Fridays happy hour: As a dietitian, I am well aware that grocery shopping can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience for many people. For example, many of my patients don’t know where to begin when in the grocery store and aren’t sure which foods to add to their cart.
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Plus, with seemingly endless food choices available — oftentimes in deceiving packaging — it can be hard to determine which foods are truly healthy and which ones are better left on the shelves.
In this article, I explain the basics of healthy grocery shopping, including how to choose nutritious foods, create a smart shopping list, and stock up so you can grocery shop less often.
Before you go
While some people can go grocery shopping without a list or an idea of which meals they’ll cook during the coming week, most people need some sort of a plan.
Bringing along a grocery list or a weekly menu is a good idea if you get easily side-tracked in the store or don’t know where to begin.
1. Creating a healthy shopping list
A grocery list is an essential tool for many shoppers. It can help you stay on task and remind you of the items you need. Plus, studies show that grocery lists may help you make healthier choices while shopping.
But what does a “healthy” grocery shopping list include?
Generally, a healthy, well-rounded diet should primarily comprise whole, nutrient-dense foods. I’m talking about foods such as veggies, fruits, protein sources like fish and eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds. These are foods to prioritize on your list.
When creating your shopping list, it can be helpful to break it into sections, such as nonstarchy and starchy vegetables, fruits, beans and grains, nuts and seeds, proteins, frozen foods, dairy and nondairy substitutes, drinks, condiments, and miscellaneous items.
Here’s an example of what a healthy grocery list might include:
- Fruits: apples, blueberries, clementines, grapefruits, and avocados
- Nonstarchy vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, onions, spinach, peppers, and zucchini
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, baby red potatoes, and butternut squash
- Beans and grains: chickpeas, brown rice, black beans, and quinoa
- Proteins: eggs, canned salmon, skin-on chicken breast, and pea protein powder
- Frozen foods: frozen mixed berries and frozen kale
- Nuts and seeds: roasted almonds, pumpkin seeds, and natural peanut butter
- Dairy and nondairy substitutes: cashew milk, coconut milk, feta cheese, and full fat Greek yogurt
- Condiments: olives, sun-dried tomatoes, salad dressing, olive oil, pesto, and salsa
- Drinks: unsweetened coconut water and sparkling water
- Miscellaneous: ground coffee, dried fruit, dark chocolate, banana plantain chips, and shredded unsweetened coconut
You won’t have to purchase shelf-stable items like peanut butter, protein powder, and bulk grains every grocery trip. I cover how to stock your kitchen with long-lasting items further down this article.
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2. Planning a weekly menu
If you prefer, you can bring a weekly menu to the store instead of a regular shopping list. This menu can list which ingredients you need to make the meals you’d like to cook the week ahead.
For example, if you’re a fan of meal prepping, try printing out the recipes you’re planning to make. Then, simply shop off of the ingredient lists.
Keep in mind that if you’re used to eating out or ordering in for most meals, trying to suddenly prepare all of your meals and snacks at home might not be realistic. Thus, if you’re new to meal prepping, start slowly and make it a goal to prepare just a few meals the first week.
Once that becomes a habit, you can add more meals to your weekly cooking menu. Like all healthy habits, it may take some time before regularly going grocery shopping and preparing healthy meals at home becomes a part of your routine. Create a healthy shopping list based on where foods are located in the store, or bring along a weekly meal plan to stay on task at the grocery store.
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3. How to stock your kitchen like a pro
If you aren’t a fan of frequent grocery store trips, stocking your kitchen with nonperishable and frozen foods is key. This can help you prepare nutritious meals and snacks even when you’re running low on fresh foods.
It’s important to check your cabinets, pantry, fridge, and freezer to take inventory of what you need before going shopping. This can cut down on food waste and ensure that you’ve got the ingredients needed to prepare healthy meals.
You’ll need to purchase fresh items like fresh fruits, veggies, dairy products, and other perishables more often. Meanwhile, nonperishable goods and foods that can be frozen can be purchased less often.
Here are some ideas of long-lasting staples you can keep in your pantry and freezer:
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butter: pistachios, cashews, almonds, and natural almond butter
- Keep in mind that some types of natural nut butters need to be refrigerated after opening. Nuts and nut-based flours should ideally be kept in the freezer long term to keep them fresh.
- Oils: olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil
- Grains: quinoa, brown rice, oats, buckwheat, and brown rice pasta
- Unsweetened dried fruit: dried mango, raisins, dates, and dried cherries
- Spices: garlic powder, turmeric, curry powder, cumin, paprika, and cinnamon
- Canned and dried beans: black beans, chickpeas, and lentils
- Canned tuna and salmon: Wild Planet canned tuna and salmon
- Baking goods and sweeteners: baking powder, baking soda, honey, maple syrup, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, and flour blends
- For long-term storage, keep flour in the freezer.
- Shelf-stable milk substitutes: coconut milk, oat milk, and Elmhurst cashew milk
- Sauces, dressings, and condiments: unsweetened marinara sauce, Primal Kitchen salad dressing and mayo, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and hot sauce
- Snack foods: banana plantain chips, trail mix, tortilla chips, and chocolate-covered almonds
- Long-lasting produce: sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, butternut squash, and garlic
- Miscellaneous: unsweetened dried coconut, dark chocolate chips, pea protein powder, coffee, chicken and vegetable broth, and coconut water
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5. At the store
Now that you know how to properly prepare for grocery shopping and stock your kitchen, let’s talk about healthy grocery shopping.
Ideally, you’ll want to focus on the following when grocery shopping:
- purchasing mainly whole, nutrient-dense foods
- shopping off of your list or weekly meal plan
- avoiding purchasing foods solely based on the packaging
- reading the nutrition labels and ingredient lists of packaged foods
- sticking to your plan and trying to avoid impulse purchases
Unfortunately, most grocery stores are not designed to encourage healthy eating. Instead, they’re laid out to nudge you to purchase certain items — and these are not always healthy.
For example, grocery stores tend to offer sales on and create displays of ultra-processed products like refined snack foods and soft drinks. You’ll often find these at the end of aisles and checkout counters.
If you have a plan, you’re less likely to get distracted by sales and displays. Simply make a point to stick to your shopping list.
Finally, trying to only grocery shop when you’re not hungry may help you avoid making impulse purchases.
6.Know how to navigate grocery aisles
Perimeter shopping — or focusing on buying foods located on the outer edges of grocery stores — can help you make healthier choices, as fresh fruits, veggies, proteins, and other perishables are often found there.
Still, you can find many healthy choices in the center aisles, including bulk grains, nuts, seeds, nut butters, canned foods, condiments, and frozen foods.
Just because an aisle features some highly processed food choices, you don’t need to avoid the entire aisle. Sometimes, aisles contain a mix of nutritious and highly refined food choices. For example, a snack-food aisle could offer nuts and seeds along with chips and cookies.
Start by filling your cart along the perimeter of the store with fruits, veggies, proteins, and other perishable items on your list. Then, move into the inner aisles for items like nuts, whole grains, and canned goods.
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7. Know how to read labels
Just because an item is packaged, it’s not necessarily unhealthy. Still, it’s a good idea to read the ingredient labels and check the nutrition facts of packaged items.
Even though unhealthy, highly processed foods usually have a long list of ingredients, the same can be said for certain nutritious packaged foods. Thus, it’s important to take a look at the ingredient label before you decide whether to purchase an item or leave it on the shelf.
If the first few ingredients are a type of sweetener, refined grains, or highly processed oil, it’s usually a no-go for me.
I pay the most attention to the added sugar content of a food item. Consuming too much added sugar can harm your overall health and increase the risk of conditions like heart disease, mental health disorders, and type 2 diabetes.
For example, I recently noticed a premade chai latte product at the grocery store. I was shocked to see that it contained a whopping 31 grams, or nearly 8 teaspoons, of added sugar per 3/4-cup (180-mL) serving.
While the packaging mentioned words like “organic” and “gluten-free” to make you think it could be healthy, sugar syrup was listed second on the ingredient list.
When you’re shopping for items that usually contain some added sugar, like granola or cereal, a good tip is to opt for products that contain less than 6 grams (1.5 teaspoons) of added sugar per serving. Knowing where healthy foods are located and reading food labels can help you fill your cart with nutritious foods. Remember, although perimeter shopping can be a helpful strategy, you can also find healthy foods in the inner aisles.
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8. What a healthy grocery shopping cart may look like
Here’s an example of what a healthy grocery cart could contain:
- Nonstarchy vegetables: cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli, sweet peppers, onions, garlic, bell peppers, greens, leeks, and mushrooms
- Fruits: oranges, bananas, apples, grapefruit, lemons, blueberries, pineapple, and avocados
- Proteins: eggs, fish, chicken, ground turkey, and tofu
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, potatoes, and winter squash
- Grains and legumes: quinoa, oats, brown rice, dried black beans, buckwheat, red lentils, barley, and farro
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butter: pumpkin seeds, macadamia nuts, almonds, and natural peanut butter
- Canned foods: canned salmon, sardines, canned beans, canned pumpkin puree, diced tomatoes, and marinara sauce
- Oils and condiments: olive oil, salad dressing, avocado oil, salsa, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, dried spices, honey, and maple syrup
- Dairy and nondairy products: full fat Greek yogurt, cheddar cheese, goat cheese, cashew milk, and coconut yogurt
- Snack foods: dark chocolate chips, trail mix, unsweetened dried fruit, and hummus
- Frozen foods: frozen raspberries, frozen shrimp, frozen kale, and Ezekiel bread
- Beverages: unsweetened seltzer, herbal tea bags, and ground coffee
This list is not exhaustive or definite, but it can act as a general guide for shopping trips.
Of course, there’s also room for your favorite foods in a healthy, balanced diet. The point isn’t to completely avoid foods that are considered less healthy like chips, ice cream, and cookies.
Rather, a well-rounded diet should prioritize nutrient-dense foods that make you feel good and deliver the nutrients your body needs to thrive, all while leaving room for you to enjoy your favorite foods.
For example, I always have good quality chocolate in my kitchen — and it’s not always dark — and I love almost any salty potato chip. It’s perfectly healthy to crave and enjoy foods that aren’t considered nutritious from time to time. Although there’s always room for your favourite foods in a well-rounded diet, your shopping cart should mostly contain whole, nutrient-dense foods.
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Grocery shopping doesn’t have to be stressful.
Making a list or meal plan, taking inventory of your kitchen, and stocking your freezer and pantry with long-lasting staples can make your shopping trips easier and more enjoyable.
Try using some of the tips covered in this article and before you know it, you’ll be a healthy grocery shopping pro.