Nutritionists—they’re just like us! Meaning, they’re hot, busy, and important people, hustling from meeting to meeting, trying to fit in workouts, and wondering what’s for dinner. Sometimes, they even have to sprint through the grocery store in sweaty gym clothes, too. But in any given aisle, they make small decisions, choosing this ingredient or that brand, for reasons you might not even realize. Those are the small steps that make a big difference in your diet: looking out for sneaky salt here, checking for added sugar there, or grabbing a certain type of milk or bread.
Here are 12 grocery shopping tips from top dietitians. Check out what they’re putting in their grocery carts.
1. They always take a list. Literally, every pro on this page writes out a grocery list. Even if they only have 5 minutes. Even if it’s on their phone. Even if they literally scribble, “some kind of salad.” Don’t sweat it! But do walk into the store with a plan.
2. They never shop hungry. Again, total agreement. It’s old advice, but sound advice. Nothing good ever came from strolling the chip aisle hungry.
3. They fill half the cart with fruits and vegetables. “You can always count on seeing colorful veggies in my basket,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist, and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. “Just like I suggest filling half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, I like to see half a grocery cart filled the same way!”
4. They check for sodium. In the dry goods aisle, they’re spinning cans. “For anything that has a label, the first thing I look at is ingredients,” says Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN. “I’m big on comparing labels. For example, if I’m choosing canned beans or peanut butter, the one with the least amount of sodium winds up in my cart.”
5. They check for sugar. “I always double check my condiments, sauces, and salad dressings,” says Jim White, RD, ACSM, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They’re common sources of hidden sugars and high fructose corn syrup. Also, even if a label claims ‘no sugar added,’ that doesn’t mean that food contains zero sugar.”
6. They don’t do flavored dairy. These experts heart Greek yogurt. But only plain, low-fat, never sweetened. “The dairy aisle can be confusing,” says Newgent. “Fruity yogurts, in particular. Yogurt starts as a nutrient-rich food, but too often it has a significant amount of added sugars, sometimes disguised as real fruit.”
7. They totally eat carbs. Healthy carbs, that is. These pros put whole grains in their carts, such as whole-wheat bread, tortillas, rolled oats, brown rice, and more. They love sweet potatoes and bananas. They even eat whole-wheat pasta. Yes, pasta.
8. They’re not afraid of the freezer aisle. “There’s more than just TV dinners, pizza, and ice cream behind those doors!” explains Tracy Morris, Fitbit’s Nutritionist. “Frozen veggies, like peas, edamame, and spinach, are great to have on hand. Frozen fruit, like berries and mango, are perfect for smoothies. Frozen fish is another must-have. Just make sure it’s real fish, without butter, batter, or crumbs.”
9. They skip the chips, cookies, and soda. In fact, they wish they could fling all highly processed foods from your cart. The one aisle to wheel past? “The junk food aisle,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, and spokesperson for the Academy. “For some people, that means salty snacks like chips and pretzels, for others who have a sweet tooth like me, that’s desserts. Save your treats for when you’re out of the house.”
10. They’re suspicious of misleading labels. A cookie is still a cookie, even if it’s “gluten-free,” “natural,” and “organic.” “Don’t just look at the front of the package, pay more attention to what’s on the label on the back,” recommends Newgent. “The front is more promotional; the back shows you the proof.”
11. They’re not afraid to try something new, whether that’s a weird vegetable or unfamiliar recipe. White picks one new recipe a week, to shake up his routine. Gans says, “Be adventurous. If you see a fruit or veggie that you aren’t familiar with, buy it and give it a try. These days, lots of markets offer info in stores or online, with tips and recipes for how to enjoy seasonal produce.”
12. They delegate to get it done. “I don’t dread or enjoy grocery shopping,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, CSSD, and author of The Superfood Swap. “It’s a self-care task, like brushing my teeth. Often I make a shopping list but ask my husband to go. I also love delivery services, to keep things super easy.”
Most important: Make grocery shopping a habit. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a big shop once a week, or smaller stops every other day. “Smart grocery shopping is the single most important step to eating right. So prioritize getting it done, by yourself, with help, or with a delivery service. Keep it simple, make it delish, and set yourself up for success,” says Blatner. This group of experts included a professional chef who regularly browses farmers’ markets, as well as a working mom with three kids who does all of her shopping online. They’re both passionate about healthy eating. They both make great choices for their households. It’s just a question of what works for you and your lifestyle.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.