Plan your weekly meals.
First things first: you need a road map for the week. What will you be eating each day? Think breakfast, lunch and dinner. Use the notes app on your phone, a whiteboard in the kitchen or a notepad to jot down your meals for the week. I typically eat the same things for breakfast (smoothies, steel cut oats, etc.) and lunch (mostly salads) each week so I don't bother writing those meals down as I know what I need for them. However, I always write out each dinner for the week. This typically happens on a Saturday so that I am prepared for my weekly shopping trip on Sunday or Monday.
Keep it simple.
Find inspiration for healthy meals in healthy eating magazines (Vegetarian Times, Eating Well, Clean Eating, etc.); online from sites like Pinterest (shameless plug: have you started following my "eat" board on Pinterest?) or healthy eating blogs; and, from family members of friends you know enjoy cooking healthy and eating clean. Start with simple meals that require few ingredients, involve simple cooking techniques (like baking, roasting, steaming, etc.) and take no more than 60 minutes to prepare (aim for closer to 30 minutes if possible). Remember: your goal is to set yourself up for success in the kitchen and in order to do that you need to keep goals realistic and attainable. You'll be quick to quit if your first attempt in the kitchen involves braised lamb shank and homemade caramelized onion croissants that take three hours of prepping, hovering, etc. Simple is almost always better and I still abide by this tip myself. Save the fancy meals for your dinner out. Cooking should be fun not torturous.
Create an organized shopping list and stick to it.
Use the above meal plan to craft a grocery list. Walk through each meal and write down exactly what you will need to make it. Don't forget to include items for breakfasts, lunches, snacks and any other pantry staples you might be out of (i.e., olive oil, quinoa, spices, etc.). I like to use the the note app on my iphone. I list my weekly dinners and then I jot down my ingredients in the same note. I can quickly look up and reference my meals while making my list. While I wouldn't consider myself the most organized person on the planet I do aim for a high level of organization when it comes to my grocery list. I organize my shopping list by item (all veggies together, all fruits together, frozen goods, pantry items, etc.) and according to where they are found in the store. For instance, I hit the produce section first so at the top of my grocery list are vegetables followed by fruits. This allows me to quickly make my way around the store (a must with a busy toddler who doesn't want to be confined in the cart) getting everything from each section I need before moving onto the next part of the list. I get satisfaction from watching my list shrink as I delete items from it once they've been tossed into my cart. Finally, stick with your list. Don't start improvising once you get to the store. If cookies aren't on your list then don't buy them. If you can't handle the temptation of certain snack foods then do your best to avoid those aisles so you won't be tempted.
Never go on an empty stomach.
This is a HUGE no no! If you've ever been to the grocery store on an empty, growling stomach then you know how much of a distraction it is. Everything looks good especially all of those not-so-good-for-you foods. You'll find that it is much harder to say no to those unhealthier food options when you're feeling ravenous. If you're able aim to hit the grocery store right after a meal when your belly is nice and full. Not possible? Be sure to indulge in a small snack (100-200 calories) before stepping foot inside. With a content belly you will be better able to focus on the task at hand.
Do most of your shopping on the outer edges of the store.
Why? Because this is where the real foods are found. The aisles contain all of the packaged and processed foods. Plain and simple: stick to the perimeter and you're bound to end up with better-for-you foods.
Fill your cart with more real and whole foods than packaged ones.
This is a no brainer. If your cart contains more whole and plant based foods then that will be what you're cooking with at home. Eat more of these foods and less of the processed junk and you'll feel better each and every day. As you're wrapping up your shopping trip take a quick poll of the items in your cart. Is it dominated by boxed, packaged and processed foods? If so, make a mental note to tweak your grocery list the following week.
Avoid foods with extensive ingredient lists or ingredients you can't pronounce.
It would be unrealistic of me to ask that you never purchase a single processed item so I won't. However, I will ask that you look at the labels of those packaged items so that you can be an informed consumer. The fewer the ingredients the better. Also, if there are ingredients that you can't pronounce or have never heard of then I would encourage you to put the item back on the shelf. You should be able to read through a food label and recognize the ingredients. Often times the really long unfamiliar ingredients are artificial flavors and preservatives; things that can easily be avoided if you make the item yourself at home (i.e., nut butters, nut milks, breads, etc.).
Keep these healthy "starters" in your cupboard so you always have the basis for creating a nutritious meal.
I make sure I always have the following pantry items on hand: quinoa, brown rice, lentils, dried beans, nuts, nut butter, steel cut oats, low sodium vegetable stock, sweet potatoes, onions, olive oil, coconut oil, dried basil, oregano, ginger, cinnamon and cumin. These are the items I tend to use on a regular basis. They are also items that when paired with a few fresh ingredients (vegetables, lean cuts of meat, etc.) can quickly become an easy (and healthy) dinner.
Wondering about purchasing organic?
I try to buy mostly organic, but I admit that sometimes I, like others, get sticker shock. At the very least I encourage you to buy organic when purchasing the "dirty dozen". Check out the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) 2013 Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Now that you're armed with my secret tips for successfully navigating the grocery store it's time to get shopping!
What other tips and tricks allow you to be successful at the grocery store?