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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Operation Grocery Store: Securing the Perimeter

The Svelte Gourmet was invited to guest blog about shopping for healthy items to cook. Check out my post and other great eco-friendly items at EcoBold.com!

Internal monologue: “I just need milk and salad veggies. This shouldn’t take long….Oh, but look at that beautiful wheel of Brie! And I didn’t know they made those crackers with whole grains now. Wow, this discovery could change my life forever!”

Grocery stores are dangerous for me. The barrage of beautiful food and interesting or unknown ingredients sends me into an uncontrollable frenzy. It’s like shoe shopping. You go for a basic pair of black flats. But really, you can’t pass up those red polka-dotted peep toe pumps. Who could blame you? (Guys, if you’re like my husband, your equivalent to this is going in for a new hammer and coming out with a double-bevel sliding compound miter saw. True story.)

It used to get me every time. I would pick up the “peep toe pump” equivalent of an exciting culinary find – a new brand of goat cheese, lamb chops on sale, or the new super-food that’s going to cure life’s every ailment. But I only went for salad veggies, and now I needed all the accoutrements to go with the special item. I mean, after all, you simply must have the perfect little black dress to make those peep-toes pop.

By the time I get through the checkout, I’m both exasperated and exhilarated. And spent – literally (can you believe the price of groceries today?!). If only I inherited my mom’s couponing gene.

But besides buying more than I came in for, I end up with a cart full of diet saboteurs. With the cleverly worded nutrition stats and in-your-face marketing – gorgeous photography right there at eye-level – it’s easy to forget that the ingredient list is full of things we can’t even pronounce.
I have a strategy for Operation Grocery Store. You have to secure the perimeter.

I’m guessing many of you have never given much thought to the layout of a grocery store. But think about it now. You enter the store, and walking counter-clockwise, you go through the fresh produce section, the deli, the meat and seafood department, the dairy case, frozen foods, and health and beauty (no need for our hygiene to suffer!). Each of these sections contains the ingredients for wholesome, tasty meals. Focusing on fresh, whole ingredients versus processed meals and “convenience foods” is crucial to a successful mission. With few exceptions (we’ll get to those in a moment), everything you need to cook delicious, healthful meals is around the perimeter.

So what about the rest of the store? Let’s go through it. But be warned! To venture into this enemy territory, you need two things: strong resolve and a shopping list.

To get to the olives and vinegars, you must walk past the prepared salad dressings. Be strong! You can do this! Enter the cereal aisle for steel-cut oats, but avoid the cocoa loops. They may tempt you with their “made with whole grains” claim, but it’s not the same as 100% whole grain! Canned tomatoes may in fact be better for you than raw – the cooking process breaks down the cell walls, releasing the lycopene. However, don’t touch the other sodium-laden canned veggies or soups right next to those tomatoes!

The brown rice and basmati is right there next to the white rice. Same with the whole wheat flour (and did you know that “white whole wheat” flour is made from albino wheat? It really is whole grain! Rejoice!). The occasional pasta meal is nice, especially with the addition of whole wheat varieties. But I’ve discovered something else – spaghetti squash. Have you had it? You simply bake or microwave the squash, then scrape the inside with a fork and it comes out in strands like angel hair pasta. Just like that, straight from the produce section! It’s delicious, low in carbs and calories, and perfect with any sauce you would have with pasta – without a doubt, the single best discovery I’ve made this year.

Moving on. I still wonder why the dried herbs and spices are always in the baking aisle. It’s the ultimate torture! Grab the spices, then quickly fall back! Head for the snack aisle for the unsalted nuts and popcorn to air-pop, but avoid anything that’s day-glow orange. “Cheeze” and “cheese” are not the same thing! Then, as you venture through the aisle of plastic wrap and dog food, take a minute to catch your breath. The worst of the battle is yet to come! For while frozen veggies are often more healthful than fresh (they’re frozen the day of picking, versus trucked to your stores if not local), the freezer section is also loaded with traps ready to derail your mission -- TV dinners, frozen pies, and virtually every kind of prepared meal just waiting for you to “thaw, heat and serve.” If you can get through this, you can get through anything!

Give “perimeter” shopping a try. You’ll realize that buying wholesome ingredients will make for better meals than the processed foods. Once you have a decent stock of pantry staples, you can avoid those center aisles, making the temptations even less. Give Operation Grocery Store a try and reap the benefits of healthful eating from the perimeter. And by the way, I really do think spaghetti squash has changed my life forever. That, and the red polka-dotted peep toe pumps.

A month’s-worth of tasty dinners made from the perimeter are available in The Svelte Gourmet: A Month of Main Courses cookbook (www.thesveltegourmet.com/products). Enjoy!
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