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A Retail Dietitian Shares Healthy, Budget-Friendly Ways to Shop Your Grocery Store

Ever feel lost in the supermarket and wish you had a guide to help find the gluten-free foods you need that fit your budget? Many supermarkets now have a dietitian on staff to help you navigate the aisles and find the right products. We asked a Retail Dietitian to tell us more about what they do and share some of their favorite shopping tips.

Samantha Telle, RD, CDN leads the GIG of Staten Island support group. She is also the Lead Retail Dietitian at the local ShopRite supermarket on Staten Island in New York, a position that involves spending hours looking at – and interpreting – food labels and educating customers about grocery store shopping with a focus on nutrition and special dietary needs.

“I’ve always been really interested in cooking and food,” says Samantha. “I didn’t know I could turn that into a profession until I went to college.”

With her love of science, Samantha started out studying to be a pharmacist. After taking an elective class in nutrition, she switched her major, graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and a minor in Psychology. She enjoyed her dietetic internship at the University of Delaware before she began applying for jobs. When she found the position of retail dietitian, it appealed to her personal love of being in grocery stores and reading food labels.

Samantha says that many of her customers get diagnosed with celiac disease or other conditions later in life and have formed bad eating habits. They are at a loss on how to change. She enjoys being a resource to them, talking about food and nutrition in a way that is easier for the layperson to understand, and helping them find product replacements based on their dietary needs.

Although she isn't gluten-free, Samantha does have a dairy allergy and a family member diagnosed with celiac disease, so she understands the shopping challenges that many customers with dietary restrictions face on a daily basis. She connected with GIG six years ago to better support her customers with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. An added benefit of connecting with GIG is the access that support group members receive to resources that, in turn, helps Samantha attract new members.

Pre-pandemic, the GIG of Staten Island support group held regular in-person meetups at local restaurants that were doing a great job providing both gluten-free, and other allergen-friendly, foods. She continues to bring guest speakers to her local GIG community members through virtual meetings to address topics such as immunity boosting foods, eating gluten-free on a budget, how to read a food label, and information on healthy eating in general and current trends.

As part of her day job, Samantha gives grocery store tours of ShopRite on Staten Island to help customers navigate the shopping aisles and locate gluten-free or allergen-free foods. More recently, she held her first virtual grocery store tour offering the same type of guidance.

“I'm viewing (our store) through a nutrition lens. I take consumers through the perimeter of the store and point out that the majority of foods in the store are naturally gluten-free,” Samantha explains. “I take them through our produce department. I’ll take them into our food service, prepared foods, and deli departments and discuss with them which deli brands are safe for them.”

She also takes customers through the seafood, meat, dairy, frozen, and non-food sections of the store. Along the way, she provides tips on healthier items to choose that are gluten-free, how to fit more gluten-free foods into one’s budget, and when it’s appropriate to buy bulk and when it’s not.

While every grocery store may be arranged differently, Samantha’s store has what she calls a “snapshot gluten-free aisle” where all products on the shelves in specific areas are gluten-free. She points out to customers that they can find gluten-free pasta on the regular pasta aisle – usually the gluten-free options from brands that also produce non-gluten-free products. Gluten-free breads are arranged in a similar fashion, with two locations in different parts of the store.

Samantha says a goal of hers is to provide her customers with a greater awareness of naturally gluten-free products as viable options and how to navigate a grocery store in a healthful way.

Samantha says, “I love that (I’m) able to meet the customer on their food journey. It’s not a way of looking at nutrition as restrictive, which is great. Eating is an enjoyable experience for almost everyone. It is something that people can connect with universally. It really makes a big difference to help someone to continue to enjoy eating.”

Samantha’s Tips for Budget-Friendly Shopping

  1. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, and choose naturally gluten-free foods. The healthiest foods usually do not contain any gluten: fruit, vegetables, beans, eggs, low-fat dairy, lean meat. These items are usually located around the perimeter of the store.

  2. Buy in bulk (but not from the bulk bin). Choose non-perishables in larger bulk packaging if you’re eating a lot of it. Gluten-free grains like brown rice in a five-pound bag is usually only a dollar or two more than a little packet. As long as you have the space, go big. Avoid self-serve bulk bins because of the risk of cross-contact with food items containing gluten.

  3. Be Coupon Competent. Gluten-free products cost more, so use resources to help reduce the price. ShopRite, like many stores, offer a weekly circular with sales and coupons. Check for coupons for the products you love, including digital coupons. Use a store app for more savings options or check the manufacturer’s website. Some provide special offers if you join their email list.

  4. Look at what makes the most sense for your family. Does your household need to go completely gluten-free, or do you need to accommodate only one person in your family? If only accommodating one or a few family members, buying smaller amounts of gluten-free products only for those who need them makes more sense. Buy non-gluten-free products for the rest of family to stretch your budget.

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