Keeping track of food and groceries is just one of the many things that students have to learn once they get to college. Planning out when, what, and where to eat can be extremely daunting after childhood when most parents take care of of all that. Even though students are required to be on a dining plan for their first two years, somewhat easing the burden of fending for themselves, there are still important decisions to be made in order to avoid forming any poor habits during one’s first months on campus.
While there are plenty of guides on simple–yet–delicious recipes to make—including one from this very magazine—learning what to cook is only half the equation for college students. Another key, which is arguably more important, is learning how to shop for groceries, including what to buy, how to maximize value, and which products should be avoided.
Even for students who don’t have a kitchen and still get the majority of their meals from dining halls, grocery store fare is still an excellent way to supplement, whether it be for late–night snacks, on–the–go breakfasts, or those times when you’re too lazy to leave your room, apartment, or house.
So without further ado, here are some tips for how to be a more efficient grocery shopper as a college student. While these are designed for students both with and without access to a full kitchen, a fridge and microwave are helpful to get max usage from these recommendations.
Firstly, be sure to shop around your needs. If you have plenty of early classes but likely won't be motivated to hit a dining hall on the way, consider getting breakfast foods. If you get peckish late at night or several hours into study sessions, quick snacks might be your best friend.
In addition to timing, another key factor is dietary needs and wants. While it may be tempting to select exclusively salty and sugary foods at the store, healthful eating is important, and you’re the only one responsible for these decisions now. Be sure to choose foods that have protein and will keep you full for long periods of time.
Another key tip: In most cases, you’ll be shopping for an audience of one. While you may occasionally pick up an item or two for a roommate or friend, you aren’t sharing food to the extent that a family does. This means that you’re likely to go through food less quickly than a several–person household does. As a result, a few things become more important. The first is checking expiration dates; try to give yourself at least a week or two to use an item before it goes bad. The next is product sizes: Even if a smaller container of milk or cheese is more expensive on a per–unit basis, I’d still recommend it because of the higher likelihood you use all of it. After all, food that has to be thrown out because it goes bad is worthless. Don’t forget to also consider potential substitutions. Just because a recipe calls for something doesn’t mean you need to use it, especially if it's a waste of both money and space in your fridge or pantry.
And finally, remember to stay within your means. This doesn’t just mean budget—although that is crucial—but also remember how much time you have. Most students at Penn are busy people and might not have the time to be whipping up elaborate dinners on random weeknights. Ready–to–eat and other easy foods will be your best friends here. I’m not just talking about instant ramen, either; there are tons of delicious, healthy options that just need to be heated before they’re ready to eat. And if breakfasts are a regular issue, prepare them ahead of time, with dishes like overnight oats ready for eating in the morning.
Here are some of the foods that got me through two (and a bit) years of college, both during my time without a kitchen and now having one.
- Single–serving yogurt cups. Quick, nutritious, and good tasting, these provide plenty of breakfasts and afternoon snacks.
- Berries. Despite being on the pricier side, they make a wonderful snack.
- Sandwich meat. Salami, in particular, can be lower–cost, but overall, this is a protein–dense food that can be quickly packed in a sandwich or eaten on its own for a quick snack.