The Daily Beet

12 Mar Grocery Store Melt Down.

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A post by Engine 2 Team member, Natala…

There I was. Ready to go, I had my good sneakers on, my reusable bags in hand and a list. A giant big grocery list, separated into columns, organized by colors, I was ready for my first plant-strong shopping trip.

I pulled into the Whole Foods parking lot, which by the way is like pulling into a bumper cars game. I successfully drive around the parking lot 23 times trying to find a spot. At this point I’m like 200 pounds heavier than I am now, walking a long distance was not something I enjoyed doing. So I circled and finally found my spot.

Next, I get my cart, and I head into the store. BUT WAIT. There is stuff outside the store, do I need this stuff? Is this on the list? I’ll grab a few things – I think. I grab some citrus, and a basil plant, surely a basil plant is healthy, right?! Next, I walk into the store, and BAM! Right in front of me a cheese display. What is a cheese display doing there? Get out of my way, cheese! I successfully avoid the cheese. I walk to produce. What the heck is kale? Collards? Turnip greens? I thought it was just lettuce and spinach? There are 40 kinds of potatoes and 20 kinds of apples! I start throwing things into my cart, forgetting the list, and just thinking, just get it all, figure it out later.

I now have completely abandoned my list. It is at the bottom of my cart, and it is screaming for me to rescue it. I start heading down aisles having no clue what I should buy. Pasta, whole grain pasta! Wait, is brown rice pasta good? Was it whole wheat that I should get? All of this tomato sauce has cheese! Where is my list?!

I ask where the tofu is. Apparently there is silken, soft, medium and firm. I put ALL of them in my cart, because I have no idea what is best. Now I’m in the bulk section. WHAT ON EARTH AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?! I just start filling bags with things in the bulk section, because naturally, anything in bulk is healthy, that is how the hippies shop.

And then I see it, a beacon of light, it’s the ‘vegan’ section. Forgetting all of my label reading rules, I begin to throw anything ‘vegan’ into my cart. There is ‘vegan’ every thing! Cookies, ice-cream, mayo, cupcakes, donuts! Why did Rip hide this from me?!

I remember that there are some vegan foods that are junk food, and try to dig them out of my cart.

I have now spent 90 minutes in the store and my cart looks like I was on “Super Market Sweep”. I have no clue what is actually in my cart. And I don’t even know what the heck I’m supposed to make for dinner.

I circle the store about 20 more times, I’ve broken down and had samples of chips AND chocolate. Those Whole Foods demo people are SO nice, I don’t want to disappoint them and turn them down.

It is now the 2nd hour. I am exhausted, I go and find a seat in the cafe area with my full cart, I stare at my cart, I have no idea what is in my cart. Do leafy greens go bad after 2 hours in my grocery cart? I start to feel overwhelmed, and I start to feel the tears coming. What is wrong with me, I think. I have to get out of there, before I have a complete meltdown in the cafe.

I get up and leave my full cart (sorry Whole Foods) and walk back to my car, cry for a minute as people wait for me to leave my parking spot. I give up, go home and eat oatmeal and black beans for the next several days (not together), because I can not think about going back out to grocery shop.

So how did things change? How did I go from a total grocery store shopping MESS to a complete rock star when it comes to grocery shopping? And what if you have other challenges like food allergies, budget considerations, cooking for a large family, or cooking for one? The next couple of weeks we are going to focus on grocery store survival under any circumstance.

So let’s hear your grocery store melt-downs and your “but I can’t go plant-strong… because (fill in the blanks). Together we are going to become grocery store superstars.


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Natala Constantine
  • Lani Muelrath, Plant-strong health & fitness
    Posted at 08:15h, 12 March

    Oh my Natala, it’s worse than the travails of the wild on the savanna! One can only marvel at the tenacity you showed that first time out. A lesser woman would have caved and grabbed a bag of ‘healthy, organic!’ cookies and hit the parking lot far sooner.

    Excellent topic for exploration and I can’t wait to read more adventures from all the plant-strong peeps here at E2!


    • Katie
      Posted at 10:23h, 12 March

      Yes I agree, I far less women, eh hem, would of grabbed a box of Late July “oreo” cookies, they are are vegan and organic so they must be healthy! 😉

  • Sheila
    Posted at 08:41h, 12 March

    I couldn’t fathom changing to plant strong eating, because I have a freezer full of locally grown beef, pork and chicken that my sister raised. She also has 100’s of laying hens, so there are dozens of eggs too. Dairy was easy to ditch because she doesn’t have a milk cow. It was hard to tell my sister, please no more eggs. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She has gone to so much work rasing these heritage breeds organically. I told her for now this is just an experiment to see if my health improves. So far it has, dramatically, and I can’t imagine going back to eating the way I was. I’ve offered to give my sister back any of the meat in my freezer. As a last resort, my 2 dogs and 2 cats still have to eat.

    In comparison to the talk with my sister, grocery shopping was easy. I had only been buying small amounts of food there anyway, since I belong to two local CSA’s and that’s where I get most of my veggies and fruit. I have found myself doing produce section only shopping because we never seem to have enough kale. The last CSA basket (mostly root crops from storage and a few greens from their greenhouse) ended last week and the new distribution won’t start until the end of May when the farms around here have enough growing again. I predict I’ll be hanging in the grocery produce section a bit more over the next couple of weeks until the Farmer’s Market (local lettuce and asparagus!) opens.

    I don’t forsee any grocery store melt downs as I’m already well past missing cheese.

  • wendy (healthy girl's kitchen)
    Posted at 09:03h, 12 March

    Natala-Thanks again for sharing yourself with us! It is so refreshing, and enjoyable, to read your real life stories. I am wondering about the food environment that you grew up in and whether or not it impacted your experience with food, and grocery stores and cooking, etc., etc. I was lucky enough to grow up in a home with a mother cooking real food every single day, so grocery shopping was something I had down from a very young age. But I realize that not everyone had that same experience! Even so, I still grew up with a food addiction . . . go figure!

  • Jess
    Posted at 09:11h, 12 March

    This is SO freaking hilarious major props to you for using the all the things meme! Has anyone told you that you should have your own book? I cry, I laugh, I want to know more!
    My first grocery trip was not as bad as yours, but I did break down and cry at least one time! I feel a lot better that I’m not the only one.
    Keep writing! PLEASE!

  • Kathy
    Posted at 09:36h, 12 March

    Well for me it is my husband that stands in my way, he does not want to change the way he eats, so I’d love some advice on that. I think I’d also be like you with the tofu especially, I’ve never even touched the stuff! My other question is about gluten, I try to avoid it, but I see a lot of recipes that use gluten, would love for shopping tips on that and my husband lol.

    • Cat Zirkle
      Posted at 11:50h, 12 March

      I am a Celiac (Gluten Intolerant disease) and I have 3 other meat loving, bread eating, carnivorous men. So, I have had to for years prepare food for them and me. Recently, I managed to get them to watch Forks over Knifes, and Sick, Fat, and Nearly Dead documentaries. Those have changed there ways of eating. I just started with a salad and fresh juice for them each day, started cutting the cows milk with almond 1:1, and not buying the packaged items and ensuring there was easy access to healthy snacks buy cleaning and chopping fruits and veggies in the morning for them to “Nibble” on during the day. I have totally cut out sugars and salts, so a bowl of oats and grains with banana and some blueberries is now sweet to them. This transition has taken a couple years. I have a couple raw food recipe books and try to make one new recipe a week, and they have found they like the food. They now eat a 75% diet of raw fruits and veggies. We buy organic grass feed meat, more expensive but smaller portions to even it out. Black beans are a favorite, and great filler item in place of meat. Lead by example and just offer a taste and before you know it he will come around, start feeling better and have more energy. I also give a bowl of veggies and a raw ranch dip to them before dinner, great filler and I know they are getting good greens to help with the digestion of the meat protein. I could go on, so if you want to chat, let me know.


      • Jill
        Posted at 09:14h, 15 March

        I had junk food teens and a carnivore husband that needed diet changes for health reasons but kept brushing me off as crazy when I tried to encourage a plant-based diet on them. It was only after getting them to watch Forks over Knifes, and Sick, Fat, and Nearly Dead documentaries that moved them to change. Their increased level of energy and the weight loss helps to sustain them in their changes.
        Sometimes people just do better with visuals.

    • Chrissy, Sassy Little Cabbages
      Posted at 18:55h, 13 March

      Hi Kathy,

      I went gluten free roughly two years ago and we are now totally plant strong as of the last 4 or 5 months. Gluten free shopping can be daunting, especially now that the market is flooded with a lot of junky, or ill tasting foods. I have learned to make just about any recipe gluten free. For example, find a multi purpose GF flour that you like (there are many blends and most are great …. single flours I have had less success with, so I suggest a blend). I do not buy any of the processed stuff, because it is all chemicals and sugar or salt.

      The one thing I learned is that you do have to experiment and you will find GF products that you do not like. And that is ok.

      Good luck!

  • devon
    Posted at 10:12h, 12 March

    I feel your pain, it was very hard to figure out how to shop smart and healthy. We shopped for two hours with all three kids (under the age of 5) we were ready to pull our hair out between reading the E2 book we broght with us to see if every item we picked up wasa approved or not and the kids. But we made it through and can now make it in and out in less than an hour. Thanks in part to Whole Foods healty eating specialist Jackie. We wouldn’t be plant based 6 months later without her!

  • Diane LeBeau
    Posted at 10:14h, 12 March

    I love it, Natala. And I can so identify. Thanks. You are a gem.

  • Doug
    Posted at 10:16h, 12 March

    This made me feel a lot better about my first shopping trip, although, you were better than I was, I walked out with an entire cart full of groceries, 310 dollars! And a lot of junk food, I also fell prey to the vegan trap!
    I’m wondering about organic vs. non organic. I live in a small town, and if we get vegetetables and fruit some parts of the year we are lucky, I don’t know if we have any organic food available.

  • Norma
    Posted at 10:18h, 12 March

    My first Engine 2 shopping experience (almost 2 years ago!) did not involve tears, but I was in the store a LONG time. I was already eating mostly vegetarian and I really like grocery shopping, but the label reading and searching for unfamiliar items were a little tedious. Then came the final tally! My advice is not to try to do everything at once. Shop for just a few days worth and stick to recipes and ingredients that are not entirely foreign at first. Maybe the good Engine 2 folks could come up with a beginners’ list of absolute essentials, then a way to phase in more items.

    • Elizabeth B.
      Posted at 11:38h, 12 March

      Totally agree! I think I first spent about $100 on new items without hidden animal products- way more than I’d ever spent before! Now that I’ve got it figured out, I definitely spend less money since I’m not buying soda, cookies, cheese, meat, hamburger helper (can’t believe I ever ate that-embarrassing!), etc.

  • elaine o'connell
    Posted at 10:26h, 12 March

    Natala I have never seen a vegan section in whole foods, you must live in Austin where the most magnificent whole foods exist. My first trip also to whole foods but in Boulder caused a near melt down for me too. Mine was over trying to find hummus, pasta sauce and salsa without oil or tahini. Ugh! I gave up in disgust, bought everything else I needed and made hummus at home. Next trip was to King Soopers (Colorado grocery store) where I discovered two aisles of perfect food. Pasta sauce with no oil, hummus with no oil (but still had tahini) and salsa with no oil. I also found oat milk, soups and broths with no oil or other bad stuff. I now shop there.

  • Vicki M.
    Posted at 10:26h, 12 March

    Well, I have been making the transition slowly. Instead of going all at once. My family is low income, so throwing away food was not really an option, and our choices are sometimes limited to what we get from from the food bank.

    So for us, I’ve been slowly transitioning, telling the food bank we don’t want the powdered milk, but will be happy to take the dried beans, rice, and any greens they have. We’ve been using up what meat was left in our freezer, using it up very slowly I might add, because none of us really seems to want to eat it much anymore. Once in a while we will have a dish with meat in it to use up we have, but I’ve learned so many vegan recipes that I have to make a point of using the meat. I haven’t bought any meat since September when we started the transition, all we have left now are a few Salmon, and a couple of chicken breasts, and when those are gone we’ll be done with it.

    By transitioning slowly, I’ve been able to focus on one recipe at a time, and shop for it. Then at the next shopping trip add in another new plant strong recipe. Each time I add in a plant strong recipe, I STOPPED shopping for one non-vegan recipe that I used to make. Its taken time, but as I said, now I don’t shop for any non-vegan recipes, and I KNOW what I need for the plant strong recipes I make.

    I think a gradual approach will really help for those who are hesitant to go through their kitchen and throw things out, and make a drastic change over night.

    I see that Katy above says her husband doesn’t like the idea, a gradual approach can also help with this, because serving veggie burgers once a week will intimidate the husband less than telling him he can never have meat again. Then add in another meatless meal such as vegan burritos. Later when he’s used to two vegan meals a week, try a vegan lasagna… etc. I avoid things like Tofu because I don’t want soy, and because the stuff seems “strange” to my family, instead I focus on recipes that seem familiar, such as burgers, spaghetti, lasagna, burritos, and even Pizza, but make them plant strong instead. One meal at a time, and soon you are eating vegan 99% of the time, once you get there its not hard to get everyone to step that other 1% over the line.

    • April
      Posted at 19:52h, 12 March

      Sounds like a very reasonable way of doing it. So glad you are making it work. I am also trying to make these changes on a budget. I have found the same- without buying all the junk, I have more money to spend on fresh veggies, etc.

      Good luck!

  • GW Bell
    Posted at 10:32h, 12 March

    My wife and I feel for what you went through. While we don’t have a Whole Foods close to us, we went to Central Market. We were in the same boat, trying to figure out what we should be buying and also trying to stock up on our new “staples”. Part of our problem was the not knowing, but the other part that we had to get past was some of the other “customers”. This store is in a fairly affluent part of town and some of the customers showed various degrees of “entitlement issues” while they were impatiently waiting for my wife and I to decide on our many purchases. We were being nudged, bumped, asked to move on more than one occasion, and generally made to feel that we were “in their way”. The staff of this store were very helpful and did not mind our incessant questions on products, locations and ingredients. We made it through that fairly uninjured, and vowed not to let a few prima donnas divert us from our goals. As of this date, I have lost over 30 pounds and my wife has lost over 10 pounds (since 2/11/12), the official beginning of our Plant-Strong way of life. So don’t give up on it…

  • Susan
    Posted at 10:39h, 12 March

    I can totally relate! When we went plant strong, I too, planned well before going to the grocery store. Then I got there and my mind went blank. I felt like a deer in headlights. So many choices, so many foods I had never heard of! What to do? I bought some of what I could remember was ok, left without a lot of what I needed. Danced in the aisle when I found a vegan sprouted wheat bread without oil ( I thought I would never eat bread again). Now, other than having to go to 3 or 4 stores to get what I need-no Whole Foods here!-grocery shopping is feeling “normal” again.The Engine 2Diet shopping guide was a great time saver to have brands and such spelled out made it all much easier for us newbies. Thanks Engine2. I think we’ve made it!

  • Meridith - vegheadmomma
    Posted at 11:09h, 12 March

    Now I really want to watch a marathon of Super Market Sweep. Remember the big jugs of oil they would always get?

    4 1/2 years into plant-based eating and I’ve got it down. My grocery list is written in the order of the aisles of our grocery store. But it wasn’t always that way. It’s definitely a learning process. Thank you for sharing your story!

  • Fonnetta S
    Posted at 11:24h, 12 March

    I can’t even imagine what you went through! Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I know my sister has had times just like you did and calls me for help on the “what the heck is this” on the labels.

    I make everything from scratch and have been vegetarian most of my life BUT reading labels can cause a major meltdown. I am allergic to dairy products and have been since birth (aren’t we all??) In saying that, I have had to read labels since I was a child but I was only looking for no dairy (and all the other words they use to disguise it). It is so difficult to find food without added oil, cheese, tahini, MSG, sugar and which cans are sprayed with BPA!!! When you do find some foods, they may not be organic and then they are made from GMO ingredients…which is the lesser evil?? It does get overwhelming and I get so tired of cooking for a family of 6. I spend so much time just cutting & cleaning vegetables before I ever start cooking!!!! The only saving grace for me is to go for two days of meals at a time and shop WITH the book! It keeps me on track and I tend not to spiral out of control searching for weeks worth of food! I love how I feel and LOVE being Plant Strong…it IS totally worth all the work. I also believe the more we let companies know what we want the more change will happen!

  • jari
    Posted at 12:09h, 12 March

    The Whole Foods parking lot is no joke!

  • Wendy
    Posted at 12:34h, 12 March

    I have worked at Whole Foods for the past 14 years and my suggestion to avoid the melt down for newbies to becoming Plant Strong is to avoid things you can control. Shop in the early morning and you can take your time, think, enjoy, learn and find a parking place without any hassle. There are many areas in the store where you don’t even need to go (and be tempted by foods not on the plan) and a few that you should focus on! Have fun in produce and taste new things. Team Members are very excited to share the flavors so ASK. Just because foods are labeled Vegan doesn’t always mean they are healthy–read labels. There are a lot of processed Vegan foods. Keep it simple. Buy fresh, whole foods and you’ll go great!!!!

  • Pat
    Posted at 12:38h, 12 March

    My first (and so far, only) Whole Foods experience was somewhat similar, but without the tears! The place is HUGE and I seemed to be the only one who didn’t know what she was doing. And I had the same thought when I saw the cheese. I don’t know why I didn’t expect to see it, but it was a surprise! I was very fortunate to come across a very helpful WF employee in the bulk food section. Not only did he help me find the things I needed, but he shared his vegan experience of 9 years with me (saying he’d never go back) and then went through my shopping list (printed from this website) and patiently told me which aisle I could find everything in. Still, the whole process took me a couple of hours and cost me a bunch. I was prepared for the cost, however, so I was pleased when it came to just under the total I had in my mind. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying all the produce stuff from the first week list at the same time, however, especially if you’re cooking for only one or two people. I followed recipes and still haven’t been able to use everything – actually ended up throwing out a couple of things that spoiled. This week (week 2 for my husband and I) my goal is to use up things that are left and to shop a lot more carefully. Whole Foods is quite a distance from where I live, so it’s not practical to shop there, even though I loved the store. We have a “shop for you” service in our city that doesn’t charge an extra fee or raise the store prices. They have WF on their shopping list, so I’m going to try that and see how it goes. Somehow the idea of someone else wandering around the parking lot and then hunting down items that they will then deliver to the parking lot across the street from where I work seems very appealing! At the end of week one I have noticed that my husband already looks healthier. We haven’t weighed yet, but he looks as if he has lots a few pounds and his facial color is great! Looking forward to what the end of the 28 days brings! Thanks for all the hand-holding devices you have built into this program.

  • Tanya
    Posted at 14:37h, 12 March

    While my first shopping trip wasn’t as traumatic, I definitely relate! I was so lost in the store, I had to call my husband 3 times to ask him to look up something online to see what the heck it was.
    Thanks for trudging through all of this and sharing your story Natala, I really like the “real” people approach to all of it!

  • Georgia
    Posted at 15:02h, 12 March

    I just want to give Natala a big hug, she needs a talk show.

  • Laura
    Posted at 15:06h, 12 March

    OMG ” I just start filling bags with things in the bulk section, because naturally, anything in bulk is healthy, that is how the hippies shop.”

    I just started cracking up at my desk, now everyone knows I was not working on accounting things!

  • Corinne
    Posted at 15:50h, 12 March

    That was super hilarious Natala! As a seasoned plant-strong woman who knows her way around WFM like the back of her hand, I often forget what it is like for others or even what it used to be like for me. All I can say is that over time it all becomes so simple and second nature. You will be in and out of there in 20 minutes with your cart full of plants (and hopefully a bar or two of vegan dark chocolate).

  • April
    Posted at 20:04h, 12 March

    Natalia, I wish you had a daily blog. I need a dose of your “real life” humor and encouragement on a daily basis. I look forward to your next blog.

  • Brad
    Posted at 06:07h, 13 March

    One of the workers at our local Whole Foods (Louisville, KY) told me I could call and make an appointment with someone to take me around the store and show me where the Engine 2 foods are located — sorta like the doctors in Forks Over Knives do with their patients. I never took them up on it, since I already knew the store fairly well from my pre-E2 days, but it sounds like a wonderful service for those looking for assistance with getting started.

  • Jennifer
    Posted at 07:33h, 13 March

    Natalia..are we long lost sisters!!! lol, sounds like my trip to the stores this weekend!!!!

  • Chrissy, Sassy Little Cabbages
    Posted at 18:58h, 13 March

    Natala, you are a great writer … that made me laugh so hard but it is all so true! I think the best way to do it is be gradual, try new products slowly and accept that there will be things that you just don’t like! Being a gluten free vegan took a long time to perfect, especially with two children. Over time it got easier and now shopping is much easier!

  • Kara Glenn
    Posted at 01:39h, 15 March

    Everybody needs to know just because it has the heart symbol with the V in it DOES NOT make it vegan. Always read the label of anything you’re buying for the first time. My breakdown occurred when I was a vendor for Whole Foods for The Republic of Tea. My “friends” brought me a chocolate covered bacon candy bar Natala!!! I didn’t know what to do. Like you, I didn’t want to hurt their feelings so I took it & gave it away after I left the store. Go for your dry goods first, then bulk, then freezer, then produce on top so everything stays close to temperature. It was easier for me to start on a small shopping trip to Publix to get basics then go big to Whole Foods. Clip coupons, make a list, stick to it & don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need. Shopping will get easier as you become used to plant based eating. I started with oatmeal & black beans too. Now I’m all the way up to mac & not cheese plus making my own creations. Go Natala go!!! I really needed that laugh 🙂

  • Deborah Stubbs
    Posted at 15:35h, 21 May

    ahahahahaha hysterical…wonderful amazing writing, Natala…wish you had a permanent blog as well…I’m just pulling my hair out trying to grow my own food, figure out where to buy what I can’t grow, which vitamin supplements to buy, etc.. and desperately wanting the norwalk juicer…it really is a process until you get it down…I’m with ya, sister…we’ll get it…in the meantime, this was some funny shit right here lol you have a gift for writing lol…<3 Deborah

  • kdesign007
    Posted at 18:27h, 16 September

    Oh boy! I just went through 90% of what you described here this weekend with hubby in tow! Thankfully, minus leaving without checking out and (God bless him) hubby steered me away from the Newmans ginger lemon cookies I was “fondling” (reading the label). 😉

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