How to Find Healthy, Affordable Foods at Your Local Grocery Store

Hannah Hottenstein
A woman buying fruits in a supermarket.Photo by Greta Hoffman from Pexels

Grocery shopping can be a cumbersome, stressful chore. Add to that the task of finding healthy, affordable foods and it's even more difficult.

With so many options available today, how can you figure out which aisles have the healthiest foods? Thankfully there are some tips that work when it comes to finding the healthiest food in any grocery store.

By the end of this article, you'll know which grocery aisles have the healthiest options, how to save money on healthy foods, and how to maximize your time while in grocery stores.
A plate of a healthy vegetarian tabbouleh salad.Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

What Are Healthy Foods?

According to The World Health Organization, a healthy human diet is one that "maintains or improves overall health." Healthy foods provide the body with essential nutrition in the form of fluids (water and electrolytes), macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and adequate fiber and calories (food energy).

What looks like a healthy food diet for one person may look different for another person, however, these are the basic principles.

Go for nutritionally dense "live" foods higher in water, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and clean protein. Avoid nutritionally lacking "dead" foods higher in over-processed and synthetic ingredients.
A grocery market spread of fruits and vegetables.Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

How to Shop for the Healthiest Foods

So where are these nutritious, healthy foods in grocery stores? There are many ways to ensure that you are buying healthy foods when you go grocery shopping.

Shop the Perimeter: One way is to shop the perimeter of the store. Perishable, "live" and high nutrition foods are kept in refrigerated and frozen cases around the edge of most grocery stores. Shopping the perimeter increases the likelihood that you are buying fresh, unprocessed foods, which are healthier than the processed foods in the center aisles.

Tip: The higher the nutritional value of the food, the more likely you will find it in a case plugged into the wall on the edges of the grocery store.

Shop with a Strategy: Another way is to take a picture of your fridge and pantry before you go shopping or keep an updated grocery list. This will ensure that you buy only what you or your family needs and avoid impulse purchases.

Plan Your Meals: Meal prep involves deciding on a few meals you want to make that week and shopping accordingly. Many cultures around the world have healthier diets overall because of this "buy it fresh, eat it quickly" practice. Prepare a list and only buy the necessary ingredients (that you don't already have on hand) to make those meals.
An open cooler case of fresh vegetables.Photo by Matheus Cenali from Pexels

The Healthiest Grocery Store Aisles

1) Produce Aisle: The produce aisle is an obvious choice for healthy foods. It has fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables that are great for you and your family's health. Where ever possible, shop for in-season fruits and vegetables for maximum nutritional value.

Many grocery stores partner with local farmers for fresh produce. Look for signs showcasing local produce. Healthy probiotic products like kimchi, krauts, and kombucha can also be found in the produce aisle.
A refridgerator case of non-dairy milk and vegan products.Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

2) Dairy Aisle: The dairy aisle is another good option because it has dairy and non-dairy alternatives for milk, butter, yogurts, and cheeses plus eggs or egg substitutes. Fermented foods like tempeh, tofu, seitan, miso, and tamari sauce can also often be found in this aisle and are all good for you.

Tip: Healthier foods often have meals ideas on the back of products to help you make a tasty nutritious meal at home. Many food companies also have a website you can visit to find recipe suggestions for the product you bought.
A masked man opens a frozen grocery case door.Photo by Teguh Sugi from Pexels

3) Frozen Aisle: The frozen aisle of the grocery store contains a range of healthy foods. Frozen fruits and vegetables, for example, are often cheaper than fresh produce.

Frozen produce can be better than fresh because it's flash-frozen at peak ripeness and full of nutrients compared to out-of-season vegetables and fruits that have been on the shelves a long time.

Tip: Go for frozen items with a single or few ingredients (like riced vegetables or whole grain bread), avoiding the over-processed pre-made meals and snacks high in calories but low in nutrition (like frozen pizzas or sugary ice cream).
A woman and child look at product ingredients while grocery shopping.Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

4) Pantry Aisles: Most of the center aisles in grocery stores are stocked with low-nutritional value food products which contain higher concentrations of saturated fats, processed carbohydrates, or refined sugars.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule. In the center pantry aisles, you can also find healthier options with longer shelf lives such as:

  • dried and canned beans
  • nut butters
  • dried fruits and vegetables
  • canned fish and poultry
  • pickled vegetables (olives, beets, pickles)
  • nuts and seeds (watch the sugar)
  • whole grains (lentils, brown rice, bulgar, oats, or quinoa)
  • jerky or dehydrated foods
  • granola and protein bars (try vegan options)
  • canned soup (watch the sodium level)
  • non-dairy milk (almond, coconut, rice)
  • teas, coffee, and coffee alternatives
A volunteer stocks a charitable food pantry.Photo by GivingTuesday from Pexels

How to Save Money on Healthy Foods

  • Check clearance and discounted aisles and cases for items that may be slightly damaged or expiring soon. These foods are perfectly fine to consume and can provide a discounted price for vegetables and pantry items you would otherwise be unable to afford.
  • Keep an eye out for your grocery store flyer, magazine, mailer, or app for sales, coupons, or member-only discounts.
  • Clip grocery store or manufacturers' virtual or paper coupons to reduce your overall grocery bill.
  • Join a food co-operative and share in the bounty with other members for a little extra exercise.
  • Visit a local indoor or farmers market for fresh produce, locally baked bread, and whole foods.
  • If finances are tight, there are options like local food banks and pantries that offer groceries to those in need at no extra cost.
  • Find out if your government has a food assistance program that you can apply for and receive a monthly stipend for healthy foods.
A group of people share a healthy meal together.Photo by fauxels from Pexels

The Bottom Line

Developing a system for shopping for the healthiest foods in a grocery store helps you form life-long healthy eating habits.

According to the research of the world's "Blue Zones" (the world’s longest-lived cultures) if you consistently choose the healthier food options and avoid unhealthy ones in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise you can improve your overall health and lifespan.

How amazing is that? Do it for yourself and your family's future health.

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Hannah Hottenstein is a subject matter expert writer for The Balance covering topics such as marketing, finance, startups, business education, entrepreneurship, and business psychology. She is also a freelance writer published in top Medium publications and active on social media. When she's not writing, Hannah enjoys tending to her jungle of houseplants, watching documentaries, testing recipes, and bouncing ideas off of scientists on Twitter.

Harrisburg, PA

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