As a dietitian, I am well aware that grocery shopping can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience for many people. For example, many of my patients do not know where to start when they are at the grocery store and are not sure which foods to add to their cart.
Plus, with the seemingly endless food options available, often in misleading packaging, it can be difficult to determine which foods are truly healthy and which are best left on the shelves.
In this article, I walk through the basics of healthy food shopping, including how to choose nutritious foods, create a smart shopping list, and stock up so you can shop for groceries less often.
Before you leave
While some people can go grocery shopping without a list or idea of what meals they will cook for the next week, most people need some kind of plan.
Keeping a shopping list or weekly menu is a good idea if you are easily distracted in the store or don’t know where to start.
Create a healthy shopping list
A shopping list is an essential tool for many shoppers. It can help you focus on homework and remind you of the items you need. Additionally, studies show that shopping lists can help you make healthier choices while shopping (1Reliable Source, 2Reliable Source).
But what does a “healthy” shopping list include?
In general, a healthy and balanced diet should include mainly whole foods rich in nutrients. I mean foods like vegetables, fruits, protein sources like fish and eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds. These are foods to prioritize on your list.
When creating your shopping list, it can be helpful to divide it into sections, such as vegetables, fruits, beans and grains, nuts and seeds, protein, frozen foods, dairy and non-dairy substitutes, beverages, condiments, and sundries. .
Here’s an example of what a healthy shopping list might include:
Fruits: apples, blueberries, clementines, grapefruits, and avocados.
Non-starchy vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, onions, spinach, bell peppers, and zucchini
Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, baby red potatoes, and butternut squash
Beans and grains: chickpeas, brown rice, black beans, and quinoa.
Proteins: Eggs, canned salmon, chicken breast with skin, and pea protein powder
Frozen foods: frozen mixed berries and frozen kale
Nuts and seeds: roasted almonds, pumpkin seeds, and natural peanut butter
Dairy and non-dairy substitutes: cashew milk, coconut milk, feta cheese, and full-fat Greek yogurt
Seasonings: olives, sun-dried tomatoes, salad dressing, olive oil, pesto, and salsa.
Drinks: unsweetened coconut water and sparkling water.
Miscellaneous: ground coffee, dried fruit, dark chocolate, banana chips and unsweetened grated coconut
You won’t have to buy shelf-stable products like peanut butter, protein powder, and bulk grains on every shopping trip. I cover how to stock your kitchen with durable items later in this article.
For more detailed ideas on healthy shopping lists, check out this article.
Planning a weekly menu
If you prefer, you can bring a weekly menu to the store instead of a regular shopping list. This menu can list the ingredients you need to prepare the meals you would like to cook the following week.
For example, if you are a food prep fan, try printing out the recipes you plan to make. Then just shop on the ingredient lists.
Keep in mind that if you are used to eating out or ordering food for most meals, suddenly trying to prepare all of your meals and snacks at home might not be realistic. So if you are new to meal prep, start slowly and make it a goal to prepare only a few meals the first week.
Once that becomes a habit, you can add more meals to your weekly kitchen menu. Like all healthy habits, it can take some time before regular grocery shopping and making healthy meals at home become part of your routine.
Go through this article for tips on meal prep.
How to stock your kitchen like a pro
If you’re not a fan of frequent trips to the supermarket, the key is to stock your kitchen with non-perishable and frozen foods. This can help you prepare nutritious meals and snacks even when you’re running low on fresh food.
It’s important to check your cabinets, pantry, refrigerator, and freezer to take inventory of what you need before you go shopping. This can reduce food waste and ensure you have the necessary ingredients to prepare healthy meals (3 Trusted Source).
You will need to buy fresh produce such as fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and other perishable items more often. Meanwhile, non-perishable products and foods that can be frozen can be purchased less frequently.
Here are some ideas for durable staples that you can keep in your pantry and freezer:
Nuts, Seeds, and Nut Butter: Pistachios, Cashews, Almonds, and Natural Almond Butter
Note that some types of natural nut butters need to be refrigerated after opening. Ideally, nuts and nut-based flours should be kept in the freezer long-term to keep them fresh.
Oils: olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil.
Grains: quinoa, brown rice, oats, buckwheat, and brown rice pasta
Unsweetened nuts: dried mango, raisins, dates and dried cherries
Spices: garlic powder, turmeric, curry powder, cumin, paprika and cinnamon.
Canned and dried beans: black beans, chickpeas, and lentils
Canned Tuna and Salmon: Wild Planet Canned Tuna and Salmon
Bakery Products and Sweeteners: baking powder, baking soda, honey, maple syrup, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, and flour mixes
For long-term storage, keep the flour in the freezer.
Non-perishable milk substitutes: Elmhurst coconut milk, oat milk, and cashew milk
Sauces, Dressings and Condiments: Sugar Free Marinara Sauce, Primal Kitchen Salad Dressing and Mayonnaise, Olives, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Apple Cider Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar and Hot Sauce
Appetizers: banana chips, plantain, trail mix, tortilla chips, and chocolate covered almonds
Long-lasting products: sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, squash and garlic.
Miscellaneous: Unsweetened Dried Coconut, Dark Chocolate Chips, Pea Protein Powder, Coffee, Chicken Vegetable Broth, and Coconut Water.
In the shop
Now that you know how to properly prepare for shopping and stock your kitchen, let’s talk about healthy shopping.
Ideally, you want to focus on the following when shopping:
buy mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods
shopping off your weekly meal plan or list
avoid buying food based solely on packaging
read nutrition labels and ingredient lists on packaged foods
stick to your plan and try to avoid impulse purchases
Unfortunately, most grocery stores are not designed to encourage healthy eating. Instead, they are designed to push you to buy certain items, and these are not always healthy.
For example, grocery stores tend to offer sales and create displays of ultra-processed products like refined snacks and soft drinks. You will often find them at the end of aisles and checkout counters (4Reliable source, 5Reliable source, 6Reliable source, 7Reliable source).
If you have a plan, you are less likely to be distracted by sales and displays. Just be sure to stick to your shopping list.
Lastly, trying to shop only when you’re not hungry can help you avoid impulsive purchases.
How to navigate the supermarket aisles
Shopping on the perimeter, or concentrating on buying foods located on the outer edges of grocery stores, can help you make healthier choices, as fresh fruits, vegetables, protein, and other perishable items are often found there.
Still, you can find many healthy options in the middle aisles, including bulk grains, nuts, seeds, nut butters, canned foods, condiments, and frozen foods.
Just because one aisle features some highly processed food options, you don’t need to avoid the entire aisle. Aisles sometimes contain a mix of highly refined and nutritious food options. For example, a snack aisle might offer nuts and seeds along with chips and cookies.
Start by filling your cart along the perimeter of the store with fruits, vegetables, protein, and other perishable items on your list. Then move to the interior aisles for items like nuts, whole grains, and canned goods.
How to read labels
The fact that an item is packaged is not necessarily unhealthy. Still, it’s a good idea to read ingredient labels and check the nutritional information on packaged products.
Although unhealthy and highly processed foods generally have a long list of ingredients, the same can be said for certain nutritious packaged foods. Therefore, it is important to take a look at the ingredient label before deciding whether to buy an item or leave it on the shelf.
If the first ingredients are a type of sweetener, refined grains, or highly processed oil, I usually don’t.
I pay the most attention to the added sugar content of a food. Consuming too much added sugar can harm your overall health and increase your risk for conditions such as heart disease, mental health disorders, and type 2 diabetes (8Reliable source, 9Reliable source, 10Reliable source, 11Reliable source, 12Reliable source).
For example, I recently noticed a pre-made chai latte product at the grocery store. I was surprised to see that it contained a whopping 31 grams, or nearly 8 teaspoons, of added sugar per 3/4 cup (180 ml) serving (13).
While the packaging mentioned words like “organic” and “gluten-free” to make you think it might be healthy, sugar syrup was second on the ingredient list.
When buying products that usually contain some added sugar, such as granola or cereal, a good tip is to opt for products that contain less than 6 grams (1.5 teaspoons) of added sugar per serving.
What a healthy shopping cart looks like
We all have different dietary needs, but in general, a healthy shopping trip means a cart full of nutrient-dense foods.
Here’s an example of what a healthy shopping cart might contain:
Non-starchy vegetables: cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli, sweet peppers, onions, garlic, bell peppers, greens, leeks, and mushrooms.
Fruits: oranges, bananas, apples, grapefruits, lemons, blueberries, pineapple, and avocados.
Proteins: eggs, fish, chicken, ground turkey, and tofu.
Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, potatoes, and winter squash
Grains and Legumes: Quinoa, oats, brown rice, dried black beans, buckwheat, red lentils, barley, and farro.
Nuts, Seeds, and Nut Butter: Pumpkin seeds, macadamia nuts, almonds, and natural peanut butter
Canned foods: canned salmon, sardines, canned beans, canned pumpkin puree, diced tomatoes, and marinara sauce
Oils and seasonings: olive oil, salad dressing, avocado oil, salsa, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, dry spices, honey, and maple syrup/
Dairy and non-dairy products: whole Greek yogurt, cheddar cheese, goat cheese, cashew milk, and coconut yogurt
Snacks: dark chocolate chips, trail mix, unsweetened dried fruit, and hummus
Frozen foods: frozen raspberries, frozen shrimp, frozen kale, and Ezekiel bread
Drinks: unsweetened mineral water, herbal tea bags and ground coffee.
This list is not exhaustive or definitive, but can act as a general guide for shopping trips.
Of course, there is also room for your favorite foods in a healthy and balanced diet. The point is not to completely avoid foods that are considered less healthy like potato chips, ice cream, and cookies.
Rather, a balanced diet should prioritize foods rich in nutrients that make you feel good and provide the nutrients your body needs.