George Doyle

Moving into your first apartment, or heading to college? Here's what you need to keep healthy.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
August 03, 2018
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Are you heading to college and moving into a dorm? Or just about to get your first apartment? If so, you’ve probably never had to think about stocking a kitchen. It’s key to give it a little thought before shopping. There’s a fine balance between overcrowding a small kitchen (or a dorm counter and mini-fridge) and having what is needed. Here are the basics for healthy eating in a small space, as well as a shopping list at the end.

Kitchen Tools

Many often seem like necessities at the store, but all you actually need in a dorm room is a can opener, chip clips, and coffee maker (if allowed) to go along with the mini-fridge and microwave. If you’ve got your own kitchen, then I’d also get a colander, baking sheet, small mixing bowl or two, whisk, small skillet, small saucepan, spatula, wooden spoon, and measuring cups and spoons. It’s usually worth investing in a good can opener and a decent coffee maker, but it’s okay to scrimp on everything else. Most items can even be found at Dollar General.

Dishes

For parents whose gut instinct is to purchase a dish set (or multiples of several dishes), remember that space is super limited. Plus, most of these will never get used – at least not in the first two years of college or while living in a dorm. For space and efficiency, I’ve found that pasta bowls are a great option. Pasta bowls or soup plates are multi-purpose for both fork and spoon-dishes since they are shallow and flat in the middle but with a curved bowl-like edge. Add a bowl or two for cereal, a coffee mug, and a few pieces of silverware.

Boring Basics

Often overlooked, these items are definitely not as exciting as other tools, but paper towels, a scrub brush for dishes, dish soap, and reusable storage containers are essential. Cloth dishtowels are also good if you think they’ll be washed regularly, otherwise they turn into a breeding ground for bacteria. If you do go for cloth, I would still get one roll of paper towels to keep on hand.

Cutting Tools

Even if the only “cooking” you plan on doing is reheating leftovers in the microwave or pouring a bowl of cereal, I still recommend getting a small cutting board and at least a paring knife to keep on hand. Dull knifes are more dangerous than sharp, and improvising with a dinner knife when in a pinch is even more dangerous than using a dull or sharp knife. You may not need it often, but will be glad you have it when you do.

Pantry Staples

Cooking staples and condiments needed vary greatly depending on living situation, but, no matter the set-up, a few definite needs are salt, pepper, and coffee (if you drink it). If you have your own kitchen, then also cooking spray, olive oil or other cooking oil, honey or other sweetener, multi-purpose seasoning blend or any spices commonly used.

Shelf-Stable Proteins

Schedules and plans can change on whim - that’s part of the fun of college – but it also means that it can be easy for perishable foods to go to waste from forgetting to use them in time. The key for always having what you need for a quick meal or snack is keeping a few shelf-stable protein sources on hand. Options that are good no matter your kitchen set up are peanut butter, almond butter, or other nut butter; pouches or cans of tuna or salmon; and cans of beans.

Grain Products

A box of pasta or package of flour tortillas are the secret to taking the remnants of what seems like nothing in your fridge or pantry and actually creating a fairly healthy meal in minutes. Pick up a few grain products – whole-grain or legume-based pastas, tortillas or wraps, or dry grains like oats, rice and quinoa – to keep on hand for rescuing you in a pinch. Store tortillas or bread products in the fridge to extend their shelf life.

Sauces and Condiments

A good sauce or two can transform plain pasta and an average sandwich to meals that rival restaurant quality. Don’t go overboard—remember, once opened they need to be refrigerated and space in the mini-fridge is limited. Instead, pick a mustard, salsa, salad dressing, or jar of marinara that you know you will consistently use.

Weekly Grocery Items

Ideally, you’re hitting the dining hall for the bulk of your meals, but you’ll still need to make a quick grocery trip every week or so to stock up on a few fresh and refrigerated foods. Some good ones that can add nutrients or help to round out a meal are pieces of fresh fruit, salad greens, cheese, yogurt or milk, and eggs.

Healthy-ish Junk Food

While definitely not “essential”, I like to think of these as healthier alternatives or smart planning for late night temptations. A frozen pizza made with some whole grains and veggies is always a better choice when it comes to calories, saturated fat, and sodium than pizza delivery. A bowl of cereal (even with some added sugar) is smarter than a drive-thru combo meal, and whole-grain chips and salsa are healthier than smothered, covered hash browns. Consider stocking up on one or two items that might end up being healthier choices than take-out when up late. If you're looking for some inspiration, Cooking Light has just published our list of 2018 taste-test award winners.  

Ready to stock up? Here’s a shopping list of all the healthy essentials.

Tools, Dishes, and Kitchen Basics

  • Can opener
  • Chip clips
  • Coffee maker
  • Soup plates or pasta bowls (2 to 4)
  • Cereal bowl (1 to 2)
  • Favorite coffee mug or two
  • Fork, spoon, and knife (3 to 4 of each)
  • Roll of paper towels
  • Scrub brush and dishwashing soap
  • Re-usable storage containers and/or bags
  • Small cutting board
  • Decent paring knife

If you’ve got your own kitchen, then I’d also get a colander, baking sheet, small mixing bowl or two, whisk, small skillet, small saucepan, spatula, wooden spoon, measuring cups and spoons.

Food Items

  • Salt, pepper, coffee
  • Peanut or almond butter, canned tuna, and/or canned beans
  • Boxed pasta, tortillas or wraps, and/or dry grains like oats, rice and quinoa
  • Jarred pasta sauce, salsa and/or condiment like mustard or salad dressing
  • Weekly perishables like fresh fruit, salad greens, yogurt and/or milk, cheese, or eggs
  • Healthier options for late night temptations

If you have your own kitchen, then also cooking spray, olive oil or other cooking oil, honey or other sweetener, multi-purpose seasoning blend or any spices commonly used.