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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 are 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 foods 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 to eat alongside a salad or soup.
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 amazingly affordable sources 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 or into 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 few chocolate chips for a quick and totally natural trail mix.
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—so 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.
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 it is more flavorful and has more nutrients than the 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.
Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She’s a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.
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I live in the big city and am very lucky to be near lots of supermarkets so don’t quite have your issues but I pretty much do everything you’ve listed here to keep my food bill down. For non US people buying fish and seafood that’s kinder to the planet, the Marine Conservation Society does a great good fish guide that you can download and keep in your wallet (http://www.goodfishguide.co.uk/pocket-goodfishguide#).
Great post. It is totally possible to eat really healthfully shopping at most “regular” grocery stores. One of my staples is whole grain tortillas – less carby and starchy than bread. My partner has Type 1 diabetes and these allow him to use less carbs but still make something substantial for lunch, or a breakfast tortilla. It seems like they are making a great variety of tortillas now using different grains.
Yay! I love this post. I’m trying hard hard hard to eat healthy on a tight budget. We only have the tiniest of No Frills stores nearby (unless I want to drag kiddo, stroller and groceries on two buses) and I’m finding it a challenge. These are great tips!
This is great! A lot of people are quick to dismiss the idea of eating healthy because they simply don’t know their options and are scared of breaking away from their favorite brands or staple items. I didn’t even know you could buy dry beans until recently…”you mean, they don’t ALWAYS come in a can??” So, yeah!
Thank you for posting this! I also shop at a “regular” grocery store which surprises a lot of people with the way I cook. The nearest Trader Joe’s is 45 minutes away (I wasn’t all that impressed when I went, to be perfectly honest) with other “organic” stores being even further away and I live in Atlanta. You’d think they’d be more plentiful! Even if I did live closer, though, I’d stick with my good ol’ Kroger, especially since they’ve developed their Simple Truth brand (though you still have to watch the labels for a lot of salt and sugars). I save money and still eat whole, real foods. :)
I love this post! I work at the local food co-op in Fort Collins, CO and so many people think they have to shop there to get healthy food. Granted, we do support a lot of local farms and have higher quality meats and produce, but even I shop at the little market down the road from time to time. And I will take one of your ideas for my favorite healthy food buy- frozen fruit! It’s cheaper than fresh for double the quantity, I can use them in smoothies for myself and muffins for my boyfriend, and we don’t have to worry about them going bad.
Just a quick hello to say that I really liked this post! Have a great day!
Thank you for the bean cooking & freezing tip! I’ve been driving myself crazy trying to remember to soak & cook beans almost every night… I’ll definitely be trying this out soon.
I’m Norwegian and grew up on crispbread – so good! I’m lucky to live in an area where even the regular grocery stores have “hippie sections”, so you can get hold of healthier options anywhere.
Great post and great tips! Thanks for putting this one together!
Excellent post! I have been shopping at a “health food store” for about a year and a half and I’ll be moving in just a few weeks to an area without these specialty stores. To be honest, it’s one of the few things I’m worried about with my sensitivities (gluten and dairy) and the options I’ll find at the “regular grocery store,” but I’m up for the challenge! Thanks for giving me a little hope that I’ll be able to make it work. :)
Such a great post! I do all my shopping at the “regular” grocery store. I love Kodiak Cakes, which I found at a lot of regular stores. Also, canned fish like tuna and salmon to make salads.
Healthy staples like eggs, milk, plain yogurt (it doesn’t even have to be Greek, believe it or not) etc. Popcorn. Olive oil. Our local grocery store has locally-produced flour; my husband prefers it for baking bread for sustainability reasons.
I really liked this post. I personally believe that a lot of everyday happiness comes from making the best from the things you have without fretting over alternatives that take a lot of time and/ or money.
Here in Germany we have a lot of turkish and arab immigrants. That way, even in smaller places, there is usually a little turkish/ arab grocery store where they have a large variety of beans and lentils. They also usually stock other vegetables than the regular grocery stores. You only have to be prepared to carry large-family-packages home ;)
I swear– every time you talk about Craig’s hometown it sounds more and more like he’s from where I’m from (Thunder Bay, ON). Largest population of Finlanders outside of Finland, no joke. I know it’s none of my business, but it secretly warms my heart and reminds me of back home.
Crispbreads are not to be taken lightly! There are so many brands and types to try. I think my favourites are the Wasa Fiber Rye spread with almond butter and thin slices of green apple, but I also really like the super-thin Finn Crisp Original, even if it’s not as high in fiber.
If you could see my frozen fruit and veggie stash (kept in a regular-sized refrigerator freezer) I’m sure you’d be proud!
Glad to hear the Pregnancy Tea is tasty…. Have you ever heard of Earth Mama, Angel Baby’s teas? I’ve never tried them myself but they were always really popular back when I worked in a health food store a few years ago. Could be worth checking out if you’re down with tea, I know the breastfeeding tea seemed to always sell out so quickly!
That’s because he is from Thunder Bay! :)
This is, like… the coolest Thunder Bay connection ever! I only just moved away at age thirty to southern Ontario. I miss the trees and I miss the forest (and my family!). Oh, and I miss Finn pancakes too of course!
Hopefully Craig has taken you out to the Sleepy G peninsula to hike The Chimney– or even the T Harbour trail. Ok so I guess I miss the hiking too. Anyway, I’ll try not to spam your comments with Thunder Bay-related junk each time you talk about Craig’s old hometown on the blog. Yours are among my favourite blogs that I check all the time, you’re always inspiring me to just continue doing my best and putting my best out there. I’m so proud and happy for you two and the new arrival that’s on its way, btw!
Yum Yum Yum…I’m glad that I came across this post!!
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