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

Obviously not everyone lives in a town with a Whole Foods or Earth Fare down the street. Readers actually write in quite

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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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81 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: Buying “Real Food” from a Mainstream Supermarket”

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  1. 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!

    1. 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

    2. 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! :(

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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

    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!

  6. 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….

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hello J’Layne. Sounds like you are feeling somewhat challenged when considering making the switch. One thing that I recommend is to consider the mini pledges. This way you can tackle each principle one step at a time and it doesn’t feel as overwhelming. Also, go through the recipes/menus and pick out a few simple ones that might work for you and test them out one at a time. Even small successes will keep moving you forward. One other thing, read through the reader responses to this post: and I promise you will be inspired to continue! All the best. ~Amy

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

    1. 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. is another good site. Good luck. ~Amy

  9. 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 would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Theresa. I am happy you found the blog, too. It is full of resources which should be helpful. There are so many recipes and you are bond to find several that both girls like. Carbs aren’t bad as long as they aren’t simple carbs. If she is eating 100% whole grains, then she is at least on the right track. If not, then you might have to help her ease into whole grains. Here is a really yummy recipe for honey whole wheat bread which might get you started: Know also that is not unusual for kids to be picky eaters. Here are some resources to help: Let us know how things are going! ~Amy

  10. 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?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Maggie. I think with caregivers it’s somewhat easier than family members. Personally, I feel as though you are paying them to take care of your children so you should be able to tell them how you want your child fed. In terms of family, I agree this is tougher. You might find this post interesting… Ultimately, you will have to decide how to handle your situation. Jill

  11. 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.
    – BaschaW

  12. 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.)

    1. WIC recently changed guidelines to allow only store brand peanut butters. For wha it’s worth, the store brands I’ve checked all have HFCS, molasses as a primarily ingredient, or tons of salt added. Just fyi.

  13. 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.

    1. 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.

  14. I have a bag of pretzel crisps from the Snack Factory. They have less than 5 ingredients and claim to be all natural. But, their number one ingredient is wheat flour. Is this a healthy flour?

  15. 8 – nice tip. It’s true that oftentimes manufacturers put something like “good for you”, “rich in fiber” or something similar on the package and when you look at ingredients yes, you’ll see that it’s rich in fiber, but it’s also rich in sugar, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oil and other crappy chemicals. Best to keep eating natural food and avoid everything that’s packaged.

  16. Talk to your local farmers market. It takes {at least} 5 years and a lot of money to be “Certified Organic” We live by a local farm that has all organic stuff but they haven’t yet been certified by the government. So just ask.

  17. Love the practical advice you provide on this blog. And, your banana bread recipe is the best! Just one thing I’d like to point out. The other day there was an ad for McDonalds on your site. I think it was an ad by I found this very odd….

  18. I was shopping in Walmart, in the produce section (the perimeter) and they had buckets of chocolate peanut butter cups in with the apples! It was disgusting to think of someone trying to start a healthy lifestyle, shop the healthy perimeter and find chocolate peanut butter cups in amongst the fruit! I hope that Walmart will change it’s ways and support healthy living.

  19. I have just found your site and passed it along to a friend this week. Thank you, thank you. As a mom of 7 children, working on a budget with REAL FOOD is always a struggle. Summertime when their are many local farmer’s markets makes the process easier. I dabbled with canning this past fall and next summer/fall I think canning full force will help the real food budget further. Thanks for the recipes and inspiration!

  20. We live overseas (military) in South Korea and I am finding it VERY difficult to live on “Real” foods. Here, the only access to real food we get is at the Commissary and they do NOT have a very large selection of, well… anything. I found the easy cheesy cracker recipe, and think that it is perfect for my 3 and 6 year old children! Thank you and KEEP POSTING NEW RECIPES! I think that it is so important for us to get out of this processed food addiction we are in and GET HEALTHY!

    1. I was also stationed in S. Korea and you need to get off base to shop at the korean/local supermarkets and stores to get that fresh produce. I did! The prices are very reasonable and the selection is top notch. You’ll also be introduced to exotic foods you might have never tried before. Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed!

  21. Thanks for this! Your blog has given me some great reminders of how to eat healthier buying from large chains. I snatched up a box of Triscuits last night, and it is staggering to see only 3 ingredients! Love it!

  22. Find stores that buy as locally as possible. One of our local supermarkets, Remke, buys local produce, bakery items, eggs, milk, cheeses and meats to sell. They don’t cost much more than the big “commercial” sellers and since they are local they are fresher. For example, they have eggs that are locally gathered and are from chickens that are never fed antibiotics or growth hormones. They taste as good as Egglands Best and they are $1.25 less a dozen. I shop with Remke a lot now that I know how much they support our local growers and farmers.

  23. This is a great list that I am sharing! The double coupon deals at Harris Teeter have been really helpful for me. For example, the $1 off Cascadian Farms frozen vegetables & fruits, as well as the $1 off Organic Valley for milk.

  24. Good tips. More about trying to buy organic from the grocery store. I try to give feedback, positive and otherwise, to the produce and customer service folks at the store. If I see they are trying to expand the organic selections, I make a point to buy something there. If there’s something (like organic potatoes) that I would like to buy regularly, I mention it politely to them. I’d rather see a few popular, fresh organic items be available rather than see some wilting on the shelf because there’s not a consistent demand for it.

  25. I’ve gone for five months now with no processed foods or refined sugars and have stamina and mental sharpness that I haven’t had for a long time. It feels so good to be eating foods that I know are nourishing my body, not destroying it. I can relate to not having access to places with good, healthy, nutrient-dense foods. I actually live in an area with many good choices for shopping, but am traveling for the week of Thanksgiving. I just went online to try and find a store near the area we’ll be staying that would have some of the staples I’d like to have while I’m there…not much luck! I’ll be packing some things! If any of you happen to live in an area where it’s difficult to get access to good, healthy organic foods, I have just found out about a company by Jordan Rubin called Beyond Organic that is offering to deliver 100% organic foods and whole food cultured dairy beverages to your doorstep. If you’re interested in finding out more, take a look at the website below.

  26. Great post! I have lived in all around the country and some areas pose more of a challenge than others when trying to get real food for our family. I definitely support trying to grow something (anything!) on your own and I have had success ordering bulk items online through Amazon when I can’t get it locally.

  27. There are some great online providers….amazon is one as well as wilderness family naturals, Tropical Traditions, and Vitacost. I always start with amazon and go from there. We buy lots of things this way….we also have a food co op it is UNFI if you check out their web site they have lists of local co ops in your area, UNFI is the company that the grocery stores buy from so you can get case and bulk prices on most all things natural and organic…beans, nuts, dried fruit, ect. it is always worth checking into

  28. And wherever you shop, read labels. I just bought “Artisan Whole Wheat Bread” from the bakery at Earth Fare. Whole wheat flour was the last ingredient, even AFTER yeast! I read the label before purchasing the bread, so I knew that I wasn’t buying 100% whole wheat. Still, to call it whole wheat bread seems deceptive. Tasty bread though.

  29. There’s a great website — Local Harvest — where anyone can put in their zip code and find fresh, locally-grown produce, meats, and dairy products. The site also links to CSA programs where people can buy community-supported agriculture boxes of fresh, in-season fruits & veggies.

  30. Great Post!!I would suggest checking your locally owned supermarkets. I live in a small town where I get most of my bulk foods items from a locally owned store. The manager there is a great guy who created a health food and organic food section and it’s actually cheaper to get stuff like rice and legumes from there. You just need to do your homework.

  31. I love this blog post! it is very hard for some people to get their hands on organic products. i also wanted to add, anything that is not “certified organic” may contain Genetically Modified/Engineered Organisms. It is not yet mandatory for companies to label their food with whether it has these in it or not, but some high end health food chains still do. Look out for these because they can cause serious health issues and ecological issues. Organic isn’t only better for our families, it’s better for the whole world!

  32. I love your tips but I would suggest making #12 more of a priority than as a last resort. Even if you don’t have room for a big garden you can put a tomato plant in your planter or anyone can grow herbs in a pot. You can potentially save a lot over buying organic and it doesn’t get any fresher.

  33. Walmart is actually getting better and better at carrying less processed options and real food; you just have to know where to look for it. Meijer (which I think is a Michigan thing) carries great options as well! They have a store brand that’s really affordable but with natural and/or organic choices!

    1.,, and even has some items available to be shipped. There are lots of places out there. Just search “buy food storage”. Also may have what your looking for. Hope this helps!!

  34. Great tips! I just discovered a Earth Fare that recently opened within driving distance of me and I was wondering if it was going to be worth the trip or not.