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, & Money
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 hours.
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 weekends.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 inserts.
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 shelves.
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 LabelsNutrition 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 Facts
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 well-refrigerated|
|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 phytonutrients.
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 watercress.
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 fat
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 total purchase.
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 breast*
|“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 varieties.
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 choices include:
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 oz.)
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 they’re packed.
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 heart disease.
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 cous cous.
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