Grocery aisles are pretty overwhelming. And if you’re someone who is just getting started learning how to cook meals at home or who is trying to eat healthy while on a budget, shopping can get tricky. Which foods should you buy? Which foods should you just make at home? How much rice is enough for a week’s worth of recipes?
But on top of all those logistics, there’s the whole health thing to worry about. Product packaging can make things more confusing with health claims that look legitimate but are actually totally bogus or confusing nutrition labels that are difficult for consumers to discerningly read.
At the end of the day, eating a variety of foods and trying new recipes that sound and look delicious is your best bet. The minutiae of exactly what you eat at exactly what time for exactly how many calories won’t make much of a difference at the end of the day. It’s paying attention to how you feel, what you crave, and how your body reacts to certain foods that’s most important.
But we don’t want to leave you totally in the dark. So we asked a few nutritionists and some registered dietitians what foods they steer clear of at the grocery store. Of course, nutritionists have some wacky diet habits of their own. And everyone’s preferences — and dietary needs — are different, so take these nutritionists’ advice with a grain of salt. But of everything on the shelves, here’s what you’ll never see in these nutritionists’ carts.
If there’s one thing registered dietitian Jenny Friedman won’t be even tempted to buy at the grocery store, it’s baked goods. But don’t misunderstand. “I’m not a dietitian who hates cookies!” Friedman said. “I’m just a dietitian who loves to bake and who loves a quality cookie.” She thinks treats taste best when they’re made with real butter, not with preservatives and a mixture of oils. Her one exception? Ice cream cake. “That's something I can't do, but I happen to love,” she admits.
“I try as much as possible to avoid buying bottled water unless it’s a situation where my own refillable bottle is not allowed,” Julie Stefanski RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told The Daily Meal. “Not only is bottled water often just tap water from a municipal water source, the increased exposure to cheap plastic and the significant impact on the environment are just two of many reasons to take the time to fill your own bottle with tap or filtered water.” Stefanski says she cringes when she sees trash cans loaded with disposable water bottles at the gym or other locations where clean, free water is available. “Bottled water is a habit for most people,” the registered dietitian said, “not a necessity.”
Suzanne Dixon, epidemiologist and registered dietitian, steers clear of all things Campbell’s. Canned soups are never in her grocery cart — but not for the reason you might think. “I love to cook,” Dixon explained, “and it’s very easy to whip up a pot of lentil, vegetable, tomato, or Thai sweet and sour soup.” Dixon will cook up a large pot of soup to make a lot of servings at once, freezing the leftovers to cut down on costs. She says it’s one of her favorite dishes to make because there are just so many different kinds. “I’ll start experimenting with flavors, textures, spices, herbs, and other ingredients,” she said. “I joke with my spouse: If I don't like the taste of a pot of soup, I keep adding things until I do. If all else fails, I'll add a can of coconut milk! That makes just about anything taste good.”
Andy Yurechko, registered dietitian who works in gastroenterology at the Augusta University Medical Center, won’t go near the deli meat counter. “These meats are high in salt and saturated fat and are expensive,” Yurechko said. “I’ll stick to peanut butter and jelly, which has healthy unsaturated fats and isn’t expensive to make.”
“One thing I never purchase and encourage my clients to stay away from is frozen meals,” certified sports nutritionistMatt Weik told The Daily Meal. “This even includes the ‘healthy’ versions. These boxed meals are loaded with preservatives, sodium, refined sugars, and grains.” Instead of relying on frozen dinners you think are healthy, Weik says you can opt for meal prepping. Some home-cooked meals can be kept in the freezer for quick reheating on your busiest days.
“Convenience is worth a lot, but it also can come at a price,” explained registered dietitian Jenny Friedman. “And when we’re thinking guacamole, you’re usually sacrificing quality and flavor in addition to a steep cost.” Just like these other popular grocery store items, you should never buy the store-bought kind. It’s so easy to make at home. “Just lime juice, salt, and ripe avocados will come together for something that I feel confident in guaranteeing will taste better than what’s been sitting premade on a shelf for days,” Friedman said. “Plus, when you make it yourself you can customize for flavor and spice and avoid any unneeded additives.”
Companies like Hungry Man and Weight Watchers sell packaged “diet friendly” meals that are undoubtedly convenient. But registered dietitian Andy Yurechko won’t go near them. “They require very few cooking skills, but the cost of these meals is high,” Yurechko said. “Also, they are packed with salt. It’s healthier and cheaper to make a fresh version.”
“Potato chips can absolutely have their place in a healthy diet, but we stopped buying them regularly,” said registered holistic nutritionist Jenni Bourque. “Especially big brands like Lays, Pringles, Doritos, Ruffles, and Humpty Dumpty for a few reasons.” Bourque explained that when these chips are cooked at high heat with vegetable oils such as canola or soy, the oils lose their chemical structure. “For the science buffs, the carbon bonds break and create an unstable compound that free-floats in the body, causing damage to your arteries,” she said. “If you are buying chips, there are some healthier options.” She recommends opting for chips that use coconut or avocado oil, or replacing potato chips with kale chips, bean chips, apple chips, popcorn, or plantain chips.
“I never buy premade smoothies from the grocery store,” said Kim Melton, registered dietitian and owner of NutritionPro Consulting. “Many times extra sugar or other ingredients are added, and the smoothies don’t have as much whole fruit as the ones I make myself.” Melton advised buying frozen fruit if you’re looking for something more cost-effective, as well as adding yogurt or another source of protein. If you need your smoothie to taste sweeter, she says to add honey or maple syrup. “Not only will you save money but you will be getting more whole ingredients that nourish your body,” Melton concluded.
“Conventional salad dressings got the cut a long time ago,” said registered holistic nutritionist Mirna Sharafeddine. “Not only is making your own dressing incredibly easy, but a lot of big-brand salad dressings (especially the cream-based ones) use plenty of additives and emulsifiers.” She explained that Kraft, for instance, uses ingredients such as polysorbate-60, calcium disodium EDTA, and phosphoric acid. “Our bodies just weren't designed to absorb ingredients like this,” Sharafeddine insists. And when it’s so simple to make your own salad dressing at home, why spend extra on the processed stuff?
“I’m not a big fan of consuming my ‘sweet treats’ in the form of a beverage,” Suzanne Dixon, epidemiologist and registered dietitian, told The Daily Meal. “The sugar in soda comes predominantly from fructose. And unlike fruit, soda is not providing the fiber, vitamins and other phytonutrients found in fruit and other healthy plant foods.” Not all sugars are created equal. And your body reacts to them in wholly different ways. “Fructose from added sugar contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is rising at an alarming rate in young people in the U.S.,” Dixon explained. As an alternative, registered dietitian Sharon Palmer likes to serve healthier sweet drinks. “Even if I am having a party with children, I make my own sparkling fruit juice blends or serve flavored waters instead,” Palmer said.
“I love Greek yogurt for its versatility,” Katherine Brooking, registered dietitian and co-founder of Appetite for Health, told The Daily Meal. “I use it to make parfaits, in baked goods, and just to eat on its own.” There are tons of nutritious ways to eat Greek yogurt. And even those convenient, single-serve yogurt cups can make for a great midday snack; but nutritionists don’t tend to buy the ones with added sugar. “I never buy sweetened versions,” Brooking says. “The typical American diet is loaded with added sugar.” Instead, Brooking sweetens her plain yogurt with some fresh fruit or a drizzle of honey.
Seafood is a staple of many healthy diets. But some nutritionists warn against buying the wrong kind. Registered dietitian Katherine Brooking never opts for swordfish — or any other fish high in mercury, for that matter. “Even small amounts of mercury can interfere with brain development,” Brooking explained, “making exposure particularly risky for children younger than 6 and women in their childbearing years.” Her favorite healthy fish are wild-caught salmon and sole.
The breakfast aisle tends to tempt people away from simple options like oatmeal and bran cereal in favor of the sweeter things — Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and other super-sweet varieties. Who could resist? But registered dietitian Katherine Brooking exercises some control. “A good way to reduce added sugars in your diet is to avoid processed foods with added sugar,” she says. “If I chose a cold cereal, it will be one with less than 1 gram added sugar per serving.” Even still, though, she often opts for plain oatmeal with added fruit and honey. With these delicious and healthy ways to spice up a bowl of oats, you may not need to opt for the sugary stuff!
“Tomato sauce has become notorious as one of those packaged foods that no one thinks should have sugar, but sneakily does,” registered dietitian Jenny Friedman explained. “I’d say either become an all-star label sleuth or just make your own.” You’ll save money, sodium, and sugar, all while getting better taste. Tomato sauce is surprisingly easy to make — here’s a simple recipe.
“Whipped cream is my favorite,” said registered dietitian Jenny Friedman. “But take it from a true fan: Homemade just tastes better!” She’s not the only one who thinks that. While the stuff from a can is definitely convenient, it just doesn’t measure up in quality (or cost) to the kind you whip up yourself. Learn how, and which other popular grocery buys you should really be making at home instead, here.
More from The Daily Meal: