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Navigating the Grocery Aisles

Navigating the Grocery Aisles Photo

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by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD

The average grocery store has thousands of different products on the shelves. It’s no wonder that shopping can be tiresome: there are a lot of choices to consider. Even with a list in hand, it can be hard to deter unplanned items from finding their way into your cart. Add in the nutrition factor, that is, reading nutrition labels, and the whole process takes even longer. 

This article highlights some key strategies for getting in and out of the grocery store quickly, while still making sure you get everything you need, you don’t have an abundance of unplanned items in your cart, the food in your cart is healthy, and you stay within your budget.

Plan Ahead Before Grocery Shopping

Begin by planning out your week’s meals—or at least a few days worth. Next, look through your cupboards and refrigerator to see what you already have, and then make a complete grocery shopping list of what you need. Check to see if you have any coupons for the items on your list. Finally, get ready to hit the grocery store with your list in hand. Make sure you have eaten, or you will be more likely to succumb to unnecessary temptations. Shopping alone, rather than with your kids, can also simplify the whole process and cut back on non-essential items. (For more information on the planning stage, check out “Easy Tips for Healthy Meal Planning.”)

At the Grocery Store

If you do find yourself hitting the grocery store without a list, with kids in tow, or on an empty stomach, try to stick to the perimeter of the store. It's here that you will find fresh produce, meat, fish, dairy products, and bread—all the essentials. This method will help keep the nutritional value of the products in your cart in check, while also keeping a tab on your budget.  Just watch out for the bakery area and the ready-prepared foods near the deli area.

For a complete shopping trip, you will also need to hit the middle aisles. While the middle aisles are home to many variations of processed food and other foods simply too high in fat or sugar, they also contain some additional healthy staple foods.

Middle Aisle All-Stars

  • Pasta aisle
    • Look for whole grain pasta; the ones that are half whole wheat are often a bit tastier than those that are 100% whole wheat. Multigrain varieties, such as the Barilla® Plus® line, are also flavorful and packed with nutrition.
    • Choose brown rice over white rice varieties, but know that it’s okay to mix it up and serve white rice every now and then (the same goes for pasta and bread—
      choose whole grain whenever possible, but allow yourself the "white" every now and then).
    • Look for whole wheat couscous, it tastes just like regular couscous but has the added fiber and naturally occurring nutrients found in whole grains. And unlike whole grain rice and pasta, it cooks up in just five minutes.
    • Look for pasta sauces without added sugar—read the ingredient labels. Also choose organic sauces when possible. And when it comes to canned tomatoes, look for those canned without added salt.
  • Baking aisle
    • Look for white whole wheat flour, which can be used in place of white flour in most recipes. Or grab a package of whole wheat and a package of unbleached all purpose white flour, and substitute whole wheat for up to half of the white flour in your favorite recipe.
    • Herbs and spices are a great way to flavor food rather than with extra salt.
  • Frozen foods aisle
    • Frozen vegetables are a good way to save money and increase the shelf life of your vegetables. They also have excellent nutritional value. Just be sure to choose frozen vegetables that are packaged without added sauces or salt.
    • Frozen fruit is another great staple for your freezer. Keep a variety of fruit on hand for smoothies and wild blueberries are perfect for adding directly to pancakes once they are poured onto the griddle.
  • Cereal aisle
    • Look for whole grain cereals with low amounts of sugar. Read the ingredient list: the first word should be “whole” and sugar should be low on the list, if there at all.
    • Here you can also find items such as whole oats and bulgur wheat.
  • Bulk items
    • Natural food stores in particular seem to offer an array of bulk items, including many of the staple grains (e.g., oats, rice, pasta, flour, cereal) and also items such as nuts and dried fruit. A good way to save money and help the environment by cutting down on packaging; it’s also nice to be able to buy only the amount you need.
  • Beverages
    • Sparkling water, coffee, and tea are all calorie-free and can be purchased without added sweeteners or artificial ingredients.

Where to Be More Careful

  • Canned foods
    • Canned food items are often high in salt, which acts as a preservative. Their liners also usually contain Bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical found in certain plastics and metal food cans. In January 2010, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) stated that it had some concerns about the potential effects of BPA on the development of fetuses, infants, and young children. There are currently relatively few BPA-free canned goods, but one BPA-free product line is the Eden Organic canned beans.  
    • Bottom line: opt for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables over canned and dried beans over canned. Look for soups, broths, and tomato products packaging in tetra packs instead of cans. 
  • Snack foods
    • Here you find pretzels, chips, cookies, crackers, and the like. These may not be essentials, but they are fun to have around and enjoy in moderation. Just make sure your choices have some nutritional claim to them. Look for snack products that contain whole grains, no hydrogenated fats, and modest amounts of sodium. A short ingredient list is also nice; the less processed, the better. 
  • Juices
    • Look for 100% fruit juices and even then limit to consumption to four to eight ounces per day; reach for more whole fruit instead.
  • Desserts
    • Desserts are special treats to enjoy and savor. Include them in moderation and don’t try to fool yourself by eating more of a healthful version. Low-fat cookies and cakes still contain sugar, and the same goes for fat-free ice cream.
    • You can make some improvements, however, by choosing products that are made without hydrogenated fats or high fructose corn syrup, and made with only natural ingredients. If portion control is a problem, look for individually packaged cookies or ice cream bars; many brands come in 100 calorie servings or less.

As a final tip, remember, what you don't buy, you won’t be tempted by at home. On the other hand, if you load your cart up with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, you know you will be surrounded by healthful food options at home. And to make sure all those luscious vegetables get put to good use—fighting free radicals in your body and boosting your immune system, rather than getting lost in the back of your refrigerator—make sure you have planned out the recipes you are going to use them in. Happy shopping!

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