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Smart Supermarket Shopping

Is the supermarket a place where you listen to elevator music while dragging your feet through aisle after aisle in boredom? Or is it a chance to fill your cart with choices and maybe get handed a free sample while you shop?

Despite the music, supermarket shopping can be interesting. Before you grab a shopping cart and head for the aisles, check out these tips for smart and healthy supermarket shopping.

Best Times to Shop

You can go to a supermarket almost anytime you want — many are open 24 hours. Choosing a time and place for your food shopping can help you shop smarter.

Here are some thoughts on when and where to shop:

  • Don't shop when you're hungry. If your stomach is grumbling when you enter the store, you'll be a goner when you see all those tasty treats. Eat a healthy snack or meal before you go to the supermarket.
  • Pick the best supermarket for you. If you have a choice on where to shop, think about the kinds of things that you want the store to have. A salad bar? A vegetarian or organic section? An awesome seafood department or bakery? Double coupons? Choose the things that make it convenient and easy for you to eat right. Once you've found a store you like, you may want to stick with it. Knowing where to find the things you want will help you get out the store faster.
  • Shop during off-peak times. Did you ever get stuck behind a slowpoke pushing the cart in front of you because the store's so crowded? Try to avoid stores when they're likely to be busiest — after work (5-7 p.m. on weekdays) and weekend mornings, for example. The best time to shop is very early in the morning, weekend evenings, or on a popular TV night.

Make a List and Use It (Mostly)

You have thousands of foods to choose from in a supermarket, so it's easy to get tempted or forget something you really need. Making a list saves time in the store. Also, plan the recipes that you want to make in the next few days and list the ingredients you'll need.

By making a list, you will:

  • plan better for what you're going to cook
  • avoid going back to the supermarket for a forgotten ingredient
  • eat healthier and avoid reaching for something on impulse
  • save money by not grabbing foods that aren't on the list

But even with a list, you need to make some decisions at the supermarket. It helps to think like a chef. A good chef makes lists of ingredients, but also looks over the meats and produce for what's freshest and what's a good deal. So if a recipe calls for red onions but they look bad or the supermarket doesn't have them, the chef chooses another kind of onion that looks best. Or if a certain fish is freshest, the chef might choose it over the type of fish on the shopping list.

Label Lingo

A big part of smart shopping is selecting healthy foods. Food labels, also called Nutrition Facts labels, are printed on all packaged foods and are posted near produce, meats, poultry, and fish. These labels let you compare different foods to see how they differ in fat, calories, protein, and other ingredients. For example, you can compare the serving sizes of two cereals you like, see how much fat is in frozen pizza, or find out how many carbohydrates are in a bag of cookies. You also can check to see if a food contains important vitamins and minerals.

Smart shoppers are especially careful about the health claims on food packaging. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decides whether manufacturers can call their foods "healthy" or "low fat." However, it's up to shoppers to put these claims in perspective for their own nutritional needs and eating habits. For example, "reduced fat" cookies might not actually be low in fat. They're just required to have less fat than the regular version of a particular cookie — and that original version may be much higher in fat than other cookies.

Here are just a few of the terms you might see while you shop:

  • Healthy: the food is low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, has less than 480 mg sodium, and has at least 10% of the daily value of vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber.
  • Free (for example, sugar free): the food contains less than ½ gram of fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, or cholesterol. Calorie-free foods contain less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Good source: one serving provides 10% to 19% of your total daily needs for a specific nutrient.
  • Low sodium: one serving has 140 milligrams of sodium or less.
  • Low cholesterol: one serving has 20 milligrams of cholesterol or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat.
  • Low fat: one serving contains 3 grams of fat or less.
  • Reduced (for example, reduced fat): one serving has 25% less fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, cholesterol, or calories per serving than the regular version of the food.
  • Light (or lite): one serving has 50% less fat or one third fewer calories than the regular version of the food.

Get the Most From What You Buy

By planning to make recipes and keeping a grocery list, you've already helped guarantee that you'll use the foods you buy.

More tips to help you get the right nutrition and avoid wasting food:

  • Buy a variety of healthy foods. If you have healthy foods on hand, you'll be less likely to reach for unhealthy ones. Obviously, foods like fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat are perishable and will spoil quickly so you can't buy these as far in advance as other foods.
  • Wash and cut up some fruits and veggies right away. This way, they'll be less likely to sit in the back of the fridge and turn to mush while you reach for the cookies and ice cream. Keep them in small containers or bags in the front of the fridge where you can easily grab a healthy snack.
  • Cook in advance. You might not feel like cooking after a busy day, and it's tempting to cruise the drive-thru window. To avoid this problem, cook some meals in advance. When you have time at home, cook a meal and put it in the fridge. If you're making a favorite dish, prepare a double amount of the recipe and freeze the extra portion. This way, when you're tired and hungry, you just need to pop a plate of food in the microwave — and your groceries won't go to waste!

Do things that will help you enjoy food shopping, such as picking a new and interesting ingredient or spice to try each week. Food shopping is something you'll do for the rest of your life, and it will quickly become second nature to you.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2014