Time is a commodity these days as our obligations increase. Unfortunately, our health often becomes shortchanged as we pack in more responsibilities and a drive-thru or ordering-in seems like the fastest and best food choices, contributing to our ever-expanding diabesity epidemic.
These days, I understand more than ever what it’s like to have very little free time. My days are full seeing patients, teaching other doctors, acting as Chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, working as editor of a medical journal, writing books (and blogs), giving lectures, spending time with my friends and family, being a father, all while trying to fit in exercise and sleep.
Many of my patients are equally time-crunched, and grocery shopping often falls to the bottom of their to-do lists. They wait until the last minute and then become forced to make do with grabbing whatever’s available, even if it’s more costly and their choices become less-than-ideal for their health and their waistline.
I want to dispel a few myths here. Healthy food isn’t hard to find. You don’t have to shop in a gourmet food store, a health-food store, a farmer’s market, or eat only organic to eat well. There are plenty of healthy foods right in your local supermarket. You simply need to shop around the outside aisles of the store.
Healthy food also doesn’t take lots of time to prepare. You don’t have to spend hours cooking complex meals to eat well. Good quality, fresh food is easy to prepare and enjoy once you learn how.
I’m here to say that with some preparation and a little shopping savvy, you can keep your kitchen stocked with healthy, nourishing foods without spending hours driving from market to market or searching for arcane ingredients.
Plan Before You Go
A little preparation will dramatically shorten your shopping time while expanding your wallet and health. These 8 strategies can help:
– Keep a journal. For just one week, keep a journal of how much time and money you spend on grocery shopping. Include time you spend visiting coffee shops, restaurants, fast food joints, and ordering take-out. Write about how you spend your days: Do you waste time reading tabloids, watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing video games, or doing too many errands because you don’t plan your time well? Once you’ve thought about your answers to these questions, choose a few things to change that can give you some time back. Maybe you give up watching just a half hour of some inane reality TV show a day. That alone gives you an extra 7.6 days a year!
– Make a shopping list. Have a shopping list every time you go to the supermarket and stick to it. You will save your money and your life.
– Make shopping a weekly ritual. Choose a specific day and time when you’ll shop each week so it becomes an ingrained ritual.
– Take stock of what you have. Clean out any old perishable foods from your refrigerator and determine if you can substitute something you already have for something on the shopping list. Decide which items you’d like to make a double batch of to freeze for future use. Items that are great for freezing include soups and stews, burgers, meat loaf, rice dishes, and sauces.
– Repurpose your existing stock. If you have leftovers that cannot be successfully frozen, look ahead and plan where in your week you will use them. Make sure you have plenty of storage containers. Pyrex and glass work best to preserve flavors. Take an extra few minutes to arrange your cupboards and refrigerator to reflect the order in which items will be used. It is helpful to have containers for all refrigerated items that go with a particular meal to be stored together and labeled.
– Research local favorites. Search out cheaper sources of fresh, whole foods in your neighborhood. My top choices are stores like Trader Joe’s and shopping clubs like Costco or Sam’s Club, where you can buy vegetables, olive oil, fruits, nuts, canned beans, sardines, and salmon at much lower prices than regular supermarkets or other retail chains. Co-ops are community-based organizations that support local farmers and businesses and allow you to order foods and products in bulk at just slightly over the wholesale price. This takes a bit of advance planning but will save you money and time in the end.
– Consider home delivery. Buy direct and cut out the middleman. One of my favorite places to get wild-caught seafood and lots more is Vital Choice. Just about everything else, from spices to nut butters, you will find at very reasonable prices at Thrive Market (plus receive 15% off the first order and a 2-month free trial).
– Plan a weekly menu. Note any prep to be done for the following days. Look over the week’s menu and see what items you can make ahead of time. Examples include roasting nuts and seeds; making a sauce, chutney, or pesto; or toasting grains. Plan which meals you can cook the night before or make in a slow cooker, such as soups, stews, or grains.
3 Steps to Simplified Grocery Shopping
Now that you’ve sufficiently planned ahead, this is where the fun begins. Perhaps it’s been a while since you explored the produce section of your grocery store or visited a fresh farmer’s market. Maybe you’re unfamiliar with the bounty of fresh vegetables that you can use as the basis for many meals that are the foundation of this program. The truth is that the key to success is a well-stocked kitchen, which allows you to whip up a meal on even the busiest of days. Here are some of the things you should always have on hand.
Step 1: Load Up on Produce
Non-starchy veggies are freebies—eat as many as you like! I recommend limiting fruits because too many can increase your insulin levels.
When possible, choose organic, seasonal, and local produce. In the winter months or when your favorite produce is out of season, you can find organic versions in the freezer section.
When you can, avoid the most pesticide contaminated fruits and vegetables by consulting the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list and instead choose from the “Clean Fifteen” list featuring the least contaminated options. Just make sure you’re buying unseasoned or unsweetened varieties. Also check out your local farmers market or community supported agriculture (CSA).
Step 2: Load Up on Staples
You’ll want to have a range of pantry ingredients, including seasonings and spices, on hand. Many of my favorite recipes contain these ingredients, so now is a good time to clean out your pantry and restock it with healing staples that will be the foundational ingredients to most of your meals. Buy organic when you can.
The good thing is that because you only use a little of some of these, they tend to last a long time so you get a lot of value from them. Here is a list of some of the things you’ll rely on to put together delicious and wholesome meals.
– Extra-virgin olive oil
– Extra-virgin coconut butter (often called coconut oil; at room temperature it is solid, but at warm temperatures it may be liquid)
– Other healthy oils, such as walnut, sesame, flax, or avocado
– Nut butters (raw, if possible), such as almond, cashew, macadamia, or walnut
– Nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, and macadamia
– Seeds, like hemp, chia, flax, pumpkin, and sesame
– Tahini (sesame seed paste)
– Canned full-fat coconut milk, unsweetened
– Unsweetened hemp or almond milk
– Canned or jarred Kalamata olives
– Almond meal
– Apple cider vinegar
– Balsamic vinegar
– Reduced-sodium, gluten-free tamari
– Reduced-sodium broth (vegetable or chicken)
– Dijon mustard
– Sea salt
– Freshly ground black pepper
– Seasonings and spices, such as turmeric, cayenne pepper, thyme, rosemary, chili powder, cumin, sage, oregano, onion powder, cinnamon, coriander, cilantro, paprika, and parsley
Step 3: Hit the Periphery for Fresh Foods
Look around your market the next time you are there – you will notice that the whole, fresh foods are stocked on the outside aisles, not in the inside shelves. Stick to these aisles for the main ingredients of your meals. Remember – when selecting beef or meat, choose grass-fed, hormone-free, or organic, when possible. The USDA mandates that all poultry is raised without hormones, so look for the terms “antibiotic free” or “organic” when buying poultry. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Meat Eater’s Guide” to choose meat that’s good for you and good for the planet. Get in the habit of keeping your fridge and freezer stocked with these items:
– Boneless, skinless chicken and turkey breasts
– Ground chicken and turkey
– Lean cuts of beef, lamb, and bison (buffalo) meat
– Omega-3 enriched eggs
– Whole forms of non-GMO soy food, like tofu, tempeh, and gluten-free miso (organic, when possible)
– Wild or sustainably farmed, low-mercury seafood like sardines, salmon, herring, flounder, clams, crab, oyster, perch, pollock, shrimp, sole, squid, trout, whitefish etc. Avoid those fish that are high in mercury such as tuna, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass. Refer to the National Resources Defense Council website and download their wallet guide to choosing the fish lowest in mercury.
With these preparation strategies and my 3-step shopping plan, you can radically simplify grocery visits to 20 minutes a week or less while keeping your kitchen stocked with real, fresh, whole foods.