Strategies for Grocery Shopping in Eating Disorder Recovery

A person selecting produce in a grocery store

The average number of products in a grocery store tops 28,000, according to the Food Marketing Institute. It’s enough to overwhelm any shopper. For those with eating disorders, the tremendous selection can further heighten difficulties with food and make grocery shopping an errand that is anything but enjoyable.

Food is a common preoccupation and trigger in eating disorders of all types, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and OSFED. Thoughts of food often consume the day, as do rules of what, when, and how much should be eaten. The abundance of food at the grocery store can exacerbate these thoughts, sparking significant anxiety, fear, and distress upon entry. Factor in the store aisles awash with food labels and fellow shoppers commenting on food, and it’s no surprise that the grocery store is a highly stressful environment for those with eating disorders.

In this article, we provide several strategies for grocery shopping in eating disorder recovery. Learn how to navigate the shelves in person or virtually, and ensure you check out with items that serve your recovery.

1. Shop at a smaller store.

Big-box grocery stores are defined by their larger selections. And more options—more aisles, more brands, more items—can mean more eating disorder-related challenges. For example, you may feel compelled to compare food products and nutrition labels. It’s a common eating disorder behavior aimed at distinguishing so-called “good” foods from “bad” ones. The pressure to pick the “best” option can make choosing even a single item an all-consuming and stressful task, so much so that you might leave the store empty-handed. Alternatively, shelves upon shelves of highly desirable foods may lead to a large purchase that could trigger an episode of binge eating.

If you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of food items at your store, try opting for a smaller store where there are simply fewer options. The limited selection can help you more easily find what you’re looking for, expose you to fewer food messages and products, and relieve the pressure to evaluate countless brands before placing an item in your cart.

2. Shop at quieter times.

Large groups of people, especially in food-related situations, can also trigger eating disorder symptoms. At the grocery store, you may overhear comments from other shoppers (e.g., “We’re not getting that. That’s so bad for you.”) or cashiers (e.g., “Looks like a junk food run!”), which are likely to reinforce eating disorder thoughts and beliefs. You may also receive or perceive food judgment from those looking in your cart or at your items on the checkout belt.

Though we cannot eliminate all potential triggers of our diet-obsessed culture, there is nothing wrong with adjusting your schedule to the benefit of your recovery. If shopping around others is challenging for you, consider choosing a less popular time to visit the store, such as weekdays and mornings. Fewer people may mean fewer diet culture comments to process, which reserves your energy for the task at hand.

3. Shop online.

Online ordering eliminates the need to roam store aisles, a benefit appreciated during the pandemic that will extend beyond it. Grocery delivery or pickup services may be particularly useful to those affected by eating disorders, as they can lessen the triggers associated with crowds and packed shelves.

When shopping online in recovery, make use of simple strategies and tools available to manage your triggers. You can, for example, consciously choose not to click through the image carousel on each product—a tactic that may deter or stall the compulsive act of checking and comparing labels. For a firmer boundary, use the quick “Add to cart” option to avoid seeing that information at all.

4. Make a list.

A plan increases the likelihood of success at the grocery store. When planning your meals at home or alongside a dietitian, keep a list of the items required. Be sure to bring your list to the store, and if it’s helpful, remind yourself that these items don’t require additional thought or second-guessing. The decision has already been made: they are necessary for the snacks and meals ahead. These foods fit under an all-foods-fit philosophy, and you can trust that your body will know what to do with them.

5. Get support.

You don’t have to handle grocery shopping alone. Involve a friend or family member by asking them to join you at the store, or, perhaps on difficult days, ask them to make the grocery run for you. At the store, a support person can hold you accountable to your list, as well as help to interrupt the urge to obsessively compare labels or fill your cart with more than what you need. They can also help you stick to an appropriate time for shopping.

Professional support is another key asset in helping you navigate grocery shopping and other food-related activities. For guidance around your unique shopping challenges or dietary needs, reach out to a provider who specializes in eating disorders.  

At The Emily Program, we treat people with all types of eating disorders using a multidisciplinary team and integrative interventions. Along with psychotherapy and education, we provide nutrition and food-related experiences and skills that promote a more mindful and peaceful relationship with food. If you or your loved one is struggling with food, schedule an eating disorder assessment or contact us at 1-888-364-5977 today.

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