Navigating the grocery store for healthy options can be intimidating. This is especially true for athletes, since diet greatly impacts performance. The grocery store has pitfalls everywhere, and sometimes the foods that seem healthy actually aren’t. If you’re an athlete juggling a busy schedule, and a tight budget, follow these guidelines to navigate each section of the grocery store – your wallet and body will thank you.
Produce Section: Fruits and vegetables are full of healthful nutrients that are critical for athletes, but they can be expensive. When shopping in the produce section of the grocery store, it is important to be aware of which fruits and vegetables are in season. These options will be lower in price and taste better – so take advantage! Check out a list of seasonal fruits and vegetables here. Also, watch for special produce sales to help you save even more.
Bread Aisle: Athletes should buy 100% whole wheat, or 100% whole grain, bread whenever possible. Be careful, though, some companies will try to trick you. Breads that appear brown or say “whole grain” or “wheat” may still be made with refined grains. Make sure the bread that you are buying is 100% whole wheat by checking the ingredient list. Look for “whole grain” or “whole wheat” and avoid the “enriched” wheat flour. Look at the Athlete’s Grocery Shopping List from MSD for a list of suggested brands to purchase.
Meat and Seafood: These items can be expensive, which makes looking deals and specials important. Specials can often be found ahead of time by looking in the grocery store’s flyers or online – so do your research before shopping! When purchasing meats, make sure they are the leanest cut or ground beef that is 90/10 or leaner. If you find a particularly good deal, buy extra and freeze what you don’t need for later – this will save you money in the long run. The leanest cuts of beef can be found here.
Dairy: Low-fat and fat-free dairy products are important sources of calcium and protein for athletes. If you choose to buy diary alternatives, be sure to purchase ones that provide adequate protein, calcium, and vitamins A and. D. While soymilk is a good source of protein, almond and coconut milk typically are not. When choosing yogurts at the grocery store, try adding Greek yogurt to your cart. Greek yogurt can have up to twice the amount of protein when compared to typical yogurt, which makes it a great post-workout snack for athletes. There are often deals on Greek yogurt, and buying a larger container, rather than multiple single-serving containers, will usually save you money.
Frozen Section: When shopping in the frozen section of the grocery store, go right to the frozen fruits and vegetables. These are picked at their peak of ripeness and frozen right away – making them just as nutritious as fresh fruits and vegetables. With that being said, it’s important to purchase frozen fruits with no added sugar and frozen vegetables without creamy sauces or high sodium seasonings. Frozen fruits and vegetables can be a good money-saving choice when you want produce that is not in season. Also, keep in mind: Frozen meals can be convenient, but they are often highly processed and can be expensive. If you start planning your meals ahead of time, and making enough for leftovers, you will not have to rely on buying frozen meals. This will save you both time and money.
Cereal Aisle: Just as with the bread aisle, it is important to stick with whole grain options. There is a new consideration in the cereal aisle, though – the sugar content. Luckily, there are plenty of healthy, and tasty, cereals available that are low in sugar. As a general rule, choose cereals with less than 25% of their calories coming from sugar. There are often coupons available for brand-name cereals, but if you are looking to save money without using coupons, you can opt to buy the generic brand. Generic brands often contain the same ingredients, have the same nutritional value, and are much less expensive than the brand-name items.
Canned Food Aisle: Canned foods tend to get looked down upon, but they can be good options – especially for athletes on a tight budget. Stores often have great deals on canned foods, and these items have a long shelf life – meaning you can buy a large amount when they’re cheap, and keep them for later. When buying canned fruits, make sure the fruit is packaged in 100% fruit juice – not syrup. When purchasing canned vegetables, look for options that are low in sodium, or have no salt added.
Bulk Food Section: This section of the grocery store is great for purchasing items such as nuts, trail mix, whole grains, flours, and dried fruits. Buying these items here is often less expensive than buying them in other areas of the store. This is because you are not paying for any pre-packaging, and you can get the exact amount that you need. The grocery store may also have specials on various bulk foods – so if one of your favorite items goes on sale, buy extra!
Condiment and Sauce Aisle: This can be a tricky section of the grocery store, since condiments and sauces have a wide range of fat and calorie contents. When buying condiments, try to stick with low fat options, and limit creamy dressing (such as ranch) as much as possible. Check out the Athlete’s Grocery Shopping List for more information on healthy condiment options. When picking nut butters, try to buy all natural varieties to avoid the trans fats that may be found in the processed options. To see if a spread contains trans fat, check the ingredient list – if it includes hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils, then it includes trans fats, and you should avoid buying it.
Fruit Juice and Beverage Aisle: 100% fruit juice is a healthy option, but some companies may try to trick you. If you by a juice, or fruit “beverage”, that is not labeled 100% fruit juice, it is likely more similar to sugar water or soda than juice. Also, keep in mind: While 100% juice is a good option, if you want to get all of the benefits of fruit, it is best to eat the whole fruit. This way, you are also getting the added benefits of fiber, which is not provided in juice.
Snack Food Aisle: Snack foods, such as chips, pop tarts, and candy, are not the best options for athletes looking to perform their best. Start thinking of snacks as opportunities to consume even more healthy foods to fuel your body. With that being said, avoiding the snack foods aisle of the grocery store is your best option. Tasty snacks can be made from food purchased in the other areas of the grocery store. Some options include: Hummus with vegetables, fruit with nut butter or low fat string cheese, or Greek yogurt.
Check out the eBook Shop Smart – Use the Grocery Store to Your Advantage and make a plan for your next trip to the grocery store. When you arrive at the store, make sure you know exactly what you are looking for in each area. After doing this, you will be amazed at how easy grocery shopping becomes. You will save time, money, and – most importantly – choose the best options to improve your performance.
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Kelli Kidd MS, RD, CSSD