One of the most important things you can do when starting to eat a plant based or vegan diet, is to become extremely familiar with all of your local grocery stores. Grocery shopping as a vegan is a little bit different than how the average American shops. There are a lot of unique ingredients, things in strange places – and what about that ‘hippie foods’ section of the grocery store?
Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered! In this article, we’ll be diving in to the logistics of shopping as a vegan; what stores you can rely on to have different ingredients, where you can find the best prices, and navigating different types of supermarkets.
Navigating Common Grocery Store Chains as a Vegan
Grocery Shopping As a Vegan: An Overview of different stores
Grocery shopping as a vegan doesn’t have to be really hard. In fact, we actually have a LOT of options!
All across the country we know there are a LOT of different chain grocery stores to buy food. Some regions have Safeway, some have Giant, some have Giant Eagle, some have Krogers, Publix, Acme, Shoppers, ShopRite, Aldi, Food Lion, Wegmans (the holy grail of normal grocery store meets health foods store), etc. But in general, no matter what chain you have, they’re typically going to have similar lay outs and products.
Then we also have ‘health food’ chains; stores like Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, and Whole Foods. These stores are more likely to have the ‘weird’ ingredients you might be looking for. Whole Foods also has bulk bins and whole sections dedicated to plant based proteins, super foods, and enzymes and supplements.
Additionally, many large ‘big box’ value stores like Walmart and Target are now offering food sections – even with some organic and no gmo options! Don’t rule those out – they can be great for buying snacks, nuts, beans, etc.
And of course, we also have our local grocery stores, co-ops, produce markets, and farmers markets. Around here (near Philadelphia) we have a great bulk produce place called ‘Produce Junction’. We also have a small local (to PA, MD, VA, NJ) health store chain called MOM’s Organic Market. You might also find small local vitamin & health food stores that have good selections of bulk teas and herbs (there is one in MD where I used to live called Sun & Earth Natural Foods).
The Benefits of Online Shopping
One last thing: do not underestimate the accessibility of online shopping when it comes to pantry items! A lot of those ‘weird’ vegan ingredients can easily be purchased on Amazon or Vitacost! Sometimes, when your only option for an ingredient (for example, Maca Powder) becomes Whole Foods or a local health food store, you can usually find it for much cheaper online (especially if you have Amazon Prime). Of course, if you can afford to support a local store – I do highly recommend that!
My Shopping Recommendation
I highly recommend searching near you to see what kind of grocery stores and health foods stores you can find, and going to check them out. It can be intimidating navigating a new grocery store, so typically I go in and check it out with just one or two things I need in mind – instead of trying to do a full shopping at a new place. This way, I can see where things are, look at prices, and compare without feeling pressured to get everything I need.
Navigating Your ‘Typical’ Grocery Store
Walking the Perimeter
The Produce Section
The produce section is also generally where you will find nuts and dried fruits in larger and more affordable quantities than elsewhere in the store. You may also find pre-made hummus in this section too.
The Health Foods Section
Or as I like to call it, the ‘heady foods’ section. As I mentioned before, not every grocery store has this! But if yours does – utilize it!
My local giant has a health foods section and I get a lot of my packaged food items there. I do recommend shopping around the grocery store a bit to find the best prices (for example, they have organic canned beans in this section for almost $2 a can, but in the canned foods asile, the ‘Nature’s Promise’ Giant off-brand will have organic canned beans for less than a dollar.)
Items I typically buy in this section: non GMO or organic snacks (chips, crackers, etc), Amy’s canned soups, tahini, organic peanut butter, nutritional yeast, Amy’s burritos, organic canned coconut milk, non dairy yogurt, gluten free bread crumbs, agave nectar, alternative flour options (like almond, garbanzo, etc), flax seeds, chia seeds, vegan protein bars, kombucha, Pow! brand lentil pastas, Ancient Harvest gluten free pastas, eco friendly toilet paper, wild rice, quinoa, etc.
So you’re probably thinking – what the hell does she buy in the dairy section? But this is where you can find your non-dairy milks!
Typically, you’ll be able to find several different kinds of non-dairy milk right next to the regular milk products. The options have definitely been increasing over the years. Now, I often see different brands of almond milk, soy milk, cashew, and blends of cashew & almond & coconut. Some more ‘heady’ stores will have other things, too, like macadamia nut milk, Brazil nut milk, protein milk blends, chocolate flavors, etc.
My suggestion: get plain, unsweetened, almond milk. It is the most mild and versitile flavored one you will find, and it doesn’t have added sugars and crap. You can always add vanilla or honey or maple syrup if you want more flavor in whatever you are adding it to. Buying the plain unsweetened version allows you to use it when cooking, too.
International Foods Asiles
Depending on where you live, you might have different aisles for different things. So this one is a bit more general. At the very least, I typically find an ‘Asian Foods’ section and a hispanic section. My local store also has an Indian & Middle Eastern section.
Things I find in these aisles: corn tortillas, jasmine rice, rice vinegar, coconut milk, miso powder, Siracha, tahini, spring roll wraps, water chestnuts, chilies, pickled ginger, wasabi, sesame seeds, curry mixes, soba noodles, etc.
Oils, Vinegars, Condiments, & Spices
This usually spans a few aisles. Typically, you are going to find oils and vinegars and salad dressings together. Condiments in another section of that aisle, and then spices in the baking section.
Depending on how upscale your general grocery store chain is, you may or may not have all of these different oils at your disposal. At my local Giant, I am able to find Olive Oil, Sesame Seed Oil, Sunflower Oil, Coconut Oil, and Grapeseed Oil. I can also get organic apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar in this aisle. I personally avoid buying pre-made salad dressings because of the preservatives in them, and instead make my own.
Out of the baking & spice aisle, I can find most of the unique spices I need. If I can’t find them at my grocery store in their spice section or international foods aisle, I have to order them online or search a health foods store. I also get maple syrup from this aisle.
Canned Food Aisles
This is generally where I get my canned and dried beans. Usually, I’m getting canned beans (low sodium & organic), and dried lentils. You can also buy Red Split Peas here to use in making Dal.
You might also find a few other things here – artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, pickled items like olives, pickles, chilies, garlic, things like that.
I don’t typically buy more than frozen vegetables (peas, corn, broccoli cauliflower, etc) and frozen fruit (berries, pineapple, cherries, peaches, etc) here, but there are actually a lot of vegetarian and vegan items in this section!
The frozen foods section also generally will have frozen meat substitutes. Things like veggie burgers, vegan ‘beef’ crumbles, vegan ‘chicken’ tenders, things like that. I tend to avoid those since they are highly processed. (I also got food poisoning from vegetarian ‘beef’ crumbles once when they were not cooked all the way through and had thawed out before cooking – so cook thoroughly!)
You’ll also find vegan pre-made desserts here. Usually, there is a small section in the ice cream aisle that will have Tofutti Cuties, various brands of non dairy ice cream (Breyer’s even makes one now!), vegan ice cream sandwiches, things like that.
What can I actually find at Target & Walmart?
Depending on how upscale your Walmart & Target is, you can actually find a decent amount of ‘healthy’ vegan junk food/processed food options at these two stores. There have been many weeks where I went to our local produce market exclusively for produce, and then went to Target for my ‘packaged’ foods shopping – getting things like rice, beans, snacks, etc.
Target even has its own organic store brand, which makes it easy to bargain shop for things like organic canned beans, organic frozen fruit & vegetables, and organic snack foods. If you don’t care to buy organic, you can get a LOT of great packaged stuff here, too. They also usually have the best prices on Amy’s soups, cooking oils, non dairy milk, & non dairy ice cream. Grocery shopping as a vegan at these places exclusively can be challenging, however. In general, you’re not going to find many unusual vegan ingredients at Target, or Walmart.
As far as Walmart goes – it truly depends on what your local Walmart is like. Ours doesn’t have produce, or much other than a small frozen section and then a large snack foods section. They do have great prices on cooking oils and nuts. Sometimes you can find organic and non-GMO options too. You really just have to shop around.
Navigating Health Food Stores
For someone who isn’t used to them, health food stores can be quite intimidating. There’s a lot of weird ingredients, bulk bins, things you didn’t know existed, bizarre produce… things like that.
However, for someone who is trying to eat vegan – a health foods store is going to become very important! Especially as you build up your vegan pantry initially.
Ahh, the bulk bins. One of my favorite sections at Whole Foods! Bulk bins can also be found at Wegmans, and typically, your local co-op.
Reasons Why Bulk Bins Are Great
- Less Wasteful Packaging (sometimes you can bring your own!)
- You can buy exactly how much you want or need of strange items you may only use once.
- You can buy small amounts of different ingredients to try and experiment with (less commitment).
- They are usually less expensive and where you can find the best deals.
- I can get a lot of bizarre ingredients in this section of Whole Foods (black forbidden rice, nutritional yeast, mung beans, goji berries, macadamia nuts, etc)
Things I can usually find at health food stores that I can’t always find at my normal grocery store:
Non-Dairy Greek Style Unsweetened Yogurt, Nutritional Yeast, Forbidden Rice, Millet, Quinoa, macadamia nuts, mung beans, raw almonds, unsweetened flaked coconut, seaweed, sprouts, dandelion greens, exotic fruits, canned or frozen jackfruit, goji berries, maca powder, probiotics, spirulina, chia seeds, flax seeds, almond flour, alternative flours & starches, cacao nibs, sprouted tofu, exotic teas & elixirs, eco friendly soaps & beauty products, and much more.
Trader Joes: The Best Place for Pre-Made Goodies
If you are extremely busy and short on time, I highly recommend stopping into a Trader Joe’s. They have a plethora of relatively healthy frozen and already prepared options available at all times. They also have a huge selection of packaged snack foods, for great prices.
When in doubt, ask for help!
Usually, I find that the employees at health food stores are pretty knowledgeable not only about where to find things, but also what they are, and alternative ingredients, and things like that. If you can’t find something or are feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to ask someone to show you where it is!
With this new age of technology, buying weird vegan food ingredients has never been easier – seriously. Especially with Amazon being so great at delivering just about anything we might need.
Additionally, there are way more deals to be found purchasing in bulk online for items that you might use a lot. I used to buy cases of organic canned BPA free coconut milk before I started making my own. Sometimes I will buy a 5lb bag of quinoa for $20 that will last me a year. Colin buys cases of organic coconut water for his heartburn. I guarantee the strangest vegan ingredient you’ve ever heard of is available to buy on Amazon. The possibilities are endless.
Amazon also offers (to prime members), Amazon Pantry. This is basically where you can buy a lot of heavy bulky food items, fill a box, and it all ships for $5 no matter what the weight. So you could go ahead and buy a 1lb bag of hemp protein powder, a huge bag of chia seeds for your chia pudding, a 5lb bag of quinoa, a huge box of vegan protein bars, some random super foods and nuts you want to have on hand, and it will all ship for $5. The prices are good too.