**In the previous two posts, I explored the question, “what should I eat?” Part 1 covered some basic guidelines, Part 2 reviewed what I eat personally, and Part 3 will start the practical application. Here we will look at the basics of how to shop for healthier food, how to make intelligent choices and when it is okay to make some smart concessions.
Have A Plan
First and foremost, have a grocery shopping plan (GSP). With this foundation, you can establish a solid platform from which to base your decisions regarding smart, measured and focused food shopping.
What goes into a good GSP? Let’s break it down.
Know your nutritional approach
This is simple: focus on real food. Take from the guidelines we established in part 1. Natural is better. Limit food products. Limit ingredients. Seasonal, local, organic and pastured is preferred. You buy whole foods and then make food yourself.
Plan your meals
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks & treats. Plan it all. Take your nutritional approach and structure some meals.
Make a shopping list
Break down what you need for for meals and make a list. It helps (once you get experience) to list specific products and not a category. Examples being “blueberries and strawberries” instead of “fruit” and “Voskos Greek Yogurt” instead of “yogurt”. Important: don’t put anything on your list that you don’t want to have to limit yourself to at home. If it’s going to be too tempting to over consume once you get it home, leave it off the list.
Stick to your list
Once you have made your list, stick to it. A good rule of thumb is do not buy anything not on your list unless it’s a whole food. Didn’t plan on peaches but they’re in season and smelling good? That’s an nice “impulse” buy. The random tasty snack at the end of the aisle? Not a good idea. That and just about every other typical impulse buy will get you in trouble.
Don’t shop when you’re hungry
Nearly everyone knows this to be true. Shopping while hungry is a surefire way to walk out of the store with things you wouldn’t normally choose. It’s much easier to stick to your plan and grocery list when your mammalian hunger instincts don’t make everything seem delicious.
Shop at good places
Shop local: farmers markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture)
When available, local food is one of your best options. A tribute to the past: fresh, seasonal foods from smaller scale farmers. Either you go browse and get the food (farmers markets) or you have the farmers deliver it to you (CSAs). Both are great options. Farmers markets give you a lot of flexibility and choice while CSAs are often user friendly and expose you to more and novel produce. The end result is you get some great food, produce particularly, from both of these local sources. Some tips: stick with produce unless you know how the food is grown/raised (feel free to ask the farmers how they raise their crops/food) and if you buy prepared foods look for ingredients because (at farmers markets particularly) not everything is guaranteed “healthy”. The food products at a farmers market should be more fresh, simple and natural but it’s not always the case. Additionally, by shopping local you support local businesses, often family run, and remove some of the control “agri-business” has on the food supply. To find farmers markets and local produce near you, check out localharvest.org.
Pick health minded stores
Typically, health minded stores have better choices. Once again this doesn’t guarantee that everything there is healthy but typically presents a more favorable selection. Some people criticize those stores for being more expensive but, in my experience, often they are not. Your best bet is to compare and buy things where they are cheaper. Stores that are on the healthier side are Sprouts, Mothers, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Remember that there are plenty of healthy things at regular grocery stores as well, you just might have to look a little harder and read labels a little more closely. Another idea is to check out ethnic food stores close to you for some nice options as well.
One of the easiest ways to get the food you want is the Internet. There are fantastic resources that are great alternatives to regular stores. The variety is endless and virtually anything is available online. Sometimes you will pay a bit more due to shipping and/or specialty orders so use online shopping and your freezer wisely. If you find things you like, buy in bulk and stock up. As an example, I order pastured meat online and put it in the freezer until I need it. Usually with bigger orders you’ll get a discount on shipping or the order itself. Some great resources online are Eat Wild, US Wellness Meats, Tropical Traditions and Raw Food World. This is just the tip of the iceberg: the options are endless.
Once you have formulated your plan and walk through the doors to a grocery store, the laser focus of your GSP kicks in…
Shop the perimeter
One of the single easiest rules to follow for successful shopping (particularly at traditional grocery stores) is to shop the perimeter. Nearly everything you need will be along the perimeter of the store. Only a handful of healthy items are located in the middle of grocery stores. By “staying wide” you will be able to maximize your ability to shop smartly.
Buy one ingredient foods
Nearly all of the smartest choices are one ingredient items around the perimeter: vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood. There are a few whole foods not on the perimeter (olive oil, coffee, rice, etc.) but not many.
Buy fresh food with close expiration dates
All of your whole foods should have a short shelf life and when you buy food products you should try to buy items that have a shorter shelf life as well. Buy food you plan on eating soon. There are some products that will have a little longer shelf life that are healthy but as a general rule stick with fresh food. Another rule of thumb is the longer the shelf life of the foods you eat the shorter your shelf life will likely be.
Avoid boxes and wrappers
The majority of foods you find in boxes and wrappers are located in the middle of the store and are food products, not food. Limiting wrappers and boxes to the simple foods is a good way to avoid the hidden additives and preservatives in most food products.
Look at labels
When you do venture into food products (which is inevitable for nearly everyone) always look at labels. It’s okay to buy food products, just make smart choices. Look for single or limited ingredients with little or no additives. Buying peanut butter? Find the brand with peanuts and salt, stay away from the brands with 5-10 ingredients. Buying half and half? Find “milk and cream” and skip the ones with preservatives and texture agents. Getting seasoned chicken breasts? Make sure it’s just herbs and spices. Try to follow the guidelines outlined in Part 1. Limit the extra stuff. Keep it simple. Check out my Grocery Labels & Ingredients page for a bunch of examples with pictures and a list of things added to foods that you should try to avoid.
Shop and learn
There are literally hundreds of quality foods available to us. The key to get experience is to do it. The more you practice, the better you get. Find things you like and use those as your basics. Explore new foods with a critical eye and always be open to change. Hone and refine your shopping skills. If you have to make a concession once in a while, fine. Look for better options in the future. Keep in mind no one is “perfect” and no one should strive to be. Be a master at being really good most of the time, leave the perfection for someone else to worry about.
Let’s wrap it up in the usual fashion…
The Bare 5 Bottom Line to Smart Shopping
1. Have a plan (and specific list)
2. Don’t shop when hungry
3. Shop the perimeter
4. Look at labels
5. Shop and learn
The final installment, Part 4, will tackle dining out!
Thanks for reading, have a great shopping week!