While online shopping may be more popular these days, Americans are still spending a substantial amount of time (and money) at supermarkets.
Indeed, the average person goes to the grocery store 1.6 times a week, according to a Statista survey.
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Though food shopping seems like a simple task — you just place your items in a cart and pay for them — you might be making inadvertent mistakes that can cost you time, money and your health.
We spoke to Marisa Moore, RDN, LD, a culinary and integrative dietitian, to get the scoop on shopping smarter and healthier.
Below, Moore shares five of the most common supermarket traps and how to avoid them.
1. You Ignore the Canned and Frozen Food Aisles
It's fine to favor fresh foods, but, in case you didn't know, canned and frozen items provide just as much nutritional value.
"The canned and frozen food aisles offer a treasure of nutritious options," Moore says.
Indeed, foods like produce are canned and frozen at their peak of freshness, which may make nutrients even more accessible and available to your body, according to Penn State University.
What's more, eating canned and frozen foods increases your options (think: you're not limited by what's in season) and thus adds greater variety to your diet.
Plus, they're convenient and make it easy to get healthy meals on the table quickly, Moore says. Since canned and frozen produce is pre-washed, trimmed and recipe-ready, cooking is a cinch.
And thanks to their long shelf life, you don't have to worry about fruits and veggies rotting (which is also a supreme waste of money).
Moore packs her pantry with canned beans, peas and lentils as well as canned tuna and salmon and fills her freezer with frozen veggies, brown rice and quinoa.
"I keep all of these things stocked regularly so I'm not worried about produce wilting in the fridge and don't have to wait an hour to cook beans unless I want to," she says.
2. You Only Shop the Perimeter
You might have heard that perusing the perimeter of the grocery store, where the produce and fresh foods are, is a terrific tactic. After all, the middle aisles abound with cookies, chips and other processed foods, right?
"This might be one of the biggest mistakes I hear people make," says Moore, adding, "The old advice to shop the perimeter is still making the rounds and unfortunately leads to many missed opportunities."
That's because the middle aisles also offer oats, rice, beans and many other healthy whole foods, Moore explains.
As long as you stick to your shopping list (more on this later), you can make the most of your middle aisles and avoid the other stuff, if that's your goal.
3. You Forget to Download a Grocery-Shopping App
Conserving cash is especially important when your dollar isn't stretching as far at the supermarket.
Food prices have jumped 9.5 percent since February 2022, according to Food Price Outlook, a monthly report from the USDA. And to make matters worse, the USDA forecasts that they'll continue to increase another 7.5 percent this year.
One simple way to shop smartly and strategically is to download a grocery-shopping app. From cash back to gift cards and other rewards, there's an abundance of free apps that offer some seriously sweet savings.
"The next time you're standing in line somewhere or sitting at home, take a moment to clip a few digital coupons," Moore says. "You might be surprised by how much you save!"
4. You Overlook Food Labels
Before you toss that package into your cart, flip it around first. While the front of the packaging may boast buzzwords like "healthy" or "low-calorie," the back of the box tells the real story.
For starters, take a good look at the nutrition facts panel. Pay attention to saturated fat, sodium and added sugars (things to limit) as well as dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium (nutrients you need), per the FDA.
Also note the serving size, so you don't unintentionally overindulge. For example, one small bag of chips can contain several servings.
And don't ignore the ingredients list. Since it's organized in descending order, the most abundant ingredient will be listed first. This can be extremely telling if sugary ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup top the list.
While knowing your food labels is essential to making healthy choices, it can also you save a bundle especially if you're on a budget.
Again, pretty packaging may please your eye, but don't be swayed by brand names and fancy marketing. Generic varieties might not appear as flashy, but many offer the same (or similar) ingredients for a fraction of the price.
5. You Don't Make a Shopping List
"Not making a grocery list or leaving it at home is a recipe for impulse buying," Moore says.
And this can be a problem for your pocket. "We may spend more money the longer we are in the store," she explains.
Essentially, your list is your game plan. Without it, you'll likely find yourself wandering and wondering what to buy, Moore says.
Unfortunately, this lack of strategy can also sabotage your health goals especially if you shop on an empty stomach.
Instead of going in blindly, Moore suggests you keep a running list on a small note pad, or, alternatively, jot down your items on your phone's notes app, so your list is always with you.
“Try to organize your list by aisle and order it according to your store's layout, so that you are more efficient when you shop,” she says.
6. You Don’t Buy Seasonal Produce
Buying produce that's "in season" means selecting fruits and vegetables that are in their prime. Seasonal produce is typically riper, fresher and more tasty because it's in its peak season for harvest.
What's more, buying seasonally may be cheaper because supply can meet demand.
For example, there are more strawberries (a summer fruit) in July than in December. On the flip side, buying produce out of season is likely more expensive because there is less of it to go around.
Of course you can still buy strawberries in December, but they may be pricier as there is a lower supply during winter months. The USDA has a seasonal produce guide to help you select the freshest options depending on the season.
Buying seasonal produce is also a great way to support local agriculture. Try purchasing fruits and vegetables at a local farmer's market to enjoy locally produced food.
7. You Aren’t Buying in Bulk
In some cases, less is more. But sometimes more is more, especially if you want to save big bucks in the long run. Enter: buying in bulk.
The key to buying in bulk is checking the unit price. Typically, the items will be less expensive overall. This strategy can be applied to pantry staples that won't spoil — like beans, rice, canned fruits and veggies — or household products like toilet paper and paper towels. You can buy in bulk at Costco or any other grocery store that sells bulk items.
Bonus: The benefits of buying in bulk stretch further than financially — it will also save you trips to the store to replenish items.
8. You Aren’t Comparing Prices
This is why you should absolutely compare prices between stores. The extra step can go a long way financially and can help streamline your shopping experience. (Not to mention, this saves you from doing calculations in the grocery store.)
Next time, view prices of your favorite items online at each store's website to map out who has the best bargains.
- Statista: “Consumers' weekly grocery shopping trips in the United States from 2006 to 2022 (average weekly trips per household).”
- USDA: “Summary Findings: Food Price Outlook, 2023”
- Penn State: “Are Canned and Frozen Fruits and Veggies as Healthy as Fresh?”
- USDA: "Seasonal Produce Guide"
- FDA: "How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label"