I’m at the grocery store. I’ve brought the twins (something I try very hard to avoid). One of them is chasing me with a package of purple glitter nail polish and the other is asking in his most polite voice if he can just SHOW me something he saw a few aisles ago. I am maxed out. I have a list but I can’t freaking find it. My cell phone is vibrating into my side and I can see from the screen that it’s an old friend I’ve been exchanging voice mail with for months. Calgon take me away indeed. This IS shopping, though. Purchasing the stuff of life happens on regular days with all of their regular promise and regular pitfalls. Despite the purple glitter nail polish pleading (or whatever drives you nuts at the store), we all make it home with some food. Well, at least mostly.
Here’s the thing. Like so many of our normal self-maintenance routines, food shopping is very much an act of habit. If you have not been in the habit of seeking out and buying healthier food, it becomes awfully easy to miss in the market. And if your market is set up like most markets, they’re not making it any easier for you to get to those real food goodies. There are some critical things to remember about grocery stores if you want to make some healthier selections. 1) Most real food spoils. 2) Much of the food sold in the average grocery store does not spoil. 3) The grocery store is a for profit business, not a purveyor of health.
Let’s talk a little bit about these ideas. so you can come away from this step with a better strategy for hitting the market.
Most Real Food Spoils
Regardless of whatever your individual food orientation (vegetarian, meat & potatoes lover, fruitarian, pescatarian), many of the healthiest choices you can make, many of the real foods that will provide your bod with optimum nutrition spoil. They turn grotty. They become sludge or compost depending on what you eat. Some folks believe that the earlier you get these bits into your body – the fresher they are, the more good they will do you.
Let me couch this by saying that there are some perfectly legitimate real food items that take so long to spoil that we could fairly say that they basically don’t spoil. I would here be referring to things like dried beans, grains, nuts, some fats, vinegars, and dried fruits and veggies. You get my drift here. These are live food items that have been lightly processed to bring them into a more shelf stable form. They have not had much, if anything, added to them. These are still real foods.
The truth is if you add together the food that will spoil and the dried beans etc, you still have a pretty low percentage of what’s available to you at the grocery store for eating. Let’s consider the areas of the store where these bits live. I’m not telling you anything revolutionary here – lots of fantastic bloggers and writers have clued us in to the trick of the grocery store: the perimeter. What’s on the perimeter? The fridges. If your store has the cold part somewhere else – just replace the word perimeter with that location. You want to go to the cold place because you want to buy a lot of your groceries in the area with the food that spoils.
The map above is for a Wegman’s store (not my own – the Frederick image was all fancy and clickable and a real PITA). You can see, however, that sticking to the perimeter is not necessarily an easy task. As supermarkets expand their offerings and their services there are may more ways to entice the average shopper to impulse buy on their way to real food. My neighborhood Wegman’s has a bakery and a prepared foods section that boasts a seating area with a kid zone and a fireplace. It’s really nice – no lie, but it doesn’t necessarily help me stick to my menu and shopping plan. To combat the bounty of wonder that is the modern grocery store, I basically walk the same path through the store every time and only deviate to pick up a particular item – and then return to my regular path. If I didn’t put it on the list I don’t need it, and if I don’t need it, there’s no reason for me to walk through an aisle of culinary genius or marketing insanity to get it.
Action: Next time you go to the market, notice your strategy. Do you go down every aisle? Do you stick to a list or do you let the store dictate what you’ll be buying? Note how much time you spend in the cold parts of the store.
Much of the Food in the Store Does Not Spoil
There is a giant category of food at the grocery store of food that never spoils because it, quite frankly, has a lot of crap added to it to ensure that it can sit indefinitely on that grocery shelf until it hits the magic sale price, or the coupon comes out in the Sunday flier, or whatever, and then those goods get transferred to the pantry where they also sit indefinitely. In order to make it possible for these foods to sit on the shelf, producers often add chemicals, known as preservatives, to ensure shelf life. Many preservatives are sodium based and as a result, many shelf stable products are extremely high in salts. While there are sometimes additives in perishable foods, they are much less common, and much less necessary.
There are lists all over the internet of food additives and preservatives that aren’t good for you. Here at the pantry we recommend resources at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. They provide a list of additives that you can read about, and they have them broken down into categories of relative safety and harm or potential harm. I would challenge you some day to take the part of the list that CPSI suggests we all avoid and look at it while you’re in an aisle at the store – one of those interior aisles with box after box of quick easy dinner time fixes. You’re gonna find that list. You’re gonna find it everywhere. You’re going to find it in the foods you never thought you’d have to question. You’ll also find it in the blue microwave popcorn – c’mon you knew that was a bad idea. You’re gonna find it in the foods that they’re marketing to your children. You’re gonna find it in many many grocery items that don’t spoil. So you don’t have to believe that a food must be alive in order to think that perishable food is better for you – you just have to believe that avoiding harmful chemicals is a good idea.
Action: Carry a list of harmful additives when you go to the market. Choose 5 non-perishable food items that you customarily buy and check out their ingredients. See how they rate. Consider replacing those that contain harmful ingredients with a real food alternative. These would make great baby step switches, in case you were wondering.
The Grocery Store is a For Profit Business
I know you know this, but I think sometimes we forget that grocery stores are businesses like so many others. They exist to sell you food, and it is in their best interest for you to buy those foods at the highest price possible, and to need to come to the store often, to cultivate your loyalty, and to encourage careless and thoughtless shopping so you get a lot and still leave missing some items from your list. What? That sounds so mean, so awful, so dastardly… Look, I’m not saying every person in your favorite market is trying to pick pocket you. I AM saying that retailers of all kinds do serious research to figure out exactly how to get you to spend as much as possible while in their store. This is not the same goal as helping you get the biggest bang for your buck or improve your diet. This means that their deals are intended largely to bring in new customers and that, for the most part, everyday prices on items that you want to eat are far more important than big sales. I’m not suggesting you ignore sale prices, but pay attention to what you get charged for the food that you WANT to eat more of. Keep an eye on those everyday prices.
Action: If you’re committed to a particular market, consider the reason for your loyalty. Is it because they offer amazing deals? Is it because they have a great bakery? Take note of the everyday prices of perishable foods and make sure you’re getting as good a deal as you think. A good food deal is only a good deal if it includes something that actually feeds your body.
What to Do? A Grocery Strategy for Regular Folks
In order to buy real food at the grocery store, you may well need to start by working on your list. If your list is full of junk food, guess what’s going to come home? Secondly, stick to that list. The people who know me well are now flat out laughing at me. I’m not good at sticking to the list – but here’s the thing I AM good at sticking to my path. This is to say that when I stray off list at my local Wegman’s, I am most likely in the produce section, the refrigerated natural foods section (where I get organic milk and eggs and crazy healthy bread), or at the olive bar. If you have something bad to tell me about the olive bar, I’d just as soon you kept it to yourself, thank you very much. So make that list and don’t go into other parts of the store. You don’t need that crap. You really don’t. Drift toward the perimeter. Bring a sweater if you must. Real food wants cold. Real food spoils. Real food wants to be eaten. Have some. You’ll be glad you did.