Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Queen of the Supermarket

I’ve been eating for almost 40 years, but cooking for practically none of it. So when I’m forced to go to the grocery store and pick up something for dinner, I’m at a complete loss. I've been known to snoop in other people's refrigerators for some food insight. I know it sounds easy enough, but I hate it. I either buy random ingredients that sound interesting or fill my cart with animal-shaped prepared foods.

This approach to food shopping didn't mix well with the hard efforts I put into exercising. I know what foods are healthy, but I wasn’t buying them. I needed a plan where I could fill a grocery basket with healthy foods.

My friends food blogger Tina, fashion blogger Kristin, the lovely Lisa and I recently went on a food shopping field trip with Melissa O’Shea (aka Market Melissa), a registered dietitian with Food Trainers. Melissa expertly guided me though the aisles and aisles of food and helped me formulate a healthy shopping list. Along the way I got a better understanding of when it's important to buy organic food, how to read food labels and how to stock my pantry with foods I like, but healthier.

We hit up the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle and explored some of the carnal rules of food shopping. These rules should help you choose healthier foods that are high in volume, low in calories and will hopefully reenergize you to a lifetime of healthy eating.

  1. Shop with a basket rather than a huge cart. This helps you avoid adding unnecessary items.
  2. Write a grocery list and shop from the list. Spend the time to plan your meals and shop for that recipe.
  3. Look for natural food items versus packaged goods. You might want to just take a quick survey of your basket and make sure there are more food items from the farm and not the factory.

A scene from my food basket

The first area to explore was fruits and vegetables. Here we discussed the benefits of buying organic, local and in-season produce. I always thought that if I were to mix organic products with conventional ones, the benefits of eating organic foods were then eliminated. This is so untrue, Melissa said. Rather, she said to focus on those foods that have the heaviest burden of pesticides, additives and hormones.

*According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), consumer can reduce their pesticide exposure by 80% by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables.

So what are the so-called “dirty dozen” fruits/vegetables you should always buy organic, thus reducing your pesticide intake:

Apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, strawberries, bell peppers, celery, lettuce, carrots, potatoes and spinach.

Apples are part of the "dirty dozen"

Those that didn't make the cut and are on the clean list include: pineapple, mango, papaya, kiwi, bananas, sweet peas (frozen), asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, onions, avocado, sweet corn (frozen).

In addition to looking for organic food, it is also important to think locally, shop for foods that are in season and mix up the fruits and vegetables you buy. To get a healthy variety, think of the rainbow of colors they offer. Eating fruits and vegetables of different colors gives your body a wide range of nutrients and antioxidants. Melissa’s tip: try a new fruit or vegetable every day.

The second area on the healthy list was seafood. Melissa said it was important to choose low-mercury fish and aim to eat fish twice weekly (or more) for a dose of Omega-3s essential fatty acids. This is good to reduce inflammation and help prevent chronic disease like heart, alzheimer and arthritis. Fish considered low in mercury generally are smaller in size since the older and larger the fish, the greater the potential for high mercury levels. Fish with low mercury include:

Catfish, cod, crab, flounder/sole, haddock, herring, lobster, ocean perch, oysters, rainbow trout, farmed and wild salmon, sardines, scallops, shrimp, spiny lobster, tilapia and farmed trout. Other sources include: ready-to-eat shrimp, canned chunk light tuna.

If seafood isn’t your thing, you can also shop for omega-3-enriched eggs for another alternative source.

Other protein sources are meat and chicken. Melissa said chicken should be organic and meat is better served when grass fed.

Of course any healthy food list would include dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese, rich in calcium, protein and vitamins. Here too, Melissa suggested going organic to limit your intake of rBGH, a growth hormone injected into cows and that has been associated with certain cancers. Suggested brands include: Stoneyfield Farm fat-free or low-fat yogurt (high in dairy), Fage 0% Greek yogurt (high in protein) and Organic Valley low-fat cottage cheese and string cheese.

Also on the list and my personal favorite category, grains, breads and cereal. Melissa said most products like whole grain breads, pasta/rice and breakfast cereals should be made from whole grains, and not from refined flours. For nutritious cereal, look for at least 5g of fiber and less than 8g of sugar per serving. Healthy choices of cereal brands include: Nature’s path, Kashi and McCann’s.

My downfall is always snacking. I'm always on the go and often times reach for anything that's handy, but not always good for me. For a healthy snack alternative, Melissa suggested the humble nut and dried fruit. Although most people nuts are high in fat and calories (they are indeed), nuts can most definitely be a part of a healthy diet. Research has found that people who eat nuts regularly actually live longer. Nuts are one of the best sources of protein and they are rich in fiber and antioxidants such as Vitamin E and selenium. Go nuts for nuts like pistachios (lowers cholesterol), walnuts (rich in Omega-3s), almonds (Vitamin E and calcium). Dried fruit is also a healthy, convenient snack option. Look for freeze-dried brands, with no sugar added.

Other healthy snack options are crackers (Finn Crisp Crackers, Ryvita crackers and Wasa crackers); pretzels (Happy Herbert's oat bran pretzels and Newman's Own High Protein pretzels); chips (Food Should Taste Good tortilla chips and Garden of Eatin' tortilla chips) and cookies (World of Grain cookies, Kashi cookies, New Morning graham crackers).

Other words to the wise include:

* Be careful with dressings, sauces and condiments. They are convenient but can be sneaky sources of processed sugars like high fructose corn syrup and poor quality oils. Read labels or make your own dressing made with canola or walnut oil.

* Frozen foods are also super-convenient and can be healthy if you keep entrees to less than 500mg of sodium/serving. For frozen sweets, keep these treats to around 100 calories.

Next time you are going to the market, why not bring a nutritionist along with you? I'm sure glad I did. I'm inspired to cook meals that are nutritious and delicious.


  1. This is nice and thorough. It was a very informative trip and changed the way I shop. TX!

  2. I get takeout as much as I can, but maybe it's time to slow down and actually make food from the grocery store.

  3. I love these tips! And if you can't bring a nutritionist or dietitian with you to the grocery store, check out www.nuval.com. NuVal scores all foods from 1 - 100, with 100 being highest. Great way to cut through the clutter in the supermarket.

  4. Really good article, thank you for sharing, I will always look at the future, too talented.