By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
Your nutrition is a game-changer when it comes to transforming your physique. Abs are indeed made in the kitchen, but I’d take it a step further and argue that it depends on which kitchen you walk into. Throughout your lifetime you will spend more time eating than you will spend in the gym, but most people struggle when it comes to stocking their homes with the right foods. It’s hard to blame them because navigating the supermarket can sometimes feel like trying to survive in the Wild West with all the necessary decision making. While there’s no magic pill that will help to overhaul your diet, a strong fundamental base and some strategic action can go a long way. Here are some helpful things to remember to make your next grocery shopping trip a success.
In his famous seminal work The Art of War, Sun Tzu states that each battle is won or lost before it is ever even fought. Instilling this mindset before your supermarket trips can be a crucial first step for improving the quality of your grocery selection and overall nutrition. Here are some awesome tips to help you take preemptive action and ensure that your time spent cruising through the aisles isn’t doing you more harm than good.
First off, don’t ever go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. This is a huge mistake. The Snickers commercials say it the best—you aren’t yourself when you’re hungry. At these moments, you are much more likely to come away with a shopping cart full of snacks and other things you just don’t need. Research shows that hunger has a detrimental effect on both impulse control and decision making. In addition to it adversely affecting your choices, you are much more likely to forget the important things that you do need.
Secondly, you need to make a shopping list. This sounds like an obvious recommendation, but so many of us head to the grocery store without a plan and end up paying for it (figuratively and literally!). Before heading out, take an inventory of the things that you have so you don’t end up buying double or forgetting something important. This is a great time to put together some recipes that you are excited about so that you move around the market with a purpose. Make it a game to try out a new vegetable, spice, food prep style, etc. each week.
While it’s important to make a list and to come prepared with some recipes in mind, it’s also important not to be a slave to these guiding tools. If you’ve taken inventory prior, it may be beneficial to call an audible while shopping. You may already have some ingredients at home that you could swap into a recipe (e.g., swapping orange juice with another acid like lemon juice). Being open to potential changes and sales could save you a pretty penny (more on that below).
Secondly, know the major players: lean protein foods, fruits, and vegetables are always praised, but there is more to a nutrient-dense diet than these usual suspects. If you want to lose body fat, that shouldn’t involve cutting out dietary fats. Fat is satiating, and it is also essential to hormone production and many other processes in the human body. When fat is removed from products like yogurt and milk, it has to be replaced with something else. It’s usually sugar, and this leads to an increase in calorie consumption and a detour from your goals. Ditch the low-fat versions of products, and instead opt for full fat—or 2%, if you aren’t ready to take the full-fat leap just yet.
Another mistake that people commonly make is that they don’t read labels. If you do, don’t just limit this reading to the nutritional percentages. Check out the ingredients list and focus on choosing items that keep these lists short and understandable. If it sounds like it belongs in a science lab instead of your cabinet, it may not be the best choice for you. Reading labels will help to build your awareness of what exactly is going into your body. For example, you may be surprised to pick up a dairy- or gluten-free item only to discover that the extensive additives and fillers make it a lot less healthy than advertised. Fortified isn’t always synonymous with better.
There’s a common misperception that you need to pay your weight in gold to make healthier choices at the grocery store. This is a myth if you understand the “rules” to the game and execute accordingly. There are several ways to both save money on food and stick to your nutritional goals.
Eating seasonally is not only a great way to get fresh, tasty food that’s at the peak of its supply, it also helps save you a ton of money. Produce that’s in season costs less to harvest and distribute to the grocery stores that you shop at, so these savings get passed on to you. Additionally, in-season food is ultimately better for the environment. Out-of-season foods have to reach you somehow. Think of the fuel emissions and transportation cost that Mother Nature has to deal with. If you’re not as concerned with the level of freshness, buying canned, dried, or frozen fruits and veggies can save you even more!
Also, buying less food per grocery run and shopping more frequently can work wonders for your wallet. Most people tend to make one weekly shopping trip, but when you are dealing with fresh food, the shelf life isn’t as long compared to its processed counterparts. Instead of getting everything in one large haul and wasting resources (Don’t you hate throwing out the food you couldn’t get to in time!?), pick up just enough in multiple trips. Aim to split up expensive pantry staples throughout several trips so the individual cost isn’t as high each time.
Another idea is to seek out sales like your wallet depends on it. Most stores put out papers or provide digital information about items on sale at the beginning of the week. Use this information to guide your meal prep choices. When you find something that you enjoy that is on sale, buy it in bulk and freeze some for later!