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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Healthy Grocery Shopping—Part I

Healthy Grocery Shopping—Part I
Food shopping. It's something we have to do—even people who don't consider themselves cooks and prefer to dine out. When you're trying to control your weight, going to the market can be intimidating and a bit baffling. That bright, abundant space suddenly becomes a place full of forbidden goodies and unhealthy choices. No need to be nervous. Follow my strategy for painless shopping and you'll see—food shopping can actually be easy, healthy, and fun!
The first step to enjoyable and effective shopping should be done at home. Decide what you need before you shop. While making your shopping list, think about your upcoming week and how much food you'll need to buy. Plan healthy meals and snacks in the amounts that your diet guidelines require. Be realistic as you add items to your list—really look at how many meals are on your plan per day. And remember, if you have good food in your kitchen, that's what you'll eat.
Cooking with fresh food eliminates ripping open boxes, tearing open "flavor packets" that contain enormous amounts of sodium (and heaven knows what else), juggling can openers, etc. Fresh food has crunch! Fresh food has personality! Fresh food has color! Fresh food has zest! And speaking of color...mix it up. It's not only nicer to look at, but foods of different colors have different benefits in terms of nutrients. Select a bit of deep red, a little bunch of vibrant green, a handful of yellow, a few white items, and you've got a party on a plate.
Still craving bold flavor? Snap up a nice plump head of garlic, a sassy shallot, a plume of chives, and a tiny bouquet of mint or basil. They're big flavor that can take your quick dishes to a whole new level of satisfying flavor without adding any fat or preservatives.
No time to clean and chop? Then take advantage of packaged precut produce or visit the salad bar to buy an excellent array of produce by the pound. Also consider frozen vegetables—they're easy to prepare and because they're frozen immediately after harvest, the nutritional values are about the same as fresh produce. Canned goods, like beans, legumes, and tomatoes, are also nutritionally sound alternatives to perishable fresh produce, but watch the sodium content and always go for fresh produce first.
If you find cooking with raw proteins intimidating, most markets have a service deli with wonderfully prepared foods you can enjoy (like whole roasted chickens or poached fish). Just be sure to avoid fatty sauces and preparations. Canned proteins, like tuna or salmon packed in water, are also good to have on hand for quick salads and sandwiches (make sure to drain them well).
The lay of the land
Most markets have a similar layout. Meat, produce, and dairy are found around the perimeter, with processed foods (the most concentrated area of junk "goodies" and items devoid of nutritional value) in the center. When you stick to the perimeter, you're sticking "close to the earth," buying foods closest to their natural state and avoiding "convenience foods" full of unnecessary fats, sugars, carbs, and salt.
Beautiful produce
A popular misconception is that packaged foods are quicker and easier to prepare. Not so! Most vegetables take only a few minutes to cook, and a proper portion of protein takes minutes as well. Cook them at the same time and you've got really fast food. Look for the produce that's in season. It will be bursting with all of its vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and flavor. Truly fresh produce doesn't need much effort—just slice, chop, or peel it, toss it in a healthy salad, add a bit of tuna, and presto—satisfying and a super-healthy meal in minutes! Or slice your veggies, put a bit of water in a pan, bring it to a quick boil, drop in your veggies for mere moments, and you've got a healthy steamed side dish. Add a dash of low-sodium soy sauce and some thinly sliced cooked chicken and you've got a delicious Asian feast.
Get to the meat of the meal
From the produce section, head over to the butcher's and fishmonger's section of the market. Talk to your butcher: ask what's best today. Fresh, fresh, fresh! That's the key to your protein too. If you get a beautiful fresh cut of steak, you won't have to fuss with too much seasoning. A shake of salt, pepper, some of that garlic you already have in your cart, and you're minutes away from dinner again. The same goes for fish. If they've just received some beautiful trout filets, you can brush them with a bit of olive oil and lay them on a grill pan. If you add sliced veggies to the grill pan, again—you guessed it—you can have dinner in no time!
Quick dairy tip
In the dairy section, look for low-fat choices, which contain less saturated fat, such as 2% cottage cheese or low-fat or soy milk. Hard cheeses are also available in several good-tasting low-fat varieties.

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