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Ask JJ: Healthy Grocery Shopping Simplified

02/03/2015 12:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015
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Dear JJ: Shopping healthy seems so confusing! Sometimes I need a nutrition expert to accompany me at the grocery store. That got me to thinking: how do you shop for groceries and what do you buy?

While I outsource many tasks, I enjoy and always do my own food shopping. But I get it: grocery stores can become a frustrating obstacle course filled with impulse buys, products masquerading as healthy, and overall confusion.

You know grocery-shopping prerequisites. Don't arrive hungry, keep a strict list so you won't become easily swayed, and stick largely to the peripheral aisles. Peruse the sales circular but don't buy something just because your store has an enticing buy-one-get-one-free special.

Never, ever assume a food is low-sugar impact just because a health food store carries it. Especially within the middle aisles, read those labels! As my friend Jonathan Bailor noted, sugar comes in numerous disguises (57, to be exact). The last thing you want is to buy a $15 jar of almond butter and get home only to realize it contains high-fructose corn syrup.

As far as what to buy, my key grocery essentials include:

Produce
Become familiar with seasonal fruits and vegetables, which are usually fresher and less expensive. Organic is always ideal, though sometimes pricey. If you're on the fence, consult the Environmental Working Group's most pesticide-ridden produce and always those buy organic.

Frozen veggies sometimes get a bad rep, but they've improved immeasurably since that soggy spinach you recall eating as a kid and you can stock up on weeks' worth. Check out Kitchen Daily's best and worst frozen vegetables.

Meat and Eggs
Stick with your budget but don't skimp on meat. For me, buying grass-fed beef becomes non-negotiable.

"If you're going to eat beef, you want the grass-fed variety," writes Elliott Negin. "A 2010 study in the Nutrition Journal reviewed three decades of research comparing the nutritional profiles of grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. It turns out that grass-fed beef has lower levels of unhealthy fats and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are better for cardiovascular health. It also has lower levels of dietary cholesterol and provides more vitamin A and E, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants."

Ditto for free-range organic poultry and wild-caught seafood. If these are out of your budget, eat fewer animal foods and more plant foods.

Some stores discount meat they want to sell quickly. If you can't find grass-fed beef or wild salmon marked down, ask your butcher, who might have some they need to sell that day. Another money-saving option might be the freezer section. I found frozen New Zealand grass-fed beef patties at one popular store for $6.99 a pound.

Likewise, buy the highest-quality eggs. Some stores sell local barnyard-raised eggs. If not, visit your farmers market or opt for organic omega-3 enriched eggs.

Nuts, Seeds, and Other Plant Foods
Quinoa, legumes, almonds, and other dry foods become one area you can really stock up. Careful though with those big bins you see in some stores: who knows how long foods have been there, and over time some accrue mold. Especially with flaxseeds and walnuts, those delicate omega-3 fatty acids become rancid easily.

My big splurge in the center aisles is almond butter. It's expensive, though I usually buy store brands. Read those ingredients for added sugar. Almond butter should contain almonds, maybe salt, and nothing else.

Other Foods
Organic green tea, unsweetened coconut milk, 85-percent cacao dark chocolate, and gluten-free rice wraps are among the other essentials I regularly purchase.

If you can handle dairy (I can't), you might also choose unsweetened Greek yogurt. Worth repeating: read your ingredients. Yogurt should contain no added sugar, and some fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts have as much sugar as a candy bar. If you've got to have it atop your salad or grass-fed burger, goat cheese makes a smart alternative to cow's milk cheese.

When in doubt about packaged foods, keep my sugar rule: No more than five grams of added sugar per 100-calorie serving. Fewer ingredients, less processing, and low-sugar impact should be your criteria here.

Does healthy grocery shopping bewilder or frustrate you? What strategy would you add to my plan? Share yours below, and please keep those great questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.