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How to shop healthier and smarter

In an ideal world (in terms of nutrition), we would all live on a small farm and grow our own seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables. We would raise a couple of animals, fish on the weekends and our food would be completely free from processing and packaging. 

However, most of us don't live in this ideal world. Often we don’t have the time, resources, motivation, or know-how to prepare all of our food from scratch. You may think that eating a healthy balanced diet is time consuming and challenging, but it can be simple and easy with a little planning and knowing how to make the best choices when you do your food shopping. 

Here are a few ideas of which foods to stock up on and which to avoid! 

The weekly shop

Fresh produce

The first place to start is to base your diet around whole foods. Fresh produce is readily available, but some products, like leafy greens and berries, are highly perishable and can go to waste. Around 81% of families throw over £30 of food away a month, so plan your grocery shop for the upcoming week. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussel sprouts are loaded with nutrients and can last quite a long time if refrigerated, and make sure to stock up on root vegetables like sweet potato, white potato, carrots, butternut squash and parsnips as they can go a long way. Any leftover vegetables can be added to stews or other dishes to bulk them up, or even frozen to use another time (nearly all foods can be frozen, so put things in the freezer instead of the bin next time!)

Buy frozen produce

Frozen produce is generally seen as having less nutritional value than fresh produce, but this is not the case. Frozen foods can be just as nourishing and in some cases contain more nutrition, as often the produce is picked and frozen straight away, locking in the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Keep a few bags of frozen fruits and vegetables stocked up in the freezer so you always have some on hand when you have no food in the fridge. 

Embrace tins

Tinned goods are some of the cheapest foods on supermarket shelves and there's tons to choose from too. Although soaking and cooking legumes from scratch is easier on your digestion, tinned options like beans, chickpeas, lentils or black beans are low in calories, packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals and far better than takeaway food, for example. They also count as one of your five a day! 

Tinned tomatoes and coconut milk are great to be used as a base for soups, stews and curries, and tinned fish such as mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and salmon are great to throw on top of salads for added protein. They also contain ample amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, the healthy anti-inflammatory fat that has a variety of health benefits, from improved brain health to decreased joint pain.

When buying tinned items, always read the label and buy products in water with no added salt, sugar, or other ingredients such as sauces and syrups. Where possible, opt for BPA-free tins and sustainably sourced products.

Stock up on grains

Stock up on staples such as whole wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice and buckwheat, as these are the foods that you can turn to over and over again and use in a variety of ways. Whole grain and whole wheat varieties are a healthier choice when it comes to bread and pasta as they contain much more fibre, preventing blood sugar spikes and crashes and keeping you fuller for longer. Quinoa, buckwheat, oats and brown rice are great gluten-free alternatives and good to use as a base for meals such as stir fries, curries, stews and almost any dish you make. 

Baked, packaged and ready meals

We are fortunate that today we have a wide range of packaged and pre-prepared food products for us to choose from, and some can be healthy options, providing we know what to look for. 

But, a lot of baked goods, snacks and pre-prepared meals can be high in salt, saturated fats, colourings and flavourings to enhance their flavour, extend their shelf life and look more appealing on the supermarket shelf. Many of these items also tend to be low in essential nutrients, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, which can interfere with your satiety cues as they don’t allow you to know when you're full, often leading to over consumption and under satiation. High salt and saturated fat intake can also lead to health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and other issues associated with weight gain. 

When shopping for packaged items and ready meals, read the label and look for a simple ingredient list containing whole foods and free from added salt, sugars, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and flavourings.

Ingredients on labels are listed in order of the amount contained in the food (high to low), so looking at the first three can tell you a lot about what you’re eating. For example, if one of the food’s first three ingredients is an artificial sweetener or non-whole grain flour, it’s probably not a great choice. Opt for baked or dried products rather than fried, and refrigerated soups rather than canned as they are a fresher, more nutrient-dense alternative. 

Dairy and dairy-free alternatives

Dairy is a staple in many people's diet and can be a healthy addition if used in moderation (and if tolerated!) Hard cheeses such as cheddar and parmesan have a long shelf life and are a tasty addition to many dishes. Full fat yogurt is also a great source of calcium and protein and good to keep stocked up in the fridge. When shopping for yogurt, make sure it's ‘live’, plain, natural and Greek as these contain beneficial bacteria for a healthy gut. Flavoured varieties can have a lot of added sugar and artificial flavourings so it's best to avoid these and add your own honey and berries. 

You can find an array of dairy-free alternatives to milk, yogurts, ice creams and even cheeses, including soya, almond, oat and coconut. Try to look for fortified options as they contain extra nutrients including vitamin D, vitamin A, calcium, B12 and iodine. Milk alternatives do not need refrigeration until after opening and have an extended shelf life. 

Healthy shopping list

Planning ahead is vital. Having the ingredients stocked up in your cupboards and freezer to prepare all the week's meals helps you to keep on track and resist those pesky takeaways. Be sure to keep a running shopping list of items you need to buy when you run out. 

Here are a few things you can include in your shopping to ensure you always have a supply of healthy foods to choose from:

  • Fresh produce, especially of things like broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, tomatoes, onions and garlic

  • Root vegetables such as sweet potato, white potato, butternut squash and parsnips 

  • Good quality animal protein, for example chicken, fish, eggs, beef and lamb

  • Whole wheat pasta, brown rice and quinoa (as opposed to white pasta and rice)  

  • Whole grain/brown seeded sourdough bread (as opposed to white bread) 

  • Tinned items, including legumes, fish, tomatoes and coconut milk

  • Dairy and dairy free items like cheese, yogurt, milk or milk alternatives (oat, soya, almond) 

  • Healthy fats in the form of avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and pesto 

  • Cereals: opt for oats or non toasted muesli as opposed to granola or other packet cereals

  • For snacks, think fruit, vegetables (carrots and hummus), nuts and seeds or baked lentil/quinoa crisps instead of fried potato based snacks 

Remember, balance is key. You don't have to always avoid foods that contain sugar, alcohol or other less-than-ideal foods, but making small, simple healthy choices can go a long way for long term health. Experiment in the kitchen with different foods and you may be surprised by the new foods you enjoy.

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