The kitchen is king when it comes to maintaining healthy eating habits. The secret to rigging it for success? Mastering your purchases at the grocery store. After all, if you don’t buy food that is bad for you, you won’t eat food that is bad for you. The key is learning how to fill your cart with foods that keep you healthy and satisfied so you have great choices every time you open the fridge.
Before You Go
The perfect trip starts before you even step foot inside the store.
Choose two or three healthy recipes to shop for. Having wholesome, nutritious foods on your list allows you to make a beeline for those foods and keeps you from wandering down aisles where unhealthy temptations lie in wait. We think planning for three or fewer meals at a time makes the most sense so you don’t buy more than you can use in a week.
Pregame with a healthy snack. Shopping when you’re hungry can lead you to make decisions based on your appetite instead of your good intentions. In one Cornell University study, researchers found that hungry participants bought higher-calorie items in an online grocery store than those who snacked first.
If you need to shop on your way home from work, take a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit with you and eat it 30 minutes before arriving.
Shop the Perimeter
You’ve navigated the parking lot—dodging a few errant shopping carts—and made it into the store. Start on the side and back walls.
This is where you’ll find the healthy basics: fresh fruits and vegetables, the dairy and egg case, and the fish market. However, processed food makers are onto this strategy, so you might see unhealthy choices nestled here and there (like sugary juices next to the fresh fruit).
You will still visit some center aisles later. But one benefit of filling your cart with fresh whole foods first is that it serves as a visual reminder of your eating goals and will reinforce your commitment as you travel throughout the store. Here’s our perimeter strategy:
• Pile on the produce.
Our advice is to eat at least seven servings of vegetables and at least two servings of fruit per day (a serving is about a handful). We don’t care what they are or how you get them (pre cut, fresh or frozen) as long as you get them. This amount of fruits and veggies significantly reduces your risk of dying from heart disease or cancer.
Americans don’t get nearly enough foods from the vine and ground, so whatever you like, eat it. Hate kale? Don’t try and sell yourself on it—you’ll either forget it’s in the fridge or avoid it. But if you love sweet potatoes, you’ll remember you bought them and crave them.
• Hook fatty fish.
Go for swimmers that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (and low in contaminants like mercury), such as wild salmon and ocean trout. Fish oils help lower your risk of a heart attack because they reduce the tendency for your blood to clot and keep your arteries clear. Plus, people who eat more fish have a lower risk of memory loss, stroke and cancer. At least one 4-ounce serving a week can boost health, but we recommend three 4-ounce servings a week for maximum benefits.
• Do dairy and eggs.
Dairy contains calcium and fortified milk contains vitamin D—two nutrients that slow aging of the bones, muscles and joints and help boost immunity. Choose skim or low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt to keep saturated fat to a minimum. Eggs are also a vital component of a healthy diet; opt for egg whites, as the yolk is high in cholesterol.
• Go for lean meats.
If fish doesn’t float your boat, we recommend choosing lean meats such as boneless, skinless chicken breast or turkey.
Now that you’ve tackled the perimeter, you can venture into some of the center aisles:
• Visit the veggie freezer.
Not only are frozen veggies typically less expensive than fresh ones, they can be just as nutritious. Fresh veggies may be exposed to heat and light during transportation and lose some nutrients along the way. Frozen veggies, on the other hand, are usually picked at the peak of ripeness—when they’re chock-full of nutrients—and frozen right away to preserve all that goodness.
• Befriend the grain and bean aisles.
Look for high-fiber, nutrient-rich legumes (canned or dried) and whole grains. In addition to maintaining digestive health and keeping arteries clear, a high-fiber diet helps you feel full longer.
To find whole-grain breads, pastas and cereals that make the cut, look for these things on the packaging: the words 100 percent whole wheat as the first thing on the ingredient list or a claim stating that Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Foods that consist of at least 51 percent whole grains are permitted to carry this claim.
Read the Labels
No matter where you are in the store, use these tips for reading packaging:
• Beware of misleading language.
The terms low fat, fat free or zero trans fats can sometimes translate into lots of calories and sugar. To boost flavor, food makers often replace fat with sugar, flour and other waist-busting ingredients. The result is low-fat or fat-free foods with the same number of calories as the regular versions. Bottom line: The front of the package is as revealing as the outside of a new car. It might look seductive, but you have to check what’s under the hood to see what’s really going on. The full ingredient list has most of the answers.
• Study the ingredient list.
If any of the first four items in the ingredient list are one of what we call the “Five Food Felons”—saturated fat (including palm and coconut oils), trans fats (such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil), added sugars (aliases include dextrose, fructose, maltose, sucrose or lactose), added syrups (such as high-fructose corn syrup and malt syrup), or any non-whole-grain carbohydrate (including enriched white flour, semolina or durum wheat)—reject it.
Finally, remember this: Don’t visit aisles bursting with snack foods and frozen convenience foods like pizza. These products tend to be high in saturated and trans fats, calories, sodium and chemical preservatives.
And remember to harness some of that willpower for checkout, where the candy bars lurk. Use the time waiting in line to answer emails and texts instead of succumbing to temptation.
Your perfect trip is in the bag!
Related: 10 Steps to a Healthier You
This article appears in the April 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.