How to shop for healthy groceries
Paul Finkelstein has seen hundreds of students come through his culinary arts program at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in Stratford, Ont. Many more students have eaten in his healthy alternative Screaming Avocado café (insider tip: Justin Bieber was a regular).
“I always hope they learn healthy tips,” says Fink. “Cooking from scratch every day gives them tools to change how they eat.”
But what about grocery shopping? “Most kids at high-school age have no idea of how to shop for healthy food,” Fink says. So he recently decided to take a group from his culinary club on a shopping excursion. I joined him that sunny morning with his group consisting of four teens, age 15 to 18.
“These kids are pretty savvy and health conscious compared with kids in the school who aren’t taking the culinary arts class,” says Fink, as we walk into the store. Even so, as I would observe that day, though they thought they and their families were eating and shopping relatively healthfully, they soon realized they were wrong.
Stephanie Roth, 17, related after the trip was over, “I was shocked when I looked at the ingredients in some of the things I buy. I needed whipped cream and reached for the canned stuff. The first and second ingredients on the label were water and sugar! I’d rather whip real cream myself.”
Navigating the grocery store
Standing at the entrance, Fink asks what products the kids see. Their answer: pop, cookies, chips. “Walk past everything at the front,” Fink advises. “These are called ‘loss leaders,’ which is stuff that’s on sale in the flyer to bring customers in. Most of it is void of any nutrients.”
You find healthier stuff at the periphery of the store, explains Fink. But he begins by pushing the cart toward the inner aisles. “You want to start with canned-food staples, which weigh more, so that your produce sits on top of them rather than the other way around. And you want to save dairy, meats and frozen foods until last, since they need to stay cold.”
There are pantry staples that should be in everyone’s kitchen, “things like canned tomatoes, whole-grain pastas, brown rice, and legumes such as chickpeas or lentils,” Fink tells them. “Your kitchen should be stocked with healthy, non-perishable items you can use for quick meals. Buy low-sodium varieties of canned products and rinse them before you cook with them.”
Saskatoon registered dietitian Noelle Tourney agrees: “There’s great stuff in the inner aisles. Brown or wild rice; quinoa; barley; high-fibre cereals; nuts; low-sodium canned tuna, salmon and vegetables. And go for 100 percent whole-wheat pasta: It hasn’t been stripped of the bran and germ, and contains more vitamins, minerals and fibre.”
What to look for on the food labels
“Everyone should be label savvy,” Fink explains to the kids as they stand in the peanut-butter aisle picking up products and inspecting them. “I look for foods with no more than five ingredients.”
Many kids like peanut butter, and these students are no different. But Tayler Trachsel, 15, and Roth are surprised to learn the one their parents buy has lots of salt and sugar added. “Those are two things kids love, and that keep them coming back for more,” Fink tells them. Both agree they are switching to natural peanut butter.
When looking at nutritional information on the package, do it with a discerning eye, Tourney advises: “There are things we want lots of, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. And we need to limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugar.” Look at the Daily Value percentage (%DV) on the label, which can help you figure out and compare the nutrient profile of various foods. A %DV less than five is considered “a little” of that nutrient, and a %DV over 15 is considered “a lot.”
As far as salt and sugar are concerned, “sodium goes hand in hand with convenience-frozen dinners, canned and dried soups, and deli meats,” says Tourney. Salt is added for taste, and as a preservative.
Sugar is a bit trickier, because labels don’t differentiate between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar, she says. “Added sugar comes in many different forms: glucose, glucose-fructose, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, golden syrup, malt syrup, honey, molasses, barley malt, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice extract-and there are even more.”
Fink had his own teaching moment regarding added sugar: “There’s cane syrup in this chicken stock!” he exclaims to the kids in disbelief as he reads the package label. “Why?!”
Trachsel, an avid hockey player, offers a suggestion: “Make your own,” he says, with a shrug and a grin. Clearly, a few things have sunk in.