Connecting with a retail dietitian just might be the most important thing you’ll ever put on your shopping list. Despite the occasional misconception, these experts are not in your grocery store to follow you around, to increase your guilt load or tell you what not to buy. They’re also not there to up sell vitamins or products you don’t want. Incredibly knowledgeable in a very specialized area of the food and nutrition field, retail dietitians operate at that perfect intersection between delicious tasting food and food that’s also great for your health and life! Retail dietitians are part of a larger group of registered dietitians, the only regulated food and nutrition experts in Canada.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting or working with over 250 retail dietitians from Canada, the USA, even England and Israel. They’re ALL passionate foodies with outstanding repertoires of practical ideas for every possible food situation you could ever face. They’re experts on nutrition truth and evidence versus hype while also being exceptional home chefs! (Some are both dietitian and culinary school-trained chef, have additional post-graduate certifications in diabetes management, weight management, gut health, natural health products, cooking course instruction, media relations and more.) Whether needing portable breakfast ideas for your sporty kids, guidance to help your Dad manage his diabetes, meal inspiration for your gluten-free dinner guests, creative ways to get your kids eating more vegetables, tips on reducing food waste, ideas to expand your meals-for-one repertoire and much more, these experts are there to assist. Their services are usually offered free of charge simply for being a customer of the grocery store in which they work.
A few of the many very valuable dietitian services you can find in smart retail settings these days include:
- Healthy Eating Tours – guided tours through the store customized to the group needs whether addressing diabetes, food allergies, nutrition for kids or assessing if new products are worth the hype, for example
- Health events – often teamed with the store pharmacists, these events offer screenings for high cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, bone density and other health concerns
- Cooking classes – stores with kitchen facilities are increasingly offering culinary events and programs for adults and kids groups on topics ranging from easy to make healthy snacks for college students living in residence, homemade baby food, seasonal party appetizers or how to host the perfect holiday meal, to name just a few
- Recipes and Meal Ideas – often weekly recipe ideas displayed in the store, the flyer, on TV and/or the company website
- Q and A services – a direct line to expert advice whether you catch the dietitian in the store, by phone or online.
- Written materials such as a listing of the gluten-free products the store carries, tasty ways to use in-season mangoes or a meal plan for managing high blood pressure
These aren’t dietitians who couldn’t find work elsewhere. Far from that! Not everyone can make it in this fast-paced, ever-changing environment – one that is also traditionally very male dominant. Retail dietitians are also involved in projects ranging from advising senior management and department heads on how to handle the latest healthy eating trends and the special diet questions they face from customers, keynote speaking at professional conferences and events for the public, assisting in the development of new healthy food products, creating ad campaigns that encourage eating healthy food, developing recipes and information that appears on food packaging, recruiting, training and leading teams of 50 or more in-store dietitians, communicating with food industry executives, being available as a subject matter expert to the media and even serving as the in-house wellness department offering nutrition consultations for employees.
As a nutrition student in the late 80’s, I remember wondering why grocery stores weren’t a major employer of dietitians? The very place where consumers make the majority of their food decisions! I wasn’t the first dietitian to ever work in a retail setting. In 1989 in Calgary, Alberta, I arranged a meeting with the corporate dietitian of Safeway, a supermarket chain that operates in both Canada and the USA. Having access to a dietitian as a grocery shopping coach of sorts was a concept I felt had tremendous opportunity to expand upon. After a varied nutrition career journey and while working concurrently as a consultant to media, the public and sports teams, I pitched an idea and went on to spend nearly a decade as a Retail Dietitian. It was a fantastic experience with a great company. Today I’m very fortunate to be part of a group of 10 brilliant colleagues – Canada’s first expert advisory group of Retail Dietitians (CRD – Canadian Retail Dietitians) – which includes representation from Canada’s most innovative grocery companies.
This inspired me to also include a few stories in this post directly from the trenches so-to-speak. Lesser known ways retail dietitians make life a little (or a lot) easier for consumers. Each situation was a memorable, positive interaction between customer(s) and retail dietitian. There are many more examples I could have included in sharing the often immeasurable ROI of a retail dietitian!
- Taking the edge off your hunger: You know how long it takes to get all of the seeds out of a pomegranate? During holiday season and with a great sale on pomegranates, I decided to profile and demo an easy pomegranate salsa recipe. As anyone who has done it will know, it indeed took some time to separate the arils of 5 pomegranates. I had the other ingredients in separate bowls ready to mix to make the salsa. I bent down to grab a spoon and looked up to find a customer scooping up and enjoying a generous handful of the arils – whole hand in the bowl! Although it meant I had to start all over again, we had an excellent chat and at least this took the edge off their hunger with a healthy snack. It also left me with a great idea for my next food safety-themed demo. Offering free apples, oranges and bananas for easily distracted, hungry kids shopping with mom or dad has also been an initiative customers appreciate very much.
- Providing a personal snack: In the same vein as the story above, we’ve had carefully prepared camera-ready food for use in TV commercials that were being filmed in the store disappear only to discover a curious customer enjoying watching the filming from the sidelines while satisfying a craving.
- Making splitting up a little easier: Who doesn’t love a cookbook with a full colour photo of every single recipe? Cookbooks made by retail dietitians are appreciated for their practical meal solutions. When a couple was going their separate ways, I was contacted with a request for a duplicate copy of a cookbook that was sold in the store a few years back and no longer in stock. It was a well-loved item neither wanted to part with. They were so appreciative to receive a second copy.
- Keeping the plot from over thickening: Or, at least the stir fry sauce! A young home cook asked if the produce bag they had filled to the brim with bulk cornstarch would be enough for a recipe they were planning to try. Saving them money, we were able to reduce the amount they bought by about 99%.
- Expanding the available treats: I have assisted many customers with diabetes in the ‘dietetic’ aisle of the Pharmacy and taken the time to explain how and why they can and should shop for a much wider variety of real, wholesome treats outside of this aisle. They are always very grateful.
- Preventing a chocolate marshmallow cookie emergency: I once responded to a panicked phone call from a customer who was calling from the cookie aisle looking at a case lot sale on a favorite treat, wondering what to do. It was a great opportunity to recommend many healthy snacks and provide some context with the 80-20 rule.
- Ensuring the recipe turns out: Nervous about the unfamiliar flavour and not seeing ongoing value in keeping a full $6 bottle on hand, I reassured a customer that the 12-ingredient recipe they were shopping with would still work out if the ¼ teaspoon of cardamom it called for was omitted.
- Getting it all done with one-stop shopping: Hearing customers express their stress in getting everything done in time for the holidays, it’s always great to see their relief when they realize they can get much of their gift shopping done right in the grocery store. In the early morning or late evening when all of the other stores are closed except the supermarket, I’ve been able to help customers find items for gift baskets like nuts, fruit, chocolate, fine cheeses, baking ingredients, tea and coffee. Cookbooks, cookware, kitchen gadgets, seasonal merchandise and gift cards make great last minute gifts too.
- Reducing the guilt load. Where some customers think the dietitian will take one look at their cart and judge harshly, expert retail dietitians actually do the complete opposite. I’ve had the opportunity to calmly reassure many customers that although they may have ideal grocery buying aspirations that include selecting only the cleanest, purest food, if the reality is that their budget doesn’t allow this in every case, we’ve worked together to find that happy medium place where they can be optimally nourished and feel relieved about it, no longer fearing shopping or feeling overwhelmed every time they step foot in the store.
- Reminding that we all have to shop: For a few years I appeared in a weekly healthy eating segment on TV. One time I was doing my own grocery shopping and could tell a customer was following me. They finally approached and said “Aren’t you Patricia Chuey? What are you doing buying your own groceries??? Don’t you have people who do that for you?” They were completely serious. In fun, I told them that even though I could have personal shoppers (not exactly true), I opt to buy my own groceries so I know what I’m eating. Truthfully, your retail dietitian most likely loves to do their own grocery shopping! These experts typically even include supermarkets, Farmer’s markets, food manufacturing facilities, farms and anywhere you can buy food as must-see tourist attractions when on vacation and away from their workplace.
Watch for – and definitely don’t fear – the dietitian either already there or coming to a supermarket near you soon. These food pros are truly there to be your friend in making food choices that fit best for your family. Share openly and you’ll find they understand your challenges intimately and will help you approach shopping in the most nourishing way that works specifically for YOUR unique needs!