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14 Things Nutritionists Always Do At the Grocery Store (That You Might Not)

Updated: Jan. 10, 2023

Looking to revamp your grocery store game plan? Take these tips for a healthy food list from registered dietitians on your next shopping trip.

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First, they check out the grocery store’s circular

Alissa Rumsey, RD, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, does this “to plan out my meals for the week based upon what foods or brands are on sale.” These circulars can often be found online. Or consider checking out the multitude of apps that can save you money on groceries. And don’t miss these secrets grocery stores won’t tell you about saving money, shopping smarter, and more.

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istock/Anna Zielinska

They never shop without a list

Admittedly, this is a tip we’ve heard more than a few times. But the benefits are real: A study in Nutrition & Diabetes found that planning meals and writing out shopping lists were an effective and inexpensive weight-loss tool. Whatever your level of health, thoughtful list-making trumps purchasing decisions made in a panic at checkout. A list eliminates so much of the stress associated with grocery shopping, according to Fatwallet.com: it helps you save time and money, it ensures you’re purchasing healthy foods as opposed to junky fare, it allows you to get input from other family members before you go, and reduces anxiety over forgetting something you may or may not already have at home. To try out new tastes, visit one of these grocery stores with the best samples.

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They buy seasonal, local produce whenever possible

This not only means saving major dough, but ensures you’re buying the best-tasting, healthiest food available. Seasonal, local foods are grown closer—which means less spoilage during transport—and are generally harvested at peak ripeness to maintain flavor and health benefits, says Rumsey. Stumped on what’s in season, when? Try a visual like this one from Chasing Delicious before you head to the store.

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They read the front and back of any box

Reading labels “is definitely part of my shopping routine,” says Keri Gans, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet. Reading both the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label is a must, especially when comparing products or purchasing something brand new. “When I buy canned beans, I always look at sodium,” she says. “If I am on the hunt for a new dry breakfast cereal, I look at sugar and fiber.” Here’s how to decode the trickiest terms on food labels.

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They shop store brands

“I’m not afraid to shop the store brands,” says Rumsey. While they may not always seem as glamorous as products marketed on TV, or as those that tout sophisticated packaging, store brands are an inexpensive way to stock up on healthy items. Some of Rumsey’s favorites include beans, whole grains and cereals, frozen produce, nut butter, and canned foods.

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istock/Katie Nesling

They never shop hungry

It’s an age-old tip, but it’s backed by sound science. “Most of us know it’s bad to go food shopping on an empty stomach,” according to Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in his book Slim By Design. “We think it’s because we buy more food when we’re hungry, but in our studies, starving shoppers buy the exact same amount of food as stuffed shoppers. They don’t buy more, but they buy worse. When we’re hungry, we buy things that are convenient to eat right away and stop our cravings, what we call the Four C’s: crackers, chips, cereal, or candy.” Before you head to the store, grab a protein- or fiber-packed snack, like a piece of fruit with a small handful of nuts. If you’re on the go without a dietary life vest, grab an energy bar with 200 calories or less, and at least 5 g each of protein and fiber to tide you over.

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They’re realistic about price vs. convenience

Yes, buying dried beans or oats in bulk, or whole, untrimmed veggies, is the most cost-effective option. But if you know you’ll never make the time to prepare them (and wind up chucking half of the contents of your veggie drawers at the end of the week), give yourself a pass to buy some healthy convenience items. Canned beans (rinsed, please!), pre-cut veggies, and pre-portioned hummus may cost a few cents extra, but are a better bang for the buck than grocery purchases that remain unused—or worse, spoiled.

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They use visual cues to stock up on produce

Rumsey aims to fill half of her shopping cart with produce, including both fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. “I generally buy about one-third to one-half of my produce fresh, and the rest frozen,” she says. According to Dr. Wansink’s research, people who used grocery carts with a piece of duct tape down the middle and who were told to fill half their cart with produce bought 23 percent more fruits and vegetables than shoppers who didn’t use the specially marked carts. You could put a scarf or bag in the middle of your cart; use the front half for produce and the back half for the rest of your grocery shopping list.

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They spend time in the frozen foods section

“Frozen fruits and veggies are just as, if not more, healthy than fresh, since they are picked and frozen at the peak of freshness,” says Rumsey. Read the ingredient list to ensure there are no additives such as sugar or preservatives. Bonus: Frozen produce often shakes out to be the less expensive option, and you don’t “run the risk of not using them before they go bad,” says Rumsey.

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They map out meals

“I like to plan out my meals before I shop,” says Gans. Meal planning helps prevent overbuying and food waste, and ensures you arrive home with the ingredients you need for healthy, balanced meals. “For example, if I want salmon for dinner, I also think about what will be the veggie and the grain. Either I already have in the house, which is great, or need to add to my shopping list. The last thing I want is to wind up empty-handed.”

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They try online grocery shopping

If you’re short on time, consider online grocery store vendors. According to a 2015 report by The Hartman Group, 36 percent of shoppers are going this route to save time and money. What’s more, online shopping helps you limit slip-ups or impulse buys at the register.

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They’re not afraid to leave the perimeter

While you may have heard the mantra “shop the perimeter”—because that’s where whole foods like produce, meat, and dairy are found compared with more processed foods throughout the interior aisles—Gans suggests a different approach. “Since I typically forget to put something on my list, I make sure to never miss any aisle,” says Gans. “To me, every aisle has something to offer.” Once you are in the routine of choosing healthy options, a quick scan of every aisle can help jog your memory as to what you need.

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They avoid frequenting big box shops

When used on occasion, big-box stores are excellent for buying frozen produce, zero-calorie beverages (tea and sparkling water), cereal, prescription drugs, and more. Here’s what you absolutely should and should not buy at big-box stores. But regular visits may lead to overbuying food—and scrambling to eat the excess before it expires—which can potentially expand your waistline.

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They take their time

It might make sense to get in and get out—less of a chance for impulse buys or picking at samples, right? But with the number of items carried in the average supermarket in the range of a whopping 42,000, according to data from the Food Marketing Institute, shopping can feel overwhelming and you want to give yourself time to read labels, scope out a new aisle, or try a fruit or veg you’ve never bought before. Don’t treat your grocery shopping like an episode of Supermarket Sweep—instead, think of it like a fishing expedition to experiment and stock up on healthy foods for you and your family.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest