Online grocery shopping – healthy helper or costly convenience?

by sophie on March 29, 2011 · 13 comments

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You’ve probably guessed by now that I’ve been a busy bee recently.  It’s all good stuff so I’m not complaining, but it has interfered with my food shopping quality time.   It’s easy to let healthy eating slip when you’re pushed for time but actually when you’re busy is when you need to eat well more than ever. To get round this I’ve been doing my grocery shopping online.  I can’t stress enough how helpful a strategy this can be when life gets hectic and it’s one I’ve seen work for a lot of busy folk.  And like most convenient answers to our modern, fast-paced lifestyle there are trade-offs which I’ve gathered my thoughts on too.

Why online shopping works so well

You will eat more healthily

Filling an online shopping cart with what you need for the week by its very nature encourages meal planning, which in turn encourages healthier meals.  They may not all be healthy but chances are some of them will be.  The same cannot be said for an empty cupboard and a take-away menu.  Meal planning is a massive component of eating well – the process of actively deciding what healthy means for you and those you cook for and making sure that you have the right foods available to create these meals.

It gets even better with practice

The more you online grocery shop the easier it gets.  Most websites build up a list of your regularly purchased items which you can refine with time.  Doing an online shop now takes me about 15 minutes which is considerably less time than when I started.  It’s much quicker than driving to the store, shopping, queuing and driving home again.

There are savings for your waistline and your wallet

Shopping online takes away the in-store temptation of bogof offers, pumped bakery smells and luscious cream cakes.  You only buy what’s on your list. This is good for your finances and keeps you away from those visual triggers that trip you into buying unhealthy foods that weren’t even on your mind until you saw them.  It’s particularly handy if you usually shop with children in tow.

Shop at your convenience, not theirs

I like to do my online shopping on a Sunday morning before the local supermarket is open, in my pyjamas with a cup of tea in my hand.  But if I want to go to pilates on Sunday morning instead I can sort the shopping out whenever I fancy.  Even better, the time I save from not actually going out to the shops can be used to do much more fun things like hang out with the chooks or planning this years vegetable growing.

So a few clicks of the mouse and your shopping is pretty much done, save answering the door and a bit of putting into cupboards when the delivery arrives.  What’s not to love?  After several weeks of consistent online grocery shopping I’ve seen a few disadvantages too, and realized that there are times when only a visit to the store will do…

Why online shopping isn’t the best choice for every shop

It’s harder to make informed choices

When I buy fruit and veg at the supermarket my choices are usually heavily influenced by which country the produce was grown in.  I also (predictably) spend time looking at nutrition labels.  Some information is available via online shopping interfaces, for example descriptors like organic or low fat, but when I shop online I miss being able to see countries of origin and use by dates in particular.

It doesn’t support the small producer

I like to buy some of my food from small local producers but sadly this is the kind of shopping that falls by the wayside if I’m really busy. I love it but it requires multiple journeys to get everything that we need which is sometimes just too time consuming.  It is important to me to support the local economy so I make a conscious effort to fit in some trips to the farmers market and the local organic market garden even if I’m doing most of my shopping online.

A bit of window shopping isn’t always a bad thing

If you never go into the shop you’re much less likely to discover interesting new, healthy foods.   Visiting the shops in person now and again is a great way to keep your cooking fresh and healthy.

Food allergy sufferers beware

If you have an allergy or coeliac disease then shopping online may be difficult because of the aforementioned lack of access to the food labels.  Having said that, many sites do give allergen information and online shopping can work well if you already have a well established allergen friendly shopping list.

Silly substitutes

In the early days of online shopping the store improvised substitutions were a source of both hilarity and frustration.  Times have changed and most of the time now we are offered a sensible substitution, however it’s still awkward when the key ingredient in your planned recipe is not delivered. When you’re in store it’s possible to rethink the whole meal if you need to (especially important if you’re expecting company for dinner).

Overall I think online shopping is wonderful time saver and healthy eating tool.  As far as I know it is also considered to be environmentally friendly, with one vehicle making a round trip to several residences rather than a multitude of individual cars making back and forth trips.  And there’s a lot to be said for slow food shopping too which is why I’ve chosen this photo of artisan bread at Borough Market as a reminder. If you want to eat really good, local and handmade food then you have to make time to shop for it.


kathryn March 29, 2011 at 21:53

Really thoughtful and useful summary Sophie. I’ve never actually shopped online, but I have friends who swear by it. They particularly like the shopping list functionality you mention, where it saves lists of what you’ve already bought.

I still like to pick up, sniff and feel what I’m purchasing, read labels and so on. My half way measure has been to subscribe to a regular vegetable box. It ensures we have a basic amount of fruit and veg in the house each week, which then ensures we’re eating better meals than take-away. Our box is all local produce, so it’s seasonal eating and largely organic. We have a grocery store very close by, so it’s relatively easy for me to top-up.

Just one question – what on earth are “bogof offers”? Never heard the word bogof before!

Johanna GGG March 30, 2011 at 04:34

I think your last point about not being able to rethink your meal is an interesting one – I quite often rethink a meal in the stores depending on what I see that takes my fancy. Makes an interesting point about ways of meal planning – I am not a great meal planner!

I haven’t done online shopping but one disadvantage is that for me it would mean not getting out of the house and into the local milieu – I sometimes see people I know down the street, but more importantly I miss the walk to the shops and the chance for sylvia to take in lots of sights and smells – probably not such an issue if you are busy rushing out and about but it is one reason I like shopping in store.

sophie March 30, 2011 at 21:55

Kathryn – yes, I’ve found having something remember what I buy week to week is one of the most helpful aspects. We very rarely run out of anything. I like your half way house of getting a veg box – choosing the freshest looking veg is probably the thing I miss most when I shop online, with label reading a close second.

And bogof = buy one get one free. How funny that you guys don’t have the same phrase! It’s a great trick of the supermarkets to get rid of whatever they’ve bought too much of and it’s generally unhealthy stuff on offer

Johanna – I agree completely, if shopping is a sociable activity and a good opportunity to get out for some fresh air then going to the shops in person is a real plus. For me, I tend to go for online shopping when I’ve been spending a lot of time out of the house and want to free up some time to spend at home or fitting in exercise. If you’re a parent then online shopping can be a nice break and yet I’m sure little ones will miss out on learning how to shop and choose food if they never accompany their parents to the shops.

Helen @ Fuss Free Flavours April 2, 2011 at 13:32

I online shop for store cupboard non perishables and for the boring stuff like washing powder and loo roll. Works a treat for me, but I could not imagine getting everything delivered and never bothering to go to the shops, that would be too boring, and I like to see what I am buying and plan a menu around one ingredient.

Arwen from Hoglet K April 13, 2011 at 08:38

That’s a very well-balanced look at online shopping. I’ve never tried it for groceries, but I guess it would save a lot of time. A mixed veggie box like Kathryn gets could be almost as exciting as seeing what’s in season on the shelves too. You’re right about the label reading though – I think I’d never buy anything new and different if I couldn’t read the label first.

Valeria April 15, 2011 at 13:19

I have to say that the balance swings in favour of online shopping for me; I’m in the 4th week of a diet, and I don’t think I’d be able to stick to it quite as well without online shopping. I have a habit of accidentally wandering into the biscuit section, or being drawn in by the offers at the end of the aisles. I think the only downside, like you said, is fruit (mine’s usually nowhere near ripe).

I have to say that Ocado’s substitutions and offers are pretty good compared to the rest.

Sophie April 26, 2011 at 13:49

absolutely, I think when you are trying to diet is when online shopping really comes into it’s own. It’s so helpful to be able to plan your meals for the week and then have those foods (but only those foods) delivered.

Linda Shirley April 22, 2011 at 16:33

I wish on-line shopping was available to us in the States but it rarely is. We are just too spread out. Darn it.

Sophie April 26, 2011 at 13:51

interesting Linda, I thought online shopping was much more commonplace in the States. I’m wondering if it’s more common in big urban areas where people are closer together?

A-M May 5, 2011 at 15:07

I am an online shopper convertee. It really does stop me buying loads of rubbish I don’t need. The only special offer section I check out are the fruit and veg and the joy of computerized shopping means as I do so, I am not distracted by the smell of the bakery. Also, living in the countryside, we save ourselves at least 40 minutes of driving, not to mention getting stuck behind people have discussions in the middle of aisles, queuing at the check out behind the woman who has only just realised she’s left her purse at home once everything’s already been scanned, and my own pet peeve, the gauntlet of the supermarket car park. All things I can happily do without.

We do usually make one small trip to ‘real’ shops once a week, to top up on fresh things like milk, and whatever wasn’t available from the online shop. But as this is a small trip, I can rely on the local shops and don’t need to use the car. And I can make up for those daft substitutions. The other month I ordered a potato peeler, and they tried to deliver barbecue tongs. Not quite sure how that’s going to help me making vegetable stew but never mind…

spring challenge June 4, 2011 at 21:56

I used to do my shopping online every week, now I do it every other week. When I shop online I stock up on cupboard items, heavy items and things I can’t find in my local shop. I’ve turned off the substitutions feature because I’d rather be short of an ingredient than end up with something I don’t like, although it’s very annoyng when that happens. I often book my delivery a week in advance and add items to my shopping basket throughout the week as I remember what is needed. But I agree with you, sometimes it’s good to visit the shop yourself for inspiration.

Ann October 25, 2011 at 03:19

GREAT information! I am willing to purchase some things on-line (Quinoa, wheat berries, gluten), but when it comes to fresh produce, I want to see it before it goes in my basket.

OFD USA January 28, 2013 at 12:10

Shopping at online grocery stores will enable you the convenience that you require while allowing you more time to do other things in your life that was formerly taken up with grocery shopping.

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