Navigating the Grocery Store

Walking into a grocery store, even with a specific shopping list, can be overwhelming — even for the most savvy shopper.  “How do I tell that this avocado is good?; how do I choose a good watermelon?; which of these breads are best to buy?” are just some of the hundreds of thoughts that could turn this commonplace chore into confusion overload.

I’m here to address these questions and general food shopping confusion and to help you choose the most healthful foods.

Why even bother preparing my own food versus eat out you may be thinking? Here are my top five reasons why doing your own shopping and cooking is more healthful:


Pocket more $

If you are eating out for 3 meals per day with an average of $8 per meal, this will amount to $48 per day and $336 per week! This could buy you the most expensive, organic foods in the grocery store with money still left over!


Save on your calorie budget

When many food service establishments prepare foods, their primary goal is taste and to get you to come back. Thus, they may load up on salt, sugar and oils. Make the same dish at home and likely you will be saving hundreds of calories without even trying! In addition, you may be more tempted to supersize your order or add on fries if you are out versus eating at home.


Know the quality of food you are getting and thus improve your health

When eating out, you don’t know where the food came from or the quality of the food. Is it organic, is it non-GMO, etc.? You have the control when you are doing the shopping.


Teaches and supports good life skills

Cooking teaches more than just that. It teaches skills including planning ahead and following precise directions. It is a great opportunity for people to get creative and use a part of their minds that they may not use in everyday life. Get everyone in the family to participate and submit and/or cook a recipe!


Creates more quality family time

Sitting around a dinner table is a great time to talk about everyday things that may not come up in the hustle bustle of rushing around and eating on the go.


General Guidelines Aisle by Aisle

Before you go

  • Do not go hungry
  • Bring a list
  • Shop the perimeter; this is where the freshest foods are
  • Look for ingredient lists that are simple and easy to understand
  • Make sure you are stocked with flavorful herbs and spices, low sodium broths, frozen fruits and vegetables for when/if you run out of fresh


Produce checklist

  • Look for skew numbers that start with 9. This means that it is organic. If it starts with 3 or 4 soak in water with 1 part vinegar, 1 part water to remove pesticide residue
  • Where does the food come from? Is it grown in the US?  Remember, the farther a food travels, the more time for nutrient content to decline. Locally grown and in season is always best!
  • Get a variety of colors. Each color has a different health benefit!
  • Purchasing pointers:
    1. Avocados/pears are ripe when they “give” a little when you squeeze them. If they are not ripe, bring it home and let it sit on the counter until it is.
    2. You can tell a watermelon is ripe if you bang on it and it sounds hollow like a drum.
    3. You can tell cantaloupe is ripe if it has a slightly sweet smell.
    4. Make sure your produce is free of mold, is dry and not wrinkled.
    5. If your produce starts to go bad, like apples, cut off the blemishes and bake it!


Dairy/dairy alternatives checklist

  • Read the ingredients;  when possible, minimize added sugars or ingredients you may not understand.
  • Look for hormone/antibiotic free dairy (organic is automatically these things).
  • Look for low fat as opposed to non-fat and full fat. You will increase your satiety and absorb more of the calcium, vitamin A and D this way.
  • Look out for added sugars. Dairy will always contain some natural sugar because lactose is considered a sugar. 1 cup of milk has about 12 grams of sugar naturally. Try not to much exceed this limit.


Meat/poultry/eggs checklist

  • Look for hormone/antibiotic free (organic is automatically these things).
  • Grass-fed beef; this contains more anti-inflammatory fats compared with conventional, corn fed.
  • Free range, pasture raised.
  • Purchasing pointers:
    1. These can often be more expensive: use as a side dish rather than the main part of your plate.
    2. Look for frozen; this is often more affordable.


Seafood checklist

  • Where does the fish come from? Choose local fish if possible. Fish from other countries may be more contaminated.
  • If using canned fish, try to find those that are BPA free or in a pouch as an alternative.
  • Minimize consumption of fish high in mercury.
  • Use a website such as to choose fish choices low in mercury and high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fat.
    1. Includes wild salmon (usually cheaper if frozen), trout, haddock and mussels.
    2. Wild salmon, tuna, and mackerel are some of the highest in omega-3 fat.


Grains/breads checklist

  • Avoid refined or enriched grains in the ingredient list.
  • Avoid sugar/high fructose corn syrup in the ingredient list.
  • Look for simple, understandable ingredients.
  • Look at fiber content per serving: you want it to be at least 3 grams or more per serving.
  • Try other kinds of grains: amaranth, teff, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, sprouted/Ezekiel bread.
    1. Trying other grains can offer variety in texture, flavor, and beneficial nutrients.
    2. Some breads, like Ezekiel, offer more bioavailable nutrients and have nutrient-rich ingredient list.


Beverage checklist

  • Are there artificial colors or flavors?
  • Is it possible to avoid plastic containers for this product?
  • How much added sugars are in the product? (Other names for sugar include malt, cane syrup, molasses, etc.)
  • Choose herbal teas.  You can add ice and add 1 tsp of honey or mint leaves for a delicious iced tea.
  • Choose seltzer as a calorie free thirst quencher.
  • Flavor water with fresh or frozen fruit.


Condiments/sauces checklist

  • Look for simple ingredients. You want to understand what foods you are eating!
  • Use products like hummus, salsa, guacamole, tomato sauce, nut butters, herbs/spices and olive/coconut oil.
  • Avoid added salt, sugar.
  • Make your own ketchup, salad dressing.
    1. Mix lemon juice, olive oil, basil and oregano for a tasty/light dressing.
    2. Mix tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, honey, garlic powder and  onion powder.


What does it mean? Deciphering the labels

  • All natural: does not contain preservatives, colors, additives. Not an indicator of antibiotics or hormones.
  • Free range: animals have access to outdoors but do not necessarily go outdoors.
  • Organic: no pesticides, antibiotics or hormones. Made with 95% organic ingredients unless 100% is specified.
  • Multigrain/whole grain: made in part with whole grains but product can still contain white flours. Read ingredient lists!
  • No sugar added/sugar free: does not mean calorie or carbohydrate free. May contain artificial sweeteners, many of which result in stomach upset.
  • Reduced sodium: 25% less than original product but product itself may still be high in sodium; 120-140 mg or less is considered low; 480mg or more is considered high
  • Low fat: 3 grams or less per serving.
  • Trans fat free: <0.5 g trans fat per serving; make sure there are no hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list.

By using this Grocery GPS to navigate the grocery store, you will be able to choose healthy, minimally processed foods.  These foods will not only help you to improve your overall health, but can also help you to reduce inflammation and maximize your nutrition.  After all, “we are what we eat” so the better we treat our bodies, the better our bodies will take care of us.



Hillary Sachs, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Hillary is a Registered Dietitian and Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (CSO). She received her BS in Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University and MS in Clinical Nutrition at New York University, and completed her dietetic internship at the James J. Peters Bronx VA Medical Center. Hillary works as an outpatient dietitian at the North Shore-LIJ’s Cancer Institute, where she counsels patients and their families before, during and after cancer treatment. Additionally, Hillary counsels clients on nutrition through her private practice, Recipe for Health, L.L.C., and has been invited to present at several nutrition-related events including the Breast Cancer Update Symposium at North Shore-LIJ (2013) and Adelphi University’s Farm to Table lecture (2014). Hillary strives to translate the science behind health, nutrition and prevention into practical and easy-to-follow recommendations.

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