12 Tips for Healthier Grocery Shopping

Back in November of last year, my neighborhood of Charlestown lost its grocery store. As a result, instead of walking up the street and shopping in familiar surroundings, I’ve been relegated to shopping in a variety of locations, including some of the big superstore grocery chains.

This has been an experience for me. Shopping in these big grocery stores is a chance to experience everything that frustrates me about the food industry; it’s loud, (can be) unhealthy, obnoxious and manipulative. Just look at the physical space when you walk in: it’s assaulting. Bright, loud and colorful, it’s meant to seduce you into buying things you don’t need. The busiest and often unhealthiest options are conveniently placed on the ends of the aisles or in the checkout area where you’ll be enticed to grab them. Healthy things are harder to find than unhealthy; inexpensive options are often at the bottom of the shelf, not at eye level.

Now, having said that, there are redeeming qualities of these large chains. They have a huge produce section. Their stock is delivered regularly. They are open early and stay open late. They can offer discounts at checkout.

As soon as you start to open your eyes to what’s happening in the grocery store, you can be better armed to shop smart. Please know that this is not just about big grocery store chains; the natural food chains, while much more mindful, have their own set of challenges (that’s a different article). But the idea here is to recognize that these big store chains do not have your health in mind; they only have their revenue in mind. The more you spend on things you don’t need, the better for them. So, you’re going to turn the tables on that paradigm and shop smarter and win. Here’s how:

Avoid shopping when you’re rushed and on weekends. Stress leads to impulsive, unhealthy purchases. When you shop rushed or when the store is typically packed, you’ll be tempted to buy things you don’t need and things that are unhealthy. I’d rather spend a little more on a healthy take-out dinner and shop the next day over shopping last minute.

Avoid shopping when you’re hungry. When you’re hungry, you’re more likely to buy things that will satisfy cravings versus sustain you. Wait until your tank is full before hitting the aisles.

Shop the outside more than the inside. This is an old trick but worth repeating. The “live” stuff is in the produce section; the “fake” stuff is in the aisles. If you’ve got concerns about spending money on produce you can’t eat quickly enough, stick to frozen vegetables and use the produce aisle for fruits and items for salads.

Avoid the frozen food aisle except for frozen vegetables or healthy frozen foods. One of the saddest things for me to see is a grocery cart full of fake food from the frozen food aisle. Frozen pizzas, TV dinners, frozen cakes and egg rolls; these are things that are indistinguishable from their original counterparts. Frozen vegetables can be a great alternative to fresh ones you can’t eat quickly enough. Frozen, whole grain bread items like waffles are great too. Some healthy brands like Amy’s, offer healthy options.

Check out what’s on the bottom shelf. Lower cost items and often, healthier ones, are on the bottom shelf. One big example of this is cereal. Next time you’re there, check it out. Whole wheat oats and cheaper cereals in bags are down below.

Be wary of the end caps (ends of the aisle), check out aisles and anything tossed in a big box in the middle of the store. Why would you want to eat something that’s tossed into a big box in the center of the store? Enough said.

Check out the natural food section for things you’d normally get in the main section of the store. Canned soups, oatmeal, healthy frozen foods; these all live in that section that you might think is just for hippies and yogis. Even things like pretzel and chips take on a healthier twist.

Use whatever discount card the store offers for deals on store brands, gasoline and other perks. Leverage the revenue and the heavy traffic and get yourself one of those store cards. Use it consistently and pick one big brand store where you do most of your shopping. I’ve actually started saving on gas by using my grocery card to fill up.

Establish a regular shopping list that lives in your head. I buy the same 10 or 15 items every time I shop. It’s quick, healthy and doesn’t require I write anything down. Get used to a list and use it. Only stray if you feel confident that it’s a healthy option.

The busier the package, chances are, the unhealthier the food item. Get wise to the tricks of the food industry. Bright packaging is meant to seduce you and your family into thinking, “I need this!” Even things that say, “Low Fat” or “Healthy” might not be. If you’re not one to take the time to learn how to read food labels, just flip the box and take a look at the ingredients. If you don’t recognize the first three, put it back.

The further away the food item is from something in its natural state, chances are, the unhealthier it is. This goes along with the item above. The more ingredients, the more wrapping, the more frozen, preserved or dried out, the less you should want to eat it.

Edit your basket before you pay. Once you get to the check out, do a quick review. Remove anything you tossed in there in a weak moment.

Once you start taking control of your shopping experience, two things will happen: the first: you’ll feel better because you’re eating food that’s better for you. The second: you’ll save money. Recognize that you’ll have moments and cravings for less-than-healthy options every once in a while; that’s ok. This isn’t about being perfect; it’s about being awake to what’s happening when you grocery shop and coming armed with a strategy so you can eat healthy and save money too.

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