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Do you wander the aisles of the grocery store hoping for a nutritional breakthrough? Ever read a food label or price sticker and find yourself groaning out loud? The obstacles to efficient grocery shopping include confusing nutrition info, busy schedules, limited transportation, and low budgets.

The most common challenges for students are related to reading food labels and budgeting, says Meghan Windham, a dietitian who provides guided student tours of grocery stores at Texas A&M University in College Station: “There are many important things to look for, including, from a budget standpoint, knowing when to choose a name brand versus a store brand.” These tips and tricks will help you navigate your local grocery store and get the most nutritious bang for your buck.

QUIZ: Can you identify these mysterious shelf items?

Where do students get lost in the grocery store?

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, students reported which food items from our list they could find easily in the grocery store, and which would be more difficult.

Students could find these easily:
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Cornflakes
  • Salsa
  • Low-pesticide conventional fruit
  • Nuts
These could be hard to find:
  • Sugar-free peanut butter
  • Gluten-free cookies
  • Dairy-free “butter”
  • Condoms
  • Ramen noodles (surprise!)

Fresh fruits and veggies

Usually at the entrance

  • Great nutrient source: choose a mix of colors
  • Filling: good for appetite control
  • Anti-aging

For best pricing and quality
Think local, seasonal, whole (versus pre-cut)

Does organic matter? 
It depends. Organic produce can be considerably more expensive than conventional produce, so pick your battles. Some types of produce (especially the “dirty dozen”) are more prone to retaining pesticide residues.

Frozen fruits and veggies

In an aisle

  • Berries, mangoes, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, corn
  • Antioxidants, immune boosters
  • Look for the frozen veggies without added sauces or creams.
  • Flash-frozen fruits and veggies are picked fresh and frozen immediately, to retain their nutrients

How to cook frozen veggies
Boil or sauté, and add butter and salt to taste (moderation is key). You can also add your veggies to a stir-fry or pasta dish for extra fiber.

Grains and gluten-free alternatives

In an aisle

  • Bread, pasta, rice, oatmeal, quinoa
  • Long-term energy boosters
  • Buy store brand, minimally processed, in bulk

Does whole grain matter?
Whole grains (such as whole wheat bread or brown rice) have similar calorie and carbohydrate content to their refined (white) alternatives, but they are higher in fiber, which tends to make them more filling and satisfying.

Which conventional fruits and veggies are most pesticide-prone?

Meats and fish

Usually along the perimeter of the market

Red meat: beef and lamb

  • Builds strength (protein, iron, B vitamins)

To minimize cost and maximize health:

  • “Frozen is easier and a bit more economical—an excellent option if you don’t want it to go to waste or find yourself throwing anything away,” says Windham.
  • Consume red meat in moderation: one or two servings per week.

Does “grass-fed” matter?  
Grass-fed beef is higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fats, and lower in overall fat content. Opt for grass-fed if you can. The average cost of grass-fed beef is about $2–3 higher than its conventional counterpart.

Poultry: chicken and turkey

  • Low-fat, stress-relieving (protein, tryptophan, B vitamins)
  • Buy raw; fresh or frozen. “Pre-cooked and ready-prepared chicken tends to be more expensive and higher in salt and preservatives,” says Windham.

White meat: Pork

  • Lower fat, and high in thiamine (Vitamin B1) for energy metabolism.
  • Buy raw; fresh or frozen.

Fish

  • Brain food (omega-3’s, Vitamin D).
  • Frozen is usually fresher, and doesn’t need to be cooked right away.

Does “wild” matter?
Wild fish is lower in harmful pollutants and significantly higher in Vitamin A than farm-raised fish.

Try this easy chicken dish

Need a healthy reason to hit the store?

Honey Dijon Chicken

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. honey
  • 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. butter (preferably organic), melted; plus more
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 boneless chicken breasts, butterflied (carefully slice the chicken breast in half widthwise, almost to the other edge)

Directions

In a small bowl, mix the honey, mustard, 1 Tbsp. of melted butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Put the mixture into a large plastic resealable bag. Add the chicken, seal the bag, and shake. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Set a burner to medium heat and lightly butter a frying pan.

Remove the chicken from the bag and arrange it on the frying pan. Cook over medium heat, about 5–7 minutes per side, until cooked through the middle. Enjoy with veggies of your choice.

Modified by Jenna Volpe from http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/sunny-anderson/easy-grilled-honey-dijon-chicken-recipe.html

Beans and nuts

In an aisle

  • Beans, peas, lentils, nuts/nut butter, peanuts/peanut butter
  • Fiber, folate, minerals
  • Buy in bulk, e.g., large cans, packed in water with no added salt

Does low-fat matter in peanut butter?
Low-fat alternatives to peanut butter are higher in salt and refined sugars. Opt for natural, full-fat peanut butter.

Canned, jarred, and other preserved items

In an aisle

  • Applesauce, canned pineapple/peaches, green beans, tomato sauce, soups, tuna
  • Easy and portable

Are canned foods nutritious?
It’s better to eat canned produce than no produce. That said, canned and other preserved foods can be high in sodium or sugar, and are lower in vital enzymes than fresh produce. Use sparingly and opt for alternatives labeled “low sodium,” “packed in water,” or “packed in 100% fruit juice.”

What about the chemicals in the packaging?
Metal and plastic packaging is a source of Bisphenol A (BPA) contamination, which has been linked to several diseases. More acidic foods are especially prone to this. Opt for tomatoes and other acidic foods in jars.

Milk, cheese, yogurt, dairy alternatives

Fresh—along the perimeter of the market

  • Bone-building (calcium, Vitamin D, phosphorous)
  • Buy in bulk—e.g., large tubs of yogurt or cottage cheese versus individual serving sizes; whole blocks of cheese versus pre-shredded.

Does “grass-fed” matter?
Grass-fed dairy is higher in heart-healthy fats, comparable to the types of fats found in walnuts and fish. It is pricey (almost double the cost per half-gallon). The nutritional superiority may justify the splurge.

User-friendly grocery store guide

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Jenna Volpe is a registered dietitian and certified group exercise instructor in Massachusetts, with a specialty in weight management and eating disorders.