• Photo for Stock Smart: A Grocery List for Healthier Eating
    Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

Stock Smart: A Grocery List for Healthier Eating

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, MPH, RD

If you open your refrigerator and see nothing but a couple of old takeout cartons, then you're probably doing your health a disservice. Eating out once in a while isn’t a bad practice, but studies have shown it’s better, health wise (and wallet wise), to stock your kitchen and prepare as many meals as possible at home.

Why? Even if you order a healthy item from the menu at most restaurants, you will most likely be getting more sodium, fat, and calories than you realize. When you buy and prepare your food you'll almost always get fresher food and more reasonable portions.

To help get you started on the road to eating in right, we've prepared a shopping list of great grocery foods that will help you prepare healthy, quick meals and snacks for your busy life.

Grocery List Mantra: Know Thyself
Build your stock around food you can keep handy in the freezer, or foods that can serve multiple purposes (like those which function for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). The grocery list below contains many foods that don’t spoil quickly, and are versatile. You can supplement the list with more perishable foods (hint: start with produce), depending on your schedule.

When you’re thinking about your grocery list, it’s important to be realistic about your time. If you have a demanding job or other interests, know yourself well enough to realize a simple grilled reduced-fat cheese on whole wheat will likely be the way to go on a weeknight…save the poached salmon with Jerusalem artichokes for a weekend meal.

Make a Plan, Man
While you’re at the grocery store, pick up a few boxes of resealable bags in various sizes. Once you’re gotten the hang of planning a grocery list and eating well at home, you can prepare meals and snacks to take with you to work or the gym. Depending on whole foods when you’re away from home ensures that you sneak more nutrition into every bite.

The real key to being a grocery guru is to build your stock around foods you like and will turn to when you are tired and hungry.

Use this list as a starting point, and add or subtract as you see best works for you. When filling your cart at the store, always look for the least processed version of the food; in general, the closer it is to the original whole food, the better it is for you and the more nutrients will still be intact.

For the pre-packaged foods such as the soup and chili, look for the low-fat, low-sodium versions of these foods. Of course, in an ideal world you'd buy only fresh ingredients and make your soups and chili from scratch, but in an ideal world you wouldn't have to go to work 10 hours a day either.

Produce Section Food Group Why It Belongs In Your Cart
Baby Carrots Non-Starchy Vegetables Zero preparation, longer refrigerator life, and incredible versatility. Baby carrots are an easy source of beta carotene that you can grab and stuff into a snack bag to supplement a microwave meal at lunch, steam in the microwave for a speedy side, or chop into a quick dinner salad.
Apples, Oranges, Bananas Fruits If you’re short on time, you will appreciate that these fruits are easy to grab on the way out the door and require no preparation. Apples and oranges also have the benefit of a longer refrigerator life than most other fruits. Bananas make a great before or after workout pickup.
Bag Salad Mix with Spinach Non-Starchy Vegetables The spinach kicks up the antioxidant content, plus the ease of pre-washed greens means you can build a salad for lunch or dinner in less time than it takes to find your pizza coupons.
Sweet Potatoes Grains and Starches Microwave a sweet potato and top with vegetarian chili for a quick dinner that will keep you out of the drive-through. The additional fiber and beta carotene in the sweet potato make it a superior choice to the regular white potato, and when sliced, seasoned (try Old Bay or chili powder) and baked, makes tastier oven fries, too.
Inner Aisles Food Group Why It Belongs In Your Cart
Salsa Non-Starchy Vegetables Si! The tasty way to wake up bland foods without adding extra fat and calories. Spread it on your egg and cheese breakfast burrito or black bean tacos, or just keep it on hand for your baked tortilla chips.
Low-Fat Mayonnaise Fats With low-fat mayo, a plain can of tuna becomes tuna salad (just add a few pickles and chopped egg whites). Ditto for chopped chicken breast.
Whole Wheat Pasta Grains and Starches If you can boil water, you can make dinner. Prep a pot of whole wheat pasta, stir in low-fat marinara sauce, and sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese. Super easy comfort food when you’re super tired.
Canned Pineapple and Mandarin Oranges in Juice Fruits These fruit staples can hide in your pantry for a long, long time. Add a nutritious punch to your spinach salad with a few canned mandarin oranges, or add 2% cottage cheese to the pineapple for a high-protein post workout snack.
Low-Fat, Low-Sodium Tomato or Vegetable Soup Non-Starchy Vegetables When it’s all you can do to open a can, soups can save the day when you need a quick lunch or dinner. Add a toasted low-fat cheese sandwich and fresh fruit to round out your meal.
Whole Wheat Crackers Grains and Starches Crackers that list “whole wheat” as the first ingredient can be paired with a little low-fat cheese to make a snack that keeps you going all afternoon. Rather than reaching for chips when you’re deciding on dinner, the crackers can add a little whole grain to your diet while staving off hunger.
Canned Beans Grains and Starches, Vegetarian Lean Meats What can canned beans not do? Beans are a great source of iron, and a cheap and easy protein you can add to a salad, supplement soup, and take the place beef in your tacos.
Whole Grain Cereal Grains and Starches, Vegetarian Lean Meats Think beyond the milk jug: Add a handful of whole grain cereal to dried fruit and a few nuts to make a fast breakfast or snack you can keep in the car or in your bag.
Nuts (especially almonds and walnuts) Fats Instant protein pickup with a heart healthy dose of monounsaturated fat—eat a handful alone or pair with a piece of fruit. When you’re choosing, steer clear of salty nuts that can do more damage than good to your diet.
Dried Fruit Fruits Dried fruit is easy to chop into salads, add to chicken salad or eat alone—plus—you’ll love the refrigerator-free ease of always having fruit on hand.
Peanut Butter Fats Too bad peanut butter has an undeserved bad reputation—it’s actually a great choice since the fat is monounsaturated and heart healthy. Use it to make everything from Thai style marinades for your chicken, or whip up a PB & J sandwich to tuck in your bag. Spread it on apple slices for a high fiber satisfying snack.
Canned Vegetarian Chili Grains and Starches, Vegetarian Lean Meats, Non-Starchy Vegetables Roam the health food aisle for a lower sodium version. Keeping a can or two on hand ensures you always have dinner, no matter how tired you might be.
Whole Wheat Tortillas Grains and Starches, Tortillas make a meal portable—scramble eggs and cheese and slide into a tortilla for breakfast. Do the same, but add beans or sauteed onions and peppers for a fast dinner. Toss a salad with vinaigrette, add a little brown rice, and roll into a tortilla for a lunch you can eat while you check your Blackberry.
Canned Tuna Lean Meats One can with so many possibilities. Make a sandwich, top a salad, make a spread for crackers. You get a dose of Omega-3s plus a satisfying serving of protein.
Refrigerated Section Food Group Why It Belongs In Your Cart
Hummus Vegetarian Lean Meats, Fats Hummus makes a tasty and protein rich spread for a turkey sandwich loaded with veggies. With whole grain crackers and a hearty can of soup, it makes a light lunch.
Low-Fat Cheese Vegetarian Lean Meats Aside from the obvious pair with a cracker, you can grate some into a couple of tortillas along with whatever veggies you have on hand to create a quick quesadilla.
Low-Fat (2%) Cottage Cheese Vegetarian Lean Meats Cottage cheese makes a great snack or part of lunch. If you’re lucky enough to find whipped 2% cottage cheese, use it in place of cream cheese for a healthier bagel spread. If you can’t find it, whip your own cottage cheese with a blender.
Skim Milk Milks/Soy Milks Skim milk makes an excellent base for everything from smoothies to soup—have it on hand and you’re always prepared. Stave off your sweet tooth by adding a squeeze of dark chocolate syrup. You will only add about 100 calories provided you stick to the 2 tablespoon serving size.
Yogurt Milks/Soy Milks If you can find high-protein, Greek style, fat-free yogurt—you will be rewarded with double the protein of regular yogurt that only tastes like a rich indulgence.
Eggs Lean Meats Eggs make fast work of dinner, breakfast, or lunch. Scrambled into fried rice, poached on a whole grain bagel, or chopped into a salad, eggs are long on protein, but short on preparation.
Refrigerated Section Food Group Why It Belongs In Your Cart
Whole Wheat Pita Grains and Starches Stuff with veggies, cheese, turkey or beans and pair with soup for a hearty, easy meal. Cut into eighths, spray with cooking spray and sprinkle with garlic powder—then use as a dipper for hummus. Freeze what you can’t use immediately to pull out later when you need them.
Whole Wheat Bread Grains and Starches Whole wheat bread is a staple for the pantry, and like the pita, if you can’t finish a loaf of bread before it goes moldy, freeze the rest and take it out as you need it. Add a little 50% reduced fat cheese and a tablespoon of trans fat free soft tub margarine for a healthy version of the familiar and comforting grilled cheese.
Whole Wheat Mini Bagels Grains and Starches Perfectly portioned, you can keep these in the freezer, and then microwave to thaw. Make mini PB & Js, spread with hummus, or top with turkey.
Meats / Deli Food Group Why It Belongs In Your Cart
Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts Lean Meats Chicken is a versatile and easy canvas by which to marinate, grill, sauté or stir fry with veggies. What you can’t use, individually wrap and store in the freezer for next time. Make extra while you’re grilling dinner, and use to top your lunchtime salad for tomorrow, or chop into a quick chicken salad.
Pork Tenderloin Lean Meats Pork, like chicken is a mild, lean protein that freezes well and grills perfectly. Sauté some sliced apples to eat along with your pork tenderloin, and add a microwave baked sweet potato—fast complete and satisfying.
Deli Turkey Lean Meats Choose the best quality from the deli counter and keep on hand to stuff your pita, sandwich, or tortilla. Not a cereal kind of guy in the morning? Try a nontraditional turkey wrap for breakfast.
Freezer Section Food Group Why It Belongs In Your Cart
Frozen Veggies Non-Starchy Vegetables There’s nothing inferior about frozen veggies. In fact, since they are harvested and flash frozen at the peak of the season, frozen veggies are a healthy way to work towards your goal of five to nine daily fruits and vegetables.
Frozen Fruit Fruits If you’ve tired of tossing past-prime fruit from your produce bin, try stocking up on frozen fruit. Perfect with yogurt in a smoothie, tossed on cereal or eaten right out of the freezer.