Whether you’re looking to lose weight, gain muscle, or just live your all-around healthiest life, what crosses your lips will greatly determine your success. And what crosses your lips starts at your local grocer.

Have you done this?

  • Walked into the grocery store, just you and your cart, and felt overwhelmed by the options.
  • Or you don’t know exactly what you want, but your rumbling stomach is leading you towards the snack aisle.
  • Or you’ve got the budget of a college grad and need to fend off those junk food impulse buys.

I’ve definitely been there too.

We’re all on the search for the perfect storm: the tastiest quality and highest nutrients for an affordable price. We don’t want to fall prey to processed cravings but don’t always know where the best products/produce will be — or where our money will be best spent.

The good news is the grocery store doesn’t have to turn into a health disaster or be a discouraging journey of rabbit food and trail mix. It is possible to strike a balance between what tastes good and what is good for you.

Here are the tips you can use to shop healthy and eat happy:

First, Feed the Beast

“The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one.”

― Erma Bombeck

I’m not sure about the scientific accuracy of that quote, but this is my #1 rule of grocery shopping: Never go to the store hungry. You can probably attest to the fact that shopping hungry results in strange cravings and purchases that cost you money. The worst part is they will more than likely be fat or sugar heavy foods.

Before you shop, fill that stomach!

Then, Stick to the Plan, Man

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” ― Yogi Berra

This is another place where you can run into problems: shopping without a plan. So it’s best to plan your meals ahead of time. Bring a list of exactly what’s required for the day or week and buy only what you need and you’ll spend less and make healthier choices.

I also recommend that you shop the periphery of the store where the lean meats, dairy, and produce are. The supermarket is arranged to get you to buy, not necessarily to make the best choices for your long-term, weight loss, muscle gain, or general health. So processed/caloric-dense products are exhibited in the middle aisles, on easy-to-reach, eye-level shelves.

Try to do 80% of your shopping around the outside edge of the store and you’ll automatically make healthier choices.

Know What Goes In or It May Stay There

I’ve often wondered what people would buy if items were packaged in simple, white boxes with words in black that said what the box contained. Instead, a casual stroll down one supermarket aisle is a case study in marketing. Items that are “Fat-Free!” “Low-Fat” “Whole Grain” “100% Real Cheese” “Gluten Free” may have pretty packages, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy.

The best way to make sure you are making healthy choices is to read labels. The assertive health banners on the front packaging can be misleading; head to the back for real answers. The fewer ingredients you spy, the better.

Calories Aren’t King, (But They Can Add Up In a Hurry)

I talk a lot in my books about calories. For something small and invisible, calories sure get a lot of attention. But it’s for good reason. Calories are important health influencers, especially if you are consuming the wrong types of foods.

So when you are shopping, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Avoid purchasing liquid calories such as pop, fruit juice, and energy drinks. I personally would rather chew my calories than drink them. They may taste good going in, but they add very little nutrition and become something you reach for out of habit rather than health.
  • Buy local in-season foods such as apples, carrots, collard greens, mushrooms, onions, pears, potatoes, rhubarb, and winter squash. These are good for you and cheaper when in season. Plus they add variety to your diet and color to your plate!
  • Beautiful produce isn’t always the best. Local/organic fruits and veggies come just like us, a little lumpy in places, but oh-so worth it. 🙂 The prettier the produce, the more likely it’s covered in pesticides and preservatives.

Check Yo Self! Before You Wreck Your Health. 

A study by IHL Consulting Group found that impulse/junk food purchases dropped by 32.1 percent for women — and 16.7 percent for men — when they use the self-checkout aisle. (Eighty percent of candy and 61 percent of salty-snack purchases are impulse buys and guess where those are most prominently displayed.)

So skip the line, head to self-check, and practice your barcode scanning skills. It will keep you honest about what you are buying if you have to look at each item as you scan it.

Healthy Eating Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank

One of the most common reasons I hear people say for why they aren’t eating healthy is that it’s too expensive. Trust me, after seeing what unhealthy eating does to the human body, I can assure you that eating healthy actually saves you money in the long run and improves your health, your mindset, and your attitude in the short run.

But if you are still concerned about cost, use these tips to save as you shop:

Shop on Wednesdays. According to Progressive Grocer, only 11 percent of Americans shop on Wednesdays, and on any given day, only 4 percent shop after 9:00 p.m. So if you’re shopping at, say, 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, you can get in and out quickly, which means you’ll spend less time fighting impulse items in both the aisles and at the checkout line.

If the weekend is when you do most of your shopping, you’ll recognize that “herded cattle” feeling. So, consider making midweek evening runs, instead. Plus, most grocery stores update their sales midweek. So by shopping then you not only have the opportunity to take your time and shop wisely, you also be one of the first to discover the sales.

Buy in bulk. There’s a reason that membership stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club have become so popular. You may not need a 5 gallon bucket of pickles or a 10 pound bag of coffee, but if you can buy larger quantities of those items you use often, you’ll spend less per trip to the store and avoid running in to “pick up a few things” only to leave with a cart full.

Stick to store-brand canned and packaged goods. They will be nutritionally equivalent to the fancy brands — with usually the exact same ingredients and at a lower price! Remember, the packaging may look good on a shelf, but just like momma always told you, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Preparation Precedes Success

Optimal health is a choice that happens long before you walk in the door to the supermarket. But with a little preparation and commitment, you can choose it every day — and still enjoy delicious, nutritious foods that won’t break the bank.

Learning to shop for your food is the best place to start and the benefits will continue long after the meal is done.

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