10 Top Grocery Shopping Tips from People Who Eat a Lot of Plants

published May 8, 2022
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This story is part of Eat More Plants, Kitchn’s June 2021 special issue devoted to putting the flavor and magic of plants at the heart of your plate.  

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the years since Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” provided us with this simple philosophy on food back in 2008, the term “plant-based eating” has skyrocketed in popularity. What exactly does it mean? Here’s the SparkNotes version: Whereas veganism and vegetarianism are defined by what you don’t eat, plant-based eating is defined by the abundance of what you eat — mostly foods that are derived from plants.

For many people, taking a plant-based approach to cooking and eating at home might seem a little out of reach at first (think: Overflowing CSA subscriptions and weekly trips to pricy farmers markets, supplemented by excursions for wild-foraged mushrooms and ramps). Alas, most home cooks don’t have the luxury of extra time, resources, or access to specialty produce. That’s not to say that farmers markets aren’t amazing hubs for excellent local fare, or that supporting small-scale growers isn’t important — they are! It is! — but we’re here to tell you that there are plenty of other ways to eat more plants.

We recently surveyed a diverse group of very busy people who eat a lot of plants on the regular — and enjoy doing it. They shared their best tips on how to shop and set yourself up for plant-based success. Guess what? It all starts in the grocery store.

1. Plan a weekly shopping trip.

Many home cooks find that the wheels fall off when there’s a lack of fresh food in the refrigerator. Dr. Yamileth Cazorla-Lancaster, a pediatrician who focuses on helping families enjoy a myriad of balanced foods, avoids this by shopping smart, once a week. “I only grocery shop once a week. My life is super busy so I need to be very efficient.”

To make this tactic work for you, make a list before you head to the store, with a whole week’s worth of meals and snacks in mind. Don’t forget to do a quick inventory of your cupboards and pantry before you go. Those olive-oil roasted root veggies you’ve planned for Wednesday won’t work if you’ve just used up the last of your EVOO.

2. But don’t buy too much at once.

“Don’t buy too much at once!” says Amanda Cohen, the founder and chef of NYC-based, veggie-worshipping restaurant Dirt Candy, cautioning against over-zealous produce aisle decisions that devolve into a pile of soggy lettuce in the corner of your fridge. A bunch of wasted produce could end up discouraging you, and that’s not what we’re after.

3. Embrace convenience products.

Buying heads of kale and whole beets may be virtuous, but it’s only smart shopping if you have the time (or energy) to prep them yourself during the week. Convenience items found in your grocer’s produce section may cost a little more because you’re outsourcing the labor to wash, chop, and season those veggies. But if they help you meet your quota of leafy greens and root veggies, they are a worthwhile purchase. 

Amy Palanjian, the blogger behind Yummy Toddler Food, is a fan of pre-shredded cabbage for “adding crunch to tacos and salads.” She also prefers already-prepared, frozen, diced sweet potatoes to their fresh-out-of-the-ground counterparts. “I steam them, then mash them with a fork with butter and salt,” she says.

4. Just buy the darn salad kit!

Piggy-backing off of #3, salad kits make it seriously easy to add more greens to lunches and dinners because, in addition to the lettuce, most kits include portioned-out accoutrements such as shredded cheese, nuts, dried fruit, croutons, and dressing. Sure, they cost more than a bag of plain lettuce, but they contain everything you need to make a salad from start to finish.

Read more: In 2019 We Reviewed Every Single Salad Kit in America. These Are Our Favorites (STILL).

Palanjian loves a good salad kit for this very reason: “I’ve found that having even just one on hand each week increases the odds that I’ll eat a veggie with my lunch (and my kids love the Caesar ones!)” She’s also a fan of the Taylor Fans Avocado Ranch Kit

Rebecca Jaspan, a Registered Dietitian who practices in New York City, is, as she says, “obsessed with Trader Joe’s salad kits. They are a delicious way to eat a ton of veggies for easy lunches or dinners.”  

Read more: Our 5 Favorite Salad Kits from Trader Joe’s

5. Don’t hesitate to buy vegetables out of season, if you want them!

Many people are married to the idea of exclusively eating seasonal produce. But some of the experts we spoke to suggest doing the best you can. “Eating only seasonally is not realistic,” says Cohen. The key is to purchase whatever produce you’re more likely to eat, so if that out-of-season tomato is calling your name in December, snap it up and enjoy it. Also, who cares if that pepper isn’t photoshoot-worthy? Don’t pass over produce just because it isn’t perfect-looking. In fact, your kids might be more likely to eat those wacky-shaped carrots!

6. Stock up on veggies that take longer to spoil.

Julia Sherman, the creator of Salad for President, makes sure to stock her refrigerator with “more forgiving veggies — things that store well and won’t stress me out.” Root vegetables, like beets and carrots, last for weeks when stored properly, and hardy cooking greens (i.e., kale and collard greens) will keep much longer than leaf lettuce.

7. Go ahead, try a plant-based meat alternative.

“There are so many plant-based meat substitutes available in the grocery store these days that you’re practically guaranteed to find your meatless match,” says Kitchn’s former Deputy Food Director, Grace Elkus (and the creator of Tonight We Veg).

According to Grace, these subs can fit right into your regular cooking routine … if you let them. “A lot of them — like Beyond Meat and soy chorizo — can be seamlessly swapped in for meat in your favorite recipes, so you don’t have to go out of your way to find completely new recipes.”

Read more: A Personal Guide to the Best Vegetarian Meat Substitute for You

8. Shop the freezer aisle.

Fresh fruits and veggies get all the attention, but don’t overlook their frozen counterparts. which are typically picked and frozen at peak ripeness.

Dzung Lewis of the food, parenting, and lifestyle brand Honeysuckle frequently buys berries in the frozen section: “I love using them for baked goods like blueberry muffins or raspberry scones. They’re usually picked at peak season so they’re very flavorful! ” While the freezer section can be helpful for sourcing out-of-season produce, don’t feel bad about reaching for frozen foods — even when the fresh versions are in season. If you’re more likely to cook (and eat) frozen spinach than fresh, then buy that.

“Frozen veggies work great in stir-fries, soups, and stews. They also do wonderfully steamed and roasted,” says Cazorla-Lancaster. “I also love throwing frozen broccoli in my air fryer — it comes out perfectly.”

Related: The 3-Step Method for Roasting Perfectly Crispy Frozen Vegetables

Frozen veggies and the air fryer are a match made in heaven. Don’t just stop at broccoli: Alice Choi, of Hip Foodie Mom, uses her air fryer for everything including sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and even zucchini. We’re partial to air-fried tater tots. (Yes, potatoes are veggies

9. Check out the gadgets section of your grocery store.

If your grocery store has a gadget aisle (and most do!), look for items that will make vegetable prep easy and efficient. Cohen suggests having a plan for each vegetable (or fruit) you buy, which means it’s helpful to have a variety of cooking options — and necessary tools or appliances — handy.

Choi is an ardent fan of her vegetable peeler, which she uses in a variety of ways: “I not only use it as a vegetable peeler, but I also use it to make carrot and zucchini ribbons. The julienne tool is super helpful as well when I need matchstick-sized vegetables.” 

Related: The 28 Essential Tools and Gadgets Every Home Cook Needs for 2021

10. Go big on sauces, dressings, and crunchy bits.

We’ve all heard this advice before: Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. This advice is meant to guide shoppers toward the fresh, “whole” foods, and keep them away from packaged or processed items lurking in the center aisles. If you avoid the middle of the grocery store, though, you’re missing out tons of items that’ll entice picky toddlers (or reluctant adults) to go in for a serving of green things.

According to Jaspan, “Sometimes enjoying veggies is just about getting a little creative with seasonings. I love tossing carrots in honey and balsamic vinegar, Brussels sprouts in Sriracha and maple syrup, and zucchini coins in garlic powder and Parmesan cheese.”

Cohen’s top tip for eating more plants is to make them delicious first. For flavor, she relies on preserved lemons, pickled limes, olives, capers and caper berries, crispy fried onions or shallots, and fresh herbs.

Let’s also give a shoutout to dip: ranch, specifically. This tried-and-true familiar and inexpensive bottle — or seasoning packet — is a favorite among parents for its ability to turn a “No thank you,” into a “More carrot sticks, please.” (Palanjian’s toddler has recently discovered how delicious Hidden Valley Ranch tastes with with sliced cucumbers.) She also cites this bottled peanut sauce as another veggie sidekick.

Related: My Family’s Favorite Cucumber Salad Is Basically an Excuse to Eat More Ranch

Are you a person who eats a lot of plants? We’d love to hear your grocery store secrets for buying (and eating) all of the veggies. Share your tips with us in the comments.

This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: Grocery Store Secrets of People Who Eat a Lot of Plants.