How often do we begin our grocery shopping with a good food list, but by the time we reach aisle 8, few of the items in our cart could qualify as healthy? Grocery stores count on this — that we will respond to impulse, temptation and our children’s tantrums. Here’s a healthy shopping training manual to get you started on the right track:
Making your list and checking it twice
Before you complete your shopping list, decide what is important to you and your family. Is it health? Convenience? Value? All of the above? There are plenty of experts who’ll tell you to buy only organic, only free-range, only low fat, only low carb, and on and on. Follow your instincts based on your family’s age, nutrition needs, lifestyle and budget. Now that you know your convictions, let’s start shopping.
Aisle 1: You Can’t Go Wrong with Fruits and Veggies
Spend most of your time in the produce department, followed by the frozen fruit and vegetables section. There are no poor choices here and the only decision is organic versus conventionally grown.
Perhaps you like the idea of fewer pesticides, but can’t always afford, or even justify, the higher price of certified organic. The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of foods that commonly test for the highest levels of residues. These include child-friendly favorites like apples, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, pears, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, celery, potatoes, spinach and bell peppers. While the residue levels are below government thresholds, if your children eat these foods again and again, you may want to consider buying from organic sources. An easy way to identify organic produce is by the number nine. Stuck to every fruit and vegetable is a sticker with a five-digit price code — organic foods always begin with the number 9.
A lesser-known label is Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which doesn’t forbid pesticides outright, but uses farming methods that significantly reduce pesticide usage. Most states have IPM programs; if your grocer doesn’t carry IPM-certified products, request it from the store manager. This is a farming sector that needs more consumer support.
Aisle 2: Look for Lean Meats and Poultry
“Lean” is the key word in this department. In many families, a staple is ground meat and poultry. Read the label carefully because it’s natural to assume that ground turkey is lower in fat than hamburger, but this isn’t always the case. With turkey, look for the words “lean” and “white”; packages labeled as such are markedly leaner than other brands.
Remember that ground beef and hamburger are not nutritionally identical. Ground beef is usually leaner than hamburger because the latter can contain as much as 30 percent fat. Ground sirloin, ground round and lean ground beef will have the least saturated fat.
Aisle 3: Go for Whole Grains and Cereals
Disregard the buzzers and whistles, ignore your kid’s pleas for the cartoon character brand, and read the ingredient panels on breads, cereals, snack foods, crackers and pre-made soups, and rice and pasta mixes. A bread label may say it’s made “with whole grains”, but if it’s not 100 percent so, there isn’t much to brag about. A cereal box may say “heart healthy” but the ingredient panel may reveal heart damaging hydrogenated fats (trans fats), hidden sugars like dextrose, high salt content, and minimal amounts of whole grains. Better indicators of health are foods with low sugar (5g or less), low sodium (140mg), and at least 5g protein and 5g fiber.
Aisle 4: Naturally Good Juices
Drink boxes and bags have the advantage of being impervious to even the most rough-and-tumble kids, but consider what they’re made of. Though the word “natural” may be on the box, these fruit drinks can contain as much as 26g of sweeteners per serving, which is at least six teaspoons. When reading labels, look for 100 percent juice brands — they may cost a bit more but the improved nutrient profile is worth the price.
Aisle 5: Changing Your Oil
Fat used to be considered a four-letter word in nutrition, however these energy-packed streams of gold can be lifesavers. Without healthy fats, our blood pressure plummets and our nervous system misfires. But with too many saturated fats, heart disease is a risk. One oil stands out for having the lowest saturated fat, the healthiest fatty acids, and the most versatility — canola. This oil can replace most or at least half the butter or shortening in most baking recipes. (Replace 1 cup solid fat with 3/4 cup oil; 1/2 cup solid fat with 1/3 cup oil; 1/4 cup solid fat with 3 tablespoons oil). Also consider heart healthy and flavorful avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, grape seed and nut oils to drizzle on vegetables and salads.
Above all, avoid all products with hydrogenated fats (trans fats). These chemically created fats can contribute to heart damage. Be aware there is an FDA loophole allowing for products with .5g or less of trans fat to be labeled as trans-fat free, so read the ingredient panel.
By following these five tips — stocking up on fruits and vegetables, looking for lean meats and poultry, going for whole grains, avoiding added sugars and changing your oil — you can significantly improve the health of your family and maybe, just maybe, stick to your shopping list and stay within your budget.
Health and food writer KIMBERLY LORD STEWART is author of the new book, “Eating Between the Lines, The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels” (St. Martin’s Griffin).
Eat more fruit – and veggies
Just when we got used to 5-a-Day — the recommendation for eating five fruits and/or vegetables daily — there is a new initiative to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption, Fruits and Veggies—More Matters. The website, www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org, offers recipes and tips for getting kids to eat more of these. In the “ask the expert” section, users can direct questions to an expert dietician, and mom.
A healthy breakfast choice, Mom’s Best Naturals, is expanding its offerings with whole grain, all natural cereal. Mallo-oats, which resemble a certain sweetened cereal, have a much healthier profile, with less sugar, and no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. The cereals are sold in 16–24oz.boxes for $2.49-$3.49 at Shop-Rite, much less than most conventional or natural cereals.