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10 Tips for Smarter Food Shopping

Do you like food shopping? For many people it’s a dreadful chore. To be fair, it’s hard to be excited about spending hours in a grocery store, carrying heavy bags and later opening your packed fridge to still find nothing you’d actually want to eat. But maybe you are approaching it wrong? Food shopping doesn’t have to be exhausting and it definitely shouldn’t result in a fridge full of unhealthy foods. Here are a few tips from your local Towson, Maryland nutrition counselor on how to shop smart and buy food that will nourish your body and mind.

10 tips for smarter food shopping

1. Read the Label

Yes, it sounds obvious, but stores make it very easy to grab a wrong item, especially when there are several varieties of the same thing. For example, you could mistakenly put a sweetened yogurt in your cart instead of the unsweetened one you wanted. Or you could mix up an organic product with a non-organic one because the packaging looks similar. When you are shopping with your spouse or kids, also check what they are putting in the cart. It’s easy to turn on an auto pilot and end up with a cart full of stuff you didn’t mean to buy.

2. Watch How Much You Buy

Retailers intentionally trick you into buying more by packaging foods in smaller containers, so you don’t feel as bad for buying “this tiny thing.” But these tiny containers are often combined into 4-packs or 6-packs, so at the end you buy more than you would if you picked a bigger container. Even if it’s something healthy, you still don’t want to buy more than your family can eat.

3. Check the Dates

Manufacturer markings on foods we buy are confusing and probably deserve a separate blog post. But without going into too much detail, just remember this: always check the item’s “sell by” or expiration date if it’s visible on the packaging. You want this date to be as far in the future as possible, but to a reasonable degree, of course. If it looks like no way anything can last this long, you probably shouldn’t buy it. Remember that items with more advanced expiration dates are usually at the back of the shelf. Merchandisers place them so that foods expiring first get grabbed first, so you may have to dig deeper if you want a fresher, longer-lasting milk carton.

4. Read the Ingredients

Even if you’ve been buying something for years, stop for a second and look at the back of the packaging. Do you see ingredients you can’t pronounce or the words “modified” and “GMO?” If so, you probably shouldn’t buy whatever that is. Try to stay away from processed foods and buy more whole foods—foods that haven’t been milled, heated or chopped beyond recognition. Fruits and vegetables are great examples of whole foods that you should incorporate into your diet. Spend less time in the aisles and more time in the produce section. Consuming nutrient-rich food should be one of your main goals when buying groceries.

5. Come Prepared

Food shopping always goes smoother if you know what you need to buy. The best way to approach this is to make a meal plan ahead of time, so that you know which ingredients and in what quantities you need. However, this may not always be possible or may not be realistic for your lifestyle. If you don’t have a meal plan, the least you can do is make a list of the foods you ran out of. Before going shopping, check your fridge and pantry for any staples that you are missing and write them down. This will give you a framework for the things you absolutely need to buy.

6. Avoid Impulse Buys

By definition, an impulse buy means purchasing something you didn’t intend to buy. If you know what you came to the store for, it’s easier to catch the impulse buys. However, if you are shopping without any specific purpose other than to fill your fridge, then every buy could be an impulse buy. Generally, avoid buying anything from the shelves along the checkout line. This is a trap for impulse buyers. If you catch yourself buying something out of the ordinary, ask yourself whether you actually want it or need it, especially if it’s not particularly healthy. But even with healthy foods, you want to buy only as much as you can eat, which brings us to the next point.

7. Don’t Go Food Shopping When You are Hungry

It’s been proven by studies that hungry people buy more high-calorie foods and more food in general. You may end up with a hefty grocery bill because you’ve based your purchasing decisions on your current appetite, which is not a reflection of your long-term nutritional needs.

8. Be Aware of Subliminal Messages

You may not realize this, but stores go to extreme lengths to get people to buy stuff. There are many different ways they attempt to influence our buying decisions on a subliminal level. Here are a few examples:

  • They give you coupons for free stuff
  • They pump the store full of sounds and smells that relax you or make you hungry
  • They make it look like you are getting a great deal, while it might be minimal savings
  • They place certain items strategically to catch your eye

9. Go Out of Your Comfort Zone

It’s nice to have a shopping routine, but sticking to it all the time may get boring and, sometimes, unhealthy. It’s great if you’ve done your research and picked the brands you like based on their taste and nutritional value. But sometimes we keep buying foods because our mom has always used it or because a circular always has a coupon for it. Every once in a while evaluate the foods and brands you choose. Check the ingredients, compare different brands, see if you can make it yourself instead of buying premade, etc. And don’t be afraid to try new things. Kombucha? Hummus? Kale chips? Who knows, you may discover your new favorite food!

10. Set a Schedule

When you go to a store without a particular time commitment, you may end up staying longer and buying more. But when you have things to do before and/or after your scheduled food shopping trip, you tend to stay focused because you are on a mission. And when you are on a mission, you tend to avoid impulse buys and fill your cart with the foods you came there to buy.

Know of any other smart food shopping tips and tricks that have worked for you? Let us know in the comments!

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