Can you shop your way to better health?

Dr. Angela Seabright
Sarah Micallef

| 6 min read

For National Nutrition Month this year, dietitians across the country are reaching out to help everyone “Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right”. Since eating right means having good foods to eat, your nutrition journey should start at the grocery store.
The average American household spends a lot of time and money on food. I recently learned that the average family visits the grocery store more than 2 times per week and spends roughly $945 per month (for a family of four)! Needless to say, food is a big business. If that average family is anything like me, I want to be able to stay within my food budget, get healthy food items my family and I will enjoy, and not spend half of my weekend there. This seems like a tall order, but there are many strategies you can take to accomplish all three.
Before You Go
  • Doing some prep work at home saves a lot time and money in the store. Figuring out your monthly food budget in advance can help you make more informed decisions about your food priorities. The USDA has tools to help you stay on budget for 4 different income levels for healthy eating. For a family of 4, this ranges from $644 per month on the “thrifty” plan to $1258 per month on the “liberal” plan. Whatever your budget point may be, having some examples of healthy meals and portion sizes may help to make menu planning easier!
  • Take a list of the items you need to the store. This will not only make your shopping trip quicker, but will keep your budget on point.
  • Whatever you do, avoid going grocery shopping hungry! This may mean having a small snack before you go or maybe keeping snacks and water stocked in the car so you aren’t running on empty after a day of errands. I generally try to keep fat free tuna kits with crackers, dried fruit with nuts, or individual bags of pre-popped popcorn in the car to avoid getting over-hungry.
Once You Get There
It is amazing that no matter what grocery store you shop at, the general set-up is usually the same: fresh produce, bread, dairy, meat/poultry/fish, and deli/bakery around the perimeter with everything else in the aisles in between. Grocery stores have learned over the years how to layout the store to maximize consumer spending. With planning, you can really use this to your advantage to avoid some common shopping traps!
Try organizing your shopping list according to the section you will find those foods. For example, list onions, potatoes, and carrots in the same section on your food list to avoid unnecessary back and forth trips.
Fresh Produce
  • Grocery stores generally put in-season (which means less expensive) fruits in the middle of this section or in a prominent area near the front of the store. Buying in-season, locally grown fruits and veggies means bigger savings and better flavor for you.
  • Look for color! The natural color of fresh fruits and vegetables helps to tell us a story of the great nutrition they provide! A variety of colors helps to ensure a better-balanced diet. There is no one “super food” that will provide all the benefits that a well-balanced diet can do for us.
  • Look for bread and bread products which have “whole” as a component of the first ingredient. For example, whole wheat or whole grain flour. Breads may be brown and labeled “wheat” without having any of the nutritious fiber and nutrients which comes with the whole grain. Brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and oats are less commonly used for bread but are also whole grain options.
  • Skim or 1% milk are great choices as they provide a lot of protein, are low in fat, and are one of few dietary sources of calcium and vitamin D. If you are unable to tolerate cow’s milk, soy, almond or lactose-free may be good alternatives for you.
  • Look for cheese made with “part skim” or 2% milk to help reduce the amount of saturated fat.
  • Choose low-fat yogurts. Many Greek-style yogurts offer more protein and less sugar (read those labels) than traditional yogurts.
  • Plant-based oils, like olive oil or canola, seem to provide our best-bets when it comes to heart health. Other foods like nuts, nut butters/oils, and avocados also provide great options for dietary sources of healthy fats.
  • Foods in this section provide us with a great source of protein, B vitamins, and iron. Choosing lean options here can mean cutting back on saturated fats and extra calories which may contribute to heart disease, cancer and obesity.
  • Examples of lean meats include chicken breast, turkey breast, sirloin, pork loin chops, pork tenderloin, ground round, ground turkey or chicken breast.
  • Nearly all fish is considered a lean source of protein as long as it is not fried. Frozen fish or tuna is often a more economical way to meet the recommended 2-3 servings/week.
Inner Aisles
  • Have your game plan ready! There are many nutritious foods which can help with convenience and shelf-stability to balance out our grocery shopping. Many of these “must have items” are located within the inner aisles of the grocery store.
  • Foods like dry or canned legumes/beans, whole grain pasta, whole grain cereals, canned fruits in lite syrup or their own juice, and low sodium tomato products and soups are great pantry items to create quick meals during the week.
  • Having frozen veggies on hand can make getting those 5-9 servings a snap and can cut down on meal prep.
  • I find leaving my cart at the end of the aisle helps me to stick to my food list, makes navigating the aisle easier, and prevents me from grabbing more impulse items!
Other Tips
  • Use unit prices to decipher which product really is the better buy. Unit prices will tell you the cost per unit, i.e. per ounce, pound, or other amount. It makes judging prices of different sized containers and brands easier than simply looking at the total cost of that item. Unit prices are generally available in the corner of the shelf price tag.
  • Consider store-brands. Generic brands are often more cost-effective and provide similar products to more expensive brand-name products.
  • Be cautious with end-cap purchases. End caps are the shelves at the end of the aisles. Stores often put sale items here because they are easy to see and get a lot of traffic. These are not necessarily cheaper than store-brand products or other options within that item’s section.
Being supermarket savvy can not only help you to eat better, but will also help you from busting your budget! What tricks work for you to keep spending down while feeding your family well?
Join us next week for some insight into the exciting lives of our BCBSM dietitians as we continue to celebrate National Nutrition Month!
Photo credit: lincolnblues

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