Grocery Store Basics For Whole Foods Shopping
One of the toughest challenges about changing to a whole foods diet for many people is knowing how to navigate the grocery store. The shelves are loaded with boxes labeled “natural”, the produce section is full of organic food for twice the price, and the gluten-free bread looks hard as a rock. I am here to tell you that it does not have to be this overwhelming. In fact, grocery shopping on a whole-foods based diet can be simple and even enjoyable.
(I took pictures for this post at Whole Foods in Buffalo, NY. This post is not endorsed and I am in no way saying that Whole Foods is the only place you should do grocery shopping.)
In this article I outline the basics around navigating the grocery store, what to look for in your food, and how to save $ when possible. I can encourage you to resist the chips in your snack drawer, but unless you have something to replace them with, the healthy eating changes probably won’t happen.
As always, please take what I write with a grain of salt and do what works for you. I am simply here to provide helpful information and encouragement for living a healthy lifestyle.
3 Steps To Navigating The Grocery Store
1. Shop the perimeter of the store
Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is a great starting block for choosing better food. Think about the sections that are located on the outside edges of the store—these include produce, eggs, dairy, meats, and seafood (it also includes the bakery, but we can pretend that it’s not there right?).
These sections are where you will find the freshest and most whole-foods. There are a couple isles you will likely want to hit, but if you’re used to hitting the center isles of the grocery store where there are lots of processed and highly refined foods, this visual structure change is helpful. I break down what to choose in each of these sections later on.
2. Read labels
For the foods that you will be purchasing from the isles in the center of the store, it is important to get in the habit of reading labels. Many foods have sweeteners, artificial fillers, and processed fats hidden in them.
The word “Natural” on a box does not mean that the food is healthy or good for you. Since the FDA has not developed a specific use for the word “natural”, it is basically fair-game for companies. The only restrictions around the term are that a food labeled “Natural” must not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Since there are many unnatural ingredients out there that do not fall under this list, it is a good idea to always be skeptical of the word “Natural”.
A good rule of thumb when reading labels is if you don’t recognize an ingredient—especially if you can’t pronounce it—you probably should avoid it. You would be surprised how many packaged foods contain fillers and other suspicious ingredients.
(This salad dressing looks healthy from the front of the bottle, but really contains a long list of suspicious ingredients. Also note that the first ingredient is canola oil…more on this later in the post.)
Another reason to read labels is to check for expiration dates—especially with dairy foods. It is never a good feeling to sniff your milk a couple days after buying it, only to realize it was nearly bad when you purchased it.
3. Make a list
It might seem obvious, but making a list is so important in whole-foods shopping. This step is key to saving money, time, and avoiding overwhelm.
I do my best to plan out a few big meals for the week and buy ingredients for those. The food that I put on my grocery list comes from the recipes that I plan to make that week in addition to staples that we always have around—such as eggs, milk, oats, and bananas.
When making your list, try to plan your weekly meals around ingredients that are in season. For example, asparagus is in season in the spring. Not only will you be able to find asparagus freshest at this time of year, but it will also be cheaper on the shelves.
A Quick Breakdown of Each Section
- As I mentioned above, shop seasonally and locally when possible. Purchasing produce this way is almost always cheaper, since the producer isn’t paying for high shipping costs and the food will have a higher nutrient value because it will be more fresh
- Know when to choose organic and when it doesn’t matter. A good rule of thumb is, if you are pealing a thick layer off the produce you will be fine with non-organic options such as bananas, pineapples, and avocado. If you are eating the outside of the fruit (see the “dirty dozen” below) you should choose organic. The reason for this is that pesticides sprayed on conventional produce are more likely to be ingested eating fruits without peels. If purchasing organic is not possible for whatever reason, be sure to scrub your fruit as best as possible.
(Choose organic when it comes to the “dirty dozen”, otherwise, don’t worry about paying a premium for the organic label.)
- Be aware of the “Dirty Dozen” (foods that should be purchased organic whenever possible):
- bell peppers
- spinach, kale and collard greens
Meat & Seafood
- Meat is a great source of protein and essential omega-3 fatty acids. Whenever possible, purchase 100% grass fed meat. When animals are exposed to pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, or poor-quality food, the remains of these toxins are stored in the animals fat. Therefore, there is no reason to be concerned over the leanness of your meat when it it 100% grass-fed and organic. If your budget does limit choosing the high-quality option, simply opt for leaner cuts of meat.
(Choose grass-fed meat whenever possible and do not worry about the fat content since grass-fed meat won’t have the toxins lingering in its fat that conventional meat would.)
- A great way to save on meat (and ensure freshness) is to find a local butcher who offers meat-shares. Purchasing a large portion of the animal saves on packaging and delivery costs—and you will know exactly where your meat is coming from.
- When choosing fish, look for wild-caught fish and avoid farm-raised/grain-fed.
Dairy & Eggs
- Dairy (if you tolerate it) is a food that is important to purchase high-quality whenever possible. This means always buying full fat (because dairy fat is good for you and will not make you fat!), and looking for grass-fed options.
- When purchasing items like yogurt or kefir, it is especially important to read labels. The conventional strawberry yogurt that you might be tempted to pick up is probably loaded with highly refined sugars. If you like your yogurt sweet, opt for a plain yogurt and sweeten it at home with your own natural sweetener (like honey or maple syrup).
(Purchasing pasture-raised/ free-range eggs is important they have a much higher nutrient content than conventional eggs. Full fat, grass-fed dairy is also a better choice than conventional dairy. Be sure to check the labels on containers for expiration dates so that you don’t purchase anything that will expire the day after you buy it!)
- Eggs are a great source of protein and healthy fats. It is important to purchase cage-free eggs though. Free-range hens which are hens allowed to wander, perch and engage in a normal activity. Cage-raised hens are unable to move and cannot engage in normal activity. Unsurprisingly then, is the difference in the nutrient content of these two types of eggs. In most cases, free-range eggs contain: more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta-carotene. It is worth the extra dollar in my opinion.
- Just as you might scout out a local butcher for your meats, often your most cost-effective (and most nutrient-dense) source of eggs is buying a local farmer.
Inner Isles of the Store
- The Frozen Food Section: Don’t shy away from purchasing your produce in the frozen food section. Fruits and veggies in this section are picked at their peak ripeness and flash-frozen, which preserves all of their nutrients. This is often better than fresh produce, which is picked before it is completely ripe so it lasts on the shelves and thus has less nutrients.
- The Spice Section: Don’t shy away from this section! Recipes with a laundry list of spices can be intimidating (and expensive!), but having a few good spices or spice blends on hand can make whole-foods cooking so much better! Individual spices must-haves are cinnamon, sea-salt, black pepper, and garlic powder. Just using these few can really make a dish! Spice blends are also great to have on hand because they are easy. Trader Joe’s always carries a bunch of fun spice blends and Whole Foods has great meat/ seafood seasonings. If you’re adventurous, check out the International sections for unique (and often inexpensive) spices as well!
(Don’t be afraid of spices and trying out new ones! Purchase them gradually and stock up on fun blends that you enjoy.)
- The Bulk Foods Section: Buying in bulk can often save tons of money—and plastic waste. Good things to purchase in this section are nuts, whole grains (such as oats, almond four, rice, etc.), seeds, and dried fruit.
(The bulk foods section can really save you $ – always check the price per pound to be sure, but I almost always purchase my nuts, seeds, and oats in this section.)
- Canned/Jarred Food: This is a great place for purchase whole foods at a low cost. Look for organic beans, pumpkin puree, sardines, coconut milk, and nut butters. As always, be aware of additives and refined sweeteners. Items like tomato soup filled with refined sugars and additives like to hide in this section. Opt for only whole-foods and make your soups at home. When choosing nut butters, choose unsweetened and make sure to check the ingredients. As I mentioned above, the word “natural” likes to graze the labels of nut butter jars. There is no reason your almond butter needs cane sugar and canola oil in it—check the labels before throwing in your cart.
- Oils & Fats: Choosing the right oils and fats is essential for healthy eating. As I’ve mentioned before, healthy fats (such as those found in minimally processed oils) will not make you fat. Choose saturated oils/fats for hot cooking such as unrefined coconut oil, palm oil, bacon fat (lard) or ghee (clarified butter). For cold uses or low-heat cooking, opt for avocado oil or olive oil. Avoid unhealthy oils such as: canola oil (this is an ingredient that likes to show up in conventional condiments), soybean oil, vegetable oil, margarine, or non-dairy butters such as “Earth Balance” or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”. (The reason we use only saturated fats for high-heat cooking is because unsaturated fats will become damaged or oxidized under high-heat because they have a lower smoke point).
(Choose healthy oils and fats to cook your food and mix in your salad dressings. Avoid unhealthy oils and be aware of these showing up in pre-made food-especially condiments.)
So, that is it friends! I hope you learned something new, was encouraged in your whole-foods eating and feel empowered to shop smart. Below I’ve included some of the simplest and most popular recipes on my blog for you to try this week (and to plan for when you make your grocery list).
Thanks for reading and feel free to reach out to me with comments or questions!
A few easy whole foods recipe to try this week:
Pumpkin Pie Overnight Oats (great for you all who work in an office!)