Grocery shopping can be intimidating when you don’t know what to look for, what to get, or how to get around. Here are some tips from our Registered Dietitian on how to navigate the grocery store so you can meal prep and shop like a pro!
Before getting your reusable bags and heading out the door, take a little time in the week to plan out what you envision yourself (and your partner, house mates, family, etc., if applicable) having for breakfast, lunch & dinner. I like to tell clients that dinners are easy to recycle so you can plan out breakfasts and dinners and make enough to eat leftovers for lunch!
If you’re having trouble meal planning, the Virginia Family Nutrition Program created an easy to follow guide to meal planning that can help out! If you’re not planning on meal prep or having a structure and just want to grocery shop, skip to our “Fresh Start” section!
When planning meals out, I also recommend choosing meals that are more in season, because the produce is fresher and may be less expensive as well. As an example, mangoes get way cheaper in the summer time and can be up to $2 each during the winter! Here’s a quick guide to see whats in season by the USDA.
When you’ve finished thinking of what you’d like to have, go through each recipe and write up a grocery list of each ingredient you need. It would be helpful to split up ingredients by type of food, i.e. veggies/produce, meats, dairy, etc. This is also included in the meal planning guide up above!
If you are shopping on a budget or are curious about how much you should be spending, Iowa State University created a Grocery Budget calculator that can help you calculate just how much money is appropriate to spend for each week depending on how many people you have in your family, your age, and the meals eaten away from home. From your grocery list, go through your kitchen and find out what you have so that you don’t come home with 4 new onions when you already had 5 waiting to be used!
Before You Go
On grocery shopping day, make sure you have eaten a meal or at least a snack before going to the store. We tend to think with our stomachs when running on empty, so make sure to feed yourself before leaving the house to avoid buying snacks you really didn’t want or need.
Even with a full stomach and a clear-cut grocery list, you might end up wanting something at the store anyway. For these cases, strategize for any roadblocks. Perhaps a brand you love came out with a new product. Maybe there’s an ice cream flavor you’ve never gotten and you didn’t make room for desserts on your menu. That’s okay! I recommend getting everything on your list first, and then going back to the things you wanted and see if you still really want them after your main task is finished.
Generally I end up falling off and realizing i already have a lot in my cart. Sometimes though, I still want that item so I’ll give myself a 1-2 “extra” item allowance to exercise my own autonomy and to enjoy the process. So, make sure you visualize this happening and set up any road block solutions in the off-chance that it will happen.
Start in the produce section! This is the best way to begin with a splash of color and to see what’s available for the season. I like to take this time to take a look at the veggies that I may want to include in meals in the upcoming weeks. If you’re not meal planning, be adventurous and get 1-2 vegetables and fruits that you don’t normally eat and find a way to make them at home! Having a diversity of plant foods in your diet is possibly the best way to increase the diversity of your gut microbiome, which will overall strengthen your digestion, immunity, mood, etc!
Starting in the produce section can also help set the tone of your cart with all of the color and freshness.
Walk the Walk
Next, walk the perimeter for things you need. Review your meats, grains, dairy (or dairy substitutes) based on your meal plan and needs. Try to go for lean cuts of meat, or some delicious new meat substitutes. Also prefer dairy/dairy substitute products that have minimal added sugar. There will be some natural sugars in dairy as lactose is a natural sugar but be aware of the part of the label that says “added sugars.” If shopping for cheese, try to get the low-sodium choices.
If you do have a bulk section in your store, this would be the best place to get your nuts, seeds, dried legumes, grains, oats, dried fruits, and more! There will be chocolate-covered and candy items, so hold on tight to your shopping list. When getting nuts, go for the unsalted variety. Once you finish getting what you need from the bulk section, you’ve gotten the “bulk” of your groceries.
End with a Sm-aisle
The last place I bring my clients to is through the aisles. Here is where it’s important to learn about label reading. Before looking at the numbers, I have them look at the ingredients. Can you picture each ingredient as a whole food form in your head? Look at the ingredients list of the items and see if those are all ingredients you’re comfortable with having. Choose foods that have whole food ingredients on the list and avoid those with ingredients you don’t understand or cannot pronounce. Other quick tips on label reading:
- Check servings and calories per serving. Look at the serving size and how many servings the package contains. If you eat one serving, the label clearly outlines the nutrients you get. If you eat two servings, you double the calories and nutrients, including the Percent Daily Value (% DV). The Daily Value is how much of a specific nutrient you need to eat in a day. Percent Daily Value tells you how much of a nutrient is in one serving of food compared to the amount you need each day.
- Get Quality Calories. Note where the calories are sourced from (fat, protein, or carbohydrates). Compare them with nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) listed on the label to decide whether the food is a healthy choice.
- Not-So-Sweet Deals. Sugars add calories with few-if any-nutrients. Look for foods and beverages low in added sugars. Read the ingredient list and make sure that added sugars are not one of the first few ingredients. Some names for added sugars include sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup, and fructose.
- Focus on Healthy Fats. Look for foods low in saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol to help reduce the risk of heart disease (5% DV or less is low, 20% DV or more is high).
- Shop with a Pinch of Salt. Choose items that say “low sodium” or “no salt added,” if possible. Eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about one teaspoon of salt) per day is the standard used to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Most sodium that we eat comes from processed foods, so make sure to keep an eye out! 400-600 mg of sodium per serving is a bit high. Additionally, foods high in potassium (such as tomatoes, bananas, potatoes, and orange juice), may cancel out some of sodium’s effects on blood pressure.
The Grand Finale
Congratulations! You’ve made it through the store! Once you’ve made it through your list and chosen what you needed, go back and get whatever treats were calling your name (if you still want them) and feel good knowing that you’ve efficiently gone around and made good choices.