, or millet mixed with vegetables makes a great meal, side dish, or salad. Just be careful to avoid “seasoned” grains as this typically means salt is added and they will be high in sodium.
- Dried Fruit: Dried fruit is nature’s candy. Unlike fresh fruit, it is shelf stable and will not spoil easily. Adding small amounts of dried fruit to dishes can add both nutrition and flavor. A few raisins or dates can really sweeten up a bowl of whole grain cereal like oatmeal or a dessert like baked apples. However, due their high calorie density, think of them more as a condiment. Also, be careful of dried fruit with added sweetener such as Craisins.
- Unsalted Nuts/Seeds/Butters: Raw nuts and seeds, and the “butters” made from them, are rich in nutrients especially minerals. A few of them, like walnuts and flax seeds are also excellent sources of the omega-3 fat – an essential nutrient. They are shelf stable and will not spoil easily. They can be eaten as a snack, sprinkled on top of cereal and salads, or added to recipes. Like dried fruit, due to their extremely high calorie density, eat nuts in moderation especially if you are watching your weight. Also, be careful to avoid nut and seed products with added salt and sweeteners.
- Salt Free Spices/Seasonings/Herbs: As you decrease the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in your diet, you will begin to appreciate the wonderful natural flavors of food. However, some people still like to add a little “spice” to their life. Be sure to go for a pure spice such as cumin or turmeric or a salt-free spice blend. Fortunately there are many spice blends to choose from – the most popular being Mrs. Dash which comes in many different varieties and combinations.
5. Consider organics. Organic produce and other organic products at the grocery store are healthier alternatives. If your grocery budget allows for the extra cost of organics, it’s a great way to avoid harmful antibiotics, pesticides, and additives that can affect your health. To learn more, read the Environmental Working Group Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Another advantage of eating organic foods is that they are non-GMO. The United States and Canadian governments do NOT allow companies to label products “100% Certified Organic” if they contain genetically modified foods. Click here to learn more about genetically-modified foods and why you should avoid them.
6. Shop for a rainbow of colors. Spend most of your shopping time in the produce section. This is the area you encounter first in most grocery stores; and it’s usually the largest. Choose a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables. They are chock-full of phytonutrients which may ward off certain cancers as well as heart disease. Furthermore, they contain a natural ingredient called sterols know to lower blood cholesterol levels. Furthermore, eating veggies and fruits can be very helpful to people who want to lose or maintain weight since they are low in calories and fat, and help with satiety due to their high fiber and water content.
7. Eat before shopping. Before heading out to the grocery store, be sure you have a satiated stomach so your appetite doesn’t get the best of you. Food shopping when you are hungry may cause you to deviate from your list and buy more than you need or want – including unhealthy items. Your famished brain may see a bag of potato chips or cookies and make snap decision to toss them in the cart. Even someone with the best intentions will be tempted by all the sugary, salty, fatty junk foods that fill the grocery shelves when hunger pangs take over.
Now I’d love to hear from you.
Do you have a healthy grocery shopping routine? How do you make it work?
Please share in the comment section below. Your ideas could be very helpful to other readers.