If you’re trying to improve your diet, you’ve probably heard the age-old advice to focus your grocery shopping on the perimeter of the store. There’s a good reason for that time-tested guideline: “Experts typically recommend shopping the perimeter of the grocery store because that is where most minimally processed whole foods are shelved,” says Alicia Galvin, RD. Think: lean proteins, fish, fruits, veggies, dairy and eggs.
But that doesn’t mean you should skip the center of the grocery store altogether. “The advice to shop the perimeter is a good guideline, but there are some really healthy and budget-friendly options in the middle aisles,” Galvin explains. Here, nutrition pros share what to look for and how to shop smart when you venture away from the perimeter.
Whole grains are definitely part of a well-balanced diet, and you’ll find them in the middle aisles. “They contain not only vitamins, minerals and antioxidants but also fiber, which is essential to support a healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive tract,” says Kelly Jones, RD.
“Options such as oats, brown rice and quinoa ensure you can fit quality, nutrient rich-energy into meals and snacks. Quick oats cook just as fast as individual packets (and are more budget-friendly) and there are also minute-microwave options and frozen quick-cooking options for rice and quinoa.”
You can also find protein-packed alternative pastas made from ingredients like lentils and chickpeas. Pair them with a simple tomato sauce (also found in the inner aisles) and some veggies and you have a quick, well-balanced meal. It’s a great way to get a flavorful dish without too much added sodium, sugar or fat.
“You will find all kinds of healthy oils in the middle aisles of the store,” Galvin says. These include olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil and almond oil, to name a few. “Fats have gotten such a bad rap in the past, but really you should be aiming for 2–3 tablespoons of healthy fat per meal, as this helps to stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels, yields anti-inflammatory benefits, keeps appetite at bay and can help with brain function.”
“People often believe that canned produce is inferior to fresh, and that’s simply not true,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RD, author of “The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.” “In fact, because the fruits and veggies are canned within hours of harvest, they often retain more nutrients than fresh varieties, which sit for long periods of time between harvesting and when they reach your plate. Canned veggies are wonderful in soups and casseroles and they are a lifesaver toward the end of the week when you run out of fresh produce.”
Greenwashing is when food containers give off a healthy appearance — maybe it’s a photo of a farm or the word “organic” on the package — even though the food inside isn’t necessarily “healthy,” explains Brittany Linn, RD. “If you come across a ‘diet’ product that makes big promises or sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It’s best to save your money for something more nourishing.”
“I usually recommend people choose products that have five ingredients or less,” says Galvin. “Also make sure you recognize the ingredients listed. If there are words in there that you can’t identify, put it back. You want to avoid preservatives, food coloring and trans fats, which are listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.” She also recommends keeping an eye out for added sugars. “Keep added sugars to 2–3 grams per serving.”
“Many people don’t get enough heart-healthy omega-3 fats,” says Harris-Pincus. These support brain health and weight loss. Conveniently, canned seafood like tuna, salmon, sardines and clams are a super easy and affordable way to have seafood on hand at all times, she explains. “Toss a can of clams or sardines into marinara sauce or tomato soup, add canned salmon to your salad or make a tuna melt,” she suggests.
“The frozen section is not always an aisle to shun,” Galvin says. “Frozen fruits and veggies will last longer than fresh, so there is usually less waste. Also, some veggies and fruits — especially yellow and orange ones — have an increased nutritional value when frozen because the blanching method used prior to freezing actually increases certain nutrients.” It’s still important to check out the nutrition label, here, though. “Make sure there are no added sugars, preservatives or sulfites listed on the label. You just want the fruits and veggies listed in the ingredient list.”
“I don’t recommend doing your grocery shopping when you’re overly hungry,” says Jones. “When you’re hungry, your body naturally craves foods that are more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream (like sugary treats) rather than fruits and veggies.” Plus, hungry shopping can lead to impulse buys, which might negatively impact your wallet. “If you find yourself in this situation, pay for an apple or a protein bar made from simple, whole-food ingredients to eat before finishing your shopping.”