A trip to the grocery store can either make or break your efforts to follow a healthier and more adventurous eating plan. It is easy to be derailed by advertising gimmicks and enticements or become frustrated when you don’t know where to find that strange ingredient for a new recipe you want to try. Before heading out on your next trip to the grocery store, consider these ideas to help transform your experience from a dreaded necessity to an activity you actually enjoy.
- Plan ahead what foods you will need for the week. This means taking the time to select recipes and write down your meals and snack plans for each day of the week. By doing so you can balance tried-and-true recipes with new ideas. In addition, you can make progress in your efforts to follow a particular type of eating plan, such as the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet or the blood pressure-lowering DASH eating plan. Planning ahead will also help you make progress in achieving nutrition-related goals such as eating one new food per week. Use the USDA’s SuperTracker tool to help you track the health value of your meal plan.
- Make a grocery list—and follow it! Take the time to write down the items you need to make your planned meals and snacks for the week. Include everything you need because this is all that you have authorized yourself to buy. This is your list. Try your best to not stray from it.
- Save money by cutting coupons and combine with items on sale. Cut coupons for items on your list and peruse the mailer for the grocery store where you shop to see if any of the items you are planning to purchase are on sale. This step will help you save money and prevent you from being tempted to buy too many “on sale” items that are not on the list.
- Don’t go to the store when hungry or rushed, or after a workout. You’ve probably heard this one before, but do you follow it? When you shop in any of these situations, you are more likely to buy more and different food than you anticipated. And what you buy is what you’ll eat. Ignoring this tip generally equals more money spent and less quality food purchased.
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. This helps to emphasize the healthier options and minimize purchase of highly processed foods that are usually shelved in the center aisles. Not to say that you can’t go in those center aisles—many healthy essentials are found there, including whole grains and canned vegetables. But just know that when you are in the center aisles, most of the food you will encounter is heavily processed and not so good for you.
- Bring the kids along. Don’t be afraid to take your kids to the grocery store. In fact, shopping with your kids is one of the best ways to teach them about healthy, balanced eating and engage them in the process of selecting, purchasing and preparing food. (For example, every week I take both my 4-year-old and 2-year-old with me to the store and each is responsible for choosing a fruit and vegetable for the week. Giving them this job helps increase the chances that they’ll actually eat those fruits and vegetables when I offer them.)
- Avoid purchasing unhealthy foods marketed at children. The key here is to not give in to begging and pleading for junk food items that are specifically marketed to kids. They are usually loaded in sugar, salt and/or additives. (This may lead to a tantrum the first couple of times, but if you stick to your guns, your kids will learn that it is not worth it to put up a fight.) Redirect your kids’ attention and use the grocery-shopping experience as an opportunity to teach them about marketing tactics. Another way to get around unpleasant tantrums over junk foods is to shop at specialty stores or “unbranded” grocery stores that do not sell the big-name branded products.
- Be wary of the propaganda! Ignore front-of-package labels and get in the habit of reading the nutrition -acts labels and ingredient lists to make sure you are getting high-quality food items. (More on how to do this in tomorrow’s Youth & Family blog post.) While not exactly propaganda, grocers strategically place items with earlier sell-by and use-by dates in the easiest-to-see areas. When choosing breads and other perishable items (like pre-packaged salads), check the dates on the items at the back of the shelf. They are likely to be fresher than the ones placed at the front.
- Avoid impulse purchases in the check-out line. Grocery stores purposefully place items like gossip magazines, candy and chips at the check-out line in hopes that you will respond to that prompt and make an impulse buy.
- Strategically put the groceries away. Getting the healthy food in your house is just the first step in helping the whole family adopt healthier eating habits. When you put the groceries away in your pantry, refrigerator, and countertops, place the healthiest items in easy-to-see-and-reach places and the less-healthy stuff in hard-to-see-and-reach places.
Natalie Digate MuthContributor
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, FAAP is the Senior Advisor for Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise, a board-certified pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a Diplomat of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and ACE Certified Health Coach. She is the author of "Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters" and the textbook "Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals." She has been ACE certified since 1998.
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