January 22, 2010

Grocery Shopping Savvy For The Health Minded Slacker

There’s nothing like promising yourself a hot new bod at the beginning of the year to make the everyday mundane goings-on take on new meaning – things like walking (counting your 10,000 steps versus the old rambling shuffle), drinking (it’s water in Mama’s sippy cup now instead of “adult” beverages) and grocery shopping with a new eye towards healthier selections. I’ve been doing grocery shopping for so many years that I could do it in my sleep. It has long since lost its charm for me and has its place of dread right up there along cleaning toilets and taking out the garbage. I used to send my husband out shopping but because it is still such a novelty to him, he winds up spending way too much money on brand names and exotic items. But now that I’m in full health-conscious mode, I’ve had to smarten up and pay more attention to how and what I’m buying.

I'll have what she's having.
Photo: autiscy

With so many of us pressed for time, we often take the quickest route to meal time. I must confess that in the recent past if dinner preparations required more than opening one box or two cans, I was over-thinking it. No more. Here are some easy tips on navigating the grocery store with a healthier mindset.

1) Plan ahead and make a list. This keeps you on task and focused. Trying all those new light recipes will require new ingredients so write them down. No more excuses for “wandering” over to the Hostess aisle. There’s no way you can make a Snowball fettuccine under 500 calories (It’s not important that you know how I know this – just trust me).

2) Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. I used to think this was kind of a lame tip until one day I shopped while ravenously hungry and wound up buying lots of fast, easy, fattening food that I could inhale as soon as I got home. Once home, I had buyer’s remorse but not quite to the point of throwing it out. My thinking then was better to eat something bad for me instead of wasting food and money. If I’d been better prepared ahead of time, I wouldn’t have been faced with this problem.

3) Shop the perimeter of the store. This is generally where the freshest, more wholesome, less processed foods are such as fruit, veggies, dairy, meat and fish. The aisles can be real junk food minefields.

4) Keep the ingredient count as low as possible. The lower the number of ingredients (5 or less), the better, as this means the food is less processed. Avoid artificial and multi-syllabic ingredients requiring a chemistry degree to decipher. And be really careful about buying anything with corn syrup in it. If it’s listed in the first 4 ingredients, you don’t want it. (Some experts think that the introduction of corn syrup into the food system might be one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic.)

Never trust a smiling toaster pastry.
Photo: Tracy Hunter

5) Shop for colors. I’m talking about fruits and veggies here – not the kind of food/cereal that changes the color of the added milk to something resembling Chernobyl run-off.

6) Avoid foods targeted to kids. If it’s got cartoon characters on the label then that may be pretty much the extent of its appeal. Nutrition has taken a back seat to entertainment. Also, be wary of labels “certifying” its nutritional value as many of these are merely marketing ploys.

7) Bag your own groceries (my own personal recommendation). Why spend all this time and thought on food shopping when Zeke the bag boy is going to place the watermelon on top of the blueberries and you’ll need a freaking payloader to lift the bag when he’s done?

"501, 502, 503...I'll help bag those for you in a second.
Just 497 more."
Photo: isa fmedia

What little shopping tricks are you using at the grocery store to stay healthy? Or are you just winging it and hoping for the best?


  1. Nice tips! I have a really hard time shopping when I'm *not* hungry because nothing looks appealing. Even if I have a list, I get all blah about the issue. Still trying to find a nice middle ground.

  2. I do a list, but more to remember things (instead of sticking to it). The biggest one for me is the hunger problem. I usually eat something before going. If I'm hungry I'm like you. No good!

  3. Okay, so this may be cheating, I dont get my steps in but I use shopping online and home delivery sometimes. I plan my meals, make my list and go on line. It helps me look at the choices and there is no impulse buying for me. I can shop the best deals and go back and look in my cart before I hit submit.

  4. Control freak that I am, I make a list and make sure that it is separated into which aisle everything is in. If I have to backtrack for something I forgot I may be tempted by the makings for s'mores or special spring Oreos with pastel blue filling on the end of the aisles.

  5. Great suggestions!

    One thing I've discovered, (which I hope is encouraging), is that after many years of banishing grocery store junky treats, they're rarely even all that tempting anymore. For special occasions we may visit a bakery, but the aisles of crap in the grocery store just don't call to me like they used to.

    Of course I'm always on the lookout for "healthy" convenient treats, but these are almost impossible to find. They're always either not healthy (when you check the ingredients) or not tasty.

    Dark chocolate is the one thing I'll get consistently for dessert, but I gotta get it from a nontraditional store because I can't do the crappy hersheys and nestle selection most regular grocery stores carry.

    So I don't even consider the junk aisles to be a "real" part of the grocery store. But then I don't have kids dragging me there like so many of you do.

  6. Since I have two injured knees, going to the grocery store is too much walking for me. (See, there’s at least one person whose dream it is to do a full grocery trip!) Because my husband does all the grocery shopping, and because he’s prone to add a ton of junk food into the cart, I make a very detailed list beforehand, dividing it up by category (dairy, produce, poultry, bread, etc). It helps him stick to a plan instead of wandering aimlessly. That only leads to bad things, like cinnamon buns, potato chips, and frozen pizza for dinner.

  7. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of these simple rules! I make a list at the begining of the week and revise it the night before I go shopping!

  8. OHHHH number 7 is a must do for me! I have my partner come with me and she is the bagger and I'm the one who loads the belt in a logical order so that things can be bagged in a way that things don't get crushed and also so they kinda grouped together to make put away easier. I pick a lane that doesn't have a bagger at it on purpose even if it happens to be a little longer. If one happens over to try to help I am very vocal about the fact we have it covered. Ok yeah I'm a little OCD when it comes to my groceries but hey I spent time picking out stuff that wasn't damaged and I would like it to stay that way. And from my experience with grocery baggers they have no common sense. LOL!

    I do all the other ones you suggest too. Got to make sure that hunger is gone before entering otherwise some how ice cream or some sweet from the bakery ends up sneaking into the cart.

  9. Plan your meals for the week and make a list and stick to it! I'll allow myself to buy one or two things that aren't on my list (like chicken if it is on sale). I used to shop by wandering up and down the aisles, but like tip #3, I try to keep out of the aisles.

  10. LOL about the snowball fettuccini.

    I have a few shopping rules but my main one is to not buy anything with high fructose corn syrup.

  11. I'm with Crabby - if you get into the habit of ignoring the junk aisles, you kind of forget they exist after a while.

  12. I am a list maker and I stick to it...as long as I'm not starving when I go to the grocery store. Last summer I used to stop in (it was on my way home) after my workouts and I bought tons and tons of stuff - usually healthy, but way too much for two people. Reason why? I was ravenous after just working out! Now I go home, shower and go back to the grocery store. I think the workers there prefer to not see the sweaty mess that I am after my workouts, too!

  13. Just one little thing about those unpronounceable ingredients - don't forget some may just be the scientific names for added vitamins. Ok, not as good as getting the vitamins direct from the produce aisle, but not evil additives, either.

  14. If you DO go to the store hungry, and you think you are going to break down and buy something to eat in the car, buy a fresh ripe pear. This always works for me! But keep some napkins in the car :)

  15. So right about not shopping while hungry! Tip, if there is a bagger...put all you heavy stuff on the belt first, that way, it will be at the bottom.

  16. I have to remind myself every time I go that the junk food makes me feel like crap. I've been off it for about a week, and not over eating, and already my pants don't feel like they're choking my love handles.

    I do make a list before I go, including veggies and fruits, and I don't allow myself to get "blah," about it. I also have rabbits and birds, and I like the idea that if they can't eat it, I probably can't. So I'm pretty much obligated to buy every kind of lettuce there is. Even with pasta (ignoring the artificial coloring) I go for crazy shapes and colors, because I'll be more likely to eat it.

    I've also stopped buying meat. The freezer in the garage is stocked and ready for an apocalypse, but we don't touch it. We always buy cute, packaged, far from the real animal, meat. Instead I'm buying BEANS. If we do get chicken, we make chicken soup with it first and then remove the actual chicken from it and save that for another meal.

    It's hard, but I feel better, and it's cheaper for 1 or 2 people to buy fresh food then it is to buy a ton of junk. I figure I'll get the diet down first, then work on the exercise.

  17. I make a weekly menu then a shopping list off that. That way if I don't feel like making what is on the list for tonight, I can choose something from another day to make and I already have everything.
    Yesterday I didn't really feel like cooking in general but then I looked at what I had written down for dinner and it looked so good that I got motivated and cooked a healthy and tasty meal after all.

  18. The music in stores tends to drive me crazy, so I've taken to listening to my iPod while shopping for groceries. If I turn on a good health-related podcast, like the 2 Fit Chicks, that makes it much harder to reach for the cupcakes.

  19. I plan all my menus for the week and make complete lists. I took the shopping list template in word and reorganised it to fit the layout of my grocery store aisle by aisle(more or less). I check off the items and quantity I need add in anything on the list that is not enough of a staple to have its own line and off I go. I now finish one week of grocery shopping in about 20 minutes flat.
    I also only shop once a week, I find that if I shop a second or third time in a week I come home with way more impulse buys than that first trip.

  20. The ritual is:
    -Sunday morning (almost always) between 9-11 while most people are in church
    -Make the list the day before of the meals for the week, and the ingredients we don't have for each one, and snacks/staples we're out of
    -Buy as much as I can at the all natural local hippie dippie store
    -Buy the rest at the bigger chain store
    -Get in and get out AS FAST AS POSSIBLE

    ...and yeah, I'm not even usually tempted by the crap food anymore. If I buy it, it usually goes bad because I won't be able to justify the calories. There are of course exceptions, but I do have a box of spice cake and an unopened can of cream cheese frosting that's almost 3 years old. Considering I used to just devour frosting with a spoon, that's a huge step!

  21. I also generally only list those things I don't get every week, like bread and milk, and so am likely to forget.

    As for making a menu ahead, I don't, because I don't know ahead of time what meats will be marked down. (Sweetie insists that every meal have a meat entree, and we are on a budget.) Instead, I get bargains, then go home and plan what to cook over the next week or two.

  22. Heh, I like that one about packing the bags yourself... I HATE it when they wind up squishing things because of a poor packing job!

    I love grocery shopping because I find it tons of fun to compare ingredient lists and prices (seriously). Grocery shopping is one of my favourite things to do. So much that, in fact, I've gone grocery shopping when I had no need to buy groceries. Just so that I could enjoy it (I'm weird).

    My grocery shopping tip: Buy heavy items (ie. big jugs of milk and huge bags of apples and other healthy fare), and then walk home from the store. I swear that I get a better workout from walking ten minutes carrying all those bags than I would at the gym!

  23. Oh, pleeese can we start a national campaign in support of packing our own bags? When I moved here from the UK I was horrified at the thought of someone else packing, and I still (usually) hate what they do.

    Very interesting point about shopping the outsides of the store - I had never considered that.

    This week, as a treat, I went to Wholefoods (are they national). Oh my goodness, what amazing food (and allegedly healthy?), but ohhhh soooo expensive!

  24. Crabby wrote: One thing I've discovered, (which I hope is encouraging), is that after many years of banishing grocery store junky treats, they're rarely even all that tempting anymore.

    I've found this to be true also. I never eat those high preservative donuts, twinkies, cupcakes, etc. And really, don't even crave sugar now that I'm older. For a sweet snack, I'd rather have a clementine, apple with p.b. or another fruit.

  25. Planning is also key for me when it comes to grocery shopping. When I don't plan meals for the week for my hubby and myself, we tend to do too much mindless eating.
    I seriously think that what I eat affects my mood and definitely my energy level.

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  27. I do the same thing as Alison-- I have a word doc checklist that is laid out, more or less, like the grocery store with all the usual buys. I print it out every week. That way I remember to buy healthy stuff that I might otherwise forget.


  28. Buy only seasonal fruit and veg, and locally sourced if possible. It's easy to tell which ones these are, as they are usually cheaper. You'll not only save money, but you'll get a far greater bang for your buck in terms of nutrient value and freshness.

  29. Cheers sekhmetsat! Be nice to your baggers and checkers and they'll be nice to you! Especially if you shop at the same store. A lot. Because people remember!

    There is a strange benefit to food allergies - did you know they put milk in a lot of processed junk food? For me the organic market is the junk food death trap since those devilish vegan bakers have figured out how to make delicious junk food without milk! So I am very strict about staying in the outer perimeter when I go to the organic store!

  30. Great points! My main tip is not taking my 5 or 10 year old with me. Seriously. Sounds so silly, but when they go they beg for everything unhealthy under the sun. Even if I have the willpower not to indulge, it is not good for them. So my tip: banning children from my grocery store...unless they drive and of course then I have to beg them to go for me. :)

  31. Great tips... always follow them too... I make a list & that is it! Also, I don't use a coupon just because.. if I don't need it, I don't buy it! :-)

  32. Good and much needed post. I like that you included the corn syrup tip.

    I have a Trader Joes Shopping list with 18 meals which include a spread sheet containing the nutrients and adjustable servings. When servings are adjusted so are the nutrition totals. I have linked it to my name.

  33. I shop once weekly at farmers market, buy mostly same things, occasionally something strange like a kohlrabi or celery root, or strange leaves. As for the rest, I live a 10 minute walk from best grocery store in whole world (Berkeley Bowl), so if I need something, I go. I walk there 2-3 times week. And there's a different place I go for bulk, it has a 20% coupon every other month, so I save up a list, buy it all at once.

  34. Great advice! My personal favourite tip is #3. Do you mind cross-posting this post on my site on Wednesday as a guest blogger?

  35. Awesome tips! I've been doing most of the things you talked about ever since I was old enough to buy groceries. However, I really liked learning about keeping the ingredient count low, the corn syrup (just bought a product yesterday with this O.o), and about shopping the perimeter of the store. I will definitely add those to my list to make grocery shopping more healthy.


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