I think with all the information out there about healthy eating, it can sometimes be easy to assume that you can only eat healthy if you have an unlimited budget and unlimited access to the best natural foods grocery stores. There are so many recipes that use chia seeds, acai berries, and other hard-to-find ingredients that if you’re living in rural America (which 59 million of us are), it can feel almost impossible to kickstart a healthy diet. But I, for one, believe that healthy eating can happen at even the dinkiest little grocery store (and trust me, we have a few seriously dinky grocery stores in my area).
Even though we live in a decidedly rural area, we’re very fortunate to be close to a major metropolitan area and have relatively-close (within an hour) access to some of the biggest names in healthy eating—Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Costco, etc. But even with those resources available, we’ve actually been using our local grocery stores more frequently as of late. Why? Because we’ve become really good at shopping for health food at the regular grocery store. And hey, if we don’t need to make the trip into “the big city,” we don’t want to!
If you look hard enough, there are tons of healthy gems buried between the boxes of cookies and TV dinners. Of course, we all know that stocking up on ton of fresh fruits and veggies is the first step, but what about beyond the produce section? Here’s my favorites from the rest of the store:
You’ve seen these crunchy, flavorful crackers in a lot of my WIAW posts, and it’s because I absolutely love them! I had never heard of the stuff until I married into a Scandinavian family—it’s very popular in my husband’s very Scandinavian hometown in Canada—but we’ve been lucky enough to find it at even the small town grocery store here in rural Indiana (usually stashed with the crackers). Granted, here, they maybe carry one or two varieties per store, but if you go grocery shopping in my husband’s hometown, there are whole aisles devoted to the stuff, but we’re just happy we can get it here at all.
There are multiple brands—Wasa, Finn Crisp, Ryvita, Leksands—and all of them are 100% natural and 100% whole grain. Rarely are there more than three ingredients: flour, salt and water. They clock in at about 50 calories a pop, and, best of all, they are crazy cheap! We can nab two or three packs of these for the same price as one small box of crackers from the natural food store. We eat these topped with chicken, egg or tuna salad. They are great alternative to the standard lunchtime sandwich bread. We also use them as regular crackers to dip in hummus or eat alongside a salad or soup.
Dry Beans and Lentils
If you’re looking for an affordable and healthy section of the store, go park yourself in the dried beans and lentils section for a few minutes. Most stores carry at least the standard varieties (pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, brown lentils) and some stores even expand beyond the typical to carry fun varieties like cranberry beans, black eyed peas, and adzuki beans. The beans and lentils are both an amazingly affordable source of lean protein. Stock up and make some delicious vegetarian recipes like Lentil Sloppy Joes and Bean Enchiladas. Or just toss them onto your lunch salad, inside a quesadilla or use them to make bean dips like hummus. Beans are where it’s at!
To make the bean cooking process simple, I just designate a bean cooking day once a month. I soak all my beans the night before and then set them all up cooking on the stove the next day. Once they are cooked, I drain, rinse and spread out on baking sheets to freeze. Once frozen, I throw them all into big freezer bags, and I can easily grab a cup or two at a time of whatever bean I need.
Skip past the snack foods section and instead head to the baking aisle to get the healthiest and cheapest selection of nuts for snacking. Roasted, salted and flavored almonds certainly are tasty, but in the baking aisle, you’ll find big bags of raw almonds (without added salt or fat) for a nice price reduction. I’ve even noticed bags of raw almonds in the produce section for nearly twice the price as the same size of bag in the baking aisle. What a rip-off!
If you really want to add your own flavors, try roasting them at home, but you’ll be amazed at how tasty and filling a handful of raw almonds can be! I like mixing raw almonds with dried fruit and a bit of chocolate chips for a quick and totally natural trail mix.
Fish and Seafood
It might sound weird for me to recommend buying meat (of any kind) from a small grocery store—after all, I’m a big advocate of buying only organic, responsibly-raised meats, and those usually aren’t available at local stores in rural areas. But fish and seafood are an animal of a different color! You should be able to find great seafood options at even the smallest seafood counters and freezers. Just make sure to look for fish and seafood labeled “wild-caught”. Wild-caught seafood means just that—it was caught in the wild. Meaning the seafood has been roaming around living its natural fishy life and eating its natural fishy diet before it was caught—meaning it’s free from the antibiotics, pesticides, and dyes (yes, dyes!) that might be present in farm-raised versions.
Of course, there are concerns with wild-caught fish as well (overfishing, mercury levels, etc.) so I recommend checking out Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium before you buy any kind of fish or seafood. They even have a really great smartphone app that makes it easy to look up in the store what fish are a good choice and which should be avoided. It sounds complicated, but once you’ve figured out what high-quality fish are available in your area, you’ll always know.
Frozen Fruits and Veggies
Unlike the big, beautiful produce section at Whole Foods that has absolutely no season what-so-ever, many small grocery stores actually do struggle with seasonal availability. Even when our local store does carry out-of-season produce, it’s almost always very, very sad. Wrinkly, brown, and never full-of-flavor. But that’s where frozen fruits and veggies come to the rescue! Freezing fruits and veggies doesn’t change the nutritional profile by much, and most frozen produce is flash frozen at the peak of freshness—meaning they are more flavorful and have more nutrients than their produce section counterparts (which are usually picked a week or more before ripeness so they can travel across the country or the world).
Make sure to look for pure frozen veggies without added sauces, fat or salt. You might be surprised by how affordable it can be! One of my favorite freezer deals are the boxes of spinach. They run about $1 for a package of frozen spinach and because spinach cooks down so much—it’s about equal to two pounds of the fresh stuff! It’s a great nutritional addition to soups, pizza and casseroles.