As a dietitian, I often find that others try to relate to me with their knowledge of the latest nutrition media stories and trends, which of course I love to discuss. However, I sometimes cringe at some of the blanket nutrition rules that are echoed to me from the media, such as “all carbs are bad” or “dairy will make you fat”. And one of the most persistent statements I hear is “I only shop in the perimeter of the grocery store”.
Okay, wait…for real? If yes, then I have so many questions for you…
How are you flavoring your food? Are you ONLY using fresh garlic and herbs (you must be a baller $$$), but no ground pepper or olive oil? Because there are so many healthy spices and seasonings in the center store spice aisle, that add tons of flavor and even antioxidants (!!!) to your fresh meats and veggies. Without sugar or salt. And let’s face it; you’re going to need some olive oil at some point, and that requires a trip into the aisles.
Do you make everything from scratch, 24/7? If yes, then can I hire you to help me out at my house?! Because even as a nutrition professional & blogger, my life gets crazy, and I am so thankful that I can turn to so many better-for-you options in the canned veggie and frozen food aisle that fit into a healthy diet. Not to mention minimal-ingredient salad dressings for my fresh veggies, and lower-sodium marinades for my fresh meat. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t have time to whip those up from scratch on the regular.
Where do you buy your whole grain-based foods? Like whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole grain breads? In my experience, the majority of these foods are in various aisles in the center of the store, and they are nutrient rich and beneficial to an overall healthy diet. In fact, I could spend an entire blog post on the health benefits of whole grains, and even provide scientific evidence that plant foods and grains were included in the real ‘Paleo’ diet. (Another time!) In short, I’m a fan of whole grains and I think it’s worth a trip to the center of the store to find them.
So here’s my point – I want you to shop smart throughout the ENTIRE store. Obviously, fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meat, seafood, and low fat dairy/dairy alternatives are cornerstones of a healthy diet, but they need some accompaniments to round out a realistic, tasty, and healthy diet. To help you choose the best of the best, here are my go-to nutrition guidelines for shopping throughout the center of the store.
Canned fruits & vegetables are great choices (just as nutritious as fresh), and obviously have a long shelf life. For sustainability reasons too, canned veggies are more eco-friendly as these foods aren’t wasted as much as fresh, and most packaging can be recycled. When choosing canned foods, look for low sodium beans, low sodium or no added salt vegetables, fruit canned in its own juices, and unsweetened canned items such as 100% canned pumpkin. Most grocery stores offer organic varieties now, too. I personally keep canned pinto beans, black beans, chick peas, 100% pumpkin, and diced tomatoes (lots & lots) in my pantry year round.
For all of the same reasons as canned, frozen fruits and vegetables are awesome choices, and multiple varieties can be found without added sugar or salt. And more stores are carrying frozen, unseasoned brown rice and quinoa, which cook in just a few minutes in the microwave. For those with busy schedules, these are perfect to keep on hand to help save you time without sacrificing nutrition.
Whole Grain Cereals, Sides, Breads & Snacks
To find whole grain foods in the cereal, bread and snack aisles, look for statements on package that state “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain”, or the presence of a whole grain stamp (100%, 50%, or Basic – see graphic below). But be skeptical if you see “whole grain” without more details, such as “crackers made with whole grain”. Unless the whole grain amount can be quantified in grams or percent, the product might not contain much of the actual grain.
Spices are the key to adding flavor without excess salt and sugar to practically any dish. McCormick recommends these 10 basic spices for all kitchens to cook with flavor; basil, black pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, garlic powder, ground ginger, oregano, crushed red pepper, and rosemary. Look for other mixed spice/herb blends that are salt-free and sodium-free too.
Better Oils & Fats
Olive oil remains my favorite go-to oil due to the flavor and monounsaturated fat content, but it’s smart to have a couple of varieties on hand for different cooking methods. Choose pure olive oil for high heat cooking such as roasting or (gasp) frying, but extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) for salad dressings and low-heat sautéing. And contrary to popular belief, canola oil is also a good choice as it is low in saturated fats, and can be used for roasting, sautéing, frying and baking. Avocado oil is also an option that is high in monounsaturated (healthy) fats, but is a bit on the expensive side. And for the love of God…yes, you can have *some*, but not unlimited amounts of coconut oil. It is important to understand that it really is not the best of all oils due to its high saturated fat content, and that it really isn’t as versatile in the kitchen as other oils due to its low smoke point (i.e. best for baking).
With these guidelines, be confident in your ability to healthfully navigate all aisles and the perimeter of the grocery store! Feel free to humblebrag to me, your friends, and social media about THAT. 🙂