Did you know that March is National Nutrition Month? Of course, for yours truly, EVERY month is nutrition month but it is fun to choose a month every year to help share the healthy eating love across Canada. Every year there is a different theme, set by Dietitians of Canada, and this year the theme is Plan, Shop, Cook, Enjoy! 

Given that I spent the first years of my career doing grocery store nutrition tours, I have amassed a lot of practical tips and tools to make your trip to the grocery store easier and help you wade through the marketing clutter. So, in honour of Nutrition Month, I thought that I would share my 5 favourite Smart Shopping tips to help you eat well.

Plan Ahead. Without a doubt, the best way to ensure you are eating well is to cook for yourself at home but as life gets busier and more demanding you need a plan. I was just chatting with another dietitian friend of mine and lest you think that we dietitians simply love sitting around and planning what we are going to eat for the week, let me reassure you – we hate it. We would rather be eating food than purchasing it. However, taking 15 minutes to plan out your meals for the weekend and prep a grocery list will save you time and money at the grocery store and ensure you are never left wondering ‘what’s for dinner?’ The weeks I let sloth get to me, I eat fewer fruits and veggies and usually find myself eating take out at least once. Make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee, get cozy and write that darn plan. Need a tool to help you plan your meals for the week? One of my favourite inspirational plant-based wellness gurus, Kris Carr, created a downloadable page that you can access for free here.

Go Fresh First. You want to eat more fruits and veggies? You have to BUY more! How many times have you gone to the store and bought a bunch of bananas, a few apples and a bag of carrots and called it a day? That’s not going to cut it if you are trying to get 7-10 half cup servings of produce a day. A great rule of thumb for fresh fruit is 3 pieces of fruit per person per day…that’s 21 pieces a week! Then, with all those wonderful veg you are going to include at each meal, your cart should be half full of produce. Don’t worry about not eating it all…you made a meal plan so each and every one of those purchases is accounted for, right? If you are really worried, skew your meal plan towards frozen choices and hardier storage veg like carrots at the end of the week. No waste.

Avoid the “___-free” trap. If you are trying to eat healthier, it can be tempting to be drawn towards sugar-free and fat-free choices. However, if that sugar and fat are simply replaced with something unhealthy, they are no nutritional bargain. Sugar-free is usually a synonym for artificially sweetened and you want NOTHING to do with artificial sweeteners. Let me repeat: avoid artificial sweeteners at all costs. They encourage a love of food that is far sweeter than could ever be found in nature and science is starting to suggest that artificial sweeteners might even be messing with blood sugar control, appetite and weight maintenance. If you are trying to avoid added sugars, which I recommend, instead look for the word ‘unsweetened’ and then double check the ingredients for artificial sweeteners or words ending in -ose…because those are sugars. Don’t look at the nutrition facts panels under sugars as those values might reflect naturally occurring sugars in fruit or dairy.

When it comes to fat, healthy plant-based fats are your friends. It is quality over quantity, people! Fat-free foods are usually filled with sugars and stabilizers to help approximate the texture and flavour-enhancing effects of fat. Instead, focus on finding the types of fats you want: more nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado and less from corn, soy, sunflower oils or animal sources. Choose lean meats if you eat them and buy good quality dairy products and eat smaller amounts of them. If you drink a lot of milk, choose skim or try alternating with a veggie milk to keep saturated fat in check. Look for naturally lighter cheeses such as feta and chèvre or stronger flavoured cheeses such as parmiggiano reggiano or blue cheese so you can get away with just using a small amount.

Buy in Bulk. The bulk foods section, if you can avoid the siren call of the candy, is like a produce section for dry goods. All of the unprocessed, nutrient-dense plant foods are there: nuts, seeds, unprocessed grains and legumes. Adopting these staples into your meal plan will help make you healthier and save you money over all those other less healthful choices in fancy packages. Look for raw and unsalted nuts and seeds and store them in the fridge or freezer. Snack on them with dried or fresh fruit or add them to homemade cereal bars, muffins or granolas. Get your grain arsenal stocked for healthy eating at home: steel cut and thick rolled oats, pearl barley, wheat berries, buckwheat, millet, farro and quinoa. If you don’t have much time for dinner prep, take a lazy sunday and cook off a bunch of whole grains, packaging them into single recipe sized servings and store them in the freezer. Do the same with beans and you will never have to buy a canned bean again…frugal and fabulous!

Beware ‘healthwashing’. Whenever some nutrient or food attribute starts showing up in the media, processed food manufacturers change their formulas to include/exclude the nutrient. They will splash news of the change across their packaging and usually, charge you more for it. Your first clue that something is up is the fact that real, unprocessed food can’t magically be reformulated overnight to include more omega 3 fats. Complex processed foods are already less healthy than whole, unprocessed foods and a few drops of a healthy fat won’t change that. Second, the nutrient in question is not always added in meaningful amounts or in a useful form to your body. Many ‘high fibre’ foods are created by adding inulin, a pre-biotic starch that we aren’t certain has the full health benefits of naturally occuring insoluble or soluble fibres. Foods that claim to lower cholesterol with plant sterols must provide 2 g of plant sterols per day – you would have to eat 5 tsp of the leading plant sterol margarine a day to achieve this goal and I would advise against it for reasons of health and finance; in fact, I would prefer you not eat margarine at all!

What is your favourite healthy shopping tip? Let me know in the comments!