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I always hate returning from vacation to find an empty fridge and a pantry filled only with baking soda and raisins — it’s time to hit up the grocery store! Problem is it can get pricey restocking the kitchen. But as summer (and the threat of beach bodies) approaches and the pursuit of a healthier me takes on a bigger priority, it’s time to put a bit more thought into how to grocery shop smarter, cleaner and cheaper.

Whether you’re trying to lose weight, improve heart health, avoid pesticides, etc., you gotta eat. And deciding what to spend your hard-earned money on — organic, non-GMO, low fat, natural — can get confusing and quite expensive. Getting the healthiest bang for your buck, especially at large chain grocery stores like Kroger and Publix, is entirely doable for anyone behind the shopping cart. We sat down with board-certified health coach and The Get Real Diet author Lindsay Hill to figure out how to use the green in our wallet to find the most cost-effective greens (and reds, yellows, oranges … you get the pun) at the grocery store.

Know Before You Go

Shopping healthy on a budget starts before you even set foot in your grocery store. “First and foremost, go into the grocery store with a game plan and buy exactly what you need so that you don’t waste any food,” says Lindsay. “Before you buy, think about the number of meals you will be eating at home that week and buy accordingly, trying to work in a variety of proteins and vegetables and sources of healthy fat.”

Hit up your favorite grocery store’s website/app and see if there are any specials or deals happening, and of course, clip those coupons. This is also a great way to help come up with meal ideas for the week and avoid the stress of coming up with dinners on the fly.

Make sure you check the grocery store's website and/or app for deals and savings before you head to the store.

Make sure you check the grocery store’s website and/or app for deals and savings before you head to the store.

“The best deals in the store are always up front,” says Lindsay. “The cheapest and best-tasting produce is what’s in season and grown nearby. Nutrient-dense foods like avocados, apples and sweet potatoes can be found at great prices at certain times of year but not others. So go into the store with a plan in mind, but also be open-minded enough so that you can take advantage of great deals.”

Heads up: Do NOT enter the supermarket on an empty stomach — that’s a major trigger for choosing items that aren’t so healthy as well as wasting money on empty calories.

Stick to the Perimeter

Although some of you ITP folk may avoid the perimeter like the plague, when it comes to healthy grocery shopping, it’s key. Think of the grocery store like a doughnut pineapple ring — don’t fall into the center; stick to the edges of the store first and hit up the produce, fish/meat and dairy sections. Then make your way through the aisles of the packaged items. If you are going to splurge, make sure you do so on produce — select a rainbow of colorful fruits and veggies for your cart. And bonus? Stick to seasonal offerings that will simultaneously keep you within your budget and create delicious meals.

Shop the perimeter of the store first to select fresh items, such as produce, meats and cheeses.

Shop the perimeter of the store first to select fresh items such as produce, meats and cheeses. Image: Grannis Photography

“Frozen fruits and vegetables are a good option if what’s in season is not to your liking or too expensive. If you give yourself enough time in the store to pay attention to prices and deals, it’s quite easy to find affordable produce every month of the year,” says Lindsay.

When perusing the meat and poultry sections, remember to be cognizant of the healthier cuts of meat. For example, this is a nutritional facts sign listing the calories, fat, sodium, etc. of the various parts of the bird.

When perusing the meat and poultry sections, remember to be cognizant of the healthier cuts of meat. For example, this is a nutritional facts sign listing the calories, fat, sodium, etc. of the various parts of the bird.

The Big O

Eating healthy doesn’t just have to do with calories — it’s also about clean eating and keeping your tank in good condition, which brings up the topic of choosing organic. Obviously nobody wants to ingest a lot of chemicals and pesticides; however, organic food does tend to cost more and it can be financially difficult to completely restock your fridge with these items.

The Environmental Working Group publishes their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists every year, ranking those fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide residue, respectively. For example, if you eat a ton of strawberry spinach salad and notice that both ingredients are at the top of the 2017 Dirty Dozen list (which they are), it might make sense for you to select the organic versions for these two. Meaning, “even if a food you like is in the dirty dozen, you only have to buy organic if you eat these foods often (more than once or twice a week) to keep your overall exposure to pesticides low,” says Lindsay.

She continues, “If your budget is tight, just buy organic versions of the [foods] you eat the most often. If you are concerned about eating GMO foods (genetically modified ingredients), just avoid packaged foods, which you should eat sparingly anyway. For example, if lunch every day is a turkey sandwich or a salad with chicken, and you can’t afford to buy all natural or organic turkey and chicken, then eat a nut butter or veggie-and-hummus sandwich some days, or a salad with chick peas, instead of chicken a few times a week. The only foods that contain a worrisome amount of GMO ingredients are low quality, highly processed packaged corn- and soy-based foods.”

If you’re concerned about pesticides, check the Environmental Working Group‘s annual list of the Clean Fifteen and the Dirty Dozen to see which fruits and veggies have made the cut, for better or worse. Large grocery chains, like Kroger, whose fresh fruit is shown here, offer both organic and non-organic options. Image: Grannis Photography

Trick Your Wallet

I don’t have a large enough word count to go through the entire grocery store and mention every healthful item (this is a great article to get started on). However, there are some tricks to share when trying to stock up on a budget.

As we mentioned before, coupons and specials are your friend. Don’t be scared of buying the generic versions of items like brown rice, oats and other foods — in fact, most chain retailers now carry their own organic lines of food (like Publix’s Greenwise and Kroger’s Simple Truth), which saves money AND gives you a chance to select natural ingredients.

Honestly, organic food usually does cost more than its non-organic counterparts. However, make sure you check prices dutifully because sometimes the price may only differ by pennies (like these organic baby carrots).

Honestly, organic food usually does cost more than its non-organic counterparts. However, make sure you check prices dutifully because sometimes the price may only differ by pennies (like these organic baby carrots).

Lindsay emphasizes that “the smartest way to eat healthfully on a budget is to eat foods that give you good nutrient bang for your buck and actually fill you up so you need a lower volume of food.” Remember, choosing cost-effective, healthy foods in the grocery store doesn’t require a trainer or some fancy app. The United States Department of Agriculture has a site, choosemyplate.gov, offering lots of great ideas for those on a budget, including ideas about shopping, weekly sample menus, tips for understanding food labels and additional resources. Happy (and healthy) shopping!

A huge thanks to Lindsay Hill, a board-certified health coach in Atlanta, owner of Inhabit Health and author of The Get Real Diet, available on Amazon. Learn more at inhabithealth.com.

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