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Secrets to Healthy Grocery Shopping

A celebrated chef shares her experience in choosing healthier food choices at Jaya Grocer

While it might not be possible to have a nutritionist on hand at every trip to the market, additional information and knowledgeable staff could help shoppers make more healthful decisions. The typical Malaysian consumer hits the grocery store at least twice a week. Why, then, does it feel like we never have anything healthy to eat at home? I reckon, good nutrition starts with smart choices in the grocery store. Cooking up healthy meals is a challenge if you don’t have the right ingredients in your kitchen.

Let me just be outright honest with you, who has time to read all the food labels and figure out which items are the most nutritious and the best buys? Grocery shopping can be a daunting task, simply because there are so many choices.

So, how do you make healthy choices at the grocery store?

Here’s the thing, healthy shopping begins with a healthy cart. Meaning, what you put in your cart is what makes your health. But with a little guidance, healthy choices are a cinch to find in any supermarket. One weekday morning I decided to pay a visit to Jaya Grocer at Empire Shopping Gallery for a little experiment. I am pleased to say that after spending years roaming in glistening supermarkets and sometimes going back and forth from one supermarket to another, I actually found ‘the one’. Colourful displays of fresh produce, wide range of quality produce, seasonal food products from as far as Europe and Australia, a wide range of organic, both local and imported, as well as gluten-free food for the health conscious consumers were there. But what seduced me the most was the demo kitchen (for cooking classes) and the five eateries available within the supermarket. Now that’s a supermarket alright!

Mr. Daniel Teng from the Grocery Department volunteered to assist me in my experiment. Rule number one, never shop with an empty belly…. So, Daniel and I sat down for a scrumptious breakfast at Fresco.

We’ve all heard the advice: Avoid the center aisles where processed food abounds and stick to the produce, meat and dairy sections around the perimeter of your grocery store. The process starts even before you head to the grocery store, says Daniel. So, both Daniel and I decided to plan healthy eating meals for the week, and we create a list to shop from. It took a few minutes, but saves time in running back to the store for missing ingredients and to stick to the healthy eating plan.

We offer this checklist for making healthier food choices in every department of your favourite supermarket:

To save money

Use coupons, check the weekly grocery ads, and incorporate sale foods into your meal planning.

Don’t shop hungry

An empty belly often results in impulse purchases that may not be the healthiest.

Organic vs Non

It’s pretty safe to say that if it were a financially viable possibility, almost everyone would choose to eat organic food. Am I right? Thought so… For some of us, stocking our fridge and pantries with organics is already a top priority; while others find it difficult to justify the extra spend. “We recommend that people eat healthy by eating more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic,” says Daniel.

Shop at your favourite store/market

Have one or two places that you like to shop, where the ingredients are fresh, convenient and you must get yourself very familiar so you know where is where. Hence, your next visit will be quick and hassle free.

Know your grocers

This is very useful when you shop for ingredients in the wet market. Have a friendly chat. Chances are if you drop by often enough you would get regular discounts, the best cuts, the best ingredients and sometimes could get them to pack the things you need before you even get there, this is what we call a personalised service.


Spend the most time in the produce section, the first area you encounter in most grocery stores (and usually the largest). Choose a rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables. The colours reflect the different vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient content of each fruit or vegetable.

Shop the perimeter of the grocery store

This is where fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and fish are usually located. Avoid the centre aisles where junk foods lurk. Choose “real” foods, such as 100% fruit juice or 100% whole-grain items with as little processing and as few additives as possible. If you want more salt or sugar, add it yourself. Stay clear of foods with cartoons on the label that are targeted to children. If you don’t want your kids eating junk foods, don’t have them in the house. Avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients, artificial ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Breads, Cereals, and Pasta

Choose the least processed foods that are made from whole grains. For example, regular oatmeal is preferable to instant oatmeal. But even instant oatmeal is a whole grain, and a good choice. When choosing whole-grain cereals, aim for at least 4 grams of fibre per serving, and the less sugar, the better. Keep in mind that 1 level teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams and let this guide your selections. One important note, cereals – even those with added sugar – make great vehicles for milk, yogurt, and/or fruit. Avoid granolas, even the low-fat variety; they tend to have more fat and sugar than other cereals.

Eat less processed food

Minimise your intake of salt, sugar and partially hydrogenated fat to benefit your health and that of the local landfills. You’ll know you’re eating greener when your garbage can is no longer overflowing with excess packaging.

Canned and dried foods

Whenever possible, choose vegetables without added salt, and fruit packed in juice. Tuna packed in water, low-fat soups, nut butters, olive and canola oils should be in every healthy pantry. Keep a variety of canned vegetables, fruits, and beans on hand to toss into soups, salads, pasta, or rice dishes.

Bread, Pasta, Rice and Grains

Offer more opportunities to work whole grains into your diet. Choose whole-wheat bread and pastas, brown rice, grain mixes, quinoa, bulgur, and barley. To help your family get used to whole grains, you can start out with whole-wheat blends and slowly transition to 100% whole-wheat pasta and breads.

Meat, Fish, and Poultry

The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fish a week. Salmon is a good option and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Be sure to choose lean cuts of meat (like round, top sirloin, and tenderloin), opt for skinless poultry, and watch your portion sizes.


Dairy foods are an excellent source of bone-building calcium and vitamin D. There are plenty of low-fat and non-fat options to help you get three servings a day, including drinkable and single-serve tube yogurts, and pre-portioned cheeses. If you enjoy higher-fat cheeses, no problem — just keep your portions small.

Frozen Foods

Frozen fruits and vegetables (without sauce) are a convenient way to help fill in the produce gap, especially during busy days. Some frozen favourites include whole-grain waffles for snacks or meals, portion-controlled bagels, 100% juices for marinades and beverages, plain cheese pizza, skim mozzarella cheese and a variety of veggies.

Make grocery shopping an event

Make it something to look forward to, just like going to the cinema or on a date. You know how we actually get so excited to go on a date, feel that same excitement. Make an appointment on your calendar and make it a fun experience for you and the kids.

Treat yourself

Get some treats. The perfect indulgence that will get you all excited, one or two fun treats but remember not to over indulge. In moderation will be good.

Be prepared

Temptations are all around, so be very mindful not to be seduced.

The 60 second rule

When you grab something, pause, stop and think. Ask yourself, “Do I actually need this, is it good for me and is it a healthier choice or not so”.

Happy Shopping!

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