How To Navigate the Center Aisles: Budget-Friendly, Nutritious Foods You Might Have Overlooked While Grocery Shopping

Are you one of those shoppers who tend to peruse only the perimeter of grocery stores, where fresh produce, dairy, and meat live? While there are undoubtedly benefits to shopping for fresh food, it’s worth knowing that there are many hidden gems to be found in the center aisles of grocery stores, where non-perishable and packaged foods tend to reside. In fact, if you’re avoiding the center aisles entirely, you may be missing out on a world of affordable and nutritious options that could help stretch your food budget and decrease your food waste.

Yes, center aisles might seem daunting—with shelves frequently stacked high with an overwhelming selection of ready-to-eat and/or packaged goods. But fear not! Read on for tips to help you travel with confidence through the heart of the grocery store and make the most out of your shopping. So put on your adventure hat, grab a cart, and let’s explore the center aisles!

Stop 1: Cereals and Oats

Are you in search of budget-friendly breakfast options, convenient and healthy snacks, or essential ingredients for baked goods? The cereal aisle has you covered. Oats, grits, granola, and cereal can be packed with whole grains, which provide us with sustained energy and support our gut health. Many enriched cereals also contain essential nutrients, such as iron and B-vitamins. And reading the labels can help you choose cereal and grain-based options that are low in added sugar and high in fiber. Learn more about how to read food labels here.

Stop 2: Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are powerhouses of energy and nutrients! And research has also found that nuts and seeds can help lower blood lipids, which may reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Nuts and seeds are also great sources of healthy fats (more on this in the next aisle), fiber, and various plant nutrients. If you’re watching your sodium intake, be sure to choose low-sodium or unsalted varieties.

Stop 3: Cooking Oils

The cooking oils aisle is full of healthy oils, including canola, soybean, sunflower, olive, avocado and more. These oils contain a mix of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which have been shown to support cardiovascular health. Depending on your budget and cooking needs, it may be helpful to have a few different types of oil on hand. For example, olive oil has a unique flavor and is delicious as a salad dressing, while oils with high smoke points, such as avocado oil and canola oil, are better suited for cooking at higher temperatures.

Stop 4: Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

No one is questioning the healthfulness of fresh fruits and vegetables, but did you know that frozen fruits and vegetables can be equally as healthy? Unprocessed, frozen fruits and vegetables not only have a nutrient composition that is similar to their fresh counterparts, but they also have a longer shelf life, which can help you save money and trips to the grocery store. Frozen produce can also be an inexpensive alternative for boosting your intake of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.

Stop 5: Pasta

Pasta comes in a variety of shapes, styles, and ingredients, and can provide reliable carbohydrates (and energy). Pro tip: Look for whole-grain pasta, such as those varieties with the words “whole grain” or “whole wheat” on the ingredients list. Whole grains can lower the risk of many chronic diseases, and at least half of your grain servings should be from whole-grain sources every day. What counts as one serving of whole grains? Read more here. And when it comes to pasta, you can also choose high-protein (such as chickpea-based), veggie-containing, and gluten-free pasta varieties.

Stop 6: Canned Beans and Fish

In the center aisles lie an unlikely nutrient powerhouse: canned foods. Options like canned chickpeas, black beans, tuna, salmon, and sardines can help you pack in protein at a lower cost. And when they are unopened, many cans last for three to five years! What’s more, these items can be utilized in a wide range of healthy recipes and contain protein, the building blocks of our muscles. If you are trying to incorporate more protein, the longevity and shelf-stability of canned options can help decrease your food costs and household food waste.

As we conclude our tour, we hope you feel inspired to add a few nutrient-dense center aisle items to your cart the next time you’re grocery shopping. In sum, center-aisle items are not only affordable and have extended shelf lives; they also can be packed with nutrients. By exploring both the perimeter and the center aisles of your grocery store, you can reap the benefits of both fresh and packaged foods, help stretch the capacity of your weekly grocery bill, and decrease the food waste you may generate. So keep exploring—and happy shopping!

This article contains contributions from Yuchen He, Dietetic Intern at Yale University.