The secret to improving family meals starts in the grocery store. Yet studies show the average grocery shopper spends 26 minutes running through the store filling their cart with 61 items. That’s not much time to turn packages around and evaluate the nutrition information.
What’s a responsible parent to do? WebMD turned to nationally known nutritionists for their top 8 tips.
1. Make a Grocery Shopping List to Save Time and Money
First step, plan your menus and create a grocery shopping list after taking inventory of what’s on hand and also taking advantage of coupons and sales.
When you stock your kitchen with nutritious foods for meals and snacks, family dinners become a healthy pleasure, says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD. “Nutritious meals and snacks begin with the right ingredients that need to be available in your kitchen.”
Ward, author of Expect the Best suggests your cart be filled with 90% healthy basics such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, low fat dairy, eggs -- and just 10% sweet or savory snacks.
“Most adults and kids only have a few hundred calories for extras, so your cart should be filled mostly with healthy and delicious foods” she says.
2. Look for Food Rating Programs That Highlight Healthy Choices
When you are in a rush, you need to rely on at-a-glance nutrition information. Many grocery stores have shelf-tag programs that promote healthy foods – those lower in fat or salt. Others give foods a rating (such as 0 to 3 stars) to help shoppers make wise choices.
You can also look on the food package for the Keystone Foundation’s “smart choices” check, or the American Heart Association’s "heart check" icon. These icons reveal that the food has met a variety of nutrition criteria and is a healthy choice.
3. Start Shopping in the Produce Aisle
Fill your cart with a variety of colorful, nutrient rich fruits and vegetables, says American Dietetic Association spokesperson Kerry Neville.
“Produce should make up half of your plate because they are super nutritious without any added sugar, salt or fat – just the way Mother Nature intended,” she says.
For a treat, pick up some fresh berries filled with delicious fiber.
4. Next, Shop the Dairy Case
Most everyone needs three servings a day of low-fat or fat-free dairy.
Don’t forget: Low-calorie yogurts make a great mid-morning snack or after-dinner treat.
5. Turn to the Meat, Fish, and Poultry Aisle
Think of meat as a side dish. “Save money and calories by purchasing less meat because you only need a small portion equivalent to the palm of your hand,” says Neville.
Choose lean meats, skinless poultry, and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fish each week for heart health.
6. Make a Quick Stop for Whole Grain Breads and Rolls
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend half your grains be whole grain. That doesn’t mean you have to give up white bread, says Neville. “White whole wheat” is fine as long as you keep trying to encourage your family to move toward heartier 100% whole grains.
The same advice holds when choosing cereals and pasta. Look for blends of whole-wheat pasta and bran or high-fiber cereal.
For the occasional treat, pick up some whole grain blueberry muffins or baked sweet.
7. Then Head for the Grocery Store Center Aisles
Stock your cart with whole grain cereals, crackers, brown rice, and any other whole grains your family will enjoy. Toss in canned and dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas, which are all excellent sources of protein and fiber without any fat.
Canned foods tend to be high in sodium, so buy reduced-sodium or no-added-salt versions. You can reduce the sodium content of canned beans by as much as 40% by thoroughly rinsing the beans. When choosing canned fruits, select ones packed in fruit juice instead of syrup to save calories.
Other nutritious center-store foods include nut butters, 100% fruit juice, and healthy snacks such as popcorn, nuts, and dried fruit.
“There is a misconception that healthy foods are only on the perimeter of the grocery store, but that is false,” says Neville. “The interior aisles are brimming with many healthy choices alongside the not-so-healthy ones.”
8. Last Stop: The Frozen Food Aisle
Frozen foods are cost-effective choice and sometimes even healthier than fresh food. For example: Vegetables are picked at their prime nutrient content, then quickly frozen. They don’t lose nutrients like fresh vegetables may during transportation or while in your refrigerator bin.
“Save money and reduce waste by always having plain frozen vegetables and fruits on hand” says Ward. She prefers the resealable bags that allow you to only use as much as needed.
You can also find healthy frozen meals, fish, vegetarian foods, whole grain waffles and rolls, and 100% fruit juice.
Don’t forget dessert! Low-fat ice cream and sorbets are good choices.
Make frozen foods your last destination in the grocery store and go directly home to store them properly so they don’t defrost.
Your grocery cart should be full by now, with nutritious food as well as healthy snacks and treats.
Remember, all foods can fit into a healthy diet as long as you control the portions, and make sure treats don’t get in the way of healthy meals.