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50 Healthy Hacks to Help You Conquer Your Grocery Store
November 28th, 2010
Coming home from the grocery store in a good mood with bags of organic produce and fresh ingredients for tasty meals that help your waistline melt away is a fantasy that's actually within reach. A little planning ahead of time will save you at least part of the misery of hitting the grocery store, especially if you run your errands at off-peak times and are armed with a well-organized list that reflects your health concerns and budget. For more specific hacks to help you conquer your grocery store, keep reading.
Strategy and Lay Out
Make the lay out of your grocery store work for you — not against you.
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store: You've heard this tip before, but it's an easy guide to help you save money and fill up on fresh ingredients: produce, dairy, seafood and meats are located on the outer edges of the grocery store, while packaged, processed items are usually concentrated in the middle aisles.
- Shop in the morning: If possible, do your grocery shopping earlier in the morning, when produce is freshest, and you'll have first pick.
- Fill up on healthy items first: Make it a priority to fill up your basket with healthier, fresh items so that you're less likely to add junk food and processed foods "just because." You'll have already reached your budget and should have enough food for the week.
- Know how long produce lasts: To avoid over-buying produce that will eventually spoil, know how long different fruits and vegetables last, and how to store them.
- Avoid buying things in boxes: If it's packaged in a box, it's generally less healthy for you than foods that are fresh or even refrigerated.
- Take your time: Shop during off-peak hours to allow yourself time to read nutrition labels and compare products.
- Plan your meals ahead of time: Only buy the ingredients you need to make those meals, and avoid buying extra food just because it looks good.
- Don't go to the grocery store hungry: To prevent yourself from stuffing your cart full of food you're craving just because you're hungry, go shopping after you've had a satisfying, healthy meal.
- Approach certain aisles with caution: When you breeze past the cookie, chip and ice cream aisles, put your guard up, and don't shop with the same abandon as you do in the produce section.
- Choose frozen over canned: If the fresh produce section isn't up to your standards, look for veggies and fruit in the frozen section, not the canned good section. Canned produce usually contains more sugars and preservatives that aren't good for you and add calories.
- Change up your store: Visit a health foods grocery store, farmer's market, or even specialty foods store, like a meat market, for higher quality, organic items.
- Look up or down: Eye-level products are usually less healthy and have been placed strategically to entice you to buy them after just a quick glance. Look at the top and bottom of the shelves to find healthier (low-fat and low-carb) options.
- Buy foods that freeze well: This can be your back-up solution if you have too much, or plan to freeze leftovers for the next week.
- Leave the kids at home: They'll sometimes succeed in wearing you down to buy sugary cereals and snacks that will tempt you at home.
- Have fun researching healthy recipes: This strategy should help get you excited about trying new foods and even going shopping for ingredients.
- Vow to avoid impulse buys: Ahead of time, commit yourself to avoiding impulse buys. If you're tempted to try a new product, write it down so that you can research it when you get home and consider it next time.
Nutrition Facts and Labels
Take time to read the nutrition labels and evaluate ingredients with these hacks.
- Avoid foods with too many ingredients: When buying pre-packaged items, avoid foods that list more than five ingredients on the label — real food doesn't need that much help tasting good.
- Check out the serving size: Don't just look at calorie count or the number of nutrients: pick the option that gives you the best caloric and nutritional value per serving size.
- Avoid ingredients you can't pronounce: If the nutrition label is full of words you can't even attempt to pronounce, the food is packed with additives and preservatives that you don't really need.
- Fats: As a general rule, buy foods with 0 grams of trans fat (the worst), and very low amounts of saturated fat, if any. Also realize that hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated means that your food contains some trans fats.
- Check the footnotes: The little asterisk next to Percent Daily Values usually refers to a 2,000 calories-a-day diet, which most of us don't really need. If you're trying to lose weight, you're probably on a lower-calorie diet, and need to adjust the daily value percentage accordingly.
- Limit These Nutrients: Listed as fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugars, these are the biggest nutrients to watch out for on labels, and the Big 4 you'll always want smaller numbers for.
- Get Enough of These Nutrients: The FDA believes that Americans don't get enough of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, or iron, so try to pick foods that have substantial amounts of these.
- Understand what % of Daily Value really means: A general rule is that foods with a Daily Value percent of 5% or lower means that it has a relatively low content of that nutrient or ingredient, and a value percent of 20% or higher means that the content is relatively high.
- Understand sugar content: It's sometimes hard to figure out just how much sugar your food has, so try this health coach's calculation: "divide grams of sugar by 4 to get the amount in teaspoons per serving. Four grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon, or packet, of sugar."
- Read the ingredients list: In the ingredients section of the nutrition label, ingredients are listed in descending order according to weight, which means that the first ingredient has the most weight, and may be the main ingredient in the food. Foods that include preservatives, sugars and fructose, and other additives towards the top of the list are less healthy than those that list purer ingredients (milk, water, etc) first.
Learn how to pick organic items and foods that are worth buying.
- Find the USDA Organic label: Foods with this label have been approved by the federal government as being organic and safe to eat.
- Pick in-season produce: You'll find the best quality organic produce for a more sensible price when you pick foods that are in-season.
- Buy organic meat, eggs, milk and poultry: If you're worried about growth hormones and antibiotics, organic meats and dairy products might be a practical solution for your family.
- Know the levels of organic: There's "100% organic" (which usually comes with the USDA seal), "organic," and "made with organic ingredients." They're not all the same.
- Be choosy: You don't have to buy all of your foods organic. Start with the foods you and your family eats most of, and also considering buying organic when selecting foods that have edible skins, like apples, or foods that have traditionally have high levels of pesticides, like strawberries and spinach.
- Know when the "regular" version is okay: Produce that you peel and that have lower pesticide residuals include onions, avocados, corn on the cob, and pineapple.
Selecting Healthy Foods
Here you'll get tips on how to evaluate the freshness and nutritional value of food.
- Whole grains: When picking out pasta, cereal, bread and rice products, opt for the whole grain options, ideally those that have at least 4 grams of fiber per serving.
- Fish should smell fresh: Fish and seafood that smell too "fishy" are probably too ripe and could make you sick.
- Choose low-fat dairy: Dairy products like cheese, milk, yogurt and eggs add a lot of important nutrients like Vitamin D and calcium — which are sometimes hard to find in other foods — to your diet, but low-fat and non-fat variations are even better for you, and still contain the good stuff.
- Buy frozen foods without sauces: Frozen foods can still be very healthy options and are more convenient if you're not sure when you have time to eat them. But buy foods without heavy sauces and dressings for sensible calorie and fat servings.
- Try a new vegetable each week: Besides expanding your recipe index, this tip will introduce you to new foods as the seasons change, helping you to save money, too.
- Skip the meat: While meat has lots of iron and other nutrients you need, you can find other healthy foods to substitute for meat at least once or twice a week, helping you to lower your fat and calorie intake, and save some money.
- Cross butter off your list: Cook with extra virgin olive oil instead of butter, and buy low-fat margarine for a topper instead.
- Look for the heart-check mark: The American Heart Association has put heart-check symbols on foods that it deems are heart-healthy and that meet their criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Pick 100% juice: Reading the labels on drinks is just as important as your regular food. Juices and other drinks are often loaded with sugar and preservatives, so look for diet or lite versions, and when shopping for juice, check for labels that say 100% juice, which means it's full of nutrients.
Get help organizing your list so that you can zip through the grocery store in a logical order and avoid impulse buys.
- Think about how much you need: Try to remember how much you bought last time, and whether or not it was enough, it stored well, or it spoiled.
- Evaluate your current stock: Check out what you have in your pantry and refrigerator already before buying more.
- Match your budget to your list: Decide on a weekly grocery budget, and keep that number in mind when planning out your meals and menus.
- Include healthy back-up items: Buy a few cans of tuna, low-sodium soup, and frozen veggies that can be your go-to meals in a pinch (and will keep you from running out for fast food).
- Use an app or online tool: Add to it whenever you think of an item, and when you're in the store, you won't have to keep up with a crumpled piece of paper.
- Tailor your list to your diet: Give your shopping list a theme, like low-carb or sugar-free, and only include relevant items to help you stick to your diet even when surrounded by junk food.
- Sort your list by categories and aisles: Assign items an aisle number or symbol help yourself stay organized once you're in the store.
- Keep a running list: Keep your grocery list in the kitchen so that you can add to it whenever you notice you're running low on a particular item.
- Use a template as a checklist: You'll be reminded of healthier items to try out if you use someone else's list as inspiration.