The grocery store is Mordor and you’re Frodo. A gargantuan display wall of 2-liter sodas is the terrifying army of Orcs you have to bypass to get to the produce section. And the allure of chewy chocolate chip cookies and sweet, crispy cereals, which are harboring more corn additives than you know, is as haunting as the temptation of the Ring.
Have no fear: This list of healthy essentials can be the “Sam” that guides you through the quest of grocery shopping. Whether you’re on a budget, buying your own food for the first time as a college student, or just confused about what’s healthy and what’s not, you won’t have to feel helpless in the face of junk food. (Check out these genius tips for some extra help, too.)
First things first: Head straight for the produce section. You can never go wrong with plant-based foods as your main dietary staple; veggies provide tons of fiber and nutrients, and there are endless ways to enjoy them all day, every day.
A whole steamed artichoke makes a tasty appetizer. Greens like lettuce, arugula, and spinach can go into your own salad mixes. Cauliflower can be transformed into “rice.” And any good stir-fry starts with onions and garlic, which deliver tons of flavor to just about any dish.
See what looks good at the market, and buy organic whenever possible. More variety means more options, and a more balanced diet—here are some of our staples.
While you’re in the produce section, stock up on fruits, which are rich in vitamins and minerals. Fruits can double as snacks or dessert; their sweetness is so satisfying, and since they’re loaded with fiber, you’re less likely to experience a blood sugar spike like you would with eating processed sugars. Berries are best since they’re low-glycemic (which also make them less likely to spike blood sugar) and boast antioxidants that fight the aging effects of free radicals—but take your pick.
Herbs are one of the keys to cooking flavorful meals. In Okinawa, Japan, cooking with homegrown herbs daily is the norm—and is thought to be linked to longevity of people in the region. (You can take a cue from Okinawan culture and grow your own, too.)
Skip this part if you’re a vegetarian, but meat and seafood can definitely be staples in a healthy diet. Seafood, in particular, is possibly the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for heart health, can help boost mood, and reduce inflammation. Get to know where your seafood comes from and choose sustainable fish whenever possible.
Grass-fed beef is also pretty high in omega-3s—overall it’s got a higher nutritional content and is lower in saturated fat and calories than factory-raised meat.
Here are some excellent meat and seafood options to consider.
If you eat dairy and eggs, choose wisely—buy organic to avoid products that may contain antibiotics and hormones. Grass-fed dairy and free-range eggs may also be higher in nutrients.
When perusing the bakery section, opt for whole grain or whole wheat bread, which is richer in fiber, selenium, potassium, and magnesium than white bread.
There are many more sources of whole grains that’ll fill your pantry with so much potential. No need to give up carbs to eat healthy—these complex carbs are fiber-rich, so they’ll keep you fuller for longer. They’re easy to incorporate into your meals, too. Mix cooked farro into salad to make it more substantial, or replace white rice with quinoa for a protein boost. If you’re gluten-free, there are plenty of grains you can safely eat, too, including many of the ones below.
Nuts and seeds are protein powerhouses and packed with plenty of healthy fats. Combine them to make an energizing trail mix, and snack on that instead of chips and candy. Or, sprinkle them into salad for added texture and nutrition.
Dried legumes like lentils are great for healthy eating on a budget. They’re pretty simple to prepare, and cooking a big batch makes it easy to eat ample fiber and vegetarian-friendly protein throughout the week.
The spice aisle can be a very intimidating place, with shelves and shelves of bottles staring you in the face. Start with these common dried herbs and spices (all available at Thrive Market). They may seem like an investment at first, but they’ll last for a long time, and make cooking really fun. Like fresh herbs, they’ll amp up the flavor of any meal—some, like turmeric, cayenne, and cinnamon, even have anti-inflammatory properties.
No kitchen would be complete without cooking oil. Instead of settling for conventional vegetable oil, choose healthier fats like avocado and coconut oils for sautéing or frying. If you’re a fan of the neutral taste of canola oil, grab one that’s organic. Don’t forget the olive oil—it’s ideal for creating robust dressings and dips.
Here’s where you can really start running into problems in the grocery store—many condiments and dressings are filled with unnecessary additives like high-fructose corn syrup. The short of it is there’s so much corn grown in the U.S. that the food industry is incentivized to use as much of it as possible. The big problem is 90 percent of corn products are genetically modified—and since GMOs have been linked to many issues including antibiotic resistance, immunosuppression, and even cancer, some consumers might choose to avoid them.
Seek out condiments that are made of pure, natural ingredients and free of ones you can’t pronounce. Organic products are best, since that’s one of your biggest clues that what you’re buying is non-GMO—the USDA doesn’t allow products that contain GMOs to be labeled as organic.
Stock your pantry with these miscellaneous ingredients for healthy cooking and baking.
Canned beans and soups make it easy to eat healthy in a pinch. Pair black beans with brown rice, or sprinkle cannellini beans into your favorite pasta dish. Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, are a quick salad booster, and are the key ingredient to homemade hummus or falafel. Avoid cans that contain BPA, which can seep into the food and potentially disrupt hormones. See a few of the safe options below.
For no-fuss breakfasts, grab some cereal. But we’re not talking about sugary Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. Choose ones made with whole grains, and if they’ve got some superfoods like chia seeds sprinkled in, even better. Corn flakes and corn puffs don’t have to be off-limits—there are non-GMO options.
Snacking doesn’t have to equate to binging on potato chips and Reese’s Pieces. Choosing nutritious bites to nosh on through the day can make a huge impact on your overall diet. Take seaweed snacks, for example, which fulfill cravings for salty, umami flavor while also providing omega-3 fatty acids and minerals. If crunchiness floats your boat, try some gluten-free crackers, kale chips, or sweet-potato chips. Got a sweet tooth? Dates and other dried fruits will make you forget all about candy.
Frozen fruits and veggies are just as good for you as fresh ones, and they make seasonal produce like squash more accessible year-round. Buy organic and make sure the fruits don’t have added sugar. Convenience is the greatest gift here—frozen peas are so easy to throw into a stir-fry without having to pod them, and frozen berries are pretty much essential to making ice-cold smoothies. Here are some fruits and vegetables that are commonly available in the freezer section.
Armed with this list of healthy grocery essentials, you’ll make it through the store (Mordor) fast and get back home (to the Shire) in no time. Now, onto the fun part—cooking! Here are some easy recipe ideas to get you started.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
Download the app for easy shopping on the go
By providing your mobile number, you agree to receive marketing text messages from Thrive Market. Consent not a condition to purchase. Msg & data rates apply. Msg frequency varies. Reply HELP for help and STOP to cancel.