Nutrition Articles

Shop Smarter, Eat Better

Five smart shopping techniques to take your nutrition plan (and pantry) to the next level

By Kelly James-Enger


When you dig through your refrigerator or peruse your pantry in search of something to eat, do you find a variety of healthy foods? Or after a quick look, do you give up and head out for some takeout instead? While you may have a few necessities on hand, you need more than cans of protein powder, packages of chicken breasts, and boxes of oatmeal to eat well and train at optimal levels. 

Stocking your kitchen starts with a well-planned trip to the grocery store. If the idea makes you groan, take heart—use our five smart shopping techniques and you’ll find that eating healthfully is easier than you thought.

Plan ahead

You probably wouldn’t dream of heading to the gym and doing any old workout depending on your mood. You know you need a well-thought-out training regimen for maximum results. The same rule applies to grocery shopping. Head to the store without a list and you’re likely to waste time—and be overwhelmed by the variety of eye-catching, high-sugar, high-fat processed foods that will do your diet in.

Instead, write out a list and take it with you, says registered dietitian Dawn Jackson of the Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute in Chicago, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Shop from an organized list. First, keep notepads in your kitchen, so when you run out of things you can record them down," Jackson says. "Second, when you’re organizing a list, do it by section of the grocery store so you can save yourself time." By breaking your list into categories: fruits and vegetables, canned goods, dairy products, meats and whole grains, for example—you’ll be able to shop more quickly.

One more thing. Don’t shop hungry! The most dangerous thing you can do is hit the store on an empty stomach. "Have a solid snack before you go in the store and walk in with a list. Otherwise, you’re going to end up in a frenzy, throwing things in your cart," Jackson says.

Run to the borders

Grocery stores are designed with sales in mind. Ever wondered why the dairy products are always found in the back of the supermarket? That’s to force you to walk through the entire store even if you’ve only come for a gallon of milk—marketers know you’ll wind up picking up some other items on your trip to the checkout line. The basics of your healthy diet—produce, lean protein sources, dairy products, and whole grains—are likely found on the edges of the store, and that’s where you should spend most of your shopping time, says Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D., author of Cooking with Joy (St. Martin’s, December, 2003.)

"Shop the peripheral part of the store, because that’s where you’ll find the great produce and low-fat dairy foods," Bauer says. "And you’ll avoid the stuff a lot of junk food and the processed, packaged stuff that’s in the middle." Usually the produce section will be the first area of the store, which should encourage you to load up your cart with vitamin-packed fruits and vegetables.

Instead of sticking to the tried and true—apples, oranges and bananas—ask what’s in season and try something new every few weeks. The bigger the variety, the more nutrients you’ll get, so the more color you have in your grocery cart, the better. Make it a habit to pick up some greens (like spinach, broccoli, cucumbers), reds (tomatoes, apples, plums), yellows (squash, yellow peppers, bananas), oranges (oranges), purples (eggplant, red cabbage) and whites (onions, garlic) each trip.

Read all about it

Often people shop by grabbing what looks good and tossing it into the cart. Become a label reader and you’ll get the most nutrients for your buck. For example, in the meat section, look for packaging that says "higher than 90 percent lean" or "95 percent extra lean." Those are the lowest-fat meat choices. If the label doesn’t have a "lean" designation, it’s probably high in fat. (Also, examine the cut of meat itself—the more marbling you see in the meat, the higher the fat content.) Good lean meat choices include sirloin steak, skirt steak, pork tenderloin, and chicken and turkey (but check the label as ground turkey can be higher in fat than you might think).

In the dairy section, look for ways to cut back on fat by choosing low-fat options. "Try to buy grated and sliced low-fat versions in any flavor or variety you want," Bauer says. Avoid the whole milk and full-fat yogurt and cheese in favor of 1 percent or skim milk, and reduced fat yogurt and cheese. (Low-fat is usually a better option than fat-free cheese, which can be rubbery and lacking in taste.) . If you insist on cream in your coffee, pick up a non-fat creamer while you’re there.

Reading labels is particularly important when you’re buying precooked dinners or other convenient meals. "Look for things that are low in saturated fat, moderate in calories, and high in fiber," Bauer says. "If you’re looking to pump in a lot of protein, look at how the protein compares to the calories. It it’s going to be a big source of protein for you, it should have at least 20 grams of protein. And if you’re looking at frozen entrees, look for entrees that have less than 10 grams of fat, and as little saturated fat as possible." Also, watch your sodium intake—look for entrees that have less than 500 milligrams of sodium. Canned goods and soups also tend to be high in sodium, so check the labels. And don’t forget to stock up on wholesome carb choices—whole-wheat breads and pastas that have at least 2 grams of fiber per serving are your best bet.

Hit the freezer section

We’ve mentioned frozen dinners, which can be a great way to have a quick, nutritious meal. Don’t forget to pick up frozen fruits and vegetables as well. "If you’re not someone who can shop every day, frozen is a perfect swap for fresh because it’s going to last as long as you keep it in the freezer," Bauer says. "Just make sure to re-wrap it really well after you open it." Look for bags of frozen vegetables that aren’t highly seasoned or saucy, which can add extra calories and fat, and frozen fruit with no sugar added.

"Convenience items like frozen meals and frozen vegetables can be good when you don’t have a lot of time to cook. Pop one into the microwave, throw some frozen veggies on it and you’re done," suggests Jackson. "That’s probably the healthiest way to get away with a quick meal that’s portion-controlled and full of vegetables."

Assess your cart

Before you leave the store, take a look at your cart. "At least half of it should be a lot of color from the produce section, and I like to see beans, fish, chicken, lean beef and eggs as another 25 percent, and whole grains, breads, cereals, brown rice, that kind of thing, as another 25 percent," Jackson says. "Do a quick scan to make sure it has that kind of ratio—and if it does, that’s good news."

That doesn’t mean your cart can’t include any sweet or junk food treats, but skip the giant bags. "My best advice for treats is just buy portion-controlled things. You don’t have to buy low-fat, or fat-free but if you really feel like chips, get the mini bags of chips. If you feel like ice cream, buy ice cream bars or ice cream cups," Jackson says. "That way you can enjoy your full fat favorites but in portion-controlled, calorie-controlled amounts."

Finally, commit to going to the store at least every two weeks, more often if possible. Evenings or early weekend mornings, the stores are usually less crowded and you can get in and out in little time—especially once it’s become a healthy habit.

Kitchen gear for the guys

Relax—you don’t need a gourmet kitchen. Still, having a few basic tools on hand will make prepping and storing healthy meals easier. Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says that every healthy guy’s kitchen should include:

  • Nonstick cookware. A little non-stick cooking spray and you’re ready to grill or sauté meat, vegetables or eggs.
  • A blender. Great for smoothies and protein shakes. A counter blender is larger, but a hand blender cleans up more quickly than its bigger brother.
  • Plastic containers and plastic bags. Perfect for leftovers or taking meals to work. When you get home from the store, divvy up fresh veggies and other snacks in disposable bags, and you’re set for the week, says Jackson.
  • Aluminum foil bags. Good for food storage or for a quick meal—toss in some lean protein, fresh or frozen veggies, spices of your choice and throw in the oven or grill for a healthy dinner.
  • Microwave. Hey, we know: when you’re hungry, you’re hungry!

A Well-stocked larder (and freezer)

While fresh meat, produce and dairy products can spoil quickly, a pantry and freezer stocked with longer-lasting staples will make it easy to whip up nutritious meals on the go. Some shelf- and freezer-stable foods include:

  • Canned vegetables like mushrooms, beans, corn and other vegetables
  • Protein powder
  • Non-fat frozen yogurt (for smoothies)
  • Canned red beans, black beans, refried beans
  • Canned chicken and tuna
  • Canned Italian tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce
  • Nuts like walnuts, pecans and almonds
  • Dried fruit
  • Pastas, rice and cellophane noodles
  • Canned soups
  • Frozen dinners
  • Basic spices like oregano, Italian seasoning, chili powder and cumin
  • Frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • Frozen vegetables like spinach, broccoli, corn, peas and veggie mixes
  • Heat-and-serve wheat rolls and whole-wheat bread
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