The Pithiness of Perimeter Shopping

Note: This is the 1st of a 3-Part Series of articles designed to jump-start your Real Food Journey.

A Tisket, a Tasket, What’s in your Real Food Basket?

Shopping is an important skill for your Real Food toolbox because one obvious way to eliminate ultra-processed foods from your life is to not buy that stuff in the first place! And when armed with an effective strategy to navigate the grocery aisles, you'll  also be more efficient with your time and maximize your budget.

A common piece of advice within the Real Food community is to shop around the Perimeter of the store first. Sounds easy enough, right? But when I tried this, I found myself wandering aimlessly wasting time and getting frustrated. Just another case of knowing what to do is not the same as knowing how to do it.

Through my trials and tribulations though, I developed a strategy to shop more effectively and with less stress. So YAY for less stress!! And as a fun way to share my method with you, I coined these Pithy Mantras.

No Time for Lists? Well Picture This: Take photos of the ingredients in your kitchen – the food on the shelves and in the drawers of your refrigerator, freezer, pantry, cupboards, spice rack, etc. While not an actual list, at least you’ll know what you already have and don’t need to buy. With these photos and a strategy you can shop with purpose, regardless of whether you have a list. I recommend taking photos on Sundays or Mondays so you'll have this handy reminder whenever you shop during the week.

Shop the Perimeter for Perishables, starting with Produce, then Prioritize: Most Real Food is along the Perimeter of the store. But this food is Perishable. So whatever is bought and not eaten before spoiling is wasted. I hate wasting food. It’s not socially responsible, and a waste time (spent shopping) and money. So here is a strategy to buy enough Real Food for a week of meal plans – and a variety of food with no waste.

I entered at the Produce Section -- Ready to Perimeter shop!

I entered at the Produce Section -- Ready to Perimeter shop!

I always start with Produce – Veggies, in particular. For most Real Food newbies, eating more veggies is probably the hardest transition to make. Most stores have doors that lead directly to the Produce Section. So enter there, and you'll be right where you need to be :-)

Organic vs. Conventional? Buy organic fruits and veggies that are on the Dirty Dozen list. Conventional is A-OK for all the rest. If organic is not in your budget at all, no worries. Buy conventional, and wash thoroughly before eating or preparing (though you should do this with any Produce, regardless).

Prioritizing Produce: Buy veggies first. Here are some common ones, and I recommend choosing what to buy in this order:

  1. Hardy Greens (kale varieties, collard greens, mustard greens) and Cruciferous Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage varieties, Brussel sprouts, bok choy)
  2. Root Veggies (beets, turnips, rutabagas, potatoes) and Winter Squash (Acorn, butternut, buttercup)
  3. Tender Greens (lettuce & other salad greens, spinach, chard, baby kale).
Beautiful display of Winer Squash in the summer :-)

Beautiful display of Winer Squash in the summer :-)

Hardy greens and cruciferous veggies are very versatile – you can eat them raw or cooked, and easy to prepare whichever way you choose. These are also better for batch prepping (I’ll discuss this in next week’s article) and storing. So great as a centerpiece for a substantial, healthy meal. More so than the other types of veggies.

Root veggies and winter squash store longer than hardy greens and cruciferous. But winter squash must be cooked and most root veggies too. So not as quick of an option if time is an issue. Tender greens start to wilt soon after buying. So eat these first. Raw or cook, quick & easy.

For newbies and small families, choose 3 or 4 types of veggies per week and as much of each that you'll need. This gives a variety and lessens the chance of over-buying. You may have noticed the photo in the slideshow at the top of the page. This week I bought 2 bunches of kale, 4 bulbs celery root, and 4 large sweet potatoes. So 1 hardy green and 2 root veggies, but lots of each one. I also bought a small bag of petite carrots because my husband likes to bring those to work to snack on during the day.

This is a general guideline, so adjust for your needs. For example, if shopping for longer than a week of meals, or if your family usually eat lots of veggies, then of course buy more.

Also know that veggies within each category can typically be substituted in recipes. So trying subbing a hardy green that is on sale for one listed in a recipe. Do the same for the others, and post Comments to let us know your thoughts.

Sugar is sugar and should always be consumed in moderation: Even naturally occurring sugars like those in fruits. Because of this, my husband and I don’t eat much fruit. So I don’t have a specific strategy for buying fruit. But if your do, please post a Comment to share it with us!

Once you’re done with Produce: Continue making your way along the Perimeter, making decisions within the Real Food Guidelines.

  1. DO NOT enter the interior aisles unless you have money left in your budget.
  2. And even then go only to where you need something, e.g., spices, bulk items, frozen section.
  3. Skip the snack and dessert aisles altogether – These are the unhealthy, ultra-processed sugar bombs that you definitely don’t need!

Learning to navigate the grocery store with purpose, rather than wandering aimlessly, is an effective way to avoid buying ultra-processed foods. So try this Shopping Strategy, and Post Comments to let us know whether it helped or how you altered the strategy to suit your needs.

MINI-CHALLENGE to encourage accountability as you practice these Shopping Skills:

Before checking out examine what is in your cart. Take a few moments to read the ingredient labels for any processed foods you might have chosen. And consider where they are on the spectrum of processed foods. Minimally processed food is OK. Ultra-processed food is unhealthy and should be taken out of your cart. Note that this last part is the heart of this Mini-Challenge. Your goal is to minimize or eliminate the ultra-processed foods from your cart. This may take time, but do your best and keep trying.

Post Script: Next week I’ll post about Batch Prepping as an effective time management technique to make Real Food meals throughout the week. So please visit here again, and in the meantime Stay Engaged and Keep Eating Real!