Healthy Grocery Shopping 101

Megan Dahlman
March 15, 2022

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If you’re trying to revamp the way you eat to help you get healthier, leaner and fitter, then your grocery shopping habits better reflect this.

As a quick review of how you can make healthier eating choices, you should be:

  1. Eating purposefully and regularly throughout the day to include 3-5 meals.
  2. Eating slowly and stopping before you're full.
  3. Eating protein dense food with every meal.
  4. Eating vegetables, and sometimes fruit, with every meal.
  5. Eating good, whole grains when your body best tolerates them.
  6. Eating healthy fats throughout the day.

Read more about these Healthy Eating Habits here.

If you’re planning to follow these healthy habits of eating, you need to make sure you develop some healthy shopping habits, too. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to know you need to eat more vegetables, but you return from the store with just a measly bag of carrots. Here are a bunch of practical tips to learn how to grocery shop well...

Shop frequently. When you eat healthier, your food will not last as long. A raw pepper will go bad long before that box of Wheat Thins. I know this is annoying, but you need to make sure you’re eating fresh, real foods…not packaged, processed foods. The best approach is to plan on doing one big shopping trip once per week, planning to eat the most perishable foods first. For example, plan a meal that includes fish and tomatoes earlier in the week than a meal with a frozen chicken breast and peppers. Generally produce with a harder surface will last a little longer. On a personal note, I try to do a large shopping trip once every two weeks (trying to include some frozen proteins like chicken breast, beef and shrimp) and then restock just my produce about one week later.

Plan your meals and create a grocery list.
On my fridge, I have a long list of healthy dinner options that I can pull ideas from. These dinners are designed around lean proteins and lots of veggies (taco salad, turkey sausage & kale soup, baked salmon with roasted veggies, etc.). It would be helpful to create your own list, then plan out your meals based on this list. Once your meals are planned, form your shopping list. Be sure to include enough proteins and produce for your breakfasts, lunches and snacks. (Some good ideas here would be eggs, rotisserie chicken, bagged salads, veggies that you like to eat raw, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.) You should leave the store with everything on your list and nothing more (put down that granola bar you saw in the checkout stand because you were so starving!).

Shop the perimeter. Once you’re at the grocery store, stick to the edge of the store. This is where you’ll find fruits and vegetables, lean meats and other proteins, dairy, and often your whole grains. When you venture into the aisles, you’ll be tempted to buy things that have lower quality and are processed. You don’t need these foods. Some exceptions to this rule are some canned goods like beans, tomatoes and olives, oils and vinegars, and some whole grain products. When you’re done shopping, your cart should be about half full of fresh produce, then fresh proteins like meats, poultry and fish, some dairy like yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, and almond milk, and finally some miscellaneous items like whole grains, canned beans or other bulk foods. Sometimes when I’m in the aisles, I’ve gotten in the habit of thinking in my head “I don’t eat that, I don’t eat that, not that…” This may be helpful for you too…a bit of a mental strategy.

Bulk foods. Know where to locate certain superfoods and nontraditional items. Most stores these days have bulk bins of raw grains, beans, seeds and other items. Become familiar with this section. On your new and improved grocery list, you may have foods like flax, whole oats, quinoa, raw mixed nuts, spelt or chia seeds. These types of “raw foods”, or what I like to call “hippy foods”, are your new meal accessories. Instead of granola bars, have mixed raw nuts. Instead of croutons have pumpkin seeds. Instead of rice, have quinoa. You need to know where to find them in the store. Don’t be afraid to venture into the aisle with the scoops and baggies. It’s fun! Make sure you also know where to locate healthy oils, like walnut oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil and fish oil.

Food labels. Learn how to read a food label. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t have very many things in your cart with labels. The freshest and most nutritious foods won’t be in a package with a label on it. However, occasionally you’ll need to buy foods in packages, like chia seeds or canned tomatoes. Always check the label if it has one. Look at the nutrition facts and the ingredient list, making sure to avoid foods with any trans fat, a long ingredient list containing lots of artificial ingredients and added chemicals (items you can’t pronounce), and an otherwise healthy product that contains added sugars (look for sucrose, glucose, sugar, maltodextrin, corn syrup, etc.) When comparing two healthy products, opt for the one with more grams of protein and fewer grams of sugars.

Don’t get too worried about the calories. If you’re choosing nutritious foods, the calories won’t be very high anyway. Always be skeptical about foods that are claiming to be “healthy”. If a food needs to make health claims on the label, there is a good chance it’s not actually good for you.

Learn how to bargain hunt. Eating healthy has a bad reputation of being expensive. You can be very strategic and not spend a fortune on healthy food. I always shop produce that is in season and on sale. Bunches of lettuce are cheaper than bags. It’s usually much cheaper to buy oranges, apples and onions in 3 or 5 pound bags instead of individually. Always check the sale or clearance section of the meat department. I frequently find sirloin steaks or lean cuts of pork for half off and still well within the expiration date. If chicken breasts are on sale, I purchase a lot and freeze what we won’t eat right away. Anything with a fancy package and fun, frilly flavors will be more expensive, so don’t be afraid to purchase store brand. And you shouldn’t be buying things with fun, frilly flavors anyway (key lime pie yogurt…what?).

Unfortunately, couponing is hard when you shop healthy because most coupons are for packaged foods. But you can certainly keep an eye out for sales. You should not be spending $200 per week or more on food, unless you have a large family to feed. Chances are, if you’re spending so much, you’re paying for the packaging and should rethink what you purchase.

I can’t help but take a peek sometimes into other shopper’s carts at the grocery store. I do my best to not judge, but it's hard to not notice. I'm not surprised when individuals that are overweight and unhealthy-looking have carts full of boxes and bags. And generally, those with carts full of produce and proteins look healthy and energetic. I doubt it's a coincidence.

​These grocery shopping tips should really help you strategize your grocery trips. Remember, you should be stocking your home with lots of fresh produce, lean protein options, and some healthy dry goods. When these foods are readily available at home, you’ll be much more likely to eat well and feel healthy in return!

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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