Shopping for Healthy Foods at the Grocery Store

Women shopping together in grocery store
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Healthy meal preparation starts at the grocery store, but shopping can be overwhelming and confusing. Oftentimes, people leave with items they didn't want and forget the items they actually intended to buy.

Meal planning and food preparation give you control over ingredients, which can increase the nutrition profile of your meals. Plus, food planning and prep can save you time and money and help prevent food waste. Try these tips to make it easier to navigate the grocery store.

Make a Plan

Before you head to the store, think about the meals you want to prepare for the next few days and make a list of the ingredients you need for each dish. To save money, check your grocery store's website for this week's sales and plan meals around discounted produce and meat.

Some people find using a meal planning app with a built-in shopping list feature can help keep them organized. Popular apps include Mealime and ChefTap.

A 2018 study in the journal Nutrients found that using an app for grocery shopping led to people making healthier choices for both what they purchased and foods consumed.

Check Your Pantry

A well-stocked pantry makes meal planning easier. To avoid doubling up, check to see what items you already have on hand and what you need to replenish. Be sure to take a quick inventory of spices you plan to use.

Organize Your List

Think about the layout of your grocery store. Most start with produce and have meat and dairy on the perimeter. Making an aisle-by-aisle list of what you need can help you get through the store more efficiently and with fewer impulse buys. 

Pick a Quiet Time

Grocery shopping during peak hours can be stressful, not to mention time-consuming. Shopping early in the morning, late in the day, or in the middle of the day on a weekday means the aisles will be easier to navigate your cart through and it will take less time.

Don't Shop Hungry

If you have a history of buying foods you wouldn't normally eat, such as sweets and candy, when you shop hungry, then it's probably a good idea to avoid shopping when your stomach is empty. This can save you money and also help you to stick to your health goals. Consider eating a small snack before you go shopping, or head out shortly after a meal.

Know the Floor Plan

The perimeter of the store is typically where the most nutritious foods—fresh produce, seafood, meats, and dairy products—can be found. Heavily processed foods that are higher in fats, sugar, and sodium are usually in the middle aisles.

Start in the produce section of the store. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables that are firm, ripe, and unblemished. Watch out for mold, especially on berries and produce that's packed tightly together.

Don't Overdo It

Buy only the amount of fresh produce you need for a few days, so your fruits and vegetables don't spoil in your refrigerator. Pick up frozen fruits and veggies if you need to store them longer.

Check Freshness

Look for high-quality meat, seafood, and poultry. The color is not the best indicator of freshness, so follow your nose. Meats and seafood should smell fresh and clean. The flesh should be firm and not sticky or slimy.

Take a few clear plastic bags from the produce department to the meat department. Raw meat should already be wrapped securely, but leakage can occur. Put each selection into a separate bag to be sure there will be no cross-contamination of raw meat juices onto the rest of your grocery items.

Shop Frozen 

Frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as good for you as fresh produce, and will keep in your freezer for longer. Plus, these items are often flash-frozen at peak freshness. 

Frozen meat, poultry, and fish can also be handy for meal prep. Look for individually packaged serving sizes. With frozen foods, you don’t have to scramble to use them before they go bad as you do with fresh food. 

Beware of Bulk Items

Buying in bulk can be a great way to save money and stock up on healthy staples. However, bulk purchases can also have downsides. 

Never load up on an item you have never tried before just because it is on sale. And avoid over-buying trigger foods.  Look for healthy shelf-stable staples and things you can freeze, and get creative with eating them so that you don't get bored.

Don't Forget Calcium

Low- or non-fat dairy products will provide your family with calcium. If you can't or prefer not to have dairy, look for other calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables or dairy alternatives like nut-based milk or yogurt, fortified oat milk, and tofu products.

Choose Healthier Grains

Bread, rice, and cereals are a staple in most people's diets. Choose whole grains whenever possiblel at least half your grains should be whole grains. That means things like 100% whole-wheat bread and pasta, tortillas, oatmeal, popcorn, whole-grain cereal, and brown rice.

Experiment with less traditional whole grains, too. Farro and millet, for example, are tasty, filling, and nutritious.

Read Labels 

Food packaging can be deceptive. It may say “natural” on the front, but the ingredients list shows it's loaded with added sugar and fat. It can help to compare Nutrition Facts labels and ingredients lists on different brands before making a selection.

Reading labels is especially important if you're following a special diet or looking to lose weight. All packaged foods are required to have this information, usually on the side or the back of the package. 

Shop Sales With Caution

Don’t stray from your list just because you see a great deal. Buying items you do not need just because they are on sale doesn’t really save money. Stick to your plan and don’t fall prey to impulse buys. 

Buy Online

Many grocery stores now offer shoppers the ability to order online and have groceries delivered or picked up curbside. Research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition in 2018 suggests that carefully planned online grocery shopping can help to prevent impulse buys and promote healthier selections. Some stores may charge a small fee for this service.

2 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.
  1. Palacios C, Torres M, López D, Trak-Fellermeier M, Coccia C, Pérez C. Effectiveness of the nutritional app "MyNutriCart" on food choices related to purchase and dietary behavior: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Nutrients. 2018;10(12):1967. doi:10.3390/nu10121967

  2. Jilcott Pitts SB, Ng SW, Blitstein JL, Gustafson A, Niculescu M. Online grocery shopping: promise and pitfalls for healthier food and beverage purchases. Public Health Nutr. 2018;21(18):3360-3376. doi:10.1017/S1368980018002409

Additional Reading

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.