Top rules I use when grocery shopping
Rule 1: No meat, eggs, or dairy. I don’t budge on this rule for a number of reasons, namely: health concerns, environmental concerns, ethical concerns, and economic concerns.
Rule 2: Produce aisle is paramount. Anything found in the produce section is fair game. This is the primary place where I spend most of my time in the grocery store. I don’t care as much about “organic” versus “non-organic” – if it’s a whole vegetable or whole fruit, it’s vastly better than other things you could be eating, regardless of the organic label. If you have the money and it makes you feel better, go for it, but for me it’s not a show-stopper.
Through some trial and error, you will develop a sense of how much fresh veggies and fruits to buy per trip. Remember that real food does go bad if left on a shelf or in the fridge, so buy as much as you’d like, but have a plan for all the veggies and fruits, and make sure they get eaten before they expire. Sometimes I deliberately over-buy certain things like bananas so I can freeze some of them after they ripen a bit more to make banana ice cream.
Rule 3: Frozen fruits and veggies are great too (as long as they’re not frozen with any kind of sauce or seasoning, which usually involves butter, oil, or salt). One item I specifically seek out in the freezer aisle: shelled edamame (soy beans). Toss a some of these into virtually any dish for some great (and tasty) protein.
Rule 4: Whole grains, brown rice, beans, and lentils are just fine (as is whole grain pasta, and old fashioned rolled oats).
Rule 5: Read the nutrition label of anything in a box, bag, can or jar. Red flags in the nutrition label for me are as follows:
- More than 10% of the calories come from fat. Remember, fat is 9 calories per gram and carbs/protein are 4 calories per gram if they don’t list the fat calories separately.
- Abnormally small serving sizes. The rules dictate that manufacturers can round down to zero grams of fat if their product has 0.49 grams of fat (or less) per serving. Thus, some unscrupulous companies create serving sizes ridiculously small to get under this bar. For example, cooking sprays commonly show zero fat grams even though they are MADE FROM OIL, which is PURE FAT. How? They list the serving size as ¼ second of spray. Who uses ¼ second of a spray? How stupid to they think we are?
I’ve even seen toasted sesame seeds (which I normally would be fine with as long as they don’t have added oils) with ¼ tsp as a serving size to do a similar thing. I may normally be okay buying sesame seeds, but I leave these things on the shelf out of spite.
- Sodium content exceeds 300-400 mg per realistic Sometimes the “realistic” means I need to double or triple the number on the label, but I try to keep my overall salt consumption under 1500 mg per day (so fewer than 500 mg per meal). Salt can be found in most plant foods naturally so there’s no need to take in added salts.
Rule 6: Read the ingredients. This helps spot items prohibited by rule number one. I also generally aim to avoid anything with processed ingredients, especially all kinds of oils. Additionally, I try to avoid any of the non-nutritive sweeteners, like aspartame, or any ingredients I cannot pronounce. Lastly, this also applies to white flours, corn syrups, agave nectar, other sugars, or processed proteins.
Occasionally, I’ll end up with a pasta sauce made with a bit of oil or even some chili-seasoned canned beans that have a bit of oil added. If I do, I always make sure that fewer than 10% of the total calories per serving come from fat, and that there aren’t any other processed foods or too much sodium on the label.
Rule 7: Avoid store-cooked items. There’s really nothing good you can get from a store deli counter. At all.
Overall, keeping these things in mind when shopping helps me make better decisions about the food to purchase and the food to avoid. Of course, there are always occasional exceptions like buying a package of non-dairy ice cream bars for the kids or a package of vegan hot dogs to take to a cookout, but I like to keep those kinds of purchases rare and infrequent.
Good luck and happy shopping everyone!