How to Make a Nutritious Grocery List

Grocery basket with fruits and vegetables sitting in the middle of a grocery store aisle
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Shopping with a list when you go to the grocery store can save you time and money. It also can help you make more nutritious choices and avoid impulse buys. If your budget allows, you want to include foods that contain a robust amount of vitamins, minerals, good fats, antioxidants, and fiber, all of which are valuable for overall your health and wellbeing.

In an ideal situation, focus on whole, unprocessed foods to ensure more nutrients and fewer less additives, like unwanted sugar. That said, not everyone has access to a fully stocked grocery store nor do they always have the budget to buy large amounts of whole foods. In these situations, you may need to get more creative.

Below are some ideas on what you may want to consider adding to your grocery list. Pick and choose what makes sense for your budget and your access.

Fruits and Vegetables

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables for optimal health. Daily requirements for fruits and vegetables vary based on a person's needs. The USDA suggests that those consuming a 2,000 calorie diet eat about 2 1/2 servings of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily.

Consuming a wide variety of whole fruits and vegetables will help ensure you obtain the essential nutrients your body needs to feel and perform at its best. Choosing whole foods, instead of juices or sauces, will provide the added benefit of fiber.

Dried fruit, particularly ones that are made with added sugar, offer concentrated amounts of nutrition but higher amounts of sugar. Check labels to assess how these foods may fit into your meal plan. Here are some types of fruit and vegetables to add to your list:

  • Dark green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, kale. Aim for 1 1/2 to 2 cups per week.
  • Red and orange vegetables such as peppers, red cabbage, carrots, tomatoes. Aim for 4 to 7 1/2 cups per week.
  • Beans, peas, and lentils such as chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, edamame. Aim for 1 to 3 cups per week.
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, squash. Aim for 4 to 8 cups per week.
  • Other vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, cabbage, cauliflower. Aim for 3 1/2 to 7 cups per week.
  • Fruits such as apples, kiwi, bananas, melons, grapes. Aim for 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups per day.

Please remember, that the amounts will vary depending on your individual needs. These recommendations above are based on the USDA recommendations for a 2,000 calorie diet.

Budget-Friendly Tips

If your budget is limited, you might want to shop for fruits and vegetables that are in season. They tend to be more reasonably priced then due to the fact that the supply is greater and they do not have to be shipped as far. You also can buy in bulk and freeze extras before they go bad to use at a later date.

For instance, apples are a good option to buy in bulk because they are not only relatively affordable, but versatile as well. Meanwhile, bananas also are relatively inexpensive and can be frozen to use in smoothies or banana bread if they are starting to go brown. Another money-saving option is to buy frozen vegetables or canned fruits packed in water or 100% juice.

You also may want to consider adding cabbage to your shopping list if you have access to a grocery store. It is a vitamin-packed and versatile green that can use if for tacos, stir fry dishes, salads, and slaws. Plus, it is usually less expensive than lettuce and tends to last slightly longer.

Likewise, dried or canned beans and lentils usually are a budget-friendly purchase that can help stretch a meal. They also are shelf-stable ingredients that will last for some time. So, if your meal plan gets off track one week, you don't have to worry about beans and lentils going bad.

Dairy and Eggs

Dairy contains significant amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and potassium which are vitamins and minerals responsible for strong and healthy bones, reduced risk of osteoporosis, and reduced risk of bone fractures. Aim to consume 3 cups of dairy products per day.

Without dairy products in your diet, it is more challenging to consume the levels of these nutrients necessary for bone health. However, if you are plant-based or cannot tolerate daily careful planning can help ensure your bones stay healthy. There are several fortified dairy alternatives available.

Before you start adding dairy alternatives to your shopping cart, it it's important to note that not all alternatives are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients that mimic the nutrient profile of animal milk. Read the nutrition labels before making any decisions.

Eggs are a highly nutrient-rich source of protein. They contain vitamin D (necessary for calcium absorption), phosphorus, vitamin A (important nutrient for your eyes, skin, and cells), and B vitamins. Eggs also provide riboflavin, selenium, and choline—nutrients vital for brain health. 

Consider adding hard and soft cheeses, cottage cheese, milk, cream, yogurt, and kefir. Some dairy products contain probiotics which provide further benefits for overall health. When choosing dairy products like flavored yogurts, be conscious of added sugars.

Budget-Friendly Tips

Eggs are a fairly affordable and filling protein that can be eaten almost any time of day. For instance, you can have eggs for breakfast, make a scramble for lunch, or eat a hard boiled egg as a snack. Plus, they are usually readily available in most grocery stores, convenience stores, and mini marts.

Another way you might stretch a dollar is to buy your cheese in bulk if you can. Not only will it cost less per ounce, but it also freezes fairly easily so you won't have to put it on your list every week if you are able to stock up.

Bread, Cereal, and Grains

Breads, cereals, and grains provide fiber and many nutrients, especially in their whole form. Choosing whole grains for the majority of your intake in this category is a wise choice for your overall health. Consuming whole-grain bread, cereal, and grains may reduce your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. The fiber in these foods can also contribute to healthy digestion.

Whole grains contain all three different parts of grain which are the bran, endosperm, and germ. The bran is the outer layer and contains fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. The germ is the core of the seed where growth occurs. This part of the grain is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. And the endosperm contains the starchy part of the kernel below the bran and is what refined flours are processed from. The endosperm is naturally low in vitamins and minerals.

Dietary guidelines suggest consuming 3 to 5 ounces per day, but recommendations vary based on needs. Some foods in this category to add to your healthy grocery list include:

  • Barley
  • Amaranth
  • Kamut
  • Rye
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Quinoa (a seed that's generally treated as a grain)
  • Whole-grain bread, cereal, and pasta

Choose whole-grain flours when baking or cooking to boost the nutrient content of your meals. Look for whole-grain options of pre-made bread, cereal, crackers, and other products when possible. Keep an eye on the labels for added sugars and refined starches.

Budget-Friendly Tips

Look for inexpensive grains such as rice, oats, and store-brand pastas. You may also want to look at store-brand cereals that are made with whole grains and are low in added sugar. Ideally, the sugar content of the cereal should be fewer than 5 grams.

Meat, Fish, and Tofu

Meat, fish, and tofu as well as other plant-based meat alternatives provide protein. Animal-based protein also contains essential nutrients such as iron, B12, zinc, and more. Protein is an essential macronutrient your body needs to function, responsible for the building and repair of your body's tissues.

Protein is necessary for the building and maintenance of muscle mass, which is necessary for daily functioning and healthy aging. And, it's responsible for creating enzymes and DNA, helping the immune system function properly, and helps you grow.

Fish is high in healthy fats as well. Aim for two servings per week of fish and seafood. Fatty acids such as omega-3s are vital for heart health, cancer prevention, and cognitive functioning.

Meat alternatives such as tofu can help plant-based eaters obtain protein. It's essential that vegans plan their intake carefully since most plant-based proteins lack some of the essential amino acids. Consuming a wide variety of protein-rich plant foods can help ensure you get enough.

Here are some protein-rich foods to add to your healthy grocery shopping list:

  • Meat and poultry such as chicken, beef, turkey, and pork. Aim for 23 to 33 ounces per week.
  • Seafood such as shrimp, salmon, halibut, crab, canned tuna packed in water. Aim for 8 to 10 ounces per week.
  • Nuts, seeds, or soy products such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, tofu. Aim for 4 to 6 ounces per week.

Keep in mind that these dietary recommendations are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your individual needs may vary.

Budget-Friendly Tips

To stretch your budget, find recipes that use peanut butter and canned salmon, tuna or sardines. Just be sure to look for canned fish that are wild caught and packed in water. These items are not only inexpensive protein sources, they also have a long shelf life. You also can shop for fresh meat or poultry items that are on sale and buy in bulk.

For instance, you may find that the value packs of different meats, poultry, and fish are more economical than buying a smaller package. Simply freeze what you are not using right away to have another week.

Pantry Staples

Nutritious pantry staples that can help you craft delicious, healthy meals at home include shelf-stable foods belonging to the other food groups. Some ideas of what to keep on hand include:

  • Canned vegetables and fruit such as diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, applesauce for baking, canned fruit in water or juice, marinated or pickled vegetables.
  • Canned and dried beans and legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans.
  • Low-sodium broth or stock such as chicken stock, beef stock, fish stock, vegetable stock.
  • Oils such as olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil.
  • Flours such as whole wheat, rye, oat, almond, spelt.
  • Dried herbs and spices such as cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, rosemary.
  • Condiments such as mustard, tamari, low-sodium soy sauce, salsa, vinegar, garlic-chili sauce, curry paste, hot sauce.

Check nutrition labels for added sugar, sodium, hydrogenated/trans fat, or other additives you would rather avoid.


Snacks are best when they serve as small meals, meaning they are balanced in terms of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Well-balanced snacks can stave off hunger and help you reach your nutrient goals. Not everyone enjoys snacking, so if you prefer to eat the standard three meals per day, that's OK as long as you are hitting your body's nutrient requirements.

Here are some ideas for nutritious snacking:

  • Yogurt
  • Guacamole
  • Cheese sticks
  • Dark chocolate
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Olives
  • Pickles
  • Popcorn
  • Seeds
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Protein powder, shakes, and bars (check labels for added sugars)
  • Hummus, tzatziki
  • Carrots, celery, cucumber, grape tomatoes
  • Whole fruit

A Word From Verywell

A nutritious grocery list helps you reach your nutrition goals by providing nutrient-dense foods that are filling and delicious. Enjoying your meals is vital to sticking to healthy eating habits, so make sure you choose foods you love. Focusing on nutrient-rich foods is important, but so is enjoying the occasional less-nutritious food. Writing out a healthy grocery list before shopping can help you make the most out of your grocery budget while aiming toward optimal health.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What groceries do I buy to eat healthy on a budget?

    To eat nutritious foods on a budget, focus on frozen and canned produce, whole grains, and dried beans and legumes. Avoiding pre-made foods will cut down on your spending and help you create more nutritious meals. Buying in bulk can also help you trim your grocery spending.

  • What is on a healthy grocery list for men who exercise?

    Men who exercise should consume plenty of lean protein such as chicken, fish, and beef, as well as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and healthy fats. If you are hoping to gain muscle, focus on obtaining higher levels of protein. To lose weight, focus on creating a calorie deficit using whole foods in smaller portions.

  • What should be on a healthy grocery list for people who don’t cook?

    If you do not cook but want to eat healthy, try buying pre-made salads, frozen stirfry mixes, pre-cooked protein sources, and healthy pre-made snacks such as whole grain crackers, granola bars, and cereals. There are also nutritious options for frozen and canned meals but watch out for added sugar, sodium, and other additives.

12 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. Protein.

  8. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Whole grains.

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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.