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A master class in grocery shopping

Pandemic pushes many residents to focus on nutritional health

A registered dietitian for 15 years, Cara Marrs teaches clients how to shop carefully, read labels and avoid additives. Photo by Suzie Romig

Going on a grocery shopping trip with longtime local registered dietitian nutritionist Cara Marrs is like taking a master class from Helen Mirren in acting or Serena Williams for tennis.

After a walking lesson around the store about increasing intake of cruciferous vegetables, trying food swaps such as legume-based pastas, mixing healthy chopped foods into family dinners, eating antioxidant rich choices and buying treats in the plant-based dairy alternative section, grocery shoppers come away with a head full of new dietary ideas and taste buds craving to try new dishes.

Few people would be able to shop in the same stale ways after updating their grocery shopping skills with Marrs. She jokes that friends who see her at the store either ask food questions or say, “Don’t look at my cart.”



Working in her private practice as well as at UCHealth Integrative Medicine Clinic for the past 12 years, energetic and personable Marrs helps both in-patient and out-patient hospital clients with everything from recovering from cancer to cardiac rehabilitation. She sees clients for matters ranging from gastrointestinal issues to food sensitivities.

Marrs’ goal in the grocery market is to shop first in the outer ring, minus the pastry section. She teaches clients to focus on maintaining the 80/20 rule, or 80% of their food choices should be healthy and make the body feel good while the remaining 20% may be less perfect choices.



Yes, she eats chocolate, but it’s dark and organic. Yes, she prefers her clients eat more plant-based foods, yet she knows many people also eat red meat, hot dogs and sliced sandwich meats. So, she teaches clients to pay careful attention to labels and buy healthier options with fewer additives.

She shops for fresh and seasonal foods first and then organic frozen foods. Marrs suggests visiting busy grocery stores midmorning for best selections, and the old adage about not going shopping when hungry is still a solid tip. She recommends trying to shop with a plan in mind for meals for the next three days.

“I spend twice as much money when I don’t have a plan,” said Marrs, who studied nutrition at Colorado State University as an undergrad, Central Michigan University for grad school and the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences for a medical internship.

Families should keep a good stock of healthy, shelf-stable, basic foods at home for when it has been a long or hard day, she said, suggesting rice, beans, pastas, jars of salsa or pesto, frozen fish and frozen organic vegetables. Busy families can create a routine of go-to dinners such as Taco Tuesdays and then mix up those favorites by trying fish or vegetarian tacos.

Registered dietitian nutritionist Cara Marrs talks about the value of eating cruciferous vegetables with fellow local mom Lindsey Reznicek. Photo by Suzie Romig

One of her own go-to meals is garbanzo bean pasta with pesto sauce topped with shrimp from the freezer. Or she buys organic bagged salads and adds hemp hearts, chopped nuts or avocado. She likes to make coconut curries or roast salmon with vegetables. This summer she is making salads with watermelon, goat cheese, cucumbers, pistachio nuts, lime and mint growing in her yard.

Her current focus is to encourage all people to eat more fiber-rich foods including nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans, chickpeas or fresh veggies dipped in hummus. She points out that blackberries and raspberries are higher fiber fruits, and foods rich in fiber are more satiating and help regulate blood sugar.

Marrs also has recorded recipe demonstration videos for the website UCHealth.org/evre available to view in the Nutrition section under Wellness Videos. The first lesson is “Eat the Rainbow with Kid-Friendly Snacks.”

“All of us eat with our eyes before we taste anything,” Marrs explained. “For kids especially, something that looks cool or is inviting is really important for them.”

While some eaters turned to heavier, comfort foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marrs suggests ways to transform favorites into healthy comforting foods. For example, she roasts butternut squash to blend and mix in with macaroni and cheese she cooks for her 9-year-old son.

Although she is not a huge fan of bagged products, Cara Marrs does buy organic bagged salads and then adds fiber-rich toppings such as hemp hearts or avocados. Photo by Suzie Romig

When it comes to comfort food at the beginning of the pandemic, baking was apparently popular with residents. The grocery buyer for Natural Grocers in Steamboat Springs, Jim Engelken, confirmed that sugar, flour and baking mixes were hot items during the early months of the pandemic.

Marrs believes Routt County residents faired relatively well staying healthy and mostly avoiding the so-called “quarantine 15” weight gain due in part to the great abundance of outdoor exercise options and the addition of more virtual exercise classes. She said some locals let routines and food choices stray, or others turned to less healthy eating for three to six months and then returned to more healthy habits.

“More than any other time, people have been extremely interested in working on their health, and they realized health impacted COVID outcomes,” Marrs said. “A lot of people were seeking out a lot of help with their nutrition.”

Even if residents did gain a few pandemic-persuaded pounds, Marrs encourages people to focus on health, such as trying one new healthy recipe each week, rather than focusing on weight.

 


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