Making healthier eating choices
Confused about how to make healthier eating choices? Should you buy organic? What healthy substitutions can you make when cooking? Below are some dos and don'ts when shopping, cooking, and ordering food.
How do I make healthier choices at the grocery store?
- Make a list and stick to it. It takes a little more time and effort, but it will help you eat healthier and save money.
- Healthier eating usually includes cooking some of your meals at home. Find some simple recipes you’d like to make regularly.
- Plan your meals for the week ahead of time.
- Make a shopping list of ingredients for the meals, plus any basics and snacks, like low-fat milk, whole-grain breads, whole fruit, and nuts.
- Buy fruits and vegetables in season. In-season produce is usually tastier and less expensive.
- Check your local supermarket for the best in-season buys.
- Fruits and vegetables from local farmers at a farmer’s market are always in season.
- Canned or frozen fruits and vegetables are also good choices, because they are usually picked at the peak of ripeness and packaged right away.
- Spend most of your time and food budget in the outer aisles of the store. The outer aisles of the grocery store usually have whole foods, not processed foods. There you’ll find healthier choices like fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, eggs, dairy products, and whole grains.
- The inner aisles are more likely to have processed foods that are higher in fats, added sugar, and sodium.
- Look for low-fat or fat-free dairy products and lean meats, such as ground beef or poultry with 7% fat or less (93% lean).
- If you do buy packaged food, read the food labels and ingredients. Learn how to read food labels.
- Compare similar items, like two types of cereal, to see which has more of important nutrients.
- Look for foods with lower amounts or no trans fats or saturated fats and added sugar.
- Reduce sodium. Sodium is in table salt, but most of the sodium we eat is in processed foods. Sodium is hidden in a lot of prepared foods, such as pizza and bread, because it is a natural preservative and can make food taste better.
- Look for the “no salt added” label on canned vegetables.
- Buy soups and broths with lower sodium.
- Choose lower-sodium versions of packaged foods.
- Don’t shop when you’re hungry. We’ve all been there, but it’s best to snack on a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit before you go grocery shopping. If you’re hungry, you may be more likely to grab foods that are convenient but less healthy.
- Bring along a healthy snack for your kids while you shop.
- Buy some cut-up fruit or vegetables from the produce section before starting down the aisles.
- Don’t eat a lot of sugar. Stay away from foods that have sugar added to them. Added sugar means unneeded calories and has no nutrition value or essential nutrients.
- Drink water or unsweetened tea instead of sugary drinks or energy drinks.
- Limit the amount of sugary treats you buy.
- Choose canned fruit packed in water rather than syrup.
- Don’t overdo solid fats. Fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, are usually high in saturated fats or trans fats, which you should limit.
- It’s okay to cook with oil, but the type of oil you choose is important. Look for healthier choices, such as olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, corn oil, and safflower oil.
- If it fits into your budget, look for spray oil so that you can use less oil when cooking.
- Packaged baked goods like cookies, cakes, and muffins often have saturated fats and trans fats, in addition to added sugar. Buy them only once in a while.
How do I make healthier choices when eating at home?
- Make a weekly meal plan. Whether you’re single or cooking for a family, committing to a meal plan will help everyone be healthier.
- Decide ahead of time who is cooking which meal on which day.
- Meal plans do not have to be complicated. Just knowing that Monday night is pasta night, Tuesday night is taco night, and Wednesday night is homemade pizza night will help you tackle meal planning.
- Don’t forget about healthy sides. Vegetables don’t have to be fancy or take a lot of time to prepare. Look for precut salads or microwavable steamed vegetables without added sauce or seasonings.
- Make healthy substitutions and additions. Find substitutions you can make in your favorite foods when cooking.
- Use low-fat options, like low-fat cottage or ricotta cheese, in pasta dishes.
- Cook with and drink fat-free or low-fat milk or fortified soy beverages instead of whole milk.
- If you eat meat often, try swapping in some seafood or bean dishes.
- If you have kids who don’t like vegetables, try cutting the vegetables up very small or blending them into dishes like spaghetti, homemade pizza, or mac and cheese.
- Eat most meals at home. Studies show that people who eat at home more often eat healthier and have a healthy weight.2
- Turn off the TV and put any other screens away so you can focus on how much you’re eating and how it tastes.
- Cook together with others so everyone knows how to prepare healthy meals.
- Search for recipes on the USDA’s What’s Cooking Web section.
- Have healthy snacks cut, portioned out, and ready to go.
- Great snacks include fresh veggies with a low-calorie dip or fruit with low-fat or plain yogurt.
- Instead of regular potato chips, buy baked chips, vegetable chips, or healthy nuts.
- Try air-popped popcorn without added butter.
- Keep whole fruit on the kitchen counter where everyone can see it.
- Do not add extra fat to meat, fish, and poultry.
- Grill or bake instead of fry.
- If you do fry, use healthier fats, like olive, canola, or sunflower oil, instead of butter, lard, or shortening.
- Do not have many treats (especially processed foods) like packaged cakes and chips every day. These often have fewer healthy ingredients, like fiber, and more of items you should limit, like sodium.
- Choose whole foods, like eating apples instead of drinking apple juice.
- Put a bowl of cut-up veggies in the fridge to grab for a snack.
- Don’t forget about portion sizes. Many packages that look like single servings may actually have several servings.
- Take a large package and divide it into single servings in smaller bags or containers.
- Eat from a small plate, which can help you eat less.
How do I make healthier choices when eating out?
- Look for healthier options without depriving yourself. Eating out can be a special occasion or a treat for many people. It’s okay to splurge at a restaurant every once in a while if you eat healthy the rest of the week.
- Some restaurants make it easy to spot the healthier items with symbols like a small heart on the menu.
- Look for foods that are broiled, baked, roasted, or lightly sautéed instead of fried.
- Look for menu items that are low-sodium, and ask your server about low-sodium options.
- If you pick a less healthy option like a burger or fried chicken, ask for a side salad instead of the fries.
- Make special requests. Ask for sauces, dips, and dressings on the side and for steamed vegetables instead of vegetables cooked with butter or sauce.
- Put half of your meal in a box to go right away. Or order a meal to share.
- Order a broth-based soup to start your meal. This will help you feel fuller without lots of extra calories or fat.
- Compare nutrition information for options at your favorite chain restaurants by checking out their menus online. You may also find nutrition information displayed on menus, posters, brochures, or tray liners.
- Don’t eat at fast-food restaurants several times a week. Fast-food restaurants are time-savers, but if you eat fast food several times a week, you might pay later with health problems. When you do eat fast food, make smarter choices:
- Order your burger or sandwich on whole-wheat bread.
- Choose grilled instead of fried chicken or fish sandwiches.
- Do not order cheese or bacon on your sandwich.
- Load up with tomatoes and lettuce, and be mindful about extra toppings like ketchup or mayonnaise, which can add unnecessary calories.
- Choose sweet potato fries instead of French fries.
- Order a side salad instead of fries.
- Order a small meal or a child’s meal to keep calories lower.
- Don’t go to “all-you-can-eat” restaurants and buffets. If you do go:
- Use the smallest plate possible.
- Try to fill up on healthier choices, like salads and vegetables.
- Keep your back to the buffet so that you are less tempted to go back for seconds.
- Don’t forget to take snacks on longer trips.
- Pack bags of unsalted nuts or popcorn.
- If possible, take cut-up veggies or whole fruit.
- Try refillable water bottles instead of sugary drinks like sodas or fruit drinks.
Are foods labeled “organic” better for my health?
Maybe. To get the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic label, food must be grown without the use of most types of pesticides or other chemicals, and animals must not be fed antibiotics or growth hormones.1 But the USDA does not claim that foods labeled organic are safer or healthier than foods that are not labeled organic. You will still need to look at the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list to tell whether the food is healthy.
Whether you buy organic foods depends on your personal preferences and budget. Organic foods may be more expensive. You can save money by buying organic fruits and vegetables in season and from local farmers markets.
Did we answer your question about making healthier eating choices?
For more information about making healthier eating choices, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:
- ChooseMyPlate.gov — Information and online tools from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Healthy Eating at Home — Browse heart-healthy recipes from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
- How to read a food label — A guide to understanding the Nutrition Facts label from the Food and Drug Administration.
- Nutrition.gov — Find free, healthy recipes and meal planning tips.
- What’s Cooking? — This webpage from the USDA provides healthy recipes based on different nutrition goals and food groups.
- Gold, M.V. (2016). Organic Production/Organic Food: Information Access Tools. National Agricultural Library. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Bezerra, I. N., Curioni, C., Sichieri, R. (2012). Association between eating out of home and body weight. Nutrition Reviews, 70(2), 65–79.