Preparing healthy meals at home begins with a trip to your local supermarket, where you can find all the vegetables, grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and other ingredients you’ll need. However, you can also find a lot of foods at the grocery store that could compromise your diet. From the snack food aisle to the frozen foods section, supermarket shelves hold plenty of high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sodium traps. Fortunately, it takes just a few simple rules of thumb to make healthy choices a breeze.
Before You Go
Does the following scenario sound familiar? After a long day of work, you stop off at the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner. You haven’t decided what you want to make, you don’t have a shopping list, and you’re not sure what you’ve already got at home. You wander down the aisles and choose whatever looks good to you (which, in your tired and hungry state, is just about everything!). When you get home, you realize you still don’t have all the ingredients you need to put together a balanced meal – but you did buy plenty of less-than-healthy snack foods.
The key to making sure you buy the healthy foods you need – while avoiding the impulse purchases you don’t – is to plan ahead. Before you set out to the grocery store, follow these tips:
- Make a list of all the items you need for the week. Check your pantry to see if you already have any items on the list. If you do, remove or cross off those items.
- Organize your coupons. Bring only the coupons you’ll need. Put them in the same order as your list to follow the flow of your shopping pattern.
- Don’t shop when you’re hungry.
- Plan to shop by yourself. Don’t bring your spouse or children, who may talk you into buying items that aren’t on the list.
- Keep a running list of low-fat or low-sodium brands that you like. When you print your shopping list, note brand names next to the items.
When You Get There
When you arrive at the grocery store, use these strategies to stick to your plan and avoid temptation:
- Keep to the perimeter of the store. In most grocery stores, the outer aisles are where the breads, fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, and milk and other dairy products are stocked. Make only quick forays into the inner aisles for canned and frozen foods.
- Focus on fresh foods rather than processed foods.
- Stick to your list. Your goal should be to get everything on your shopping list while limiting the items you didn’t plan to purchase. The items you might be tempted to add to your cart are likely to be high in fat, salt, sugar, and calories.
- Check your list before you get to the register. Making sure you got everything you need could save you another trip to the grocery store later in the week.
- Buy only the quantities you need. “Family size” packages may be more economical, but they could tempt you into eating more than you intended. Look for single-serving packages of the foods for which you have the most difficulty controlling the portion size.
- Avoid impulse purchases. Be especially wary of the displays at the ends of aisles and near the checkout counter. Grocery stores often stock these displays with high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar items.
- When possible, carry a small basket instead of pushing a cart – so there will be less room for items you didn’t plan to buy.
- If the grocery store offers free samples, take one sample, then walk away. Remember, every calorie counts! If you overdo it at the sample tables, be sure to cut back for the rest of the day.
In the Aisles
As you gather the items on your list, use the handy aisle-by-aisle guide below to help you choose the freshest, healthiest products.
- Canned or jarred foods
- Grains and breads
- Deli items
- Meats, poultry, and fish
- Frozen foods
- Snack foods
- Condiments and beverages
Produce Most fresh produce is low in fat (the only exceptions are coconuts and avocados). Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and other nutrients – and they’re less expensive and tastier than vitamin pills!
Here are some healthy choices:
- Avocados (avocados are high in fat, so eat them in moderation)
- Green, leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, and turnip greens
- Romaine lettuce
- Sweet potatoes
- Buy your favorite fresh fruits and vegetables, cut them up, and then store them for up to a week for easy snacking. Try dipping your fresh veggies in hummus.
- When buying greens, remember that the darker the leaves, the more nutritious they are.
- Precut vegetables keep things simple for quick meals and snacks. They can be found in the produce section near the bags of salad greens. Baby carrots are also a good, convenient choice.
- Frozen vegetables are a convenient option, since you can store them for far longer than you can store fresh vegetables. As an added bonus, frozen vegetables often retain more nutrients than their fresh counterparts.
- For a quick lunch or dinner, try the salad bar. Most supermarkets now have one.
Dairy When choosing dairy foods, focus on low-fat and fat-free products. Use higher-fat products sparingly.
The following are healthy choices:
- Skim or fat-free milk
- Light soymilk
- Unsweetened soymilk
- Low-fat rice milk
- Almond milk (low-fat, low-sugar brands)
- Fat-free ricotta cheese
- Fat-free cottage cheese
- Low-fat feta cheese
- Fat-free plain yogurt
- Fat-free sour cream
- Light tofu
- Tempeh (without soy sauce)
- Eggs (vegetarian fed)
- Pasteurized egg whites