How To Eat Healthy Without Whole Foods

by | Mar 4, 2009

junk foodBy this point you can probably guess that I do the bulk of my grocery shopping at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and at Whole Foods (with the occasional trip to Trader Joe’s). But not everyone is blessed with year-round farm stands and high-end grocery chains in their cities. So how are you supposed to take my advice when you don’t have access to the same resources?

What Would Darya Eat?

I will admit I am not a seasoned grocery shopper when faced with either a real winter or non-city suburbia, but I can guarantee you that I would find a way to eat healthy despite these obstacles. Here is how I would approach these difficult situations:

Use Google to find a health food store.
Most towns have at least one small health food store, and these can be a lifesaver (literally) if you are trying to maintain a healthy diet. Finding one can be tricky, but you can do it if you know what to search.

Unfortunately, the idea that fresh, whole foods are the best way to promote health and fight disease is still something of a radical concept associated with hippies, liberals and elitists (run!!). For the most part, people still do not take the idea of healthy food seriously. Thus, a Google search for “health” will usually bring you links to medical sites or shady pills and powder supplements. And “health food” will get you a mixture of vitamin shops and useful grocery stores.

To get what you need, I recommend searching “organic groceries” followed by your city, then state.

In the following example I searched for “organic groceries Newport Beach, CA”. Several entries come up, but the most useful are Google’s local business results or the link.

organic groceries search
Stores that come up in these searches usually have an excellent selection of healthy shelf items such as grains, beans, cereals and canned goods. The best deals are usually in the bulk bins (check near the back or side of the store).

These places will often have a small selection of organic produce.

Find a local produce market. Like the health food stores, produce markets that primarily sell fresh fruits and vegetables are not big fancy operations that are easy to find. Instead they are usually small, family-run shops that cater to a loyal clientele. Frequently these shoppers are hunting for specific products used in, for example, Asian or Latin American cuisines.

The fruits and vegetables you find in stores like this are often imported and inexpensive, which is a mixed blessing. Clearly imported produce is not ideal if you are interested in buying local, organic foods. However, in many cities fresh fruits and vegetables are almost nonexistent during the winter, and these specialty stores can be a fantastic alternative. They are certainly better than nothing (or Costco).

Another bonus of these markets is that they can be great sources for hard to find ingredients like fresh galangal (Thai ginger) or kefir lime leaves.

To find these stores in your neighborhood type “produce” into Google followed by your city and state. Again look for Google’s local business listings.

It is worth noting that these stores can vary quite a bit in quality and cleanliness, so it is a good idea to stop by several different shops until you find the one that best meets your needs.

Read local blogs. I am admittedly a little biased on this topic, but blogs can be a fantastic source for local news on food, eating and gardening, all of which will give you clues about what local food is available during the current season. You can use Google’s Blogsearch tool and type in what you are looking for (e.g. “winter vegetables”) along with your city and state to find what is buzzing near you.

Buy frozen vegetables. I do not particularly like recommending frozen vegetables because in my opinion they do not taste as good as fresh ones, and I believe enjoying your food is a critical part of establishing healthy eating patterns. But despite their texture, frozen vegetables actually retain most of their nutrients and can be an excellent healthy option during the cold months. When I do buy frozen goods, I stick to the hearty fare like beans, peas, corn and bell peppers, but if you do not mind the texture of some of the leafy greens, they are perfectly healthy. Frozen berries also hold up pretty well.

Be creative. Winter is one of the best times of the year to go pantry diving and finally do something with that bulgur or those red lentils. Be creative!

Cans of diced tomatoes, anchovies, capers and olives can easily be turned into a puttanesca sauce. Winter squash is great for bean stews. Have fun with what you have and winter will be over before you know it.


This list is meant to be a jumping off point for people to explore healthy eating in challenging circumstances and is an example of the kind of thinking I would use if faced with a similar situation.

Effectively using Google’s search tools to find vendors in your local area can make it much easier to stick to your healthy diet, even without warm weather or a big city. Getting involved in your local food scene is another way to discover healthy opportunities anywhere.

I am certain there are many more effective ways to stay healthy without a Whole Foods.

For those of you who actually live in places where fresh vegetables can be hard to find, I would love to hear your strategies for healthy eating all year long! Let’s brainstorm!

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17 Responses to “How To Eat Healthy Without Whole Foods”

  1. Michelle says:

    I think this is interesting. How would I eat if the only grocery store around was a conventional A&P or similar? I had an experience yesterday where I needed baking ingredients but could only get to the Shaw's and Trader Joes. It was impossible to find the ingredients I wanted and the ones they had were way more expensive than they would have been at my usual stores.Well…part of me thinks if I didn't live in a city and have access to everything I would order food online from places like Eden. Or if I didn't live in the city I might actually be able to have a garden!!!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Darya, I think you should do an experiment…go visit one of these places (Normal, IL for example…its 18 degrees there now) and try it out!!!Seriously, I think this is a good topic, I’m always appalled by the produce offered in grocery stores in central IL in the winter. My mom and sister were just visiting and raved about our produce section, and we were just at Safeway. It makes you really appreciate all we have access to here in CA.Sadly, a google search for Normal, IL yielded 1 or 2 prospects for good produce, but mostly came up with “GNC,” “Vitamin World,” and stores like that.

  3. MB says:

    What a great discussion. Even living in SoCal and having a garden, sometimes there are produce items not available at a conventional store. This will be a keeper for reference 🙂

  4. Car Blog says:

    Thats a pretty good way of searching for shops around. I never thought of doing so and always looked up the yellow pages.

  5. Mike says:

    Its funny how potato chips have become I would argue a large part of the American (western) diet, yet your picture reminds us that it is actually junk food- its NOT real food!!!! Seems like a lot of grocery stores these days sell more junk food than real food….

  6. Darya Pino says:

    @MichelleOnline ordering is a great idea, especially for dried goods. Then you have the bounty of the entire planet at your fingertips!Fresh foods are a little harder, but it may still be possible to have your favorite things shipped when you’re in a pinch.—–@AnonYes, very rural small towns are tough. It might be hard to avoid weekend trips to bigger cities like Chicago. But with all that land gardens are a great option, as Michelle suggested. And you really hit the nail on the head about CA. My personal recommendation: move to San Francisco!!;)—–@MB Glad to be of service. I get questions like this all the time. Come back and leave suggestions if you stumble upon something wonderful.—–@Car BlogYellow pages are good too, just a little slower.—–@MikeYou are so right. I don’t even like to follow the word “junk” with the word “food”. The word food implies some kind of nourishment, and you really get nothing out of this junk.

  7. Katie says:

    Great ideas, darya! I never really thought to just google search for organic produce, and in a round about way led me to a few new restaurants I want to try, and to a handful of organic places- thanks!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I like the WWDE ‘what would darya eat’ idea. Maybe make some bracelets out of that?!

  9. Allie says:

    When I was going to college in rural Pennsylvania, my general rule for eating healthy was to shop around the edges of the grocery store. That way, I avoided a lot of the processed food that you find in the aisles. Even with not much selection, a little thought and meal planning helped me eat pretty healthy.

  10. Anonymous says:

    This post makes me think of my friend who recently moved to El Paso, TX and couldn’t even find lettuce in her grocery store!

  11. Darya Pino says:

    @KatieRight? It seems like a simple idea but for some reason we don’t think this way when it comes to food. Glad I could help!—–@AnonA good idea is a good idea 🙂

  12. Darya Pino says:

    @AllieThat is a fabulous idea! I discussed how to find good stores but not how to navigate a Safeway!Thanks for the reminder 😉

  13. Matt Shook says:

    Bulk bins are where it’s at! I have slowly become more and more comfortable with the bins…some great deals to be had for sure.Co-ops and CSA can be valuable resources if your area is lacking a good locally owned market…but then again if you don’t have a locally owned market then you probably don’t have CSAs either. 😉 My advice…move somewhere that does.I may be tarred and feathered in the nearest public square for mentioning this…but I avoid Whole Foods. With their cannibalistic business strategy they’re pretty much the Walmart of organic health food stores.

  14. Darya Pino says:

    @MattI absolutely agree with you about all this. I thought about recommending CSAs too, but didn’t want to be yelled at by people who live in the cold! I’m resistant telling them to move here–I want it to myself!I can understand having an aversion to Whole Foods, but I can’t help but find myself there all the time and being thankful for what they offer at their prices.Honestly it is waaay cheaper than my corner quasi-organic market for everything except produce. I know they are a big corporation, but I’m not yet convinced that makes them evil. I am just thankful they carry Dorset cereal 🙂 If Rainbow Grocery were closer to my house I would shop there.

  15. Matt Shook says:

    @DaryaI’m actually a little worried about Californians…you need water for your farms, not to mention the city folks. ;)I can understand why you go to Whole Foods…it can be convenient and economic compared to local options…I was just giving you a hard time.

  16. Darya Pino says:

    @MattWe’ve got a lot of rain the past few weeks, so I’m hoping that will help.BTW, I love when you give me a hard time. I’ll probably have a few fightin’ words for you later this week. Looking forward to your opinion 😉

  17. Rachel says:

    I live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs, and I work at a natural foods co-op in the produce department. I am indeed fortunate. 🙂

    However, I grew up in rural MN, before I was concerned about healthy eating. We had two regional chain grocery stores, which usually had a good selection of produce and a small “healthy foods” department. My advice is that even in the dead of winter, when no farmer’s markets are available, do the best you can to make healthy choices in the supermarket. I would rather choose conventional produce when organic is not available than throw in the towel and buy junk.

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