Whether we like it or not, grocery shopping is a necessary task of adulthood. It can be annoying or simply unenjoyable for anyone who is living a busy life or just doesn’t enjoy shopping or cooking. Most adults however, make it in and out of the grocery store regularly without significant disruption, problems or stress. But for the millions of individuals living with an eating disorder, an everyday task like buying food for themselves or their families feels completely overwhelming. Just thinking about going food shopping can trigger intense anxiety and may result in avoidance or elevated eating disorder symptoms. Actually going to the store and getting out before the milk gets warm seems impossible at times.
Since having consistent, structured and fulfilling meals are such a fundamental part of eating disorder recovery, being able to source and purchase the food for those meals then becomes a primary part of treatment. If someone is too anxious to step foot in the store, obsesses over the label on every item or finds they just wander aimlessly, it can really inhibit their ability to bring home the foods they need to meet their nutritional goals. As a result, difficulties with grocery shopping can become a significant barrier to recovery. That’s why our Outpatient Nutritional Coordinator put together these tips to help individuals with eating disorders (or anyone really) navigate the grocery experience and become more confident in your shopping ability.
Plan, Plan, Plan: This is one of the most impactful tips! Planning your meals ahead saves you time and money. It can also decrease anxiety at meal times since you know that you have something in place and what to expect. In order to maintain stable meals, you must have a menu planned and food available to meet that plan; remember to incorporate foods from all food groups. Set aside one hour, one day a week for meal planning. Planning ahead also cuts down on the amount of trips to the store you need to take during the week. One to two trips to the grocery store per week is reasonable
Organize your list: Based on your planned menu, create a grocery list. Breaking it down into the sections of the grocery store can cut down on time spent in the store. People that “wing it” end up wandering too long or revisiting the same aisle two or three times. Keep a pad of paper in your kitchen or a list on your phone where you can write down food staples that you run out of during the week; add them to your main grocery list before you go.
Be realistic: Set realistic expectations when you plan your meals. What do you have going on this week? Which nights will you have more time to cook? Which nights do you need something easy to assemble? At which meals would it make sense to use leftovers? Pick up a variety of foods that require different levels of preparation.
Mission possible: Set a time limit and stick to it. Make it your mission to be at the register in 30 minutes or less.
Add support: Go with a friend or support person for the first few times. Whether they know you have an eating disorder or not, this will help distract from any eating disorder thoughts in your head and will keep you more on task. Letting your support person know your goal of being at the register in 30 minutes or less can also help hold you accountable to not wasting time wandering aisles or compulsively comparing items.
Stick with what you pick: If you find yourself spending too much time reading labels or comparing similar products, try to make the decision based on which one is on sale that week. Choosing the item based on price can also help expose you to different brands and allows you to discover which one your taste buds truly prefer. Another way to decrease label reading is to view the grocery store ad online before going to the store when making your list. This allows you to view items without being able to read their labels and to commit to having them on your grocery list based on what is on sale. This is helpful for reducing time comparing products, getting exposure to trying different products out, and can save you money!
Shrink the store: Sometimes it’s fun to shop at a large grocery store and to have a lot of options, but for some people more options = more anxiety. If that’s the boat you’re in, try shopping at a smaller store such as Aldi, Eddie’s, or the grocery section at Target. It’s a lot easier to decide which yogurt to buy when you have three options instead of thirty! Having less options of yogurt, cereal, bread, crackers, etc, can reduce time spent in the aisles and will help you get out of the store faster.
Ditch the diet products: Avoid being lured into fat free, sugar free, “diet products.” They do not satisfy and will only leave you feeling hungry and stuck in the “diet mentality.” Normalized eating incorporates regular products that are more satisfying and enjoyable.
Avoid the crowds: Try to shop at times when the grocery store is not as busy. Typically during the week, 3-6pm tends to be the busiest time at the grocery store. Sundays are also very busy days. Try to go in the morning, later in the evening, or on Saturday. You can also look your grocery store up on google maps and look at their “popular times” bar graph to see less busy times to shop.
Check your status: Be mindful of your vulnerability factors. Are you tired? Stressed? Hungry? If the answer is yes, plan on engaging in some self-care first and going to the grocery store when you are feeling more rested, stable and satiated.
Ask an RD: If you need help planning meals, making grocery lists, expanding variety, and setting goals for improving your confidence with grocery shopping, ask your dietitian for support. If you do not have a dietitian, consider adding one to your treatment team if you are working through an eating disorder.
Remember that with learning any new skill, it takes practice and time. If you have negative experiences with grocery shopping in your past, try some of these tips to begin developing more positive associations with going to the grocery store. Over time, this will help decrease your anxiety around grocery shopping. Plus, having food available for meals will help you stay on track on your journey to recovery.
The Center for Eating Disorders is excited to announce the launch of a brand new Grocery Shopping Support Program designed to aid individuals working on recovery from eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Parents/Caregivers of children and adolescents are also eligible for participation. Program components and goals include:
- Snack/meal/menu planning
- Grocery list development
- Incorporation of challenging foods
- Efficiently utilizing time spent in stores
- Managing impulsive food purchases
- Identifying triggers and coping skills
- Decreasing anxiety around food and food purchases
- Exposure to food-based environment
- Individualized treatment goals
If you’re interested in scheduling a grocery support appointment, please call (410) 938-5252. If you have questions about the program you can also email Hannah Huguenin.
Written By: Hannah Huguenin MS, RD, LDN
Outpatient Nutrition Coordinator
Hannah has been an integral part of The Center for Eating Disorders’ staff since 2008, and provides individual nutritional counseling for the outpatient population. In her role at The Center, she manages the outpatient nutrition team and leads program development. She was instrumental in building the Center’s new Grocery Shopping Support Program. Hannah also provides ongoing support to help patients decrease eating disorder behaviors, meet their nutritional goals and improve their relationship with food through nutrition education.