Smart Ways to Shop Healthy at the Grocery Store, According to a Registered Dietitian

Stick to your healthy eating goals by following these sensible guidelines.

Close up of woman’s hand shopping for fresh groceries in supermarket and putting a variety of organic vegetables in shopping cart

You know the feeling: you enter the supermarket and feel slightly overwhelmed, anxious about sticking to your healthy guns, nervous about overspending, and dreading the dozens of temptations. But it doesn't have to be that way, as long as you have a plan and a few easy tips to guide you through your grocery shopping trip.

To figure out the best way to have a productive trip to the supermarket that will ensure you stick to your health goals, we spoke to Sherrie Shen, MS, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York City. Read on to learn her healthy grocery shopping tips.

Never Go to the Market Hungry

"My number-one most important tip, whether it's for weight loss or just trying to eat healthy, is to never shop hungry," says Shen. "When we're hungry, we give in to all our cravings." If you go to the supermarket hungry, you're bound to be tempted by unhealthy items that you might not buy normally to satisfy your current hunger. If you make sure you've eaten before you shop, you can focus on your shopping list and only purchase what you need.

If you do need to run to the store when you're hungry, Shen suggests taking a beat when you get inside. "Stop for a moment, think about your goals, and make a little decision tree in your mind," she says. "So if you buy and eat [something unhealthy] you get instant gratification, but that takes you away from your ultimate goal. And then you feel guilty after, and physically you don't feel great either, so it's like a triple negative versus if you make a slightly better choice."

Make a List and Stick to It

Taking the time to write a shopping list will allow you to be intentional and thoughtful about your purchases. "Take a look in your fridge to figure out what you need for the week and what you're missing," says Shen. "And then, try to do your best to stick to that list." When you're in the store, focus on your list and put your blinders on as you move through it, hopefully without getting distracted by processed foods.

Shop the Perimeter of the Store

It's a well-known fact (at least among nutritionists) that healthy, whole foods like produce, meat, poultry, fish, and dairy are stocked on the outer aisles of the market, while much of the processed foods, like cereal, chips, snack bars, and other high-sodium and high-sugar items are in the center aisles, says Shen. So a good rule of thumb is to shop the perimeter as much as possible and avoid the middle part of the store.

The Freezer Aisle Can Be Useful

No, not the frozen dessert section, but the part with frozen produce. "Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as good quality, if not better than the fresh version, because they're actually picked at peak ripeness and in peak season, and then flash frozen so the quality and nutritional benefits are preserved," says Shen. "If you're shopping on a budget or you're someone who doesn't cook too often and your fresh produce tends to go bad, buy the frozen version."

Read the Labels

Most of us need to buy some processed food at one time or another. And while manufacturers often do anything possible to entice you to buy less-than-healthy items, there is one thing shoppers have in their power: the nutrition label and ingredient list. Shen suggests reading each one carefully with a few things in mind.

"If the ingredient list has something you don't know, and you can't pronounce it, it's usually an additive, and in the long term, not really great for you," she says. "Try to buy things that have as few ingredients as possible, and as many whole and clean ingredients as possible."

And on the nutrition label, look at the amount of sugar. "Sugar content should be as low as possible, especially the added sugar," says Shen. Also pay attention to sodium and carbohydrates, and you want things that are high in fiber and protein.

Don't Be Afraid to Shop Generic

According to Shen, a great way to eat healthy, save money, and not skimp on quality is to buy the store brand of items like milk, eggs, yogurt, frozen vegetables, and even healthy snacks, like popcorn and nuts. "Sometimes people have this stigma against buying the store brand because they think it's lesser quality. But really, it's more affordable and the quality is the same, especially for something like frozen broccoli or a can of peas."

Buy in Bulk When You Can

Shen is a fan of Costco and other bulk-buying stores. For dry goods that won't spoil quickly, buying them in bulk is a great way to have healthy foods like whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa, and beans and lentils on hand. "Even eggs will keep in the fridge for a very long time," says Shen. She adds that if there are certain things you always eat a lot of, or have a large family to feed, buying in bulk is the smart move.

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