Some students enjoy grocery shopping on
a weekly basis. Others find the task so time-consuming, frustrating,
and overwhelming that they avoid it altogether. Still others would
like to become regular shoppers, but don’t know where to begin.
Read on to learn…
What strategies will save you time,
energy, and money.
How to read a food label.
What to look for aisle by aisle.
10 Strategies to Save You Time, Energy,
There are several things you can do to make grocery shopping faster,
more enjoyable, and less expensive.
Strategy #1: Never leave home without an organized grocery list.
A list will remind you of what foods you need (so you can avoid
repeat trips for items you forgot), and it will keep you focused (so
you can minimize impulse buying). Try to categorize your list to
match the store layout, such as produce, dairy case, deli, frozen
foods, meat counter, bakery, and grocery shelves. This will
significantly reduce the time it takes to get everything you need.
Strategy #2: Avoid extra shopping trips and high traffic store
Plan to shop once or twice a week to save time and to reduce the
chance of impulse buying. Plan on going to the store early in the
morning, late in the evening, or midweek rather than on the
Strategy #3: Make sure you’re REALLY getting the “best buy” with
sales items and coupons.
Always check to make sure that sales items are actually discounted
at the check out counter. And, don’t assume that a coupon is going
to get you the best buy. Sometimes another brand or similar food
might be cheaper even without a coupon.
Strategy #4: Check shelves above and below eye level.
Often the most expensive food items are stored at eye level to
encourage customers to buy the first product they see.
Strategy #5: Never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.
Grocery shopping when you’re hungry makes every food item look good
and greatly increases impulse buying. It is easy to waste money on
food you don’t really like or need.
Strategy #6: Check supermarket specials printed in newspaper
Try planning meals around those sale items. If the store runs out of
an item on special, ask for a rain check.
Strategy #7: Buy frozen fruits and vegetables or produce that keeps
longer in the refrigerator. Frozen fruits and vegetables do not run
a high risk of spoiling. Produce that stays fresh for longer periods
of time include: broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots,
parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, grapefruits, melons,
oranges, pears, and tangerines.
Strategy #8: Buy food in economy sizes and share with a friend.
There are no savings in buying large quantities if food spoils and
must be discarded. Recruit a friend to share your food purchases and
reap the cost rewards.
Strategy #9: Shop for convenience to boost your nutrient intake.
It’s much easier to eat well when it’s convenient to do so. Look for
pre-washed, pre-cut, bagged salad greens, spinach, baby carrots, and
mixed veggies for stir fries. Take advantage of all the new healthy
frozen meal options instead of always eating out.
Strategy #10: Compare prices using unit prices on supermarket
If two foods are identical types of products and the units being
compared are equal, it is best to go with the lowest price per unit.
Reading Food Labels
Nutrition Facts Panel:
All processed and packaged foods are required to carry a
standardized “Nutrition Facts” panel. This is a great tool to use to
compare the nutritional value of similar foods and to help guide
your purchasing decisions. Below is a sample label, along with some
key points about it. Click here for a more detailed discussion about the “Nutrition
Serving size (#1 on sample label):
Pay attention to the serving size and how many servings there are in
the food package. Compare this to how much YOU actually eat. The
size of the serving on the food package determines all of the
nutrient amounts listed on the label. In the sample above, one
serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole
package, you would eat two cups. That would double the calories and
other nutrient numbers listed on the label.
Calories & Calories from Fat (#2 on sample label):
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving
of this food. The label also tells you how many of the calories in
one serving come from fat. In the above example, there are 250
calories in one serving. And, there are 110 calories from fat, which
means almost half of the total calories come from fat.
NOTE: While it is recommended that no more than 30% of your total
daily calories come from fat, it is not necessary to avoid
individual foods with more than 30% of calories from fat. Simply
balance very high fat foods with low fat ones to keep your overall
fat intake low.
Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium (#3 on the sample label):
Rather than focusing on the total amount of fat, it’s more important
to pay attention to the TYPE of fat in the food. Saturated fat and
trans fat raise levels of the “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood.
So, it’s best to choose foods with as little saturated and trans fat
as possible. Optimally, no more than 7-10% of your total calories
should come from these types of fat. This translates into no more
than 16-22 g of saturated and trans fat for someone eating 2000
calories per day.
NOTE: Beginning in 2006, all food products will be required by law
to list trans fat on their labels. Until then, you can find out if a
product contains trans fat by looking for “partially hydrogenated
vegetable oil” in the ingredient list.
Dietary cholesterol, like saturated and trans fat, can raise levels
of “bad” LDL blood cholesterol. So, it’s best to keep total dietary
cholesterol to 200-300 mg per day. All animal foods (but no plant
foods) contain cholesterol.
Sodium (a component of salt) is added to most processed foods as a
preservative and flavor enhancer. Too much sodium (>2300 mg/day) can
increase blood pressure and increase one’s risk for cardiovascular
disease, so it’s best to choose products with less sodium.
NOTE: Fresh foods (like fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats) as
well as unprocessed whole foods (like raw nuts and uncooked oats,
brown rice, and whole grain pasta) have very little (if any sodium).
So, pack your shopping cart with more of these foods.
Total Carbohydrates, Dietary Fiber, and Sugar
Total carbohydrates include ALL carbohydrates in the food: 1)
complex carbohydrates (starches and fibers) and 2) simple
carbohydrates (sugars and sugar alcohols). As with fats, it’s more
important to focus on the TYPE of carbohydrates in foods rather than
the total amount.
For better health, it’s best to look for products with more dietary
fiber and less added sugars.
Fiber provides bulk to foods (for satiety and weight control),
promotes regularity of bowel movements, reduces blood cholesterol,
and helps stabilize blood sugars. Look for products with more fiber
to achieve your daily goal of 25-40 grams per day.
Added sugars provide “empty calories.” In other words, they
increase the calorie density of foods without providing any
nutrients. Unfortunately, you can’t tell from the food label whether
the amount of sugars listed is added or naturally occurring.
Remember, whole foods high in naturally occurring sugars (like
fruits and milk products) are not “empty calories” and should not be
restricted. To find out if a product contains a lot of added sugars,
look in the ingredient list for the following words: sugar, honey,
molasses, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, and
brown rice syrup.
“Net Carbs” or “Effective Carbs”
Because of the popularity of low carb diets, food manufacturers have
created the terms “net carbs,” “impact carbs,” and “effective carbs”
to artificially lower the total carbohydrate count of the food.
These terms are NOT research-based or approved by the government.
They are simply marketing gimmicks. To come up with the “net carb”
value, manufacturers simply subtract the grams of fiber and sugar
alcohols from the total carbohydrate content of the food. The
rationale is that these types of carbohydrates don’t cause a rapid
spike in blood sugar and insulin levels.
On the plus side, this new trend in labeling has gotten food
manufacturers to make some healthy changes to their products. For
example, they are replacing nutrient poor, white refined flour with
more nutrient rich soy flour, soy protein, or wheat protein and
adding extra fiber (such as wheat bran or oat bran) to their
products. But BEWARE, just because a product has fewer “net carbs”
doesn’t mean it has fewer calories or that it is healthier.
Carbohydrates are often replaced with more fat, which can boost
total calories and increase levels of unhealthy saturated and trans
fat. And, while sugar alcohols have half the calories of regular
sugar, they can cause significant gastrointestinal distress
(bloating, diarrhea, etc.) when consumed in excess. To save money
and ensure good health, choose “regular” whole, unprocessed foods
(which have always been higher in fiber and nutrients - well before
low carb diets and low carb foods came into vogue).
|Expiration or Exp
||Last date on which a product should be used. If
the date has passed, throw it away.
||Indicates the last day on which the product should be sold.
You can keep the food two to three days longer than that if it is
|Best If Used By
||The date by which the manufacturer guarantees the
freshness and quality of the food. It is not dangerous to use the
food after that date, but the food may not have top quality or top
nutritional value after that date.
||Dates are sometimes found on canned and frozen food. This
is not useful information unless you know when the food was picked
and processed before the freezing or canning. As a rule of thumb,
frozen foods can be kept for three to four months after that date.
Canned goods can be stored for up to a year beyond that date. Foods
stored and kept longer may lose their flavor and nutritional value,
but they are not dangerous.
Aisle By Aisle
As you stroll down each aisle, here are some healthy tips for
finding the best nutrition buy for your dollar.
Fruits & Vegetables
The produce is generally the first section in a grocery store. Most
college students don’t consume enough fresh fruits and vegetables
because they can be expensive, spoil easily, require refrigeration,
and be more difficult to transport. This is concerning since produce
is packed with health-promoting vitamins, minerals, fiber, and
Here are simple ways around these problems:
Buy only what you will use in a week.
Avoid foods with bruises, blemishes, or bad spots.
Buy frozen or canned produce to supplement fresh.
Try drinking vegetable juice.
Buy pre-cut, portioned and washed vegetables for easy use.
Buy produce that is in season or on sale.
GUIDE TO WHEN FRUITS AND VEGETABLES ARE IN SEASON
Summer: apricots, blueberries, cherries, eggplant, fresh herbs,
green beans, hot peppers, melon, okra, peaches, plums, sweet corn,
sweet peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini.
Fall: apples, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards,
grapes, kale, pears, persimmons, pumpkins, winter squash, and yams.
Winter: beets, cabbage, carrots, citrus fruits, daikon radishes,
onions, rutabagas, turnips, and winter squash.
Spring: asparagus, blackberries, green onions, leeks, lettuces, new
potatoes, peas, red radishes, rhubarb, spinach, strawberries, and
Meat, Poultry, & Fish
The freshest cuts of meat are found in the meat case, which is
generally located on the back wall of the store behind the produce
section. This is the easy way to select the cut and grade of meat
you want. You can ask the butcher to cut, ground, or package a
specific type and amount of meat. For example, if you wanted extra
lean ground beef for a meal, you could ask the butcher to prepare 4
ounces of “5% fat ground round” beef.
Meat includes beef, veal, lamb, and pork. Beef is graded by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture depending on the amount of “marbling” (fat
between the muscle), appearance, texture, and age of the animal.
Veal and lamb use the same grading system; however, instead of using
the term “select,” the term “good” is used. Pork is not graded. It
is important to note that from a nutritional standpoint (protein,
vitamins, and minerals), all grades are equal.
Prime: Most tender, most expensive, and highest amount of fat
Choice: Less tender, cheaper, and less fat than prime
Select: Tougher cut of meat, least expensive, and least amount of
Here is a list of the leanest cuts of meat. Try buying these cuts at
the grocery store and ordering them more frequently at restaurants.
|Round & Loin Cuts
(per 3 oz. serving / cooked)
|Eye of round (select)*
|Top or bottom round (select)
|Top sirloin (select)
|“Extra lean” ground beef (5% fat)*
|“Lean” ground beef (7% fat)
||(per 3 oz. serving / cooked)
|Pork sirloin roast
|Pork chop, top loin
|* Best Bite!
Poultry includes chicken and turkey, both very economical and lean
protein sources. They come prepared in a variety of ways depending
on your need. For example you can buy skinless, dark meat, light
meat, ground, whole, cuts, slices, lean, frozen, fresh, and
boneless. Select meaty birds that are free of blemishes and have a
creamy white to yellow skin. When estimating how much meat or
poultry to buy, figure ~4 ounces raw meat per person to base your
Here is a list of the leanest poultry choices. Try buying these at
the grocery store and ordering them more frequently at restaurants.
||(per 3 oz. serving / cooked)
|Chicken breast, skinless*
|Chicken drumstick, skinless
|Chicken thigh, skinless
|Turkey light meat, skinless*
|Turkey dark meat, skinless
|“Extra lean” ground turkey
|“Lean” ground turkey
|* Best Bite!
Fish is also another excellent addition to any meal as it is low in
saturated fat and high in healthful omega-3 fatty acids. The
American Heart Association recommends 2-3 fish meals per week to
help reduce risk of heart disease. There are many varieties of fish
on the market including cod, mahi mahi, salmon, seabass, swordfish,
tuna, halibut, catfish, and trout. Fish may be purchased fresh,
frozen, or canned. In fact, you can easily substitute frozen fish
for fresh in a recipe, and canned fish offers many of the same
nutritional benefits. Only buy fish from a reputable source that has
the fish properly iced or refrigerated in a clean display case. It
should contain no “fishy” smell or mucous on its gills. The eyes
should be bright and clear with shiny skin. There are also many
types of shellfish such as scallops, shrimp, and clams sold at the
grocery store that are tasty to cook.
Deli & Prepared Foods
The Deli section contains many prepared salads, pasta dishes, and
meats that are easy to order and take home for dinner that night.
You can also request slices of your favorite sandwich meat to be
wrapped in plastic. Buy in small quantities because freshly cut ham,
turkey, or roast beef will spoil within a few days after purchasing.
Prepared meals are becoming very popular since they are very
convenient to grab when time is of essence. Supermarkets offer salad
bars, rotisserie chicken meals, side vegetable dishes, and potatoes.
These products are expensive due to preparation time. However, if
you add your own vegetables or salad at home the cost becomes more
reasonable. Be sure to check for quality of freshness, expiration
date, and temperatures before buying “to go” items.
Frozen, Boxed, & Canned Meals
As college students, the day is consumed by studying or work, which
leaves little time and energy to make dinner at night. In this case,
preparing a frozen, boxed, or canned meal may be the best
alternative. Fortunately, with all of the new food products on the
market, it is easier than ever to make convenient AND healthy meals.
Below are some examples of healthy frozen meals:
Smart Ones by Weight Watchers makes for a satisfying meal without
the added sodium, saturated fat, and calories. The ultimate veggie
pizza is a good choice. You can add extra vegetables to help you
meet your daily requirement or slice up a couple pieces of skinless
chicken breast to place on top.
Healthy Choice is another good frozen meal choice. They have a
variety of meals to choose from such as Chicken Breast & Vegetable,
Lemon Pepper Fish, Beef Stroganoff, and Salisbury Steak.
Lean Cuisine and Taj Gourmet offer several healthy and tasty
frozen meals. Try Lean Cuisine’s Chicken Enchilada Suiza, Spaghetti
with Meat Sauce, and Chicken Parmesan. And, Taj Gourmet’s frozen
meals taste like they’re made in a New Delhi kitchen…delicious!
Several companies now offer frozen “Meal Kits” that come with
vegetables and either pasta, rice, or potatoes. Some also come with
chicken, turkey, shrimp, or beef; while others tell you to throw it
in. Some good brands include: Birds Eye Chicken, Shrimp, or Steak
Viola!, Birds Eye Easy Recipe Creations, Cascadian Farm Meals for a
Small Planet (vegetarian), Green Giant Create a Meal, and Stouffer’s
Lean Cuisine Skillet Sensations.
Frozen “Meal Bowls” are another good choice. Try Ethnic Gourmet’s
Vegetarian or Chicken Rice Bowls, Healthy Choice’s Chicken Bowls, Seapoint Farms Edamame Soybean Rice Bowls, Cascadian Farm Veggie
Bowls, or Uncle Ben’s Rice & Chicken Bowls.
Boca, Morningstar, Health is Wealth, Yves Veggie, and Gardenburger
make meatless soy protein burgers, ground “meat” crumbles, hot dogs,
and/or chicken-free patties/nuggets which can be microwaved quickly
for a nutritious and simple vegetarian meal.
Frozen fish sticks or fillets can be added to a microwaved baked
potato and some steamed vegetables for a quick and healthy meal.
Good brands include Mrs. Paul’s or Gorton’s Grilled Salmon and
Grilled Fillets (unbreaded). For lower fat breaded fish sticks or
fillets, choose Mrs. Paul’s Healthy Selects Baked Fish or Van de
Kamp’s Crisp & Healthy Fish.
Dairy Products & Eggs
The Dairy section is where all milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and
cheese products are contained. These foods have a high potential of
spoiling. Be sure to always check the “sell by” dates before
purchasing. It is generally safe to assume that the food will be
safe to eat for an additional 5-7 days past that date. However, if
there is any doubt about the safety of a food, throw it away!
Remember that dairy products come from animals, so they naturally
contain a high amount of saturated fat, which clogs our arteries! So
do your heart a favor and select the 1% low-fat or fat free
NOTE: Some yogurts have a lot of added sugar, in addition to the
naturally occurring sugar in milk and fruit. This added sugar can
add a lot of unwanted “empty calories.” Your best choice is always
plain low fat or fat free yogurt (and you can just add your own
fruit). For flavored yogurts, read the Nutrition Facts panel, and
look for yogurts with the least amount of sugar and calories. Good
Stonyfield Farm Organic Nonfat flavored yogurts (160 kcal, 31 g
sugar in 8 oz.)
Stonyfield Farm Lowfat Fruit Blends (160 kcal, 28 g sugar in 6
Horizon Organic Dairy Blended (160 kcal, 29 g sugar in 6 oz.)
Yoplait Original Lowfat (170 kcal, 27 g sugar in 6 oz.)
Eggs provide an economical, convenient, and easy to prepare source
of high quality protein. When deciding upon which eggs to buy, be
sure to inspect the carton. The eggs should be clean, whole, and
free of cracks because eggs are common sources of Salmonella
poisoning. Also check for the freshness dating, which is located on
the container. Eggs spoil quickly when stored at room temperature so
make sure you buy eggs that have been refrigerated properly. There
is not a difference in nutritional quality between brown or white
eggs. The shell color is dependent upon the breed of hen. Eggs are
graded based on the interior and exterior quality of eggs when
Grade for Eggs:
AA: Highest quality grade.
A: Most common grade found in grocery store
B: Lowest quality grade
The American Heart Association suggests limiting our consumption of
egg yolks to four per week because of their cholesterol content.
Fortunately, you can substitute two egg whites or ¼ cup egg
substitute for one whole egg when cooking. The protein content
remains exactly the same, but there is significantly less saturated
fat and cholesterol, which are both linked to the development of
Butter, Margarine, & Spreads
Butter and stick margarine are high in heart-damaging saturated and
trans fat, so avoid these for everyday use. Instead, choose tub or
squeeze bottle margarines/spreads that have no more than 1 gram of
saturated plus trans fat per tablespoon. Good choices include:
I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Fat Free or Light Spread
Promise Fat Free or Buttery Light Spread
Smart Beat Trans Fat Free Super Light Margarine
Fleischmann's Light Margarine
Spectrum Naturals Spread
Take Control Light or Regular Spread
Benecol Light or Regular Spread
Olivio Premium Spread with Olive Oil
Brummel & Brown Spread with Yogurt
Parkey Calcium Plus Spread
NOTE: Instead of butter or margarine, consider using heart healthy
unsaturated oils (like canola or olive oils). Alternatively, try
using an aerosol spray (e.g. PAM) or a pump (e.g. I Can’t Believe
It’s Not Butter Spray).
Bread Products, Cereals, & Grains
There is nothing more satisfying than eating warm, soft bread
straight out of the oven. You can add a lot variety and nutrients to
meals by experimenting with various baked goods such as:
pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, multigrain, French, bagels, pita,
tortillas, rolls, muffins, and herb breads. These products are quick
to become stale, hard, and moldy at room temperature. Placing them
in the refrigerator or bagging portions in the freezer are helpful
ways to extend the shelf life of these items.
Try to limit danishes, croissants, cakes, cookies, and donuts
because these are high in fat and calories (but low in fiber and
nutrients). Instead, choose low fat “100% whole grain” products with
more fiber and nutrients. Good choices include the following:
NOTE: Look for the words “100% whole wheat or grain” on the package.
• Roman Meal 100% Whole Wheat, Wonder 100% Whole Wheat, Pepperidge
Farm 100% Whole Wheat.
Pasta, Rice, & Grains:
• whole wheat pasta, brown or wild rice, bulgar wheat, whole wheat
NOTE: Look for at least 3 g of fiber (preferably 5+), no more than 3
g of fat, and typically no more than 8 g of total sugar (unless it
has dried fruit in it).
Kashi Good Friends and GoLean
Kellogg’s All-Bran, Complete Wheat Bran Flakes, and Nutri-Grain
Golden Wheat or Almond Raisin
Post Shredded Wheat, Raisin Bran, Grape Nuts, and Fruit & Fiber,
General Mill’s Wheat or Multi Bran Chex, Cheerios, Wheaties, and
Whole Grain Total
Quaker Oat Bran, Crunchy Corn Bran, Toasted Oatmeal Squares, and
Regular, Unflavored Instant Oatmeal (hot)
Ry Krisp, Wasa Fiber Rye, Ryvita Rye, Ak-Mak 100% Whole Wheat
Stone Ground, Nabisco Reduced Fat Triscuits, Manischewitz 100% Whole
Wheat Matzos, Whole Foods Woven Wheats
Special thanks to Paige Iversen who helped develop the content for
this page during her dietetic internship at the Greater Los Angeles
VA Medical Center.
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center