Grocery Shopping 101

So it is that time again, you are out of milk. Time to go to the grocery store…
The grocery store is a place where many dread visiting. Some even fear because by the end of the trip they are loading their vehicle up with bags of countless items which they never intended on purchasing. We have all been there.

Grocery shopping really does not need to be overwhelming or stressful. This is the place where you and your family are set up for optimal nutrition success. Everyone has heard this before: we are what we eat, we need food to survive. A healthy, nutritious diet starts in the grocery store so making smart choices and picking products with the right ingredients is important. But making healthy choices can be tricky and adversely affect our overall well-being. There is a common belief that in order to eat healthy it must be expensive and require a lot of time. But I am here to show you that providing your family with healthy food does not need to drain your pocketbook or chew up your time. I am going to give you all the savvy knowledge and tips so that you are adequately equipped to conquer the grocery store. Saving time, money, and sanity!

A.  Now, there is some important groundwork that must be done before we even step into the store:

1.  Choose a shopping day. This is a particular day of the week that you plan to go to the grocery store. I recommend never going straight from work when you are already starving. In this state you are more likely to impulse buy and/ or make unhealthy choices. If Sunday is the day you choose, aim to go no later than noon. The produce tends to be over-picked and the shelves under stocked by this time.

2.  Eyeball grocery store flyers. These weekly flyers are an excellent resource which you receive in the mail or can be found online. Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics uses flyers “to plan out meals for the week based upon what foods or brands are on sale”.1 Flyers are a great tool to get the creative juices flowing for meal planning and even find cost-saving coupons to use.

3.  Always make a list. Place a notepad and pen somewhere accessible in your kitchen (for example on your refrigerator) to jot down items you need to buy. Or start a list on your cellphone so it is easy to pull up at the store. This tip will help “you save time and money, it ensures you’re purchasing healthy foods as opposed to junky fare, it allows you to get input from other family members before you got and reduces anxiety over forgetting something you may or may not already have at home”.1

Okay so now you’ve got a plan. Simple and easy to follow. Let’s go to the store.

Immediately when you walk into the store you are bombarded with visually appealing marketing strategies. These are created in effort to contribute to the main purpose of businesses: to make customers spend money and in turn gain a profit. Especially when it comes to attracting children. Marketing professionals know that attractive packaging with lots of colours, fun characters, and games with prizes appeal to kids luring them in and more often than not leads to parents to making the purchase. The cereal aisle is a fantastic example of this tactic at play.

Then there are the sneaky store layouts. Vanderbilt University Professor and cardiovascular disease researcher Matthew Freiberg states that “if you pay attention to the layout of many grocery stores, healthier foods are often on the periphery of stores while the centre is dominated by more processed foods…Food manufacturers frequently will strike deals with grocery stores to put their products in more visible locations, such as near the entrance, at the ends of aisles, at eye level, and close to the check-out counters”.2 Do not be misled!

B.  Here are the key steps to follow while shopping:

1.  Shop the Perimeter. This is where the freshest and whole foods are located. You are eating according to Canada’s Food Guide3 if you hit the following four main areas:

  1. Produce. Spend most of your time here. Choose a rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables for a variety of vitamins and minerals. Try to shop seasonally whenever possible. Seasonal produce is “generally harvested at peak ripeness to maintain flavour and health benefits”1 and can often be the more affordable pieces of fruits and vegetables.
  2. Grains. In the bakery area choose the whole grain or whole wheat breads, buns, bagels, tortilla wraps, pitas etc. Whole grain products are high in fiber which helps “maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease”.4
  3. Milk and Alternatives. This area provides great options to increase your calcium and vitamin D intake. Look for lower fat milk and milk products like cheese, yogurt, and milk alternatives such as soy, almond, coconut, or oat milk.
  4. Meat and Alternatives (a.k.a. Proteins). Be sure to choose lean cuts of beef and poultry. Fish and eggs will be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids which have promising results for lowering risk of “cancer, depression, and ADHD”.5 Also it never hurts to add more plant-based proteins such as tofu or tempeh to your cart.

2.  Read Nutrition Facts Tables and Ingredient Lists. By adding this habit into your shopping routine you will become better at comparing product to suit your nutrition priorities. Low sodium, no added sugar, high in fiber, excellent source of iron etc. Note on the ingredient list, ingredients are listed by weight from most to least. Make sure the products does not contain numerous ingredients and these ingredient names are recognizable; this will aide in efforts to eat a clean diet, free from chemicals and preservatives.

3.  Visit the Frozen Section. “Frozen fruits and veggies are just as if not more healthy than fresh, since they are picked and frozen at the peak of freshness”.1 Frozen fruits and vegetables are great for convenience in the winter months and perfect for morning smoothies. Double-check the packaging to be sure there is no additives.

4.  Canned Foods are A-OK. That is if you purchase the canned products with no salt added. This is an affordable and convenient way to buy corn, peas, beans, and lentils. Just remember to always drain and rinse well with water after opening to eliminate the excess sodium.

5.  Embrace the Bulk Section. Many grocery stores have wonderful bulk sections available. Here you will find an array of unsalted nuts, shredded coconut, flours, seeds, lentils, dried fruit, and so much more. This is a great way to avoid purchasing large quantities and get exactly the amount you desire.

6.  Notice the Price per Unit (mL, g, kg, oz). For instance in the picture below, you may find two products of the same nature, simply different brands and sizes. Which is the best choice if all variables are the same? For the best price, check the unit price located on every shelf tag in Canadian grocery stores. There are times where nutrition is not a factor (a chicken breast is a chicken breast) and being aware of this pricing process will help you make more economical decisions. Everyone loves to save a couple bucks here and there.

Life is much too short to let the necessary errand of grocery shopping unnecessarily frazzle your days. If you still find these tips are not doing the trick for you, there are excellent online grocery options which focus on local and organic produce, like The Organic Box which delivers healthy groceries directly to your doorstep in Alberta.

​I truly hope that this article gives you the tools and confidence you need to have an easy, breezy shop; whilst making excellent nutritious choices for you and your loved ones! For more tips and information on Healthy Grocery Shopping, I found this resource book to be very helpful but the Canada Food Bank

1. Reader’s Digest:  
2. Forbes – Pharma & Healthcare: 
3. Health Canada: 
4. Mayo Clinic: 
5. Mayo Clinic:
Author: Pharyne Hrywkiw
​Nutrition Educator, B.Sc. Nutrition and Food Sciences