Joyful eating experiences, while synonymous with the holiday season, can and should be a part of each and every day.
This is the time of year when a lot of people swing between indulging in delicious favorite foods - and then deprivation to make up for it.
Shed all those negative food messages around dieting, deprivation, and "bad foods" and you're left with a simple and positive intention: Food should be nourishing. When you create a nourishing plate of food, you are caring for yourself in a meaningful way.
As a mom, registered dietitian, and wellness coach, I know firsthand how confusing and overwhelming nutrition can be. Shopping can be daunting when you're determined to fill your cart with y options.
That's why I've been visiting Philadelphia-area chain grocery stores in recent months and reporting for Philly.com on what I've found to be the cleanest options - meaning minimally processed - among the packaged food offerings. Today, I'm summarizing the highlights; you can find more in-depth details at philly.com/goalgetter.
I hope my research helps you as you navigate the aisles in this most food-centric time of year.
I keep it simple and aim to fill my cart and my plate with whole, nutrient-dense foods. I buy local, in-season produce, when possible, and try to limit processed, packaged foods.
But let's be clear: We are all aiming for better, not perfect. Your traditional holiday favorites should of course be on your table if that's what you want. And packaged foods can have a place in our lives.
We all need a few shortcuts - and armed with a little knowledge, even shortcuts can be nourishing.
Here are the questions I ask myself when I pick up a package at the grocery store:
What does the label actually mean? Such words as organic, gluten-free, and whole grain don't necessarily mean the food is healthy. An organic, gluten-free cookie can still be loaded with calories, sugar, inflammatory fats, additives, and preservatives.
Which ingredients would I use to make this product at home? Peanuts and sea salt are the only two ingredients in the peanut butter I purchase. If I made salad dressing at home, I would always use extra-virgin olive oil, which is rich in anti-inflammatory fats. Yet shelf-stable dressings generally contain soybean oil, an inexpensive and inflammatory oil.
Can I buy all of the listed ingredients in the grocery store? Sugar would still make the cut, but unpronounceable chemicals, additives, and preservatives won't.
Farmers markets and farm shares are wonderful, and I encourage you to use them. But for your shopping at conventional grocery stores, it's worth understanding what each outlet offers.
Where you shop is incredibly personal - where you live, your budget, your schedule, and your preferences all play a role. Here, I'm sharing my own preferences with a view to finding clean, healthful foods at a good price.
For my money, Trader Joe's and Aldi are stock-up-and-save stores - I try to stop by each once a month for my favorite deals.
Organic quinoa, a staple at my house, is $2.99 a pound at Aldi versus $4.99 a pound at Trader Joes, $5.69 a pound at Whole Foods - and even more at traditional grocers such as Giant and Wegmans.
When I'm shopping for animal protein, it's important to me that my fresh fish be wild-caught, chicken be pasture-raised, and beef be grass-fed. I've found the widest selection of those products at Whole Foods.
But I've found something to like just about everywhere. Store-by-store, here's how to score.
What to know: Prices are low, but you'll need to bring your own bags and accept a limited selection. A traditional supermarket carries about 30,000 items; Aldi has 1,400, depending on the store. Aldi recently announced that it has removed all artificial ingredients from its products.
Stock up: Prices on such staples as quinoa; almonds; peanut butter; organic, grass-fed beef; organic milk; and coconut oil can't be beat. They also have a line of gluten-free products and kid-friendly eats.
What to know: Shop the entire store. While the organic and natural section may be appealing, there are organic products scattered throughout the store, often at lower prices. Store brand Nature's Promise is "natural and/or organic" but not always both.
Stock up: Earthly Choice brand offers the best prices on grains such as quinoa and farro, and it is nearly $2 less than the Nature's Promise brand. Simply Enjoy, the store brand tomato sauce, is $3.99 a jar, delicious, and contains only ingredients you'd use in homemade. Did you know that frozen vegetables, picked at peak ripeness and quickly frozen, are often more nutrient-dense than their fresh counterparts? Keep a bag defrosting in the fridge to easily incorporate them into any meal. Frozen brown rice is another great time-saver. Just avoid the veggies with sauce; Birds Eye choice is often on sale, so you can stock up.
What to know: In addition to unique products that enthusiasts obsess over, Trader Joe's boasts a wide variety of fairly clean pre-prepared salads, proteins, and meals for when you're in a hurry. Gripe: Much of the fresh produce is prepackaged.
Stock up: Frozen, wild-caught fish can be found at great prices. Also in the freezer section are cooked grains such as plain brown rice and quinoa as well as blends that incorporate lentils, beans, sweet potatoes, zucchini, and dark leafy greens. They also have a huge selection of unsweetened dried fruits and raw nuts and seeds.
What to know: The chain promises that there are no artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, or high-fructose corn syrup in any product in the market. It's been a leader in shaping industry standards around animal welfare and sustainability. Don't necessarily fall for the "Whole Paycheck" label: Organic and natural staples such as fish, meat, milk, eggs, and grains are often comparable and sometimes less expensive than those from conventional grocers due to supply and demand. It's also a good choice for singles and small families, because you can get exactly how much you want from the bulk bins and can ask to re-portion some items - for instance, a half-watermelon.
Stock up: House-made chicken and turkey sausage is a great substitute for ground meat (just remove the casing). Get store-roasted turkey or roast beef, rather than additive-laden cold cuts. Get the most bang for your fish buck and ask for a pound of salmon with the tail end removed or the cod loin. Moving away from chemical-laden cans? There are jarred tomato products and even tuna.