September 22, 2012

Shopping Supermarket Savvy - Part 1

Do you feel overwhelmed at the supermarket? Are you struggling to buy $75 worth of groceries on a $50 budget? Do you feel like you need a dictionary and a calculator to make sense of the complicated health claims and even more complicated ingredient labels on foods, and to get the most for your money?

Welcome to the club*.

Grocery store managers and marketing specialists know all the tricks. They design their store layouts and individual displays with one thing in mind: to get you to buy things. Lots of them. More than you need, more than you intended to buy, and maybe even items you hadn’t planned on buying at all. They place sugary breakfast cereals with colorful logos and eye-catching cartoon characters at kids’ eye level for exactly that reason: to catch their eyes. (And, in turn, to induce them to bug you to buy them. “Mommymommymommy! Can I have this? Huh?Huh?Huh?CanI?!”)

In their defense, these things are often decided way above the level of the managers of the local stores. Mega-sized companies pay premiums to have their products placed at strategic locations. These marketing experts could give the honor guard at Arlington a run for their money where military precision is concerned. (Just kidding. I was in the military, and the honor guard is serious business. Especially at Arlington.)

Seriously though, supermarkets are laid out with the utmost attention to detail. People make whole careers out of figuring out how to get consumers (you and me) to buy what big companies want us to buy. Heck, they have entire corporate departments dedicated to selling us things we don’t even need. (Don’t believe me? That’s all right. Read this and this and I’d love to chat about it sometime.)

And there’s the rub:  supermarkets are designed with profit in mind. They want to make money. But you want to buy nutritious food and not break the bank in the process. Up against the professionals, it’s easy to feel like you don’t stand a chance. But take heart. There are ways of getting in and out without feeling like a victim, or feeling like they’ve gotten one over on you. I’ll share a basic one today, and will address more concrete tips in future posts for navigating the grocery store intelligently and economically. (Yes, it can be done!)

You’ve probably heard the phrase “shop the perimeter.” This means sticking to the outer aisles of the store, which are typically where you’ll find the fresh produce, meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy. In other words, the real food. Stuff that looks like this… meat.
Brain food! DHA, baby!

And this:

Someday I'll figure out what the heck to do with leeks.

…And not like this**

If SpongeBob is on the box, you know it's good for ya!

“Shop the perimeter.” A three-word strategy to keep you out of the minefield that is the rest of the store. Short, sweet, and simple. And I agree with it—mostly But even though grocery shopping is not rocket science (hehheh), it’s a little more complicated than just staying out of the middle aisles.

First, every supermarket is laid out differently, but very often the bakery section is in one of those outer aisles. Yes, the bakery—chock-full of such nutritious offerings as partially hydrogenated soybean oil, propylene glycol, high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, and enough preservatives to keep Joan Rivers looking young well into the next century. Shop that part of the perimeter? Nuh-uh!

Second, you can find lots of good things in the middle aisles; you just have to know where to look and not be distracted by all the colorful packages that are designed to distract you. What are some great things you can only get by venturing into the middle? Canned fish, nuts (although you can usually find fresher nuts in the produce section—raw or dry-roasted without things like cottonseed or soy oil added), frozen vegetables and fruit (sometimes a more budget-friendly option than fresh), canned tomato products (always a better flavor option except in summer, at the height of the season), the occasional bar of high-quality dark chocolate, and coffee and tea. (Research is all over the place about whether coffee is beneficial or the spawn of Satan, himself. Where do I stand? I’ll tell you as soon as you pry the cup o’joe out of my cold dead hands, thankyouverymuch.)

And let’s not forget things like mustard, olive oil, and other condiments. There are perfectly good things on some of those cramped middle aisle shelves. Watch the salad dressings and mayos, though. They’re almost always made with soybean oil—even the ones that say OLIVE OIL in huge letters on the label. The first ingredient is still usually soy. (Why is this bad? Stay tuned. I’ll dissect fats and oils in future posts.)

Third, even in what we might consider the “safe zones”—those outer aisles we’re supposed to stick to—there’s plenty of junk sprinkled in among the good stuff. Most larger grocery stores have things like granola and other snacks in the produce section. Yogurt covered raisins don’t sound so bad, I know. Until you pick up the package. And you realize that it’s not actually yogurt on those raisins, but sugar, corn syrup, soybean oil (is there anything they don’t shove that stuff in anymore?), and confectioner’s glaze—whatever that is. And they’ve done to granola what they did to real yogurt (the kind you find in the refrigerated section, where it belongs): they’ve taken what are otherwise pretty decent foods (oats, dried fruit, nuts) and mucked it up with so much sugar, additives, and preservatives that what could once reasonably be called a health food is now no better than candy.

Mmmmm...healthy caaaaaaandy.
(Not really)

Even in the meat section, they’ve messed with things. Think that kielbasa’s really just a sausage? Meat and spices? Think again. Check that label. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a mass-marketed brand that doesn’t contain isolated or hydrolyzed corn or soy protein, and MSG. If I’m buying sausage, I want pork, beef, or chicken. If I want corn, I’ll buy corn. And if I want soy, I’ll…well, scratch that. I don’t want soy. Especially not in a pork sausage.

As usual, this post is approaching “lengthy,” so I’ll cut if off here. Part 2 is coming soon, and I’ll get into some of the budget tips then.

So, to summarize:  shopping the perimeter is a good strategy, but you’ve still got to have your game face on. There are good foods in the middle aisles and there are scary and undesirable products (sorry, I can’t bring myself to call them “foods”) along the outside. Stick to real food and it's hard to go wrong. Think chicken, instead of chicken nuggets/patties. Think whole fruits instead of "fruit snacks" or fruit cups packed in syrup. Do venture into the middle aisles for the good stuff, but keep your wits about you, lest you aim for a can of salmon or a bottle of olive oil and get sucked into these:

Devil's food cake? They don't know the half of it...

*You’ll learn the secret handshake later.
**Sorry…I’m still learning how to take pictures and write a blog like someone whose VCR isn't still flashing 12:00^. 
^It's 2012. What is this "VCR" you speak of?
Seriously, hands off my coffee.

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