The University Network

How To: Grocery Shopping in College

This coming academic year, I’ll be living in an apartment on campus with a full kitchen! This is a big step up from my previous two years of kitchen-less dorming. While I love the idea of cooking my own meals, I recognize that it will come with a couple of barriers; grocery shopping in college can be both time-consuming and money-draining.

Ditching your university’s dining plan (even if only partially) means a lot of added responsibility on your end. If you’re in the same boat as I am, you’ll need to bring at least one meal around campus, along with a few snacks, daily. This involves some planning ahead.

There are two huge things to keep in mind before going food shopping in college: budgeting and grocery staples.

>>>> Budgeting <<<<

Before the school year even begins, set aside a week during which you’ll take note of EVERYTHING you eat (write it all down if that helps). Scary and daunting but well worth the time. Once you have an idea of the food you eat on a weekly basis, check your local grocery store pricing to gain a sense of how much you’ll be spending. Then, add an extra $10, or whatever amount you see fit, to account for splurging on something extra or sharing food with a roommate. Do your best to make educated guesses about portions and costs.

Remember not everyone’s food budget will look the same. Prices will vary depending on your dietary needs. Some of you prefer organic produce, some are vegetarians, some gluten-free, etc. Also, if you plan to go grocery shopping less frequently than once per week, simply add up the cost of however many weeks’ worth of food you’re looking to purchase!

>>>> Grocery Staples <<<<

Now that you have a budget, it’s time to spend (my favorite part). Be mindful, as it’s easy to get side tracked once you enter the store and see hundreds of options in front of you, at least from my experience. To aid the shopping process, always go in with a list. A mental list works well for a few purchases, but when you’re shopping for the next few weeks, a physical list on your phone or a scrap of paper is ideal. You don’t want to forget something crucial then run back to the store when you really should be studying for a midterm. Not to mention writing everything down will allow you to check and make sure everything falls within your allotted budget.

One important thing to consider: Can you make actual meals with the food you buy? If you have a weekly $50 budget, you can spend its entirety on M&Ms and a cheese platter, but is that what you’ll want to be eating all week? To combat this terrifying thought, take note of your favorite grocery staples. Grocery staples are foods you will always want in the kitchen that can be used in a variety of dishes.

For instance, if I had to put a name to my own habits, I would say I follow a loosely paleo diet. Most of my meals comprise meats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts (and then some cheat meals on the weekends). That means I know to always keep these food groups in my kitchen to last me through the week. These foods are what I should look toward during trips to the grocery store. My more complete list of staples looks like this: raw chicken breasts, sliced deli turkey, canned tuna, canned salmon, canned beans, apples, bananas, baby carrots, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, eggs, hummus, raw walnuts, peanut butter. I can personally cook endless food combinations with this short list. Veggie salads, tuna salads, stir-frys, omelettes, fruit salads, bean burgers, fruit and peanut butter for snacking, carrots and hummus for snacking, and so on. You can see how this list works to make a number of diverse meals that I enjoy.

To craft your own personal list of grocery staples, go through what you eat in a week. This can be done at the same time as you are preparing your budget. Look at all the food you ate that week, and pinpoint the key ingredients in each dish. Compile a list of 10-20 diverse items to always stock in your kitchen. Now you’ll never go hungry! 

Bonus Tips:

Don’t throw away browning fruits and veggies. If you over-purchase for the week and you’re left with quickly ripening produce, blend everything together to make a rich smoothie!

Prep meals in advance. It’s exciting to have a kitchen in college, but it can get overwhelming fairly quickly if you try to cook every day. Instead, cook big dishes twice a week and ration them out in plastic containers. Your fridge will be filled with ready-made food you love.

If you make a particularly photo-worthy meal using these tips (or any meal you’re proud of), post a photo on Twitter and tag us! We love to see students utilize TUN’s many resources 🙂 Happy cooking!