So…you’ve decided to go Paleo. You’ve read through the list of what foods are and aren’t allowed, and then read it again, just to make sure you’ve got it. And now you’re ready to head out to the store for your very first Paleo grocery trip. Here’s what to expect and how to manage some common stumbling blocks:
Before you Go
A successful grocery trip starts before you set foot in the store. Here’s what to do:
- Make a shopping list. Here’s a guide to doing this. A good shopping list will save you money and time in the end. Even if you can usually sweep through the store without a list in sight, making such a radical diet change has a way of throwing off your game.
- Set aside plenty of time to get through the store without rushing. This will probably be the most time-consuming grocery trip of your Paleo career, so give yourself lots of leeway.
- Eat before you go. Never grocery-shop hungry! And bring a water bottle.
Navigating the Grocery Store
You’ll spend most of your time around the outer edges of the store – some good stuff lurks in the middle aisles, but it’s rare. The majority of your time (and budget) should be spent on fresh produce, raw meat, and eggs, all of which you’ll find around the perimeter. Your cart should look like you bought up the entire produce section – that’s a sign that you’re doing it right! Remember that you’ll need 21 servings of produce (3 meals per day x 7 days per week) for each person; that’s a whole lot of green stuff!
On the other hand, you’ll need to venture into the middle aisles for staples like spices, coconut milk, vinegar, canned fish, cooking oils, and frozen vegetables, so don’t be afraid to go there. It’s not all bad! Just make sure you read labels very carefully. Which brings us to…
Managing Label Shock
Once you start looking, you will not believe the amount of junk added to products for apparently no reason at all. Why does every salad dressing have to have sugar, fake sugar, junk oils, or all three? Since when did trail mix become such a dumping ground for the candy with a side of raisins?
Every single time you pick up something that has an ingredients label on it, read the label out loud. Not the stickers on the front of the package. Not the shiny advertising displays. The boring, black-and-white, small-font ingredients label. And read it out loud so you can make sure you aren’t skipping over anything. Be on special alert for:
- Sugar in any form. Organic sugar is still sugar. “Cane juice” is sugar. Honey is basically sugar. Agave nectar is even worse than regular sugar. Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it any healthier.
- Soy (this will be conveniently bolded on the label because it’s a common allergen). Especially watch out for canned fish; any kind of “vegetable broth” often includes soy.
- Deceptive front-of-package claims. This includes “high in protein,” “low-calorie,” “all-natural,” “gluten-free,” and any kind of picture. All that stuff is advertising; it’s designed to get you spending money, not to help you make good decisions. Don’t rely on it as a measure of how healthy a food is. Ignore it and look at the ingredients label.
Managing (and Avoiding!) Sticker Shock
It’s also very common for Paleo newbies to get to the register and face the unpleasant fact that their grocery bill has officially tripled. But this is actually completely avoidable – you don’t have to spend a huge amount of money on Paleo food! Here are some common beginner traps to avoid:
- Buying tons of nuts. They’re very expensive and not the best thing you could be eating anyway.
- Buying tons of beef jerky, pre-marinated meat, pre-cooked meat, or other convenience protein. It’s much cheaper and not very time-consuming to cook your own!
- Buying a lot of prepackaged snack foods like kale chips, dehydrated fruit, Larabars, or other technically-Paleo processed foods. There’s nothing wrong with this stuff from a health perspective, but those $5 packages add up fast without contributing much to your main meals.
- Buying fruit out of season. Fresh fruit is great, but strawberries are expensive in December! Don’t blow your whole budget on luxuries like out-of-season produce; go for the basics and then come back to the treats later if you still have room left.
Also bear in mind that your first grocery trip may be the most expensive one you ever make, because you have to buy a bunch of staples all at once. A jar of coconut oil may be expensive now, but it’ll last you the month. The same goes for spices, bulk nuts, and other pantry staples. If you’re tight on money this month, try going for only one or two things that you’ll need right away and slowly accumulating a collection of Paleo staples, instead of trying to buy everything all at once.
What if I Mess Something Up?
Accidentally brought home a big brick of tofu? Stocked up on peanut butter and canola oil without really thinking? Missed some sugar, soy, or wheat on a label somewhere? If the food has a long shelf life, you can just save it for the inevitable moment when you have non-Paleo guests. Otherwise, just decide whether you want to donate it to a food pantry, give it to someone else, eat it yourself, or throw it out.
It’s perfectly normal to make mistakes at first; that’s how you learn. If you had to be 100% perfect right off the bat to go Paleo, none of us would make it past Day 2. Just learn from it and move on.
Sample Shopping List (1 person)
Just to give you a rough idea of some things you could buy with approximate quantities, here’s a sample shopping list for a single person for 1 week:
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 can salmon
- 1 whole chicken
- 2 pounds chuck roast
- 1 dozen eggs
- 1 eggplant1 bunch Swiss chard1 bag spinach
- 1 head Romaine lettuce
- 2 green peppers
- 1 red pepper
- 2 cucumbers
- 1 head garlic
- 1 red onion
- 1 head cabbage
- 1 bunch beets, with tops
- 1 pound carrots
- 1 bag onions
- 3 large sweet potatoes
- 2 large white potatoes
- 4 apples
- 2 bananas
- 2 avocados
- 1 jar coconut oil
- Spices: cinnamon, basil, oregano, thyme, paprika, chili powder, cumin
- 1 can coconut milk
- Balsamic vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
That’s just a suggestion; your own list may be completely different. But it does give you an idea of what you could buy, and in approximately what quantities.
After a certain point, the only way to learn is to do – just head out to the store and see how it goes. Do your best to stay mostly around the outer edge of the store, scour all the labels for non-Paleo ingredients, and avoid money-sucks, but remember that messing up a time or five is all part of the process. Eventually, you’ll be a grizzled Paleo veteran sweeping through the store with ease; for right now, the important thing is just to start.