Shopping Cart Essentials: Stock up on These Healthy Staples

So, you’re going to start eating healthy. Congratulations are in order—and so is a trip to the grocery store. Stocking up on some new items is a must. If your pantry is full of healthy fare, you’ll stress less about meals, and you’ll be less likely to snack on nutritionally-empty junk.

But should you buy 12-grain or whole wheat bread? Low-fat milk or soy milk? Butter or margarine? Grocery shopping isn’t rocket science, but it can be confusing, even for those with the best of intentions. So to help, here's SparkPeople's list of shopping cart essentials—an aisle-by-aisle guide to supplies you’ll need to stock your kitchen for your healthy eating resolution.

Produce: Start Here

Fresh fruits and veggies are the foundation of a healthy diet. Here are some of the best picks to help you reach your goals:
  • Apples are good to have on hand for a quick snack. They’re usually cheaper by the bag, and they last for a while, so don’t be afraid to stock up.
  • Bananas are another handy snack. This fruit is also an essential if you’re a fan of smoothies. Wait for them to ripen (with a few brown spots), then peel, slice and freeze in an airtight container for a quick, frosty addition to your favorite smoothie combo.
  • Lettuce. Skip the iceberg (it's low in nutrients) and grab a head of romaine (for salads and sandwiches) and some mixed baby greens (also great for salads).
  • Carrots are a simple snack (try dipping them in almond or peanut butter for a new twist) and a common ingredient in soup and stir-fry.
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables. If you buy just one produce item, this should be it. Greens are high in calcium, folate and vitamin C, and delicious. There are lots of varieties of greens (broccoli, kale, chard and spinach are popular examples).
  • Avocados, those mysterious egg-shaped fruits, are rich in good fats, and delicious additions to sandwiches, wraps or salads. Buy them when they're green and allow them to ripen on your counter—they're ready to eat when soft. Homemade guacamole makes a flavorful addition to veggies, burritos and baked chips.
  • Other seasonal foods. Whatever is in-season in your region is usually most nutritious and flavorful. 
What to Avoid in the Produce Section

Fortunately, nothing in this section is bad for you, and each item offers some health benefit. You can’t go wrong if you aim for variety, filling your cart with a bounty of colorful fruits and vegetables during each grocery trip.

Bread & Cereal Aisles

Bread, cereals and other grain products can often be the most confusing to buy, and healthy-sounding phrases on their packages (Health Nut, 12-Grain, and more) don't make it any easier. For the best bet, ignore the claims on the front of the box and go straight to the nutrition label.
  • Whole-wheat bread. To make sure you're buying whole-grain bread (which is superior in nutrition and arguably, flavor), make sure "whole" is the first word on the ingredient list. The same goes for buns, bagels, English muffins, pitas and other bread products.
  • Sprouted grain bread (Ezekial is a common brand) is usually sold in the freezer case or natural foods section. It's made entirely of sprouted whole grains, which are more easily digestible for some people. This bread also boasts protein (and all essential amino acids) and fiber.
  • Whole-grain pasta. Choose whole-wheat pasta and couscous, or even brown rice pasta for variety.
  • Brown rice is a healthy addition to many meals. For quicker cooking, you can soak it on the counter for a few hours before boiling it, or buy pre-cooked brown rice in the freezer section that you can reheat in the microwave in minutes.
  • Healthy cereals are those made with whole grains and without added sugar.
  • Oatmeal is a hearty breakfast staple that cooks in minutes. Buy (plain) instant or quick oats to save time. When cooking it on the stovetop, add a handful of frozen blueberries for a scrumptious breakfast truly fit for champions.
What to Avoid in the Bread & Cereal Aisles:
  • Snack cakes, doughnuts, muffins, Danishes and other pastries don't make healthy breakfast choices.
  • Sugary cereals, especially those marketed to kids.
  • Limit "wheat flour" products. Don't let words like "wheat flour" or "wheat bread" fool you. Unless the ingredients list "whole wheat" as #1, these products are just posing as healthy.
  • Limit white flour products. Refined grains (white bread, rice and cereals) are missing the most nutritious parts of the grain.

The Dairy Case

Most grocery stores place dairy in the very back so that you'll have to walk through the whole store (and past its enticing food items) to get to it. But even though it's in the back, dairy holds an important place in most people's diets. So what are the top picks?
  • Skim milk has just as much calcium as other varieties, but far less saturated fat. If you’re intolerant of milk (or prefer not to drink it), try dairy alternatives like soy or rice milk. The fortified varieties have as much calcium and vitamin D as dairy milk, but are free of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Low-fat yogurt is getting more praise everyday for supplying our bodies with probiotics, the healthy bacteria that keep our intestines happy. Choose low-fat and natural varieties, but watch the sugar content. Soy yogurt, which is fortified with calcium and contains probiotics, is another good choice.
  • Low-fat cottage cheese is a great source of protein and calcium, without any added sugar. It's a versatile ingredient for both sweet and savory healthy dishes. Look for low-sodium varieties if you are watching your blood pressure.
  • Keifer, basically, is drinkable yogurt. It's mildly tangy, usually sweetened and whipped with fruit. It has many of the same health benefits as yogurt.
  • Cheese. Admittedly, some low-fat cheeses don't taste as good as the "real" thing, but this is improving. Cheese is high in calcium, so even if you splurge on the full-fat varieties, it’s still healthy to eat it in moderation and when you keep your portions in check.
  • Butter is a food to be enjoyed in moderation. It has about the same amount of fat and calories as margarine, but is often a better choice since margarine can be loaded with trans fats.
  • Eggs and egg whites are great sources of protein. Many experts and consumers agree that the best tasting (and possibly most nutritious) eggs come from organically-fed and pasture-raised birds.
What to Avoid in the Dairy Case:
  • Whole (full-fat) milk
  • Yogurts made with whole milk and/or lots of added sugar
  • "Cheese products" which are highly processed cheese-like foods, but aren't real cheese
  • Margarines made with hydrogenated oils

Meat & Other Proteins

Meat is often more expensive than plant-based proteins, but you can buy meat on sale and freeze what you can't use within a few days. Keep in mind that a healthy diet will include a variety of protein sources, so don't be afraid of going meatless and opting for beans or the occasional tofu—both of which make healthy additions to any meal.
  • Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are an ultra-simple and healthy source of protein. Go for hormone-free chicken when possible.
  • Canned chunk-light tuna in water is healthy and convenient when making sandwiches and topping salads. Avoid tuna packed in oil, and watch for added sodium. Try canned salmon for variety.
  • Fish is a heart-healthy protein source thanks to its omega-3 fatty acids. Choose fresh if it fits your budget and lifestyle, or frozen. Cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, trout, wild salmon and tuna are the best choices.
  • Beans are good sources of protein, fiber and other nutrients. You can buy them canned, but for superior flavor (and price), buy dried beans. Some staple varieties include black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and kidney beans. Add them to soups or salads, or over some brown rice, with grated cheese and salsa for a simple and satisfying supper.
  • Tofu is a healthy source of plant protein that's also cholesterol-free. Look for extra firm varieties in the refrigerator section to add to stirfry, or "silken" varieties to add a protein boost to smoothies.
  • Lean beef isn't that hard to find. Look for USDA Select or Choice grades of beef that are trimmed of fat or marked as "lean," such as round, sirloin, flank steak and 95 percent lean ground beef.
What to Avoid in the Protein Department:
  • Processed meat products, such as hot dogs and salami
  • Processed deli meats, such as bologna
  • High fat pork products (spareribs, ground pork, pork sausage and bacon)
  • High-fat sausages (bratwurst, Italian sausage, knockwurst and Polish smoked sausage)
  • Salad dressing. Read labels to find ingredients that you recognize. When you find one you really like, you'll likely eat more salad, which is a good thing!
  • Olive oil. Buy extra virgin for the best flavor.
  • Herbs and spices—stock up! These add flavor to any dish without adding fat or calories. Some basics are cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, oregano and basil. They can be expensive when you buy them all at once, so buy them as you need them for recipes, and check out the prices on the bag-and-weigh spices at your natural-foods grocery store, which are much lower in cost.
What to Avoid: Be on the lookout for foods that contain the ingredients below. When they do, put them back on the shelf.
  • Hydrogenated oil
  • Shortening
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Artificial colors or flavors
With a few good recipes and some creativity, the flavors of the toaster pastries and TV dinners of your past will fade faster than the green flesh of a freshly cut avocado.