"Plan ahead." That's one of the most common suggestions you hear in regard to following a healthy diet. I know I say that to my patients all the time, advising them to equip their homes and offices with healthy foods. I put it this way—you wouldn't go into battle without ammunition, so how can you expect to eat well if you're not surrounding yourself with healthy fare?
But healthy eating hinges on healthy food shopping. With these tips, I'll help you master the art of effective food shopping.
1. Make a List
Never set foot in a supermarket without knowing ahead of time what you need. Keep a running tab on a kitchen notepad. Before heading out the door, make sure you've planned out your meals and snacks for the week. One trick: Rather than simply putting "fish" on the list, think about the veggie and grain you'll have with it. Make meals big enough to supply you with leftovers for lunch the next day. And keep in mind, a list is only as useful as your remembering to bring it to the store. If you're like me, and that's a challenge, consider keeping your list on your smartphone, which you're less likely to leave home without.
To the store, that is. The hungrier you are, the more tempting all foods will appear. When I find myself hungry in the store, I usually pick up a bag of carrots, which are already on my shopping list, and start munching. (And I pay for the bag, of course.)
As much as I love spending time with my husband, I find it is best if I leave him behind on these shopping trips. Unfortunately, he doesn't always like to stick with my list, and I'll find him grabbing foods that I specifically prefer to keep out of the house. (Fortunately for me, many of these foods are not tempting, but I know they can be for my patients.) As a side note, when my children were younger, I loved to bring them along. I feel that supermarkets are a great place to teach kids about healthy eating.
4. Shop the Entire Store, Not Just the Perimeter
I can't stand when people say, "Just shop the perimeter of the store." I will agree that the perimeter has lots of healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and veggies, and low-fat dairy. But the inner aisles do too. For example, beans, oatmeal, barley, sardines, olive oil, and sometimes frozen fruits and veggies are all found in the middle of the store.
5. Read the Labels
While it may sometimes feel as if you need a Ph.D. to understand food labels, keep it simple: the fewer ingredients, the better. Aim for products with more fiber, less added sugar, and lower amounts of sodium and saturated fat. Check and stick to portion sizes. My colleague, registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, who also contributes to this blog, wrote a great book Read It Before You Eat It, that can help make this process less daunting.
6. Spend Less
Too often, I hear people complain that eating healthily is expensive. It really doesn't have to be. Buy in bulk; buy store brands; buy fruits and veggies that are in season (or buy frozen); and portion out and freeze leftovers (even if you live alone). Many stores also have discount cards these days, so you can save without having to cut out a single coupon.
The average person shouldn't need to go to the supermarket more than two to three times per week—one major shopping trip, followed by a couple of smaller ones to restock perishable items. If you think going once per month is sufficient, think again. There is no way fresh fruits and veggies—which you should be eating often—will keep for that long.
I go food shopping as often as needed to help surround myself with healthy foods, aka ammunition, to keep my weight and health in check. How about you?
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Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.