Statistics show that the average grocery store now carries over 38,000 items! If you’ve committed to begin making healthier food choices for you and your family, how do you make the wisest selections at the supermarket? Here are some tips to help you work your way through thousands of food items and make the most nutritious and cost-conscious choices.
Good nutrition starts even before you enter the grocery store. Plan your meals for the week and coordinate them with advertised specials. Once you’ve created a menu plan, make a shopping list of healthy foods and stick to it. A list will help prevent you from making impulse purchases.
You’ve most likely heard it before: don’t shop when you’re hungry. That’s when you’re tempted to buy things that look and smell delicious but are probably the least healthy foods.
The Produce Section
Shop seasonally. You’ll save money, and you’ll be purchasing foods that not only taste better, but have traveled a shorter distance and so have retained more of their nutrients.
Organic foods will have fewer chemicals and pesticides, but shopping all organic may be pricier than your budget will allow. If you’d like to eat organic while keeping an eye on your grocery budget, the Environmental Working Group offers a free, downloadable shopping list of their "Dirty Dozen"-the most contaminated produce. If you buy only these 12 items in the organic version, you’ll be protecting yourself from a majority of the pesticides you’d normally be exposed to. Don’t worry if your budget just won’t allow organic produce; it’s more important that you just eat plenty of vegetables and fruits.
Shop the rainbow – check your basket and make sure that you have lots of green, but also a wide variety of different colors of fruits and vegetables.
To get the most nutritional value out of fresh produce, it should be eaten within five days of purchase. Some hardier vegetables, like cabbage and zucchini, may last a little longer than that. Frozen vegetables are very nutritious, so if you can only get to the store once a week, be sure to pick up some for those last few days before you go shopping again.
You’ll often hear advice to shop the perimeter of the store for the healthiest items, but don’t completely dismiss the center aisles. Canned foods–tuna and salmon, beans, and diced or crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce (try to find those cans that indicate they’re BPA-free) are budget-friendly, healthful, and real timesavers. So too are whole grain pastas, brown, basmati and wild rice and other whole grains, and dried beans.
Another aisle not to be overlooked is the condiment aisle-just be careful with your choices here. Bypass the salad dressings, but look for things like jars of roasted red peppers, Dijon mustard, varieties of olives, flavored vinegars and flavor-infused olive oils. These items can make your meals much more interesting. Speaking of flavors, the dried herbs and spices are located in this area of the store too. Cooking with these can help you reduce your dependence on salt for flavor.
To save money, shop the bulk bins for grains, dried beans and lentils, nuts and dried fruits.
It’s important to read labels in the cereal aisle. You want to look for cereals that have the most grams of fiber and the fewest grams of sugar. Keep in mind that four grams of sugar is the equivalent of one teaspoon, so if you eat a bowl of cereal that has say, 16 grams of sugar in a serving, you’ll be consuming four teaspoons of sugar! Your best bets for healthy breakfast cereals are plain oatmeal and other whole grains like millet, quinoa, brown rice and buckwheat.
Meats and Dairy
Choose the best quality meats, poultry and dairy your budget will allow. For example, grass-fed beef is slightly more expensive than grain-fed beef, but is a healthier choice.
You can reduce the amount of meat you buy by substituting other healthy sources of protein, like beans and eggs. Also, keep in mind that a serving of meat should take up only a quarter of your plate; the rest of your meal should consist of plant foods.
Are you concerned that shopping healthier may be more expensive? You really don’t have to sacrifice good nutrition for reasonable grocery bills. Filling your basket with both healthy foods AND prepared foods like chips, cookies, ready-made meals and other packaged items will cause you to end up with a higher grocery bill. Avoid those prepared foods and you’ll have more grocery money to invest in high quality, healthy food.
Lastly, try a new food every once in a while. If you shop for groceries with an interest in filling your basket with a wide variety of nutritious, naturally delicious foods, you may find that shopping becomes less of a chore and more of an adventure in food.