Real Food Tips: Buying “Real Food” from a Mainstream Supermarket

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Obviously not everyone lives in a town with a Whole Foods or Earth Fare down the street. Readers actually write in quite frequently saying they only have access to stores like Walmart or Food Lion, which can make finding all the “real food” items on their list challenging at times. So whether your health food supermarket is just too much of a hike or you don’t have one at all…this list is for you. And, as always, leave any additional tips in the comments below!

  1. You’ve heard it before and it’s true…shop around the perimeter of the store. There are a few exceptions like whole-wheat flour, brown rice, and 3-ingredient crackers, but other than that most fresh “whole foods” like produce and dairy are located around the perimeter of the store.
  2. When shopping for produce buy organic whenever possible, especially if the item is on the dirty dozen list. If your store does not offer any organic fruits or veggies then check to see if a local farmers’ market or C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture) program might offer produce that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. Remember that not all local farms can afford to be “certified organic” so just ask how they grow/treat their crops.
  3. If you can’t find much in the way of fresh organic produce then check out the frozen section for produce instead. As Michael Pollan says, “There is nothing wrong and actually a lot right about frozen produce” because it is picked and frozen at the peak of freshness.
  4. When selecting seafood choose wild-caught over farmed. You never know what farm-raised fish are being fed, and animals that eat the most natural diet possible are not only the healthiest animals, but also the healthiest for you. This is why wild animals are a great source of nutrition!
  5. If it is available, buy grass-fed humanely raised beef. Organic beef is certainly a good choice, but that could just mean the cows were fed organic corn. Cows are designed by evolution to eat grass and just like in the case of fish, the healthiest cows are going to provide you with the most nutrition. Your local farmers would be another great resource for finding good meat products.
  6. Avoid items that list “wheat” or “enriched wheat” as a top ingredient and instead go for 100% whole-grain or whole-wheat products. Good-tasting sandwich bread that’s made with 100% whole-wheat (and not a lot of unnecessary additives) is one of the hardest “real food” products to find in a mainstream supermarket, so this might be an area where you want to consider making your own bread or trying to find it through a local bakery instead.
  7. Avoid products “that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients” according to Michael Pollan. And don’t be fooled if you don’t see the word “sugar” on the list. Sweeteners come in many different forms from brown rice syrup to molasses to cane juice to honey.
  8. According to Pollan, “Avoid food products that make health claims” because chances are if they are trying to shout out to you that the product is “high in fiber” or “contains whole grains” there might be some sort of catch. Only trust what you find in the ingredient list because there is no other way to truly know what’s in your food. And don’t overlook the apples in produce that aren’t working as hard to get your attention.
  9. Speaking of the ingredient list buy products that either don’t have a list (because they are a 1-ingredient whole food) or that display a short list of ingredients that you can easily pronounce and understand.
  10. If your local store simply doesn’t carry ingredients like organic brown rice, raw nuts, whole-grain flours, coconut oil, or organic dried fruit then consider ordering those in bulk online. It could actually be cheaper than buying them from a health food store anyway.
  11. Whether it is from your supermarket or a local farmers’ market, when you find something good do not be afraid to stock up so you can preserve it for later.
  12. When all else fails consider growing your own produce. You don’t need an elaborate garden to get started…a pot, some soil, a bag of organic fertilizer and a few seeds will do.

For some specific brands of “real food” products that you might be able to find at mainstream supermarkets check out these posts…

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58 comments to Real Food Tips: Buying “Real Food” from a Mainstream Supermarket

  • Molly

    Nearly everyone in my family deer hunts. We have grown up doing this, very much enjoy doing it, and also love eating venison! I just wanted to ask about what your opinion is on venison? I do not buy any ground beef, instead I make everything out of our personally ground venison. I also often make venison roasts out of the larger cuts we kept.

    • Lisa

      Meat from wild animals is an excellent choice because they are eating their natural diets in their natural environment (as opposed to being factory farmed) so their products are very nutritious for you.

  • Heather

    Quick Shopping Tip: I’ve noticed Walmart (and maybe some of my other local grocery stores) label WIC approved items. These items are usually the Real Food version of the product (e.g. all natural applesauce vs applesauce with HFCS). It has made identifying some convenience items much quicker for me as I transition to a diet focused on Real Foods! (Plus it’s nice to know that there’s a government assistance program that is encouraging something close to a Real Food diet.)

  • My mother in law kept trying to tell me that she was eating healthy because her high processed items have healthy words on them.
    I was never able to quantify why my gut told me this was wrong, until I saw this comic. I printed it and put it on her fridge when she wasn’t looking, one day. It was never brought up again.
    http://xkcd.com/641/
    – BaschaW

  • Maggie

    How do you prevent caretakers and family members from giving your kids processed foods that THEY have no problem with, without coming off as rude, picky, or seeming better-than-thou?

  • Theresa Fairbanks

    I just came across you blog and feel so blessed that this happened.
    I have been changing my way of eating for several years now and feel so much better. I take care of my two adorable grand children 5 days a week, for about 11 hours a day. I have been struggling with my older Grand daughter on food choices. She is a carb addict. The younger one has totally adopted her self to all the “whole” foods that I serve her with absolutely no problem. My son and his wife have a terrible way of eating and would like to help my older grand daughter out with adjusting to more whole food, she would live on pasta and bread if you gave her a choice. Unfortunately at Grandma’s house they eat “only healthy”! What I am trying to ask is there any books, recipes that I can work through with her. She always has dark circles under her eyes, and it’s not lack of sleep. I feel she is nutritionally depleted. Is there any other parents-grandparents that struggle to try to get kids to eat better. This is becoming a great struggle and want to learn how I can change her eating habits before it gets out of control and she becomes sick and obese. Thank you for reading this and would love any advice..it would be greatly appreciated.

  • Alisha

    For #10.. buying online.. any recommendations on what brands or websites you use most frequently?

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Alisha. You can find almost anything on Amazon. It is quick and shipping is almost always reasonable. Look for organic brands when possible. NetGrocer.com is another good site. Good luck. ~Amy

  • Theresa Fairbanks

    Thank you so very much for your recommendations on recipes. Yes I absolutely know the difference in carbs, unfortunately she lives on simple carbs at her home. I have some successes in the last couple of days with her, she is learning that Grandma means business and I want the best for her. Again..thank you for your reply and your help it is greatly appreciated. Have a blessed weekend.

  • Alecia

    I am so motivated by this movement toward real foods. I have recently experienced a bacterial infection that took 6 weeks to recover from. Now more than ever I am conscious about what I put into my body and the effects it has on my health. My husband has decided to take the pledge with me which will only make this easier. I am so appreciative of all the helpful tips and plans. Thank you!

  • J'Layne

    I haven’t been able to convince my husband that what we eat is “killing” us! He just says , oh, that’s not bad…I’m so frustrated because I’m not good in the kitchen, and selecting meals has never been my strength. I don’t have an ability to just go to the store and select raw and healthy foods to make meals! I’ve looked at menu samples, but I don’t see us eating most of those meals…and I don’t enjoy cooking!! What am I going to do!? I’m 53 – suffering a lot, but I don’t have the support or energy to just change….

  • Hi Lisa, Amy and all,

    This is great advice for newbies to healthy eating. I’ve been a member of the food coop movement since the 70′s. One word of caution I would add is to be careful when buying frozen organic produce, and I disagree with Michael Pollan’s quote about “There is nothing wrong and actually a lot right about frozen produce”. Here’s why I disagree: A local investigative reporter here in Vermont found that much of the frozen organic produce sold under the Cascadian Farms label, Woodstock Farms and other labels are grown in China. They also found that most of the canned and dry organic black beans and practically all organic garlic is also grown in China. Given the incidents of melamine in pet food from China a few years ago (which poisoned and killed cats and dogs), there is no way in my mind any food labeled “organic” from China can be trusted, especially given the serious lack of testing of many imported foods. So don’t be swayed by all of the big US-based big brand organic labels. They have a credibility gap. The only brand of canned black beans I know of that are not grown in China, and also have BPA-free cans, is Eden brand beans.

    The article says: “…frozen foods from Woodstock Farms, a house brand owned by UNFI, that distributes imported Chinese broccoli, asparagus, spinach, peas, mushrooms, edamame and peppers. Some frozen foods from Cascadian farms, including the company’s California mix (cauliflower, broccoli and carrots), are also from China.”

    You can find the article (in 2 parts) here:
    Your Organic Food: Made in China – Why You Should Give a Hill of Beans About It
    http://vtdigger.org/2009/12/02/your-organic-food-made-in-china-part-1-why-you-should-give-a-hill-of-beans/
    http://vtdigger.org/2009/12/02/your-organic-food-made-in-china-part-2/

    The only frozen organic food I buy now is locally grown certified organic from small farms, or from my CSA and I blanche and freeze it myself. There’s a huge localvore movement in Vermont (the most CSA’s and farmers markets per capita of any state!), and we hope the trend takes off across the country. We even now have local made organic bread made from 100% Vermont grown certified organic grains, and it costs the same as the industrial, preservative-laden “bread” at the supermarket.

    Buy local, eat local and support your local farmers and small businesses! By shopping that way, you keep your money in your local economy and support your communities.

    Thanks for the great work you are doing!

  • This blog is amazing! I could spend all week reading! This page is especially helpful for me, as we live in a tiny town with a local supermarket with limited “real food.” The nearest whole food/health food is 45-60 minutes. Thank you for the tips and encouragement to to the right thing! :)
    My Latest post

  • laggeri

    URL for “dirty dozen list” in item #2 is a broken link.

  • dave

    Great site unknown to me this morning
    Looked at Amazon etc and it strikes me forcibly
    that eating clean is expensive and frankly only becomes economic if you grow your own, which is impossible for a great number of people
    Where is this site or it’s readers when farmers are prosecuted for selling raw milk or grass fed beef
    Forcing corporations to change through market pressure is the only way the majority eat as well as readers here

  • Meghan

    How do I know if the beef is grass-fed & humanely raised? I’m new to this, but am enjoying your site!

  • Cat

    Just an FYI, Vitacost.com is a great site to get whole/organic foods from as well, costs are lower than Amazon for a lot of items

  • Rebecca

    I am addicted to your site! Thank you so much for all the helpful info!

    I have what may seem like a dumb question, but what is your feeling on the prepared Rotisserie Chicken sold at Costco and Sam’s Club?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Rebecca. Sorry, but I’m not familiar with how those would be prepared or what ingredients are used. ~Amy

    • Sandi

      Hi Rebecca, I was sad to quit the Costco rotisserie chicken a few months ago after reading the label. So cheap, so yummy, but so many nasty things in it! :(

  • Adam

    It’s dangerous to offer the blanket message to avoid farmed fish, because some fisheries are now environmentally sustainable, and in fact some is actually preferred over wild caught. Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch list app for further details.

    The bottom line is that some farmed fish is fine, and some is not. Just as some wild fish is fine, and some is not.

    It all depends on type of fish, where you live, the region of the world where the fish was caught, and by what means the fish was caught.

    http://www.seafoodwatch.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_recommendations.aspx

    Adam

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