Grocery Shopping with Cody McLaren

Katie Wisneski, MSU student and intern, talks with Cody McLaren, community nutrition instructor, about grocery shopping, including preparing before you go to the store, how to save money at the store, and reading nutrition facts labels.

September 13, 2020

Neighborhood Nutrition graphic - Title on top of wood background with fresh vegetables and pasta and the MSU Extension logo.

Katie Wisneski: Welcome to Neighborhood Nutrition, a Michigan State University Extension podcast. This first season will focus on food resource management, providing you with tips and tricks for how to make the most of your food dollars. My name is Katie Wisneski and I'm a public health nutrition intern and student at Michigan State University. In today's episode, we are talking to Cody McLaren a community nutrition instructor that covers Chippewa, Luce,  and Mackinac , counties. Hello, Cody. Thank you for joining us.

Cody McLaren: You're very welcome. It's good to be here.

Katie: So our topic today is really about when you're at the store, how should people prepare before going to the grocery story?

Cody: Yes. So there's a couple different ways and things you can do to prepared to head to the grocery store. The biggest one out of the way is don't bring yourself or hungry people to the grocery store. I've made that mistake hundreds of times we all have. But it just helps you from making kind of quick snack decisions. And those can really add up the money, especially when you're trying to shop nutritiously and save a couple bucks. So definitely don't shop hungry, don't bring your hungry kids, don't bring your hungry friends with you. Make sure you're not hungry to start off with. And then a lot of people think that you have to go into great detail and plan out a bunch of meals and grocery lists. But I'd like to just either do one or the other. So if you are a really listy person and you like writing things down, then definitely go ahead and make yourself a good grocery list. Don't forget to take it with you. That's always a great thing that's happened to me before as well as are many of us, I'm sure. I think you can either do... you can do a grocery list or you can do a meal plan. So I actually usually do the meal-plan type of thing. And a lot of people think that meal planning is, it takes a long time and it's really hard to do. And it would be if you planned out every single thing you're going to eat, but the main way I like to do it is just kind of, I like to plan about three meals. So I guess backing up a little bit, I think it's good to shop probably about once a week to save the most money. I know some people like to grocery shop every day or every other day or every few days, which you can certainly do. But I think you'll find that you spend a little bit more money because that's just more of a chance to pick out something extra to snack on or pick out something extra to drink. So I like to stick to it maybe once or twice a week maximum. And then that'll probably save you the most money. And then It'll let you take advantage of the weekly sales and things like that. I like to plan out about three to four meals, and those are usually dinners. I mean, whatever I would say your largest meal of the day is, I just  usually do dinners, but kind of along those lines. So to save even more money, I'm in a family of three right now, so probably like a lot of other families I'm like right on the brink of where you can get like single sizes or family sizes. You're kind of like, well, if you get one pound packages of stuff, it's almost not enough. Then you get the family size or something that's almost too much. So that's a pretty common problem, but usually the more in bulk you buy a little bit better price you get. I usually opt towards the family size type of meals, and with that, I will will make dinner with it. And then to save a couple bucks and to help prepare my shopping trip, I will just have the same thing for lunch the next day.

Katie: Yep. 

Cody: So it's kind of a, I like to call it a cook once, eat twice type of way to do things. So that way you plan one meal, you get a dinner out of it, and then you get your lunch the next day too. And that will save your money from buying extra groceries and save you time from preparing lunches as well.

Katie: Yeah, definitely. And what are some ways to decide what store or stores to shop at?

Cody: Absolutely. So in this particular time, you might not want to bounce around too many stores, but, I would just go with convenience would probably be the number one thing. So if you have a favorite store, but it's an hour and a half away and you don't like going there, but once every month, then maybe that's not the best place to get all your groceries. So if there's somewhere close to you, I will basically find the closest thing to you for the best pricing. So normally, the larger the store or the larger the grocery store franchise, the larger the chain, you're going to get the better prices just from all the distribution channels. But if you really like mom-and-pop shops and you want to support your local community and you want to go as small and local is you want to, that's perfectly fine too. There's ways to save money there. I would just say whatever is the most convenient to you cause you can find deals at any store. Definitely. 

Katie: Yeah. And then once you arrive at the store, where should you start?

Cody: Alright. So luckily, when you walk into a store, you should see the produce first thing. Now if you're in a really big store like a Walmart or a Meijer, depending on one door you come in, that might not be the case, but you should see fresh produce immediately as you walk in the store. And that's a great place to start. Not only are you seeing the fresh produce as you walk in the store, you're also hopefully seeing the in-season produce. So there's a couple of benefits to that. One is you get to see it, touch it, smell it because it's right there in front of your face when you walk in the store. But normally that first bin, you see with it being the in-season fruits and veggies, those are usually gonna be the best priced ones as well. So if you're looking for a bulk deal or just in general, the best price on those, they're going to be right in your face. That's one of the main messages that we try to teach right now is just to eat more fruits and veggies. So luckily, they don't put the dairy right at the front of the store. They usually put the fruits and the veggies, so that is a great place to start.

Katie: Awesome. So you kind of touched on this, but when looking at a product where there's different size options in terms of price, what are some things to consider?

Cody: Absolutely, as we all know, normally in bulk, the more of something you get, usually the better unit price you get, and that usually holds true. There's a couple exceptions, I know actually the big stores now, if you look very closely on the price tag, a lot of them will include the unit price. Which is, you know, just getting it down to the smallest unit of measure and figuring out what that costs cents wise. So say you're comparing eight ounces to a pound, you want to break down both of those into how many cents per ounce. And normally when you buy more food, the price per ounce goes down. But to make sure just watch your sales and then I know a lot of times some of it like "two-for" deals and "three-for" deals of the very small packages can actually sometimes still end up being more expensive than just a little bit larger package. So look for that. Basically just similarly packaged foods, just think about what you're going to need. Kind of going back to meal planning and picking out your shopping list or your meal plan. Yeah, if you can get five pounds, a chicken breast for $15, that's fantastic. But if you're only going to eat two before they go bad or before you have to freeze them. Maybe you want a little bit smaller package. So think about you, think about your needs, think about your family's needs, and really try to hone in on how much you're going to need. Now, if you're like me and you want to save a little bit extra for the next day, right, I'd probably opt for the larger size. Would that give me a better unit price? Probably, but not always. So just think about how you're going to use it. A couple more things with similarly packaged items. Look for, make sure you bring it down to  price per ounce cuz I know a lot of things such as like bag lettuce or bagged salads. You might see a bag that's twice the size as another bag, and it will be twice the price as the other bag. But they may not actually be twice as much you know, vegetables or leaves in there. So make sure you're not paying extra for air in a bag. And that probably goes for chips as well, even though they're not quite as healthy as a spinach or a salad, but that goes for chips and snack foods as well. Make sure you're not paying extra for air in that bag.

Katie: Yeah, it's definitely important. Even if you're going to be getting a better deal by buying in bulk. If you're not going to use it or freeze it, then it's just  wasting money anyway.

Cody: Yeah, one of my best examples that I give people. of that is I was actually standing in line, at Meijer one time, and this son came up to his dad, and he said, "Dad, if we get ten of these, we get the 11th one for free!" And then his dad looked and said, "Well, yeah, but we still have to buy ten of them." And it hit them right there. So yeah, it doesn't matter how good the deal is if you're not actually going to utilize that food than I, I wouldn't go for it. No one likes to waste food because that's, you know, that's wasted money right out the get.

Katie: So if something's on sale and it's a really good deal, but the item is sold out, what can someone do, are they just out of luck? Or?

Cody: Yeah, that's a good question and I've run into that problem a lot of times. So being a  nutrition teacher, I need to buy healthy food in bulk, which sometimes especially if we have, literally geographic areas that don't have the greatest distribution channels, that can be a problem. Certainly the more sooner to the release date of that deal you're going to find the best luck, right? So if there's a killer deal on chicken, and you go there four days later. You may not find what you're looking for are there may be, just what's left of that batch. So try to focus in on when the dates of those sales are, try to get them on the short end of it, make sure you get in right towards the beginning. And then it never hurts to ask. So especially in delis is when you're dealing with protein foods or even frozen foods. It doesn't hurt to ask the tellers. So I've multiple times I've been to the deli I was looking for like some salmon fillets and the display, you know, didn't have any out and this was pretty early in the day as well. So I kind of thought I might be out of luck, but I asked him in the back and they just had some that were still partially frozen that they weren't quite able to put out on that and deli counter and they hooked me up with whatever I needed. So it never hurts to ask. You can go for alternatives too so say, you know, you were going for chicken and they were sold out of chicken. Well then maybe try, I know it works for like especially ground meats too. So if you're looking for ground chicken try ground turkey. If you're looking for a specialty ground beef, maybe settle for a different blend or different grind of the two and try to get as close as you can, but that can be very tricky for sure.

Katie: In terms of nutrition, can you go over a few things to look out for on an item, like the label, the nutrition label?

Cody: Absolutely. I actually just did a lesson on this one, so this is pretty fresh in my head and you nailed it right where it was supposed to be Katie, look at that nutrition label so that little tiny box that the USDA makes them put on all of our food. That's where we got to go to find the facts. So unfortunately, everywhere else on a food label is all marketing and that's all just to get you to buy it, which they do a very, very good job of. You know, it's a very competitive market. So that's a pretty important thing. What I like to say that they do is they will always highlight all the great things about their food, and they'll leave out the bad things about their food. So it's our job to go to the nutrition facts and that way we can see all the good stuff and we can see all the bad stuff. And then of course, you know right after nutrition facts is always the ingredients list. And that, they must list every single thing that, that food contains. So it's a great place to go for healthy items, items that are bad for you, allergies and everything else, but specific to the nutrition facts label, serving size is always a great place to start. In general, serving sizes are always smaller than what we usually eat. Serving sizes are around a 100 calories is kinda how they figure them in there. So a lot of times, you know, the food we eat now a days, is very rich and it's very nutritious. So a lot, we're getting usually over a 100 calories per time. So check out that serving size. A good rule of thumb is the smaller the serving size, either the more calories it contains or maybe the more unhealthy it is for you. So try and check out that serving size and just realize what you're getting. So I know some small snack size packages you would think were meant to eat at a single sitting or at a single time and you look on there and you're like, whoa, there's two or three servings in this tiny little bar, this tiny little drink or whatever it might be. And that's a good indication that you might not want to eat all that at one time, or it's really going to stack up on the calories. Now, I mean, if it's something good for you, then that's besides the point, but check that serving size. Make sure it's not really, really small and a little bit deceiving, and start there. And then the middle of that nutrition facts label is always our macronutrients. So it's the breakdown of fats, proteins, and carbs. The fats, make sure we're sticking to healthy fat. So we want our majority of fat to come from unsaturated sources, which will keep our cholesterol down. Those are our healthiest fats. They will actually lower our bad cholesterol. So that's a great thing. For carbohydrates, so this is a big one, with our new food labels that we finally got. They list added sugars. So everyone's always in an argument, you know, carbs are good, are carbs bad, are they good? Well, they're good and they're bad. It just depends on which ones you get. We list our total carbohydrates, which may be high, may be low. That's really neither beside the point. We just want our total sugars and especially our added sugars to be as different as the total carbs as possible. So if I were to pick up a label, and it said 25-30 grams of carbs, you know is that a lot of carbs? Yeah, it's getting up there, but if it only said two grams added sugars, that means all of those grams of carbohydrates are coming from healthy natural sources. So whole grains or fruits or veggies, and that would be, that would be perfectly fine. That would be a good thing now if we picked it up and it said 30 grams of carbs and 30 grams of added sugars. Then we know that literally almost all of the energy coming from that food is straight from added sugars. So that's an important thing.

Katie: Yeah, I think it's really important to look at the nutrition label. I don't think enough people are looking at the nutrition label but it's really important for your health. And with the serving sizes, a lot of things are two servings and you don't even realize it because it's one package, one drink, so it's definitely important to look out for that. So I've heard this a lot that people believe you have to have meat at every meal to feel full. What do you think about this?

Cody: There's three things that will help to keep us full or keep us satiated. So meat and protein is one of them. But it also happens to be one of the more expensive ways to keep us full. So healthy fats, protein, and fiber keep us full. Meat at every meal would certainly fulfill one of those things, but it's going to get a little bit pricey because protein is usually our most expensive thing that we buy at the store. So don't forget about healthy fats. So meat does contain somewhat healthy somewhat unhealthy fats, but that's still, you know, expensive. So make sure you're utilizing plant fats, peanut butters, nut butters, and then of course, beans, seeds and nuts are a really great source too. So you know, beans always gets maybe a bad rap, I don't know, I like beans, but if we think about it, a pound of rib-eye steak is, you know, maybe 15 to $20. Where a pound of black beans is like 90 cents. Same amount protein, same thing, it will still fill you up, but one is astronomically more expensive than the other ones. Go with plant sources of protein or healthy fats. And then of course, fiber will also keep us fuller much longer, which we can find in fruits, veggies,  and whole grain. Some things will give us all three of those. So like a peanut butter, right? We're getting healthy fats, we're getting a little bit of fiber and a little bit of protein. So that's why some of those things worked really, really well to keep us full for a long time. That's a great question.

Katie: Are fatty foods always bad? Like can you explain a little bit on how to know if a fat is healthy or unhealthy?

Cody: Absolutely. So we touched on this a little bit. So there's, three different types of fats. We got saturated, unsaturated, and then trans and hydrogenated. Saturated fats are usually animal sources and saturated fats will raise our cholesterol a little bit. And that's not ideal. So we kind of call them middle of the road fats. Those are user are animal fats, right, like our bacon and our real butter. And then we have unsaturated fats, which normally come from plants. There's a few animals such as fish that's unsaturated, and that will actually lower your cholesterol. So either of those two are fine. The unsaturated one maybe a little bit more because we should get a healthy balance with those two. One should maybe raise a little bit and then lower it. But a lot of times where people get in trouble are those trans and  hydrogenated fats that we find in a lot of processed foods. So those are kinda like man-made fats. So those are made to extend the shelf life of most foods. And, you know, unfortunately, so it actually also makes it into a terrible fat for our bodies and it really raises our cholesterol. Try to stay away from those if you can. And then the saturated fats don't go too much on them. It's kind of like a go, slow, and whoa type of thing. Eat as many unsaturated fats as you want, those are good for you, that will really fill you up. Chances are they might even have a little fiber in them as well. And then, you know, little bit of saturated fats have some bacon and butter here and there. And then try to stay away from the trans and hydrogenated fats. And a good way to find any of those things is that nutrition facts and that ingredients list.

Katie: So when someone's buying grains like bread and rice, what are some important things to look for to keep those healthy?

Cody: Absolutely. So there's a couple ways to do it. You can check that nutrition facts label. If we're looking at that nutrition facts label and under the total carbohydrates, if it says anything over two to three grams of fiber, you can bet on that being a really good grain. So once things are whole grain, we automatically get fiber and more vitamins and minerals. But probably the easiest way is just check that ingredients list and you want it to say whole grain, something. So that can be whole grain, oats, whole grain wheat, whole grain, it doesn't matter. There's so many grains nowadays it's crazy, but make sure it says whole grain something. And if you see whole grain then you know it's good for you.

Katie: And can you touch on why it's important to have whole grains and fiber?

Cody: Absolutely. So if we think about good carbs, we got fruits, veggies, and whole grains, which are the best ones we can get. Those also contain a lot of fiber. So what happens is carbohydrates are really small molecules and that's the best part about them. They absorb very easily and we can use them for energy very easily. The problem is, simple carbs or carbs that come from things other than fruits, veggies, and whole grains. They don't contain any fiber, which actually makes them too simple. So when we eat them, we ingest them. They actually hit our bodies and absorb really, really, really fast. What seems like a good thing. And it is for about five minutes, right? We've all felt that kind of sugar buzzy, sugar drop type of thing. So unfortunately they go as fast as they onset and you'll be left with no energy, headaches, all the other symptoms we hear about people eating too many carbs. Basically we need to eat them and absorb them the way they were naturally made to. So when we eat the added sugars and we eat refined carbohydrates, those sugars and those starches are going to absorb way too fast. And that's really not good for us, either short-term or long-term. So the fiber will slow that down and make us absorb it as it was supposed to.

Katie: Cool. Do you have any other tips or advice for grocery shopping?

Cody: Yup. A lot of people I feel like when we're given the smart shopping, kinda talk to them, they feel like it's going to take a lot of work. People think they gotta go to the grocery store and they're going to be in there for hours reading labels and trying to pick these things apart. And a couple good tricks and tips that I use anyway, is try to shop around the outside of the grocery store first. So if you think about it we already said the first thing we usually see is fruits and veggies. So we need fruits and veggies right out of the way we're getting our fruits and veggies. And then of course, the very back of the store is always our fresh dairy, right? So everyone buys milk and eggs and they go to the grocery store, which is why they put that all the way in the back because people have to walk all the way there to get them. So we have, you know, that's three out of the five food groups already that we've already covered. And then bread is usually maybe on an outside wall or the bakery, but we can kind of use that to represent whole grains. And then all we're left with this protein. So that's, that's our meat counter, and our meats. So spend the majority of your money on whole foods around the outside of the store, right? The things that are usually more healthy for us, tend to go bad quicker unfortunately. So they need to be frozen and refrigerated, so make our way around the outside first. And then we can get into the middle where we might have some snack foods and other things. You don't want to stay out of the middle completely because there are some really good things in there. We got our baking supplies, canned goods, and things like that. A couple other points I want to make is, the three most expensive things that we usually buy are fruits, veggies and protein. So I made this mistake before on fruits and veggies. So I would go kind of crazy when I got to the fresh fruits and veggie isle because, you know, they were overwhelming. They look so good. We buy a bunch of them and then I was finding that a week or so later, I have a bunch leftover in the bottom my refrigerator. So, you know, that's just like wasted money sitting in there. So that's not always a good thing. Now what I do is there's three ways to get fruits and veggies. We can get them fresh, we can get them frozen and we can get them canned. In a perfect world, we were all just buy all the fresh fruits and veggies that we needed. But don't forget about canned and frozen fruits and veggies because they're a lot cheaper and they last much longer than fresh stuff. So use all three varieties of fruits and veggies that will save you a ton of money, whether it's at the store right then or a week later when you have some things that weren't so cheap, gone bad in your refrigerator drawer. And then I like to say just with protein be adaptable. Normally most stores will rotate sales with protein. So one week or every two weeks there'll be a sale on poultry or there'll be pork or beef.  And in those cases there, you know, I really had tacos on my dinner list  and I get to the store and ground beef isn't on sale, but say chicken breasts are. Well, it looks like I'm making fajitas now, right? It's all the same ingredients. It's just a different protein. So be adaptable, right? If you get to the store and the meat you were looking for you're hoping was on sale isn't, just use the other one because most recipes with just a little flip of a switch and maybe a couple spices are gonna turn out just the same and be just as tasty as well. So have a good variety of protein and be adaptable in that. And then make sure you utilize all sources and that goes for protein too. So never be afraid to buy canned chicken. It may look weird. It may be canned, but it's a lot cheaper and lasts a long time.

Katie: Mhm. Definitely buying frozen and canned stuff takes some of the pressure off because then you don't have to worry about it going bad. That stresses me out. 

Cody: Absolutely.

Katie: If I buy a bunch of fresh stuff and I'm trying to eat at all at the last minute, but it still has the same nutrition content. 

Cody: That's right. That's a common misconception that they think it's an inferior food, nutrition wise, and it's really not, there's, there should be no nutrition loss. Actually, there's nutrition gain because they usually add sugar and they usually add sodium. So be sure to rinse off those canned fruits and veggies and that way you can,  you don't have to worry about that salt and that sugar.

Katie: Yeah. Where can people go to find more resources about the things we talked about today, meal planning, grocery shopping, and recipes?

Cody: Absolutely. So if you want any information on smart shopping or anything related to nutrition and smart shopping and saving money visit your MSU Extension online. And if you really feel like finding someone in person, shoot out to your local MSU county office because we're located all over the state.

Katie: Awesome, and what is the main thing that you want people to take away from our discussion?

Cody: The main takeaway is just empower yourself. Yeah, I do buy junk food every now and then, but I, I know what I'm doing. So, you know, take a look at those labels. Just take a look at the ingredients lists and realize what you're getting and whether you make a change today or tomorrow, just know that you have the option to and you know what to look for. And don't be afraid to try new things.

Katie: Great. Well, thank you so much for all your great advice and expertise. We're glad to have you on the podcast.

Cody: You're very welcome, Katie.

Katie: Thank you for joining us for this episode of neighborhood nutrition. We hope you tune in for our next episode. Funding for this podcast comes from the US Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the expanded food and nutrition education program, also known as EFNEP, and is from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Music used on this podcast is Champ de Tournesol  by Komiku and was accessed from MSU is an affirmative action equal opportunity employer committed to achieving excellence through a diverse workforce and inclusive culture that encourages all people to reach their full potential. Michigan State University Extension programs and the materials are open to all without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, age, height, weight, disability, political belief, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or veteran status. Issued in furtherance of MSU Extension work acts of May 8th and June 30th, 1914 in cooperation with the US Department of Agriculture, Jeffrey W Dwyer, director of MSU Extension, East Lansing, Michigan 48824 this information is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by MSU Extension or biased against those not mentioned.

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