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Plan. Shop. Cook. Enjoy!

10 tips to make your next trip to the grocer a healthier one

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, March / April 2013

Clinical dietitian and educator Marni Robert has noticed that Manitobans are increasingly making an effort to eat healthier foods than they ever have in the past.

Eating healthy, however, is not possible without also shopping healthy, and Robert finds that, unfortunately, too many people still view grocery shopping as a confusing, tiring, expensive, time-consuming and dreaded chore.

That does not have to be the case, insists Robert, who works at the Winnipeg Health Region.

In fact, by simply adhering to a few grocery shopping tips, it is possible to master the art of healthy grocery shopping and, in the process, transform what many consider to be a confounding and exhausting task into an efficient and even pleasurable experience. Eating healthy then becomes much easier to do. As part of Nutrition Month this March, the dietitians of the Winnipeg Health Region have joined with the Dietitians of Canada to develop the following list of grocery shopping tips to help Manitobans purchase, prepare and eat healthier meals:

Plan ahead

Meal-planning and list-making are essential ingredients to stress-free and efficient grocery shopping. By taking the time to plan your meals for the week and jot down all of the ingredients you will need, you will actually save time and money at the store and cut down on food waste at home. These tasks will also eliminate the need for you to rush back to the store later in the week when you discover that you are missing a key ingredient for the dinner you've just started preparing.

"A little time up front saves you in so many ways down the road," says Robert. While preparing your list, it is also advisable to cluster all similar items together and, if possible, write them down according to the order in which they appear in the store. This helpful hint will ensure your smooth and fast sailing from one end of the store to the other, and then directly to the check-out counter, without having to backtrack to aisles you've already passed for items at the bottom of your list. Having a list also reduces your chances of giving in to impulse buying. The food items that are not on your list are most likely the unhealthy ones that you do not need.

Don't shop when you are hungry (or tired)

Although it often seems that there are not enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to get done, Robert recommends that, if at all possible, you do not go grocery shopping when you are already hungry, tired or pressed for time. Shopping when you are hungry is considered a particularly risky undertaking. "Shopping on an empty stomach is never a good idea, as everything looks good," she says. "You'll end up filling your cart with items you wouldn't consider if you weren't hungry. And the foods tempting you when you're hungry usually aren't the most nutritious."

If you are hungry, tired or in a rush when you grocery shop, you will be less likely to adhere to your list and more likely to take shortcuts in order to get the task over with as quickly as possible. Taking shopping shortcuts means that you probably won't take the time to read labels and properly compare the nutritional value of the food items that you are considering. Shortcuts also mean that you are more likely to purchase packaged, convenient and snack foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat. "If you are hungry or tired when shopping - as you sometimes can't avoid this situation - it is all the more reason to have a list and to stick to it," Robert adds.

Read labels

Carefully reading package labels is essential to making wise and healthy grocery choices. Reading these labels, however, is often intimidating, as they include a lot of sometimes confusing information about serving sizes, calories, nutritional content and ingredients. Reading ingredient listings is an important first step, as both the length of this list and the order in which the ingredients appear are key indicators of the product's nutritional value. Generally, the shorter the ingredient list is, the healthier the food. Ingredient lists also are essential reading for those concerned about allergies.

All labels feature a Daily Value percentage table that identifies the amount of nutrients - such as fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium - within the product. Healthy shopping implies choosing products that contain as much as possible of the former, and as little as possible of the latter. Other information on the label is not as straightforward as it seems. The term "sodium-reduced," for example, does not necessarily mean that the product in question is low in salt. It only means that it contains less salt than the original product on which it is based. Similarly, the term "light" does not necessarily mean reduced calories, but might just denote a lighter colour than the original product.

Eat close to the farm

"I usually recommend that people try to eat as close to the farm as possible," Robert says. In other words, she recommends that whenever possible, you should purchase, and eat, foods that are in their natural form. Foods that are in their original form, not surprisingly, are at their optimum nutritional level. As she explains, an apple contains significant nutrients when it is eaten as an apple but becomes less healthy when it is processed into other products. When an apple becomes applesauce, for example, it loses many of its nutrients, making it considerably less nutritious than the apple. When the applesauce is further processed into apple juice, it becomes even less nourishing, as it has moved even further away from its natural form.

Similarly, whole cuts of meat are much healthier than meats that have been processed, and their leftovers make for much healthier sandwiches than those that are made with processed deli counter meats. By reading labels on packaged and canned foods, you can get a sense of how far the product has come from its natural form. As a general rule, Robert says, the longer a product's ingredient list, the greater the distance it has travelled from the farm.

Shop the perimeter (mostly)

Most large grocery stores are set up in a similar manner, with fresh fruits and vegetables at one end, breads at the other, and the meat, fish, eggs and dairy cases lined up against the back wall. "Focusing on the outside of the store instead of on the middle aisles can be advantageous, allowing you to follow the 'eat as close to the farm as possible' rule described above," explains Robert.

She recommends that instead of going up and down every single aisle in the store, you only peruse the aisles that contain the food items and ingredients that you need for the healthy meals that you have carefully planned. This means that you should only venture away from the perimeter of the store in search of such items as canned tuna in water, cereals labelled as a good source of fibre, nutrient-rich pulses and whole-grain pastas, but not in search of salty and sugary snack foods. By completely avoiding the cookie, chip, ice cream and snack food aisles, you will avoid being tempted by their unhealthy, highfat, high-calorie, heavily processed offerings, and less likely to give in to impulse buying. Eliminating complete aisles from your grocery shopping expedition will also save you considerable time and money.

Add crunch and colour

Vegetables and fruits are packed full of nutrients such as folic acid, vitamins A and C, lycopene, antioxidants and fibre, and also add a lot of colour and texture to meals. "When it comes to fruits and vegetables, fresh, frozen or canned all can be included as healthy food choices," Robert says. Broccoli, carrots, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, squash, eggplants, bell peppers and spinach are among the healthiest vegetables, while tomatoes, avocados, bananas, blackberries, blueberries and apples are among the most nutritionally rich fruits. Generally, the more brightly colourful the fruit or vegetable, the more nutritional value it has. Dark green spinach, for example, is a healthier option than pale green head lettuce. All fresh produce, regardless of colour, should be carefully washed before being eaten.

While Robert recommends choosing fresh, in-season produce when it is available, she explains that frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are wise choices too. Much of the fresh produce available in Winnipeg travels a considerable distance to get here, losing a lot of nutrients in the course of transport. Frozen vegetables and fruits, to the contrary, are picked at their peak of ripeness and flash-frozen in a way that locks in all of their important nutrients.

Avoid processed foods

Processed foods have been changed from their original form by cooking or adding ingredients - preservatives, additives, to increase shelf life. The idea that food could be made to look better and last longer was extremely exciting when processed foods were widely introduced in the second half of the twentieth century. But it is now well recognized that processed foods are often a less healthy option than fresh, whole food. That's largely because they contain additives, such as sulphites - man-made or naturally occurring substances that are added to food to preserve flavour, and improve taste and appearance - and preservatives - substances that inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, and antioxidants which, as its name implies, inhibit the oxidation of food particles.

Not all processing is bad or harmful. The use of additives and preservatives is certainly beneficial in certain situations, particularly when food has to travel a great distance or fresh food is not accessible. Ultra-high temperature milk, for example, is processed so that it does not need refrigeration. But Robert recommends that when you do have a choice, you should always select whole fresh or frozen foods over processed foods. Fresh food does not contain either additives or preservatives, and boasts many more natural vitamins and minerals than processed food. Frozen packaged foods also are nutrient-rich and retain most of their vitamins, minerals and fibre. Processed foods also contain much more sodium, sugar and fat than are found in either fresh or frozen products.

Consider prepared foods

Prepared foods such as cut fruit, salad in a bag and stir-fry ready vegetables have become increasingly common fare in grocery stores. "Prepared foods can add a huge convenience factor to your meals and snacks," says Robert. If you purchase a tray of cut-up fruits and vegetables, you are much more likely to eat them than if you purchase whole fruits or vegetables that need to be peeled, pared, and stored away in the fridge until you have a chance to prepare them. A cantaloupe that needs to be washed and cut up, for example, is a chore, and is likely to sit in the fruit crisper and go bad before you get around to preparing it. But a cantaloupe that is already washed and sliced when you bring it from the store can be put out on the table and enjoyed immediately.

Bagged and prepared products are definitely more expensive than in their whole form, Robert says, but they also save time and encourage healthy eating. If a cellophane bag full of cut broccoli, cauliflower and carrots increases your chance of making a healthy stir fry for dinner, then the extra money is well spent. Remember that there is a difference between prepared foods and ready-to-eat fresh and frozen foods. Many prepared and frozen meals contain considerable amounts of sodium and other preservatives.

Follow the food guide

Health Canada's rainbow-shaped food guide is designed to meet your needs for all essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients; reduce your risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease; encourage you to think about what you eat; and eat better. The rainbow paradigm is divided into the four main food groups of vegetables and fruits, grain products, dairy and other alternatives, and meat and other alternatives. The fruit and vegetable arc is the longest - meaning that on any given day you should eat the greatest number of servings from this one group - but Robert emphasizes that it is important to also eat a variety of foods from each of the other food groups on a daily basis.

In order to ensure that you are doing so, she recommends that you make sure to choose items from at least three of the four groups for every single meal that you plan. She also suggests that when you are in the grocery store, you avoid purchasing foods, such as chips and cookies, that do not fit into any of these four groups. "Minimizing the amount of food you purchase that doesn't fit within a food group is a good strategy," she says. "These foods are usually higher in fat, sugar and sodium, and low in fibre."

Stock up

If your budget allows, Robert suggests stocking up on a few different, long-lasting products. These should include staples such as whole grains, rice and dried legumes, which can be bought in bulk and used as the basis of many meals. They also should include a variety of frozen or canned fruits, vegetables, beans and tuna that have a long shelf life and can easily be tossed into pastas and salads. If you do stock up on canned products, remember that canned vegetables with no added salt, and canned fruits packed in their own juice or water are preferred choices. Stocking up will also make subsequent grocery shopping trips less time-consuming and less expensive. On the other hand, buying too much of a product that is cheaper but that will go to waste, will save neither time nor money. "Buying in bulk is not necessarily cost-effective if it goes bad, says Robert." While mealplanning and list-making are the backbones of healthy shopping and eating, she adds that you should still be flexible about which meals you prepare on any given day. If you come across a good sale for a nutritious item, don't hesitate to change your menu in order to include it. And remember to enjoy the food you eat.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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