Smart nutrition starts with smart choices in the grocery store. You have the power to decide which foods to buy. You have probably heard that you should “shop the perimeter of the store.” What does that really mean? It means you should shop there first because that is where the fresh foods are found. Think of filling your shopping cart the same way you should fill your dinner plate: mostly fruits and vegetables, with a side of protein. Start at the produce section. It is usually in the front of the store and it has the most nutritious foods in the entire grocery store. Think “variety,” and shop by color – if you select at least one fruit or vegetable from every color in the spectrum, you will cover most of the nutrients you need. Instead of white potatoes, choose sweet potatoes, which are richer in beta-carotene, or spinach instead of iceberg lettuce to increase your B vitamin intake. You should fill your cart with fruits and vegetables first.

Next stops – the protein section, followed by the dairy section. Be sure to choose lean cuts of meat and include some fish in your choices. Dairy foods an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. There are plenty of good choices as long as you watch your portion sizes.

The center aisles are where packaged and convenience foods are found, so shop carefully. When buying canned and dried foods, choose those without added salt. Read labels and avoid foods that list more than five ingredients, artificial ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce. Look for items with fiber, vitamins, low saturated fat and no trans fat. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a convenient and economical way to fill the produce gap (especially in the winter) but be wary of those with extra sauces. Also, try to avoid prepared frozen meals. They are usually neither economical nor good for you. Again, read those labels!

Planning ahead is always a good idea. Create a shopping list based on the meals you are planning for this week. It adds a few minutes before you get out the door, but saves time at the store, and sticking to your list helps you avoid impulse purchases. Whatever you do, do not go to the grocery store when you are hungry— you’re more likely to rationalize less healthy choices just because they are quick answers to the “what’s for dinner” question or sugary or salty snacks to tame the hunger dragon in the car on the way home! To help avoid the “dinner in a hurry” crunch, consider cooking a double batch of chili or stew and freezing some of it to pull out on a chaotic day.

Promotional displays at the ends of aisles are meant to catch your eye—and your wallet—and are likely to be highly processed, packaged foods with little nutrition. Easier said than done, right? A few suggestions to avoid adding those poor choices to your cart: set a time limit for yourself so you won’t have time to browse, pay attention to how much you buy from the perimeter of the store versus the inner aisles, and remind yourself of the benefits of fresh foods. And don’t lose control just before you leave the store: checkout lanes are packed with impulse items for a reason! Pick up a magazine to distract yourself, or use the self-checkout station.

Follow these tips and you’ll leave the store with whole foods that will taste good and make you feel great!