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Navigating the Supermarket: No GPS Needed


July 09, 2013


By Allison Kleinman, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Do you feel overwhelmed when you step into a grocery store? Bombarded by advertising and confused about what to buy? Need help finding the most nutritious bang for your buck? You came to the right place.

It's no accident that most grocery stores are laid out in a similar manner. Stores are carefully designed to get you to spend more money. They're purposely planned to have you walk down just about every aisle in the store. Notice the aroma of freshly baked breads in the back of the store? The idea is to tempt you to stroll over and grab a bite. And along the way, you'll just happen to run into a minefield of snack displays.

Don't fall for this! Here's how to avoid seduction at the supermarket.

Shop the perimeter.

The outside aisles have all the fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, seafood and meats. The middle aisles are filled with processed foods with ingredients you've probably never heard of. So do most of your shopping around the outside. Then pop into aisles that have other staples you may need.

Look high and low.

The placement of items on store shelves is not random. Marketing teams spend hours planning how to get you to put their products into your cart. Product placement plays a huge part in that goal. Companies will pay a premium to have their brand in the "bulls-eye zone." The more likely you are to see a product, the more likely you are to buy it. The store places these most profitable (and likely overpriced) items at eye level so you're inclined to grab them first. If you're looking for the best deals, look high and low. The best bargains are usually up on the top shelf and hard to reach or on the bottom shelf where you aren't looking. Reach and bend for other options.

Make a list.

Shop from a list to avoid buying on impulse. Even better, create the list based on the layout of the store. In your mind, navigate around the perimeter to come up with your list. Not only will this prevent you from buying some unwanted and unnecessary items. You'll spend less time in the store.

Fill your stomach.

Walking through the grocery store hungry can make candy bars and other "grab-and-go" foods look way too good. To avoid these impulse buys, grab a piece of fruit or some nuts and a large glass of water before heading out.

Buy seasonal.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables offer the best buys. They're also the freshest and healthiest choices. Look online to find out what's in season near you. Or use the supermarket's weekly flyer to see what they may have in excess. The produce items in the flyer are likely the most seasonal. And if you can't find good produce at certain times of the year, don't hesitate to head over to the frozen food section. Frozen at the peak of ripeness, frozen fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients. They can be more nutritious than fresh! Canned vegetables may lose some nutrients over time.

Check the weekly flyer; cut coupons.

Use the store's weekly flyer to help you plan your meals and shop. You may be surprised how much money you can save in a year. Don't be afraid to use coupons either. They're another great way to save you tons of money. You don't have to be an "extreme couponer" — only buy things you need. Don't buy things just because you have a coupon.

Take advantage of the experts.

Who wouldn't love to have a nutrition expert to walk down the aisles with? Some supermarkets are starting to offer supermarket tours and cooking demonstrations from registered dietitians. Others may offer healthy cooking classes for kids. Some supermarkets have educated their staffs about food allergies, including what shoppers should look for on ingredient labels. Other stores have adopted a system that scores food according to its nutritional value. You don't have to decode the food label. Check with your local supermarket to see what programs they offer.

Keeping these tips in mind can help you eat well, save money and — most importantly — feel good. Happy shopping!

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Allison Kleinman is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated from Brooklyn College with a B.S. in Nutrition after obtaining a B.A. in Mathematical Sciences from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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