The 9 Biggest Mistakes People Make at the Grocery Store, According to Nutritionists

updated Dec 11, 2020
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reusable grocery bags on the floor in the kitchen filled with groceries
Credit: Joe Lingeman

If there’s anyone we’d consider to be expert grocery shoppers, it’s nutritionists. Not only are they pros at picking out better-for-you choices, but they’re used to working with clients with all sorts of budgets, preferences, and lifestyles. So, yeah, they know what they’re doing in a grocery store. That’s why we decided to pick their brains. We wanted to know the biggest mistakes that many of us make — the habits that keep us from making smart choices in terms of the products we pick, the silly ways we overspend, and more. Let’s take a look.

Here are nine mistakes to avoid the next time you set out for your weekly grocery haul.

1. Forgetting to make a list.

Amanda Blechman, RD, CDN, and senior manager of scientific affairs at Danone North America, always makes a list of what she needs for the week before heading to the store. “I check on sales in advance, write a quick and simple outline of our meals and snacks, and take stock of which pantry essentials we are running low on. This helps us limit food waste, because the items I buy have a purpose and a plan, so they’re less likely to be forgotten at the back of my fridge.”

2. Grocery shopping while hungry.

You’ve definitely heard this one before, but that doesn’t make it any less true! Jessica Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, CDCES, recommends going to the grocery store after a meal or snack. Going grocery shopping hungry makes it more difficult to stick to your list, leaving you with a much larger-than-anticipated grocery receipt. 

3. Missing out on savings opportunities.

“If you compare the unit prices of certain items, you can end up saving a lot of money! Don’t overlook store brands or shopping in the bulk section, either. These can often be more cost-effective options,” says Casey Seiden, MS, RD, CDCES.

4. Leaving your reusable bags at home.

Speaking of money-saving ideas, don’t forget to bring along your reusable shopping bag. Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RD, CDN, says, “Most stores now charge for each bag you use and that money can add up over time. Plus, who doesn’t have a ton of reusable bags at home? Might as well put them to use, considering a 2014 study found that reusable bags do have a lower environmental impact than the usual plastic bags, but only if used enough times.”

5. Relying on prepared foods.

We do understand that prepared foods can be immensely helpful or necessary for certain people. That said, “While there is a time and place for a container of chopped onions or a pre-marinated chicken breast, the best value at the grocery store is always going to be the whole ingredients,” says Morgan Bookheimer, MS, RD, SHRM-CP. “You’re paying for a huge markup for labor. You’ll get a fresher and less expensive result if you meal prep at home.”

6. Buying organic all of the time.

Don’t let “health halo” labels confuse you. “Buying organic is beneficial for certain foods (especially the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen fruit and vegetable list). But often when it’s marked on packaged goods (think: crackers, chips, cookies) there’s almost no nutritional difference,” says Nicole Groman, MS, RDN, CDN. Make your choice based on what sounds good to you instead of a health claim on the label.  

7. Avoiding the center aisles.

Has anyone ever told you to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store? Ignore that advice! “There are so many healthy items including beans and whole grains in the center aisles, not to mention all the healthful frozen items including frozen fruit, veggies, and so much more (often for better prices).” says Shapiro.

8. Splurging on ingredients you’ll rarely use.

Ever find a delicious-sounding recipe that calls for an ingredient you’ll only use once?  Instead of religiously sticking to recipe ingredient lists, shop for multi-use ingredients you can mix and match. “One example of a major fridge staple is plain Greek yogurt,” says Blechman. “We use it in our breakfast bowls, smoothies, marinades for chicken and fish, salad dressings, and even as a taco topping instead of sour cream.”

9. Shopping only for “diet” foods.

Fat-free, sugar-free, and low-carb options are everywhere, but you don’t necessarily have to buy them if you’re looking to eat more healthfully. “Full-fat foods definitely can be part of a healthy diet! Plus, they are FILLING and will keep you feeling full longer. Go for the real thing — you may even find that you need less to be satisfied!” says Groman. Of course, if your diet or lifestyle is best served by these items, by all means go ahead and buy them — you know your body and tastes best!

Do you make any of these mistakes?