Grocery shopping is always a scramble, but just like sparring, we can control the chaos. There is a plethora of options, fancy labels, and trendy products on the shelves these days, enough to make our head spin like we just caught a knee to the temple. To navigate the supermarket shuffle we need to go in prepared, have a game plan, and execute it. To do so, we need to break down what to look for, learn what to avoid, and to learn what the hell all of these “certified-organic-fair-trade-natural-ABF-superfood-low-carb” labels on a single granola bar means. Truth be told, the majority of these labels are simply marketing tactics but not all. To streamline the process, we are going to dig deeper into their meanings, figure out how to shop properly, and learn how to save some of our hard earned cash while fueling our body properly with this grocery buyers’ guide.
Own the Outside of the Mat
First and foremost we must understand our opponent, the everyday supermarket. This ultra-heavyweight is packed with tricks up its sleeve to squeeze us for all of our money, to have us walk in and force us to throw our game plan out the window, and leave us walking out with candy bars and high-priced superfood-organic exotic nut butters or generic ones that are three times the price because of a little catchy label on them.
The trick here is in knowing, deep down, all supermarkets are built the same way: they are structured the same, clockwise, with the fresh and perishable items around the outside of the store with the wallet and waist-buster items in the isles.
Pro-tip: treat the grocery store like someone’s guard, stay to the outside, the inside is where the danger lies.
Selecting the Right Way
When you are planning on shopping, do not go in just for one meal at a time and while hungry- this leads to impulse purchases and leaving with piles of junk you don’t actually need. Plan your meals and staple items ahead of time, create a list, and pick one time a week to go. The best time to go is actually on Wednesdays, grocery stores typically get their deliveries for the weekend around mid-week so you will be selecting from the best of the best before the weekend warriors go and ransack the place.
Now that you have your list ready to rock, know the best time of attack, and have a game plan on how to navigate once through the sliding doors, you need to know what to look for in each section and in the sequence in which you should grapple with your list.
Fruits and vegetables are the most commonly wasted foods. How many times have we gone in, saw some delicious looking oranges, bought a giant bag just to eat one and have it sit lonely and forgotten in the fridge until we have to throw them out because they have gone bad? Don’t lie, it has happened to all of us.
When selecting produce it is best to look for vibrant colored fruits and vegetables that are not wilting, have good structure, and generally look healthy. For fruits and certain vegetables, use your senses, start with sight, then use feel, look for ones that are heavy-for-their-size, firm but not hard, and do not be afraid to pick through the pile to find the right one- chances are it is in there.
For greens, go for deep-rich colored greens such as kale, mustard greens and swiss chard over romaine and iceberg. The more color, the more nutrients because it is typically a healthier plant.
Pro-tip: Buy just what the recipe calls for, bulk for onions and sweet potatoes are fine but the majority of fruits and vegetables have a much shorter shelf life than we think and again are often left forgotten to rot. Some items are best bought frozen but more on that later in this guide.
Know thy butcher, they will be your best friend. When shopping for meats and seafood, most grocery stores have a butcher/fishmonger on staff. Use their expertise and ask them questions on quality, specials, etc. Buying in bulk is a smart move here because we start to save a few bucks, can bring home that giant container of chicken breast, separate a few into ziplock bags and freeze what we are not currently using.
You should focus on getting quality, grass-fed and ABF, antibiotic-free, meats are ideally. When selecting your cuts, knowledge is power and learn more about selecting the right cuts of meat with our meat eaters guide. Look for bright coloration, good marbling (white lines of fat through the meat) and firm but not hard meats. It is fairly easy to tell the freshness and quality of meat by sight.
When buying seafood, unless you live on the coast, buy frozen. Almost all of the fish we buy will have been frozen at some point unless we got it straight from the boat at a local market. Depending on what type of seafood you are buying, you should focus on locally sourced as much as possible. Focus on richer, dark-fleshed fish for more nutrients such as salmon. Check out our guide to salmon for more information!
Dairy sections are always located the furthest from the door because grocery stores know the majority of shoppers will need something from this section, so they set a ton of eye appealing roadblocks on the way to it to try and bait you into impulse buys. Focus on skirting the outside of the store and once in the dairy section, the center will have the best products. Find your fresh cheese and yogurts here, focus on full fat because the skim and low-fat options are loaded with sneaky sugars.
Similar to the butcher, the baker is your best friend. Ask for specials or freshly baked breads here. Snag healthy options such as sourdoughs and whole grain breads. Freshly baked breads are not loaded with preservatives such as those loaves of Wonder Bread that could survive a nuclear apocalypse. When it comes to deli meats, another area of waste, buy only what you will need for the couple sandwiches you will make to avoid throwing away slimy meat at the end of the week.
Frozen foods are junk, right? Wrong, in fact, some frozen vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, and brussels sprouts are healthier and pack more nutrients than their fresh counterparts. This is due to the fact that when farmed, these vegetables are at peak nutrient levels, but as they sit out, their nutrients deplete. Typically fruits and vegetables when harvested are either sent out fresh or flash frozen which locks in nutrients! There is no harm in buying frozen.
Labeled as bulk foods for a reason, stock up once a month here. Focus on getting bulk rice, quinoa, beans, etc. It never hurts to have canned coconut cream, tomatoes, and other canned goods on hand but pay attention and avoid buying any cans that are dented or bulging as this can indicate bacterial growth.
Dude…come on. Skip the chips, buy rice cakes or mixed nuts instead.
Pro-tip: When checking out use the self-checkout, this way you’ll have a final checkpoint to weed out any impulse purchases and truly see/categorize what you’ve selected. Additionally, call me crazy, but this is where I like to bag my groceries in groups according to where they go in the house that way when I’m home I can just put each bag near where it belongs and be done putting it away in no time.
When to Go Organic
“Organic”, what a great marketing tool. Organic signifies that the food was grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic modifications amongst other things. Pesticides are the major concern here that will dictate what you should and should not buy as not all fruits and vegetables rely on pesticides. Focusing your organic purchases on the “dirty dozen” foods that are typically grown with high-pesticides is your goal. This will save you from throwing money away on items that are marketed organic but do not need that label.
Understanding Our Foods Rank
100% Organic: Foods fully produced and grown with organic ingredients.
Organic: Up to 95% organic ingredients used and allowance of 5% non-organic agriculture products.
Natural: No artificial ingredients or added colors but may contain antibiotics and certain chemicals.
ABF (Antibiotic-Free): Free of antibiotics and similar chemicals.
Buy Organic/Natural/ABF: Strawberries, apples, cherries, grapes, celery, bell peppers, spinach, pears, peaches/nectarines, raspberries, cheese, red meats, poultry, and eggs.
Buy Generic: Seafood, melons, avocados, squashes, potatoes, and onions.
Coming Out on Top
Focusing on the big wins when you step onto the metaphoric mat that is the grocery store is key. Going in with a game plan, controlling the outside, and staying the course will keep you healthier, less wasteful and will save you a few dollars to buy the next Shoyoroll special release. We are made up of what we put into our mouths, so it is critical to select the right foods to have on hand for the daily grind that is life and jiu-jitsu.