Diabetes Forecast

4 Steps to Easy Grocery Shopping

Get the most out of your next trip to the supermarket

By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN , ,

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Shopping for healthy food should be simple. But with the average supermarket nearly the size of a football field, it can be confusing and time consuming. That’s why having a plan is key. “Without a strategy, you may see things and just grab them,” says Lisa Stollman, MA, RDN, CDE, a New York City–based certified diabetes educator. “Then you get home and realize you’ve spent a lot of money but don’t have the foods you need to put a healthy meal together.”

This four-step plan will take the stress out of grocery shopping—and help you get tasty, diabetes-friendly meals on the table.

Step 1. Start with a list.

The road to better grocery shopping begins before you ever set foot in the store. “A shopping list is essential for making healthy choices and avoiding strategically placed impulse items, which usually come in the form of junk food,” says Alana Fiorentino, RDN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator in New York City. Plus, it makes you more efficient, so you get in and out of the store faster. A grocery list is so effective that a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that people who shopped with a list had significantly healthier diets—and weighed less—than those who chose to wing it.

A carefully constructed shopping list helps you stock your kitchen with nutritious staples and provides the building blocks for healthy meals. Be sure to: 

  • Jot down a few days’ worth of good-for-you dinners and determine all the ingredients you’ll need.
  • Take a quick inventory of your fridge, freezer, and pantry. If you don’t have the basics for speedy breakfasts, snacks, and lunches, add them to your list. Look over your list and make sure it’s balanced. Just like your plate, your grocery list should contain half nonstarchy vegetables, a quarter lean protein, and a quarter grains or starches.

Pen and paper will make a fine list, but a little technology can make the process even more efficient. Most smartphones have a note-taking function you can use to keep a running tally of foods to purchase. You can update it anytime, anywhere and even organize it by aisle of the store.

Or take things up a notch with special apps, such as ChefTap to create a shopping list from your favorite recipes, OutofMilk to inventory and update what’s in your pantry, or AnyList to sync and share your grocery list with family and friends.

Step 2. Have a game plan.

With your list in hand, you’re almost ready to head to the supermarket. But before you do, consider the timing. Shopping on an empty stomach makes you more likely to succumb to samples or grab a bag of chips at the checkout counter. Do damage control by grocery shopping after a meal or snack.

Then plan your attack. “Knowing the layout of your store is helpful not only from a shopping perspective, but also from a food safety point of view,” says Robin Plotkin, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Dallas. “Shopping the perishable departments last is a best practice, as the longer food remains at the proper temperature, the more likely it is to stay safe.”

What about advice to shop the store’s outer edges first? “The old adage ‘shop the perimeter’ is misleading and outdated,” says Rita Zapien, MS, RD, CDE, a nutritionist and certified diabetes educator with H-E-B Supermarkets. “Better-for-you foods are bountiful in all store departments.”

Sure, the perimeter contains nutrient-packed produce, eggs, low-fat milk and yogurt, whole grain bread, and lean meat, chicken, and fish. But you may also find buttery croutons and high-fat blue cheese dressing in the produce section, cookie dough in the dairy case, pulled pork alongside lean meat and poultry, and doughnuts near the whole-wheat English muffins.

Finally, don’t forget to check the store’s sales ads for coupons. They’re great money-savers.

Step 3. Shop from the inside out.

Your mission: Temporarily bypass the perimeter and make your way through the heart of the store, shopping only the aisles that have food on your list. As you do, you’ll find a mix of healthy and not-so-healthy foods. How do you choose the best items? The first clue is location. “Healthier foods tend to be located on higher shelves rather than at eye level,” says Fiorentino.

The second clue comes from decoding the fine print. “When shopping for food, label reading is such an important skill,” says Fiorentino. “That’s why I especially like apps that let you look up nutrition label information before you go to the store or even as you shop, like ShopWell or Fooducate.”

As you shop the center of the store, focus on minimally processed foods such as whole wheat and bean-based pastas, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, unsweetened whole grain cereal, nuts, nut butters, olive and canola oils, canned tuna and salmon, and no-salt-added canned tomatoes and beans.

Surprised to see canned foods on that list? They can actually have big benefits. Take, for instance, canned beans. They’re quick, inexpensive, and a diabetes superfood. A study published in a 2012 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people with type 2 diabetes who ate 1 cup of beans a day for three months lowered their A1C by 0.5 percent. Because canned beans can contain added sodium, choose no-salt-added varieties. Or drain and rinse them before serving to wash away 40 percent of their sodium.

The frozen food aisle is also misunderstood. Yes, it contains ice cream, garlic bread, frozen pizza, and french fries, but it’s actually one of the most underrated sections in the store. Here you’ll find several foods that simplify healthy eating, such as frozen fruit and no-sauce-added frozen vegetables. Preparing fresh ingredients may feel like a time-consuming chore, making you less likely to eat them. Frozen fruits and veggies, on the other hand, are fast and easy.

Although we often hear that fresh is best, many nutrition experts disagree. “The beauty of frozen fruits and vegetables is that you never have to worry that they’ll spoil, and they’re always there when you need them,” says Stollman. “And because they’re picked at the peak of freshness and flash frozen, they’re as [nutritious as]—if not more nutritious than—fresh.”

Nearby you’ll also find another gem: frozen veggie, chicken, turkey, tuna, and salmon burgers. Packed with lean protein, they’re perfectly portioned for a speedy lunch or dinner. Even frozen dinners can work, so long as their carb grams fit into your plan. Look for brands with at least 4 grams of fiber and no more than 600 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Step 4. Avoid hidden traps.

One of the biggest obstacles to healthy grocery shopping is food that looks nutritious but isn’t. Granola is a classic example. Made with whole grain oats, granola sounds like a good cereal choice. But read the fine print and you’ll find that a half-cup serving can pack 41 grams of carbohydrate and 14 grams of sugar, thanks to added honey, brown sugar, or dried fruit. Ditto for yogurt. Sure, unsweetened plain yogurt is a great choice, but sweetened varieties can easily contain 15 grams of sugar or more.

Prepared and pre-prepped foods can also be a minefield, even when they look healthy. Consider the salad bar. On the one hand, it has plenty of fresh veggies. On the other, you’ll find pasta salad, bacon bits, and fried chicken strips. So stick with vegetables and skip the prepared add-ons. Less-than-healthy salads, such as potato salad, also hang out at the deli counter. Bypass these entirely and ask for low-sodium lean turkey or chicken breast at the deli.

Low-carb foods can be misleading, too. Zapien recommends proceeding with caution, especially if they scream “zero-carb” or list “net carbs” or “impact carbs” on the front of the package. “Currently, there’s no legal definition for impact or net carbs,” she says. “Instead, people with diabetes should zero in on reading total carbohydrate on food labels.”

Then there are foods developed specifically for people with diabetes. While the occasional sugar-free dessert won’t hurt you, know that these products still contain calories and carbohydrate. A sugar-free cookie, for instance, may still contain 20 grams of carb or more. And many of these products contain sugar alcohols, which can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

Instead, focus on whole, minimally processed foods such as fresh fruit, low-fat Greek yogurt, or air-popped popcorn sprinkled with naturally sweet-tasting cinnamon. Their filling fiber and protein can help keep your glucose levels on an even keel far better than highly processed diabetes-specific or low-carb foods.

Think Outside the Supermarket

The grocery store isn’t the only place to shop for healthy food. Try these less-obvious alternatives.

Online Grocers

Whether you are a busy mom, don’t drive, or have difficulty lifting groceries, shopping online is an easy way to fill your kitchen with nutritious foods. Look for services that allow you to order produce by the item, not the pound, so you don’t end up with a giant 1-pound potato when you really wanted three smaller ones. And opt for sturdy fruits and vegetables, such as apples, oranges, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, which are less likely to bruise in transit.

Big-Box Stores and Warehouse Clubs

Think Walmart, Target, Costco, and Sam’s Club. “These stores often have their own brand of products at excellent prices,” says Alana Fiorentino, RDN, CDE, a certified diabetes educator in New York City. “Just remember to have a shopping plan because the number of options at these larger stores can be overwhelming.” Because warehouse clubs tend to carry extra-large packages, they’re best for nonperishables, unless you have a large family that can polish them off quickly.

Farmers Markets

For maximum freshness and variety, shop early in the day. Also keep in mind: It’s easy to get carried away. So stock up on fruits and veggies and forgo the baked goods, jams, and honey.


For those willing to make a season-long commitment, a CSA (short for community supported agriculture) provides a weekly box full of farm-fresh produce, helping you support local farmers. But they’re best for the adventurous. While many people love the surprise of not knowing which vegetables they’ll find in their box each week, others are less enthusiastic when they receive foods they dislike or don’t recognize. Before committing, it’s also helpful to consider whether you and your family will actually eat an entire box of produce in a week, especially if you’re only cooking for a few people.



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