On the subject of shopping for and preparing nutritious meals, one piece of advice that I like to share is that it’s best to stick to the outer walls of the supermarket and avoid the center. So with only a few exceptions, like flour, oil and beans, that’s exactly how I shop. What does it mean to shop at the edges of the supermarket? Let me show you what I choose, and where I get it. I thought that this week I would invite you to join me on a virtual shopping trip to the supermarket around the corner from my home.
Entering the store now with a cart, I walk straight into the produce section, where I buy the bulk of my groceries. Most supermarkets are set up so that you have to walk through the fresh fruits and vegetables to get to the rest of the store. That’s how they increase the chances that shoppers will buy fresh produce while it’s still fresh. The shelf life of produce is obviously quite short in comparison with the boxed, bottled, and canned items in the supermarket.
The produce section is easily identified with its enormous mountains of seasonal items, usually well-priced. Today I pick apples, blackberries, strawberries, a couple of grapefruits, kiwi, sweet potatoes, red leafy lettuce, red and green peppers, a few jalapenos, lemons, asparagus, tomatoes (roma and vine), potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, fresh garlic, and bananas, which make my husband very happy. At the edge of the produce section are shelves filled with all kinds of nuts, nut butters, and dried fruit. I get 2 containers of freshly ground peanut butter, and one bag each of dates and dried apricots. Then I move on.
At the back of the store now, in dairy, I take whole milk and butter. Sometimes I find Hartzler’s milk and butter from a family-owned farm about 50 miles away, sometimes not. If I need eggs, this is where they will be. I select a few cheeses to add to the substantial pile already in my refrigerator, and I take a pint of cream. I always keep cream in the refrigerator; a spoonful in my tea is one of my daily morning pleasures. Cream is also the secret ingredient that turns a light and flavorful vegetable soup into a concoction whose essence is entirely more sublime. Last year we were lucky to receive an ice cream maker as a gift from my parents, so if I’m organized enough, and inclined to make some ice cream, I buy two pints of cream instead of one.
I avoid margarines and coffee whiteners, which are placed in the cold section simply to provide the illusion that they require refrigeration. Keeping them cold makes them seem more like real dairy products and increases sales. Otherwise, there’s no reason for them to be here. Or anywhere else, as far as I am concerned.
Now I turn away from the outer wall and head down a long aisle to get a few cans of cooked beans and bags of dry beans. If I want rice (brown) or pasta (whole grain), I’ll get them nearby. I venture into the aisles to add mustard, olives, pickles, and cans of tuna to my cart. Some weeks I need tea, coffee, spices, pet food, baking supplies, foil or detergent. But otherwise, I stay out of the aisles. We don’t need chips, breakfast cereals, snack bars, canned soups, sodas, or Hawaiian Punch. My great-great-great grandparents didn’t eat them, and neither will we. I turn back toward the dairy, and add 2 large containers of plain yogurt to my cart.
The frozen section doesn’t have much for me. Once in a while I buy frozen peas or chopped spinach, and occasionally I am in the market for a frozen pie crust (yes, I have been known to purchase …) but that’s about it, except for the occasional pints of ice cream. I look for sales in the premium ice creams, and stay away from brands with long lists of ingredients with unpronounceable names.
The bakery, located just past the frozen section, is where I find a loaf of whole-grain, seeded bread. I was very happy when, a few years ago, the supermarket decided to carry this bread made by a local, well-known bakery. Before that, I used to make my final bread selection by choosing a loaf that contained at least 3 g fiber/slice, listed whole wheat as the first ingredient, and — as a tie breaker — felt heaviest in my hands. I still do that sometimes.
Just past the bakery is the meat section. This year the supermarket actually began to carry a line of organic, pastured chicken. Before that, I bought a regular brand. But even the kids agree that the pastured chicken is truly delicious, so we decided it was worth it. Now, maybe once a month, I’ll buy a whole chicken to roast with lemons and garlic or thyme from our herb garden. Other times, I fill a roasting pan with chicken legs and thighs, cover the chicken pieces with generous amounts of onions and tomato sauce, cover the pan with foil, cook it at 325 for 2 hours, and then cook it uncovered at 400 for 15 more minutes.
As I turn for the last time to return to the checkout area, I pass the fish counter. Once a week, we have tilapia or salmon. Maybe once or twice a year, I bring home wild salmon. It’s not cheap, but then again it’s not on my list every week either. Near the checkout, I stop for olive oil and a large bottle of cider vinegar. Done. I purchased almost all of the food my family will consume this week at the edges of the supermarket.
Roxanne Sukol is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Your Health is on Your Plate.
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