A common theme here at HTBM is that bulking muscle isn’t something that only happens at the gym. It also happens in your heart, in your mind, and in your kitchen. But, if you’re going to have the nutritional tools that you need in your kitchen you need to know how to shop.
Here, we’ll revisit the grocery store to learn how to shop for the best, the tastiest, and the most affordable ingredients so that you can feed your body the nutrients it needs.
How to “Shop the Perimeter”
This article is about how to shop, not how to eat. However, one of the most popular heuristics on grocery shopping is “shopping the perimeter,” which has to do with a certain understanding of nutrition.
Food writer Michael Pollan has summed up good nutrition with the rules “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” By “food” he means “things that your grandmother would recognize as food” – that is, minimally processed foods. This brings us back to why and how to shop the perimeter.
Shopping the perimeter means only buying foods from around the outside aisles of the grocery store. In the common grocery store layout, that’s the produce section, the bakery, the deli, meats, and dairy. Meanwhile the inside aisles typically include premade meals, canned goods, pastas, frozen meals, breakfast cereals, you get it.
For the most part, knowing how to shop the perimeter is a handy guide that still leaves you access to things like healthy sources of carbs. However, depending on your diet and your preparation methods, it can exclude some handy items.
For example, the more foods you make yourself the more handy some basic baking ingredients like flour can become, but flour is a center-aisle ingredient. Similarly, if you make your own sauces, chillis, etc., there are worse things in the world than canned tomatoes.
Perhaps most importantly, canned and dried beans – a potentially huge source of iron and protein for the low-and-no-meat bodybuilder – is excluded by this model. So, use it when it helps you but remember that it’s just an idea. It can help you think about the way that you shop but it doesn’t have to control you.
How to Shop Produce
The first section that you will typically encounter in a grocery store is the produce section. You probably walk through it every time that you go to the store, but few people would blame you if you aren’t sure how to shop the produce section effectively.
In our article on meal prepping we mention that a lot of foods are cheaper if you buy larger quantities. However, if you’re only cooking for yourself it can also be handy to know that most grocery stores let you buy most produce individually. If three pounds of carrots is too much, just buy three carrots.
This is also helpful because a lot of vegetables are good for flavor but you don’t actually need a lot of them in a recipe. Think peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, etc. You can usually buy any or all of these in large bags, but you aren’t shopping healthier or smarter if you end up throwing most of those bags away.
Knowing how to shop for fruits and vegetables that are both ripe and fresh can be scary at first. Fortunately, as more people become more aware of the importance of nutrition, more grocery stores are putting up guides on how to shop for good produce by color and even texture.
If you still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask an employee.
Approach the Bakery and Deli
More health-conscious readers may have been taken aback at our inclusion of the bakery and the deli sections as perimeter areas in which to shop. It’s true that not all carbs are good carbs and that some deli meats and treats are over salty and potentially high in fat.
However, breads purchased from a bakery are likely to be better for you and have fewer artificial ingredients than factory made breads. Just remember to shop for whole grains for extra fiber, vitamins, and minerals that aren’t in more processed grains.
Similarly, the deli can be a good place to go for fresher meats and cheeses. Just be mindful of the salt and fat content. Roasted deli meats can be a great healthy source of protein but a lot of cold cuts can come with a lot of salt and other preservatives.
The bakery and the deli are also (typically) staffed with dedicated experts who can answer your questions more effectively than most grocery store staff would be able to. So, if you have any questions about how a bread or meat was prepared and packaged, just ask.
The Skinny on Frozen Meats
If you’re looking to add more meat to your diet but price or fridge life has scared you away, the freezer section that some grocery stores place between the deli and the meat department can be the section for you. But, you have to know how to shop it.
In addition to having a longer shelf life, frozen meats tend to be much more affordable than fresher meats. Don’t get too scared, that’s largely because of the lower costs of processing and shipping frozen meats. Nutritionally and from a flavor perspective, these meats can be just as good. And, easier to shop for.
The packaging on frozen meat products is usually much more informative than the packaging on fresh meat products. A great example of this is burger. “Burger” is just ground meat. The “burger” that you’re probably thinking of is probably beef burger.
With any meat – but particularly red meat – the leaner the better. If you’re looking at fresh burger in the meat department rather than the freezer section, the more white is in the burger the higher the fat content. But, that’s usually as much as you can know for sure. With frozen burger, the packaging usually tells you the fat to meat ratio allowing you to make a healthier selection.
Further, because lean meat is better for you, turkey burger is better for you than beef burger. But, because it isn’t as popular, most grocery stores only carry the frozen variety. No, Turkey burger doesn’t taste the same as beef. But if you’re buying your own burger you can add your own spices for a more unique and rewarding flavor profile than you can get from just beef.
How to Shop the Meat Department
Now, onto the meat department. We’ve already covered a big watch item that a lot of people find out too late on their lifelong journey to discover how to shop. You don’t want too much white in your meat. This is usually fat. You want leaner cuts of meat and leaner burger, so look for lots of red beef and pink pork.
It’s a bit harder to tell what you’re looking at with fish, chicken, and turkey, particularly if you are newer to shopping for meat. However, these are all leaner meats anyway, so you should be pretty safe here regardless. Just buy with the skin off if you can, or remove it yourself at home before cooking.
Some grocery stores will package meat with suggested recipes. Even if you don’t follow the recipes, they will tell you the internal temperature that the meat should be cooked to. If you’re worried about this, you can always start your meat cooking adventure with beef, which is the safest to ingest when “under-cooked”.
You should also invest in a meat thermometer if you don’t have one already – many grocery stores stock meat thermometers in the meat department.
Like the deli and the bakery, many grocery stores do still have dedicated meat department staff that can answer your questions on how to shop the meat department if necessary.
Navigating Cheese and Yogurt
The final section on our tour is the dairy section. There’s not a whole lot to say about how to shop for milk and eggs, but cheese is tricky.
Shredded cheese can be convenient, to keep it from clumping together, a lot of it is cut with cellulose. Further, because ingredients are listed in order of proportion and there aren’t a lot of distinct ingredients in shredded cheese, it’s easy for companies to slip in a lot of those additives. Just shred your own cheese. It’s not hard.
Sliced cheese doesn’t usually come with nasty additives. If all you use cheese for is making sandwiches, pre-sliced cheese can be convenient.
Blocks of cheese are more versatile in cooking and have a similar cost to shredded and sliced options pound-for-pound. The only real downside is that block cheese is more likely to dry out or get moldy if you don’t use it fast enough after opening it.
Avoid anything that says “product.” “Cheese products” are “made with cheese” which only means that they aren’t real cheese. Would you buy a “meat product” that was “made with real meat?” Hopefully not.
There’s some room to argue over butter and other sources of fat, but this isn’t really the place for that discussion. Just use butter and oils sparingly.
The only other real warning for how to shop the dairy section might be for yogurt. Yogurt can be a great source of protein and calcium, but a lot of yogurts – particularly flavored yogurts – have a lot of added sugars. If you like yogurt, look for yogurts with natural ingredients like fruit or buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit.
Go Forth and Shop
That’s it. That’s the HTBM guided tour through the average grocery store. For now. Maybe someday we’ll come back and do a tour through the center aisles. Because, while a lot of that content isn’t the best, the more you cook the more you encounter things like oils, pasta, canned vegetables, oats, and other things that aren’t that bad.
If you have other questions about how to shop with nutrition or budgeting in mind, ask the experts at your local grocery store. Or, ask us! The editors at HTBM love hearing from readers. On the other hand, if you have your own tips on how to shop smart and healthier, comment below.