In Defense of the Supermarket

With the Twitterverse abuzz with the hashtag #indefenseoffoodPBS, I finally figured out that Michael Pollan’s eating manifesto had been made into a documentary.  I watched last night, with as open a mind as possible. 

Most of what Pollan preaches is logical – eat food, mostly plants, not too much.  And, if you have a close look at, he’s very much in line with government guidelines.  This fact seems to be overlooked in the discussion of “big food” and a food system that is, according to some of the interview subjects, the root cause of obesity.  Newsflash: the government isn’t telling anyone to drink soda and consume huge portions of meat.  

Pollan’s in-depth look at the benefits of breastfeeding on the infant’s microbiome was fascinating, and the feature on Steve Ritz’s work in the South Bronx hit close to home.  I spent the better part of my early nutrition career in and around those parts.  Ritz and leaders of other programs like Grown NYC’s Learn It, Grow It, Eat It and Stellar Farmers Market provide not just fresh fruits and vegetables, but nutritional know-how in an area that needs it most.  

One glaring omission in this piece is the impact of socioeconomic factors on the way we eat.  While we could surely learn a thing or two from the dietary patterns and active lifestyles of a healthy African tribe, it’s foolish not to put the so-called Western Diet into some modern context.  Someone might eat in his or her car in between job one and job two.  A busy mother might reach for a pre-made meal because there’s little time to cook if she’s going to help Jimmy with his homework and get Susan off to soccer practice.  These aren’t excuses, but realities.    

In the context of these modern situations, reducing supermarket shopping to the confines of the perimeter is erroneous as it is unrealistic.  There are as many healthful options for sale in the center of the grocery store as there are “sometimes” foods available on the perimeter.  Moreover, many of these center aisle foods are helpful in preparing meals under time constraints.  

To me, the entire supermarket is a joyous place.  I might not purchase from every aisle, but I appreciate the options I have as a consumer thanks to industrialization.  Here are some middle-of-the-store essentials I always have at the ready.


Old-fashioned and steel-cut are my favorites, but an unflavored packet of instant oats is still a great choice in a pinch.  Dress them up with your own sweet or savory toppings.  My go-to lately has been canned pumpkin, natural peanut butter, and half a banana.  Yum!

If switching from soda to water is the ultimate goal, consider seltzer the bridge to get there.  With a little bit of fizz and flavor, it quenches thirst and satisfies the desire for carbonation.  Just be sure to check ingredients and look for actual seltzer – “sparkling water beverages” often contain artificial sweeteners.  Polar brand has a great selection of flavors!

Canned Fish
Chunk light tuna, albacore (in moderation), salmon, and sardines are all inexpensive, natural sources of quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids.  Try adding canned sardines to pasta with garlic, fresh parsley, a few olives and fresh or sundried tomatoes.  

Dried Red Lentils and Canned Beans
Dried green lentils can be a bit laborious.  Their coral-hued counterparts are just as nutritious and ready in 30 minutes or less.  You might find them tastier, too!  Look for lower sodium options when choosing canned beans, or rinse before preparing.  They’re a great addition to cold salads and make easy work of homemade hummus and bean spreads.

Canned Chipotles in Adobo
If you like it hot, get thee to the international aisle and pick up a can of these smoky, spicy peppers!  I use these in everything from sweet potato chili to shredded beef.  Try them blended into plain Greek yogurt for a quick taco topping.  La Morena brand is the best I’ve found.


This is by no means an exhaustive list – just a few of my favorites.  What are some middle-of-the-aisle staples you always have on hand?  I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!