Going to the grocery store is an inevitable part of growing up and “adulting”. I can still remember going to the grocery store after going off my meal plan in college and realizing for the first time that I was responsible for feeding myself (yikes). Even though I had been to the grocery store thousands of times before, that day was completely different. Where do I start? What are the basics? What do I need to buy organic? Why isn’t this something they teach you in school? Should I just plan on going out to eat every day for the rest of my life? It can be overwhelming, which is why I believe so many of us struggle with healthy eating. We are never taught how to grocery shop and it is so easy to fall into the traps of buying the quick, processed, and cheap food that could not be less nourishing for our body. Over the years, going to the grocery store has become second nature and I have even compiled some of my favorite grocery store hacks for you.
First, a little bit of grocery store psychology before we get too far ahead of ourselves. I recommend always going to the grocery store with a full stomach and a list. Any time I do not follow this rule, I end up buying things I had no intention of purchasing. If you are looking for a healthy shopping list, one resource I have found to be helpful is Diane Sanfilippo’s healthy shopping list. She provides a free healthy food shopping list for a number of different grocery stores, which may be helpful if you are just getting started on your healthy eating journey. If for whatever reason, you need to skip the list and the full belly rule, please make sure you are shopping intentionally.
I always recommend people start on the outside of the grocery aisles. These aisles have almost everything you need, and this is typically where you will find all of the fresh food. Avoiding the middle aisles, where the processed snack food is typically found, helps to make sure you are making healthier choices. Start with the outer isles and work your way to the middle if you know you need specific items. Be mindful about it.
Another way to intentionally shop is to understand how grocery stores are marketing certain products to you. Products found at eye level (second and third shelves from the top) are the products that the store wants you to buy. I tend to look right below this section to find similar products for a lot less. Start paying attention to products you are drawn to and notice where they are placed
It is also common for grocery stores to stock their impulse buys right by the check out registers. They know that you will be tempted while you are waiting and they want to entice you to impulsively spend more money on products you do not need. It is unfortunate that these products tend to be sugary candies and snacks that many of us are trying to avoid. Being mindful of these marketing tactics and how they may be influencing you can help you to be more intentional with your purchases.
Now that you have mastered your grocery store mindset, we will move on to what foods you should be looking for and how to pick them. As I mentioned before, you can find almost everything you need in the outside aisles. Shopping for nutrient dense whole foods is what I recommend everyone aims for. Your shopping cart should consist of primarily real, unprocessed food.
I typically start with fruits and vegetables. I have my staples that I buy almost every week, but I typically try and discover a new produce item at least once or twice a month. I like to make sure I am mixing up my routine and ensuring a variety of different nutrients. One fun way to make sure you are incorporating different fruits and vegetables into your diet is by aiming to shop seasonally. One of my favorite resources to look up seasonal food is the seasonal food guide. Seasonal shopping also tends to be easier on the wallet and ensures you are getting a variety of different nutrients. Some weeks I will even just ditch the grocery store and get inspired at the farmers market where I know that everything is local and in season.
Another resource that has drastically improved my grocery shopping trips, is the list put out every year by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG ranks fruits and vegetables based on their pesticide contamination. They have two lists I have familiarized myself with – the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen. These lists have helped me to prioritize which products are non-negotiable to buy organic, and which produce I don’t need to stress as much about. If I am unable to find an organic version of a fruit or vegetable on the clean fifteen, or it is significantly cheaper to buy non-organic, I try not to worry about it. However, I will always prioritize buying organic fruits and vegetable on the dirty dozen.
“Topping the list of foods with the most pesticide residues, the Dirty Dozen for 2018 are:
Strawberries, Spinach, Nectarines, Apples, Grapes, Peaches, Cherries, Pears, Tomatoes, Celery, Potatoes, Sweet bell peppers”
“For 2018, the Clean Fifteen--produce items that tend to have the least pesticide residues are:
Avocados, Sweet corn, Pineapples, Cabbage, Onions, Sweet frozen peas, Papayas, Asparagus, Mangos, Eggplant, Honeydew melon, Kiwi, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Broccoli”
Another quick tip I have for fruits and vegetables is to make sure that you are checking to see if they are ripe or not. Do not be afraid to smell it, squeeze it, weigh it, and really use all of your senses. With experience, you will be able to familiarize yourself with the typical characteristics that come with ripened fruit. That being said, make sure you keep in mind that you may not want to buy all ripe and ready to eat produce if you are hoping to make your grocery haul last throughout the week. Try and plan accordingly. Also, if you are trying to find the freshest items, don’t be afraid to reach in the back or dig to the bottom. Grocery stores typically stock their oldest merchandise on top, because they want you to buy the oldest produce first.
Now onto a much more controversial topic, meat. When you are buying meat, you should always shoot for organic, and humanely sourced. Aiming for 100% grass-fed beef and free-range, organic chicken, organic pork, and wild caught fish is the best way you can do it. That being said, at least try to eliminate buying meat with antibiotics and hormones added. I also make sure to chose organic, free range eggs (always check the carton before purchasing to make sure there aren’t any cracks).
I personally do not buy meat at the grocery store because I am so particular about the quality and where my meat is coming from. I use a subscription box called Butcher Box to make sure I am getting the best quality meat every month (I will write a separate blog on my experience with that). If you only take one thing from away from this post, please understand that not all meat is created equally. The nutrient composition that you get from organic and humanely sourced meat is completely different than what is found in meat from most conventional farm animals. Please support farmers who are doing it right. If you are going to splurge on any of your grocery items, please let it be meat.
By now, you have explored the outside isles and may need to hit a few of the middle isles to complete your shopping list. If you are going to buy packaged products, my biggest tip is to take a look at the ingredient list. You won’t catch me counting calories, but I am almost always checking out the ingredient list. It seems counter-intuitive, but the fewer the ingredients, the better the product. Also pay attention to what the first ingredient is – if it is sugar, or a name you can’t pronounce, I recommend you put it back on the shelf. I also try to avoid canola oil or hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, and anything that might say MSG, just to name a few biggies. As a rule of thumb, aim for the smallest ingredient list you can find and limit your processed food intake as much as possible.
In time, you may learn to love roaming the grocery store as much as I do. There is no magic hack to shopping for healthy foods but if you can find the beauty in nutrient dense whole foods you are well on your way! Happy shopping, my loves!