Getty/Zachary Scott

The Cooking Light staff share their best college grocery shopping advice.

August 01, 2017

During my first semester of college I bought (and wasted) an entire gallon of milk every other week. In my head it made sense. I planned to have cereal every morning, so a full gallon was the best deal. What I didn't realize was milk goes bad eventually, and as a single person I wasn't able to finish an entire gallon before it went sour. 

One of the hardest things for most college students (actually most people) is learning to navigate a supermarket. Nobody ever really teaches you what to buy or how to shop smart, so you tend to end up with tons of junk without any real meals. 

I asked the Cooking Light staff to share their best college grocery shopping advice to help the next wave of students make smart choices while cooking in their very first kitchens. 

 Kutay Tanir

Keep Staples on Hand 

Your first grocery store trip is going to be way more expensive and time consuming than the rest, but it's smart to stock up on staples for meals any time. Keep your pantry full with a variety of grains like dry pasta, quinoa, and rice. Nonperishable goods like canned tomatoes make for easy pasta nights, while dry or canned beans are ideal for stuffed pepper and enchiladas. For easy breakfasts, turn to dry cereal and oats.

Don't bother buying everything you think you may need at some point, but stick to what you'll always use. Purchase specialty items like rice wine vinegar and sesame oil when you actually need them, but keep a few basics on hand like olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and lemons for easy dressings and fast flavor. 

Shop After a Meal

It's always good practice to plan going to the grocery store, instead of heading over when you realize you're hungry and have an empty fridge. You're way more likely to purchase items you don't really need (is that $14 salmon roll really necessary?) and make rash decisions when walking through aisles. Stick to always shopping on a full stomach, and focus on buying things you actually need. 

Have a Plan

Meal planning can save you tons of money and decrease food waste. Always walk into the grocery store with some kind of plan in mind, or better yet, make a shopping list. Consider what you'll realistically eat in a week's time to calculate how many meals you need to prepare for, this way you buy exactly what you need instead of wasting money on food that will go bad.

If planning every day out doesn't work well for you, keep a general idea in mind. Keep proteins on hand like a bag of frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts for quick meals throughout the week and then stock up on fresh fruits and veggies you can repurpose into salads, stir frys, and sides. 

Get Inspired 

If you're willing to go the planning route, make sure you mix up your meals with smart, tasty options to avoid fatigue. Create Pinterest boards for easy lunches, overnight oats, and pasta ideas, or use Pinterest to follow your favorite cooking sites. If you want to repeat recipes and keep it visual, pick up food focused magazines in the supermarket or a student centered cookbook. We live in a world where recipe access is endless, so use what's around you. 

Consider Cost Vs Convenience 

This is a very personal choice that is determined by your budget and time. In one semester you might be working a part-time job, taking a full course load, and interning three days a week. During busy times, it may be worth spending a little extra for pre-cut or pre-peeled produce that you can toss into an omelet or sandwich in a jiff. If you have some extra time on your hands and want to save cash, buying the whole butternut squash or mango to prep yourself will definitely keep your grocery bill down. We're not for one or the other, just choose the option that works best for you.

Shop the Perimeter 

If you've ever been inside a grocery store, you may have noticed the freshest items are almost always around the perimeter of the store. Start your shopping along those sections to pick up fresh produce, dairy, eggs, seafood, meat, and deli products. This method will help you focus on not only shopping healthier items, but also cheaper ingredients. 

Something to keep in mind for the seafood, meat, and deli counters is to know how much to ask for. Check your recipe for how much protein you'll need, because fish servings can vary from 4-8 ounces and meat servings can run approximately 3-8 ounces depending on the cut and how they will be prepared. 

Don't Be Too Cheap

As a college student, you're most likely going to consider price in whatever you choose to purchase. Be aware that even if one item may seem cheaper than another, always check the by unit price so you can compare how much you're spending in relation to how much you're getting. Be sure to also be realistic about how much you'll consume. Sure, the unit price for a gallon of milk gives you more for your money, but how much do you really need?

Also think about the quality of the food you purchase. Ramen noodles seem like a cheap steal, but a block is super high in fat and sodium, and isn't particularly nutritious. Try for a box of spaghetti with a stick of butter instead, then jazz it up with some fresh veggies to make a way more nutritious meal that will last you days for only a few cents more. 

Shop Deals

Every supermarket promotes deals a little differently, so check with your supermarket's customer service desk for the best way to save money when shopping. If there's a membership tag to scan every time you shop or just an email to collect coupons on, always sign up for the deals. Be sure to also pick up any coupon flyers upon entering, and grab buy one get one and discount deals whenever possible.