Unless you have a personal shopper, we all have to grocery shop at some point during any single month. Whether we choose to shop weekly or monthly, it pays to know how to actually shop, which is much more than just going into the store, throwing a few items in the cart, and paying for them.
Knowing how to actually shop not only saves you some money, but you’re also more likely to choose more healthful options. After all, grocery stores are psychologically designed to get you to spend as much money as possible–and not necessarily on the right things. Understanding how and why grocery stores are set up the way they are as well as knowing what they do to tempt you will set you on the right path to saving money and making better choices for you and perhaps your family.
Let’s first take a look at a typical grocery store layout.
Many grocery stores are roughly set up this way, with a few exceptions. Kroger, for example, has shelves set up between the produce and main aisles that are stocked with “organic” foods. They’re set up in such a way that even if you tell yourself you’re not buying organic because of the price tag, your curiosity sometimes tempts you and you end up browsing the shelves anyway. After all, there is no way to avoid this section, unless you plan to not buy any produce, which I don’t suggest.
In any case, you can see from the above picture that the more popular items, ones that make a grocery store money, flank the outer edges of the store. Going back to Kroger, particularly the large Walmart-like stores, the organic foods take up several aisles and have their own space to encourage consumers to spend more money. It’s a marketing gimmick trying to appeal to more health-conscious consumers despite organic not being any more healthful than other grocery store items. While these aisles do contain lots of gluten-free options and the like, they’re still designed to make you spend much more than what you likely planned.
Let’s look at the red X next to ‘start.’ That is typically where the entrance is to many stores. From a fitness professional’s perspective, this is a good thing, as you’re going to be browsing an area filled with healthful options. From a marketing perspective, this is good for a grocery store’s coffers since produce also tends to be pricier than packaged goods.
Many stores try to make their produce section aesthetically pleasing to encourage consumers to browse. And if you’re mindlessly browsing, you’re also going to mindlessly spend more money. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing. Better to spend more money on produce than junk food, right? Certainly, but you may also end up buying too much produce that ends up going to waste. This is why it’s important to always come to the grocery store with an action plan.
Continuing onward, you can see that besides produce, there’s also seafood, the deli, the bakery, and the meat and dairy sections, which are also massive money makers for any grocery chain. The path of the red line on the picture shows the route most consumers take. And, you guessed it, the path takes them by the more expensive groceries first.
Now these do tend to be the more healthful options, but the bakery set up in the corner also sells lots of options that are not so healthful–namely cakes, cupcakes, tarts, certain breads, ect. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to appease your sweet tooth on occasion, but if you go into the grocery store hungry, you might end up buying one too many baked goods.
Now lets look at the blue aisles. These contain lots of prepackaged, processed foods. If you’re not savvy, you’ll end up stocking up on lots of options that may contain too much sodium, sugar, and possible fats, like partially hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats. Some fitness and nutrition professionals advise to avoid these aisles entirely. However, if you actually take the time to look at nutrition labels, you can find options that are good for you.
Let’s look at one now.
Knowing what to look out for on a nutrition label can help you make sound choices when choosing certain packaged goods.
Let’s start at the serving sizes. Many people–and I am no exception–tend to consume more than what the recommended serving size is. For example, a serving size of ice cream is generally 1/2 a cup, but most people eat much more than that. Depending on the type of ice cream, 1/2 a cup is going to be 200 or more calories. And, again, since many people consume much more than that, you might end up eating 400 or more calories. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to serving sizes.
You might buy a smallish bag of chips that says it contains 200 calories, but that bag may contain two servings; thus, it’s really 400 calories if you’re not careful with how much you’re consuming. So if you’re going to buy a few treats, try to purchase treats that come in separate baggies to help with portion control.
However, if you’re someone who still consumes too many sweets despite a food company’s attempts to help with portion control, avoid buying any at all. You’re better off stocking up on fruit to sate your sweet tooth.
The % Daily Value on the label is important to pay attention to. Some packaged goods contain a lot of sodium and saturated fats to extend the shelf lives of certain goods. 20% is considered high, so you’ll want to avoid products that contain that much. The parts of the label colored purplish-blue are nutrients you want to get enough of. A product that contains more than 3 grams of fiber is generally considered a high fiber product.
There are also foods fortified with vitamins and minerals. Some sugary cereals are fortified with them. If you struggle with getting in enough vitamins and minerals for whatever reason, it’s okay to get a box or two.
When I’m looking at the sugar content of any single food product, I always look at what those sugars are attached to. If there’s enough good stuff in the product, and as long as it’s not loaded with saturated fats or even peppered with trans fats, I have no qualms about purchasing said product. Some days call for a quick meal, and packaged products provide that.
One tip I’m going to throw out there is that if you have a child with you, avoid catering to their demands. This sounds obvious, but if you really look at products marketed to children, you’ll notice these products come in colorful, attractive boxes designed to appeal to them. Before you know it, your child is running up to a shelf, grabbing a box, and throwing it into the cart without your noticing.
Kids’ television stations are loaded with commercials marketing all sorts of unhealthy food products. A child who sees Gushers advertised on cable television is more likely to want Gushers when out grocery shopping with parents.
Now that we’re through with much of the grocery store, we can take a look at the checkout. While the very first graphic doesn’t show it, many checkouts contain displays of candies and other processed food items. This is another way they encourage you to spend more. Avoid browsing these at all costs.
Here’s some quick shopping tips to make your grocery store experience much easier:
- Create a grocery list. Writing down what you need increases the likelihood that you’ll adhere to only those products.
- Buy mostly whole grains. The bread aisle tends to be in the aisles marked in blue. Look at bread products that contain more than 3 grams of fiber. A product may be marketed as whole grain or whole wheat, but a single serving may contain only 1 gram of fiber.
- Purchase mostly lean meats. Lean meats contain less saturated and trans fats and more of the good fats, such as poly- and monounsaturated.
- Compartmentalize your list. Divide your grocery list into produce, meat, dairy, grain products, frozen foods, boxed goods, and condiments to prevent you from having to return to certain aisles because you missed something.
- You don’t need to buy organic. The ‘Dirty Dozen’ is a myth. Organic produce contains pesticide residue as well, and it’s the dose that makes the toxin anyway. Even if you didn’t wash your produce, you still wouldn’t be consuming enough pesticides for the amount to be harmful. The only thing organic produce does is empty your wallet of much-needed cash. Plus, the produce tends to spoil faster.
- Stock up on containers. I try to purchase vegetables that are already in plastic containers; however, not all grocery stores sell such conveniences. Plastic containers will allow you to stock up on veggies that you can cut up and store in the fridge for later use.
- Last, don’t shop on an empty stomach. Even with a list, your hunger might encourage you to purchase foods you normally wouldn’t even consider if you weren’t hungry.