Grocery store tips to avoid poor dietary and financial decisions

Taking a trip to the grocery store can be more dangerous than you’d think.

Waiting for you in each and every aisle are marketing ploys aimed at suppressing your better reasoning, the ultimate result being you making poor dietary or financial decisions – whether you know it or not (enter the 100 calorie pack, my arch nemesis, right behind diet soda).  But it doesn’t have to be that way – here are several philosophies I use to help me make purchases that are better for my health and my wallet.

We may have come a long way from our foraging roots, but channeling your ancestral drive is a great way to make “evolutionarily smart” diet choices.  Stay away from foods that have copious amounts of packaging – they are invariably more processed and almost certainly a poorer decision than something else you can find nearby.  The majority of the foods you purchase should be ingredients for a meal, not meals themselves.

Buy generic

Who are you trying to impress – the guys who pick up your recyclables?  With few exceptions (and I mean few), I purchase all generic or store-brand items.  Many times, these items offer equal or better quality than national brands, and are even produced & packaged at the same plants.  Generic brands are often marked down as part of store specials, and you can really save money over time by choosing them when they’re on sale.  When the fancy stuff is marked down and comparable, go ahead (but check the expiration date).

Shop often

This tip isn’t for everyone, and may be less ideal for larger families, but can be helpful for those who can manage it (i.e. the 23 year old single medical student).  Stores change their sales every so often, and if something that caught your eye isn’t on sale one day, it may very well be the next time you’re in the store – and sometimes you’ll be kicking yourself for paying the higher price.  A great example is my favorite bread:  Arnold’s Natural Ancient Grains. A loaf of this bread typically costs over $5.00 after tax, but I find that if I wait for my second trip of the week, it’s often marked down to $2.49 – thanks, general public, for buying up all that unhealthy raisin bread and leaving the good stuff for me.

Know when to buy organic

If it’s part of your food philosophy and you’ve got disposable income, then go ahead.  Otherwise, if you’re trying to avoid pesticides, you should know which produce is alright to buy conventional:  bananas, onions, garlic, and avocados are examples of fruits & veggies that aren’t worth buying organic (from a safety perspective).  A general rule to follow is that if you peel the item before eating it, go with conventionally-grown options.  If you eat the skin (e.g. apples, strawberries, peaches, lettuce, tomatoes), you’ll want to wash conventional produce at home or opt for organic/pesticide free.

Stick to the perimeter

This is the classic “smart shopping” tip, but as many times as you may have heard this, I must pay it proper homage.  The mentality is similar to my first tip – you should be picking whole foods, which are mostly found in the produce, meat, seafood, and dairy sections.  You should only be venturing into the aisles for items like canned beans, frozen veggies, and whole grains.

Finally, if you’re in a real rush, keep in mind Michael Pollan’s simple, over-arching diet philosophy: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

James Haddad is a medical student who blogs at Abnormal Facies.

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